When I was 19 I had a shocking awakening. I discovered that – contrary to my belief – the way to get the exam grades that you need to succeed in life is not to spend all day playing bridge in the sixth form common room and all evening playing your guitar in your bedroom. I had got accepted into 2 medical colleges and had imagined a life of unimpeded success as GP in Stratford on Avon, and instead I’d got poorer results than was acceptable and I was devastated. The shock to the system felt like the end of the world. This was something that others were keen to tell me wasn’t happening – you know that annoying moment when you’re really low and someone says – ‘Never mind, it’s not the end of the world’. Your mind reels with replies like ‘It’ll be the end of yours if you say that again…’ but you’re too depressed to work up the energy.
Anyway – years later I’m well aware that it wasn’t the end of the world. Just the end of a certain kind of conceited naivety that everything would always go to plan. My wife says it’s a good thing because if I was a doctor now I’d be unbelievably arrogant. Which means that as it is she just finds me believably arrogant.
But that phrase is quite a telling question if you look at it another way. What would be the end of the world for you? When we’re asked that question we usually think of what or who it is that if we lost them it would feel like the end of the world, like we just couldn’t go on. Or perhaps what is it that we’re hoping for, and if it didn’t happen life just wouldn’t be worth living.
What would you say? People? Looks? Wealth? Health?
If you attend an Anglican church regularly – you’ll be familiar with the idea that some Sunday’s get special names – obviously Easter and Christmas – but then there’s Trinity Sunday, Palm Sunday, and even Mothering Sunday. Well, if today had a name, judging from the readings, it would be ‘end of the world’ Sunday. Because all three of our readings address the idea that there will be a day when God will intervene in human history and put an end to the world as we know it. It’s a wild idea – but it’s been at various times a voice of warning to those who are following false Gods, or being corrupt in their ways, or a voice of inspiration to those who are oppressed… that things will not always be this way, that the evil will not always be top dogs.
There is a recurring theme in the Bible – particularly in the prophets, that God will come in a flash and pronounce judgement on the people and the nations of the world. When the prophets speak they are nearly always telling people to beware of getting too entangled in the spirit of the age that you live as it might destroy your faithfulness to the one true God. They tell you that you can be seduced into wanting things that are not good for you, into participating in wrongdoing, into losing sight of what really matters. In fact they say that the end of the world would actually be good for people, as it would put an end to a world where evil had overcome good.
And whether we think that this idea is wearing a bit thin as it hasn’t happened in 4,000 years since it was first proclaimed so it’s not going to happen in my lifetime, the Bible doesn’t speak to us like that. Rather the Bible imprints wise warnings into our consciousness so that we might let God in for everyone’s good. It reminds us of the ways that we might miss the wonderful promise of life with our loving God, forever. And so the end of the world as we know it recurs as a prophetic theme reminding us that just as death stands over each of us individually as a moment of reckoning… so too the great and terrible day of the Lord stands over all societies and cultures as an impending moment of reckoning. So if the way to live a fulfilled life is to live every day as if it were your last, so the way to build a just and loving society is to create it as if God were to arrive and finish it tomorrow. What would God find? How different would we be if we knew that that were to happen?
But you might wonder how I can say that all 3 of our readings are about the end of the world as we know it. Sure, the Old Testament and the epistles are, but the Gospel reading is the parable of the talents. What has that got to do with the day of judgement? Give me 5 more minutes to tell you – because the answer is important for our day and age.
Unfortunately when we hear this parable out of context we don’t realise that it’s actually the 7th section of an 8 section set of sayings of Jesus, each giving another angle on how the world will be judged, and why his followers should not give up hope. These sayings appear at a devastating point in Jesus ministry. He is surrounded by his enemies and looks likely to be captured and maybe even killed. His dumfounded disciples are holding out for some amazing miracle; some great intervention, that God would stop everything and come to save his only son. Jesus is educating them that this is not the time for that.
