A restless hope…

This week’s lectionary blog looks at both Matthew 25.14-30 (the Parable of the Talents) and the selected lectionary psalm, Psalm 90, for this coming Sunday, 15 November.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

‘Catching fire’, autumnal colours in my garden

Talents
We need to catch fire
before we are gone
that is the message
of the parable of the talents;
we have lumbered long enough
now to slough off the sleep
to take a kingfisher swoop
let God’s light illuminate us
hold us for an instant
us in the twinkling of his eye
that will be enough,
enough… (Anon)

I would be very grateful if anyone knows who wrote the above poem, so that I can credit them correctly.

I don’t know about you, but I have always found the Parable of the Talents, especially as it is set out in the Gospel of Matthew, one of the parts of the New Testament that I dislike the most.

In truth I think I always have, for as long as I can remember. When I first heard it as a child it seemed so basically unfair. Quite apart from the master’s eventual revenge, there was the question as to why the different slaves were given such different amount of ‘talents’ to start with.

There is no doubt of course that the parable has been influential, at least in western Christian history. That is shown not least by the way that the ‘talent’, the unit of weight or money that the story revolves around, has been used, since the 13th century,  to describe someone who is ‘talented’ –  people such as in the case of the parable those two slaves who used their skills with apparent great success. It is worth pointing out of course that what the slaves had been entrusted with was no small piddling amount. One solitary talent was apparently worth more than 15 years of wages for a labourer.

I think that the parable has played an ambiguous role in Protestant history. On the one hand it seems to be the antithesis of the Reformation Protestant vision that prioritised ‘faith’ over against ‘works’. For it would seem that the eventual fate of the slaves is determined primarily by their success in ‘works’. On the other hand it feels to be a biblical exposition of the so-called ‘Protestant work ethic.’

I did in fact wonder about concentrating this week on one of the other lectionary passages. But it felt that would be a bit of a ‘cop out’. So, although I will eventually draw attention to the selected Psalm for this week – Psalm 90, which is genuinely one of the most important psalms in the whole Psalter – I will initially explore some ways of looking at Matthew 25.14-30.

I am glad to say that I am clearly not the only Christian biblical scholar or teacher who finds this parable problematic. e.g.

  • If the parable of the talents is not ironical, then the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is about a strict system of earning rewards, and there’s not much room for grace or forgiveness or mercy.  (Alan Brehm)
  • Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount instructs us to not return violence for violence; instead we should be like God, who offers boundless, gratuitous love to all. But in the same Gospel Jesus tells eight parables in which God deals violently with evildoers. Which of the divine ways are we to imitate? (Barbara E. Reid OP)
  • This parable scares me more than all the other parables and Biblical admonitions put together. It makes me curl into a ball on the couch with a blanket over my head. (Suzanne Guthrie)

One way forward for interpreting the parable that has become quite popular in recent years has been to suggest that the parable might be being deliberately subversive of the political and social realities of Jesus’ day, in which the oppression of the Roman Empire loomed large.  This often involves suggesting that we should not identify God with the ‘master’ of the story, but rather instead with the ‘worthless servant’. So:

  •  It is a descriptive parable of someone who refused to participate in that process, in a situation where absentee landowners and their lackeys were the primary interface between Jewish peasantry and the Roman Empire. That servant—deemed ‘lazy’ and unfaithful by the Empire—pays an awful price for refusing to play along. (Mark Davis)
  • The Master is one of the Robber Barons of an economic system which places 50% of the world’s wealth in the hands of 1% of the world’s population. Read Jesus as the servant who was of no use to this Master, the one who exposes the master’s ethics who gathers where he does not sow, (sounds like thievery to me). Matthew places this text on the eve of Holy Week, when Jesus will indeed be found to useless to Empire and will be thrown out of the city and wail while he is crucified. Jesus, our rather useless servant, does not cooperate with the economic system dictated to him. He is not afraid to speak truth to power. (Peter Cruchley)

However, though I might personally appreciate that interpretation, if I am honest, I don’t think this way of looking at the story was the original understanding of the author of the Gospel of Matthew.

Perhaps it is the current context in which we are living, in these virus days, but I have become more aware of the importance of ‘hope’ as a vital theological theme. It is interesting how frequently the word appears in Paul’s letters, and how central a motif it is for him. Jurgen Moltmann’s breakthrough book, written in the 1960s and influential ever since, offers a Theology of Hope.

