I’ve heard it said that the Church of the early 16th century – the Church that in a few years was going to be torn apart by the Protestant reformations – that as the new century dawned the Church was essentially a cult of the living in the service of the dead. Saying mass for the souls of the dead was big business, in fact, literally business, because the economy of the Church also depended on the big sums of money that changed hands in exchange for a certain number of Masses to be said for the soul of a loved one. The idea, more or less, was that each time somebody had Mass said for them that was a little bit of credit to their account, a little bit to balance out the difference between the bad they had done and the good they had done in their lives, a few years off Purgatory. It was a cult of high anxiety that is maybe hard for us to fully comprehend - the next world loomed every bit as tangible but at the same time just as precarious as this world – to be fair, Europe had just emerged from a most horrible couple of centuries, beginning with the Black Death in the early 14th century, wars with a resurgent Islam to the East and the Inquisition. For the illiterate and poor majority, it seemed, life was a short and desperate struggle to accumulate enough brownie points with God to see you safe after you died.
It was in this topsy-turvy world that a monk named Martin Luther had one of the revelations that happens every few centuries and turns the Church on its head. You might think we’re about due for another one in our own, also fairly frightful, century. But Luther, a diligent and ascetic monk who worried even more than everyone else whether he was going upstairs or downstairs, had a sudden flash of inspiration from reading and re-reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans. It isn’t about what you do, he realised. It isn’t works that put you right with God. It’s faith. You can’t earn your way to heaven.
Actually, it was a back to basics message that millions, ever since, have found reassuring. A focus on scripture. A focus on God’s grace, totally gratuitous, totally unearned. At its very heart, the message of Martin Luther was simplicity itself. Don’t worry. God’s got you covered.
Unfortunately it wasn’t very long, in the overall scheme of things, before Protestantism began to develop some performance anxiety of its own. If it’s all about faith – how can I be sure I’ve got enough? It seems like it’s human nature to worry. It’s human nature, perhaps, to be anxious about what’s going to happen to us when we finally meet Jesus face to face. And so the rumours that began to trickle in last week get a bit louder. He’s coming back! No, really, says St Paul in the early, alarmist version of his gospel in the first letter to the Thessalonian Church. Any day now. Don’t let him catch you napping. And you know he knows who’s been naughty and nice.
Well, St Paul was a little bit out on his timing and Jesus’ return performance. We’re still waiting, and the Bible still keep reminding us we need to be just a bit more worried about what we’ve been up to while he’s been gone.
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, last week’s story about the girls who miss the party because they run out of oil. So if the first story tells us to say alert, and today’s story tells us we are accountable for what we’ve done. Alert and alarmed! Taken at face value this story says something like, ‘don’t get caught out playing it safe – the stakes are too high’. Well, 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 so 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 then 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 hoarding it away for safe keeping. Like all of Jesus’ stories, this one uses wild exaggeration to make the point – discipleship doesn’t mean living defensively and hoarding away spiritual brownie points, it 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. It’s not so very different today except we call it short-selling. The only way the first two slaves can meet their master’s demands for a huge profit and make a bit extra for 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 ruthless master in this story 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?
And the problem I think is that many of us do have an image of God that’s like this character. A punishing image of God, an image of a God who’s just waiting for us to put a foot wrong and then – wham! In fact for many Christians God is a schizoid sort of character, one minute behaving like a jovial Father Christmas, whose sole purpose seems to be to give us whatever we ask for, and the next minute turning nasty, punishing us for some cosmic infringement we didn’t even know we had committed. No wonder Christians are caricatured as anxious and guilty.
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’ – we already know, don’t we, that in the way he lives Jesus identifies himself not with the profiteers but with the ones who live ‘in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ – and when we do find ourselves excluded or 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, then 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, self-serving 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’.