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Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Discover & explore: Work

Many of Jesus’ parables are set in the world of work. They concern masters, servants and slaves, as those were the primary work roles at the time and, because Israel was an agrarian culture, they often relate to farming. Ours is a very different context and the differences essentially began, as the paintings at the Guildhall Art Gallery show us, in the Victorian period which was dominated by the Industrial Revolution. ‘This marked the transition to new and more efficient manufacturing processes’ which helped make us the strongest economy in the world at that time. Despite the many differences between the working life of Jesus’ day and time, the universal nature of the stories that he told, means that they still have much to say to the work practices of our own day and time.

One person who has specifically explored the implications of Jesus’ parables for the workplace is Will Morris who is both Director for Global Tax Policy at GE and a priest at St Martin-in-the-Fields. In his book ‘Where is God at Work?’ he devotes five chapters to exploring the Parable of the Talents.

He notes firstly that this is story about workers and work. In the story people at work are ‘entrusted with vast sums of money and expected to use them in commercial ways’:

‘People are given assignments, they have responsibilities, and they have to report back to the boss, who then assesses them and rewards them with further work responsibility – or punishes them with demotion (or the sack). The relationships are business relationships. There is one worker who obviously has real commercial smarts, another who is not quite as high-powered but still does pretty well, and then there is the one who has no commercial savvy at all, and who lets his employer’s money sit in the ground doing nothing. So we have the successful risk-taker and the conservative, risk-adverse colleague who’d much rather do nothing than try anything. And there’s a hierarchy. It really is just like a workplace.’

Will Morris makes three key points. The first is that this is not directly a story about God-given abilities (a talent was a measure of money, not a skill or gift). It is ‘rather a story about the entrustment of something of great price to various individuals.’

‘Second, the sums of money – the talents – are something given, entrusted by the master when he leaves and required to be turned back over when he returns.’ It is about ‘something entrusted to us which we are expected to work with – fruitfully – and then return to the person who gave it to us.’

Third, there is the size of the gifts. One talent is sixteen years’ wages, five is eighty years’ worth. ‘That’s a lot to entrust to a slave ... Slaves, those way down the pecking order, were here entrusted with huge wealth. The master didn’t entrust the talents to his fellow owners or to his friends, but to his slaves.’ In that sense, ‘this parable is more about equality, at least of opportunity, than it is about inequality. Slaves, if they can handle it, are as worthy of being trusted as the leaders of society.’

This parable ‘upholds commercial activity – even ... banking’ and, more specifically, ‘Jesus does indicate that – in the right settings – using money to make money is completely acceptable.’ ‘For Christians in the workplace that is welcome and affirming.’ Despite this, ‘the parable doesn’t tell us that money is good, or that we will be doing God’s work if we earn more talents for Him by any means we wish as long as we end up increasing the amount.’

However, ‘done well, done properly, these activities will validly contribute to the building up of the kingdom. As a result we must be open to the possibility that God has placed them there for us to use in this way. If we approach the workplace with the idea, the preconception, that good cannot possibly be achieved there, then the chances are that it won’t be. But if, in part thanks to this parable, we are open to the possibility that God can work through instruments such as money and in the workplace, then who know what might happen? ... God can turn up and do amazing things in the most unlikely places.’

The ‘parable of the talents is not about the unequal handing out of skills and about the punishment of the weak. It is about whether we try to be the best we can be, working with God to build His kingdom, heal His creation, including the workplace – which, like everything else, will be perfected at the end of time. It’s about being ourselves, not trying to be people we’re not. It’s about doing only what we are capable of doing, but doing it very well. It’s about a God who entrusts us with things of enormous worth – the possibilities of being His co-workers – and who will love us for what we have done unless (and only unless we hide the gift, don’t ask Him for help using it, and then turn around and tell Him it was all His own fault anyway). Our God loves us. He really does. And all we have to do is love him back.’


Bill Fay - The Healing Day.

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