The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)

So one day a rich man goes off on a journey. Before he does, however, he asks three of his servants to invest his money. Two of them go away, use their entrepreneurship to double their investment and return their boss’s cash with more besides. He’s overjoyed, of course, because this is a substantial sum of money. Everyone ends up celebrating.

Everyone, that is, except the third servant, who, for reasons of his own, disobeys his master and buries the money in a hole. His employer is, not surprisingly, unimpressed.

That’s how the Parable of the Talents goes, and the interpretation is evident – God entrusts us with resources, talents and relationships and we’re supposed to use them to further his Kingdom. There’s a responsibility here, and that’s a lesson the third servant learned to his cost.

Hmm. The third servant. Traditionally the third servant is the point of the story; he disobeys his master and pays the price – he was given a talent, worth twenty years’ wages, so we’re not talking peanuts here. This makes the parable a warning, and it partly is, but there’s a danger in taking that too much to heart – after all, should serving God become a duty we reluctantly carry out simply because we’re afraid of the consequences? Or does that just make the attitude displayed by the third servant a self-fulfilling prophecy? The third servant sees his master as harsh, judgmental and unfair, and he acts appropriately – or does he? If the master is really that bad, why didn’t the servant at least make an effort?

See, his boss points out that he could have just put the money on deposit and earned some interest. Instead, the servant went to the trouble of physically digging a hole and dumping the money in there. It almost sounds like it was harder work to not make a profit.

So what if the servant’s assault on his boss’s character is really just a cover for his own apathy? Is there any objective evidence that the master is the unreasonable badass he’s made out to be? Or is the description provided in verse 24 just an extension of the servants own heart, much like the elder son’s attitude towards his father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (more on that here)?

Let’s try looking at things from the perspective of the first two servants, because there are actually two gifts on display here: not just the money itself but also the opportunity to use it to build a Kingdom. It’s this second gift that reveals the hearts of the servants and their attitudes towards God. The third servant couldn’t be bothered and the Kingdom is smaller as a result. The other two servants, however…

We’re entrusted with so much and most of it can be used for the benefit of others and as an extension of our relationship with God. After all, he invites us to work with him to build a Kingdom that isn’t just in the future, isn’t just up on a cloud somewhere but here and now. That’s a huge privilege – the sums entrusted to the servants are insanely extravagant and so are the profits. That money in your account, that thing you can do better than anyone else, the circumstances you find yourself in? Their value can be incalculable when approached from the perspective of God’s Kingdom.

So let’s not just read this parable as a warning. Let’s see it as an invite. God gives us a talent or five and asks us to build his Kingdom. That might be sharing his story, it might be digging a well or running a soup kitchen or becoming a voice for the oppressed. It could be a thousand and one things but a single fact underlies them all – God gives us the chance to build a Kingdom. That’s an incredible honour.

Let’s not get apathetic and start throwing the things we’re given into a hole somewhere. Let’s use that with which we’ve been blessed to achieve something that will echo into eternity.

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Prayer and the Art of Whack-a-Mole Games

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(This post was inspired by an interview with 24-7 Prayer founder Pete Greig conducted by the Nomad podcast. Well worth checking out.)

I struggle with prayer.

There, I’ve said it. I know I’m not saying anything too taboo, but all the same I think it’s a view that’s fairly common among Christians, a view that’s often accompanied by a sense of guilt or inadequacy. If you asked me who I most admire in church, it’s the people who have been dedicated to prayer for years, who have prayer in their bones. I guess for a lot of churches, the prayer meeting is sparsely attended, kept going by the perseverance of a handful of people who are absolutely committed to corporate prayer. These people need to be celebrated, although I suspect they’d disagree.

Me? I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I find prayer difficult. I can muster together the words when I need to, but often when praying it’s easy to get frustrated or distracted or to fall asleep. Except for one sort of prayer.

Now don’t get me wrong, petition is important. We absolutely should pray for other people. If we don’t, we’re not doing what God wants us to do. Praying for others, praying for ourselves when there’s a problem, isn’t the problem.

No, the problem is how we perceive that sometimes. Heck, it’s how I treat prayer far too often: like some great big cosmic Whack-a-Mole game. Problems pop up, like illness or conflict or lack of money, and we ask God to whack those moles. And sometimes the moles don’t get whacked, so we get annoyed with God, because let’s face it, if God’s omnipotent he should be able to score 100% on the Whack-a-Mole game of life.

Embarrassing, isn’t it?

Here’s what challenged me on this: in the interview mentioned earlier, Pete Greig raises the question that, if God walked and talked with Adam and Eve before the Fall, what did they talk about?

I mean, there was no pain, no suffering, no death, no poverty, the whole situation was blessed… What did they find to talk about?

Could it be that petition is only a part of prayer, and that prayer as a whole should be a way of building a relationship with God, regardless of our needs and irrespective of how many moles get whacked?

