Making a Difference: Situational Analysis

by Anthony Reddie.

This Spectrum paper is a report on a talk given by Professor Anthony Reddie at the Spectrum conference in May 2022.

In Anthony’s three talks participants were encouraged to engage in Bible studies in which they were challenged to think critically around how scripture can provide a means of interpreting the world.

In this first talk participants engaged in a Bible study entitled ‘Situational Analysis’. Anthony began by sharing some stories from growing up in working class Bradford. He reflected on the role that the church as a whole, and Methodism in particular, played in helping him to dissect the world and to see how issues of power, politics and preference were played out in terms of how societies were organised and who was affirmed and who was not.

The Bible study was based on Matthew 25: vv. 14-30 – the Parable of the Talents. Participants were split into three groups (each one identifying with a character in the story) and were asked ‘Why do you do what you do?’ When the participants returned from their group discussions, they were asked for their reflections. Then, offering a postcolonial hermeneutic, he encouraged them to connect their reflections with his, in order to challenge the more spiritualised reading of this text.

A postcolonial, materialistic reading is one where the socio-political perspectives in which the text was located (in this case, Roman imperialism of Judea, and a reminder that it is the Romans who crucify Jesus and not his fellow Jewish people) are put to the fore and they are taken into account when compared to our contemporary experiences of empire and exploitation.

It goes without saying that most of the participants in character, did not love the master. In fact one might even say that perhaps the actions of the third person of the three different characters (servants or slaves depending on which translation we read) towards him are more honest than those of the other two. For whereas the other two do not give any great indication that they love him, nevertheless they still go along with his wishes and seek to operate within the framework of his expectations and power. But the third servant does not hide his or her lack of affection for him. Instead, he simply gives him back his money and asks him to be happy with it.

Well! We all know what happened to him for daring to question the master’s authority.

The critical question posed by Anthony was why countless generations of believers had been convinced to see this parable as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God?

Why is a cruel and greedy master seen as a synonym for God? Why do we believe that the Kingdom of God has anything to do with the final verse which states ‘To those that have much, more will be given to them, but to those who have little, even the little they have will be taken from them’. This sounds more like a critique of neo-liberal capitalism that has invariably underpinned the modern incarnations of empire as opposed to the generous and loving kindness that underpins the Kingdom of God.

When the participants were asked to inhabit the characters of the three servants in this biblical text, that was an opportunity to go beyond the spiritualized ways in which the reading and interpretation of these stories have often been taught and into one that asks you to live the reality of the people at the centre of this narrative. When the real, lived realities of these characters are placed alongside the historical experience of Black peoples, and then interpreted in light of these experiences, suddenly a new interpretation of the text emerges. Black theology is a form of Christian-inspired reflection on the ways in which life should be lived under the guidance and sustenance of God, for the purposes of full life and liberation for those who are exploited and oppressed. It is informed by those who have been and continue to be exploited and cheated of their full rights, reflecting on the realities of their marginalization and using that as a means to reinterpret the basic meaning of the Christian faith.

Questions:

1. How do you respond to this post-colonial way of interpreting this parable?

2. Are there any other of Jesus’ stories which need re-interpretation?

3. Reflect upon the context in which you feel we are situated today.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectruma community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are from talks by Prof Anthony Reddie and Rev’d Simon Sutcliffe on the theme ‘Being the Salt of the Earth (A look at some peace and justice issues)’. This is the second of six coming through the year.

15 thoughts on “Making a Difference: Situational Analysis

  1. Thank you for this presentation of Anthony’s teaching, it is very helpful to be challenged to look at the text in this way, I must admit that I have never been comfortable with the assumption that God is the cruel overlord and feel liberated by the ability to think otherwise about this parable. Once you have read a story in this way it is worth revisiting others, especially when the notion of God is that of cruel dictator/ oppressor. No wonder we have mixed up thinking, something and sometimes struggle to find a God who loves and cares at times.

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  2. Just to correct the situation: These notes are exactly as Anthony Reddie submitted them to SPECTRUM. I would not wish to claim any credit for their content in any way whatsoever. Richard Firth

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  3. Thank you for sharing Anthony Reddie’s presentation.

