Readings: Matthew 25. 14-30; 1 Thessalonians 5. 1-11; Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18.
To be Christians is to rediscover ourselves, our priorities, our thoughts, our actions, our neighbours, the world and God – and to do so through the company of Jesus. When we come to worship and pray, we use words, songs, stories, images and rituals to discern how and where God is with us, in Christ. But unless we are simply addressing ourselves or projecting our wishes onto the divine, we will also recognise that there are ways in which God is not with us. We will need to open ourselves to questioning, scrutiny, correction, painful refining and radical reorientation by a love whose capacity goes far beyond what we can achieve, personally and publicly, through our own efforts.
In this way, we find ourselves being “open to judgement”. In both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, divine judgement is the flip side of divine promise. To be renewed and reconstituted in the image of God is to undergo, says the Epistle to the Hebrews, a ‘shaking process’ (12. 27-28). Only that which echoes the new life God is bringing about can survive. Everything that destroys life will itself face destruction.
Even in these redemptive terms, being called to account by God’s purposive love is no cosy, easy-going affair. It can be tough and terrifying. It is also liable to the most appalling misappropriation by those who arrogate to themselves the position of being final arbiters of right and wrong, life and death. You only have to peer into history to see that: whether it is the example of religious persecution throughout the ages, an all-encompassing anti-religious tyranny like Stalin’s, or more modern examples we could attempt to name and discuss.
In our present age, though frivolous judgementalism is everywhere (have a look at the Sunday tabloids!), many people are very nervous about “passing judgement” in a more substantial sense, and not without reason. “Judge not, that you be not judged”, says Jesus (Matthew 7.1). God alone, being perfectly good, is able to judge. But that truth is only any use if there are communities willing to be open to God’s judgement, recognising it to be about liberating (though painful) change, not overbearing vindictiveness.
Which is where today’s lectionary readings come in. They are very far from easy. Indeed, understood superficially, they could easily be grist to the mill of those who see the Bible as a “book of horrors” (Barbara Smoker) rather than a book of life. As Chris Rowland points out (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8020) William Blake’s witty aphorism in The Everlasting Gospel, “Both read the Bible day and night / But thou readst black where I read white”, is a vital warning to us as we embark on any discussion of ‘what the Bible says’ about a given subject – not least judgement. Blake believed passionately that the heart of Christianity lay in forgiveness of sins and a firm repudiation of what he termed “religion hid in war”. For that reason he recognised how easily those with a different agenda could manipulate the biblical text and how important it is to thwart them.
Take Jesus’ so-called “parable of the talents” (Matthew 25. 14-30). According to some interpreters, its message is obvious. God rewards the smart and diligent and punishes the feckless and hopeless. By implication, say “prosperity gospellers” in the USA, Africa and nearer to home, if you are successful it is because God has blessed you, and if you are not it is because you are faithless. What could be simpler… and more wrong? Here is a human standard of judgment assuming and usurping the divine.
The assumption we make is that the master in the parable is God, who wants people to go out and double their money. But as biblical scholar Walter Wink suggests, this goes against the social conventions of the time, against the prohibition on usury, against the narrative drift of Matthew chapter 25, and against the clear message of the gospels concerning the kind of merciful God who is disclosed in and by Jesus. Like the famous story of the wily steward, who cheats an unjust economic system in order to save the skins of his servants and earn their loyalty in tough times (Luke 16. 1-9), the parable of the talents is actually subversive of our conventional assumptions about how right and good asserts itself in a wicked world.
Wink and Ched Myers point out that in first century Jewish culture, headlong individual pursuit of riches – especially at the expense of other members of the community – was looked on as a breach of communal and religious loyalty. Families fell into debt and poverty because of the usurious interest rates charged by the wealthy. Jesus’ listeners, who would have suffered such indignities, would have known all too well that the only way for the characters in the story to build their asset base over a period of time would be through fraud, money-lending at exorbitant rates, or sidebar expropriation through tax collecting (skimming off an additional levy). For the villain to represent God wouldn’t have made any sense to them at all.
In the story the first two servants do as they are told, but the third is effectively a conscientious objector. By refusing to participate in the ripping-off of his fellow servants, he indicts an unjust economic order that causes poverty and misery. But when you stand up in this way, the parable says, you often end up as an outcast, while people willing to cheat the vulnerable get all the rewards. There is an inbuilt asymmetry to the way the money system works when Mammon, who is the real master in this parable, rules.
