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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A sign to be opposed

Texts: Luke 2.22-38

When Jesus is taken to the temple in Jerusalem to be dedicated to the purposes of God, Luke has an old man named Simeon say the following prophecy over the child:
Now my eyes have seen your salvation you have placed in the midst of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel . . .  This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.  He will be a sign to be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed . . .
Here Luke wants to foreshadow three themes that will become very important in his gospel as the story unfolds.  The first is about the identity of Jesus as God’s messiah. The messiah, he says, is like a very bright light in the world, a light with such glory that everyone’s secret agendas (whether for good or for evil) will be penetrated and revealed for what they are.  The second of Luke’s themes takes the form of a paradox.  Though the light of the messiah is very bright, not everyone will see or understand what his light signifies: forgiveness, salvation, peace and freedom for all.  For many, his light will be a threat.  They will name it ‘evil’.  They will do everything in their power to oppose and extinguish its power.  But the light will not be finally defeated, Luke assures us, it will not go out for ever.  It will rise from its death to burn even more brightly, and this according to a parable that Jesus will later take as his defining mark and sign: the story of Jonah.  A third theme, and the one that concerns us most this morning, is a question that Luke’s text will always ask of its readers:  what shall you do with this Christ?  When the light reveals your secret thoughts and agendas, will you allow God to forgive you, to free you for salvation and peace?  Or will you oppose and deny and obfuscate until the end?

So, let us examine each of these themes in a little more detail.

First to the idea of Christ as a sign or portal of God’s light in the world.  There is a long tradition in Israel of thinking about God as a very bright light.  It begins, apparently, with the story of the Exodus.  There God is consistently seen as a flame of light that guides the Israelites from the darkness of their slavery in Egypt to the brightness of their freedom in the promised land.  There is also a long tradition that associates the flame of God’s glory with certain human beings, those who take a lead role in the people’s salvation.  Moses’ face, we are told, glowed with God’s glory every time he returned from conversation with Yahweh.  Out of these traditions grew a view that the Jewish messiah, when he came, would be like a sign or portal of divine light in the world, a conduit by which the light of God’s glory would be let loose to free everyone who walked in valleys of darkness or despair.  We read some of those prophecies a week ago when we celebrated the birth of Jesus.  So it is by this route that we come to Simeon’s prophecy over the infant Jesus, that he shall be the glory of the Jewish people and a light for all people’s everywhere. Jesus, Luke tells us, will be the messiah in this specific sense:  that he will save the people from their sins, that is, from everything that keeps them in a state of slavery.

But this takes us immediately to the central paradox in Luke’s gospel.  If the Christ is born a divine light to the gentiles and the glory of his people Israel, how is it that this light is hidden to so many?  Why is it that so many oppose him from the beginning, and eventually have him killed?  Why do they not see who he is, why do they not fall down and worship him?  Luke’s answer is literary and theological.  Don’t take the metaphor of the light too literally, he says, for the light of Christ is a very different kind of light than you are used to thinking about.  It is not the light that we human beings make for ourselves: it is not the glory of our kings and rulers, or the translucent beauty of the human body so celebrated in the sculpture of the Greeks.  Neither is it the light that accompanies everyone who fulfils the law of their community or culture, so that everyone looks to them as paragons of virtue or success.  No, the light of Christ is an uncomfortable kind of light, a light that penetrates into dark places that are usually kept secret.  It is an ultra-violet kind of light, that glows with a subdued intensity to show up both the dark stains in the heart of those the world would look to as glorious, but also the hidden purity of those the world would dismiss and scorn, those who look to the grace of God, alone, for any sense of light or virtue.  

The light of Christ is therefore, first of all, a light of revelation.  It exposes and makes manifest the truth of our humanity.  That is why it was the humble, the poor and the desperate who actually recognised the light of Christ.  These were people who knew full well that their lives were broken.  They knew full well that no matter how hard they tried, they could never generate lives of apparent success and bathe, therefore, in the light of social and cultural approval.  In Christ they heard the word of God’s love and forgiveness.  In Christ they learned a way to live with generosity and joy, free from the norms of success or failure generated by their societies.  In Christ they learned how to live as though all that mattered was the mercy and kindness of God.  And so they learned to practise mercy, to give themselves away as though nothing could possibly be lost in doing so.  But the many others, those who would not recognise Christ’s light, were exposed by that light nevertheless.  In their clinging to the dominant norms of self-generated power and success, in their opposition to his preaching about God’s love for the poor and the powerless, these others were shown up for who they were: people who were slaves of society and of fashion and of conventional morality, people who could not recognise themselves as poor and powerless, people standing in desperate need of God’s word of mercy.

The light of Christ is revealed most surely, Luke tells us in chapter 11 of his gospel, under the paradoxical parable of Jonah.  Simeon said that Christ would be a ‘sign to be opposed’.  In chapter 11 we learn what this most offensive of signs is:  that, like Jonah in the belly of the fish, the Christ would lie dead in the earth for three days, but would then rise as a sign that God had vindicated his cause.  The message of the parable is a scandal, a stumbling block for any who believe that the way of the messiah is that of power-over others, rather than power-for others.  The sign of Jonah has surely been a stumbling-block for anyone who looked to God for confirmation of their greedy and indifferent lifestyles. For at its heart the sign of Jonah speaks of the willingness of God’s son, out of love for the world, to give even his own life that life might return to the dead and to all who walk in the shadow of death.  The sign of Jonah is therefore double-edged.  It tells us that the way of God in the world is that of love and grace and the generous giving of one’s self. But it is also a sign of judgement on all who do not live this way.

And so, finally, we come to the question Luke asks of his readers:  what shall you do with this Christ?  When his light reveals your secret thoughts and agendas, will you allow God to forgive you, to free you for salvation and peace?  Or will you oppose and deny and obfuscate until the end?  ‘Obfuscate’ is a big word.  It means ‘to cover up’.  There are many who are privileged to hear the word of Christ and experience the enlightenment he brings who then choose to take up their cross and follow him, beginning always with recognition that they will never be truly free apart from God’s mercy and help.  But there are many others who hear Christ’s word and experience his light who then choose to obfuscate or cover up the truth that light exposes because, deep down, they are in denial of the truth and their whole lives are lived according to the logic of a lie.  What this lie amounts to, in the end, is an attempt to remake the world in the image of the unredeemed human heart, mistaking darkness for light, evil for good, and freedom for slavery.  That is how we get to the absurd situation we are in at present with the ‘war on terror’, where we are told that our freedoms need to be taken away in order to secure our freedom, or that peace can only be achieved through a reign of military might.  This is nothing but the very essence of sin, as the New Testament understands it.  It is the lie that we can know what is good apart from worship of God.  We cannot.

