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Francis McNab: Ahead of his time or 100 years too late?

Here is a talk I gave at Ringwood Uniting Church on Sunday 15th March 2009.

It draws heavily on the early chapters of  Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences by Thorwald Lorenzen. The talk is vastly simplified compared to the book, errors are my own.

If you are not interested in the current debate within the Uniting Church in Victoria, and are more interested in the theology, skip ahead to the section “Traditional”.

Francis McNab: Ahead of his time or 100 years too late?

Paul Dyson

There has been much heated debate about the advertising campaign launched by Francis McNab of Collins Street Uniting Church. I think much of it has been people talking at cross purposes generating more heat than light. So I thought today we could step back a little and have a look at the theological frameworks behind the positions of the people in the debate. So in a spirit of cool and calm reflection I wanted to entitle this talk:

Is McNab a Nazi?

However, after taking counsel from Elva and Stan I changed the title to:

Francis McNab: Ahead of his time or 100 years too late?

Francis McNab spent $120,000 on an advertising campaign which included billboards stating: “The Ten Commandments, the most negative document ever written”. He also said that Abraham was probably a concoction, Moses a mass murderer and Jesus Christ, very important, but not necessarily the son of God. He calls for a New Faith, and he comes up with his own new 10 commandments.

The Synod meeting last year responded criticising him for causing deep offense to Christians, Jews and Muslims. I found this response somewhat obtuse. It’s a bit like getting the mafia for tax evasion – sure they did it but it sort of misses the point. Isn’t there some larger issue going on here than just causing offence.

I also have problems when one side says the other is causing offence to a third party. It is a great way to shut down debate, rather than encourage it and have the ideas properly aired. I have not found much engagement with what McNab actually said. Apparently his views are either obviously good or obviously bad.

I’ll have a look a little later on, but now back to the unofficial title of this talk: Is McNab a Nazi?

On the internet there is a Law known as Godwin’s law. It states “As an Internet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Any debate on the internet of a reasonable length will involve someone saying the other side is just like Hitler. And at this point, the discussion should really end. It’s run it’s course, because where can you go after the other side says, “You’re just like Hitler”.

Now I am thoroughly sick of the debate between Liberals and Fundamentalists that is continuing with the latest McNab controversy, so I am very keen to compare one side with the Nazis so we can declare any further discussion pointless and move on. However, I have been dissuaded from making such a rash comparison, so I’m glad to see that others have beaten me to it.

By highlighting the offence caused to Jews the Synod was getting close to a Hitler comparison, but they didn’t quite go that far. So it wasn’t the end of the debate. So I kept looking.

In the church we are a bit more nuanced in our discussion so you have to read between the lines to find it. But I was pleased to see in February Crosslight a letter from Rev Dr Dorothy Lee, lecturer at Trinity Theological College. She writes:

The ‘new faith’ Macnab proposes is not new at all. Some of his views go back to heretical movements in the second century. Other views derive from the liberalism of nineteenth century Europe, particularly Germany – views that the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, so forthrightly exposed in the early decades of the twentieth century. Barth showed how liberal theologians had become throughly bourgeois in their values, completely conformed to the spirit of the world.

Let me just spell that out for you. Dorothy Lee talks of views: Completely conformed to the spirit of early twentieth century Germany. Or, to put it more plainly: McNab is a Nazi.

Hooray, someone has said it. Perhaps we can all go home now, and get on with more fruitful debate.

But I’m afraid she was being too subtle, so I’ll have to explore these issues further. So lets look at what is going on here.

I’m going to outline four theological models or positions. These models are in historical order and in my opinion they get better as they go along. The first is the worst and the last is the best.

So a bit of concentration will be required, but as most of you grew up before the invention of television I don’t think it will be a problem. For the rest of you, I’ve made overheads that you can watch. [Successive overheads contained the single words ‘overheads’, ‘that’, ‘you’, ‘can’, ‘watch’.] I hope I have catered for everyone.


Let’s begin with a common enemy: the first model, which I will kindly call the “Traditional View”. But you may know it as “Fundamentalist”, “Literalist”, “Conservative”. It’s the view, if you grew up in the Liberal tradition like me, the view that we love to hate. It makes us cringe to think that non-Christians think we are all like this. Let me make a few points about it.

Start with the question: How can we make the faith intelligible to the person in the street?

Answer: Ask them to read the Bible. It contains the testimony of credible witnesses. They tell of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. A rational person cannot doubt these witness because they were there, so what they tell is true. God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The tomb was empty, the bodily risen Christ appeared to people, proving His divinity and proving the inspiration of the Bible as God’s word. Therefore the Bible is inerrant and its plain meaning is the Truth.

