Sunday, 16 November 2014

Parable of the Talents

Aston Abbotts 16 November 2014

Gospel Matthew 25.14-30

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.
All Alleluia.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Today’s gospel reading is the Parable of the Talents. This parable is one of the trickiest in the gospels to interpret. I’m not sure I have ever read a really convincing explanation of exactly what it means. There’s a lot at stake—our very souls, perhaps. Our fate when Jesus returns in judgement at the end of time, maybe? How we live our lives, and what use we make of the resources God has given each and every one of us, possibly?

I’m sorry I can’t give you a complete answer this morning. In one way, that’s inevitable—parables are for each one of us to work out for ourselves, and each of us may come up with a perfectly valid interpretation that works for us, but differs from other people’s. On the other hand, I usually like to suggest some possible answers, and pose a few questions for you to ponder, but on this occasion, as we’ll see, that’s very hard to do.

The starting point is the traditional interpretation. Our reading is from Matthew 25. A man, Jesus says, is about to journey into a foreign land. He gives his goods over to his servants, or slaves. They are not divided equally, but each servant receives a different amount. Why?—because each receives a certain sum according to his ability. The parable then goes on to describe how each of the servants use their lord’s money.

Luke has the same parable in his chapter 19. But instead of talents, in Luke the nobleman gives his servants one mina or one pound each. The difference is not just in the detail. A talent was a huge sum of money. A talent of gold weighed 59 kg. A talent of silver would equate to 9 years’ pay for a highly skilled worker. Why is the sum so huge, and is that why Luke’s version of the parable is more believable?

The traditional explanation was that once again Jesus was using hyperbole: he was exaggerating for effect. My own view is there is obviously an element of hyping up the story to get it noticed, but another possibility is that we are all given huge resources by God, and must make best use of our talents in his service. The Greek word ταλεντών does not mean the same as talents in English, of course, but we are still talking about resources, and what use we make of them.

We can be fairly sure that, like the parable of the Ten Virgins which comes before it, the parables are both about the Kingdom of Heaven. If so, why is the nobleman so unfair, giving his servants different sums of money, and stealing other people’s crops that he had not planted or tended? Many of these parables depict God as authoritative and even threatening, and judgement as somewhat arbitrary and harsh. We don’t know. What we can say is God’s provision might be unequal, but it is embarrassingly abundant and we have a responsibility as God’s servants to make best use of what we have been allocated, until the Lord’s return.

Both of these parables involve a delay. The bridegroom delays so long that the foolish virgins run out of oil for their lamps. In today’s reading there is a long delay before the master returns. I think these are clearly the long wait for the end of time, when Jesus will return in judgement. Who knows when this may come? The point is that we should be ready, even though he comes like a thief in the night.

When the master returns, he calls each servant to account. Those who received the most managed to double their money through trade, and were commended for their shrewd business acumen. The one who received least and left it mouldering in the ground was condemned as a lazy and wicked servant, not even bothering to put his money in the bank to earn interest. That’s fair enough, you might think, but why was his talent taken away and given to the servant who had the most?

We’re left with several uncomfortable, unanswered questions, but the main thrust of the story is still clear. Our own ideas about right and wrong are not necessarily God’s.

What talents and resources we possess must be put to good use in the service of the Kingdom. They include our money, our involvement in the mission of the church, our skills and abilities, and the time we have to offer.

We might feel we are safe in the arms of a loving God, but many of the parables speak of the harshness of judgement, if we by our unfaithful lives reject Him, walk away from the light, and end up in the outer darkness of sin and failure.

Am I sounding like a Victorian preacher of hell fire and damnation? Maybe—but have we all strayed too far in our faith towards the cosy and comfortable? Not all is black, of course, even in today’s parable. The servants who pleased their master are treated very differently. Who could doubt the power of those saving words:

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

These were no longer servants or slaves, but equals. They were invited to share in their master’s happiness. They were given charge of many things. So, however uncomfortable we might feel about the details of the way the story develops, the main lessons I think are straightforward, and the welcome awaiting the faithful, as children of God and inheritors of the Kingdom outweigh all other considerations. Amen

Sunday, 2 November 2014

All Saints Day

Sunday 2nd November 2014 at Stewkley

Gospel Matthew 5.1-12

Alleluia, alleluia.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, God’s own people,
called out of darkness into his marvellous light.

All Alleluia.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.

All Glory to you, O Lord.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.



On a day like this, as we commemorate All Saints, after several years of writing sermons, the temptation to recycle one I wrote a few years ago is strong. The readings rotate in a 3 year cycle, which offers the preacher some variety, but All Saints and All Souls comes around every year.

In Cheddington, we used to observe All Saints the evening of the 1st of November. All Hallows. The day after Hallowe’en. In a very moving service, we read out the names of all the loved ones who had died.

All Saints was transferred to the nearest Sunday, which is today. The emphasis is similar. We did not only commemorate those special people who are called saints, but all Christians. Search through the NRSV and you will find 65 references to saints. Most of them are in the New Testament, and they refer not to special, wonderful people but ordinary Christian folk like you and me. For example, when talking about Paul, Ananias says:  ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem”

I expect you have heard all this in previous years, so I’ll continue to resist the urge to recycle, partly because I think today’s gospel reading from the Beatitudes is an interesting choice in itself.

Who are all these “Blesseds” referring to? Are they commands for us to emulate? It might be good to be merciful, but should we mourn, or be constantly hungry and thirsty? It might be good to make peace, but should we go all out to be disliked, persecuted or spoken evil about? Or is Jesus just saying we should count ourselves blessed if it happens as a result of living the Christian life?

In order to answer this question, we have to remember this is teaching by Jesus. It’s the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Verses 1 and 2 say: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.” So that means we are meant to learn from what he teaches.

Secondly, Jesus is offering instruction in righteousness. The SM will have plenty to say about how we should behave as people of his Kingdom.

Now, you would have expected a sermon like this to begin with lots of Thou shall and Thou shalt nots just like the 10 Commandments but it doesn’t. Too often, people try and make the Beatitudes into laws. Clearly, they’re not.

The list is indicative not imperative. The words are descriptive, not prescriptive. Jesus is not saying we should all become people with all these characteristics. Some people might starve to see justice done, but for others that may not be their main focus.

What he is saying is that such people are blessed of God. God looks upon such people with favour. God’s eye is on them; they will be happy in the end. This, says Jesus, is the way things are.

But if the Beatitudes are descriptions of reality, what reality is this? What kind of world are we talking about? I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound much like the world I know.

In my world, the meek don’t inherit. They’re often at the back of the queue. Those who mourn are tolerated for a while, but then they’re expected to pull themselves together and get over their grief. In the world I know, the pure in heart are often dismissed as hopelessly naïve.

No, this is closer to the world I know:

Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.

So the picture Jesus paints is not the current order. For now, we do not yet see all these things coming to fruition, but we do see Jesus. Jesus not only declares, but embodies the new world order. In that day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that a crucified man is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11).

When that day comes, everyone will see at last that the one hung upon a tree in shame, the one who in poverty of spirit was forsaken by everyone—even by God in the end, it seemed—the last of the last, is first, is Lord of all.

The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being. Until that day, the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order.

Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world.

On All Saints Day, the Beatitudes testify to how things will be in the fullness of time, when there is a new world order, and when we, who today are called saints, become fully children of God, inheritors of the saints in light. Amen