So what will you do with this Christ?  When his light shines on your world and your heart—on the way you do your business, on the behaviour that you model for your children and grandchildren, on the things that you treasure more than anything else in the world—what will you do?  Will you cover up the truth and oppose it?  Or will you fall at Christ’s feet and beg for his mercy, his peace, and his joy?  I promise you, that if you choose the latter, if you will risk losing yourself for the sake of the gospel, Christ will take you in his arms and give you a future hitherto unimagined, a future that shares in the kingly inheritance of all God’s children.

This homily was first preached in 2005 at St Luke's Church in Mount Waverley.

Why do we need a Saviour?


Luke 2.8-20

In Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus, an Angel drops by the fields around Bethlehem with a rather startling news-break for the Shepherds who worked there.  “Do not be afraid,” says the Angel, “for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ, the Lord.”  Now, it’s a marvellous scene isn’t it, a scene recreated a thousand times over every Christmas.  Shepherds, angels, bright lights, heavenly choirs, wise men from the east . . .  hang on, there aren’t any wise men in Luke’s story! . . .  but anyway.  It is clear that most of us like the story.  We must do, because we keep telling it at a thousands “carols by candlelight” events all over the country.

What I reckon we’ve lost in all this retelling, however, is what the story actually means. What did Luke mean, for example, when he has the angel say:  “To you is born a Saviour”.  What’s a Saviour, and why would you want one?  A friend of mine at Uni asked a question exactly like that a few years ago.  We were having a discussion about why one might become a Christian, a follower of Christ.  I testified that for the writers of the New Testament, one became a Christian out of a deep-down conviction that life without Christ was no life at all, that it was, rather, a half-life in which one was afraid of everything and driven by that fear to a futile assertion of one’s own existence against the void of nothingness that we know, deep down, is wide open and beckoning beneath us all.  Turning to Christ, I said, is like turning to a life-saver when you are drowning:  Christ does for us, and in us, what we cannot do for ourselves: Live!  Live as God intended us to live: free of fear, free to breathe in God’s air and God’s love, free to give ourselves away.  “Right,” says my friend.  “But I’m quite happy as I am.  Why would I need a saviour?”

Now I reckon that’s a line you’ll get everywhere you turn today.  “A saviour is born.  So what?  Why would I need a Saviour?”  Many of us live in Saviour-free zones, these days, I think.  Especially if we are middle-class.  For middle-class people are raised by their apparently successful parents to believe that the successful life is the self-made life. “It’s up to you,” they tell us, “if you don’t make a go of life it will be nobody’s fault but your own.  So study hard, and work hard; save your cash and be careful with it and the good life will be yours.”  A few years ago another friend of mine, a psychologist, gave me a book with the curious title:  If You See the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!  The book was a clear message from him to me, in the psycho-babble that characterizes our time:  “You don’t need a Saviour; saviours are bad; they encourage dependency.  It’s only when you kill off your personal saviours that you’ll finally give yourself a chance at the good life.”

Now, I reckon there’s a little bit of truth in that, but not a great deal of truth.  I don’t doubt that all of us responsible for our own lives.  That is a deeply Jewish and Christian notion.  Neither do I doubt that many of us avoid accepting such responsibility by shifting the blame for our misfortunes to others.  Again, in Jewish and Christian thought, such blame-shifting is seen as a very big problem.  But to then conclude that each of us, alone, are capable of both imagining the good life and then making it come to pass, is nothing less than sheer fantasy.  The paradox of the “Kill the Buddha” book, and all the other self-help therapies on the New-Age shelf at your local bookstore, is that the writer is himself posing as a Saviour, that is, as someone who can help his readers in a way that they, alone, and left to their own devices, cannot.

To my way of thinking, Jesus is a Saviour precisely because he provides us with the spiritual vision and strength do that which we cannot, I repeat, cannot do for ourselves.  Now the very person who, at Uni, told me that she didn’t need a Saviour was, I think, bound up in all kinds of chains.  She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see they were there.  But they were there nevertheless.  O yes, they were there.  There were the chains of the beauty-myth.  You know, “In order to exist, to be worthy to exist, I must look slim, trim and terrific.”  There were the chains of the nuclear-family myth:  “I must have a man and some kids in order to be worthwhile in life, to fight against the fear that I shall cease to be”.  And there were the chains of the status myth:  “I must have a big house and successful professional career in order to be really worthwhile, to register my value in the eyes of my friends.”  I could go on, but I won’t.

What I want to say is this: that Jesus is not only a Saviour, he is THE Saviour.  That is, he can do for us what nobody else, not even our therapist or the Buddha, is able to do:  to release us from the fear that lies beneath every other fear and every other anxiety that there is:  the fear of death.  You see Jesus arrived in a time and place that, in many ways, was plagued by the same fears and sins as our own.  People believed that they had been put on the earth to assure the future of their families.  They worked hard to leave their children in a better condition, money and status-wise, than their own parents had left them.  The fear that this might not be so drove them to compete with everyone else, with other families, for an ever-larger slice of the limited resources bequeathed in creation.  Underneath it all, of course, was the fear that we may cease to be.  People feared that if their families fell into poverty and ruin, they might well die out.  Not even the memory of a name would be left as a witness to having ever existed.  Such fears run deep in all of us, any anthropologist will tell you that.  They dominate our own lives as much as they dominated the lives of our ancient forebears.

What Jesus said to the people of his own time and place, and would also say to us today, is this:  that there is no need to fear death.  Death is not something that troubles God.  Trust in God and he will give you life even if you die.  Now listen carefully, lest you get the impression that Jesus was interested only in physical, biological death.  He was not, and I am not.  Jesus spoke, rather of the many deaths we must face as a part of life, the deaths which tell us, in fact, that life can never entirely be something of our own making or genius.  The slow dying of our young, fit bodies.  The diseases that limit what we can do to one degree or another.  The loss of a job.  The loss of a friend.  Disappointment in love or career.  The fact that our children may not care to do what we think they ought to do.  Not being able to have children.  Or whatever.  According to Jesus, all these things are a sign in the world that we are not the masters of our own destinies, that we cannot accomplish the good life out of our own resources, nor can we even imagine what it might be like.  Jesus saves us by helping us to see that life comes when we are able to both accept and embrace the fact of death.  We are not immortal souls, no matter what the many new age sages might say.  We are mortal.  We will die.

