Sunday 15 November 2020
St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Getting what we expect ©Suzanne Grimmett
I have recently tried out something called an “Escape Room” with a few friends. It is a game where you have to solve a puzzle in a room set up with lots of clues, but no easy answers. It has recognisable characters and plot, but you have to remain in the room to investigate the space to find out what it all means. I think there are some parallels between an escape room and a parable, if we can imagine a parable as not a story to be analysed but a room to enter. There, as we take our place and spend time in it, the space unfolds its secrets and wisdom. But first of all, you need to look around and notice the surroundings and the clues.
If we don’t pay close attention, this parable can seem at first like what it is saying is work hard, be wise with your money and you will be rewarded with a prosperous life. Greed is good, because it earns you the praise and approval of others, including those who are also insiders to the tricks of making money and success work for you. The poor remain poor, whether in personal wealth or influence or achievement, because they have not been clever enough to make good use of the resources they have.
But of course, this is a superficial scan of the room. If we think that this is an allegory where God is the master of the slaves, then we have a very capitalist God indeed, and one who is harsh and unforgiving. This parable really makes clear, I think, the danger of an allegorical reading and that we need to develop the eyes to see when something actually quite different is going on.
One thing you might notice in this parable’s room is the amount of the talent. One talent is an exorbitant amount of money- more than anyone could earn in twenty years on an average wage. The servant who received 5 talents is handling millions. Those listening to Jesus would have straight away been aware of the ridiculous nature of these amounts. Such figures are meant to say a lot about the trust placed in the servants, and also about the general extravagance of the amounts the characters have to invest.
The next thing to notice is the difference between the slaves and their use of all this wealth. The first two slaves are merely a backdrop in the story to the third, but the reason they are able to give back more than they received seems to be about their perception of the master. While they invest with confidence, and enter into the joy of the master, the third slave is defined by his own fear and expectation of harsh judgement;
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….
I wonder if any of us can remember a time when we made a good decision from a place of fear? I know I can’t, although I can think of when I got things badly wrong with fear as the ruling emotion. Neither can I think of a decision based in courage that didn’t end well. When we inhabit the room of this parable long enough, we begin to see where it all went wrong for the third slave. Fear can paralyze us, and the negativity of our expectations of others can rob us of our capacity to act in freedom and love. It can also be said that we live by the kind of God or gods we imagine and serve. If your heart is big enough to imagine the grace you could receive, then it is grace that will be showered upon you. If your god is vengeful and punitive, then your portion in life will be ever limited by the pervasive shadow of your own enfeebled expectations. Such is the predicament of the third slave who could think of nothing more imaginative than to bury his talent in the ground.
All of these signs in this parable point towards a revealing truth about the universe that may be the opposite of the way things seem. On the surface, it appears that when you give things away, you lose. When you spend money, you have less. If you allow others to have more, there will be less for you, and then one day there will be a reckoning. This is the kind of universe that the third slave understood and perpetuated in his fearful anxiety. But it is actually the opposite of the eternal spiritual truth that what you give away increases and comes back to you in abundance.
The huge extravagance of the talents is one clue to the nature of the God hidden in this story. There is no way these funds can run out. Jesus is telling this story at a time when he knows he will soon be given over to death, and he is preparing the disciples to be without him. The very nature of God is self offering, self-giving, and soon the Spirit will be poured out amongst them. God’s self-offering is precious and extravagant beyond price, and is freely given. But unlike other gifts, the gift of Spirit is something that cannot be held but can only be given away. And here is where we discover a power at work in the universe which is the opposite to the way things appear on the surface. As we freely receive and cooperate with the Spirit by giving away what we have been given, we begin to know that joy multiplies. The more we give away, the more we receive. It is rather like a token that only works if you spend it; a ‘use it or lose it proposition’. 1The slave who buries his talent in the ground does the very thing that is not permitted in this deep spiritual law of the universe-he tries to possess Spirit.2 He thinks he can hold it, without giving anything away. But Spirit can only live in freedom, and the joy of being given away in the service of love. To be buried in the ground is to snuff out the life and spurn the gift, and so Spirit flows away from those who would seek to possess it, finding those who already have discovered the joy of self-giving and the abundance of the God who delights in multiplying goodness shared. More then will be given to those who have already received. When we are paralysed by fear the spiritual law of the universe will mean that what we grasp in our clutching hands will invariably be lost to us because Spirit must always be moving and growing.
Things are not always as they seem. There are physical laws to the universe, but there are also deeper spiritual laws which, when we cooperate with them, will enable us to grow and flourish, both individually, and as a community. If the law of the talents is true, and the life of the Spirit grows as we give it away, then we have nothing to fear. Jesus tells us again and again to not be afraid. We do not need to cling on to our possessions, our pride, our personal achievements, our need to be right, nor even our need for others to be wrong. God is abounding in grace and love to us, so we can take the radical risk of forgiving and loving one another. It can feel like an enormous leap, but it is one which lands us laughing in the middle of God’s own joyful self-giving. As we have been given, so we can give away- love and mercy multiplying and poured out as a river of hope for a humanity united in one joyful Spirit.
1 John Shea, On Earth as it is in Heaven, (Liturgical Press, Minnesota: 2004)