The power of love in an unjust world
Back in June, my spouse, Beth, and I traveled to Gainesville, Fla., to attend a couple of talks that one of my favorite authors and teachers, Michael Singer, gives at his spiritual center there called The Temple of the Universe. The trip was a birthday present for me, and Beth had arranged with the staff there for us to be able to take a walk with Singer after the Sunday talk and spend some time with him.
It was an amazing experience. I thought I would be too fan girl overwhelmed to really have a meaningful talk with him, but he was very calm and relaxed. As we walked it became clear that he was happy to talk with me not as a fan, but as a colleague, as someone else who was engaged in practicing and teaching spirituality.
We strolled around the beautiful grounds at the Temple, chatting and laughing, and as we approached our starting point near the end of our walk, we saw a young man sitting on the walkway, relaxing and smoking some manner of clove cigarette. As we approached, he quickly got up and approached Singer. Without giving any of us a chance to say anything to him, he launched into an obviously prepared elevator speech.
The young man had a dream, you see. He wanted to take Singer’s teachings and turn them into a reality show that he would pitch and produce. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea, right? Create a TV show that espouses the principles of love, peace, joy, unity, oneness and surrender to the universe.
Just before this encounter, we had been talking with Singer about the dwindling attendance at our spiritual community in South Carolina, Jubilee! Circle, since the pandemic. I remarked to Singer, who is a New York Times best-selling author and a frequent guest on Oprah’s shows, that he could have a mega-community if that’s what he wanted. Instead, he has a small building where he has held meetings since the 1970s. Its maximum capacity is probably 60 people. He told me that numbers didn’t matter and that, in fact, like one of his gurus said, he’d rather have a few followers sitting under a tree who are really dedicated to learning spiritual practices than a stadium full of people who just come for the show.
It was in this spirit that Singer answered the young man, who, in his second breath, told Singer he could make this dream happen with a million dollars in funding from Singer. I never saw Singer flinch at any of this. He was very polite to the young man and firmly told him that wasn’t going to happen and wished him well.
After the man retreated, we continued to the end of our walk and Singer side-eyed me and asked, “Do you want a million dollars?”
I will tell you that’s probably the only moment in my life that I truly didn’t want a million dollars. I imagine Singer gets a lot of these pitches and he has every right to be suspicious.
“No,” I said with a smile. “All I want is a photo with you.”
It’s taken me awhile to process this walk with Singer, and there’s probably much more to unpack, but I realized that this moment is when Singer showed a tremendous amount of compassion for this young man. The young dreamer probably didn’t see it this way, but I think Singer did him an enormous favor, all out of that deep compassion.
To understand this, we need to explore this parable of the talents that Jesus lays out in Matthew 25:14-30. The traditional summary goes something like this — we’ve each been given talents in our lives, some seem more endowed with talent than others, but when we put whatever talent that we may have to work in the world, they multiply.
We’re told to be like the first two servants who did just that. The third servant is supposed to serve as the cautionary tale. He went and buried his talent, so it did not multiply. The ruthless and cruel master gave that jerk what he deserved, taking away even the one talent he had and casting him into outer darkness.
This isn’t what this parable is teaching us. It’s not about claiming and using your talents and skills in the world. It’s a story about compassion. It’s a story about choosing unity over separation within the confines of an unjust economic system. It’s a story where the cautionary tale occurs with the first two servants, who show a great lack of compassion.
It’s a story where we’re supposed to live into the ethos of the third servant, burying our talent, choosing the good of the many over the gain of the one. This is a story of the power of Love.
Burying our talent
Usually, in Jesus’ parables, whoever is portrayed as the master in the story is supposed to be God, but the master in this story is a wealthy slave owner who is described as a harsh and ruthless man. It’s easy to get confused here because when introducing parables, Jesus always says, “the realm of God is like this …” and this story is no different, but Jesus turns the story on its head, deliberately making the master the opposite of God.
The key to reading this parable correctly is in what is given to the servants — talents. In Jesus’ day, a talent wasn’t some skill you possessed, as this parable has been taken to mean metaphorically. It’s also not a wad of cash or coins. A talent was a precious metal such as gold or silver that weighed around 80 to 130 pounds. It was worth about what an ordinary worker would make in 20 years — a lottery-winning sum of money for most of us — or that million dollars that young man so blithely asked Singer for.
That slave owning master amassed all this wealth in the typical way back then — by exploiting farmers. He would loan money to poor farmers at astronomical interest rates between 60% and 200%. The farmers would put their land up as collateral and often lost that land when drought hit or the harvest was poor or for any other myriad reasons.
These men who were given the talents in the story were the master’s bureaucratic middle men. They would oversee the land, collect on the debts and ensure the profits kept rolling in while the master was away on his yacht or vacationing in his fancy villa.