But the good news is this.  If we can die to our desire to make a way for ourselves in the world, if we can let go of our need to keep up appearances and wear the socially-determined badges of status and success, if we can trust not in these human artefacts of success and happiness  but in God, then God will grant us life, life in all its fullness.  Let me quote to you from a passage later in Luke, a passage which goes to the heart of how Jesus would save us:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves (that is, their socially-constructed desires) and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For the one who wants to preserve his life will lose it, and the one who wants to lose his life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world but lose their very selves in the process?
Christ, you see, lived a life designed to please no-one else but God his Father.  He knew that God loved him, and that was enough.  Because of that single fact, he was then able to give away the mad rush to get ahead in the world.  The assurance of God’s love freed him.  Instead, Jesus spent his time and energy in works of prayer and compassion.  Freed from the concern to please everyone else, he was able to please his Father God, to live as though people mattered - not competing against them (as in a market economy), but giving himself to them, as a gift without need of return.  In the cross and the resurrection of Christ, we therefore see both the paradoxical logic and the message of his life writ large:  “It you will die with me, you will also live with me.  If you will let go, God will give you all things.”

At Christmastime the Christ is born to us, a Saviour.   Let me gently suggest that despite all appearances to the contrary, and despite the so-called wisdom of the self-help gurus, we might all need a Saviour after all!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The annunciation of the Lord


Texts:  Luke 1.26-38

Today we recall, with joy and thanksgiving, the announcement of our salvation to Mary through the Angel Gabriel.  The themes associated with the story of Mary and the Angel are exceptionally instructive for modern faith.  The story is rich, you see, with images of promise and perseverance in the midst of struggle and difficulty.  It encourages Christians to look for the birth of God’s salvation not in the past alone, but also within the disillusionment and uncertainty which characterizes so much of our present reality.  

According to Luke, the birth of Jesus was announced in the midst of exceptionally trying circumstances. Socially and politically, first century Palestine was a very miserable place.  There was a distinct pecking order that permeated the whole society, ranging from the Roman aristocracy, at the top, right through to landless women and children, at the bottom.  Your prospects for health, wealth and happiness were almost entirely determined by which rung of the social ladder you happened to occupy.  If you were born a Sadducee, that class of religious aristocrats who controlled Israel’s temple, you could count on a pretty cushy life.  But if you were born a landless peasant, there was very little chance of advancement.  Most likely you would die in your twenties of malnutrition and overwork.

The kind of social mobility we have become accustomed to in our society was almost impossible for a first-century Judaean or Galilean.  Quite apart from economic considerations, people were kept securely in their place by a complex system of social mores and religious rules.  Perhaps the most important reason why the poor could never ascend the social hierarchy was because the strategies by which they survived were labelled sinful by the temple aristocracy.  Labouring on the Sabbath, thieving, working in prostitution, begging – all these were necessary for landless peasants to put bread on the table.  But they were also the things which kept a very large part of the population from participating as equals in the religious life of Israel.  If you were poor, you had to break the Jewish law to survive: and the only law which counted was the version promulgated by the temple-based aristocracy.  So the boundary between God’s beloved and the god-forsaken was a very clear one in first-century Palestine.  God’s beloved were the one’s with a good social background.  The god-forsaken were those who struggled to survive!

As a consequence of these political realities, Mary’s own personal circumstances would have been less-than-marvellous also.  As a single Jewish girl of the merchant or lower classes, she would have been extremely vulnerable in this society. Vulnerable to grinding poverty, certainly, but vulnerable, also, to the well-documented sexual violence of the local military garrison, based at Sepphoris.  Historically speaking, it is possible that Mary’s community saw her pregnancy as the result of a violent rape by Roman soldiers. Unfortunately, in this society any such pregnancy would rebound not on the perpetrator but the victim.  A woman promised in marriage who became pregnant before that marriage would invariably be rejected by her betrothed.  At that time, women were more like property than people.  In marriage, the bride’s father payed another man, the prospective husband, to take over the ownership of his daughter.  Only undamaged, undefiled goods were fit for transfer.  Mary, as a pregnant woman, was damaged goods.  And her unborn child would have been regarded in similarly commercial terms.  Here was another mouth to feed.  Under Jewish law Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, would have been quite justified in refusing to go through with the marriage.  In that case, Mary would have become both an economic and religious refugee.  With no man to take care of her, she would have been forced into either begging or prostitution to survive. She was a religious failure already, pregnant to a man other than her promised husband.

Now here’s the real miracle in the Annunciation story, to my mind:  the intense presence and perseverance of Mary’s faith in God’s love throughout circumstances and events which can only be described as horrific.  On the face of things, Mary has every reason to doubt that God cared about either herself or her people.  An ordinary reading of things would have to conclude, would it not, that God had entirely and completely abandoned the situation?  Yet Mary had an extraordinary capacity, apparently, to detect and discern the presence and action of God where others would see only chaos.  And Luke has preserved that capacity for us in the wonderful exchange which opens with Mary’s question ‘But how can this be?’ and closes with the Angel’s promise that ‘nothing is impossible with God’.

In her prayerful consideration of the distressing circumstances in which she finds herself, Mary discerns that what men had purposed for evil, God had purposed for good.  Even though the fearful circumstances in which she finds herself seem utterly hopeless, what begins to form in her is a faith in God’s ‘impossible’ promise of a liberator for her people:
Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.
Here is liberation for the poor and the oppressed of Palestine.  Here is mercy and peace for all who call upon the name of the Lord.  Like the child born to Isaiah in the midst of Judah’s sorrow, the one whose name is Immanuel, ‘God with us’, Mary discerns that her own child will be a sign of hope for all who suffer under the yoke of rich men.  ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Aramaic, means ‘the Lord liberator’.  And Luke goes on to tell us of this liberator.  He tells of a man who challenges the religious status quo of Judean society, who proclaims that the poor and the ‘god-forsaken’ are not poor and not God-forsaken.  ‘Blessed are you poor’, he says, ‘for yours is the kingdom of God’ (6.20).  Within this simple message, the poorest and weakest find a God of love, who has come to them in their hour of need. 

These themes reverberate through the Magnificat, the song of praise which Mary sings upon hearing the Angel’s message:

The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever

Mary’s faith and Mary’s prayerful discernment have much to teach us right now.  We face an increasingly dark time here in this ‘lucky country’.  We live in a nation which is increasingly run by the rich and powerful, for the benefit of the rich and powerful.  As a nation we are creating more wealth than ever before, but that wealth is being distributed most unfairly.  In modern day Australia, we who are well-off, gain easy access to the best levels of healthcare, childcare, education and housing.  We also enjoy a rich cultural life.  But if you’re numbered amongst the poor or under-employed, a population which is rapidly growing, it’s a very different story.  You wait in long cues at clinics and hospitals, your kids go to under-resourced schools and childcare centres, and your housing costs escalate in a Landlord’s market.

