Our first reading this morning is both a very beautiful passage but also a slightly troubling one.
In its description of the perfect wife, it exalts the worth, value and dignity of a virtuous woman. She is generous, hard working and influential.
Yet at the same time, the kind of language it uses seems so out of kilter with the culture we live in. The praising of a woman like this might seem patronising to many contemporary ears, the role assigned to her stereotyped and restrictive.
If we side step those questions for a moment it might be better to look at what the passage is praising rather than the gender role the writer assigns to those virtues, for there is much to admire in them.
The writer speaks of an individual who contributes to the common good through their skilfulness, hard work, and generosity. Someone whose virtue is not to be found in outward show and glamour, but in inner wisdom, and prudence. Those are virtues that we should all aspire to, whatever our gender.
And that, I think, gives us a lens through which to understand our gospel reading. For in the parable Jesus tells us this morning, we hear about the need to value, treasure and use the talents that God has given us.
The figure described in our first reading seems to be the embodiment of the kind of attitude Jesus praises in our gospel passage. Not someone who allows fear to rule their life, but who imaginatively and joyfully receives God’s gifts and uses them to the utmost.
In both these readings it strikes me there is a connection between virtue and the imagination. All too often, I fear we think of virtue as a static, unexciting thing. Doing good is about keeping rules, being boring, or keeping out of trouble.
The Christian tradition, however, says something very different about virtue. Virtue is the presence of God in our lives helping us do the good in a way which is creative, exciting, imaginative and daring. Just like the servant who is praised in our gospel reading, we need to “trade” with the gifts God has given us, in order to contribute to the common good.
So growing in virtue is less about asking yourself how many rules you’ve kept, and more about judging how daring you’ve been for God.
Think about all the great saints. Their sanctity is so often to be found in the imagination and daring which they married with virtue.
St Benedict, our own patron saint took risks by forming new communities of prayer at a time when this was a novel idea. His imagination allowed him to see in his mind’s eye what functional Christian communities living under a common rule might look like.
We in this parish have used our collective imagination to respond to God’s blessings – getting a Sunday School going a few years ago when we realised God was sending us so many children; experimenting with Messy Church; starting a German mass for German speakers. And now in this time of lockdown people have responded with incredible generosity and nimbleness to the changes we’ve had to make to the way our parish gathers and worships.
Our readings today show us that our growth in holiness is often to be found in the way in which we use our imagination to respond to God creatively. He calls us not to allow the talents he has given us to go stagnant and stale, but to respond to him with ingenuity, excitement, daring, and imagination.
Fr Peter Anthony