    To answer Question 2. – I am reading a book by Debie Thomas called ‘Into the Mess – & other Jesus stories’. Debie was a staff writer for ‘Journey with Jesus’ webzine until recently. She always has a deeper and very personal reading of the stories of Jesus.

    We need to come out from under layers of historical ‘this is the right interpretation and don’t argue’. 🙂

    God bless all at Theology Everywhere – Margaret 🙂

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  4. 1. Like Sally I was very uncomfortable with this parable and applaud the writer for presenting this interpretation.
    2. I would suggest all of Jesus’ stories need to be interpreted in the context in which we live. We need to have an hermeneutic of suspicion of biblical texts and be wary of biblical inerrancy, and the so called authority of the bible, which can lead to a dead, stale. loveless “Christianity”.
    3. The implications of this situational analysis approach exclusion can be extended to all forms of social exclusion, and the judgmentalism this engenders. For me the question we should always ask is – is it ethical; does it reflect the unconditional love of God.

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  5. So if we don’t like what the Bible is suggesting, let’s just re-write it, make it more palatable to the Godless society we live in, wrap it up in a big snuggly blanket of ‘unconditional love’ and continue blissfully fiddling, even as the flames of hell are licking around our feet and we are fooling ourselves into thinking we still have some control over global warming. God’s wisdom is ageless and I’m sticking with the original version.
    Bring back the Knight’s Templar!

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    1. I don’t think anyone is re-writing the Bible here. In particular in this case, many in the ‘Godless society’ would find a story attacking Capitalist greed far less palatable than one extoling the virtues of using one’s gifts. Presumably even those who interpret this parable by seeing the master as in some sense representing God would not wish to say that therefore God has the traits of the master in this story.
      Should we not be seeking to interpret individual parts of the Bible in the light of the whole Bible, tradition and experience, and to do that with God given reason? If an interpretation seems at odds with the rest of the Bible (e.g. seeing this parable as extoling exploitation, not that I am aware of many people doing that) then isn’t the right thing to do to question that interpretation?

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  6. It is surely entirely REASONable that Jesus of Nazareth told a story that was making the points claimed in this interpretation and that story made it in to the BIBLE as we know it in Matthew. It also fits squarely within TRADITION and EXPERIENCE. Certainly Anthony’s analysis, the activity of the conference and the comments above are of great value, as they are clearly within the reasonable interpretation of the Biblical tradition and Christian experience as a whole.
    However, it seems unlikely to me (although I am certainly no expert and in a sense I would delighted to be wrong) that Matthew (by which I mean the author/editor and/or source(s) of the Gospel with that name) saw this interpretation. The historical setting of the time the story was told are clearly important and the interpretation(s) for our time is/are important too, but what about the setting within the Gospel? It is surrounded by stories and sayings about the Kingdom. The context within the Gospel would suggest an interpretation based more around the use of gifts rather than the exploitation of the master. That is not to say that the clearly obnoxious character traits of the master are being lauded in any way.
    Whatever interpretation(s) one explores in parables there is a danger in reading too much in to every detail of the story. Immersing oneself in the story to gain insight is very different from seeing it as allegorically true, let alone in any sense literally true.

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  7. As usual, the simplistic interpretation works best for me. I agree with Tim that the parable is not about the character of the master; it is about the use of the gifts. What I take from the story is this:
    Life is not fair. We are not all born equal, so visions of Utopia in this world are naive and unhelpful. We do not choose the bed we are born in, nor the gifts we are given, but we are ALL given something and we are ALL expected to use our gifts for the good of the Kingdom. If our only gift is a winning smile or a listening ear, God still wants us to brighten the road or lighten the load for someone we meet along the way. If we ‘bury’ our gift and choose to live a life of victimhood and self pity, we are excluding ourselves from the Kingdom of God. It’s our choice. I think the ‘bankers’ are the Church. If we really don’t know what to do with our gift, we can offer it to the Church, where it will at least be part of a community of goodwill and thus earn some interest, instead of burying it out of sight and out of mind. I don’t have a problem with the master’s reaction. The lazy servant deserved to be told off, and I’m sure while he was weeping and wailing and gnashing his teeth in purgatory he came to see the error of his ways, just like the rich man in last Sunday’s gospel reading. Great story. Great message for every age and clime. Thank you, Jesus!

