Institute on Religion and Democracy
December 13, 1999
The U.S. Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) met on December 9-11 in Atlanta to focus on "reconciliation." Most speakers gave benign messages unlikely to spark controversy. But the meeting's worship leader dramatically assailed one of Jesus' parables for promoting patriarchy and racism.
"I don't care for this particular story," announced Jacqueline Grant, an Atlanta religion professor, who preached about Jesus' parable of the talents from Matthew 25. "It reeks of patriarchal, racist and classist assumptions."
The parable tells of a master who gives various amounts of money, or talents, to each of three servants. Two servants invest the talents and return the talents with profit, but the third returns with only the principal, having buried the money rather than risk it. The master castigates this last servant for his unfaithfulness.
"Why does the master assume the servant's laziness?" Grant asked sarcastically. "Why did the master treat him so unfairly?" She charged that the church participates in the "sinful practice" of some masters by measuring valuation only in terms of profit.
Grant condemned the master for comparing the third servant with the other supposedly more industrious two. The master created a system "that doesn't represent justice but defines elitism from the top down."
The church's appropriation of this misbegotten parable has led to a lack of "concern for the economic health of the entire community" in favor of the wealthy few, she charged. The church has adopted the ethics of the master, who gained his wealth by exploiting the labor of others, Grant added.
Grant complained that the parable had been used to justify the plight of the poor, who are portrayed unfairly as incapable of self-government. Third World governments and minority institutions especially fall prey to this stereotype, she said, so elite power structures justify their control by claiming the less privileged need this control.
"When they step out of their places, like Martin Luther King, we join forces and cut them down," she observed. The classism inherent in the parable fuels both violence and racism, Grant insisted. "The text justifies why women and blacks are given less."
"The church must resist the temptation to demonize the third servant and those in that category," Grant implored. She told of her preference for the following parable in Matthew 25, in which persons are commended or condemned in the final judgment according to their mercy or indifference towards the "least of these." By that criterion, Grant claimed, the third servant would be a role model.
Not everyone in the audience of about 200 church leaders accepted Grant's attack on the parable. "I reject your interpretation," said one Orthodox priest during a question and answer session. "Why does only the third servant think the master is hard?" he asked. The priest suggested the parable illustrates the folly of unfaithfulness and of blaming our own sins on the master, who symbolizes God.
Grant responded that this type of thinking represented a "blaming the victim phenomenon syndrome." She insisted that the third servant must have based his assumptions on the exploitative character of his master.
A second Orthodox priest also contested Grant's interpretation. He said all three parables in Matthew 25 provide the criteria for entering the Kingdom of God. "The third servant couldn't understand the mind of the master," the priest said. "But that's how you enter the Kingdom, by doing the will of the Master."
If true, Grant responded, why didn't the master provide clearer instructions so as to avoid "misunderstanding?" She blamed the master for making any differentiation among the servants. "The master himself created the problem by not giving them all the same number of talents."
Grant admitted there are other interpretations to this parable, but she was reluctant to accept their validity. "The inequities in society are justified by religious language," she warned. "Let's challenge those sacred interpretations.
The moderator of the U.S. Committee of the WCC thanked Grant for her presentation. "We're deeply indebted to you for challenging our thinking," enthused Kathryn Bannister, a United Methodist minister from Kansas.
Other speakers at the conference included WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser and Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf, both of whom spoke about reconciliation within the world and within the church. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the crowd at a special meeting at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King once pastored.
Tutu thanked the WCC for having done an "extraordinary thing" by granting money from its Program to Combat Racism to liberation movements in Africa that were called "terrorist organizations." He commended the WCC's role in ending apartheid in South Africa but warned that churches have not always stood on the side of justice.
"It was Christians not pagans who supported the slave trade," he charged. "Christians not pagans were responsible for the Holocaust. Christians not pagans erected racism here. Physician, heal thyself!"
Tutu spoke of God as father and mother, advocated full inclusion for "gays and lesbians," and endorsed the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel all Third World debt to Western governments and banks.
The U.S. Committee of the WCC meets annually and is based in New York City. The WCC itself is based in Geneva, Switzerland. Over 30 U.S. church denominations belong to the WCC