Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tuesday in Pentecost, Proper 10: Not exactly a final examination

Opening Sentence
The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. John 4:23

Commemoration: Bartolome de Las Casas and Bartolomeo de Olmedo
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, enkindle in your Church the never-failing gift of charity, that, following the example of your servants Bartolome de Las Casas and Bartolomeo de Olmedo, we may have grace to defend the children of the poor, and maintain the cause of those who have no helper; for the sake of him who gave his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 36, 39

Lessons: Joshua 2:15-24Romans 11:13-24Matthew 25:14-30

There is always a danger that people will regard Christianity, and for that matter Judaism, as a kind of heavenly examination system. God, so people think, has given us a syllabus to study, things to learn and do, rules to keep. One day he'll come and set the final examination, and see who passes and who fails. Maybe there will be specially good things in store for people who get specially good marks, and likewise specially bad things for people with bad marks. And at first sight a parable like this one simply reinforces that impression.

But of course the whole of Jesus' ministry should make us protest against such a view of Christianity, of the gospel, of God himself. Jesus declared that he had come to call, not the righteous, but sinners. He had come, he said, to seek and to save the lost. He warned the scribes and Pharisees that the tax-collectors and prostitutes--who would have failed any examination that the Judaism of their day would have set!--would be going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of them. And he spent what in Matthew is an entire chapter (23) telling the self-appointed leaders of the Jewish people how dangerous it was simply to think of things in terms of all the rules they had to try to keep.

So what is this parable about?

The normal way of taking it is to suggest that Jesus is preparing the disciples for quite a long period during which he will not be present, and will have left them tasks to be getting on with. On his return they will be judged according to how they have performed. That, of course, can easily collapse into the 'examination-system' understanding of Christianity once more. It doesn't have to, but it easily could.

But the real problem with it is that a story about a master and slaves, in which the master goes away leaving the slaves tasks to perform and then comes back at last, would certainly be understood, in the Judaism of Jesus' day, as a story about God and Israel. This is certainly how Luke intends us to understand the very similar story in his gospel (19.11-27). And if, as I've suggested all along, both the Sermon on the Mount and this final great discourse in Matthew's gospel are to be seen first and foremost as Jesus' challenge to his own day and the days  immediately following, perhaps we should take this parable in the same way.

It then belongs closely with Matthew 23, where Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees. They, we may suggest, are represented by the wicked servant who hid his master's money. (A 'talent', by the way, was a unit of money, worth roughly what a labourer could earn in 15 years. Our modern word 'talent', in the sense of the gifts or skills that an individual possesses, is derived from this, precisely because of this parable.) In what sense had they been given something that corresponds to the gift of the talent?

The scribes and the Pharisees had been given the law of Moses. They had been given the Temple, the sign of God's presence among them. They had been given wonderful promises about how God would bless not only Israel but, through Israel, the whole world. And they had buried them in the ground. They had turned the command to be the light of the world into an encouragement to keep the light for themselves (5.14-16). They had been worthless slaves. And now, when their master was at last coming back, he was going to call them to account. The threatened destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was to be seen as the master's punishment on the servant who had not done his will.

The emphasis of the parable falls, again and again, on this third slave, the one whose folly fails to respond to the master's generosity. Who then are the other two, those who respond appropriately to the master's trust?

They are, it seems, those who hear the call of Jesus and, on that basis, develop what Israel has already been given so that it now becomes something new. They are like the mustard seed in 13.31-32, which starts small and then grows large. They are the signs that God's kingdom is starting to bud and blossom. And now, when Jesus has come to Jerusalem to force the final confrontation between God's kingdom and the system that had resisted and opposed it--then those who are loyal to him will be like those who have made wise use of the money that had been entrusted to them.

This setting means that any sense of a 'final examination' is placed within a larger context, in which the grace and love of God are overflowing at every point. Yes, God does indeed long for people to use wisely the gifts they have been given. Yes, God did indeed come, in the person of Emmanuel, Jesus the Messiah, to find out who within his chosen people had used profitably the blessings he had showered upon them. And, yes, one we have said this we can  perfectly reasonably say, in line with the whole New Testament, that God will, still through the person of Jesus, sift and weigh everything that Christians do in the present life (see particularly 1 Corinthians 3.10-15; 2 Corinthians 5.10). All this is important and cannot be ignored.

But we must also, and always, insist that this parable and others like it do not give a complete picture of the creator God, the maker and lover of the world, the God who sent Jesus as the personal expression of his love. Remember where this parable occurs. It comes near the end of a story which is about to reach its great climax; and that climax comes when the son of man 'gives his life as a ransom for many' (20.28). When Jesus speaks of someone being thrown into the darkness outside, where people weep and grind their teeth, we must never forget that he was himself on the way into the darkness, where even he would sense himself abandoned by God (27.45-46).

N.T. Wright