So this parable tells of a rich man who goes to leave his land and calls in 3 of his servants. His servants, not his staff – these guys have no job descriptions, no contracts they live at the whim of the master. And these men have only seen one example of how to make it in life – one success story, and that’s the master. The one who we find out later in the story admits to being a corrupt thieving bully. And out of the blue the master calls in 3 servants, and presumably sees a good way of earning a few bucks in his own absence.
And this is where we need to know a little about the culture and currency of the
time – because what the master’s doing could be seen as pretty high-
So lets hear the story slightly retold for modern effect. A powerful, corrupt thug of a landowner called in 3 of his penniless workers. To one he gave 2 million pounds, to the second one million pounds to the third 500 thousand pounds. They had never seen such money, they had never even dreamt of such money. They must have quaked with fear at the thought of being entrusted with it – it’s possibly the last thing that they wanted. And in fact there is only really one thing they could do with it, which is to follow the example of their boss and ‘put it to work’. Goodness knows what that means – but the peasant hearers of Jesus’ story would have a good idea – they were very familiar with the lawlessness of the wealthy and the power and muscle that such a fortune can summon.
And as the story goes on – 2 of the servants emulate their master, double the value of the money and receive his great benefice on his return. Notice – they don’t particularly get a cut of the 1 or 2 million they’ve made him, just a promotion of some sorts – so let’s face it now they’re completely in his pocket – they’ve been bought. And the third servant – he bucks the system. He is by far the most courageous as he talks back to the master – he tells him that he recognises that he’s a corrupt man, stealing lands and crops from the poor. He will not participate in his master’s ways. In the way that Jesus tells the story the master’s guilt is clear and emphatic because the master complains that the servant wouldn’t even participate in earning interest – or ‘usury’ – something forbidden to the Jews. So there is no other way to read this story except that the first 2 servants had entered into the corruption of the master, and the third had stood up to him, and lost his livelihood if not his life, for the sake of what is right. The parable says that sometimes it’s better to lose your life than to sell your soul.
And I’m sure of that conclusion because of the wonderful twist that we can miss if we don’t read this parable in context. Because as the parable ends, the third servant is thrown into outer darkness... to a miserable end, just as Jesus is about to be for not participating in the corruption of his age but rather for standing up against it… and at the end of this parable Jesus begins his most enduring statement on the judgement of the world. That God’s judgement is all about God’s love, not vindication or punishment. He says.. ‘BUT (as in OK he looked like he was in outer darkness.. BUT.) when the Son of Man comes as King with all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne and divide all people as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats…’ and thus begins one of the most famous sayings of how Jesus comprehends the final judgement. It is a judgement where people are surprised that they have been chosen to be with God, because they didn’t recognise that when they cared for the poorest, the least, the afflicted, the prisoners, they were showing care for Him, for God himself. That those who put their wealth to use for the sake of the poorest were in fact investing it in the Kingdom of God. When we give to the least of God’s children, we give to God, is the message.
What a contrast from those in the parable who put their money to use for the rich landowner. There are it seems 2 ways to invest. One is to perpetuate the rich / poor divide, the other is to eradicate it. One is to see our money and work time as the way to power and ever greater security, the second is to see it as something that is better expended meeting God in those who have been beaten down by the system. The powerful of his time rejected Jesus then, and can do now, missing Him in the face of the poorest who suffer for their interests.
I wonder – if it were all to end tomorrow – if the world were stopped – would this morning’s communion be different for us? Or perhaps – how would this morning’s communion be different? Would your today be different? Because in a way if the answer’s ‘yes’ then we’ve missed some of the point of what’s going on here. Here is Jesus coming to us inviting us to form the community of the end of the world. Where forgiveness is the only reason we escape judgement, and being so forgiven we are liberated to build a world of love and justice, where all find a place and there is no point in accumulating wealth at others’ cost and every point in not buying into greed and corruption.
In a way – if there’s a gap between how today is, and how today would be if it were our last – then that might be the message of the End of the World Sunday.
Or perhaps the main message is that God has found us already and is now waiting to be found in the world we are about to change, until He comes.