A leaving homily from Father David, based on the Parable of the Talents (Saturday of week 21 [I])
Recently at my favourite Southampton cinema I saw a film about two families who escaped from East Germany to the West in a hot-air balloon. Even though one knew the outcome (they succeeded, though not at the first attempt) the film notched up the tension most effectively.
This is the 30th. anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and so of all of what Churchill called the Iron Curtain; the actual date is in November. It is a time for reflecting on that artificial divide across Europe, which split towns, villages and fields, forcing people to shout or wave to each other from hilltops or across rivers. The East German authorities issued false maps: roads seeming to lead to West Germany led straight to a police barracks. The River Elbe formed one border, but not everywhere; some swam across to safety only to find themselves surrendering to their own police.
I only first went to a former Communist land in 1990: standing close to the Czech border with Austria, one could see where all the defences had been dismantled, leaving just a wide forest trail, along with an enormous, but firmly locked, police station. The little town, called Slavonice, was very pretty but strangely quiet, because over the years most of the citizens had been forcibly moved elsewhere to discourage them from escaping, and had not yet returned.
Not everything about Communism was bad: it instilled a love of the motherland, for example, which we may feel is something now lacking here. Education, employment and housing were all guaranteed, though the last two were often either pointless or of poor quality. The big price to pay was the requirement to conform, the smothering of the individual. There was one cheap form of internal escape, though: alcohol.
Here is where our Gospel of the talents comes in. It is easily misunderstood. It might seem to be pointing a finger at us and asking: what have you done? What is on your CV? Viewed in that light, the man with one talent might feel he just cannot present a list of achievements, that he would rather simply hide and hope the whole situation would go away.
The talent was a coin widely used in antiquity, and it gave its name to the idea of ability, rather than the other way round. Talents weighed different amounts depending on where one was. Now we all know we are not all made the same. Some have more evident gifts, some come from more fortunate backgrounds in order to prosper. Our spiritual bank accounts, rather like our material ones, do not all contain the same amount. Nevertheless, we are all human. We are, as the book of Genesis tells us, made in the “image and likeness of God”. Some commentators tell us that this means that we are all, as humans, divinely equipped in some basic way – which is the “image” – but that we all have the potential to move to a greater God-nearness – our “likeness”.
In this case, the “talent” represents our being, rather than our doing. Have we exposed ourselves to the risk of life, or just wanted to hide under a stone? We may do well, or badly. There is no indication that the master in this parable would be angry if the servants actually lost money. He is only angry if they do not try. If they do not try to become fully human.
One of the great blessings of being in Southampton is that I have had nothing to do with school application forms, which here are all handled by the Council according to defined admissions policies. I don’t have to sit facing a set of parents with questions like: Do you know this family? Do they worship regularly? Are they members of a catechesis programme? Do they have a specific ministerial role in the parish? Are they actively and regularly involved in the worship and life of the community? All compounded by embarrassment when they translate “regularly” as “once a year at Christmas” and I translate it as “every Sunday”. If I had my way, I would put a red line through such questions, where they exist, and replace them by: “Is this family endeavouring to develop its personal God-given being?”
It is easy to be a “do”, not a “be” people. Here it doesn’t matter how much we fantasise (i.e. how much we adopt a false being) as long as we are rich in deeds. Of course, deeds are laudable, but only in so far as they allow other people to be.
The removal of the Iron Curtain was, it was hoped, going to allow oppressed people to be. Alas, it didn’t work out quite like that, encouraging a get-rich-quick mentality associated with gangsterism and chronic corruption. And the Church was almost as bad, becoming fixated on getting its property back.
Graham Leonard, the Anglican bishop of London who became a Catholic and has now died, said that we have lost our concern for “ontology”. For what? Essentially, a concern for our being. A stress on attitudes and desires has replaced our obedience to what God wishes us to be, in the created world, and as redeemed people.
So, the sacraments, which are God’s gift to us to allow us to be, become valued from the wrong end. What have we done in them? How many First Communions has the parish notched up? I have even heard of priests with clicky-counters who keep a record of the number of their confessions. How much have we crammed into Mass – was it polished and ‘classy’? I am reminded of the cartoon where a (presumably occasional) worshipper comes out of church to shake the minister’s hand and says: “A nice service, Vicar, and an amusing little wine”.
So we do – we seek justice, we seek peace – to help people to be. The great ones to develop greatly, the little ones to develop less (but proportionately even more greatly). And we will make mistakes, and God will have to pick us up. And God does not condemn us for trying and failing, for sincerely taking the wrong road and finding ourselves in the wrong country.
But if we do not move, and do not have some confidence in our being, and explore our being, we erect a wall between ourselves and God, a wall which it will take more than a few years to pull down.