In order to make the point unavoidable, Matthew introduces this grim story with another one, where a bunch of foolish wedding guests miss the bridegroom because they are out in the marketplace trading for lamp oil (having assumed they could cadge the precious commodity off other guests with few equally resources). But the clincher is the parable of the last judgement, which follows the story of the greedy dealer – as it might better be known – and effects a terrifying reversal. It is the poor, who have few resources but understand human solidarity, who know Christ and his companionship. Those who care nothing for the needy, religious and successful though they may have been, find themselves without fellowship and without light in the Feast of the Kingdom, which of course is an echo back to that wedding reception. The selfishly self-sufficient have created hell and they now have to live in what they have created, and what they have therefore been abandoned to.
The dynamic of this message continues into Matthew chapter 26, where Jesus gives eternal recognition to a marginal woman who anoints him with oil she cannot really afford, while Judas goes on to betray him for some silver (the ultimate short-selling). In the meantime, Jesus reminds his followers of a famous Hebrew Scripture that says the poor will remain persistently with you – but which goes on to say, as his hearers would have known (but which we often don’t notice), that this will only be the case so long as the time of Sabbath restoration and economic redistribution, does not occur. If and when it does, all will be able to join the Feast (Deuteronomy 15).
This then, is the message and invitation of the kingdom of God. It is a divine promise of gift and abundance in an economy of grace, not one of selfish interest. But it demands that we let go of greed and self-advancement in order to share a gift which is for all, not just for a few who think they are chosen because they hold the purse strings or the keys to the Temple. My guess is that if, like me, you learned these parables as a child in Sunday School, this wasn’t quite what you were taught from them. I was taught to use my pocket money wisely and give to those in need, but only if they showed they were really ‘deserving’ – according to people like me. Our tendency is to read into the text that which affirms us and our social assumptions, and equally to read out of it that which puts us on the right side of judgement.
The fiery 7th Century BCE Hebrew prophet Zephaniah, for one, would have none of this. He lambasted the violent and unjust reign of Mannesah and his royal kingdom (1.7, 12-18), and along with Jeremiah predicted doom if there was not radical reform. If the book that bears his name was finalised at a much later date, as seems possible, then its main theme is that the captivity of Judah in Babylon was the outcome of the failure of a holy nation to live according to its calling.
For the author of the first epistle to the Thessalonians (5. 1-11), it is the Christian community that is the ‘holy nation’, and its duty is to behave in accordance with the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of this world. This is especially so at a time when global turmoil is shaking the foundations around it, and when ‘the end of the age’ was expected, as for the writer of Matthew’s Gospel quite possibly. In a time of urgency and expectation, being clear about who we are, whose we are and how we are called to act are especially vivid questions. One does not need to indulge in apocalyptic speculation, which has been the undoing of many of our forbears, in order to get this point. The armour we need, says the Epistle, is not of the military kind. It is of the spiritual type that flows from acting justly, and from recognising that vindication (the outcome of judgement) is, to adapt the words of Zechariah 4.16, something established by divine gentleness not earthy power.
Meanwhile, turning back to those talents, we might conclude by asking, in the current economic climate, what the “trustworthy” servant might be doing if he was around today? Brokering sub-prime mortgages at obscene rates of interest and assuring borrowers that they will be able to refinance or sell in a year or two, perhaps? Pushing credit card offers to people who have just emerged from bankruptcy? Figuring out how to lay off loyal company veterans before they qualify for their pensions? All of this is “business as usual”, and it has got us into a fine mess.
On the other hand, like the Church Commissioners, maybe that clever bonded servant would have invested in minerals without asking too much questions about ethics, short-sold his own currency to guard against rises in other ones, tried to profit from stock lending and traded in debts? After all, he has a tough master. But it isn’t the one Jesus calls ‘Abba’, and it isn’t the one who calls us to make important decisions about our assets, our buildings and our future as Christian communities that seek to live hopefully under God’s judgement in the heart of the modern city.
This is a sermon given on Sunday 16 November 2008 at St Stephen's Church in the Central Parish of Exeter - http://www.stephenproject.org.uk/
See also Walter Wink's trilogy on 'the Powers', William Hertzog's book Parables as subversive speech, and Sallie TeSelle McFague's classic Speaking in parables. On Babylon, the British Museum has a superb exhibition exploring what we know and what we impute to the ancient city. It runs through to March 2009.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard.