Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sermon on the Parable of the Talents

Homily on Matt 25:13-30

The hour is getting dark now. Jesus knows that time draws near- that soon the night would fall on him and that this very night he would be taken from his followers and dragged off in chains.

In fact, this parable, along with the one from last week, and next weeks are given to the disciples immediately before the last supper, where Jesus gives us this holy meal of his body and blood.

So these parables about the end of the world- about judgment and preparation take on extra weight- they are the last desperate attempts of Jesus to prepare his disciples for his departure.

Before we get into this parable- I think it’s important to speak briefly to what parables are and how we should and shouldn’t read them.

First, Parables, like all portions of scripture, are never by themselves. They always are woven into a much larger story, the story being told in the Gospels and the grand story of God’s redemptive work in the world. You can’t just take one parable on its own- isolated from the bigger story- when you do that you are doomed to misunderstand what Jesus is teaching us.  We have to read this parable in light of what comes before and what goes after it.

Second, When Parables come in groups (which they most often do) you have to pay close attention to the ways they connect to each other. The parable of the 10 bridesmaids with oil lamps from last week matters for interpreting this text.

Third, Parables make illustrations and do not give direct moral teaching. Instead they are meant to grab our attention in a dramatic way.  Have you ever tried speaking to someone who has very poor hearing? You have to raise your voice, and sometimes have to wave your arms to illustrate a point.  We like these disciples are very hard of hearing- these parables are Jesus way of waving his arms to show us something we could not understand otherwise.

This parable of the talent has been misread so terribly so many times- sometimes in ways that oppose the clear message of Matthews Gospel.  So let me be very clear up front. 
This parable is not about how to invest your money.
 This parable is not a vindication that God rewards rich people who work hard.
This parable is not God saying high interest loans from banks is ok.

Like the parable of the oil lamps, Jesus is trying to tell us about how we are to live our lives before God in preparation for our final Judgment when he returns.
The story is simple enough. A lord is about to go away on a long journey (note the connection here with Jesus own departure) and he goes to his servants.  He looks them over, determining their ability and decides to leave his wealth with them to work with while he is gone.  The first servant he gives five talents to, the second two talents and the third just one talent.  Now to give you some perspective a talent of silver was worth something like 15-20 years wages for the average worker. So even the one talent is a huge amount to entrust someone with.

I imagine the three servants lining up next to each other- anxious to figure our what their master wanted from them. And then he comes out with these huge sums of money- and the third servant watches with horror as first two guys get dramatically more than he does.  He starts to sweat. The master is expecting me to produce the same amount as these other two guys without any of the resources! How unfair- these other guys have so much that they can take risks with the money but I just have this one talent and there is no way I am putting it out there where it could be lost and give the master a reason to punish me. I know he is just looking for ways to catch me doing something wrong! I won’t give him the chance, I’ll burry his money in the ground and give it back to him just the way he found it! That way I will have lost nothing!

But of course this course of action does not work out so well for the third Servant- The master is outraged that he did nothing to grow his estate- not even hire other people to do it by putting it in the bank! And so he is rejected and cast out, his talent given to the one who had ten.

This is a terrible end for this last servant (not unlike the bridesmaids who ran out of oil) - Jesus wants us to pay attention and not make this mistake!

But what is the sin of this third servant?  What is it that Jesus wants us to understand from this passage?  Jesus wants us to recognize the tremendous gifts we have received from the Lord and wants us to put everything we can offer to work for God’s kingdom so that when he returns we will have invested ourselves in what will not perish- in God’s Joy.

The sin of this last servant is two-fold. First, he thinks the Lord reaps where he does not sow- that is- demands things of us unjustly. He thinks God has not given him enough and will require too much from him.  But thinks this is all about him! Sure he knows the Master wants the money  back- but he is gripped by fear that the master will be upset with him and all his actions focus around saving his own skin- he is obsessed with protecting himself- not considering how he can make the Master’s estate grow. He buries the silver in the ground because that’s what he thinks best for him.

