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

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