My Response to Fleming Rutledge (@flemingrut) on Stewardship

In the run-up to Advent, the eminent Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge has posted an interesting piece entitled “Jesus’ Parable of the Money in Trust.”  It’s an interesting and informative piece, informative not only in its Biblical exegesis but also (doubtless unintentionally) about the Episcopal Church itself, and the changes wrought from the days when multi-generational Episcopalians (as I started out to be) gathered to worship “Gawd” on Sundays.

First the key takeaway: Rutledge is entirely correct to call out laity and clergy alike on the confusion wrought by the word “talent”:

As you can see, the master does not give out what we call “talents,” as in “gifts and talents.” The master gives out money. It’s unfortunate that the English word “talent,” meaning natural ability, is the same as the word for the gold coin in the original parable. As soon as we start talking about “talents,” we’re going to lose sight of the point altogether. We need to get “talents” out of our minds. This parable is about money. There’s this little slogan that Episcopalians use during stewardship season; I’m sure you’ve heard it—“time, talents, and treasure.” I don’t know who invented that, but in my perspective of the wider church, it’s done more harm than good. Putting time, talents, and treasure together distracts our attention from the real issue, which is money. For one thing, we don’t use the word “treasure” when we talk about money. Having those three “t”s sounds clever and quaint, but it also sounds irrelevant. It makes it too easy for us to avoid the issue of money. The slogan is ineffective because it lets people off the hook. If we can divert attention to time and talents, which aren’t very threatening, we don’t have to think about what really makes us nervous, namely, giving up some of our money. Over the years, various new titles for the parable have been proposed to correct the misunderstanding about “talents.” The best one is “The Parable of the Money in Trust.”[3] That we can understand.

Anyone with a decent classical education will spot this: the talent was a measure of the weight of gold in the Greco-Roman world, not a human attribute.  Having just marched through several books of Livy, the number of talents paraded in triumph becomes mind-boggling after a while.  Rutledge is right: in the narrative of the talents, we’re talking about money.

I think, however, that the biggest change that’s taken place is not in the correction of our understanding of what Our Lord was talking about when he referred to “talents” (and I would interpret the parable a little more broadly than she does, for reasons I will discuss.)  What’s changed more than anything else is the way Americans in general and Episcopalians in particular look at money, and that, IMHO, is what has made it possible for Rutledge to set forth the thesis she has done.

Particularly as a product of a multi-generational Episcopal background (on my paternal grandmother’s side) Episcopalians saw themselves as the keepers of a nice, aesthetically pleasing, old-money religion free from the intrusions of tasteless nouveaux-riches making a statement and getting away with it.  From a religious standpoint, Episcopalians were free from fulminations  before the offering of money-grubbing rednecks across the tracks.  Ironically, that was a major attraction for people like my mother, who was trying to escape (with mixed success) her dogmatic Baptistic past, not only about the money but about everything else.  Ironically the Episcopal Church gave cover to the many upwardly mobile people after World War II who wanted the supremely respectable form of Christianity without having to fight the uphill battle of changing the churches they were raised in.  The Episcopal Church’s greatest growth period was from the end of World War II to the mid-1960’s, a growth fuelled in part by that desire, and it’s been a bumpy ride downward ever since.

In any case, the hegemony of the “old money culture” has been swept away, not only by the social upheavals of the 1960’s but also by the Boomers’ stunning volte-face in the wake of that decade towards a “get rich” mentality.  Today we have people who have accumulated enormous sums of money in a short period of time being lionised as the moral guides of our society, additionally able with their new-found wealth to spread money-favouring patronage.  Their self-image as the moral guides of society is undeserved,  but in these United States, we’re obsessed with the money because that’s what it’s become about.

In this way, the traditional Episcopal paradigm about money, Biblical or not, has been blown away for good.  That demise is accentuated by the simple fact that, as the Episcopal Church has declined, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have risen.  Especially with the latter, generous stewardship is not only encouraged, it’s expected.  It’s a revelation to many traditional Episcopalians, but churches which expect a great deal from their congregants fiscally also expect much–and generally get it–with other aspects of their congregants’ lives.  The “time, talent and treasure” triple of traditional Episcopalianism is  package deal: you get one, you get the rest.

This is one place where the Episcopal Church’s elevated demographics have worked against it: in general, the higher the income level and wealth, the smaller portion of it goes to any kind of charitable work, church or otherwise.  (I’m excluding the business of foundations, which aren’t Biblical either and are a source of patronage.)  And that goes for the rest of the contribution, too.  For all it’s social justice striving of the last half century, the Episcopal Church has not quite figured out how to transform the preferential option for the poor into the preferential option of the poor.  Had it done so, it would have also changed the commitment level of its congregants, too.

It’s interesting that Rutledge notes the following:

Affluent churches have a particular challenge in this regard. Building up large endowments is a hedge against an uncertain future. An endowment needs wise, shrewd management, that’s for sure. But it is human nature to be overly cautious in this regard. We don’t typically look for ways to give away money. Consequently, we’re likely to be uneasy about Jesus’ message. Instead of recognizing it as our charter of freedom, we feel it as a threat. So we cling to what we have and we don’t risk anything. The more comfortable we get in our churches, the more likely we are to hang on to our money, so that it just goes round and round in a tight little circle.

As the Episcopal Church’s membership has declined, its reliance on endowed money has increased, with the occasional looting of the endowments.  Rutledge’s call for better money stewardship amongst the parishioners can be seen as a response to that reality.  If the rest of the church world can get along without over-reliance on endowments, why can’t we?  It’s a serious question, but until the Episcopal Church figures out how to attract new people with a new level of commitment, that question will go unanswered.

And the biggest danger of emphasising the money aspect of this parable is that some will take it as reducing Christianity to giving in the offering plate.  I don’t think that’s Rutledge’s intent.  That reduction is the biggest fault of prosperity teaching: it reduces our relationship with God to a money transaction, and that’s patently false.  As noted earlier, the Christian’s commitment to God is a total one.  Although this parable is about money it’s also about more.

I think that Rutledge has given us a valuable contribution to the understanding of this parable.  But I also think that this understanding does not need to be taken out of context in the current climate in the US about it being “all about the money.”  It isn’t.  It includes that, but it’s much more, and the sooner we all recognise that fact, the better.

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