Sunday, 16 November 2014

The parable about talents may not be about 'talents....'

Second Sunday before Advent

Matthew 25:14-30
'For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Here we're going to be thinking about the parable of the talents, a parable that is well known to many people.  We're going to allow ourselves to be honest with the Bible and not gloss over any issues. We're not going to be polite about what we read, but in our honesty we may find a deeper truth.  But first I wonder what we think the parable of the talents is all about? People usually assume that this is all about the end of the world when everyone will stand before God and there will be a final reckoning about whether we have done what is right with the gifts we have been given, or whether we have squandered our talents and not used them. Certainly that it one way of thinking about it. And I think it is quite possible that this was Matthew's intention because it is placed with other end of the world parables. But I think there are some problems with that, and if we allow ourselves permission to be uneasy with this parable then maybe there is a different and deeper truth to this.

You see we need to remember that parables may have been placed out of the context in which Jesus told them in order to highlight another point that the Gospel writer is trying to make. The Gospels are not necessarily told in a historical order. For example Matthew, Mark and Luke place the cleansing of the temple at the end of Jesus' ministry just before he's arrested.  John, however, puts it at the beginning to make a different point. So I think that Matthew might have done the same thing here because what Jesus appears to be teaching from our traditional interpretation doesn't make sense.

Let me ask you a question about the nature of God. When we think of God's characteristics, what do we normally assume they are? We say that God is loving an caring, slow to anger and quick to forgive. Yet what did the slave who buried his talent in the ground and covered it up say about his boss?  In my Bible it says this, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'  A harsh man who reaped what he didn't sow? Does that sound like Jesus, especially in the light of the parable of the sower where the farmer scatters seed absolutely all over the place?

And what do you make of the man's words about his punishment of the slave when he says, 'For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.' Does that sound like the Gospel message?

I think that what he has said is actually a rather good description of the economics both of his country then and most of the world today, which always favours the rich and leaves the poor with less and less. I don't think Jesus is telling a parable about using our talents; I think he's actually saying something quite different, and the reason I say that is because the harshness of the characters in the story simply do not add up to what we believe about God.  So the old interpretation, that this is all about what happens to people when they don't use their time and talents properly, is one we ought to ask questions of.

What, then, might it actually be about? What might this parable be saying if the one who buried his talent was actually the only good guy, and that the parable is making some kind of point about society and money?

Well here's my suggestion. I believe that this parable is about an evil slave-owning land owner. He's already so rich that he's got enough money to give to three slaves to go and play with to see if they can make some more money for him. Just to remind you some idea of how rich he is, one talent is the equivalent of six thousand days wages!  So one talent is probably more than half a million pounds. In other words he's just dished out several million! And that's just play money for the slaves to see what they can do with. If he's got this much money to throw around then it's no big deal if they don't make much from him; he wouldn't have given it to three mere slaves if he couldn't afford to do lose it. This is just a game to him.  Well two of the slaves play along. Who knows, they think to themselves, maybe if they can prove that they know how to play the system and make him some more money then he'll give them more responsibility. So they take the money they have and use it to make more money.

But the third slave is a righteous man. He refuses to be a part of an economic system that enslaves some and keeps the poor penniless for the sake of the rich. And so he takes the money and just buries it. He's not dishonest, he's just going to keep it safe.  He didn't even put it in the bank. Why? Well here's the clincher – usury, the making of money by charging interest, is forbidden for a Jew, so he wouldn't commit that sin. But the other two slaves had no problem with making loans with interest rates that payday loan companies would raise their eyebrows at, and enforce collection with threats and prison.

And so the rich man lost his temper with the honourable man and then said the words which challenge our economic system in ways that should make us all stop and think: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This is sadly the description of what so often happens to those at the bottom of the economic pile. They are labelled as scroungers when the reality is that they would rather work, but even what little they had has been taken from them.  I have friends who have been through this and others who are still there, when circumstances overtake them.  I'm told we are all no more than three steps from homelessness.

Far from being a parable about what we should do with the gifts we have, this parable is actually more likely to have originally been told by Jesus in a different context against the economics of creating wealth for the rich by exploiting the poor.  And so it challenges us to think about our attitudes to the poor in our society and whether we live in ways that make their opportunities better. It challenges us to think twice about the comments made in many of our papers about welfare cheats, building the impression that everyone who has to claim for welfare help is a scrounger when the reality is that most of them would rather work.