Faith is seen as accepting that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, meaning he came back to life, walked around. You also need to accept that Mary was a Virgin, Jesus could perform miracles that broke physical laws etc.

I think we are all familiar with this, so I’ll keep moving. But let me make one point about the attitude to the wider culture. In this model the church is at odds with the culture and stands apart from it.


In nineteenth century Europe the second model arose: Liberalism. This is the model that Francis McNab is working out of, taken to its logical conclusion. And when you take anything to its logical conclusion you’re looking for trouble.

Let’s start with the same question as before: How can we make the faith intelligible to the person in the street?

Well, the average person knows generally about science, they know people can’t walk on water, that virgins don’t give birth, that dead people are not resurrected. If we want them (and ourselves) to have faith we can’t go against science. They may also know about historical criticism: that you can’t believe everything you read, and that actually helps us. If we look critically at the Bible we can get rid of all the superstition and get to what lies behind all that, the kernel of truth of Christianity.

It also answers another criticism of the Traditional model. Should faith really be about accepting an historical fact? Shouldn’t faith have more to do with belief in God than in history? Shouldn’t the struggle of faith concern forgiveness, repentance, belief in God, rather than accepting a supernatural event? Isn’t that just getting in the way of faith in God? Our faith must appeal to reason, in particular scientific and historical critical reason, if it is to have any relevance.

This sort of position was argued by Friedrich Schleiermacher at the beginning of the nineteenth century and continued its development throughout the 1800s. It was carried on by Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich in the 20th century.

So forget about the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Jesus. Rather than focus on what happened to Jesus in the resurrection, which would contradict science, focus on the faith of the disciples after the resurrection.

Or forget the resurrection altogether and concentrate on the life and teachings of Jesus. Perhaps we could remove all superstition and find the true “historical” Jesus.

This has been liberating for people who find that they can be Christians without having to deny science and accept a pre-enlightenment world view. Particularly people who are questioning their Fundamentalist faith.

And Liberalism is strongly adopted by the Jesus Seminar, whose members feature prominently in the series “Saving Jesus” that we studied in our faith sharing groups. And you probably also know that Francis McNab has been honoured by the Jesus Seminar. And so from this position he says that Abraham was probably a concoction, Moses a mass murderer and so on.

Not that long ago the Jesus Seminar engaged in yet another fruitless attempt to find the historical Jesus. I say fruitless because, as with past quests for the historical Jesus, you end up with a Jesus who looks like the people searching for him. In this case a wise sage or teacher who is usually calm and measured, not unlike an academic at the sort of university where the Jesus seminar people spend their time.

As the Liberal model is a reaction to the Traditional, or Literal model, Liberals tend to see everyone else as a Fundamentalist. McNab’s supporters often put their arguments in this form, you are either enlightened like us, or fundamentalist. McNab on Stateline: “Some said I shouldn’t be allowed to be here anymore and that I should be drummed out of town. I would expect that kind of reaction from people who take the scriptures far too literally.”

Its position in the culture? In this model the church tries to be at the centre of culture, in order to transform it to make it more humane.

After about 100 years of this sort of talk there was a serious backlash from the Traditionalists. One form this took was a series of pamphlets from 1910-1915 attacking the Liberal position. They were funded by two wealthy oil tycoons and, as they said, were “sent to 300,000 ministers and missionaries and other workers in different parts of the world”.   These pamphlets were called The Fundamentals and from these we get the term “Fundamentalist”. They are on the web and they have detailed attacks on “Higher Criticism” of the Bible on which Liberalism is based. The Liberal ideas are sensibly attacked – far better than things I see today.

Well sometimes not so sensibly. When looking at “The Fundamentals” the name “Dyson” caught my eye.

The very first essay. Volume one, Chapter one: The History of the Higher Criticism, is written by Canon Dyson Hague. He starts out with his arguments undermining the Higher Criticism of the Liberals but before too long says the following:

German Fancies

In the second place, some of the most powerful exponents of the modern Higher Critical theories have been Germans, and it is notorious to what length the German fancy can go in the direction of the subjective and of the conjectural. For hypothesis-weaving and speculation, the German theological professor is unsurpassed.

So what he is really saying here about the Liberals is: They’re just a pack of lying Germans. Of course, what he wanted to say was: They’re just a pack of lying Nazis.

But the Nazi party was still ten years away. So he couldn’t say that. But I maintain that he would have if he could have. And so this is the point at which Godwin’s law applies to this debate. And so 1910 is when we all should have realized that we were just calling each other Nazis and that it was time to move on to something else.


