THE Second Sunday before Advent turns to the second parable in Matthew 25. Like the other two, it is an urgent warning that time is fleeting, pressing ever onward.
The idea that time is linear is so embedded in our minds that questioning its truth can seem silly. But not all cultures imagine time like this. Christianity pictures time as directional because it has a historical starting point — or, strictly, two: “In the beginning” (Genesis 1.1, and John 1.1). Likewise, it expects a culmination: “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22.20).
The sequential arrangement of the books in a Christian Bible reinforces a linear concept of time, which is further corroborated by the Christian view that Old Testament prophets are mainly about predicting the future. Judaism focuses more on prophecy as declaring God’s current concerns to his people.
The more that we think about time, the harder it seems to be to grasp. Witness St Augustine’s struggle to show that “the present” exists at all (in Confessions 11). He remarks that “time does not go idly by nor flow to no purpose through our senses,” and that “it does strange things to the mind” (Confessions 4). Understanding time begins to look as difficult as the more obviously mind-boggling concept of eternity. Ford Prefect put it like this (in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
Our perception of time has the power to distort happiness while, at the same time, generating anxiety. Perhaps this is because our understanding of it is so inadequate. When we are under stress or pressure, we put the blame on a lack of time. In reality, it is usually an imbalance in priorities; for anxiety distracts us from important matters by displacing our attention on to unimportant ones, which we feel better able to manage.
But our dreams confront us with what our waking minds refuse to see; for this parable strikes me as a form of anxiety dream. Almost all the dreams that I remember on waking are anxiety dreams: I was late; I was wearing the wrong clothes; I forgot something vital. Whatever the circumstances, being condemned by those who witness our failure is what we dread and, therefore, most vividly remember.
This parable focuses on the slave who gets just one talent with which to do something. We know that he is in trouble, because the first two slaves were praised for doing what he did not do. So we intuit his dread, flinching at the bitter irony that his own fear is what has brought down upon him his master’s wrath.
That slave, though, was in a lose-lose situation. The household’s slaves would not all have been expert traders in stocks and shares: most of them would have been labourers, secretaries, cooks, and the like. Their master should have told them that, if they felt unable to take risks with his cash, they ought to put the money in the bank to gain interest. Instead, he virtually forces his less skilled, more cautious slaves to fail. Here is the essence of an anxiety dream: unavoidable failure, humiliation, condemnation.
Letting people down makes us feel horrible. I can see why Jesus wanted to discourage people from doing nothing with what God gives them, but why did he have to make failure (in this, and the other two parables in chapter 25) so terrifying? The fear of being condemned and humiliated does not encourage people to succeed: it makes them hide mistakes, and bluster to disguise their weaknesses.
At this point, I need to remind myself that this story is parable, not history. However we translate the Greek adjective (“worthless”? “useless”? “unprofitable”?), the label “worthless slave” is oxymoronic; for, in reality, he would not have been thrown out of the house, but sold.
I hope that this is not the point, however, and that God is not to be straightforwardly identified with the harsh “master”; for the parable is less a simple guide to divine judgement than a nightmare distortion of it (i.e. the Kingdom of heaven as our fears and guilt make us see it, not as it really is),
To avoid being just “myself creating what I saw” (William Cowper, The Task, “The Winter Evening”), we could do with informed reassurance that divine judgement is mercy-full, pity-full. Thank goodness Paul gives context to Matthew’s dark warning: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”