Trump Real Estate Venture Goes Bad: A Parable

Donald and Eric Trump
Photo via Zimbio

Matthew 21:33-46

Or how ’bout this one:

Donald Trump built a lovely high-end condominium in Centerville, complete with big wall all around, a swimming pool and tennis courts, and a fancy gate with a guard booth at the entrance. He leased it out to tenants and went back to New York.

When it came time to collect the rent, he sent a few of his agents around to collect. But the tenants beat the hell out of one of them, practically killed the second, and threw rocks at the third as he ran away. So the Donald sent more agents, but the tenants treated them the same way. Finally he sent his son, Eric, out to the condo, saying, “They’d better listen to him.”

But when the tenants heard Eric was coming, they got together and hatched a plan: “This is the heir to the Trump dynasty! If we kill him, we’ll get the whole estate when the Donald kicks off!” So they grabbed him, dragged him into a back alley and killed him.

Now what do you think the Donald is going to do?

“He’ll have those bastards tried for murder and executed, and he’ll get some new, better tenants into the condo,” they said.

Jesus said, “That’s right. The riffraff that got turned down for a lone have now become the bank’s premiere customers. God, that’s so awesome! And I’ll tell you another thing, too. All the privileges you have because you claim to be so close to God – all that is about to change, and others will use your privilege to do what’s right. You’re headed for a fall, and then, when you think it can’t get any worse, it’ll get worse.”

When the senators and the businessmen heard these stories, they realized that he was talking about them. But as much as they wanted to arrest him, they were too afraid of the crowds who regarded him (instead of them) as their leader.

Already, what Jesus is talking about in the story is happening, right there under their noses. They can’t arrest him (which would usually be their privilege) because in that moment they have been removed from power.

Power and privilege are in the hands of the holder. And when it came right down to it, the people who were running the temple were all in somebody’s pocket. They never did have their own status. They never stood for anything on their own, other than maintaining the appearance of ownership.

Power and privilege are never for sitting on. They are for using to make good things happen. And if they are misused, there is inevitably a reckoning. What was true in Jesus’ day is no less true today.

It does no good for churches to wring their hands about how nobody comes any more and everybody prefers to go to their kids’ sports games on Sunday, or to lament that many hospitals no longer reserve parking places for clergy. The only salvation is to do the work that is required to pay the rent. The half-life on privilege is getting shorter each day.

The same is true for government, for business, and for your life and mine. Whatever resources we have, whatever comforts, whatever wealth or power or status or privilege – it’s not for us. It’s for doing something outstanding with. While we have it. Use it or lose it.

Jesus’ Paints a Full Employment Scenario

Waiting for work
Waiting for work in Westhampton. Photo credit: Erica Jackson

Matthew 20:1-16

The goal is like this:

A business owner went down to the corner at daybreak to hire workers to pick his crops. After agreeing with the workers to pay them each $87 for the day’s work, he sent them out to the fields.

Around 9 am, he went by the corner again, and found more people standing around. So he told them, “Go work in my fields and I’ll give you a fair wage.”

Again at noon, and then 3 pm, he went and did the same thing. And then at 5 pm he went by the corner and still there were more people standing around. He asked them, “Why are you hanging out here doing nothing?” And they told him, “Nobody gave us no yob today.” So he told them, too, to go and work in his fields.

As the sun set, the business owner had the foreman call the workers in to give them their wages. He had them line up with the last ones hired first in line, and those hired first at the end. And beginning with the first worker in the line, he paid out $87. Those at the end got excited, thinking they would get paid a lot more. But as everyone moved through the line, each and every one of them received the same $87. So the early-birds started griping about how they should have been paid more, since they had worked all day in the heat of the sun.

But the business owner replied, “Look, we agreed on $87 and I gave you what we agreed. Go home. It’s my money and I can do what I want with it. Why are you so resentful that I feel like being generous?

So the latecomers will be first. The early-birds will be last.

This is the story of what it might look like when the rules for collecting manna in the wilderness are implemented in real life. The principle is that everyone gets enough to feed their families, regardless of their ability, and nobody gets extra that they can then use to gain advantage over their peers.

The main question that should occur to you as you read this is articulated by the business owner: Why are there so many people out of work? And in response to “Nobody gave us no yob today,” the follow-up is, why not?

Then and now, the most able-bodied hanging out on the corner by the truckyard gate, or at the Labor-ready, and even at the state unemployment office jobs fair, get picked first. Those who are older, less capable, who got hurt on yesterday’s job don’t get picked, and don’t get paid. They can’t support themselves and their families. Meanwhile, among those who do work, the expectation is that if you work hard you will get ahead. That sounds great, until you consider that some getting ahead implies others get left behind. But that’s how it works in the real world.

The parable, on the other hand is Jesus’ way of helping us explore what it might look like if nobody gets left behind. What if everyone who showed up looking for work found a job? And what if everyone had enough to take care of their families at the end of the day. Every day. Some people might get upset. So, think about these:

  • What does the desire to “get ahead,” lifted up as an unquestionable virtue and infused into our thinking from kindergarten on, say about the condition of our souls and our communities?
  • Is greed really good?
  • And is “getting ahead” really, if we’re brutally honest about it, a euphemism for greed?
  • And if not, what does “getting ahead” really mean?
  • Do we really need exorbitant extrinsic rewards to do our best work?