That something else brings us to the third model. And I want to strongly emphasize that there are other models besides Liberal and Fundamentalist. I was looking at a couple of Marcus Borg’s books this week and he continually frames the debate in terms of Liberal and Fundamentalist. I’m saying there are not just two ways – not just Fundamentalist and Liberal.

This third model has been called “Evangelical” by its proponents, but that is confusing as now the Fundamentalists call themselves “Evangelicals” so I’ll have to use the ugly term “Neo-orthodox”.

In 1933 Karl Barth and others founded the underground Confessing Church soon after the Nazis formed the Protestant Riech Church unifying many churches.

Barth felt that the Liberal emphasis on faith is correct, but that the faith had become too far removed from Jesus Christ and too conformed to the culture. The Neo-orthodox position on the wider culture was that of Christ against Culture. They saw that the church should be radically against the earthly powers, in their case the Nazi party. And to do this the church had to offer something distinct, something unique. And it had it. They emphasised the complete otherness of God. A God who is known through revelation.

They saw the uniqueness of Jesus. He is the primary revelation of God. Not just a revelation, but the primary revelation. If we follow God, then we cannot follow earthly rulers – in Barth’s case the earthly ruler was Hitler. If you do not put Jesus at the centre of your religion, you will find someone or something else. Some churches had found Nationalism and Hitler. If Francis McNab does not have Jesus Christ at the centre, who does he have? Perhaps it is Sigmund Freud? Or Carl Jung? None of these people [shown on overhead], not Hitler, nor Freud, nor Obama, nor Bono, should be at the centre of our religion, we are centred on Jesus Christ.

None of this “Neo-orthodox” position requires a literal view of the Bible. And none of this requires throwing away science. Although the Neo-orthodox did feel that the Liberals were too beholden to science, allowing science to dictate which parts of the Bible were superstitious and so should not be taken seriously. Rather, the Bible should be taken on it’s own terms. We shouldn’t try and impose a scientific rational world view on the Bible. That is anachronistic and will lead to misunderstanding.

When a ghost appears in Shakespeare’s Richard III, do we just ignore that scene, or even ignore the whole play? Are we embarrassed by it’s pre-scientific world view? No. We understand it and even embrace it for the purposes of getting into the play and fully understanding it. “Are there really eleven ghosts in Richard III! That’s cool.” The same should be true of the Bible.

Q: How can we appeal to the person in the street?

A: We need to have something distinctive to say. “Be nice to each other”, is not enough. We need to get back to the saving power of Jesus Christ.

If we are embarrassed to say “We love Jesus”, to pray in public, to speak of sin and evil, as well as joy and hope, what have we to say to people? Most importantly, if we stop reading and engaging with the Bible because we have already extracted the kernel of truth from it, how will we let God change us?

Note that when someone says “Evangelical” or maybe even “Neo-orthodox” to a Liberal they hear “Fundamentalist”. Seeing things this way makes any sort of sensible debate, such as in the letters of Crosslight, impossible. The Liberals define their opposition as Fundamentalist no matter what they are actually saying. And some who call themselves Evangelical are Fundamentalists, so the terms aren’t even used clearly. It’s a real mess.

Liberation Theology

And that bring us to the forth model.

But first a warning from a cat. [Cat picture] Three steps into his epic journey. Fluffy decided it was too much work. We have done three models and there is only one to go. Please do not depart yet for the second service. There is only one model to go.

The fourth model is Liberation Theology.

While the Western theological world was getting in a mess, theologians in the third world were rejecting all these theologies as they didn’t really include them. How can you give alms to the poor when you are the poor? It doesn’t make any sense.

They looked at the Bible and found stories about poor people like themselves and decided that the first world had appropriated these stories and told them bad theology. The theologies weren’t so much wrong, as irrelevant. Irrelevant to the person in the street, if you lived in the third world. So, the question now becomes

Q. How to do we appeal to the person in the street, given we are in the third world?

A. “Believe in Jesus Christ” doesn’t cut it when the church is part of the wealthy and powerful who are the reason you don’t have enough food to eat. Look in the Bible and you’ll see a Jesus who was poor, a refugee, like yourself.   A Jesus who spoke of liberation, a God who raised Jesus as a sign of hope and an act of liberation. That is an answer for the third world.

Even Barth hinted that this was the way to go in saying that we cannot really know Jesus “if we do not know Him as this poor man, as this (if we may risk the dangerous word) partisan of the poor, and finally as this revolutionary”.

