Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- When in the 50’s AD St Paul wrote to the Christians of Thessalonika (1 Thess 5:1-6) about ‘times and seasons’, he was very aware, as they were, of just how the Roman calendar dominated the lives of all people in the Empire. The months were divided into days of fasti on which magistrates sat in court and all legal work could be done, and nefasti days when it could not. The latter were days of religious observance, days celebrating the many Roman gods and also included Games days in the amphitheatres; triumphs; imperial birthdays and so on. By the mid 1st century such nefasti days numbered well over 100 per year, which meant that most months had about 15 nefasti days and some like June as many as over 20! Thessalonika, one of the eastern imperial cities would like Rome itself have had many such festival days, some for local deities or religious events honouring the imperial family. This meant that every month, and indeed week, could be disrupted by them, and some months were especially crowded. What people were expected to do; the foods they ate and their access to markets would be influenced by the calendar. Into this highly regulated world Paul introduced a new idea for the Christian, one in which every day was a day of meeting with the Lord and in which continual preparedness was essential. This would be taken up by the Church in the form of exhortation to ‘continual’ prayer – not that it expected every Christian to spend his entire life in Church or on his knees, but in an attitude of continual openness to God, one not confined in the offering of grains of incense at cult statues or crossroads or the buying of meats which had been ritually sacrificed on the altar of some deity or other, but in day-to-day preparedness for our final meeting with God our maker and sustainer.
Our reading from Proverbs, (31:10-13,19-20, 30-31); edited material stretching right back to Solomon, and then accumulating later stories is rooted in materialism as we would expect since it originated from a time long before there were any beliefs about eternal life with God. The picture it paints however is highly appropriate, linking as it does with Paul’s call to diligent and regular devotedness to the task set. The ‘perfect’ wife’ is always’ busy at her duties: household management and the home produced products typical of any pre-industrial age. (Archaeological sites often abound in finds of spinning whorls and weaving weights), But this good woman is not just conscientious about managing her home and business but has an eye to charity and the needs of others too; she is a picture of devotion to duty.
But when we come to the gospel (Matthew 25:14-30), with its account of the three men and their care of their master’s talents, our picture opens out so that we begin to see that something far more momentous is implied. Since the average agricultural wage at the time was a denarius a day it would have taken in the region of 300 years for the average worker to have amassed one talent! This indicates the degree of trust with which the master – here representing God, as this is a parable of the kingdom – entrusted his servants. They were given truly colossal sums to care for, possibly amounting to the annual turnover of a small city state and the word the servants use, ‘entrusted’ is significant, suggestive not simply of blind and disinterested investment, but of some equality, of a shared relationship between master and servant, as does his response: ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. As the Greek shows that the ‘servants’ were in fact slaves – indicative of the vast difference between man and God – his final response ‘come and join in the joy of your Lord’, illustrates perfectly the heights to which the faithful are destined to rise, and the degree of responsibility to which we are called.
As the behaviour of the first two servant’s shows, a calculated use of the master’s goods; an ability for risk-taking; inventiveness and shrewdness is required; indicating that entry into the kingdom, into any real and developing relationship with God requires more than simple limp passivity. Indeed, the third servant who fearfully hoarded his talent demonstrates that he got very short shrift from his Lord, and was excluded from his presence (kingdom) not for any evil acts but because of his fearfulness and lethargy. I do not think that this is a call to any muscular Christianity or a life of frenzied activity, but the parable does suggest ways of being involved with God in the here and now as we await the kingdom, and makes clear the power of God’s invitation to us and the responsibilities we carry.