Parish Eucharist 19th November 2017
The parable of the talents
2 before Advent Year A 2017 parable of the talents
Readings: Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30
‘This is the gospel - the good news - of the Lord’, ‘Really?’, hear you wondering! The compilers of today’s lections give no quarter to the preacher, we have again a difficult gospel from Matthew - ending once more with outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. If some of you feel I might over-emphasize a 'socialist' reading of the biblical text, then this morning's story puts the record straight - or perhaps rather, keeps us in balance. Here is a story which clearly places responsibility for personal well-being with the individual, the other side of the same coin which makes us our brother’s - or sister’s, keeper and certainly, an important tenet to grasp in life: though we indeed have a duty of care for one another, it is not for us to make - or expect - another to be our keeper! We need to put our own energy into the life we wish to live. Take responsibility for ourselves - as our communities.
Yet this story is astonishing from the mouth of Jesus for other reasons. Here we have an exposition of the processes of capitalism no less! Astonishing because Jesus is commending usary, that is, the lending of money for interest, a practice strictly forbidden in the Torah! In addition to which, the sums mentioned are astronomical, beyond the wildest dreams of any ordinary person in Jesus’ day. A talent was a heavy weight of silver, around eighty pounds, the equivalent of six thousand denarii - in a society where one denarius was the pay for a day’s labour. Our top slave - or servant - receives ten talents! Thus our supposed man ‘going on a journey’ is the equivalent of a Bill Gates! And the wealth he entrusts to his slaves would indeed have been truly scary! What on earth are they meant to do with this lot! Note they are given no guidance! Also astonishing, this story affirms a reality we know only too well, to those who have, more will come! To those who have little, even the little they have will be taken from them! Nothing here of ‘Blessed are the poor’ from Matthew’s earlier chapters which record Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And final calamity, for his petrified inaction, the third slave is to be thrown out into an outer darkness of pain and suffering.
How are we meant to respond to this story? First we must understand that Jesus is teaching in hyperbole, exaggeration, as was the practice of his day. Even so, this is a story seemingly profoundly out of character with the rest of Jesus’ life and teaching. Indeed, the very system Jesus commends here is that ‘domination system’ I have mentioned before, Paul’s ‘foolishness of this world’, hierarchical social structures where those at the top benefit unfairly at the expense of those at the bottom. And our ‘man’ in this story is known as a ‘hard’ man - with no commentary from Jesus.
A more measured version of this story appears in Luke’s gospel, where ten slaves each have a modest pound to build with. The work of three of these ten slaves is then reported back. One who raises tenfold, one fivefold return on their capital, and one who in fear hides his pound - receiving this time, merely death for his refusal to take risks! In Luke’s gospel we are explicitly told at the outset of the parable that Jesus tells this story to quell expectations of any instant transformation of the people’s impoverished circumstances. Indeed it concerns a nobleman returning from travel abroad where he has received royal power, yet a ruler who has been rejected by his subjects - as Jesus will be rejected as Messiah.
In both gospels this story is told at the point just before Jesus’ final and famous entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, in peace, hailed as King of the Jews! It is perhaps hard for us today to comprehend the dramatic expectations this event would raise in the hearts of the people who experienced it - that a profound revolution of their fortunes is about to happen! Thus this parable both in Matthew and Luke addresses the realities of life for those first communities following Jesus. The transformation of society is the responsibility of Jesus’ followers, in the power and with the gifts - the talents - bestowed upon them by the Holy Spirit. To follow Jesus will require of them courage to take great risks and patient hard work. The question Matthew poses to his community: are they willing to embrace the work Jesus asks of them? Are we?
So now, what are we to make of that threat of outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth? Following the victories of Persian ruler Cyrus the Great, declared God’s Messiah in our reading from the prophet Isaiah a few weeks ago, in the expansion of Cyrus’ empire - the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from the borders of India to the Aegean coast - here the thinking of the Persian mystic Zoroaster spread across the Mediterranean world, influencing not least, diaspora Judaism in Babylonian exile, and the Jews Cyrus set free to return to Palestine. Indeed Cyrus was among the first conquerors not to mete out cruel execution of defeated enemy kings, nor to enslave defeated peoples. Through his visions Zoroaster came to a new metaphysical understanding to explain the existence of evil and suffering in the world. An understanding and belief system which came to pervade the classical world. Creation is controlled by opposing forces personified in two gods, one good, the other evil, in constant battle with each other. Dualism. The good god with his army of angels will ultimately prevail over the evil god and his demons, climaxing in victory on a final Day of Judgement. The fearful ‘Day of the Lord’ referenced in both our Old Testament and New Testament readings. And notions of a powerful antagonist at war with God, the devil, and a place of outer darkness where evil ones will be sent - hell, have entered human consciousness. Christmas is coming, think wise men from the East.
In particular, a new grouping of lay rabbis, the Pharisees, the progressive party of the time within Judaism, took up these ideas. Jesus also speaks in these terms. Are we to believe Jesus actively consigns those who do not match up to his demanding call, to the terrors of eternal torment? No, of course not. Think hyperbole! We do not - and should not - take Jesus’ command to cut off our hand, pluck out the offending eye, literally.
Jesus’ words come from a passionate concern for those whom he loves, a call to action before it is too late, and an injection of urgency into our calling as Christians to live and share the gospel of God’s love and freedom, God’s desire that all may enjoy fullness of life.
And of course taking responsibility for ourselves, giving our all to those things we choose to do, is vital for our well-being, the development of our self-esteem. Some of you know I’m a Strictly fan! This year I’m loving watching Susan Calman dance - as do obviously many others who vote to keep her in the show! For her shape and height do not easily lend themselves to dancing - yet, yet there is something about her whole-hearted attitude, and her delight in what’s she’s doing, that captures the heart!
We don't all have the same talents - what a boring world that would be! But we do each have talent - and the opportunity to achieve! And sometimes the most surprising people achieve the most astonishing feats! As you will have seen if you watched any of 'Children in Need' on the television on Friday evening. So many stories of children with limited resources living difficult lives, nevertheless pushing through all that might hold them back, pushing through and arriving in unimaginable places, doing extraordinary things for their families! It is in our nature to find joy in helping others - that's how we're made. Helping others to blossom in the sure and certain knowledge of God’s love for them, God’s desire for their happiness and fulfilment, revealed in Jesus’ life and teaching.
It is in our courage to step out of our comfort zone that we grow in confidence - and discover things about ourselves, talents that we do have, that we had maybe never considered before -or talent we had simply pushed back because we were afraid to make a fool of ourselves. The purpose of this morning’s readings is to propel us into action. Odd as it may ring in our ears, there to encourage us, to encourage one another.
We have difficulty - and rightly so, not only with the violence put into the mouth of God in the Old Testament, but with the violent language which comes from the mouth of Jesus and there are indeed within the biblical text differing images of God. The non-violent Creator God of distributive justice and the fierce and violent God of retributive justice responding to human failure, commanding us in no uncertain terms to right the wrongs around us. We need to hold onto that vision of the God of creation, God who sees that his creation is good, who yet protects Adam and Eve even as they are driven from the Garden of Eden; who wills that swords be beaten into ploughshares. The Jesus who commands us to love our enemies, seek good for those who persecute us, that we might be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect.
In this season of Remembrance, our next meeting of the 21 Group on Monday 27th, is on the subject of violence. More in the Noticesheet.
If you would like to come - or have any questions on these matters, do please come and talk with me. Amen.