Pentecost 24 15 Nov 2020
One of the things that always surprises me is the way the lectionary passages continue to speak into the new circumstances of each three year cycle.
In this year of pandemic all the familiar passages have had a new edge to them that suddenly has become apparent, and this year, for us at St Dunstan’s, this parable of the talents has certainly taken on new meaning in the light of the Miller bequest.
It is a parable using money as its symbol- don’t let the English word ‘talent’ fool you, this is not directly about the use of your natural ability. A talent is a quantity of gold, one talent being worth about $4,000,000 in our day. I find the fact that in English we have subsumed the meaning of the word ‘talent’ into whatever you have to offer in terms of skills, a very interesting transition in meaning. We, in the church, and flowing out into society, want to say to people that whatever they can offer, is valuable and good, it doesn’t have to be money. The problem with that, true and all as it may be, is that it distorts the meaning of this parable, I think.
The context within the Gospel, is of a presumably poor, itinerant preacher talking to his disciples, right at the end of his life. Neither Jesus, nor the disciples, could have ever seen this kind of quantity of gold, it is completely outside their experience, so Jesus is clearly using the idea of money as symbolic for something else.
This parable is the second last one in this section of teaching about the Kingdom of God that Jesus is trying to impart before he leaves. It is eschatological, meaning about the end times. This is not about whether you use your lovely singing voice to benefit the church through the choir, or the amount of your fixed income that you put into the plate. This is big picture stuff about the Kingdom of God. The very fact that Jesus is using as his tool a sum of money that is unimaginable to the disciples tells me that it isn’t about the things that they can give. And when Matthew writes his gospel into the struggling community trying desperately to define themselves against their Jewish friends and neighbours he is not writing to merchants or princes who have these kinds of sums of money to allocate.
So if it isn’t about what we can give, and it isn’t about the kind of sums of money that poor people have, what is it about?
This parable talks about what God has given us and what we do with God’s incredible, abundant, generosity. How do we function in the kingdom of God as the possessors of God’s incredible love for us?
The early church is desperately waiting for the return of Jesus and I think one of the central messages of this parable of the master who goes away leaving them with abundance is for them to think about how they continue to live. I believe that this kingdom parable is asking its auditors what they will do with the abundance of God’s goodness for others.
Having said that, I do also think that we, at St Dunstan’s, are in the very particular position of having been given an abundance of goodness in the form of at least one talent of gold, or maybe two, so this parable has very direct application to us at the moment. And, as you are about to enter an interregnum there is something about being left with the responsibility that you will resonate with.
Do you remember a few weeks ago we had the parable of the wedding feast and I talked at length about the fact that the king in that parable was certainly not, in my opinion, God but rather Herod.
So, the question is- is this kyrios, or master, God, or not? I have to tell you that the commentators that I read were divided. Some were very perturbed by the harsh man that the third slave describes, and indeed, the idea at the end that, ‘the rich get richer and the poor get children’, to quote F Scott Fitzgerald, let alone the idea of being thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Some of that can be explained, I think and on balance I do think, this time, the master is a representation of God. The reason I think this is because it is about this amazing abundance that only God gives. The master entrusts to the first two slaves more than they could ever imagine and they run with it. We have no idea of how they double the sum, that obviously is not important. What is important is that they receive and act, participate in the master’s life and come into the master’s joy.
The third slave has a very wrong idea of the master. He ‘knows’ that the master is a harsh man and his fear disables him. This idea of ‘knowledge’ goes back, of course to the first myth of the Garden of Eden. Humans desire the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And, of course, ever since the dawn of time we have believed that knowledge was power. During the enlightenment and the centuries that followed knowledge became the greatest currency of all, until of course the ideas of post-modernism began to cast a doubt on the objective nature of truth. In our own moment, this post-modern idea has been corrupted and misused to an amazing extent with the advent of the concept of ‘fake news’, and the idea that if you tell a lie often enough it becomes true.
So does the third slave know that the master is harsh or is it fake news? Do the first two slaves operate out of the same kind of fear? I don’t think so. This is a God of abundance and the reward offered is joy. However, there have always been people who do not want to be enslaved by God, people who think they know who God is and are afraid of God. I haven’t quite formulated the thought, but it strikes me that in some sense those who have been so afraid of losing their civil liberties, being asked to physical distance and to wear a mask, are somehow in this camp of the fearful, who think they know the leaders, or rulers, and are afraid of them. And strangely enough, Trump seemed to be in that group, as well- he didn’t want to be told what to do by the experts! And is the fear that of losing your autonomy?
The question for us, this morning, is, are we afraid of God, and God’s abundance? Are we afraid in this pandemic of the opportunities that it presents? Are we afraid of the change that goes along with those opportunities? And what about the money that we have inherited? Is that a huge and truly abundant blessing that we can use wisely to further the kingdom, or would we rather bury it in the ground and give it back at some final reckoning? All I can say is, in the light of the parable, that fear is the wrong response. God, who is the God of the poor, who promises that the meek will inherit the earth, is asking us to make good use of what God has given us, and I think that guided by the principles of the two great commandments, to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves, we have to take what God gives, and use it. And, even though I said at the beginning that it isn’t about our abilities and skills, all the same I believe that it is about our God given capability to love and be loved. What holds us back from faithfulness, from loving and being loved?
I also want to think for a moment about judgement, and we will discuss it more to next week. The Greek root of the word we translate as judgement is also the word from which we get crisis. So, in a sense this judgement is testing us in the moment of truth. How do we measure up in the crisis? The third slave fails because of the decision that he makes, operating out of fear. Being thrown into outer darkness is a consequence of his view of God and his reluctance to take part in God’s salvific work, I think. And I do think that the words are symbolic rather than literal. The work of sharing the abundance of God’s love and grace, healing and wholeness is what we are being asked to do.
And this is a God, who unlike the master of the parable, has promised to be with us unto the end of the age, Emmanuel, God with us and for us. And the reward that we enter into is JOY.
This parable of the Kingdom is a call, again, to be God’s people here in the midst of our society. God has given us immeasurable riches to work with. The question for us is, are we going to be fearful slaves, or good and faithful servants to whom even more will be given as we enter into God’s joy.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton