Confidence to take risks – 2nd Sunday before Advent 2011

The boss had to go away to sort out a foreign subsidiary, and was likely to be away for a long time. He didn’t want the business at home to suffer, so he divided his assets between his senior executives, in proportion to their track record of ability. He gave them a free hand, and said he would want a report when he got back. Two of them were delighted; a chance to show what they could do. They worked hard; they doubled their share of the market, and when the boss returned they were promoted and given further responsibility. The third man didn’t do so well. He had received the least responsibility, and perhaps he felt it reflected badly on the boss’s opinion of him. He couldn’t refuse, but he did nothing to grow the business. The boss was disappointed, annoyed; and he was given his cards.

As with so many Gospel stories, this revolves around relationship issues. The first two men clearly are on the same wavelength as the boss. They admire his success as an entrepreneur, and like him they revel in profit and development. The fact that what they earn will ultimately end up in the boss’s pocket doesn’t bother them a bit: their success and his success are the same; and, besides, they know well enough he will see them right – they will not be forgotten.

 There is great confidence in the story. The boss trusts his executives – even the weakest of them – to look after his assets. He gives them a free hand to do what they think will best serve his interests. And they in turn trust him to deal fairly with them. Assuming they have not been careless, assuming they have done all due diligence, then even failures will be forgiven.

The third man does not share this confidence. One gets the impression he is in the wrong job. Far from admiring the boss, he resents him. He resents working to increase his profits. He sees him as harsh, grasping and unforgiving. He is afraid to take any risks, so he simply aims to give back precisely what he was given. The boss recognises this for the cop-out it really is, and gives him the boot.

How shall we apply this parable? It is, perhaps, intended as a comment on the Christian community. The boss has gone away, and left us in charge. In due course we will have to make our report. How have we fared in developing the Master’s business? In continuing and expanding where he left off? To what extent have the boss’s interests become our interests? Churches, denominations, parishes, cathedrals – all have their own agendas, all act from mixed motives. To what extent have we allowed the boss’s aims to set the agenda? We have been great freedom; we have been trusted to make decisions and to develop possibilities; do we have confidence in our boss and in the task he has set us? There is always a temptation to secure ourselves within well-protected walls, keeping out anything which might damage or alter what we have received from the past. Maybe sometimes this can’t be avoided; but it’s very like burying the treasure in the ground; very like having no confidence in where the future might lead us; very like having no confidence that the boss’s business will succeed. According to the imagery of this story, the Jesus business is to do with creativity, innovation, growth, fruitfulness – the very defensive concern that nothing should change or be lost is seen as in fact the rejection of gospel.

Churches tend to be conservative institutions; as Cranmer says in one of the Prayer Book prefaces, the old ways are usually best, and should only be changed where necessary. This is good, in that it makes for stability and identity, and protects us a little from being slaves to passing fashions and fads. Conservatism in styles of worship, or in moral opinion, does not necessarily mean irrelevant; any more than innovation in worship or developments in morality necessarily mean apostasy. But there is a certain danger in trying to isolate the faith from the changes and chances of the world. We sing “Change and decay in all around I see” – but not all change is decay; and some changelessness is stagnation and fossilisation.

How about applying this parable to ourselves? God has entrusted us with our lives, and has given us great freedom to choose what we will do with them. Will we live to ourselves, or to serve Christ and advance his kingdom? Have we enough confidence in God and his goodness to take risks for him? Sometimes Christians give the impression of being rather afraid of most things in the world, and of God most of all. We certainly need to be aware of dangers and temptations and our own frailty – but God has not created us to be half-dead with fear, he has made us to be really alive with confidence in him. The one who strives at all costs to keep his life safe will lose it; the one who loses his life for the sake of Christ – that is, the one who lives in confidence and risks all – will keep it for eternal life. Today we remember those who literally risked – and surrendered – their lives in defence of their country in war, and for the sake of justice and liberty. We may not be called to the same service, but we are also called to live with confidence and courage; and if we are faithful we too may hope to hear the commendation, Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.

 

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