The Revd Brutus Green
One of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers, Arthur Koestler, recorded in his memoirs the moment at which he lost faith in socialism - the moment when he read in the papers that Stalin had made a non-agression pact with Hitler, making another European war inevitable. He wrote, “Our feelings towards Russia were rather like those of a man who has divorced a much-beloved wife; he hates her and yet it is a sort of consolation for him to know that she is still there, on the same planet, still young and alive. But now she was dead. No death is so sad and final as the death of an illusion… Every period has its dominant religion and hope; only very rarely, in its darkest moments, has humanity been left without a specific faith to live and die for. A war was to be fought. They would fight, the men of the Left, but they would fight in bitterness and despair for it is hard for men to fight if they know only what they are fighting against and not what they are fighting for.”
A friend of mine, who is a playwright and a poet wrote in a similar vein: ‘I’m not sure why people are so quick to dismiss Communism simply because whenever it has been implemented in the past it has led to madness, torture, religious persecution, fanaticism, oppression, genocide, greed, cruelty, megalomania, unexamined self-righteousness, paranoia and evil-on-a-once-unthinkable-scale… Who’s to say it won’t be different next time?’
Something, perhaps, for some of our comrades at St Paul’s to consider.
It is hard for us to imagine the cultural change that occured after the First World War, the first modern instance of Total War when the entire country was galvanised to a single end - the war effort. The difference can be seen between Jane Austen’s novels, set in the Napoleonic war, where war is barely mentioned, and something like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, where the shell-shocked and finally suicidal Septimus is pivotal to the plot. Post-war writing is a menagerie of broken imagery, from Yeats’ ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ to T.S. Eliot’s fragmented London in The Wasteland, as Europe came to terms with the death of its youth on an unprecedented scale: sixty thousand on a single day in the Somme, around 35 million souls in total. Humans, even sophisticated europeans, were shown to be ‘tiny, fragile human bod[ies]’ (Walter Benjamin).
War movies of the twentieth-century have perhaps sometimes conveyed a little of the terror and anarchy, but what they rarely convey is the truth found by psychologists, that rather than grand adventures and epic tales of heroism, on the whole the Great War returned people who couldn’t talk about their experience, couldn’t even make sense of it. It returned people traumatised.
The Second War, for different reasons, further rewrote what it means to be human. Humanity achieved its ground-zero as the individual became ‘objectively, absolutely unimportant’ [Theodor Adorno], or as the playwright Brecht called it ‘the torturable body.’ A situation of widespread moral failure, in which many men and women knew only ‘what they were fighting against and not what they are fighting for’. On the third day of the war a leading French journalist wrote: ‘Whoever pretends that we lead this war in defence of Democracy, Liberty, or any other “ideology,” is a dangerous liar. I am sick of hearing this stupid babble. France fights to defend her skin, and only to defend her skin. All else is rubbish.”
This then was an Old Testament day, a ‘day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom’… [when] their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung… the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full and terrible end’.
This apocalypse, this holocaust - has redefined anthropology, what it means to be human. Remembrance Sunday if it is nothing else is the reminder that there are no human rights, that human life is worthless, unimportant, is grass in the wind, […] unless we insist upon it. While war discovers bravery, courage and sacrifice, it also reveals murder, brutality and sadism. Human life and dignity depend on our vigilance, because the day of the Lord, and the day of the long knives; Christ and the Secret Police, both, equally, ‘come like a thief in the night’.
This all seems a long way from the parables of the talents - although if ever there was a parable that looked like an endorsement of liberal capitalism this is it! The parable though is not about economics and it’s not about our finances. Mostly Jesus is speaking to the poor and the figures here are enormous. A talent is worth 5000 denarii, 5000 day’s wages. This parable, like the one that preceded it and we heard last week and the one that follows next week, is about judgement - specifically the final reckoning - what is the measure of a person. Last week’s was about patience in waiting for the reckoning - and I hope after Margaret’s sermon you’ve all been behaving like wise virgins. Next week is about charity as the measure of the final reckoning. This week is about what we do with ourselves in the meantime; the business of life that prepares us for our judgement.
Like a fairy tale, there are predictably three characters and, as is usually the case after the two good examples, it is the third that is the key to the story. So our third man, having been given his seed money, chooses, rather than to invest it or put it in a bank, to bury it in the ground - a common practice in the unstable ancient world and the Wild West, and perhaps soon to make a return!
As with all parables there are a number of interpretations. The context as I said is the final judgement, the account we are able to make of ourselves. Here our man, given this talent, this spring of possibilities, has buried it in order to simply protect what he has. Perhaps then he is the sort of person who had a strong sense of love for God and his neighbours as a youth but the pressures of adulthood made him suppress his instincts in favour of self-preservation and self-advancement. Perhaps he is the sort of person who, while regularly going to church, superficially skims over life without consideration or responsibility. Perhaps he is too afraid to risk the vulnerability of seeing himself honestly, of making decisions that put other people before himself, of ever taking an option based on a principle rather than what is easy, comfortable and materially satisfying.
These are not figures, though, simply warning against a life gone wrong. This parable poses a question that appears again and again and again in our life. It is a question mark continually raised against our life, asking whether we are burying our talent where we should be investing it.
Our man has weighed his options and decided that the risk of failure and vulnerability, the temptation to do nothing, outweighs the effort of work and the possibility of success. In short, he has oriented his life to controlling what he is against, rather than choosing what he is for and investing in it. His actions are motivated by fear of what is bad, rather than the love of what is good. Like a disingenuous politician he has carefully avoided responsibility. The parable’s message though is that those who hoard, who try to keep hold of everything they have for fear of losing it and fear of disappointing and disappointment, are precisely the ones who lose out.
It is like burying your money when inflation has hit 20%.
Once again Europe is in crisis, a different crisis but all crises uncover our actual moral fibre. As a country, and across the continent, the moral structure of western society will be demonstrated by the investments each makes. On a personal level we face a comparable situation in deciding our own economic priorities. The question posed by this parable runs deeper, however, asking how we invest our time? How prepared are we to give a full account of our lives? Are we hiding the gift of life with which we have been entrusted? Are we actually living our lives to the full - or have we buried ourselves in fear, insecurity and easy living?
The men and women who served in the world wars are now fewer and fewer in number. We remember the fallen for their heroism, for their valour, for their love of country and sacrifice. We must also remember the wars as a time of great cruelty, though, of moral failure on all sides, of a moment when life was cheap and the price of human dignity was set at zero. We remember in order not to return there. This entails not merely fighting against but deciding what we are for and investing our lives in those principles and beliefs. Koestler was imprisoned first during the Spanish Civil war, then by the Nazis in France and finally here at Pentonville on suspicion of being a spy. He trusted in man and was bitterly disappointed. If our faith is in God we are not disappointed - because we have a hope that endures. The promise that human life and dignity is worth something, and that in the final reckoning our investment in this life will be rewarded.