It was not far from here to “God’s preferential option for the poor” developed by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Guterriez in his “A Theology of Liberation” (1972). Finally something after I was born!

God is not a God of the rich, nor of the rulers, not a God of the managers nor the middle class, he is a God of the poor. And where the books of the Bible are written by poor people to poor people, it is the poor, and those in dialog with the poor, who have the best insights into what it means.

So when it comes to the Resurrection, the question is not whether some event happened 2000 years ago. The Resurrection should not be discussed without the cross, and the cross cannot be discussed without discussing the crosses in this world and that implies the church’s mission of justice and liberation. Faith in the resurrection is shown by working for justice and liberation here and now.

In the West this theology has been developed by Jurgen Moltmann, first with his “Theology of Hope” (1967) and then “The Crucified God” (1973) and many other works continuing to this day.

The current pope, while working for John Paul II, silenced Brazillian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in 1985. Just 2 years ago Jon Sobrino in El Salvador was declared in error by the pope for his teaching on this matter. Now there is a relevant debate about what should be allowed to be taught – unlike the McNab controversy which hardly anyone outside the church cares about.

So what is Liberation Theology’s attitude to the World? As with the Neo-orthodox position it is Christ against culture.  And not content to sit on the outside like the Fundamentalists, but demanding and enacting liberation.

So we moved from the Traditional position of needing to accept the proof of miraculous events in history. To the Liberal emphasis on faith not proof, to the Neo-orthodox emphasis of specific faith in Jesus Christ, to the Liberation model, of faith in Jesus Christ the liberator of the poor.

The governing paradigm is no longer science. Not that we are against science it is just largely irrelevant. As well as using historical criticism of texts, we also use sociology, economics, politics to understand our situation and work out how to change it. We use narrative techniques to place ourselves inside the stories of the Bible and have the stories read us and our lives. In this we find them extremely relevant to our lives. This is a faith we can take to the streets, to the people, if they have ears to hear it.

This model influenced many at Ringwood Uniting in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. There the Black churches wrote the Kairos document: Third world churches speaking to the first world, saying you are like Paul on the road to Damascus – repent, stop what you are doing and turn around.

You talk of reconciliation without justice or repentance. And when you do talk of justice it is reform not fundamental change. You address your appeals to those at the top. The change we need is radical change of structures. This will only come from the people, not the top. Condemning all violence while trying to remain neutral. Yet, calling actions of blacks ‘violence’, while calling police actions ‘misconduct’ or even ‘atrocities’ but never violence. Your talk of fault on both sides and calls for reconciliation do not help us. Your condemning of violence while ignoring the causes does not help us. To help us, you need to take sides.

It is interesting to have this in mind and consider the Assembly’s response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza recently. I don’t have time to look at it now, but you can see how these ideas have help shaped the response.

This is where I see theologians like Thorwald Lorenzen (from whom I got these four theological models), Dorothy Solle (from whom I got the positions on culture) and Ched Myers. I see them continuing that discussion, working out what is means for us in the West or North. Ched Myers suggests that we are like Peter denying who Jesus is, while warming our hands by the imperial fire. We are in denial that we are aligned with empire.


So I in Crosslight I see debate between Traditionalists and Liberals that is over 100 years old and had moved on, before all of us were born. The Evangelicals in the debate know they aren’t Liberals or Literalists but don’t seem to be able to articulate this in a way that the Liberals can hear it. But the Evangelicals are often conservative not progressive. And where are the Liberation theologians? Probably somewhere else as this debate is largely irrelevant to them and to the person in the street.

I see the Uniting Church in Victoria and Ringwood Uniting as largely operating out of the Liberal model with influences of the Liberation model. The actions of the Liberation model have influenced the church, but very little of the theology that goes along with the action has made it through our middle class filters.

Our theology, (as opposed to our actions), seems overly concentrated on psychology rather than politics, giving it an individualistic personal flavour, rather than a corporate eccelsiology that is politically located. Finally, we could learn something from the Neo-orthodox about the importance of continuing the faith. When someone says they love Jesus and have accepted him into their hearts, they may not be a Fundamentalist, they may be a Neo-Orthodox Evangelical or a Liberation Theologian, a model or two ahead of Liberals as far as history goes.

Finally, I leave you with the question behind all of these models:

Q. How do we appeal to the person in the street?


Pine Gap 4 Jailed

The Pine Gap 4 were jailed on Wednesday.

