When we think about the two testaments of the Bible, how do we hold them together? How do we make a connection between them? Well, through that which they have in common: God, Covenant, Law. But also the idea of sacrifice. This evokes certain images almost immediately. The Hebrew priests offering animal sacrifices to god in the Wilderness and in the Temple, Jesus making a sacrifice of himself on the cross.
But what is ‘sacrifice’? For many, it is a daunting notion, associated with self-denial, pain, even death. Sacrifice can entail these. But that is not its purpose. The word ‘sacrifice’ means to make holy. It is an act to cleanse and purify oneself and maybe others clean and pure as well. In the Old Testament, when God calls the Hebrews to be His people, they are commanded to make sacrifices purify themselves so that they can stand in His holy presence. However bad their sins, the sacrificial system was meant to restore the people’s broken relationship with God by giving them the holiness to draw near to Him again.
On Remembrance Sunday, we remember the sacrifices made by those who have fallen or been maimed by war, in our name. In what sense is this holy? Do we say that war is holy and worthy of celebration? No, of course not. War is a livid scar on the face of God’s creation. Until he remakes the heavens and the earth as he has promised, war will remain with us. But even a just war, fought at the last needs against a terrifying evil, as in the middle years of the last century – even that is a fearful thing. No, today we do not celebrate war, but we honour those who gave all they had for something greater than themselves. However much we wish that they had not had to fight and die, we recognise that they did both, and in our name. we recognise that it was not their decision that wars be fought, but that it was they who took the consequences in our name. The fact that our lives have been ones of unparalleled peace and stability did not happen spontaneously. It was the result of the efforts of men and women who forfeited everything for something other than themselves. It would be an act of the most churlish ingratitude to ignore of forget that.
Their sacrifices should give us pause for thought. What are we willing to put at risk? What is so important to us that we will dedicate our lives to it, and how far are we prepared to go? What is so holy that it worth a sacrifice.
These are hard questions, but the Christian life demands an answer. Today’s gospel reading is all about sacrifice and the dedication that comes with it. Superficially it is about money, but only superficially. It is a device that Jesus uses to convey his message. The essence of the parable is about the gift of life and how we should react to it. If you like, the silver coins the king gives to the servants represent the gift of existence. The servants did not create this for themselves. It was given to them by the king, who clearly stands for God in this case. The king has presented them with these gifts and he has a right to expect them to use these gifts well. This requires clear, purposeful action on their part. It may also involve risk, danger and failure. But, to repeat, it requires wholehearted and dedicated action. In this way, the servants show they recognise the importance of the gift and how greatly their master has trusted them. But striving to live up to the master’s trust, they have made a sacrifice. Their lives have been made holy by dint of their efforts to live up to their responsibilities.
The one who does nothing with his coin is condemned precisely because he has done nothing. By hiding the money away, by refusing to act, by choosing masterly inactivity, he shows he has not understood the responsibility that has been given to him.
How does this affect our lives in this church? To repeat, sacrifice does not necessarily mean hardship or pain, although it might. Rather, it consists in greatness of effort and how seriously we take the task. It means the complete dedication of our lives to God, not so that we can earn His favour, but in grateful recognition of all He has done for us. The liturgy of the Church speaks of ‘the sacrifice of thanks and praise.’ It is sacrificial to thank God and praise Him. In the Eucharistic Prayer, we say that we offer ourselves ‘to be a living sacrifice.’ We must be a sacrificial people, who live our lives committed to God, or we are nothing.
Precisely how we dedicate ourselves to Him is something we must work out for ourselves. The servants in the parable were each given their own coin. They each had to use their own skills and abilities in order to make a holy and sacrificial response to the trust that had been invested in them. Likewise, we must use our own skills and reasoning to consecrate ourselves to God in the way best suited to us. It is the degree of effort and risk we are prepared to take for it that will distinguish it as a sacrifice.