Its like Bernie Madoff leaving on a trip, called his employees and entrusted them with his fortune. He gave one of them $81.5 million. He gave another $32.6 million. And to a third he gave $16.3 million. Then he left.
The one with $81.5 million went off and invested it, and doubled the money. The one with $32.6 million also invested it and doubled the money. But the one with the $16.3 million went home and stuffed it under the mattress.
After a long while, Madoff came home and called them all in to audit their accounts. So the one who had started off with $81.5 million came in with $163 million and said, “Look, I’ve doubled your money.” And the Madoff said, “Well done! Dang, you’re good! Since you’ve done so well with this little bit, you’re getting a promotion! And, by the way, you should come to my office New Year’s eve party.”
Then the next employee, who started with $32.6 million came in and said, “Look, here’s your money doubled: $65.2 million.” And Madoff again replied, “Well done! Dang, you’re good, too! Since you’ve done so well with this little bit, you’re getting a promotion. And, by the way, you should come to my office New Year’s eve party.”
So it was the third employee’s turn, the one who started with just $16.3 million. He came in and said, “Boss, I know you’re a hard-ass, and you’re a robber baron, and you’re the worst kind of venture capitalist. I was so afraid of losing any of your money, I kept the whole wad under my mattress, and here it is, safe and sound.”
Madoff replied, “You lazy bastard! If you knew that I’m the worst sort of venture capitalist and a robber baron you should have at least put the money into a CD so I could have had some interest on it. Your fired! I’m reallocating your money to the guy with the $163 million. It takes money to make money, but I’m going to wring every penny out of the little guys. And send this no-good former employee to slums where he can cry and worry himself to death.”
Again we have the kind of story that is traditionally interpreted as an allegory in which the Madoff character stands for God, the Christians are the employees, and somehow, this situation is supposed to be like heaven.
But this story doesn’t sound like any kind of heaven, and if the world’s Madoffs are stand-ins for God, it’s a religion to which only the Madoffs would willingly ascribe. So what’s really going on here?
This is the third of four apocalyptic parables Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel following his teach-in at the temple. As such, it’s not about what the kingdom of heaven is like, but what it’s like at the apocalyptic moment on the verge of that kingdom.
Jesus has already admonished his followers to be able to read the world’s signs of the approaching change in the same way changes in a fig tree indicate the approaching change of season (Matt 24:32-33). These four parables are the signs. And they’re not meant to be cryptic. They’re pretty obvious. Then and now. They’re signs that the present reality is simply unsustainable. Madoff’s ponzi scheme fell apart.
Note, this is not just sour grapes at some people being rich. It’s about a social order that leaves people with only two options: Either participate in the robber baron’s crime or live in a state of perpetual weeping and anxiety. Either choice is a losing proposition: to be complicit in the crimes against humanity is to be swept from power when the whole thing crashes (as it will in the next parable). But the one who ends up in crying and worry has been worried all along. So his situation is the same whether he’s in or out of the robber baron’s graces.
So the sign that the kingdom is near is the simultaneous widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the narrowing of options to the two end states of complicity in inhumanity on one hand, or misery and fear on the other.
At that point, where people have been reduced to the point of having nothing to lose, a third option becomes thinkable: leaving the old social, political, and economic system altogether and letting the cards fall where they may. And that is exactly what Jesus was contemplating on the Mount of Olives.
Two days later, he’d be crucified.
A generation later, the temple would lie in ruins.
Who knows what empire may fall tomorrow.