Trustworthiness: More Than Preserving the Past

By Clements, Keith | The Ecumenical Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Trustworthiness: More Than Preserving the Past


Clements, Keith, The Ecumenical Review


   His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you
   have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of
   many things; enter into the joy of your master" (Matt. 25:21).

Let us go in imagination to London, to the south bank of the river Thames, to the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. We pass through the foyer, into a huge, long, immensely high hall. It is almost totally empty, but we gaze in astonishment and wonder. For at the far end there glows a great image of the sun, golden-red against the darkness, and we see it through misty vapours rising slowly from the sides of the hall. It's as though we're seeing the sun for the first time, rising over an arctic landscape, on the fourth day of creation. By turns we're awed and inspired by this vision, and so are the other people standing around us. We smile and raise our eyebrows at each other, lost for words but knowing that we are together in a special kind of shared experience.

This exhibit, which opened in October 2003, was the work of Danish artist Olafur Ellasson. It's not surprising that it hit the front pages of several British newspapers. But what I find so telling is not merely the image itself but where it is. For the Tate Modern Gallery is not itself a modern building. It is quite an old building, and wasn't built as an art gallery. It is an old power station, and the hall in which Olafur Eliasson has constructed his stunning work is where in former days the turbines hummed and throbbed, generating electricity for London. The old power station eventually outlived its days; the turbines were shut down. But instead of just being preserved as a museum of former industrial technology, it has been transformed into something new. Instead of being a monument to past engineering, it is now providing energy and inspiration of a different kind for contemporary people. Out of an inheritance from the past, a new vision is being created to capture our imagination.

Perhaps that is a parable to set alongside the parable of Jesus in the 25th chapter of Matthew. There, we hear the story of a rich man who takes a somewhat unusual risk. He goes away on a long journey and entrusts his wealth to his three slaves. A "talent" in those clays was a lot of silver, amounting to fifteen years' wages for a labourer. So the one who was handed five talents had 75 years' worth of wages entrusted to him; the one handed two talents had 30 years' worth of silver to look after; and even the slave given one talent could hardly complain about having only 15 years' wages in his hands. The first two slaves go out with their hoard, and do business with it, doubling their amounts by the time their master returns. Like their master himself, they take a risk and venture out with what they've received, for the sake of their master. The third daren't take that risk. He's so scared of losing what he's received that he buries it in the ground for safety and leaves it there. This story is about trustworthiness in God's kingdom. Trustworthy faith dares to look forward in creativity, unlike a pseudo-trustworthiness which hesitates, which wants only to preserve what has been received in the past.

The two really trustworthy servants receive their master's warm approval when he at last returns: "Well done, good and trustworthy servant!" These words have of course often been heard in funeral eulogies to worthy figures, and they also adorn many a Christian gravestone. (I can't forbear to mention the unintended irony of one such epitaph where these words are found, on the grave of a British officer in India in the 19th century, who had been accidentally shot by his houseboy.) "Well done, good and trustworthy ones!" Each of us of course would like to hear these words addressed to us, especially those of us who labour long and hard in the churches and in public life. But as European Christians and churches, where do we actually stand in the story as Jesus tells it? …

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