A sermon preached on Sunday 4 August 2019 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
Colossians 3.12-17, 23-24; Luke 19.11-27
The clergy of the Church of England can be blamed for many things, but the greatest indictment of people like me is the theological illiteracy of the people who have to listen to us. For generations past we clergy have been trained to read the Bible as a complex and multi-layered literary text - but have we tried, let alone succeeded, in conveying that fact? By way of analogy, by the time the very first Test match between England and Australia took place - back in the 1870s - the critical study of the scriptures was thoroughly established in academia. In the intervening decades the Ashes have become regarded as ancient tradition; but the average discourse about the Bible in Church and society remains extraordinarily naive, often fundamentalist. No half-educated Biblical theologian in more than 150 years could argue that the world was created in 6 days, and yet we still get bogged down in discussions about whether Darwin’s theory undermines Christian faith.
So I’m very conscious that we have a lot to answer for; we clergy have been educated for the benefit of our congregations, and our congregations haven’t benefited. The Bible, for all that our liturgies and our lip service may suggest, remains a substantially closed book.
Having said that, one can see how this has happened when we look at a familiar enough story, the parable of the talents. To start with, there are two versions of this story, one in Luke and one in Matthew. Secondly, a quick glance at any commentary on these gospels will draw to your attention the subtly differing insights and suggestions of dozens of different scholars, often on the most minor meanings. These things don’t make for easy study and digestion, and they certainly don’t lead to sparkling sermons.
One of the key insights of the great endeavour of biblical scholarship has been that these texts have a prehistory. Take as one example the things that Jesus said. His language was Aramaic; unlike Paul (whose language was Greek) Jesus didn’t go around with a scribe to take down what he said, because Jesus wasn’t writing letters. So anything he said - and it was evidently plenty - that was remembered and passed on, a bit like retweets of our era, was not in written form; it was passed on by word of mouth, then gathered together into collections, then woven into narratives such as the accounts by the different gospel writers of the life and meaning of Jesus. Then those gospel texts were copied and passed around, then they were grouped together into longer collections which became our New Testament. And all those written texts were in Greek - not in the language spoken by Jesus - and then in due course they have been translated into other languages, Latin, French, English, and countless others, and rendered into each of those languages many different times. The gospels contain a tiny handful of sayings by Jesus which may be in his own words, and they are mere phrases: Abba, talitha cum. For everything else we must acknowledge that it is through many other people and processes that we have received every word.
And of course at every stage in this preservation and transmission, it’s been done because those passing it on believed that what Jesus said was of deep, life-changing importance. So they have been looking, as we do, for meaning and application in these sayings, interpreting them. You can see this quite easily when you look at the parables: these were a very common way of teaching, little analogies from daily life from which simple lessons can be gleaned. Jesus evidently talked a great deal about the mystery of God-given growth in nature, with tiny seeds bringing huge plants, with yeast raising the whole lump, and so on. Most likely he was talking about the kingdom of God having such tiny beginnings as the group who gathered and heard and followed him, and the inconceivable potential which they represented. But pass these sayings on a few generations and via a number of languages and cultures, each of them trying to squeeze the full juice of meaning from what he had said, and you can get remarkably convoluted developments of these stories. So we receive the parable of the sower, which is quite simple at heart, laid out with an elaborate interpretation in which every element is individually explained, and with the footnote that no-one could understand these parables and fortunately Jesus had given the apostles the key to explaining them.
So to the parable of the talents. I suggest you go home and look at the version in Matthew chapter 25, and this version in Luke 19. The core narrative is the same - a man leaves some assets with a number of servants; and those assets come back to him either multiplied, or just as he left them; the productive underlings are praised and rewarded, the unproductive are condemned. Beyond that core narrative, there are many variations of detail and interpretation.
Now I could spend a very long time talking about those variations and their implications. But I would rather not, because I would like to leave you to do that - to chew these things and extract some juice for yourselves. One of the reasons congregations haven’t engaged in Biblical study is that they’ve felt that’s someone else’s work – ‘we can leave that to the experts’. But Jesus was not speaking to the experts; in fact he spent a lot of his energy challenging and being rude about them. His audiences were normal people; and his sayings are for the people today too. They are not mine, but yours. And remember, one of the great differences between a story and a commandment is that it is open-ended - it lives in us rather than instructing us, it is open and not closed.
So I’m going to limit myself to just a few comments on this parable. It may seem to be an economics lesson - and indeed, having read this week of the ways in which one might actually make money through various risky investments in the event of a recession in the British economy should there be no deal over Brexit, I was reminded that those who have money can make money, while those who don’t and are just getting by live on another plane - that’s not the point. We’ve always known the rich get richer; but this isn’t about a divine endorsement of that.
It’s about faith versus fear. To be faithful is to make a leap, to take a chance. To be fearful is to be insecure, defensive, self-limiting. You and I have been given that gift of faith; in your case, or my case, it may be the tiniest thing, like the coin in our pocket or the seed in our cupboard - but it is inconceivably rich in potential and it needs to be used. If we don’t use it, it will shrivel away, be wasted. The responsibility is ours.