They say confession is good for the soul so I want to own up to an occasion when I got myself into trouble in the pulpit. There have probably been others and perhaps there should have been others. As I get older I’m getting more cautious and perhaps people are kinder than they should be.
It concerned our parable for today-the parable of the three servants or the talents. I read the passage and thought about it. I also thought about the circumstances in which I might have heard it before –the school assembly for instance. The stern faced Headmaster addresses the school:
“We are each given some talents. They might not necessarily be in school classroom subjects; they might be in sports or in the pursuit of a hobby to a very high standard, it might be in the ability to help other people or in something else like picking up litter, but whatever it is we have at least one talent. We must use our talent well. Hiding it is no us because with talents what you don’t use you lose. So even if you’ve only got one talent use it wisely. And if you don’t watch out.”
I expect you’ve been there. You may even have given a morally uplifting talk along these lines. I have tried it but I’m not very good at it-being earnest is not my natural game. I tend to get the giggles half way through. More seriously I simply cannot identify the master in the parable with God or with Christ. The God I believe in is a gracious God, eternally happy and joyful always there to welcome home his wayward children. That’s the God I read about in the New Testament. I just can’t read the parable in a way that portrays God as hard hearted, demanding and always ready to hand out punishment. To be honest I still think I’m right about this.
However I now have a problem. How am I going to explain the harsh judgement handed down and the condemnation visited upon the third servant? My solution was to present the parable as a kind of commentary on the economics of 1st century Palestine- a time of oppression and exploitation. The parables of Jesus very often form a kind of commentary on the world of landlords and labourers, tenants, taxpayers and share croppers. The third servant is a kind of whistle blower- a conscientious non-participant in a rotten system – a hero of the fair trade movement. He suffers in a good cause. Those who follow the way of the way Kingdom should be prepared to suffer.
Nobody bought this. Some were quite offended. It shows the perils of being carried away by one exciting chapter in a book on the parables (reference supplied). What I had done was turn the liberating word of God into a topic of academic interest. That’s a mistake. More thought needed and some more study too.
I think the key to this parable lies in the relationship of each of the servants to his master. How much faith did each servant actually have in the master? The first two servants were prepared to take a chance, to be risk takers-real venture capitalists. None of them lost any money but the one servant who exercised total and absolute prudence and acted so as to achieve complete security for the property entrusted to him stands condemned. He was fearful and faithless and paralysed by that fear and faithlessness. “I knew you to be a hard man. I was afraid. I hid your money in the ground.” The condemnation he incurred he brought on himself. The first two servants by contrast were emboldened to risk everything for one they trusted and knew to be gracious. So this is a call to be faithful, fearless and to enter into the joy of the master.
Christianity is a call to have faith in a gracious and loving God. It’s not an invitation to exercise prudence within the world as we know it but instead to step outside that world and into the Kingdom of God. It’s an entirely new way of being human-accessed by faith and marked by hope and love.
Another key to the parable could lie in the absence of the master. He’s going away and for a long time. How bold will the servants be when the master is not looking over their shoulders? Do they still have sufficient trust and faith to live boldly when the master is absent and may not return for many years, if ever?
You and I are living in a time when the Christian religion has lost its social power? Once it was different and some of us can remember when it was different. The master seems to have gone away on a long journey and we are not sure when he will return if ever. How bold are we able to be? How uncompromising are we prepared to be or do we think that the body of Christ ought to enter into an accommodation with its enemies. Don’t be misled; we do have enemies!
The author of a book I was reading about this described how he teaches short courses at the Lutheran seminary in Riga-once part of the Soviet Union. He observed the interviews for new students seeking admission. For the interviewing panel the most important question is “When were you baptized?” He wondered why. They told him. If they were baptized during the Soviet period they risked heir lives and compromised their futures by being baptized. But if they were baptized after the period of Soviet rule we have many more questions to ask as to why they want to become pastors. As Christians we must learn to live boldly using the resources he gives us confident that the future will be his future. Confident that the master will return.
And the master will return and in judgement! He will call his servants to account. We received gifts-faith, hope and love. What did we make of those gifts? Did we hide them away or use them as occasions to offer ourselves a spiritual comfort blanket. Some received a little others received a lot-we all know that from experience. But were we prepared to take a risk make a venture in the life of faith. I know from experience that the best things in my life arose from occasions when I took a risk-I became a preacher, I married this woman. I befriended this stranger and allowed myself to befriended in turn. We must learn to embrace risk for that is at the heart of the life of faith. Prudence may well be a virtue in ordinary circumstances but an encounter with the gospel of Jesus represents for us an extraordinary circumstance. You will not be surprised to learn from the above that having such an approach I am not often put on Methodist Committees or any other committee.
The well-known Catholic scholar and critic Terry Eagleton once wrote if you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do. That’s a great line and a rebuke to those who think that a soft liberal humanism with a few rousing hymns will keep the church afloat. We must not hide our gifts away we must not be afraid of taking risks in the life of faith. Jesus said follow me. That’s very risky! Look what happened to him but surely much better than allowing ourselves to be cast into the outer darkness.