Now lets think about the other two servants. They get very different amounts of money and are entrusted with even more responsibility.  One makes five more talents and the other makes two more talents- but what happens? Does the first servant receive a greater reward? NO- no he does not! They both receive the very same reward- entrance into the Master’s Joy- into the riches of the estate they poured themselves into. The master didn’t look at the second servant and say- what’s wrong with you? The first guy made five more talents! No- God reaps where God sows- from each according to what they have been entrusted and rewards them equally for their efforts. They are not working for their own money! The first guy does not end up richer than the second.  They both hear words more valuable than any amount of silver- Well done my good and faithful servant.
How are we to hear those words? How are we to avoid the fate of the third servant?
It starts with the recognition that God has given us, all of us, tremendous gifts!  And these gifts are not valued the same way the world values them- money and power are not the most valuable talents God gives out. No the most valuable gifts God gives us are the gifts of Faith, Hope and Love. The Lord gives us our very lives- lives that bear the image of God that is of unimaginable value.  In addition to that each of you have tremendous things to offer- from musical gifts to kindness - financial resources to knowledge of language. You may not even know what talents you have yet. 
         But everything we have we can put to work- not for our own benefit alone. No- the first two servants didn’t work for their own wealth they worked for the master’s wealth- they were working for the Kingdom of God.  In the parable that immediately follows this one in Matt. 25 it becomes clear that working for God’s kingdom means working for a world where the poor are fed and the naked clothed.  John Chrysostom from the 4th Century writes this:
“Let us therefore, knowing these things, contribute whatever we have—wealth, diligence or care giving—for our neighbor’s advantage. For the talents here are each person’s abilities, whether in the way of protection, or in money, or in teaching or in whatever thing you have been given. Let no one say, “I have but one talent and can do nothing with it.” You are not poorer than the widow. You are not more uninstructed than Peter and John, who were both “unlearned and ignorant men.” Nevertheless, since they demonstrated zeal and did all things for the common good, they were received into heaven. For nothing is so pleasing to God as to live for the common advantage.
            For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body and mind and understanding, that we might use all these things both for our own salvation and for our neighbor’s advantage. Our speech not only is useful for hymns and thanksgiving, but it is profitable also for instruction and admonition. And if indeed we used it to this end, we should be imitating our Master.”

We are to work with all we have toward the growth of God’s kingdom.  And this means we take risks! When the first two servants put the money of the Master to work there was no guarantee that they would make so much money- they could have lost some!  We are called to take risks for God’s Kingdom- there is no guarantee that we will see immediate returns- but we invest our talents there because in the end the gifts and abilities we have are not ours to possess- to bury in the ground and play it safe.  God is not out to get you- waiting for a reason to condemn you! When we commit ourselves to working for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom God will forgive our mistakes, missteps and failures because we are seeking his Glory not our own.  If we try to possess our gifts rather than give them back in service to God we lose them.
Mother Teresa was a Catholic Nun in Calcutta, India. She was a very short woman- who took a vow of poverty and had virtually no possessions. She created a ministry there that cared for people who were sick, poor and dying- the least of these.  And she said something that has always stuck with me.  “You can never do great things. Only small things with great love.” 
         We don’t do great things- though great things may happen when we work for the Lord because of his Spirit. All we can do, like the two faithful servants in this parable, is use whatever has been given to Love God and Neighbor.
         We should not forget that this parable is about the end of the world- when Jesus returns to set the whole world right and bring his Kingdom to its fullness.  If you have lived your whole life investing not in the Kingdom of God, but in your own Glory- or worse yet in fear and complacency- the end of this age will not be a comfortable time for you! Everything you will have worked for- everything you loved will pass away and nothing will be left. But if instead you work for the Kingdom of God with all that you have despite struggles and temptations- then at the end of this age all that you have loved, all that you have given yourself to will not only remain but be magnified and expanded 100 fold. You will share in the bounty of the Master.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the Beginning, is Now and Will Be forever,

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