Tuesday 18 November 2014

An Acceptable Risk

I have a little anxiety, sometimes, about understanding parables in the gospels.  Interpreting them isn't always obvious - obviously - and the subtleties and nuances of the stories often allow for a variety of ways in which they can speak to us.  Our own personal context is a factor, too.

But that's all good because, ultimately, how The Word speaks to us will be true if we listen for what is true.

That's all by way of saying that sometimes I think we have to allow for the presence of variety, even if we are hearing only one voice today.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) has many voices.  It's the story of a man, going on a journey, who entrusts his wealth to three servants, each, it says, according to their ability.  So he gives them "talents," a measured weight of gold or silver: to the first he gives five talents, the second gets two and the third, one.  When he returns, the first two have used their talents to double the amount they were given and are congratulated by the man.  The third, however, was afraid of what the man would do if he lost it, so he buried it in a field.  He returned only the single talent he was given.  The man was angry at the third servant and, after rewarding the first two, cast the third one out "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Yikes.

Churches have often used this parable as a stewardship story: we have talents - both money and, literally, talents - that we should invest in the work of the church.  Why, yes you do and you should.  But others might flip things and suggest that the third servant is Jesus, the one who stands up to the expectations of a greedy, wealth dominated society and looses his life.  Fair enough.  And there's more, so much more in this parable.  Read it and see how it speaks to you.

Today, the voice I'm hearing is the one that says "don't be afraid."

At the heart of this parable I find risk.  And I'm reminded of how frequently Jesus said "don't be afraid."  Whether you engage your talents to build up or to challenge, you do so with an element of risk and risk is required for living.

Look at the behaviours in the story for a moment.  In the first interpretation, the third servant is afraid of the master and his fear paralyzes him.  The others have no fear and are willing to take risks and, as a result, gain.  In the second, one might consider that the third servant names the wrong behaviour of the master, that's emulated by the other servants, and is punished.  The other servants, however, may not simply be copying the master, they may only be doing what was expected of them, fearful of doing anything different.

But the very idea of the "talents" inspires me to want to go so much deeper than just behaviour.  To the average person hearing Jesus speak, even a single talent was a lifetime's worth of work.  So maybe we're talking about something of more value than money or things.

Our behaviours will sometimes fail us, risks will not always be successful, but God will always be with us.  That belief is sustaining, life giving, risk following and fear defeating.  Jesus so frequently reminds us to not be afraid because it is the presence of fear that puts us in the "outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

This isn't about behaviour, it's about something deeper.  It's about our relationship with God and how we take Jesus' teaching to heart.  True transformation doesn't come from changed behaviour, it comes from going into the depths of ourselves and finding God there, present in our lives.  And with God's presence, we are not afraid to live out what Jesus teaches us, from heart into action, fearlessly risking new life.

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