For more information and updates check these indymedia articles:





U.S. wrecks climate talks

At COP13 in Bali the US have held their line until the EU caved on targets of a 25% to 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020. Why is this being reported as the US making a U-turn? They signed up when they had wrecked it as much as they could.

I read in a Canadian paper how Canada was playing a mediating role between the US and the EU. How parochial, outside of Canada they are reported as being one of the wreckers, along with the US and Japan.

And what do we hear in the Australian press? Australia is playing a mediating role. OK, I don’t expect much from our press, but why is Don Henry from the Australian Conservation Foundation saying that ‘Australia is going to need to move into a leadership role in these international negotiations’? The Australian government is part of the problem, not the solution. It’s the EU who are pushing for targets, while Rudd is trying to finesse the issue.

All the talk is now about COP15 in Copenhagen in December 2009. COP14 in twelve months time in Poland seems to be a write off already. Looks like the world leaders are going to wait until the US has a new President in Jan 2009 before making an agreement. No reason to rush this, I suppose. It’s not like we have deadlines or anything.

Sermon on the Futility of a Labor Victory

Thoughts for a sermon that could be preached the day after Labor wins the federal election.

Matthew 18:23-35: The parable of the unmerciful servant

In the parable a king forgives his servant a ridiculously huge debt, hoping that this act will be replicated. However, the way that power works within society prevents those lower down the bureaucracy from replicating this act. The servant, shamed by his debt, must reassert his power in the bureaucracy or risk losing it; so he jails a debtor. Similarly the king, shamed by the servant who does not replicate his behaviour must reassert his power and jails the servant. Forgiveness has gone out the window despite being instigated from the top. So much for seventy times seven (verse 22). Despite this brief departure of forgiveness, both servant and king are captive to the system. Without systemic change, forgiveness is unattainable. (Or is it, without radical forgiveness, the system will remain?)

The same for a Labor government. They will try a few things, but real change will not result from their victory, because that requires systemic change, not just a change at the top. Pine Gap will remain, Talisman Sabre joint military exercises with the US will remain, troops will stay in Afghanistan and those in Iraq will leave to play our deputy sherif role policing the pacific. Uranium will be mined, furthering nuclear proliferation. All because the institutions and structures that control the resources and power of the country will remain unchanged.

No, what we want are non-reformist reforms. Of course it is better having a Labor government than a Liberal one. However, does their victory further the cause for systemic change or is it a reform that impedes further change?

Labor will have won on the back of the union’s Your Rights at Work Campaign. Does that campaign leave a grass roots movement ready to push for more radical change? No, the unions want systemic change no more than the Labor party. The campaign’s goal is to get Labor into power, which will leave everyday people disempowered. The campaign should encourage us that life will be a little easier for workers when Workchoices is softened so there will be more breathing space for movements that really want to change things. Instead, the campaign has empowered union officials, not the people. I predict that the day after the election (today?) the Your Rights at Work Campaign will go incredibly quiet, only being heard in a very token form, if at all. The reform has been won, let’s all go home. Imagine the alternative, an invigorated union movement with empowered members pushing their leadership for changes that really effect their lives. A nightmare for the leadership, but the possibility of restructuring the resources of the country for the benefit of the people…

It still needs work, but this could form the basis of a sermon to preach the Sunday after the federal election, saying, OK a Labor victory may be something, but don’t get mesmerized by the top of the power structure. Let’s keep on building a movement for change.

However, if that’s too pointed how about this: this reading comes up in the lectionary on September 14, 2008, if you are preaching, or involved in a bible study, why not give my interpretation a whirl then. Possibly a good time to preach this, as the shine would have started to wear off the Labor government.

William R. Herzog II, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1994, Chapter 8, “What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?”.

Note that Herzog sees verse 35 as a later addition by Matthew and discards it for this interpretation, departing from Matthew’s use of the parable.

Free markets, free trade and … communism

There is a myth that free markets and free trade go hand in hand with democracy.

In The Age today John Roskam from the Institute of Public Affairs has a go at the churches for advocating aid to Africa, because “the evidence is irrefutable. Free political institutions, free trade and free markets are the best way to get people out of poverty. The difference between the economic development of Africa and Asia is proof of this.”

He claims the churches have lost sight of the facts, but presents none of the “irrefutable” evidence for his position. The closest he comes is “Many Christians are uncomfortable with the idea that their desire to buy and enjoy the consumer goods made in the factories of China and Vietnam can be as effective in defeating poverty as giving away 10 per cent of their weekly salary.”

China and Vietnam? Free political institutions? Both one party states under communist rule.

At least he could have mentioned India, which is after all a democracy, although the government does need the votes of the communist parties to keep its majority in parliament.

