A sermon preached by Hilary Pearson on 15 November 2020.
When Andrew asked me to preach on this Sunday, I looked at the lectionary to choose for my sermon one of the readings set for today. Given that we are now eight months into a pandemic and in another lock down, the theme of all of them, last days and judgement, were not the cheerful encouragement I would like to have provided. Zephaniah tells us ‘the great day of the Lord is near and coming quickly…the cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter’. I don’t think I want to talk about that. Psalm 90 reminds us that we die and return to dust and however long we live life is ‘but trouble and sorrow’. True, but rather depressing right now. 1 Thessalonians tells us that the end will come ‘like a thief in the night. While people are saying “Peace and safety”, destruction will come on them suddenly…’ Even more true and depressing. So, this sermon has to be on the passage from Matthew, always referred to as ‘the parable of the talents’.
I expect many of you, like me, have heard several sermons on this parable, usually encouraging us to use our talents in God’s service. I want to take a slightly different approach.
First, it is a parable, which is a story with a hidden meaning. Why did Jesus use this method of teaching? Some stories told by Jesus are straightforward – the Good Samaritan was an answer to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’. Those stories are not usually referred to as parables. The clearest example of a parable is the story of the sower in Luke chapter 8. After Jesus told the story to the whole crowd, his disciples asked him what it meant. Before explaining, Jesus said, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that “though seeing, they may not see: though hearing they may not understand”’.
I should also point out that, when we read the parables, we must remember that neither Jesus nor his listeners were English! I learned when I lived in the Middle East that it is usual in Semitic languages to exaggerate for effect; that is not considered lying and is not taken literally. It is sometimes done for comic effect – remember Jesus’ picture for how difficult it is for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven, a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. His hearers would laugh – and then think about the serious statement behind the image.
Today’s parable is one of two similar, but not identical, stories told by Jesus of a master entrusting servants with his money while he is away. The other is in Luke 19:11-17. One indication of their meaning comes from the context in which they were told. Matthew makes this parable part of Jesus’ teaching in the Temple in the days after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is sandwiched between the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the parable of the sheep and the goats. These are a continuation of the theme of the previous chapter of Matthew, which is Jesus’ teaching on the signs of the end times in response to his disciples asking when this will happen and what the signs will be. Luke places his parable immediately after the conversion of Zaccheus and just before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This context makes it clear that one purpose of this parable is to defuse his disciples’ expectations that God’s kingdom is imminent, an expectation raised by the entry into Jerusalem.
A talent was a measure of weight, around 30 kg, also a measure of money, that weight in pure silver. At current prices a talent would be worth around £20,000. A better idea of how Jesus’ hearers would asses this is that there were about 6,000 denarii to a talent, and a denarius was the usual payment for a day’s labour, the minimum wage of the time and probably what most of Jesus’ hearers were earning. It would take them over 15 years to earn one talent. Our modern meaning of talent, a special ability, derives from this parable. The first use of this meaning is found in the late 13th century – possibly as a result of many years of sermons on this parable encouraging us to use our abilities for God! So, these slaves were being entrusted with enormous sums of money – an example of exaggeration for effect.
What can we learn from this parable? Some, particularly purveyors of the American ‘prosperity gospel’, which preaches that God wants us to be rich, see this parable as approval of capitalism and high returns on loans and commerce. That interpretation involves ignoring everything else Jesus said about wealth. By contrast, modern liberation theology sees the parable as a criticism of capitalism and exploitation.
I think we need to examine the context, the two stories that surround the parable of the talents. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins also involves waiting for an absent person, the bridegroom. This is a message of being prepared for an event which will certainly happen but at an unknown time. The story called the parable of the sheep and the goats is not about livestock; it is about the basis on which the Last Judgement will be made, namely how we treat the poor and needy among us. The parable of the talents has elements of both: the uncertainty of when reckoning will have to be given and the basis on which the servant will be rewarded once that reckoning arrives.
This parable can be viewed as showing God’s way of building his kingdom by, amazingly, riskily, entrusting us fallible human beings to do it. As Teresa of Avila said:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”
But we don’t have to do this on our own; we are given the “talents”, the tools to do this. As David said two weeks ago when he preached on the Beatitudes, we are already gifted with what we need to live that teaching of Jesus. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is about oil, and oil is a Biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit. God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit enables us, if we are willing, to use the abilities and gifts we have been given to build his kingdom. We have everything we need to do God’s work on earth – only fear stops us from doing so, instead burying our talent. Throughout the Bible, God says “do not be afraid”. So, pluck up your courage and use your gifts to build the kingdom of God here in Oxford. The reward? – to enter into the joy of our Lord. Amen.