If that isn’t depressing enough, I remind you that we are part of a church which is in big trouble as well.  The Australian church in general, and the Uniting Church in particular, are in rapid decline.  More and more people are interested in spirituality, usually of a neo-pagan variety, but less and less interested in being part of a church community.  As Australians and as Christians, we face an uncertain and difficult future.  

A bit like the future which Mary must have faced, really.  Can we, like her, turn to God in prayer?  Can we turn aside from the fear and anxiety which threatens to overwhelm us, and discern the promised liberation for our own time?  When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he groaned with the pangs of childbirth, longing for Christ to be formed in them (Gal 4.19).  Christ waits to be born in our experience as well.  Again this morning, in the midst of this Advent time, I invite you to turn: to turn from the busyness of life, from the flurry of activity with which we cover our panic.  And I encourage all of you to make a beginning in the labour which is prayer, and whose issue is faith in the seemingly impossible. In baptism, the waters have already been broken.  I assure all of you, that the pain of labour will quickly be forgotten when the glorious Christ is indeed reborn in our midst.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Year of Jubilee

Texts: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28

For Christians the new year begins not on January 1, but on the first Sunday of this season we call ‘Advent’, the season of waiting for Christ the Saviour to come amongst us.  So welcome to the new year, everybody!  ‘Happy new year’ to you all!  One of the most important themes of Advent is a longing amongst God’s people for what the book of Isaiah calls the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ (61.2), a year of jubilee, the meaning of which I’d like to explore with you this morning.

 In the book of Leviticus, in chapter 25, you can read about the Jewish Year of Jubilee: 

. . .  you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family (25.10)

The Jubilee Year was an extraordinary way of making sure that that bottom line in society was not individual wealth but social justice.  The idea was that all in the land of Israel had a share in Israel, not by right, but by divine gift.  And that share in Israel belonged to your family forever.  So that even were you to fall on hard times, or to become foolish in the management of that share, you could never lose it forever.  In the fiftieth year, the year of jubilee, your share could be redeemed.  Those whose land has been sold could claim it back.  All forced to sell themselves into slavery for the sake of survival could be released from their bonds. Those in prison because they could not pay their debts would be released.  The jubilee year was good news for everyone, but especially for those who could most use some good news – the simple, the destitute, the wounded and vulnerable.

The idea of a jubilee continued to exert a powerful influence in Israel, especially in the imaginations of the prophets.  When the exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, one prophet drew heavily upon the jubilee themes to imagine how Israel could be re-made and re-built from the ruins of its disobedience.  He speaks of a year of grace, a year of the Lord’s favour, when all the oppressed and imprisoned are given their liberty, and when all who mourn for their many losses are finally comforted.  He speaks of a God who will renew Israel’s share in the divine covenant, even though it is was by Israel’s disregard for that covenant that the inheritance was lost in the first place.  For this prophet, the jubilee year came to stand for a moment of unparalleled grace in which the slate was wiped clean and the world could be made new.

 To my mind, the most wonderful thing about the jubilee year is what its name suggests:  jubilation!  The jubilation of knowing that the chains of the past have been removed and you can start again!  The joy of waking to a new world, full of new possibilities!  Joy is what we experience when our debts have been cancelled and our sins forgiven.  That is why Paul is able to write to the Thessalonians saying ‘Rejoice always . . . give thanks in all circumstances’.  If you believe in the jubilee, then you believe in the capacity of God to make things different.  To change things.  To bring liberty to the oppressed and the oil of gladness to all who mourn.  So, no matter what your circumstances, if you believe in the God of jubilee, you can give thanks because things will be different.  In the perspective of faith, the year of the Lord’s favour is always at hand. And that is what we celebrate, and express our hope for, in this advent season.

In the coming of Christ, we Christians believe that God has drawn near to us to announce a year of jubilee more comprehensive than any other.  In Christ, our sins are forgiven, our debts cancelled, and our divine inheritance, once lost, is redeemed.  The seasons of advent and Christmas are the church’s jubilee festival in which we celebrate and proclaim the grace of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.  And through this celebration we can encourage the world to take more seriously the themes of jubilee at the level of social and economic policy.  It is due largely to the work of committed Christians that the ‘Jubilee 2000’ campaign was so stunningly successful, resulting in the cancellation of the most crippling debts of the poorest nations of earth, giving them the chance to start again.  Christians have also been vocal in the movement to return stolen Aboriginal land to its traditional owners.

I long for the day when Australians take the themes of Jubilee seriously as well.  When we acknowledge - openly, and without reservation -  that the land on which we walk and the air which we breathe belongs to God, and is ours not by right but by gift.  I long for the day when we can share the bounty of this land more equally than we do, where all may enjoy an inalienable share in our common wealth.  And I look forward to a day when the poor, and the victims of abuse, and the exploited and wronged peoples of our land will have their day of justice.  For the day of jubilee will bring joy to all who mourn, and peace to all for whom peace is just a dream.  Those who have sown in tears will reap with shouts of joy, and those who go out weeping shall return with jubilation and with singing.   Hasten on, day of jubilee.  And may the jubilee King, the Christ of God, come into his kingdom soon.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Voice Cries Out

Texts: Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85. 1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

Let me begin with a story, a 'might have been', with regard to that voice crying out in the Judean desert . . .

Down amongst the ruins that used to be Jerusalem, a voice cried out:

                   In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. 
                   Make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . .
                   Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
                   and all people shall see it together,
                   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The voice drifted on the morning breeze to where Joseph and Baruch were cooking their breakfast on a nearby hill.  ‘What highway’s he on about?’ said Joseph to Baruch.  ‘The highway of the Lord’, said the other.  ‘Apparently God is going to restore our fortunes.  He’s going to come roaring down this new highway they’re making, rebuild the city, and set up court in the temple as if he were Moses himself!’   ‘Somehow I doubt it!’, said Joseph, and their laughter pealed across the valley. 

But after the silence had taken hold once more, Baruch said:  ‘Still, that’d be nice, wouldn’t it.  A king in Zion who’d give blokes like you and me a go.  I’m blowed if I’m going to slave my guts out to keep these new bloody nobles in their palaces!’ 