Howard wrong on parable of the Talents

Last night Lateline reported John Howard’s Hillsong address to churches around Australia.

JOHN HOWARD: Parable of the Talents, to me has always been, has always seemed to me to be the “free enterprise parable”. The parable that tells us that we have a responsibility if we are given assets to add to those assets.

He’s got it completely wrong. Here’s a sermon I preached a couple of months ago:

The Parable of the Talents
Matthew 25:14-30

[The congregation was first asked what the parable means and which figure represents God.]

I have some problems with the interpretation you have just given me, with the Master representing God [or Jesus], the first two slaves as good and the third slave as wicked.

To begin with, is this what God is like? “I knew that you were a harsh man” “You knew, did you?” “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Is God like a harsh man? One who throws the lazy into the outer darkness? Hey, God may be cruel, but he’s fair! Is that the God of peace and love and justice proclaimed by Jesus?

Secondly, the Master is pleased with 100% return on an investment. And if you can’t get that, at least get some interest for it. Does God support usury, the lending of money at interest? It is forbidden elsewhere in the bible. Has God changed his mind? And is it just, to double your money with investments? Who pays the price for this?

And what do we make of this phrase:
“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.”
How easily this can be used to say I deserve my wealth, whereas those without deserve their fate.

And my final problem is that this is not the way you tell a story. It is always the third person who provides the lesson. We should be drawn in by the first two characters, people who behave as expected, and then the third person should surprise us with something unexpected and teach us the lesson. The story of the good Samaritan is like this, the first person, not unreasonably, passes by on the other side. The second person does the same, as would we. But the third person – The Samaritan, of all people – provides the lesson and teaches us who our neighbour is. Any good joke follows the same pattern. But with the parable of the talents, we get the lesson straight away. The first slave does the right thing – he uses his talents wisely and is rewarded. Good on him. The second slave does the same thing… ok, we get the idea. And the third slave… does the wrong thing and is punished. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished. Where’s the twist? The surprise at the end, that gives the lesson? Sounds like a fairly mediocre parable.

Now I don’t want to throw away the parable, but I do want to throw away this interpretation and find a better one. And to find that, let’s first look more closely at what this parable is about, before we decide what it means.

So, the parable of the talents is about… talents. So, what was a talent? Well, it was an amount of money, but how much money? Now if you’re like me, your main cultural reference for the worth of a talent is a scene in “The Life of Brian”. A beggar comes up to Brian and his mother and says: “Spare a talent for an old ex-leper”. Brian’s mother replies: “A talent! That’s more than he earns in a month!” Unfortunately this is highly misleading. Who would have thought that Monty Python was not historically accurate, but there you go. A talent certainly was more than Brian earned in a month. A talent was about 15 years wages. In today’s terms, taking a wage of say, $65000, a talent comes out to one million dollars. Hardly the amount a beggar would be asking for on the street, unless he were very ambitious.

Now, what exactly was the household described in the parable? The Master has five, plus two, plus one, talents. Do any of you have eight million dollars lying around and need other people to look after it for you? This is not a household like the ones we live in today. In fact, at the time, power was concentrated in cities. And the cities controlled the surrounding countryside. But within the cities power was held by large households – the Packers and Murdochs of their day. It is in these households that you would find a master with eight talents, lying around needing looking after, while the Master went away searching for other business opportunities.

So we’ve looked at the talents, looked at the household, now, what about the slaves?

Who are these slaves? Well, any sizable institution, like a household, needs a sizable bureaucracy to manage it. And at the top of the bureaucracy are these slaves, entrusted with looking after the household’s vast wealth. The slaves have played the game to rise to this position, and must maintain it if they wish to stay where they are.

Let’s leave the parable for a while and see if we can make some connection with these slaves. What have a I got here in my hand? A credit card. But this is no ordinary credit card. It is an Australian Government Purchasing credit card, and it’s got my name on it. What does this allow me to do? It lets me spend someone else’s money – in this case the Federal Government’s money, tax payers’ money. Now could you put your hand up – this is the interactive part in case you’ve tuned out – put your hand up if you have ever had control over money that was not yours, not part of a business you owned, not a relative’s, but someone else’s money. The money of a Government, your employer, a church, a school, a community organisation.

Ok, everyone with a hand up – like the slaves in this parable, you are a manager of other people’s money. This parable is about you and me. You can put your hands down now.

We often have parables about the poor, but we’re not poor. We have parables about the rich, and again, we’re not rich, that’s somebody else, we’re off the hook. But this parable, it’s about the managers. And at Ringwood Uniting, we should pay attention, because for many of us, this… is a parable about us.