In modern terms, it’s as if one of the wealthiest top 1% gave his three most trusted workers millions of dollars to play with. As long as they made money off of the investment they would be rewarded, and they would pile up hefty bonuses for themselves. All they have to do is go out and exploit the workers, seize their property and leave them in abject poverty.
Be like the third servant
Do you see why the third servant could be the hero here? Do you see how burying his talent, refusing to exploit the working poor or seize their property, makes him the paragon of compassion here? Do you see how he is the representative of the Holy in this story? Do you see how his fearless act of rebellion against an unjust system demonstrates the power of love that we’re all called to emulate? Do you see how this last servant is the only truly sane one in an insane system of oppression and exploitation?
“Only the sane,” A Course in Miracles says in Chapter 19, “can look on stark insanity and raving madness with pity and compassion, but not with fear. For only if they share in it does it seem fearful, and you do share in it until you look upon your Holy sibling with perfect faith and love and tenderness. Before complete forgiveness you still stand unforgiving. Those you do not forgive you fear. And no one reaches love with fear beside him.”
This is the lot of the master and his first two servants. They cannot reach love because of their fear. The master fears being one of those poor he exploits, and the first two servants are afraid the master will fire them, then they too, will be like the poor farmers they exploit to stay in the master’s good graces. It is this fear that leads to separation, because the master and the first two servants do not see the poor farmers as their equals. Instead, the poor are demonized.
The poor are obviously not blessed by God with wealth and power. Their lot in life is to be exploited. As far as this manager and the first two servants are concerned the poor are not welcomed as part of God’s realm.
The third servant sees it differently. He finds commonality with the poor farmers and refuses to put them outside the circle of God’s love. Author Paul Selig, in his book The Book of Knowing and Worth, reminds us that when we decide someone is not worthy of God’s love, we put ourselves outside of that love, too.
“When you believe that everything has a right to be loved, from the lowest creature to the highest, from the imbecile to the sage, from the youngest to the oldest, you will witness yourself in love, and the sight that you behold will be the sight of the Christ,” Selig writes.
This is why that third servant could be fearless in the face of insanity. He beheld everyone with the eyes of Christ — the eyes of Love. By burying his talent, he acted in Holy Love. What was his thanks for this? The story tells us he was cast into “outer darkness.”
The joy of outer darkness
This is the other fun part of this story. Being cast into “outer darkness” — being shunned from the economic system that rewards dishonesty, exploitation and oppression, is how the ego punishes us for our refusal to play by its rules. To the ego, you see, not being able to enrich yourself through its exploitative economic system is the worst thing that can happen to you. The ego’s idea of outer darkness is actually the light of the Holy.
Where the ego sees darkness, we can see light, because we realize that we do not have to fear being cast out of the ego’s world. In fact, our goal in life should be to act in such loving and fearless ways that we piss our ego off enough for it to cast us into its idea of outer darkness.
We don’t have to transcend our ego, we just have to taunt it enough and go against its rules often enough, and it will toss us aside. This is the good news! This is the true power of Love! You don’t need money, you don’t need fame, don’t need a credit card to ride this train. Love can seem cruel and sudden sometimes, but it might just save your life.
That’s what I think Michael Singer did for that young man on the path that day. He had no fear, therefore he had the compassion needed to save this young man’s life. It may seem cruel to the young man that Singer won’t bankroll his dream, but I think Singer knows that giving money to a man who wants to play the exploitive game of Hollywood is not a talent well invested. It sounds like a lovely idea, to make these ideas mainstream on a TV show, but at what cost to the truth of the message? Singer knows the exploitive nature of show business.
None of this means that we all have to live in poverty just because the ego casts you out of its corrupt system. Singer lives a very comfortable life on a beautiful piece of land that he has worked tirelessly to preserve. He almost went to jail on federal RICO charges because he had a corrupt executive in one of the businesses he owns. He understands this corrupt system, and he has worked hard to get the ego to cast him into the outer darkness that is his pristine estate in Florida. He has found a way to live honestly, with integrity, humility and compassion, refusing to put anyone outside of God’s realm, even impudent young men who blithely ask him for a million dollars on a sunny, humid Sunday afternoon.
Like the third servant, he seems to have buried his talent — refusing to build a larger sanctuary, refusing to go on book tours when another bestseller hits the shelves. Singer isn’t playing small, though. He knows that anything that needs to grow needs to first be buried. He has found fertile soil in the swamps of Florida. What he is growing with his talent may appear to be small, but it feeds the multitude who find nourishment there.
I invite you to be like that third servant. Bury your talent. Do not squander your skills, your money, your time, your passion, in an unjust, egoic-based system. Bury what you have and nurture it, so it will grow deep roots of Love, and when it blooms, many will be fed by the harvest of your spiritual strength and growth. This is the power of Love.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.