Yeah, yeah. I know I’m not saying anything original or profound. But saying and doing are two different things. And maybe it’s worth noting that God walking and talking with Adam and Eve is only really inferred – the one reference we get to it in Genesis is the moment it all goes wrong. I guess the Fall affects our prayer life, and the consequences of that Fall can too often become the only focus of our prayers – “Lord, make things better.” And there’s nothing wrong with that sort of petition, but I’m becoming more and more aware that my prayer life needs to be bigger than that, that if Christ’s death and resurrection heals the rift between us and God, then prayer should be about building a relationship, not a supply chain.

Easier said than done. Like I said earlier, I close my eyes to pray and suddenly I go to sleep, or start singing CBeebies theme songs in my head. And while I need to work on my discipline and my approach to prayer, there’s only do much I can do in my own strength. It’s interesting that most of the profound, moving moments of prayer I’ve experienced in my life have been when I’ve shut up, opened my heart and given God room to work. More often than not, those moments have happened by accident rather than design.

And so I’ll continue to petition God: heck, reading the news I need to petition God more. But that’s only a facet of prayer. And I know my pitiful prayer life has to be bigger and more expansive and I don’t quite know how that can happen, but I suspect it goes back to asking something, something simple yet profound, something that acknowledges I can’t do this alone.

“Lord, help me to pray.”

The Parable of the Banquet (Luke 14:12-24)

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I think sometimes we overlook Jesus’s power as a storyteller. There he is, walking the dusty streets of Israel, captivating audiences with parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, stories told centuries ago but that have somehow gotten into our bones. The stories of Jesus change us.

The Parable of the Banquet is one of these stories. One day, a man decides to throw a banquet. The richest food, the finest wine is prepared and out go the invitations. These go to the in-crowd, the dignitaries, the VIPs.

And no-one comes.

Oh sure, they make excuses, but these excuses show their priorities, and a relationship with their would-be host isn’t one of them. So the doors of the banquet are thrown open – to the poor, the hurting, the outsiders.

It’s not really a subtle parable. God’s the guy who’s throwing the banquet and those who take his invitation for granted find themselves outside his Kingdom, while the partygoers are those rejected by polite society but who nevertheless find themselves responding to God ‘s invitation. It’s a lesson for the Church to learn – the Kingdom often grows unexpectedly, outside structures of religious privilege and comfort, in places where God is more important than doctrine.

But that’s the politics of it. The heart of this story is grace, pure and simple. While Jesus’s audience here is made up of insiders in danger of becoming lost, let’s look at it from the perspective of those who did accept the invite.

A couple of days ago, two workers with the Fusion project were asked to replicate this parable – you can see a video of it here, and read a behind-the-scenes account here. The amazing thing about this was the inclusivity of it all – middle class and homeless, Brits and Hungarians, Church and Starbucks, all shared in an outpouring of grace and community. This is the Kingdom, one facet of it at least, and it’s beautiful.

Sometimes, though, this beauty scares me: I wouldn’t know how to relate to someone who has to sleep in a doorway, wouldn’t know how to deal with someone off their face on drugs. And yet the Kingdom of God encompasses all those in need of grace, myself included, and demands I follow Jesus into a world where the church throws banquets for anyone who’ll come and throws a birthday party for a prostitute at 3am. It’s scary and humbling and amazing, all at once.

2,000 years ago, a thirty-something rabbi told a tale that found itself embodied in 21st century York. The party is for all and grace is poured out in streets and coffee shops and church halls. People can change and the world can be transformed – restored – into a different place.

This is the power of God’s great Story.

(On thinking about it, this connects to another post I wrote, all about ‘cooking for Christ’. Here’s the link.)

Water into Wine (John 2:1-11)

Water transformed into wine is probably Jesus’s most famous miracle – it’s the one that gets referred to by comedians because, hey, being able to turn water into wine is pretty useful, right?

Thing is, it’s a miracle I’ve never quite been able to get my head around. John 2:1-11 calls it the first of Jesus’s miraculous ‘signs’ but there are a couple of things about it I don’t get.

The context: Jesus and his family are at a wedding when the hosts realise they’re running low on wine. This is a major social blunder, inviting gossip and mockery for years to come. You’re supposed to have enough wine for a wedding celebration, and if you haven’t, well, you’re either stingy or inhospitable. To put a modern slant on it, material for the next five years for the producers of Don’t Tell The Bride.

Mary finds out about this and figures that if anyone will know what to do, it’s Jesus – fair enough. Thing is, Jesus seems reluctant to do anything – his time has not yet come, ‘his time’ being John’s term for the crucifixion and resurrection. It’s almost as if his mission hasn’t quite started in earnest, that performing miracles starts the countdown.

Which is interesting, because there’s a theory that, because Jesus’s disciples are also at the wedding, possibly unexpectedly, the wine running low is actually their fault. Which may be an explanation for Mary basically ignoring Jesus’s reluctance and putting the ball firmly back in his court.

Regardless, Jesus ends up helping – he tells the hosts to fill huge ceremonial jars with water, which he proceeds to transform into wine. It’s good wine too – everyone else brings out the good stuff first, but at this wedding, they’ve saved the best for last. What could have been a social disaster becomes an occasion for the hosts to receive gushing compliments. But has the clock started ticking?