Joseph chewed his tripe thoughtfully.  ‘Time for a year of . . .  ah, what did they call it?  . . .  Jubilee, that’s it.  Time for Jubilee, when all that’s been lost or screwed up get put back to rights.  You know, it was the grandsires of these new bloody nobles that confiscated our clan-land back in the time of Uzziah’.  And then his eyes filled with tears.  ‘I’d swear my troth to a Jubilee King.  Bloody oath I would.  Bloody oath’.  The cry of an eagle lifted their eyes to the sun, while, in the valley below, a shepherd led his sheep through the ruins.
_______________________________________________

‘So who is this Baptist fella, anyway?’ asked Simon.  ‘A hermit’, said Uriah.  ‘He comes from a good family, by all accounts.  His father was a temple bureaucrat and he was being groomed for the priesthood.  But right in the middle of his training he had a bit of a turn and bolted for the desert!  Apparently he spent some time with that monkish crowd out near the dead sea.  What are they called ?’   ‘The Essenes’, answered Simon.  ‘Yeah.  They’re pretty strange, by all accounts, waiting for their beloved Messiah to come!  My uncle Max, (you know, the psychiatrist who trained in Rome?) reckons that these separatist groups don’t have the ego-strength to mix it in the real world.  So they run away to the desert, where they can set up their own little fantasy.  Makes life simpler, I’m sure.  But it’s such a cop-out.  They could never cope with the real world that you and I know about, that’s pretty clear!’.

Uriah took a drag on his cigar and ordered another caráf of red.  ‘I went out for a look the other day’, he said, casually.  Simon nearly choked on his café-latté.  ‘You went out for a look?  My God, man, what possessed you to do something like that?  Surely you’re not having a mid-life crisis!  Not at the tender age of 35!’.  His laughter filled the restaurant, but  Uriah didn’t join in.  Flushing, he stared down into the blood-red of his Shiraz.  Simon stopped laughing.  ‘I’m not sure why I went, exactly’, said Uriah, looking up and out, as if towards an empty sky.  Then he turned to look his companion in the eye.  ‘Listen, Simon.  This is going to sound weird, but . . .  I’m feeling a little jaded right now.  This ‘real world’ we live in, you and I, isn’t feeling like much fun at the moment.  What’s real about being part of the Jerusalem middle-class?  Most Jews live in landless poverty!  What’s real about doing legal work the Romans? They’re the occupying power, for Christ’s sake!  I feel like I’m betraying my own people, stomping on their heads just to get a leg up!  Add to that the fact of bloody disaster of a marriage!  I work so hard that I hardly ever see my kids, and I really don’t know who Priscilla is these days, or what she gets up to  . . .  ‘

Simon’s face has turned pale.  ‘Mate’ he said. ‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  Listen, life might not be all it’s cracked up to be at times.  But this is how it is!  This is reality!  This is reál-politics!  God Almighty!  What did that preacher say out there anyway?’   
'‘Prepare the way of the Lord”,’ said Uriah. ‘”Prepare the way of the Lord” . . .  that’s what he said.  He was baptising people in the river to wash their shitty lives away.  And he spoke of a Great One to come who would baptise not with water, but with the Holy Spirit .’ 
Suddenly the space around the two men was different.  Something shifted, the world changed.  Even the sunset and the evening breeze seemed to speak in a different voice.  For a moment, Simon was caught there.  From a place deep in his people’s history he heard the mad voices of nomads, prophets and saints, crying out with anguish and longing for a world made new.  And for a moment, just a moment, he joined them in their longing.  But he shook himself free from the reverie, and rose from the table.  ‘Uriah’, he said, ‘you’re losing it mate’.  And away he walked.  Back to the real world.  The world of cafés and credit and nights on the town.
_________________________________________________________

When you come to worship, why do you come?  Is it to escape from the real world, to run away from the awfulness of life?  Or is it the opposite.  Did you come, perchance, to enter, albeit for a moment, a world which is somehow more real, a world that takes your reality seriously, and addresses you where you are afraid, and hurting, and in need of healing?
If this Advent season is about anything it’s about taking the voices that cry in the wilderness seriously, the mad voices of nomads, Aborigines and saints, the voices that tell the truth.  And what is the truth?  Simply this: that the “real” world is a fake; that capitalism and the mad rush to accumulate and consume is killing us all, body, mind, and spirit; that television and celebrity are stealing away our capacity to lives our own lives.  Ha!   I remember a schizophrenic friend being afraid to turn on the television.  “When I do,” he said, “the demons suck my spirit away.”  I thought he was dangerously unstable at the time.  But now I’m not so sure.  Now I reckon he was on to something.
The voice that cries in the wilderness tells another truth too.  “Things can be different,” it says, “Thing can be different than they are today.  Why?  Because the glory of God is coming!  It is on its way, and it is nearly here.”  You see, what John the Baptist promised people out there in the desert was not just change, but metamorphosis.  What’s the difference, I hear you ask?  Well, let me put it like this.  Change is when you swap from Pears shampoo to Decoré.  Change is when you sell up in Balwyn and move to Templestowe.  Change is watching “Sixty Minutes” instead of “Today Tonight”.  But metamorphosis?  Metamorphosis is when a Tootsie family in Rwanda is able to invite their son’s Hutu killers to dinner.  Metamorphosis is when Senator Macarius of Rome becomes a hermit monk, and plaits ropes for a living in the Egyptian desert.  Metamorphosis was when my Dad stopped beating people up because he found somebody who could truly love him.  My mum. 
To be metamorphosed.  In the Greek of the gospel the word is metanoia, and it is expressed and performed in the practise of baptism.  In the early days of the faith, when the church was possibly more Christian than it is today, baptism was taken very, very seriously indeed.  For baptism was not just a ceremony of change designed to welcome people into a church they can neither comprehend nor belong to.  Rather, it was a powerful sacrament of metamorphosis, a piece of method theatre in which the candidate bound themselves so intimately to Christ that everything they had been before they heard his call was literally cast aside in order to make room for the new life which Christ had promised them by his love and his grace.  In approaching the waters, the candidate would remove their clothes.  Then they would descend, naked, into the waters, where the priest would pronounce the sacred words.  Then, when they emerged, the choirs would sing and they would put on the new garb of white, which symbolised the glory of Christ.  No longer would they live from their own powers.  From now on, they were dead, marked with the scars of Christ.  The life they now lived in the body would be that of the Son of God, who loved them, and gave his life for them.  Here there was no gap between ceremony and life.  Life became baptism, and baptism became the life in Christ.
In baptism we pledge ourselves to Christ, to become his slaves, to give ourselves into his hands completely.  But in doing so we in respond to a love and promise that always already precedes our decisions:   Christ’s promise to always be there, on the other side of the waters, there to raise us from the depths, and array us in the splendour of the redeemed.  The promise assures us that our time of penance is ended, that it is God, himself, to now comes to work the forgiveness, freedom and deliverance we so long for.   Without this promise, all of our being sorry and all of our determination to change makes for nothing.
In this we find out what Advent really means, as the season of promise par excellence:  that within and beyond the appalling squalor of our greedy, seedy lives; within and beyond our self-hatred and despair; within and beyond the awful inhumanity of our politics; within and beyond all this Christ arrives.  Christ arrives with love enough, with peace enough, with hope enough to make things very, very, very different.

