Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Outer Darkness--Beyond the Pale

I am an avid genealogist and have been since high school.  And while I don’t at present have a membership with I have been able to trace our family back to the mid-17th century in England and Scotland.  In addition to that, I love listening to others and how they have traced their families.  It is no wonder that I have become a Find Your Roots maven. 
Recently there was a remarkable program on Jewish celebrities: Carol King, Tony Kushner and Alan Dershowitz.  I have always been a history geek of Western Europe but I have never paid much attention to Eastern Europe.  But the lives of all of these three celebrities were rooted in that middle European Jewish experience that was so influenced by Russia, Poland and Lithuania, the area known as the Pale—and consequently a community of millions of Jews who were so affected by Nazi and Russian oppression.  

 The images of the extermination camps were indelibly marked on my mind from childhood as the trials of war criminals were still fresh in my growing up years.  That
kind of inhumanity was experienced in other places and is still being played out in various locations in the world; however, it was in Middle Europe that I became aware of the kind of evil in my lifetime.  It was part of these stars intimate family lives and I was fascinated by how their lives had been shaped by such brutality and yet had become so famous and relatively selfless.
I was totally unaware of The Pale, the prescribed area where Czarist Russian Jews were forced to live in the late 18th and early 19th century.  Middle European cities were almost closed to Jews, so small all-Jewish farm communities grew up for survival, similar to small all African-American communities which grew up in the South following the Civil War.  

 But the shtetel that is so wonderfully described in Fiddler on
the Roof was a remarkable system of self-care which the Jewish communities formed to survive.  They were centered on the synagogue and were permeated with deeply-held spiritual and mystical beliefs that were a response to the dogmatic, legalistic Judaism that had developed in other parts of Diaspora.  There was a deeply held concept of tzedakah (from the word, righteousness but meaning charity) that meant that they were to take care of one another even if you did not know them.  They saw to it that the bright got educations, the poor were fed, the homeless sheltered, etc.  It was rooted in the commandments of Hebrew Scripture and a sense of community that we might call, in the light of early 21st century American politics, as liberal.  But they were not understood as liberal then.  It was seen as something quite conservative—it was a way to survive.

I was also struck by the comments on last Sunday’s readings by a colleague who lives in China.  She had heard a preacher who hadn’t ‘gotten it’ and responded with this interpretation of the parable of the talents:

 So what is this story about?

Well, the first thing you need to know is that it was not written for 21st century Americans.  It was written in probably 70 or so, maybe earlier.  It was written for Jews who had converted to Christianity, though I think the two were not as far apart even then as they are today.  Anyway, and it was probably sourced from Mark.  But I wasn't there and I don't know.  I got that from some notes I made in the margin on my Bible.  Always get a Bible with wide margins.  That's my advice. 

So, if we are not the intended audience then it is important to think about what the story sounded like in those first century Jewish convert ears.  You can't skip that step.  I have heard a lot of sermons lately where people skip that step.  No, people.  You have to do that step.  So, here's what you need to know about that.

The economic system in first century Palestine was as corrupt as Wall Street is today.  No foolin',. it was bad.   And the way this wicked householder made his money was by robbing the serf/slave laborers who worked on his land.  It is likely that at one time the land had belonged to them. or at least to their fathers and grandfathers.   But, times change.  Things get hard.  And over the years the land had been sold off.  Now the former small land holders were renters, and they were perennially in debt to the new land holder... the man who reaps where he does not sow. 

If you reap where you have not sown that means you are stealing.  I don't know how to be any clearer about it.  The householder was a thief.  That is how he got rich.

So, anyway, he decides to go on a trip:  a vacation, business trip, off to see his mistress... we don't know.  He's going away.  And he wants someone to look after his loot while he's gone. So the storyteller here presents us with three trustees:  One who receives FIVE talents, one who receives only two, and one who gets just one. 

