I have been in Michigan for almost twenty years now and I still can’t get used to it. Not the Michigan winters, but the Michigan summers. By mid July the wild flowers along the highway, the carnelian dahlias in our yard, the emerald lawns and shiny lake down the road all serve to fill my sense with an abundance of color and fragrance.
I feel I live in an exotic oasis. And this feels foreign to me, because I grew up in South Texas, a desert place. As all of you know the inner landscapes of our childhoods are hard to forget.
The land in which I grew up was rendered flat by the constant heat and the scarcity of trees. It only rained in March. And for too long. In summers, the sun scorched the top of my head as if it were an iron skillet. To keep my scalp from sunburn, I took care to part my hair at a new angle every morning.
I share this because my childhood in south Texas helped forge my faith journey. Especially on Saturdays, when I spent the day with my grandfather, at his farm, near the Gulf of Mexico, twenty miles west of the Corpus Christi and a hundred and forty miles north of the border with Mexico.
When I stepped out of my grandfather’s Impala, far from the neatly edged sidewalks and air conditioned hum of our suburban home, I dug the heel of my boots into a place I called “wild world”: a place where anything could happen.
You might find a diamond back rattlesnake napping next to a discarded stack of National Geographic’s in the back shed. Or get bit on your upper arm by a horse named Shorty just because Shorty felt like it. Or discover a baby copperhead curled up inside a hen’s nest of brown eggs. Or ride “Pet” our ancient black and white pony, whose single joy in life lay in attempts to buck us out of the saddle. Or failing that, to charge full speed towards my grandmother’s metal clothesline, in hopes of decapitating one of us.
It was a world in which you learned how to hold on and how to fall off. It was also place in which you learned when to keep your mouth shut when you got home. Especially when it came to the fact that my grandfather had allowed us to ride on the hood of his Chevy Impala holding loaded twenty- two rifles. As he drove the rutted road alongside the Petronila Creek, our job was to take aim at rabbits or coyotes, whose appetites for my grandfather’s watermelons and cantaloupes rivaled our own.
I never pulled the trigger, but the sheer joy of getting to do something that dangerous made the whole activity seem sacred.
Back at school on Mondays, sitting next to classmates in my eight grade Spanish class, I felt sorry for them. They knew nothing of wild world. They didn’t even notice, — much less envy– my scraped knees, bruised elbows, or my emboldened heart, filled with the glory of a new confidence. I could outrun a nest of water moccasins. I could limp back to the farmhouse after sliding off my horse into a bed of prickly pear cactus that pinned my Levi’s to my backside, and turned me into a life size waddling pincushion.
My grandfather calmly tweezed out each cactus needle, as I lay humbled, face down on the sofa. He did not scold me. For such things happen in wild world. His love was as vast as his tolerance for risk. After all he was a farmer and like all farmers, he lived daily with uncertainty. Droughts. Floods. Boll weevils. Fluctuating global markets for crops. The sudden death of livestock. A mother sow might suffocate one of her piglets. A horse might get tangled in a barbed wire fence. Matters of life and death were ever present. Surrounded by my grandfather’s love, I felt so alive in wild world.
Jesus told many stories drawing on the world of 1st C. Palestine. And he was a master storyteller. His parables shock us, bewilder us, draw us in, and turn us on our heads. For me the stories Jesus told are the most authentic parts of the Gospels. Jesus brilliantly mixes both the ordinary with the extra-ordinary, and forces his listeners to engage.
I have learned to pay attention to the places in his parables in which things begin to get strange. For here Jesus wants our attention. He is pointing to something. In the background of this parable Jesus skillfully challenges the accepted common wisdom of his time and our own.
The Parable of the Talents as it is often called, has everything: revealing dialogue, human emotion, and a focus on the connections between trust, faith, and risk. Jesus describes a landowner who leaves his land in the care of three slaves. Although absentee landownership was a common occurrence at that time, entrusting the slaves with this much money was not. A talent was the largest measurement of value for those days. Scholars tell us a single talent was equivalent to 20 years wages for a common laborer. The landowner entrusts the stewardship of his entire estate to these individuals. By doing so the landowner takes quite a risk.
When the master returns and the first two slaves approach him, they set up a pattern. “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” The next slave expresses a similar account, to which the Master replies in similar response: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant. You have been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
Notice that master does not say you have made me rich. No. Rather to each he repeats and affirms that they have been trustworthy in what was left in their charge.
However, when the last slave comes before the master, the dialogue breaks the pattern. The third person begins by saying this: “ I knew you to be a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed: so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”
To the listeners in early Palestine, it was a common practice to bury items so as to protect them. And in today’s economy the third slave’s strategy would seem especially prudent. The third slave didn’t increase anything for the landowner, but he certainly didn’t lose anything either.
I can identify with this. I like safe. I like control. I think all of us do.
However, is there any evidence within the parable that the landowner is harsh and mean? The master has entrusted enormous amounts of funds into the hands of his slaves. And his treatment of the other two slaves is not consistent with abuse.
Jesus has the master say: “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” The phrase, “you knew, did you,” says it all. In our vernacular today it’s as if the landowner says: You had me all figured out, didn’t you. You were so certain you knew who I was.
The landowner shocks us by his punishment. He castigates the third slave into the worst punishment imaginable.
Whose worldview do we side with?
The landowner’s? Or, the third slave? Jesus asks us to choose.
If I were to choreograph this choice of the third slave, the scene depicts a person crouched over, digging a hole, probably at night, like a midnight grave. Which makes me ponder if the crime committed by the third slave emanates from his fear, his erroneous concept of reality, his reluctance to risk. To play it safe is to bury our selves alive. Looked on this way, the third slave has chosen not to live.
I have always admired the life my grandfather lived, for the way he responded to the wild world of south Texas. Not only as a farmer, but also as a man of faith. For his faith and compassion took him far beyond the common, accepted wisdom of his time. My grandfather took in and cared for the cats and dogs people abandoned on the side of the road. He cared for the families who worked in the broiling heat of south Texas, whose children attended inferior schools, whose veterans of WWII were refused burial in the white only cemeteries. It mattered to these children in homes with no father, that my grandfather became a father to them. Took them deer hunting. Scolded them when they got in trouble. Encouraged them to stay in school. Wrote to them when they served in Viet Nam. Mourned them when they did not come home.
He embraced those families as his own. And he took me with him, as a little girl, into their homes with warm kitchens, and frayed linoleum floors. As we shared conversations at the end of the day, I’d stare at the picture of Christ hanging on a turquoise painted wall. Jesus pointed towards his beating red heart, circled with a crown of thorns, suspended out before his chest.
I was shaken by this image of Christ and wondered what it meant to live with your heart out in front.
Like many of us, I continue to wonder what Jesus points to in his stories. This parable in particular makes me consider that we become people of faith by walking not head first, but heart first into wild world. Letting go of our assumptions, our needs for control, as well as our fears.
If you want to follow me, Jesus says, you cannot play it safe.
Jesus invites us to take a faithful step into wild world even without knowing what the outcome will be. But that is OK; Jesus never said go out and is successful. Rather, go out and be faithful.
Because we matter so much God has taken risks on us. God has entrusted us with all this carnelian beauty and emerald grace. God expects and Jesus invites us to take risks so that we may “Enter into the joy of your Master.”
So toss your map. Unbuckle your assumptions. Just be faithful, Jesus says. Let your beautiful, beating hearts to lead the way.