[previously published in Cross Purposes: a journal to encourage theological dialogue]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Claiming God's Faithfulness


Texts:  Isaiah 64. 1-9; Psalm 80. 1-7, 17-19; 1 Cor 1.3-9; Mark 13. 24-37

I hope there are some Monty Python fans amongst you this morning, because I want to begin by recalling a scene from one of their funniest movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Perhaps you will remember it.  King Arthur and his brave companions have just been done over by an incredibly well-educated peasant on one of the King’s estates, and are feeling a little despondent about being part of the aristocracy.  Arthur decides to seek divine guidance.  Afterall, there’s not a great deal for a king to do if even the peasants won’t obey you!  But before his prayer has progressed very far at all, Arthur is suddenly interrupted by a trap-door which opens in one of the clouds above, and a rather grumpy-looking God appears.  Immediately the whole company falls to its knees in eager-to-please obeisance and fear.  But God tells them to stop grovelling. “Oh please”, he says, “stop all that silly grovelling.  ‘Forgive me’ this, and ‘I’m sorry for’ that.  It really gets on my nerves”.  “Sorry, Lord” says Arthur.  “Don’t say sorry!”, says God, rather angrily, “I’m sick of people being sorry.  All those grovelling Psalms really are very boring !”  And after God calms down a bit, they finally receive their mission to seek the holy grail.

Now, like a lot of good comedy, Pythonesque comedy is strong on hyperbole.  That is, overdoing things in order to make a rather modest point.  And whether they knew they were engaging in theological reflection or not, the Python managed to make a rather spot-on theological point in this particular sketch.  And that is that many Christians are far too concerned about being sorry about their sins.  You might be surprised that I say that.  Afterall, we said a rather stark confessional prayer this morning, and clearly I do see a confessional moment as quite essential to our worship of God, whether that be at Sunday service or elsewhere.  We are sinners.  We really do need to acknowledge our guilt before our Maker.  Nevertheless, I also believe that there is a very real danger in becoming too much concerned with confession.  For if we are forever thinking about our sins, we might even become inclined to invent sins to be sorry about—to blame ourselves, and no-body else, for all that seems to go wrong in life.  This kind of attitude seems particularly prevalent amongst Protestants who, consciously or unconsciously, are followers of Luther or Calvin.  Both these venerable gentleman had, on occasion, a rather morbid approach to the sinfulness of human beings.  But I shan’t go into that now.

Instead, I will simply point out that the things that go wrong in life are not always our fault.  Sometimes they are someone else’s fault.  Sometimes they are no-one’s fault.  And sometimes, sometimes, the things that go wrong in life may well be God’s doing.  That is most certainly the view of the prophet in our reading from Isaiah.  In speaking with God about the sins which led to Judah’s captivity in Babylon, the prophet says this:

                            You were angry, and we sinned;
                            because you hid yourself, we transgressed.

Earlier in this same prayer, in chapter 63 verse 17, the prophet says something similar:

                            Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from our ways
                            and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?

What an alarming suggestion!  We are used to thinking, are we not, that God gets angry because we sin, that God hides Godself from us because we have departed from the terms of the covenant?  Yet here the prophet claims that the opposite may be the case sometimes as well:  that we sin because we experience God’s anger, and it feels cruel and unfair.  Sometimes, he suggests, we fall into a gutter of despair and sin because we find that God has disappeared, and is no longer there to support us, which leaves us with a sense of having been abandoned.  What are we to make of these claims?  How do we make sense of them?  Can we really hold God responsible for some of the chaos in our lives?  Could we dare?  Is God really one who sends calamity without regard to justice? 

Well, I shall not be answering that question in full this morning.  There is no time.  But I would ask you to notice that whatever God may be up to “objectively”, as it were, the particular passages we are examining this morning show absolutely no interest, no interest whatsoever, in  justifying the ways of God to human beings.   What the passages are interested to do, however, is acknowledge and validate the legitimacy of that experience we have been examining i.e.  that sense one occasionally gets that God has abandoned us for no reason that we can readily identify.  Now, of course, when everything appears to be collapsing and life has fallen into a great big pit from which there appears to be very little chance of escape, we are right to search ourselves for character flaws, or sins.  We are also right to search our families, our culture, or even the world economic order for the effects of sin, for patterns of repression or evil intent.  But after all that can be known is known, after all the truth-telling and repenting has been done, it may still be the case that the sky is falling in and it is simply impossible to see any decent reason why.  In that moment, we can only really see ourselves as powerless before forces which seem indifferent to our very real, very present, and very personal pain.  At such moments the words of the psalmist come easily to our lips:  “How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers?  You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” (80.4).  Indeed, at times like this, our prayers seem to bounce off a God who, far from being indifferent, actually seems to have it in for us!

When life is like that, what are we to do?  Well, this is not a time for confession.  Confession is something we do when we can actually identify and acknowledge what we have done wrong ourselves, or in acquiescence with someone else’s wrongdoing.  Having searched ourselves long and hard, having confessed whatever there is to confess already, there’s no point in going on to invent sins that aren’t actually there.  Inventing sins for ourselves has another name.  Masochism.  And Christians are not called to masochism, which is a form of fantasy and reality-denial.  Rather, we are called to lament what has happened to us, and claim the promise of God’s salvation.  Which is precisely what the prophet does in the passage we are reading.

The kind of language we are investigating is called LAMENT.  Lament is what you do when disaster has come and you’ve confessed until your mouth is dry.  You’ve confessed and repented of everything you can find, but the disaster just keeps on coming.  The best example of lament in the bible is the aptly named Book of Lamentations, which reflects on the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants.  But the two Old Testament passages set for today are good examples as well.  Here the writers tell God that life is pretty much in the gutter, and that God had better do something about it.  Lament is what you do when there’s nothing else you can do.  As a key part of their lamentations, our psalmist and our prophet both point out that God actually has an obligation to do something for them, to rescue them. And they base that claim on two things that they know about God already:  (1) God is a compassionate creator;  (2) God has made a covenant with them, in which salvation is promised to all who abandon their sin and cling to God.  I want to spend a few moments looking at each of these in turn, because I think they give us some important clues for how we might do our own lamenting. 

When the bottom falls out of life, I first encourage you to call on God as the Compassionate Creator.   The prophet says:

                            Look down from heaven and see,
                            from your holy and glorious habitation.
                            Where are your zeal and your might?
                            The yearning of your heart and your compassion?  (Is 63. 15)

                            Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
                we are the clay, and you are the potter;
                            we are all the work of your hand.
                            Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
                            and do not remember iniquity forever.
                            Now consider, we are all your people.