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    1. That is a very allegorical interpretation Yvonne and you have put a lot of your own understanding of the broader Christian message in to it. That in my view is no bad thing; it is to some extent similar to what Anthony was encouraging people to at the conference and what contributors have done here. The thing may be to appreciate that is what we are all doing to a greater or lesser extent and presumably what anyone who teaches in parables would expect to happen. [Particularly allegorical was the thought that the fictional ‘lazy servant’ should be in purgatory; a very helpful idea to you I’m sure, but I suspect you can see how unhelpful it would be to others.]
      If I may be so bold I think all those who have offered insights into the interpretation of this parable have offered us something (and probably benefited themselves greatly, a good thing -I don’t mean selfishly or arrogantly) but where they have suggested (or perhaps wrongly have been heard to be saying) that there interpretation is the correct one and/or all details of this parable must fit with their view of the overall love of God, in Christ, there is a disservice.
      Whilst people I’m sure have explored doctrine through reflecting on parables it seems extremely unlikely to me that Jesus used them as any sort of tool for systematic Theology!

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      1. Thank you for your helpful comments, Tim. As a Catholic I do believe in Purgatory, where all souls go to be purged of any remaining evil tenedencies, so they may be fit to enter Heaven. I find this very helpful and reassuring, as I know I am incapable of attaining perfection by my own efforts! It is for others to find what is helpful to them and to reject what they find unhelpful. I wouldn’t force my beliefs on anyone, neither will I compromise them for anyone!

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  8. The problem with the traditional interpretation of the parable is that it assumes that people use their God-given gifts independently of God (who is far from them at the time) and are then judged by how well they do. It portrays a God who rewards the ones who perform well and who is angry with those failing to meet his requirements. How does this interpretation, which seems to suggest that we have to earn salvation by deploying our gifts, have anything to do with Jesus who was unimpressed by the Pharisees but enjoyed eating with the tax collectors and sinners? Have we forgotten that the gospel message is one of radical grace? We don’t receive what we deserve, thankfully. It is when we recognize our inadequacies and failures that God is able to work through us.

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    1. Your analysis is spot on as far as I am concerned, Pavel, but it is not ‘the problem with the traditional interpretation’ per se if by traditional interpretation is simply meant it is about the use of gifts. The problem is with taking the parable as too allegorical and taking any one parable as being the one defining word. If the parable is just about using ones gifts (although we might well say the nastier features of the story might mean we wish a different story had been used!) the stuff about using gifts independent of God need not arise (too allegorical) let alone turning the parable into a parable about earning salvation from a judgmental God.
      Even if any of the ideas of independence from God and elements of our role in salvation are there (and I don’t think for a moment they are, but who cares what I think!) they would not trump all the biblical material that speaks so differently. One bit of Scripture (even the bits we like and confirm our biases that we might be happy to take uncritically) never trumps the whole Christian experience, let alone a parable which almost certainly is not even addressing those things.

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  9. Thanks Pavel. Clear analysis as usual. Moving beyond justifying whether we should be questioning the bible at all I wondered if we could make a clear distinction between statements that are dependent on the situation/culture of the time and statements that are universal truths, applicable to all humanity. I was thinking about statements like “God is Love” and Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes that are inclusive and non-judgmental. It seems so simple to me that we can measure biblical statements as to their ethical intent, universalise our faith and consign the judgemental stuff to history.

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    1. So you think it’s ‘ethical’ to decide how billions of Christians around the world should understand the Scriptures and live out their faith? Typical leftie! Bang on about inclusivity and then exclude everyone who has a different opinion. Thankfully, it appears the woke folk have had their say and had their day, and some degree of common sense is gradually returning to our lives. Peter Hitchens, himself a devout Christian, talks the most sense I have heard in many a year in today’s Mail on Sunday, when he lists what the Tory party needs to do to survive and win. Personally, I think they should elect him as their leader. He’d get my vote without a doubt!

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  10. So you think it’s ethical to exclude me because my opinion is different than yours? I follow Jesus who was a “leftie” and the most “woke” person that ever lived.

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