Now if you didn’t have your hand up. If you’re a worker, a small business owner, a student, unemployed, looking after children full time, you’re off the hook today. You can just glance at all the managers and look smug.

Now, back to the parable. Let me suggest that it’s not a parable about the Kingdom of God at all. It doesn’t begin with ‘The Kingdom of God is like’ as many other parables do. No, this is a story about the world, and what the world is like.

The Master is not God. The Master is just a master. The Master is harsh, he believes those who have, should get more.

And how do they get more? Well, one of the ways large households doubled money, was to lend it out to farmers and charge them exorbitant interest. The real money was not in the interest, but in foreclosing on the loan. Getting the land and crops when the farmer could no longer pay the loan back.

People who no longer had land, had to go to the city and sell their labour, and would be the sort of people hearing this parable as Jesus told it. A parable about the people who had ripped them off. What would Jesus’ audience think of the slaves? Not very nice things, I reckon.

So how do we see the parable now? The head of a large and powerful household goes away leaving three able slaves, his Senior Management team, in charge of 8 million dollars. The first two slaves do what it takes to double their money. “Those evil so and sos. We all know someone who’s lost their land to them” is what we’re meant to be thinking. But such unpleasantness is avoided in the polite conversations between the Master and the first two slaves. “I have made five more talents” , “ Well done good and trustworthy slave”. No mention of people thrown off their land. The slaves just enjoy their master’s happiness that the finances have gone so well.

The third slave is the hero is this story. For whatever reason, he decides he cannot partake of this any longer. He decides to become what is now called a “whistle blower”. Instead of using the money to make more money, instead of entrusting it to bankers, he takes it out of the system, burying it in the ground, where it can do no harm. When the master returns, it no polite chat. Rather, the third slave says the unmentionable, making plain where the Master’s wealth comes from. Telling it straight to the Master. “ I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed” – a description of reaping a harvest sown by others who have been thrown off their land by the Master. The Master does not take kindly to this, giving the usual slander of idleness and immorality that accompanies any whistle blower: “You wicked and lazy slave!”.

The third slave is stripped of all of his responsibilities and they are given to the other slaves. No longer part of the bureaucracy that has supported him, the slave will soon be destitute, living in the world of the poor – the outer darkness, as the Master sees it – where people do indeed gnash their teeth, whether in anguish, or chattering from the cold.

Having looked at what this parable is about, I will now close by looking at what it means.

For managers like many of us, it is a call to be awake to the realities of the institutions we manage. Is injustice kept hidden behind polite language and euphemisms? Is it time to say “no more”? Do you have the courage to risk the consequences of speaking out? Possibly losing your employment, your reputation?

Now we don’t do altar calls in this church. But I’m tempted to say “Do you feel the spirit is prompting you to reveal the truth with us today? If so, come on down and share with the congregation.” Maybe you do feel this way. But that would be unfair because there is one final bit to this parable.

Government whistle blower Andrew Wilkie has said, “Some would have followed me out the door before the [Iraq] war, if only they felt they could have. But in reality most people find themselves constrained either by their sense of duty or by financial consideration – they cannot afford the instant loss of a career with little immediate prospects of another. Or else they feel powerless to make a difference and are overwhelmed with despair.”

Yes, the fate of the whistle blower can be harsh as this parable attests. But it is not the end of the story. The hearers of Jesus’ parable would detest the manager-slaves, but this story encourages empathy for the third slave. Not “one of those so and sos has finally got what they deserve”, but rather “he’s now in the outer darkness with us. How should we treat him?” With no support the whistle blower would be hungry, thirsty, he would be a stranger, lacking clothes, he could get sick, possibly imprisoned. Do you see where I’m going with this? Yes, the very next passage in Matthew is the “Last Judgment”, the one with the sheep and the goats, where we are encouraged to feed the hungry and thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, because that is where we meet Jesus.

So there is a message here for the church as a whole. You non-managers don’t get off scott free today after all. Whistle blowers may end up in the outer darkness, but that is where the church should already be. With Jesus, providing the necessary resources to those outside of the system.

If the managers of our society really believed that the church would support them spiritually and economically, they would be more inclined to act like the third slave and blow the whistle when they see injustice.

Delivered Sunday April 22nd 2007
Ringwood Uniting Church, 9am Service


William R. Herzog II, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1994, Chapter 9, “The Vulnerability of the Whistle-blower: The Parable of the Talents”.