Here God is imaged as a father who is also a potter.  The point is clear.  God did not create us with indifference, but with compassion, love, and father-like affection.  Therefore we may count on God to eventually let go of his anger and relent.  We are his own beloved people, the extraordinary products of his own tender imagination.  No matter what we may do, God will not destroy, absolutely, what God has made.

When the tidal wave hits, I would also encourage you to call on God as the senior signatory to a rather special covenant.  The Psalmist says this:

                            You brought a vine out of Egypt;
                            you drove out the nations and planted it.
                            You cleared the ground for it;
                            it took deep root and filled the land.
                            The mountains were covered with its shade,
                            the mighty cedars with its branches;
                            it sends out its branches to the sea,
                            and its shoots to the river.
                            Why then have you broken down its walls,
                            so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? . . .
                            Turn again, O God of hosts,
                            look from heaven and see.
                            Have regard for this vine,
                            the stock that your right hand planted . . .
                            Restore us, O Lord, God of hosts;
                            let your face shine, that we may be saved.

This allegory of a vine is the story of Israel in miniature.  It speaks of the history of the relationship between God and Israel.  How God created the Hebrew nation in Egypt, and rescued it from slavery.  How God cleared a land for the people to live in.  How they prospered and bore much fruit because of God’s guidance and care.  And yet now, with Jerusalem destroyed and the land in ruins, the fruitful nation has become plunder for others.  In telling this story, the Psalmist emphasises the role of God in the relationship.  God is the primary actor, the protagonist who makes things happen.  That’s how it was with ancient, middle-eastern, covenants.  One party, the stronger party, takes the initiative to grace the other with its protection and care.  All the weaker party is asked for in return is trust and loyalty.  And in the case of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, even if Israel withdrew its loyalty for a time, the terms of the covenant could be reactivated with a genuine renewal of Israel’s faith.  Here the Psalmist is arguing that Israel has indeed renewed its trust so that, under the terms of the covenant, God should now jolly-well offer his care and protection once more.  And immediately.

As Christians we are members of a ‘new’ covenant that nevertheless owes a great deal to the ‘old’ covenant between Israel and Yahweh.  In Jesus, we are privileged to have witnessed just how seriously God takes his side of the bargain made with Israel.  Through the life and death of Christ, God has shown us clearly and unambiguously that disloyalty need be no impediment.  In Christ, all is forgiven.  This is so not only for the Hebrew people, but for all who are called into the community of God created by Jesus.  As the book of 1 Corinthians tells us, ‘He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1. 8, 9).  On that basis, when the bombs fall on you from the sky and the ground opens up beneath you, you have every right to call on God and demand what is yours: Salvation!  Not just the salvation of your soul, but the salvation of your body and your planet as well.  This is God’s promise and God’s gift to all who are joined to Christ.  So don’t be backward in coming forward.  If life is giving you a hard time, if GOD is giving you a hard time, and you’ve run out of honest confessions, then call on God to honour the promises God has made.  Pour out your lament, and don’t hold back.  Ask for what is yours as a child of God: your salvation, your healing, the liberation of the world from its bondage to decay.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with pleading for what is already yours in the gift of God.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bearing Fruit for the Kingdom

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30

Here are some thoughts about a parable of Jesus by which many are puzzled and even bewildered, the parable of the 'talents'.  I will begin with some observations about the historical and theological background of the parable, and then make one or two suggestions about what the parable is trying to communicate.

Let us begin by being quite clear about what a parable is, and why Jesus told parables.  According to the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, a parable is a story which seeks to question and subvert the very fabric of reality as it is commonly understood by its hearers.  To everyone who smugly assumes that they know what is real and understand how life really works, the parable says: “Is life really like that?  Are you sure?  What if you are wrong?  How would you change your life if you were wrong?”  This explains why parables are often rather difficult to understand.   Parables only begin to make sense when the hearers are prepared to entertain the possibility that reality may not work as it seems to work.  Clearly, that is a very difficult thing for many of us to do.  Most of us would prefer to assume that we are right about the world, that there are some objective truths out there that we all have in common, that the meaning of life comes down to a certain amount of common-sense.    To people who think like that, parables are rather troubling, for if we take them seriously, they have the potential to shake the very foundations on which we have built our lives.

Jesus, it seems, was particularly fond of the parabolic form of story-telling.  He was not the first to use parables, nor was he the last.  But it is generally agreed that he remains the master of the genre.  In reading the gospels, it is clear that Jesus used parables for a particular reason:  he wanted to show his contemporaries that the world they experienced every day was not the most real world, and that many of the values they lived by were not, in the end, of much lasting consequence.  For Jesus believed that a yet more real reality was arriving in the world, a reality he called ‘the kingdom of heaven’.  All the parables Jesus told are about the kingdom of heaven, and about the way in which its arrival will not only change things, but turn almost everything his hearers assumed as common-sense upside-down.  The parable we are focussing on this morning, the parable of the ‘talents’, is no exception.

Right from the very beginning of the story it is clear that we are not dealing with reality as it would have been commonly understood by the Jewish people of Jesus’ contemporaries.  For no master with any sense would leave such incredibly large amounts of money in the care of his slaves, no matter how well they had served him.  Do you understand how much a ‘talent’ was in the Roman money?  Most recent scholarship agrees that a talent was the equivalent of fifteen year’s wages for the average farm-labourer.  In today’s Australian money, that would be about $405 000.  So when the master leaves five talents to one of his slaves, two talents to another, and one talent to a third, we are clearly talking about a master who is certainly NOT like any master known to first century Jews!  NO master would trust a mere slave with such massive amounts of cash.  ANY such master would be widely regarded as either mad or morally impaired. 

A second indication that we are dealing, here, not with reality as it was commonly understood, but with some kind of alternative reality, is the behaviour of the first two slaves upon receiving the cash.  Without any precise permission or instruction from their Master whatsoever, they immediately take the money out into the market place and invest it.  They pour the money into ventures that, precisely because they have the potential to create more wealth, are also incredibly risky.  Now, in the normal scheme of things, any first century Jew would have been deeply shocked at the very prospect.  There would first be the question as to why a slave might take such risks.  For, under Roman law, a slave could in no way expect that they, themselves, would be enriched by such speculations.  Slaves had no rights whatsoever.  They received no wages and had no personal control over their futures.  If a master became displeased with them, whether the reason be fair or unfair, they could be sold or even executed without any recourse whatsoever.  So what could possibly motivate a slave to take such enormous, and potentially catastrophic, risks with his master’s money—especially when the master had given no such instruction to that effect?  The answer is “nothing at all”!  In Roman-occupied Judea such a thing would never happen.  Never.  The more common-sense thing would be to act as the third slave does.  Out of a well-founded fear for his life, any sensible slave would simply hide the money away in a very safe place so that there could be no risk of loss.