The trustee who got five talents had obviously proven himself to the householder, because five talents is a lot of dough.  In other words, he is well acquainted with the machinations of evil.  He can turn five into another five easily, and probably still had some to tuck away for himself.  That's just how things worked back then.

The trustee who got two talents was probably pretty good too.  But, he was more like a junior partner.  He might have still had a few things to learn, but the householder trusted him.  Even two talents is a lot of dough.

But the last one... he is different.  This trustee was only given one talent.  I think that in the honor/shame culture of that time and place that might have looked like one of two things:  It might have seemed like a slap in the face.  Only one talent, after all.  Or, it might have been an opportunity to prove himself worthy/evil by going along with the householders financial shenanigans. 

Trustee one and two get to work right away extorting money from their poor neighbors, and they are

ready for the master's return.

The other trustee, he refuses to participate.  And he knows his master.  In fact,. when the master comes home trustee three calls him out,  "You are a bad guy.  You take what is not yours.  I am scared of you," he says, "But I will not extort and rob either.  I am not going to play these games with people's lives.  Here's what's rightfully yours." 

Trustee three is the hero of the story.  It is possible that he was given the money as a joke, because the master of the house knew that the trustee was honest.  It's possible that the trustee had been on the fence and the master wanted to see which way he would go.  We can only speculate about these things.  But something happened that forced a decision on the part of the third trustee.

The first two were taken into the master’s house to live with him.  Why?  Because they would have been killed if the master had left them out there with the peasants.

The other trustee... he could walk freely among the peasants without fear because he had not defrauded them.

The questions we should ask ourselves today are:

  • What am I doing to overthrow the oppressive economic systems in the world today?

  • ·        How is my participation in capitalism perpetuating the poverty of others?

  • ·        How can I begin a personal revolution to live in a way that does not aid and abet the terrorists of industry and government in their relentless enslavement of the poor? 

  • ·        How can I begin an economic revolution to overthrow capitalism and bring economic stability to all?

  • ·        Am I ready to live with the consequences of dissent? 

You come up with your own questions.  I have to go to work.  Oh, perfect.  I work so much I don't even have time to blog.

Addition:  When I lived in Myanmar I saw lots of houses surrounded with razor wire and I would often put up a little prayer that I am never so rich that I need razor wire.  I'd rather be poor and have
the friendship of the peasants than rich, isolated, and fearful. 

We really do have to have some compassion for the first two trustees.  They had to live in the master's house.  And I'll bet it had razor wire.—Linda McMillan

I was, as the Baptists say, ‘convicted’ by this interpretation of this reading, one that has given me trouble when it has come up in the lectionary.  This is a woman who grew up in Texas but presently lives in Asia. But she knows what it means.

Having been ‘cast into outer darkness’ in my life more than once, I know the
separation and anxiety that the dark produces. Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark has been an important assistant in that journey.  Trying to walk in the light of Christ is easy when everyone else is doing it.  But often time the Christian journey calls for the willingness to embrace the darkness, the loneliness of God’s intimacy in order to live the integrity of God.  The isolation can be unbearable; it can be dangerous as it was for the first century Christians or the people 'living beyond the Pale.'   However, if one is aware that such a place in ‘outer darkness’ is where God is, then it is not only possible, it is where one gets fed, nurtured, strengthened.  We need but look to such spiritual greats as Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross to know of this walk.

The Jews of 17th and 18th century Russia learned that life was not only possible ‘beyond the Pale’ but it could be lived with respect and love, rich in faith and culture.  From that grounding many found deeply rooted community that defied the dominant culture to retain strong family and cultural ties that have nurtured their creativity.  God is not only the God of Light, but is the constant companion in darkness.  Prevailing culture is not where God is.  God is in the integrity of beauty, honesty, truth, and love.  When we cannot find those things in our lives, it is important to embrace them even if they find us ‘cast into outer darkness’. It is the place where the emerging Church is going to have to grow. It has always been the place where those who wish to live by God's love have had to inhabit.  It isn’t a bad place if we are willing to allow God to embrace us there.