We are in a time of being prepared for being prepared because Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas and this Sunday is leading up to Advent. I’m confused even if you aren’t. So the parable of the talents that we have heard shows followers of the Lord being prepared by increased productivity – union bosses please note. But this parable is anything but clear until you get into it and really study what is being said.
Let me start with the word talent. What does it mean to us today. Well there are endless talent shows on TV and we think of this as some form of ability, some attribute that’s worth having, something that we might be naturally endowed with. And we all know that we have different talents and we use or don’t use them in different ways. Well this parable uses the term talent in a slightly different way although I think the end result has parallels. So actually the talent referred to by Matthew is a weight, just under 100 lbs I am told. And in his time talents were of gold, silver or copper. So we are looking at a serious some of money here. One of the commentators estimated this as close to $2 million.
There’s another emotive word used here – slaves, but I can’t be sure what translation of the bible is being read today so we might have heard servant not slave and to us these words do mean different things but nonetheless there is a relationship in the story between the master and the slave. We also need to understand about life in Palestine 2000 years ago, that in fact some slaves could rise to quite important posts. For those TV fanatics of which I am not one, Downton Abbey may help explain such relationships. Need I say more?
Well in our story the master is going away and he wants his slaves to take care of his wealth during this time. We are told of 3 different slaves each given a different amount. Now that to me is also significant. Going back to the word talent, it is clear we all have some but not at the same level and often we admire those with so-called special talents. I’ll give you an example. At choir we are rehearsing messiah but we sing this in Baroque pitch so the accompanist has to transpose the score at sight down a semi-tone. For me that’s quite a feat. I console myself by thinking I can grow better potatoes than he can. There you are we all have different gifts.
But the idea that the master would give 5 talents to one individual is at first quite staggering. Can you imagine Lord Grantham giving Carson one million pounds for safe keeping? Well at least I have your attention! Well we go on in the story to learn the result that 2 of the servants make exactly the same growth in what they have done with their talents. There are all sorts of issues here with this and the Jewish rule of life but I’d like to put that to one side for now. And the third slave takes fright. In fairness what he did was not unusual. It was common to bury one’s wealth in those days. Can you imagine life before RBS or HSBC? In fact the amusing side of this is sometimes they forgot where it was buried or sometime the land where it was buried was sold. Not it seems a very reliable system.
We then have the day of reckoning when the master returns. And notice he treats the first 2 slaves equally “I will put you in charge of many things”. But the third slave is admonished for what he has done or not done and you might think treated very badly. I won’t make any comparisons with the unions at this point or we may have a strike. Some of us might now think this is all rather unjust. After all he didn’t take any risk, he might have lost money but he preserved what he was given intact for his master. He was fearful, he knew his master had a hard reputation.
In terms of the language used here I personally find it rather curious. The master suggests the money could have been invested with the bankers. Money, where did that come from? Up till now it’s been talents. Bankers? In those days? Investment and interest? Well let’s put that to one side for now but we know what happened to this poor slave, thrown into the outer darkness and one of Matthew’s favourite expressions where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. So what is going on here? No forgiveness, no love, just plain punishment and for eternity I think.
There’s more that seems unfair or unusual. The one talent is given to the slave who already now had ten. For all those who have, more will be given. Is this a parable for the Itchen Valley. Are we now to rejoice that because we are mostly rather better off than average, we are going to get more. Is this indeed part of God’s plan for us. Are those who are not investment savvy to get punished. Is this really God’s plan. So have we heard enough now, we are all convinced what’s going to happen. Look I’ve money invested, it’s doing rather well and I’m going to get praised for it.
Well of course that’s not the message at all, far from it. Actually there is a big challenge here for all of us. Let us replace the characters in the story; we put Jesus in place of the master and ourselves as the slaves. Right this is not the time to start emailing your brokers or FA. Because the real message has nothing to do with money but a lot to do with talent as we understand it today. Here in church today we have a group of people brimming with talent and so it is outside in our community. Gifts from God if you like. What makes up our very selves, our personality and indeed our individual capabilities.
The message here is that we are expected to use these because our master, Jesus has already gone and we know he will come back but we don’t know when. Therefore this is not a time to rest on our laurels, to sit back and be content. It is time when we are expected to use our abilities to the full. We are disciples to be engaged with Jesus mission here and the bringing of the kingdom. There’s not going to be a show of hands to see who will volunteer. Oh no! We are all in this together. And we know full well what will happen if we don’t react.
Jesus has given trust to his people, confidence that they can and will do his will and react to his calling. Actually I find this prospect all a little worrying, a little daunting. What am I to do? Well I have some suggestions. I’ve made a list, so here goes:
- We’re not all cut out to be the boss, but in any organisation there is always room to do something, so it is with church: arranging flowers, cleaning, churchyard, helping with children’s activities, making tea, fetching, carrying, delivering, singing, playing an instrument, reading a lesson, sidesmen, bell-ringing
- In church circles, we can’t all be the vicar let alone a bishop, but we do need more lay people in ministry – have you really given this serious thought. If you feel unable to go that far, can you help in a smaller area of worship
- Prayer is at the centre of Christian life – when did you last attend midday prayers? Have you thought about joining a prayer group.
- We all need to learn more and study more, what about joining a bible study group and if not that making sure you have some study notes for regular bible reading.
- When did you last update your parish giving? Are you able to do more financially for the churches work.
- The church always needs officers, churchwarden, PCC secretary, treasurer. Have you considered doing one of these or indeed going back and doing it again.
You can see the list of opportunities is very long. I could go on more. But I will say one more thing. A Church community should have at its core love and care. So if someone volunteers and is perhaps not quite right for the task, we must be gentle, maybe suggest some training or some sharing in the tasks. We must never be discouraging. There is always more to do and walking with Jesus, comforted by the Spirit, is not that much of a gamble. Try it!