Sunday 15 November 2020
Crisis as Crossroads
Context: Sunday Eucharist
Aim: to provoke an examination of our approach to discipleship through an exploration the parable of the talents, whose purpose is to inspire a radical generosity, illustrated perfectly in the Lord’s own passion, death, and resurrection
A crisis can be a crossroads. And so many of the Lord’s parables are aimed at provoking precisely this: a crisis that turns out to be a crossroads. Which is to say, a conversion. The parable we have just heard is a case in point. Significantly, in St Matthew’s gospel it is the very last one Jesus tells before his own passion. As we shall see, it illustrates exactly his own deliberate strategy in the face of that crisis.
Today’s parable compares two attitudes: caution and enterprise. It contrasts starkly two approaches to the treasure with which we’ve been entrusted: do we hide it away for safe keeping? Or risk trading with it in the hope of making more? Are we governed by the fear of losing it? Or motivated by the trust that this treasure is meant to multiply? It is this staggering trust that is being explored in this last of the parables. And which then finds its finest expression in the Lord’s own death and resurrection. It is this daring we’re being invited to adopt as our intentional, strategic approach as his disciples.
Because the treasure of the gospel has been entrusted to us as comprehensively as that master entrusted his property to his servants. The challenge for us now is to show how we can be ‘faithful’ regarding that treasure – that is to say, trustworthy. But, paradoxically, this faithfulness is not a cautious preservation and keeping safe. On the contrary, those who prove trustworthy and praiseworthy in this parable are the entrepreneurs. Those who are willing to invest themselves in the adventure of making even more money for their master. Even at the risk of losing the lot!
On the other hand, the tragedy of the man who buried his talent in the ground lies in his lame excuse: ‘I was afraid.’ Fear is the archenemy of faith. Because its focus is always turned inward. That sorry servant was thinking only of himself. Or, at least, only thinking of his master inasmuch as this meant his own welfare. He was as tightly wrapped up in himself as the talent he had wrapped so carefully in that napkin.
He reminds me of another character we’ll probably be hearing about again before too long: Charles Dickens’ masterful description of that über miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. Here it is, ‘he was a tight-fisted, hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.’
A Christmas Carol is the story of a crisis which turns out to be a crossroads. Scrooge is catapulted into the future, in order to see the consequences of his attitude in the present. In order to change his approach to the present. It is the story of a conversion provoked by a crisis. By which he discovers that true happiness lies in doing the exact opposite of what he had always held to be true. It lies in what we dare to relinquish in trust and love, rather than what we hold on to in fear. In a similar way, today’s parable catapults us into the future in order to change our approach in the present. Lest we find ourselves accused on the last day of being like that mean and lazy servant.
Meanness endangers and undermines everything worthwhile. Listen to how one novelist describes what it takes to be a good writer. It makes the perfect description of what it takes to be a faithful, trustworthy disciple:
‘One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, lose it, all, give it, give it all …The impulse to keep [something] to yourself is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you don’t give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes’ (Annie Dillard). St Dominic puts this wisdom it even more simply, ‘hoarded grain rots. But if it is scattered it fructifies.’
It is the same sober warning in the parable of the talents and the story of Scrooge. And the cure for this fatal condition in both cases is the same: generosity. That is how grain fructifies. That is how treasure multiplies. The secret of a life well-lived is a life well-given; the secret of a life well spent is a life well-spent, literally.
And Jesus in his passion is the epitome of this radical generosity. That is why it’s so fitting that this parable is the last one the Lord tells. Because he is the one who proves himself faithful by daring to risk losing everything. By giving himself to the point of no return. Who is motivated by the staggering trust that makes of his ultimate self-investment the crossroads we come here Sunday by Sunday to celebrate. Whose self-expenditure we experience once again in this Holy Eucharist, in order for it to become our own daily, strategic choice.
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