Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Warning about making tradition sterile


HOMILY at the 10h30 MASS for the SECOND SUNDAY before ADVENT (A) 2017

Today’s Gospel reading is a familiar parable – that of the Talents. It is a parable capable of many different interpretations – and we should probably beware of the simplest ones!

In S. Matthew’s Gospel, this is the sixth – and last true parable in a series of seven pieces, the final one being a description of the great Assize rather than a parable. The six ‘true parables’ are parables of warning.  But warning of what exactly? Warning to be careful what you do with your money? I don’t think so, though when this parable appears in the later apocryphal Gospel of the Nazarenes, the third servant is one who rushes off and spends the money he is given on harlots and flute women (I quote directly), finishing up thrown into prison! Warning of the delay in the Lord’s return, then – as in the previous parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids which we had last week? There is some evidence to suggest that the Church for whom Matthew was writing did have this in mind, yes. Is it about the wise or foolish use of one’s abilities? Well, maybe, but probably not quite as directly as that.

If we can get back to the parable as told by Jesus himself, it is quite likely that it was directed towards the Scribes. There are suggestions in the vocabulary used (Matthew uses the word paradidwmi) that Jesus is referring – in the talents given to each of the slaves – to something handed down. The tradition of faith in other words. Most particularly there may be a hidden criticism to that static approach to the faith tradition in Judaism which was adopted by the influential and aristocratic Sadducees.

Certainly that ties in with what the third servant did in Matthew’s version of the parable. Out of fear he went and buried the talent in the ground. Burial was, according to Rabbinical Law, regarded as the best security against theft. And anyone who buried a pledge or a deposit immediately he had received it was free from all subsequent liability. But hiding has a deeply sinister resonance. Adam tried to hide from God in the garden of Eden.

Maybe something of all these strands begins to emerge as we read this parable. Along with the fact that God’s accountancy practice is rather different to human systems, and it is the one who has made the most profit who is given the talent retrieved from the ground! A resonance here with the parable of the workers in the Vineyard, from earlier in the Gospel.

So what might this parable be warning us against? Perhaps all the things that I have mentioned, and there’s always a danger of reading into holy scripture what one wishes to see or hear, but if we are trying to get back to what may have been the original context for Jesus’s telling of this parable, it’s quite likely that he was warning of the moment of crisis which was upon the religious leaders. Out of fear, they had allowed faith to fossilize, to turn something living into a dead letter, to effectively bury the living tradition in the soil for safety. But this was to render that living and life-giving tradition of faith sterile and useless. And great danger lay ahead – as they were soon to discover when the Temple was destroyed.

It’s a perennial temptation for religious people. As Christians, we rely very much upon tradition – in the fullest sense what is handed down to us. Through holy scripture, through Church teaching and Christian experience and all through the working in every age of God the Holy Spirit, we discover the reality of God’s self-revelation in Jesus.

In that there is an unchanging nature to tradition. It’s there to connect us to this ultimate reality of God’s self-revelation in Jesus, the same yesterday, today and for ever. But this is not a static process. Doctrine, Christian understanding, develops as it interacts with each and every generation. And tradition has to be both handed on to the next generation, but also properly and validly assimilated by the present one. The forms that the sacred tradition takes in each generation through that generation’s worship and Christian practice will change. Or should change. It is no more right to be using exclusively the language of the sixteenth century in our worship today than it would be to use exclusively the Latin or Greek tongues. There is room for Latin in our worship. There is room for sixteenth century prose too. But it is equally right that usually neither figure greatly.

Similarly, how we express ourselves in the Eucharist – the rite that is used – will reflect contemporary understanding of the whole tradition. Not the part that the sixteenth century found important. There must be opportunity for true interpenetration of contemporary life by Christian tradition, and vice verse.

The servant in the parable – and it was just a parable not an allegory because the harsh and rapacious master cannot be thought of as representing Christ – the servant who went off and buried his money was afraid. And when people are afraid they retreat into hiding, they stick with what they know and cut themselves off from the people around them. Jesus warned the religious leaders of his time about this.

And he warns us too. If Matthew (and Luke since he has basically the same parable with a few edits) sees this parable as a warning of a delayed parousia when the Lord will return, this only adds more weight to the interpretation. For in this time-in-between, when the reign of God is already but not yet, already partially realised but not with the fullness we believe ultimately expresses the goal and purpose of all that is, in this time-in-between, we have a grave responsibility to ensure that tradition is a living reality, that Christian truth does not become sterile and lifeless. Because if it does, then with it will slip away the realisation of God’s reign amongst us. With the catastrophic consequences that has for our world. Not to mention the catastrophic consequences for us as individuals. Hiding out of fear from the reality of God for Adam leads to a banishment from the garden to a place where he may no longer enjoy easy conversation with God. We know those consequences. It is not something to which we may wish to choose to augment! Though Matthew spells out those consequences with his usual graphics – weeping and gnashing of teeth!  

We need to be honest here. It’s not easy to live with tradition. It’s easier to bury it in the ground and refer to it only when we are in trouble, digging it up for reference. What requires courage, humility and above all holiness, is to allow it to inform our Church life that others may find that life one that liberates rather than constrains – provided that it is the liberation that Christ wills to bring to human living.

In this there are times when we just have to act in faith – to believe that doctrine develops and it develops as we allow what we have received to interact with our present lives and knowledge and experience. This is never a matter for individual decision – but as members of Christ, as members of his Body the Church, we have one another to help us and to guide us as we interact with that life-giving stream of tradition in which comes to us the revealing of God

This is no academic matter for us here at Holy Trinity. It impinges upon questions of our liturgy and the language we use in it and in reading holy scripture – things which have been aired recently in our Newsletter. It impinges upon Building Tomorrow – our renovation project. What shape should our building take to enable our tradition to provide a life-giving encounter with the Risen Christ in 2017 and beyond. Is it likely to take the same shape as it did in 1853? How should we use the space and stones that have come to us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ tomorrow? We shall be thinking a great deal more about these questions over the weeks and months ahead. Please hold them in your prayers.