All the best research tends to say that beyond a job’s providing an adequate wage to take care of the necessities and a comfortable life, additional bonuses tend to stifle production and creativity. (See Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, for an extensive discussion and references.) That fact should make a difference in how we do business. But for some reason (and I suspect it’s the same reason Jesus was aiming at in this parable) we still have a widening gap between rich and poor, and at least 9% (in late 2011) of those who show up looking for work each day are still hanging around, unable to support their families.

The parable is Jesus’ conjecturing what an alternative to unbridled capitalism might look like, recognizing that the implementation is going to be the occasion for a lot of griping from those who are used to getting ahead.


Geithner Calls Bank of America’s TARP Loan: A Parable

Timothy Geithner
Timothy Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury, via Wikipedia

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if someone in the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive that person? Seven?”

Jesus answered, “It’s not a number. It’s as many times as it takes. The goal is like this:

The secretary of the treasury needed to settle the national debt. So he had the Department of Homeland Security haul in a banker who owed $163 billion. Since the banker couldn’t pay, he ordered the banker to a lifetime jail sentence without trial or parole in Guantanamo, and his entire family fortune along with that of his wife and children confiscated. So the banker fell on his knees and pleaded, “Have patience, and I will repay everything.” Seeing this, the secretary changed his mind about it and let him go, and besides that wrote off the whole $163 billion right then and there.

That same banker, went back to his office and called in the mortgage of a mill worker in Cleveland, who was behind on his payments by $500. The mill worker filled out all the paperwork, applied for all the available loan modification programs, but still the banker refused to relent, and threw the mill worker, together with his family, out on the street, and then threatened to press criminal charges unless the entire mortgage was paid in full.

When the mill worker’s co-workers, and the other working-class folk in his neighborhood heard what happened, they were outraged. They wrote to the secretary of the treasury and told him what was going on. Then the secretary summoned the banker back to his office, and said to him, “You ungrateful bastard! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have the decency to do the same thing? And he handed the banker over for extraordinary rendition to a secret CIA gulag in Uzbekistan to be tortured until he paid the whole $163 billion.

“Now,” said Jesus, “consider what you’ve been forgiven, and then treat your fellow church members – and anyone else, for that matter – likewise, remembering that you, too, could wind up in Uzbekistan.”

There’s no need for extensive commentary here, because when we look at the parable as Jesus might have told it today, it’s implications are, for the most part, self-evident.

You can almost hear the back-story for Peter’s question. Someone has offended Peter on numerous occasions (maybe seven), and Peter wants to know at what point he can retaliate. He poses his question, as people often do, in the form of a theoretical situation: “What if?” The question’s deception is to imply that this issue is not about me personally. Same as when someone says, “I have a friend who …” It makes no difference what commentators say about seven being the number of offenses to be forgiven in the popular rabbinical literature of the day. Nor does Jesus care about keeping score. For Jesus it’s about working through differences, whatever that takes. And Jesus knows it really is about the person asking.

Frequently, interpretations of this parable try to make out the secretary of the treasury (the king in most translations) as standing in the place of God. But it clearly doesn’t work. It makes no sense whatsoever that Jesus intended to represent God as a fickle, whimsical, government financier who one moment threatens, the next writes off huge debts, and then sends someone off to be tortured. (Well, maybe it does if you’re Michele Bachmann, but not for sane people.)

But this isn’t about God, it’s about Jesus’ vision for community among ordinary folk. The story designed to place the outrageous alongside the common ways real power impinges on everyday life, and then to ask the reader (or the hearer): Given the unequal distribution of power and debt in your relationships, what will you do?

Mustard Sunday

mustard plant
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This Sunday is Mustard Sunday, when many churches will hear the gospel passage from Matthew 13:31-32 wherein Jesus says:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

I’ve known people to get all sentimental about the mustard seed. I’ve seen people wearing necklaces with mustard seeds encased in amber or set in silver filigree. And it does make an easy object lesson for the “children’s sermon,” because you can get mustard seeds in the spice aisle at the grocery store just about anywhere. And, that this passage tends to get conflated with another saying about how “if your faith is but the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains” (the armchair Christian’s equivalent of wielding an H-bomb) also makes it popular.

But this Mustard Sunday, let us remember that mustard, then and now, is a weed, notwithstanding when someone intentionally plants it. And as anyone who actually uses it in the kitchen can tell you, a little of it goes a long way. In Jesus’ parable, the plant is clearly out of control. It has grown to the point that birds are making nests in it. The weed has taken over the field. Jesus is implying that the kingdom of heaven is like a weed growing out of control. It’s a total pain in the ass. It’s attracting birds. You don’t want birds in your field. They’ll eat what’s left of your crop after the weeds get done with it. That’s why farmers invented scarecrows.

This is the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9) in reverse. The birds pluck up the seed, the weeds choke out the plants. But now, instead of the devil and worries, Jesus says, these are manifestations of the kingdom of heaven.

Together, the two parables are opposite sides of the same coin. On the first side, the barriers to really following Jesus (as opposed to paying lip service one hour a week) are pretty tough. On the other side, once the kingdom of heaven gets planted in your life, it tends to take over everything else, whether you like it or not.