Biblical images a part of our common heritage

And I was afraid.....

Words, phrases and incidents from the Bible have shaped the ways we speak. To take just one type of example: When people describe someone as a ‘Judas’ or a ‘scapegoat’, a ‘prodigal son’ or a ‘Pharisee’, a ‘good Samaritan’ or a ‘leper’, they are, even if they do not know it, drawing from a deep well of biblical images that have become part of our common heritage, writes Bill Wright, the Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, in a reflection on this week's Gospel.  

It is less common, though gratifying to preachers, to see that centuries of sermons have occasionally also affected the language. Behind our usual understanding of ‘talent’, one can sense the preacher’s question, ‘And what, my dear brothers and sisters, is your talent?’

How else could a word that once just named another measure like an ounce, or a kilogram or hundredweight, have come to have its present meaning?  

It will, in fact, do us no harm to start our reflection on this gospel passage by asking ourselves that age-old question, ‘What are my talents? What gifts has the Lord entrusted to me, and what use have I made of them? ’ To the Christian mind, our abilities are, after all, not simply genetic flukes or products of our up-bringing, bits of good luck for us in our lives.

However they were acquired, our talents are gifts which God has given us for a reason. And they are not just gifts to us as individuals. They are gifts with which God intends to enrich the world through us. They are not to be wrapped in a cloth and kept safe in our possession, but to be used in service of God and others.

These are hardly original thoughts, but they are still worth reflecting on because it is unlikely that any one of us will not hear the Lord asking us through this passage, ‘What about you? What have you done with what I gave you?’ It is the first and great question posed to any disciple by this parable.

The second set of reflections on this gospel grows out of hearing the unprofitable servant’s response to his master’s question, which is in substance, ‘Yes, I knew what you wanted, but I was afraid’. I was afraid of making a mistake, I was afraid of failure, I was afraid of looking foolish, I was afraid of losing what I had, I was afraid that I couldn’t do what you asked of me.

What a disabling thing fear can be! It will repay us to reflect on our fears.

In many situations, of course, fear is a natural and even a sensible reaction. At one time I used to instruct young people in rock climbing and abseiling, and the ones who worried me the most were the ones who weren’t appropriately scared of hanging off a hundred foot cliff!

My job, though, was to try to convince the normal kids that being scared was OK but they shouldn’t let their fear stop them. It was largely about trust. They had to believe me when I said that they could do this thing. Trust can overcome fear. And for at least some of those kids who did battle through great fears to get down that cliff on that rope, I believe, it was one of those life-changing moments.

When it is a matter of being prepared to do what we believe God wants of us, the trust we require to overcome fear is called faith. In fact, in the Scriptures the opposite of faith is generally not described as unbelief, but fear.

The locus classicus is the account of the disciples in the storm on the lake: ‘Why were you afraid? How is it you have no faith?’ But once you’ve noticed it, you find the gospels and St Paul’s writings are full of this perspective.

Faith gives courage; letting fear stop us answering God’s summons is the hallmark of un-faith.

So we need to reflect on our fears. If one or other of those fears that the servant had in this gospel passage is stopping us doing what we know is right, stopping us doing what God asks of us, we have to build up our faith, our trust.  Getting down that cliff the first time, because despite our fear we trust the God who says ‘Do this for me’, may be the thing that changes our lives.

St Francis, in his early days, had a fashionable young man’s horror of disease and disfigurement. It cut him off from God’s poor, and he knew it. So one day he screwed up his courage and did what was needed: he embraced a leper, as an act of Christian love, and he never looked back or was stopped by that fear again.

What is my cliff? What is my leper? What are the fears that keep me from using the talents that God has given, and how can I break through fear by actually acting on faith and trust?

There are other things we could think on in this gospel parable. These reflections have perhaps been on its obvious message. But sometimes we need linger over what seems obvious until it strikes us that it is not just a general ‘message’ of the gospel but a present call to me from the Lord: ‘I have given you life and gifts. What are you doing with them? Do not be afraid, it is I’.

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