What then are our attitudes to the poor, and would we risk becoming poor and being cast out for choosing to live differently?
You might also like to be challenged by this report from the Guardian:

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday

Proverbs 21:1-8
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will.
All deeds are right in the sight of the doer,
but the Lord weighs the heart.
To do righteousness and justice
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
Haughty eyes and a proud heart—
the lamp of the wicked—are sin.
The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance,
but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.
The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapour and a snare of death.
The violence of the wicked will sweep them away,
because they refuse to do what is just.
The way of the guilty is crooked,
but the conduct of the pure is right.

Romans 12:17-13:5
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.

A Just War?
I always struggle with what to say at remembrance, and perhaps more this year than on any previous occasion because of the momentous nature of it being one hundred years since the worst war in the modern period. But it's not just about the first world war; it's about the second world war and the numerous other conflicts. And whilst we may have no doubts in our own minds that Great Britain had to fight in the world wars, and whilst we rightly gather to remember with gratitude those who laid down their lives for us and our nation's freedom, how do we feel about the other conflicts where the clarity of reason hasn't been so clear for us? Many people have doubts about Britain's involvement in other conflicts.  If we are going to engage with everyone's opinions, then as Christians it is our duty to understand something of why a nation like ours goes to war because the consequences will always be devastating.

So that's what we're thinking about here.  We back our soldiers to the hilt, supporting them and praying for them as they do one of the most difficult tasks that a country can ask of its people, but in the midst of the questions that many voice about going to war, what are we going to base our decisions on? How do we know when to fight and how to fight? I want to try and equip us with some biblically based ideas about war this morning. You see whilst our response in 1914 and 1939 to the threats posed then were necessary, even some who fought in those conflicts have raised questions about some of the decisions made regarding some of the ways in which the allies waged war. So the question I want to ask this morning is, 'How should we make the decision of when to go to war and how to wage war?'

After all we're only human. But is applying human standards to our decisions to fight sufficient? We have to ask whether the standards that we set are far too closely based on flawed human standards rather than on God's standards, because our standards might not be good enough. Let me give you an example, one that will be familiar to the experience of many of you, especially perhaps the men, in terms of how we wait before we respond.

I'm not a violent person. This hopefully doesn't come as a surprise. But I do have a slow burn temper. It takes a very long while to get going and I can take an awful lot being thrown at me, but eventually I react. I recall how as a teenager I was bullied by one particular individual. It went on a very long while, but eventually I lost my temper. He got bruised. The bullying stopped.

I don't think I'm unusual in this. I think most ordinary people would tell a similar story of retaliation in the face of extreme provocation. For the most part the average normal person gives up throwing temper tantrums if they don't get their own way by the time they've hit the age of five, yet somehow we keep some anger in reserve for when we are consistently wronged, or more importantly when someone who we love or feel responsible for is hurt by a third party. And it strikes me that it is precisely this reasonable human nature that is what lies behind what we call 'Just War theory'. But as Christians we should be obligated to ask ourselves if that is a sound moral basis and a high enough moral standard. Just War theory is essentially the yard stick that the government of a country like ours uses to tell it when to fight. In theory the idea of a just war should stop a nation like ours from becoming an aggressor.

Whether we're always correct in our actions is a matter for debate, but what should concern us more is whether the standards we set for choosing to go to war are high enough. The idea behind a Just War is the recognition that not to go to war, but to continually avoid it, may actually be a morally worse option than to engage in conflict; that although war is always, always, always a terrible option, sometimes the alternative, not going to war, is worse. If a nation has turned into a bully and will not respond to diplomacy, then there may well be no other actions that can be taken. But have our standards always been high enough?

The thirteenth century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, first outlined three criteria for a Just War. Firstly a Just War must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state, which is why we had the reading from Romans 13. The governmental authorities are there to act as God's authority. Secondly a Just War must be for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain, and thirdly the motive for going to war must be to bring back peace.

That second motive is the crucial one, because it is all about a 'Just' purpose. A Just War must be about Justice, and this all seems very reasonable, and something that we could agree with, I hope.
That is until we start to look at the word 'Justice' in the Bible and what it actually means, and this is where we have to raise questions about moral values because I want to suggest that this Biblical yardstick is different from the modern western human one. If we're going to use justice as our yardstick for entering conflict, then we'd better know what it is!