And there is yet a third indication that we are dealing here with a very uncommon vision of reality.  When the master returns he does exactly the opposite of what any decent, sensible master ought to have done.  For while the first two slaves might have used their skills to make the master more wealthy, that wealth could in no way be seen as justification for the incredible risks taken in generating that wealth.  According to the values of Jesus’ hearers, a ‘good’ master should have received the cash, put it in the bank, but then punished the two slaves for their incredible irresponsibility.  But that is not what our parabolic master does.  No, just the opposite, and to a positively outrageous extent!  Not only does he reward the slaves with his thanks, but he also invites them to share in their master’s joy—which is a first-century way of saying ‘you are now shareholders and co-owners of my estate’!  Contrast that with way the third slave is treated, the common-sensical one who behaved most responsibly.  Even the money he safely preserved is removed from him and he is summarily thrown out into the street to become the very refuse of his society. 

So you see, this is a story that would have been deeply confronting for Jesus’ first hearers.  To them, it would have made no sense—no common sense—whatsoever.  So why did Jesus tell the story?  Well, as becomes clear from the context in which the parables occurs in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tell the parable because he wants his hearers to know that there is a revolution on its way called ‘the kingdom of heaven’.  He wants them to know that when that kingdom arrives on the earth, things are going to be very different, so they had better get ready for that kingdom’s arrival by beginning to live and behave as though the kingdom was already here.  Allow me to summarise what I believe the central message of the parable was for Matthew’s first audience.

Matthew used the parable to tell his hearers what God was like.  ‘The God of Jesus Christ is not like the God that most of you believe in’, said Matthew to his people.  ‘God is not a tyrant who wants to keep us enslaved, maintaining watchful control over everything we do.  Neither is God a landlord who exploits our labour in order to enrich himself alone.  No, God is infinitely generous.  All that we have, God has given us, whether skills, talents, personal resources or money.  All are given as genuine gifts, that is, they are given to us to use as we wish.  And while God would clearly like us to invest our gifts wisely—that is, according to the strange wisdom of the kingdom of God in which wisdom is often mistaken for foolishness—God is not a puppet-master who would run the whole show from behind the scenes.  No, with every free gift, we are also given genuine responsibility.  We are free to use our gifts either for good or for ill.  In this God has made himself rather vulnerable.  He has invested in us, and what we do with God’s investment really matters.  If we use what we are given for good, we and God will share together in the joy that we have created together.  If, on the other hand, we use God’s investment only for ill—only for keeping ourselves ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ in the world (as the world would understand safety and security)—it is not only ourselves and our neighbours, but also God who suffers the consequences of our lack in both imagination and generosity.  For God invests in us out of a spirit of very risky generosity.  If we hide that investment in the ground, if we do not re-invest what we are given according to that same spirit of generosity, then the whole world is impoverished.  Not only we ourselves, but also our neighbours, and God himself.’

All parables have a 'sting' in their tale. So let's be clear that the sting in the tail of this parable has both an ancient and a modern iteration.  The ancient iteration, as I've already made clear, is the idea that a wealthy landowner would share his profitable investments with slaves.  The other side of this particular coin is the idea that a slave might be justly punished for NOT taking unauthorized risks with his or her master's money.  Either suggestion would have been most offensive to a first century audience. One should note, however, that the parable is not actually concerned with money, first of all, but with faithfulness in the kingdom of heaven.  In the context of the gospel of Matthew, the servants who make risky investments and share in their master's plenty are like those who are called to be salt and light, whose righteousness 'far exceeds' that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5.13-16, 20). They are also like those who store up 'treasures in heaven' (6.19-21), who are 'shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves' (10.16).  The good they invest is like the gospel itself which, when sown in good soil, produces a crop 'yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown' (13.23) or like the mustard seed, which 'though the smallest of all seeds, grows to become the largest of garden plants' (13.31).  Again, the goods these servant invest are like the five loaves and the two fishes that Jesus multiplies to feed several thousand people (14.18-21) or like the expensive jar of perfume which is poured out liberally to anoint Jesus for burial (26.6-13) but which is multiplied a hundredfold in the resurrection.  The common theological theme here, as I noted above, is that grace multiplies itself, like the money left to the servants, who then share in the 'joy' of their master.

The servant who hid his money in the ground, however, is like the Scribes and Pharisees who are not interested in grace and its multiplication, but only in an uncreative and deeply conservative keeping of what they have already received in tradition (9.16, 17; 12.1-14 ) and, because of their lack of creatively iterative faith, are 'thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' (8.12; cf 13.50 and 22.13).  The point here is that the servant who buries what he is given in the ground clearly represents, for Matthew, those of Jesus' hearers who fail to produce fruit for the kingdom, especially the religious authorities who seek to cast aside the invitation at every turn (21.43-46).

Turning, then, to the ways in which the parable might sting a modern audience, I would risk the following.  Many moderns have reduced the meaning of the love of God to a form of middle-class niceness that asks, for example, 'How could God be so cruel as to punish an uncreative servant who conservatively preserves what he is given in the ground?'  In fact, however, the the punishment of the uncreative servant is consistent with the punishments envisaged throughout Matthew's gospel for those who receive God's grace but do nothing gracious (read 'excessive or risky') with it.  Grace is like the manna given Israel in the desert: if you bury it in the ground or try to hold on to it for a rainy day, it will go rotten, it will cease to be grace (Ex 16). If grace is not received as grace, as that which must constantly be given again, reinvested in other lives, then those who receive completely misunderstand the God who gives it.  They mistake God, as the uncreative servant does, for someone who is a bullying magistrate who wants us to follow the mere letter of the 'law', very often in the politically correct form it is received in our own particular culture and society.  Here the kingdom of heaven, and its radical values, are functionally replaced with the conservative mores and norms of middle-class society.  But God is a God of generosity and freedom, who gives us the gift of life that it may be ever more given in the spirit of generosity in which it was originally given.  Those who bury this gift in the ground clearly punish themselves as well as others - they cut off the ever-multiplying potential of the life God has given. But the freedom in which the gift was given also guarantees that their choice to hoard rather than risk will be honoured by God.  They shall indeed be cast, as they cast themselves, 'out into the darkness' where the hoarders go to hide their lights under a bushell.  In this sense, if one actually believes in the word of Scripture (rather than standing over it in the guise of a middle-class judge) one must also conclude that such a one who 'does not have, even what he has shall be taken from him'.