Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Master's Joy

This morning I want to tell you about one of the happiest people I know.  His name is Nick.  Nick is an elderly legal immigrant.  English is not his first language, though he has mastered it well enough after being in this country for several decades now.  He lives in a very small studio apartment for indigent seniors operated by Episcopal Community Services. 

For many years, Nick was an active alcoholic.  He couldn’t keep a job.  He lost his home and lived with friends until they couldn’t put up with him anymore.  Eventually, he made his home on the streets of San Francisco. 

Throughout this time, he stayed connected with the Episcopal Church.  Eventually, he hit bottom and with the help of a social worker, entered a treatment program for seniors and began to recover with the help of AA.  Although he is sober, Nick suffers from severe heart disease and is disabled.  He lives on less than $800 per month.  He has spent a significant part of his adult life as an outcast existing on the margins of society.

Despite all this, Nick is about as free from resentment or shame as anybody can be.  He is grateful for his life – all of it – and in response to all he has received happily volunteers his time serving at his Episcopal parish, advocating for affordable housing, and helping other alcoholics to get sober.  He continues to spend a lot of time on the margins with other outcasts.  Yet, to borrow a phrase from the parable we heard today, Nick has “entered into the joy of his master.” 

For me, Nick is a living example of the interpretive key to the parable of the talents.  His story serves as a counter-example to the ways in which we normally understand joy as defined by the masters of our world.  Like Jesus’ parable, Nick challenges us to question the joy on offer by those masters. 

Most masters, like the master in the parable of the talents, would have us believe that the key to success and happiness is accumulating wealth – a lot of wealth – by whatever means necessary.   We are taught to emulate those who have made it to the top of the economic heap, encouraged to desire and acquire the toys that mark their success.  If we can be like them, then we will be happy.  We will enter into the master’s joy.

But take a closer look at the behavior of the master in this parable.  He is an absentee landlord whose wealth has been accumulated on the backs of slaves.  He takes the money earned by the labor of others and then invests it to make more money.  The slaves in the parable are each given a certain amount of money to invest on behalf of the master, based on their ability.  This is meritocracy at work: rewarding the deserving poor. 

The word translated as “talent” does not mean an innate or learned skill, something a person is particularly good at doing.  “Talent” used here means a unit of money, and a large one at that: the equivalent of what a common laborer would have earned over the course of about 15 years.  This is not a story about using our abilities to become the best we can be; it is a story about the way in which some people benefit from the accumulation and deployment of enormous amounts of money while others suffer. 

The punch line of the parable, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” could well be translated “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”  So, joy here is defined by the willingness of the first two slaves to follow their master’s example by promoting their master’s self-interest. 

Notice, however, what happens to the third slave.  He recognizes that the master is a harsh man who exploits others, “reaping where he did not so and gathering where he did not scatter.”  He refuses to disobey the biblical prohibition of lending money at interest, much less engaging in risky speculative investments, and so hides the money.  He resists the temptation to desire and accumulate as the master desires.

His resistance comes at a great cost.  He is made to be a victim and outcast, thrown into outer darkness.  That, we are told, is what happens to those who don’t play by the rules.  So, you better accumulate as much wealth as possible or you, too, will be miserable.

Now, are we to believe that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like?  Is God or Jesus to be identified with the master of the parable?  Which of the slaves are we supposed to emulate?

Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus declare that “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  (Matthew 11:12)  Jesus tells this parable in answer to the disciples’ question about the signs of Jesus’ presence at the end of the age.   How are we to recognize Jesus’ presence, the presence of God’s kingdom, even as it is suffering the assaults of the violent?  How are we to live under the sign of the Cross that reveals the violent lie of the masters of this world so that we can discover true joy?

Jesus offers this parable as an illustration of what it looks like when the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.  We are invited, I think, not to emulate the master, but rather the slave who is willing to identify with outcasts living on the margins.  Contrary to the insistent messages of the masters, true joy is found there; the joy of our master, Jesus.

Which brings me back to my friend, Nick.  Nick, for all his imperfection and brokenness, has resisted the messages of the masters.  He has seen through the lie that wealth brings happiness, and so has attained an authentic joy rooted in the freedom to choose compassion over competition.   His example is the same as that of Christian saints throughout the ages, from St. Francis and St. Clare to Dorothy Day and Father Zach, an Episcopal missionary in Kenya, who was with us a couple of weeks ago.  True joy is found in humble service with the poor, the sick, the least and the last.

This may seem counter-intuitive, because we have so deeply internalized the messages of the masters.  We expend an enormous amount of physical and psychic energy to acquire more and more money, and yet the fact is that once people move beyond the condition of abject poverty there is no correlation between wealth and happiness whatsoever.  

In a typical survey people [were] asked to rank their sense of well-being or happiness on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 means 'not at all satisfied with my life' and 7 means 'completely satisfied.' Of the American multimillionaires who responded, the average happiness score was 5.8. Homeless people in Calcutta came in at 2.9.  But before you assume that money does buy happiness after all, consider who else rated themselves around 5.8: the Inuit of northern Greenland, who do not exactly lead a life of luxury, and the cattle-herding Masai of Kenya, whose dung huts have no electricity or running water. And proving [the] point about money buying happiness only when it lifts you out of abject poverty, slum dwellers in Calcutta—one economic rung above the homeless—rate themselves at 4.6.”[i]

Bill McKibben points out that those Calcutta slum dwellers are basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 countries.  In fact, the level of life satisfaction varies dizzyingly among various groups cross-culturally once people surpass about $10,000 in per capita income annually.  Below that point, there is indeed a correlation between wealth and happiness.  Beyond that point the correlation disappears.  More doesn’t make us happier.[ii]

The master’s joy is found elsewhere: in our shared commitment to the common good.  That should come as very good news to those of us who are rich – and that includes most of us in this room by any reasonable standard of comparison with the peoples of the world.   We may hear this teaching as a threat, as a word of judgment.  But we may also hear it as an invitation to relax, to let go of the worry that there isn’t enough that so often lurks just below the surface of our lives, and as an opportunity to discover our common humanity in the faces of the poor.

Rather than imitate the desire of the masters who would have us exhaust ourselves on a never-ending treadmill of economic anxiety, we are invited to imitate the desire of our Master, Jesus, who sets us free from self-preoccupation so that we can discover the joy of compassionate service in community. The only way that money can contribute to authentic joy is in giving it away and investing it sustainably for the common good.  It is the joy of this mutual self-giving that is the sign of Jesus’ presence in a world in which the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.

[i] “Why Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness,” Newsweek Magazine,
[ii] Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, pp. 41-42.

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