Ched Myers and Eric DeBode, “Towering Trees and Talented Slaves”, The Other Side, May-June 1999.

Andrew Wilkie, Axis of Deceit: The Story of the Intelligence Officer who Risked All to Tell the Truth about WMD and Iraq, Schwartz Publishing, Melbourne, 2004, p 146.

Inspirational Speech

In the midst of the large protests of J18, Seattle (N30), Washington (A16), Melbourne (S11), Prague (S26) , Ottawa (A20) and Genoa, the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement started it’s alternative annual meeting the World Social Forum.

Local and Regional Social Fora were encouraged and one has just happened in the US.

Michael Albert, who runs the Z magazine web site, has written a review containing the speech he wished had been given at the end of the US Social Forum. It’s quite long, but here’s an excerpt:

We are trying to win a new economy in which there are no classes. No one in the better world we seek will own workplaces, resources, or other people’s ability to do work. There will be no owners of Walmarts or Microsofts. There will be no private profits. There will be no wage slaves, working under the dictates of others. Further, no one will monopolize empowering conditions at work, as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers so typically do now, and on that account rule over those left only menial and obedient tasks. No one will earn inequitably whether from property, power, or output. No one will have more say over decisions than the fair share that we all are entitled to in accord with how much we are affected. There will be no top and no bottom of who decides what for whom. There will be no order giver and no order taker about production, allocation, or consumption. There will be no class responsible for decisions while another class is suppressed and responsible only to obey. We will all be elevated to use our fullest capacities and express our fullest desires, rather than most of us learning only to endure boredom and to obey orders showered down on us by the anointed masters of all that occurs. Our new economy will be classless, at last. Out with the old boss – and out with any new boss, too. We will enjoy a participatory economy, operating as one part of a participatory society.

But our project is not just about economics – we are not economistic. We realize that life is not working and consuming alone. For example…

Read the whole thing here.

Pine Gap Appeal

Just heard that the Christians Against All Terrorism have had papers served on them for an appeal.

The government is not happy with the fines handed down against the activists and is appealing, presumably to try and get prison sentences.

Follow their progress on their blog and get the word out to support them.
From their report of the initial sentencing:

Pine Gap Trial – SENTENCE Fri June 15th 2007


Four Christian pacifists are celebrating after being spared prison sentences in the Northern Territory Supreme Court today.

The Pine Gap Four, found guilty of breaching the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952, have been handed minor fines.

The public gallery erupted into song, applause, cheers and hugs and the feeling of victory and vindication was in the air.

Justice Sally Thomas noted their good behaviour and co-operation in the sentencing decision.

“All four were very genuine in the cause they sought to espouse,” said Justice Thomas, “however their actions – no matter for what cause – cannot justify the breaking of the law.”

Jim Dowling has been fined $1250, Bryan Law fined $1000, Donna Mulhearn fined $450 and Adele Goldie fined $550. They have also been asked to contribute $2500 each towards cost of fence repair.

Talisman Sabre Reports

Twenty-one people were arrested at the recent Talisman Sabre Military Exercises in Queensland and across the top of Australia.

Among those arrested were a group of five Christians, mainly from Melbourne, who walked onto the base and up to a runway, where they looked for soldiers to talk with.

Here are writings from three of them:

Simon Moyle was interviewed by RTR fm (Perth Community Radio) (3.5 mb) and Sonshine fm (Perth Christian Radio station (6 mb).

They will be having a fund raiser soon as they will need to travel back up to Rockhampton for court.

Others Actions

Activists were arrested for crossing the line and others stayed several days inside the base. I’m not sure if they were arrested. (Can anyone give me an update?)

Two people who locked on to a military vehicle will have mentions (a pretrial hearing) in the Rockhampton Magistrates Court on 13th July (in two days time). The rest will have mentions on 13th August.

For some background on Talisman Sabre have a look at this this overview by Dave Andrews where he also discusses what else the $130 million could have been be used for.

Ciaron O’Reilly in Melbourne

Ciaron O’Reilly could come to Melbourne for a week some time in the first three weeks of August if there is enough interest.

In his last three trips to Melbourne he’s spoken to every group I could find and now I’m out of ideas. So if you would like him to speak at your group, or know somewhere he could speak, contact me by leaving a comment.

Ciaron O’Reilly is a Catholic Worker who was part of the Pitstop Ploughshares who were recently acquitted for disarming a US War Plane in Ireland en route to Iraq on the eve of the War.

UPDATE: I’ve already had one positive response. A few more and he’ll be able to come down from Brisbane.

UPDATE 2: He’ll be in Melbourne late August.