When it comes to justice in the Bible we find something rather surprising, which may challenge us to think about modifying our reasons for entering conflict. Two words from the bible stand out: 'Tsedaquah' and 'Dikaios' (spelt here phonetically). The first word is an Old Testament Hebrew word and the second is a New Testament Greek word, but they both mean the same thing, they both mean 'Justice'. But here's the surprising thing; they don't only mean justice. Despite being two very different languages, they also have a second word which they mean just as much. They both also mean 'Righteousness', the capability of living the right way. This means that for both the Jewish people before Jesus, and the church and much of the Greek-speaking world afterwards, Justice and Righteousness were the same thing.

And here, then, is the problem: Modern westerners tend to think of justice as being equated with fairness, and we tend to think of justice as meaning punishment for something wrong that has been perpetrated by one against another. But that is not the biblical understanding. Unfortunately, not recognising that and thinking of justice as punishment allows us to enter a 'Just' war to punish someone. In fact it says the same thing about any conflict, which is why what I'm saying here applies to all aspects of our lives. A battle between two people can begin because one has been unreasonable and the other wants to punish them. But in biblical terms justice is not linked with punishment, it is linked with righteousness, and that's what ought to inform our reasons for entering a battle of any kind. It also means that those of us who think justice is the same as fairness have an incomplete understanding. Justice is the same as righteousness, and that therefore means that justice is all about living according to the righteous standards of God, and so those standards are what we must apply when we think about entering into a conflict. Those are the standards that lie behind the idea of a Just War.

What then do we actually mean by justice and righteousness in God's understanding? I suggest that both mean to live life and make your decisions according to God's standards. It's exactly the same as when we say we do something in the name of Jesus. That means we are doing something in accordance with his will and his way of doing it. Justice and righteousness therefore mean we have to ask ourselves 'Is this action one that is consistent with living according to the moral obligations of saying that we follow Christ?' 
Now that is a far more difficult criteria to apply to conflict and a Just War simply because although the Bible makes it clear that ultimately there is going to be a reckoning between God and humanity, we also have to recognise that love, mercy and salvation are central to the nature of God. So if we are going to set the moral standard of a Just War as being living out the obligation of God's moral nature we also have to apply love, mercy and salvation. Those three mean that if we go to war, or if we enter into conflict, there must never, ever be such a thing as total war, and that war must cease as soon as the objectives have been met. I know of people who fought in the last world war who believe, for example, that the raid on Dresden by bomber command should never have happened. To that we might wish to add the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because all just war theories say that we should leave civilians out of the conflict. Raining down terror on a population is exactly what we criticise IS and other fundamentalist jihadist groups for. But that should raise questions for us about the methods that we and our allies eventually resorted to. Yes of course the terrorists are acting as aggressors and must be stopped, but it nevertheless forces us to ask whether the terror of carpet bombing or nuclear annihilation of civilian populations morally acceptable according to the standards of God? Is that righteous? You decide.

Yes those actions may well have brought the second world war to an earlier end, but were they morally justifiable? Were they righteous actions? You see why God's standards are so challenging. The biblical standard for a Just War is that it must also be a righteous war. Are we sure that all our actions always had God on our side? Or were there angels weeping in the firestorms? When we act, if we call ourselves Christians then we had better act in ways that are consistent with God's standards.

War brings the worst out of human nature. My grandfather would simply never talk about what he did and what he saw, and the longer we go at it the further we risk slipping away from justice and righteousness. The same applies to any conflict, even just between neighbours. If an aggressor continues for long enough, even the most just response will eventually slip towards retribution and punishment.

So what I want us to take away from this is not merely a commentary on the last two world wars. Just war theory, when we equate justice with the righteousness of God, has a direct bearing on how we live our lives when conflict takes place, because sadly, conflict is inevitable. It happens on the school playground and it happens in the boardroom and it happens between neighbours. At some point in time someone will pick on you because they think they can get away with it. How will you react? If it is to be a Godly response then that requires that you have sufficient experience of the nature of God to know how to respond. Otherwise all you will do will be a human response. As I did as a teenager, you will simply retaliate. That is not necessarily the wrong response, but it is also not necessarily the right one.

What I do know is that war as punishment is always going to be wrong, because we can never have high enough moral standards to think that we might be instruments of God's vengeance. I do believe in a final judgement, but what happens then is up to God. When we fight, I believe that it must always be to bring peace back as soon as is possible.

And so not just in the wars that we fight, and the people who we remember with gratitude who fought for us, but also in our day to day conflicts in ordinary life, let us remember that to God justice is the same as righteousness, and so may our just actions also be righteous ones.