The Priory Church, Bolton Abbey

The Rector: Reframing history

19 November 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Second Sunday before Advent
Canon Simon Cowling
Zechariah 1. 7, 12-18; Matthew 25. 14 -30

You fell victims in the deadly struggle
of unselfish love towards your people.
You gave whatever you had for it
for life, for honour, for freedom.

Anniversaries seem to be little more than marketing opportunities these days. It is almost beyond irony that not even the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution has escaped this phenomenon of our times: the interest shown in the events of October 1917 by radio, television, publishing houses, museums, and art galleries testifies to the fact that Communism is big business.

The rapid descent of the Soviet Union into tyranny and oppression in the nineteen-twenties, along with the inevitable costume-drama nostalgia for the ancien regime of the Tsars, can all too easily blind us both to the repressive nature of Tsarist Russia, and the idealism that fired the Bolsheviks. The words I began with are from a nineteenth century revolutionary song which saw the Russian struggle against tyranny to be a type of martyrdom. It was Lenin’s favourite song: he and the rest of the Bolsheviks understood their cause to be one that would herald the dawn of a new age.

The prophet Zephaniah, some of whose words we have heard this morning, longed for revolution too. He was active just over six hundred years before Christ. His beloved city of Jerusalem had been under foreign domination and tyranny for many decades. Moral corruption was rife and the Jerusalem Temple had been defiled by foreign cults. In his own extended revolutionary song Zephaniah issues stern warnings about ‘the great day of the Lord’ that is imminent:

a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry.
 

A new king, Josiah, had just come to the throne. Though Josiah was still a boy, Zephaniah fervently believed that through him the years of corruption and defilement would eventually be swept away in this ‘great day of the Lord’. Zephaniah understood the reign of Josiah to herald the dawn of a new age.

Fast forward over six centuries to the same city, Jerusalem. Along with the rest of what had once been the kingdom of Israel, Jerusalem is under foreign domination. The Jewish people are longing for a Messiah, for God’s anointed one, to free them from the oppression of Rome; longing for one whose coming would herald the dawn of a new age. A young preacher and teacher from Galilee arrives in Jerusalem. Expectations about him have risen to fever pitch, even to the extent of a belief that he might be the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the successor to the great king David. When he had arrived in Jerusalem he had been greeted with an ancient Jewish song of praise that might well have been considered revolutionary by the Roman occupiers. They were always on the lookout for threats to their authority:

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
’    

Jesus spends the next few days teaching in and around the Temple. The parable of the talents that we have heard in today’s Gospel reading forms part of this teaching.

In the Talmud, the great commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, the rabbis are quite clear in their advice to subordinates who are entrusted with money by a superior: ‘Take no risks.  Bury the cash in the ground.’ This is exactly what the third slave in the parable of the talents does, thereby ensuring that his master does not lose anything. It is an entirely sensible course of action, especially given what the slave knows about his master – that he is a harsh man, reaping where (he does) not sow and gathering where (he does) not scatter seed. By contrast, the actions of the other two slaves could be seen as risky, even irresponsible. We are so used to hearing about the success they enjoyed, about the joy of their master into which they were invited, that we rarely stop to think that it might have ended differently if their investments had not paid off.

The parable of the talents should be set alongside the rest of Jesus’s teaching in Jerusalem in these last days of his life. There is an urgency, almost a recklessness, about this teaching. He begins to provoke the religious establishment, calling them hypocrites, snakes, lawless, whitewashed tombs. Taken cumulatively, his words and actions impart the flavour of some of the Old Testament prophets like Zephaniah: a flavour of judgement, even of threat. Like the Bolsheviks, like Zephaniah, Jesus is reframing history. I do not think we will begin to understand the parable of the talents unless we set it in this context, the context of a world on the cusp of change.

Taken in isolation the parable of the talents might plausibly, if rather anachronistically, be interpreted as a worldly endorsement of capitalism, enterprise or self-improvement as against mere idleness. Some have famously interpreted it this way. Risk brings material reward, as it were. The difficulty with such interpretations is that Jesus is not offering this parable in the context of a world that is stable and in which there is any guarantee of time to enjoy the rewards of enterprise. Change is in the air, Jesus is reframing history, nothing will stay as it has been. So the key to understanding the parable of the talents, I think, lies in the parable that follows this one – the parable of the sheep and the goats that we will hear next week.  In that parable we will hear Jesus telling his disciples that those who are to inherit the kingdom of heaven will be those who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick. These acts of mercy will be the tangible outcomes of sharing the talents, of risking the wealth that the master entrusts to his slaves; that God entrusts to his children. This is the wealth of compassion, loving-kindness, and generosity. Sharing is always risky. But because this is wealth that comes as gift from a God who is in himself compassion, generosity, and loving-kindness we can be sure that this risk is worth taking. Those who do not share God’s wealth, who bury it in the ground as it were, will be condemned not only for idleness but, more significantly, for unresponsiveness; for failing to recognise and act upon the signs of God’s dawning new age – an age that begins not in the easy certainties of political revolution or religious reform but in the willingness to face the death that will lead to the joy of resurrection and to new, abundant life.