A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by David Barton on 19th November 2023
Welcome to the parable of the Talents – a story that gives us an immediate problem of interpretation. What do you think that central word “talent” actually means? Nowadays we think of personal aptitudes, and abilities. Cue a moralising sermon about the way we develop our personal potential and skills! And its a very tempting school assembly story too, with dramatic possibilities! But as an interpretation it breaks down completely at the end. How do you take someone’s personal skill off them and give it to someone else?
A Talent in the Ist Century was a weight. And a talent of silver was a heavy coin worth a lot of money. We don’t know enough to make proper comparisons. Perhaps twenty years worth of work for an ordinary labourer? And that of course is the point: a lifetime’s work, so a life. And this wealthy landlord is of course God.
In its original context Jesus may well have been talking about what Zephaniah was talking about in that first reading: the coming day of the Lord, when God calls Israel to account. They were to be a light to the world. Isaiah, Jeremiah, the great prophets, answered that vocation. But what of this generation? Jesus suggests they have as good as buried the treasure. It emerges from the ground, muddy, disfigured, a travesty of its original purpose.
But Matthew seems to be taking this parable and using it slightly differently. Look were he puts it: the 25th Chapter – right at the end of his narrative of Jesus’ life and teaching, before the great events of the crucifixion and resurrection. There it becomes a summing up parable, asking a question: what have you done with everything Jesus has taught? Jesus opened your eyes to the gift of life. How have you used it?
And don’t forget what the gospel writers mean by the gift of life. The gospels, all four of them, are, as it were, written backwards. Everything in the mind of the Gospel writers begins with the resurrection – the life changing discovery that God in Christ had not left us, despite the horror of the cross. For the disciples it was the discovery that everything Jesus said is true: that God in his love for us reaches out, and sets us free to be the people we are. And that changes everything. It moves us from fear to love, from uncertainty to a kind of deep seated knowing that can take any knocks. We spend a lot of time talking and thinking about our search for God. But the christian experience is that God comes to meet us, surprising us in our grief and confusion in the garden, like Mary; meeting us in our questioning on the Emmaus road, lovingly there as we share a meal with our friends. Those stories reflect a whole generation’s experience of just what the gift of life in Christ is. Matthew begins there. It colours everything he writes.
That is the Talent: The gift of God’s love. And the parable hinges on each of these servants understanding that, and above all understanding the nature of the giver – the unbelievable generosity of a master who gives away such sums. The first two servants reflect all that, trading and working, living and loving, forgiving and caring, each creating a flourishing world of generous living around themselves. Alas for the third with his disastrous misreading of the giver. But notice: despite that, he is also given a talent – and still has it at the end. There is no reserve in this master’s generosity. Matthew lays on the apocalyptic language of his day. But we are witnessing the tragedy of a wasted life.
And in the original sense of this parable, there was a warning to Israel here. Unless they make good use of their privilege as God’s people, chosen after all for the sake of the world, it will be withdrawn and given to others.
But there is something else to notice in this parable: the very concrete, “unspiritual” framing of this story. Because its about that very worldly, everyday thing – cash. A lump of silver that has to be traded to be of use. Back in the eighties some of us will remember Mrs Thatcher (making a point about wealth creation I think) told us that she thought the Good Samaritan was important because he had money in his pocket and that was why we had heard about him. Various church people reacted with horror to that – and my Vicar in London at the time was particularly vocal. In return Mrs T called him a ‘very dangerous man’! He was thrilled! It made his day!
But what ever about that, Jesus is making a different point. There is no either/or between material and spiritual. In a few moments we will share the very material things of bread and wine and speak of them as the Body and Blood of Christ. In the next parable, which follows hard on this one, the pious are caught out. They hadn’t thought that giving a cup of water to someone thirsty or a warm coat to someone who lacked one, was a spiritual, heaven gaining thing. But it was. The material is the vehicle for the spiritual. This is a parable about our ordinary, everyday dealing with each other. Jesus came from a family of carpenters – builders (that may be a better translation of the Greek word here). He knew all about that. The bulk of his life was spent trading with people. He knew full well that our interactions with each other convey something of who we are and how we feel about one another. Something of our values too.
He wants to wake us up to the truth that our life and everyone else’s life, is given to us by the God who loves us. Everything we do is shot through with something of that divine glory. It is in us and in others. God in Christ always waits for us, in the ordinariness of daily events, in the beauty and terror of things, in the secrets of our hearts, and the hearts of others.
And the immensity of that resource is what we should remember. Its a love that is able to bridge all difference, over come whatever it faces, whatever the cost, whatever the wait. We should live with confidence in that, as we go about our daily life. It is wealth indeed.
And we should remember it in this troubled, so easily divided world we live in. Our fragile multiracial society is being destabilised by events in the Middle East. We are so easily polarised by our politics. But at the vigil for peace the other day Christians, Muslims, Jews, politicians of all parties and people of other faiths and none, stood side by side in shared grief and care for each other. There was no “us and them”. And no need for any words. Just a mutual recognition and concern. The vehicle for the Gospel is just that: encountering our neighbours, however different, with care and love, learning to recognise the presence of God in each other. And honouring it.