Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Parable of the Unscrupulous Master

We live in a world dominated by anxiety.  Now, I guess, more than at a lot of other times – every morning when I open my newspaper I can read pages and pages of articles about terrorism – our collective fear I think is fuelled not only by the ever-increasing violence that fills our TV screens – and to which maybe we even start to get a bit desensitised – what seems most frightening is the randomness, the existence of a shadowy enemy at the same time on the other side of the world and now apparently right at home in Australia, the incomprehensibility of what terrorists actually want – and even the way elected governments respond to the threat – all this I think is increasing the temperature of anxiety in our society.

But anxiety itself isn’t new.  Social scientists tell us that just living in a modern society produces a sort of background level of anxiety, just waiting to attach itself to some perceived threat.  The worst sort of vague anxiety is the sort that we attach to things we can’t do anything about, like crime rates or global warming.  A generation ago, teenage kids grew up feeling a huge level of anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war.  At the same time we were hearing vague threats about disappearing natural resources and environmental pollution.  Are we recycling properly – is that the right sort of plastic container for the recycle bin?  Young families have huge anxiety about rising housing prices, interest rates, unemployment – am I keeping up with the Joneses?  The list goes on but it comes down to this – am I going to be alright?  In a society that teaches us to be self-centred, anxiety is the natural downside.

The really strange thing is, there can be anxiety as well about the one thing that we really should have no anxiety about at all.  Am I saved?  What happens to me when I die?  Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’?  This week, and next week, as we come to the end of the church year, our readings from the Bible invite us to think about what Christians have called the Second Coming.  In some Christian churches you can hear in great detail how this is going to happen, and for my money some of these versions are very frightening indeed.  I think when St Paul writes about it, he doesn’t intend it to be scary, but he does think it’s going to happen any day now, and he tells the church at Thessalonica to get ready.  St Paul gets that one wrong.  Jesus didn’t come back in his lifetime, and so far, two thousand years later, still no sign - though there’s certainly a thriving business in speculating about it.  Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t believe that the God who created the world is also going to act to bring all things to their conclusion – and every week we recite the Apostles’ Creed in which we affirm our expectation that Jesus indeed will return to call all things in creation to account – but the only encounter with Jesus that every one of us knows for certain that we’re going to have is the one that comes at the end of our own lives.

In our gospel reading we heard the very familiar story from Matthew’s gospel of the three servants who are given large sums of money to look after while their master goes on holidays.  Older translations of the Bible use the word ‘talent’ which in the original Greek means a large weight of silver or some precious metal – and that’s always given this story a certain ambiguity because where in the original it’s about enormous, lottery-sized sums of money, in the English version it sounds as though it’s about abilities, the talent for playing music or writing poems.  And preachers get something useful out of that – the message becomes something like ‘don’t waste your God-given abilities’ – even if you think you only have one or two talents, God intends you to use what you’ve got.  And that’s an OK message, but it overlooks the main point, which is that Jesus is talking about our accountability before God at the end of all things – and in the story what the servants are entrusted with is not the ability to crochet or talk in foreign languages – but huge, over-the-top amounts of money.  And this story follows another well-known story, the one about the girls who miss the party because they run out of oil.  So the first story tells us that we have to be alert and we have to be ready, and today’s story tells us we are accountable for what we’ve done.  Taken at face value this story says something like, ‘don’t play it safe’ – the Kingdom of God springs up within us and around us when we are prepared to recognise the gifts of the Spirit within us and take a risk.  I think that’s one level of meaning in the story, and the fact that the sums of money are so huge – in one commentary it is estimated that a talent might be worth up to half a million in today’s terms – so that begs the question, doesn’t it – what have we as disciples been given that is that valuable?  If we’re not talking about crocheting, and we’re not talking literally about how much we’ve got in the bank – then what is Jesus saying is this wealth that we have been entrusted with?  And when you say it like that I think the answer pops out by itself – the treasure that we have as disciples is the gospel itself – it is the good news of Jesus Christ, and it is the indwelling inspiration and the creative power of the Holy Spirit.  As disciples we should be busting with it, we should be splashing it around like a high-roller down at the casino, the last thing we should be doing with it is putting it away for safe keeping.  As disciples we need to really get in touch with the treasure that we have been given – to attend to the Spirit within us, to drink deeply at the well of Christian spirituality, to learn how to pray and to meditate on the scriptures – to be so soaked in the Holy Spirit that we couldn’t dig a hole and bury it if we wanted to.  Like all of Jesus’ stories, this one uses wild exaggeration to make the point – discipleship means taking the risk of living and loving joyfully.

But there’s a problem, and I think this problem has got something to do with the anxiety I have been talking about.  Because in the ancient world there was really only one way to double your money, if you were a landowner, and that was to turn the screws a bit harder on the peasant farmers that worked your land.  The only way the first two slaves can meet their master’s demands for a huge profit and keep in sweet themselves is by creating a bit more misery and hardship down the line – but the third slave – who refuses to take that option – simply gives the master back what belongs to him.  The third slave who knows very well what his master is like is thrown out to join the peasant farmers he has refused to exploit – but is the master really supposed to be an image of the loving, generous and forgiving God that Jesus has been telling us about?  If our image of God is anything like this nasty character, no wonder we’d be anxious!  Have we done enough – could we ever do enough - to please him?

But like all Jesus’ stories – none of which we should take literally! – this one can mean different things depending on which way around we turn it.  I think the clue might be right in front of us if we just read the very next thing that Jesus says, the gospel reading in fact for next week – ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ – Jesus is actually identifying himself with the ones who live ‘in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ – and when we do find ourselves pushed out because of our love for the gospel, then we discover that Jesus is there ahead of us.  If we dare to look at the story this way around – maybe - it is the third slave who represents Jesus himself – rejected and discarded because he refuses to accept the logic of worldly power.  If this story is about accountability – and no doubt it is - then maybe it’s about our being accountable for whether we have dared to resist the false and anxiety-producing logic of the world we live in.  Looking at it this way around, Jesus says to us ‘don’t be afraid, for it is my Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Wherever you end up for my sake, I will be there ahead of you’.