So maybe, perhaps more than any of the other miracles, this is a collision between the everyday and the divine, a wedding and the Kingdom of God. Wine in the Old Testament is a symbol of God’s blessing – obedience to God will lead to an outpouring of wine throughout the land. There’s something going on underneath the surface, and the provision of wine is about more than just saving someone’s blushes. There may also be parallels with the first miracle of Moses – he transformed water into blood as an act of judgement, Jesus transforms water into wine as an act of grace and blessing.

And yet let’s not overlook the hosts of the wedding. They were facing public humiliation, and yet Jesus comes along and saves them from that. Sure, the miracle may have symbolic importance, but it has immediate social value as well. Maybe that’s a lesson from the story we don’t think about too often – Christians shouldn’t be in the business of letting people be humiliated. I know that’s a difficult teaching, given how snarky we can get in proving our modern-day relevance, or how aggressive we can get when defending whatever belief takes priority over love and grace this week, but there you go.

And so maybe that’s why I’ve struggled with the ‘meaning’ of this miracle – it’s an intersection between two worlds that, through the mission of Jesus, are in the process of being made one. Sometimes it’s difficult to see the implications of that, hard to see what’s happening with Jesus’s enigmatic statements and Mary’s refusal to take “no” for an answer.

But at it’s core, this is a miracle of blessing, of love, of grace. And these are things to which we need to cling.

The Hebrew Midwives: The Power of the Powerless (Exodus1)

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Sometimes you read a passage in the Bible and you’re struck with how unexpectedly relevant it seems. Take, for instance, the story of the two Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1.

The context: the Israelites have been living in Israel for about 200 years now, after Joseph helped saved the country from starvation at the end of Genesis. However, that was a long time ago, and the Israelites have gone from being honoured guests to, well, unappreciated immigrants. Even though they’ve been there for decades, the surrounding population, including the Pharaoh, has started to distrust them – they’re having too many kids, sooner or later they’ll be taking over, and you know we can’t trust them, because they’re not really like us and we can’t trust them to be on our side in a war and…

It all sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? Replace ‘Israelites’ with ‘Muslims’ or ‘Mexicans’ or, well, ‘Jews’ and we’re not a million miles away from the sort of thing that can easily be found in the press or on the internet today. About the only thing the Israelites aren’t accused of is stealing the jobs of Egyptians, but that’s because they’re pressed into slavery.

Looks like this sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years. Sometimes it’s so engrained we don’t even notice how insidious it is. That’s why, when we encounter the immigration debate (whatever form it takes in whatever country you happen to live in) we need to take a step back and see if we’re really reflecting the love of Christ when we’re reflecting – or complaining – about it.

But it’s not just an example of anti-immigration rhetoric; there’s something else going on. Look at Exodus 1:7: “The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land as filled with them.” This echoes Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:1 (the creation of humanity and the aftermath of the Flood respectively) and does so using the language of childbirth, which makes it interesting when we’re introduced to the heroes of this particular passage.

There’s a bit of controversy about this story – did God reward the midwives for lying? Some have said that lying was the lesser of two evils and necessary to prevent genocide; others have claimed that they were actually telling the truth and the babies were born before the midwives arrived. I’m not even going to pretend to have an answer for this (although to me, the passage implies that the midwives were present for the births, which means they’re giving Pharaoh a false alibi rather than a straight-forward explanation) but it’s worth looking at the wider context.

Effectively Shiphrah and Puah save children from ethnic cleansing. Whether or not they lied, and the ethics of that, is a secondary discussion – they’re the undoubted heroines of this chapter, and I suspect they’re able to get away with it precisely because they’re women. After all, they’re midwives – they’re the ones with access to the newborn children – and they know about childbirth. It’s this knowledge that allows them to muddy the waters with Pharaoh; I suspect he had little experience or even interest in the ins and outs of childbirth, or went to many antenatal classes. No, this is a rescue that could only be carried out by women, and results in more babies being born. Pharaoh’s ignorance of the Hebrews allows the most powerful man in the kingdom to be outwitted by two people significantly further down the social ladder. That’s what happens when you dehumanise people.

But not only are Shiphrah and Puah two of the earliest biblical women who actually prove more faithful and heroic than many of the men around them (note that the Bible never tells us the name of this particular Pharaoh, but we know the names of two midwives – God’s priorities aren’t the same as ours), but they’re also emblematic of those who make the right decision in the face of genocide; they join the ranks of all those ordinary people who spoke out against injustice and who saved innocent lives when history clouded over. They deserve to be remembered alongside iconic names like Oskar Schindler and my local hero Frank Foley. After all, while they may not have been the most powerful people in the kingdom, they were able to take what they had – their knowledge, their jobs, their faith – and use it to show love for others and love for God. In doing so they become a pattern for you and me – let’s pray that, next time we’re faced with a decision for good or evil, we’re able to follow their example and use the power of the powerless to make a difference in the world.