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Todays readings for 24th Sunday After Pentecost Judges 4:1-10 Psalm 123 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Matthew 25:14-30
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
We come this morning to the second of the three parables at the end of the apocalyptic discourse. The context is that the gospel story is drawing to a close. Jesus is about to be arrested and die on the cross. And then the time for teaching will be over. Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples for what is coming. The context of Matthew’s gospel is also important. It is written into a community that are suffering persecution- they are experiencing these apocalyptic events and are naturally feeling very beleaguered. They are attempting to understand their own times by referring to things that Jesus said.
As I said last week, I believe that we are already living in the Kingdom of God, though not in its fullness, and these parables are for us, right now in our context as well.
The immediate context is that this parable follows the one we discussed last week about the moronic and wise bridesmaids. The point that I made last week was that it was essential for the bridesmaids to shine their lights- and that in failing to be ready they had failed in their jobs. You could say that this parable tells us a similar thing but from a different perspective.
I have to tell you that I have wrestled with this parable this week and that there are all kinds of things that I need to keep thinking about, particularly in terms of what it says in the Greek. I am not going to explore that today as I don’t feel that I have really understood it yet. However there are a few things that I can tell you that may not be immediately obvious to the reader of the NRSV.
The first thing that is important to understand is that this word ‘talents’ is a measure of gold. We have long used the word to mean things that we are naturally gifted at, which I think obscures the meaning of the parable rather than explicates it. A talent of gold was a huge amount. In today’s terms the single talent is worth about $750,000 so when the master gives the first man 5 talents, that is close to $4 million dollars.
What does this mean- why is the sum so vast? Well, it appears to me that if Jesus was actually talking about money he would have spoken about a sum that was accessible to the disciples. When he and the disciples are in the temple he talks to them about the fact that that the rich people putting in their gold are not giving as much as the poor widow who puts in two copper coins, so I don’t think that this parable is about money. Though let me just say, at the end of a stewardship campaign, money and the generous giving of it are very important. And likewise, I don’t actually think this is about our natural gifts. This parable is not the place where Jesus encourages us to use our God given abilities, either. And again, at the end of a campaign designed to recognise that stewardship takes in every aspect of our lives, our time and our talents as well, I am not telling you that the use of our God given abilities is not important, just that I don’t think that is what Jesus is referring to in this parable, even though that has been the interpretation for many years. Rather, I think that Jesus is using this huge sum of gold, to express God’s incredible abundant outpouring of love, God’s grace that allows us to be in relationship with God, god’s-self. This amazing outpouring that promises forgiveness and healing and completion for us both as individuals and as the human race. This amazing outpouring of love that invites us to join the great perichoretic dance of the Trinity. I think that perhaps the talents represent grace that God is offering and the question then becomes what we do with it.
In the parable the first two servants, who have perhaps differing capacities, are given overwhelmingly large amounts with which to work and they respond with alacrity, taking what they have been given and doubling it. When the master returns he praises them and bids them to ‘enter into the joy of the master’. What does that mean? Well, presumably, to share in the joy of the kingdom. This is about things that money cannot buy, but that God’s abundant grace assures.
The third servant however is different. Now, the problem for this servant in his view of the master. Why does he have such a different view? That isn’t explained in the parable, but there is no suggestion that the first two servants have acted out of fear. If I were to ask a room full of people what they thought about God, there would be some people who responded that God was the judge, harshly waiting to catch people out and to send them to hell. Indeed, these are often the people who tell me that they don’t believe in God- the God that they don’t believe in is a pretty horrible one, generally. I don’t know if any of you heard Stephen Fry being interviewed by Gay Byrne? The YouTube caption is ‘Stephen Fry annihilates God’. I found it extremely sad. The God that Fry says he does not believe in, is a most frightful travesty of our loving God, but it is obviously the God who has been presented to Fry over the years, or that he has constructed out of his own brilliant intelligence and experiences. And the servant in the parable also has a perverted view of his master. He sees the master as a ‘harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed’. And in this we see a picture of God coloured by human emotion and perception. In every society there is a tendency to attribute to God firstly a tendency to withhold good things- so that when a crop fails we see that as God punishing us, and secondly as a vehicle of retribution on our enemies. Both these things are evident in every culture including the stories of the Old Testament. This idea of the master who is a user is a development of this theme, I think.
The response of the man is the age old response of the human being under threat. He buries his large quantity of gold in the earth. Buried treasure! And the archaeologists are very glad of this impulse to hide things in the earth because we are still digging up interesting hordes. I believe that Samuel Pepys buried a whole round Parmesan cheese in his backyard during the fire of London! Why does this man view the master as he does? We cannot know as there is no explanation given for it. The sad thing is that because of fear he has failed to take up the generous offer.
And then, of course, we get to the casting into outer darkness and weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is a constant refrain at the end of parables in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew, more than any of the other gospel writers, talks about righteousness and about judgement. Are we meant to take this ghastly picture of outer darkness literally? Are we meant to take the parables literally? Well, no. I have just spent weeks and weeks making that point. As you are aware I am convinced that ‘hell’ in that sense of a place of punishment does not exist but is another of the man made ideas. Hell on earth is a different thing altogether and perhaps choosing fear sends us to that place. We will think more about judgement next week as we consider the third of the parables.
The third servant does not find joy with the master. The third servant doesn’t enter into relationship with the master, but indeed has chosen fear, which has brought failure to act. There is no progress and no joy. The first two servants choose life and abundance, they are productive members of the system. This is, like the parable that precedes it, a picture of activity that brings good in the world.
The ‘more’ that will be given is life in all its abundance, a life of faith free of fear, a life full of God’s love.
So what does this mean for us? Well, it seems to me that we have been given the abundance of grace and it is up to us to generate a responsive amount of love. Is it about how we use our time and talents- well yes, of course it is. God has given us what we have to use in the Kingdom’s service. To borrow last week’s metaphor we are to shine for God here in our community. But more than that, we are to share the incredible abundance of grace and we are to use what ever means we can for that outcome, our time our talents and our money.
And then we as individuals and as a community will hear the master saying to us, ‘well done good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your master’.