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Is God a ruthless exploiter of our talents?

Last Sunday’s gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary was the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25.14-30. The most popular interpretation of this is that God’s gives us abilities and gifts (‘talents’) and leaves us to get on with using them in fruitful and enterprising ways as responsible stewards until he returns and asks us to give an account of what we have done. So the moral is: do not bury your talents in the ground. There is an important and central corrective to this reading, which we will come to—but there is also a more radical reading which rejects the whole shape of this approach. This was expressed by a friend on Facebook last week:

The parable of the talents in today’s Gospel, and everywhere people will be exhorted to shine with God-given light lest in hiding it away they find themselves cast into outer darkness to gnash their teeth to the gums and such like. There’s a different angle; to me it’s all about the consequences of the ruthless exploitation of the powerless. I’ve always felt for the poor guy who buries his talent (library pictures) in the ground so it groweth not, and when his unattractive master returns he cops it for failing in enterprise – fired, like a hapless contestant on The Apprentice. But the ruthless master is surely not to be identified with Jesus, as preachers of v1 assume. It’s totally un-Matthean, and totally at odds with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

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Who are the sheep and the goats in Matt 25?

Jesus’ ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.31–46 is very well known and widely misinterpreted. (It is not actually a parable, since it is not introduced with the typical ‘The kingdom is like…’ and it is not making use of a story from another context, such as farming and economics, to draw out a principle.) It forms one part of the extended teaching about ‘the end’ distinctive to Matthew (compared with Mark and Luke). It is most commonly interpreted as an injunction to help the poor; most Christians (in the West at least) read this more or less as the sheep being Christians, the goats being non-Christians, and ‘the least of these my brothers [and sisters] being the poor in general.

I thought this too, until I had to read this in the context of the all-age part of our main service about 20 years ago. It is quite a long reading, so I was worried that the children and young people would get bored. But then it occurred to me: in the gospels, no-one ever tells Jesus that he is getting a bit boring. (What is it we do to Bible reading which makes it boring?!)

So I decided on Saturday night to learn it and recite it by heart. (I can still recite it word for word many years later.) The effect was electric, and particularly memorable for those sitting on my left…and it made me change my mind about the meaning of the parable, which is a good argument for learning Scripture.

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Can Spirit-led worship be structured?

What is the relationship between duty and joy—discipline and desire? Is it possible to have formal, liturgical, structured worship services in which there is also freedom and space for distinctive ministries of the Holy Spirit? Are formal liturgies themselves ‘gifts’ of the Spirit to the church for enabling our worship? Is Holy Communion ‘like the […]

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Should we be offended by Sausage Roll Jesus?

The high street baker Greggs released their first Advent Calendar last week and, as you will no doubt be aware, caused controversy by replacing Jesus in the manger with a sausage roll. There was the little flurry of ‘angry Christians protest’ stories, because newspaper columns only look interesting if there is conflict, and the more […]

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Jesus was not born in a stable (honest!)

I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas before the Christmas lights have even gone up—though perhaps it is better to do this now than the week before Christmas, when everything has been carefully prepared. But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have […]

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The Festival of Theology: 30th Jan 2018

One of the things I love about writing a blog is the fascinating interactions with the equally fascinating people who contribute to debate on social media and in the blog comments. So I have decided to host a one-day Festival of Theology on Tuesday 30th January 2018 here in Nottingham. The plan will be to […]

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Can we handle conflict like Jesus?

Mark Woods writes: Conflict in churches can be horrible. We are, after all, supposed to be able to get on with each other, and most of the time we do. Relationships can be close, friendships warm, trust absolute. When that’s broken, it’s really hard to deal with. Sometimes these conflicts arise because of human cussedness, otherwise […]

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Are we all guilty?

What will be the legacy of the extraordinary expression of solidarity that has unfurled with the #metoo social media phenomenon? It was launched on the back of the allegations by actress Alyssa Milano of abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein—but has travelled a long way from these celebrity elites. It has been clear, even from […]

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Did John see Revelation as a vision?

Most ordinary readers of Revelation assume that John had some sort of vision, and that what we have is a more-or-less straightforward description of what he saw as if he was describing a picture. But there are several reasons for qualifying this kind of understanding. The first relates the nature of visions and spiritual auditory […]

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