Indeed was the tragedy that the third slave had given up on ‘hope’ – and that his sense of hopelessness dominated his life and dictated his dealings? As Moltmann put it, ‘Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God.’  Two comments on the parable from this perspective:

‘Hope’ window at Holy Trinity Geneva
  • The tragedy is that many people are afraid of losing or endangering God and so seek to protect God from adventures, to resist attempts at radical inclusion that might, they fear, compromise God’s purity and holiness. Protecting God is a variant of not trusting God. (William Loader)
  • [Take account of] the high risk activity of the first two servants. They doubled the money entrusted to them, hardly a possibility without running the risk of losing the original investment… The major themes of the Christian faith – caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving, hoping – cannot be understood or lived without risk. (Fred Craddock)

It has been a strange, and momentous, week on the world stage. But hope – or the lack of it – feels like an undercurrent running through what has happened:

  • The elections in the USA, and the hope for change in the future felt not only by a majority of American voters, but also, significantly, by many in other parts of the world
  • The elation at the news that a vaccine for COVID may soon become widely available and the hopes placed in this.

I love the phrase ‘a restless hope’ which I have used as the title for this week’s blog. It is actually drawn from a Prayer Handbook of the United Reformed Church, produced in the 1990s. It sums up for me the way that I believe that our Christian faith calls us to both ‘hope’ and ‘restlessness’ in relation to the world in which we have been set.

And there are also two other expressions of hope that I also want to recall, even if on a very different scale. Strangely they are linked to the deaths of two people during the last few days. One was internationally well known – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – the other, less so – Professor Ataullah Siddiqui, who was nevertheless appreciated by many (including myself) for his deep commitment to interreligious engagement and desire to train Muslim leaders who could engage with British culture. One was a Jewish religious leader, the other a Muslim. One important thing they shared in common was a deep commitment to their respective faiths playing constructive and important roles in secular British society. Through their lives, and their work, and their ‘talents’ (to use this week’s loaded word) they managed to express hope. They are both a reminder that hope is stronger than death.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Archbishop Rowan Williams at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

For me, Psalm 90, the ‘set’ lectionary Psalm for this coming Sunday, expresses in its lines, such an understanding of hope.

It is one of the most important psalms in the entire psalter. Its importance is indicted by its location, at the beginning of Book Four of the Book of Psalms, and by the way that it is ascribed to Moses (it is the only psalm to be so). I don’t know the date that it was originally written, but I do think that its current placing within the Psalter is intended to allow it to speak as a word of hope in difficult times for the people of the Old Testament. It is no accident that it comes directly after Psalm 89 – the latter half of which seems to bemoan the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the exile of a significant group of the people in Babylon. (See e.g. Psalm 89.38-51). Psalm 89 throws questions and challenges at God, and finally seems to sink into hopelessness.

Psalm 90 is the response. It starts from the premise of the majesty and eternity of God, with which it then contrasts the frailty and transience of humanity, For its first 10 verses it may also  seem almost ‘hopeless’, especially given God’s apparent anger with humanity. But then in verse 11 the mood changes as God is directly addressed with his personal name, normally translated into English as LORD. God’s compassion and lovingkindness become the ground of hope. Not to enable human beings to ‘become like gods’, and live for ever. However God’s graciousness to human beings will give meaning to their lives, finite though they may be. Indeed the fact that they are finite, in the eyes of the psalmist, reinforces that meaning. For it is when we are required to ‘count our days’, that we may ‘gain a wise heart’(verse 12). That is the Psalmist’s message of hope, initially to the Babylonian exiles, yet also to us today. 

Psalm 90, either as a psalm or in its metrical version ‘O God our help in ages past’, is regularly used at funerals and gatherings for individual and communal memorial. It ‘is not a prayer for fame or greatness, not a prayer that we may see the fulfilment, the consequence, the outcome of our work, but that it may be established, that is, that God may bring whatever work we do into being and give it enduring value. We may or may not see the shape and outcome of our work, but we may ask God to bring it to fruition and so place the work of our hands’ in God’s hands.’ (Patrick D. Miller, ‘Interpreting the Psalms’)

Through their talents, their lives and their visions of hope both Jonathan Sacks and Ataullah Siddiqui prayed the song of Psalm 90.

Clare Amos

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