It is very easy to hear this parable as an exploration of the word 'talent'...we can't be blamed, because of course there is an obvious parallel between the idea of a talent as a sum of money, and the talents that we all are given. But, before attempting to work out any kind of meaning, the first thing that any reader of scripture should do is to examine the context of the passage. Where do these words fit in the wider story? What was going on at the time they were written, and the time in which they were spoken. What do the words on either side of the passage reveal about about the passage itself. So, let's start there.
This passage of Matthew's gospel comes amidst a long section in which Jesus is talking about the end of the world. From the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus:
- foretells the destruction of the Temple,
- he describes the signs that will be seen at the 'end of the age',
- he predicts the persecutions of the Christians,
- he foretells the coming of false messiahs and prophets
- he describes the 'coming of the Son of Man'
And then he tells a number of parables to illustrate and underline the kind of behaviour that he expects from his followers while we await the end of all things. He uses the illustration of a fig tree, whose tender leaves foretell the coming of summer to encourage us to be watchful.
Then Jesus turns his attention to the kind of lives that he expects his followers to live, while awaiting the end of the age. They are to be those whom the Master finds 'at work' when he arrives - not eating and drinking with drunkards, but 'at work' about their Master's business. Then comes the story of the Ten Bridesmaids, that we heard last week - another encouragement to be prepared and watchful for the coming of the Lord. Then - at the end of all that! - comes today's story of the parable of the Talents, which we'll deal with in a moment. Finally, the whole section concludes with Jesus famous story of the end of time, when the sheep will be separated from the Goats. You all understand that analogy, I'm sure...it’s when those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and who visited the sick and imprisoned will be separated for all eternity from those who did not.
Can you see the context in which the Parable of the Talents sits? The narrative force of the whole section is one of pointing us to the end of days, the end of the age, the Second Coming of the Messiah. What is clear is that Matthew himself believed that this event was going to happen very soon. He even records Jesus saying that the end of the world will take place while some of Jesus' original followers are still alive. But that, unfortunately for Matthew, was clearly a mistake. That should not concern us, however. Matthew was only human, and like all of us humans, he was prone to the occasional error. It is the underlying force of what he records that we need to hear...And here is what he is saying:
Jesus is coming again! Let me say that one more time...Jesus is coming again! Its something we declare in the 'mystery of faith' during every Communion service...'Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again'. It is a central tenant of our faith that we believe the Kingdom of God to be both among us now, but also still to come in all its fullness.
But none of us can be sure exactly how Jesus will come again. Clearly Jesus himself used many different images to illustrate the point..such as:
- The son of man will come like a thief in the night
- The son of man will come in glory, and will sit on the throne of that glory
- The son of man will come on the clouds of heaven
It is impossible for us to discern from such imagery exactly how, or indeed when, these events will take place. Will Jesus insert himself gently into the world, like a thief in the night? Will he sit on a throne somewhere, like the United Nations...or will he be seated on a cloud surrounded by angels (however improbable that sounds to modern ears)? We cannot know. What we can do is trust that Jesus has come, that he will come, and that he is coming!
There is of course a strong sense in which Jesus has already come. By sending his Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we might very well conclude that Jesus has already come in great power. And if that is so, then Matthew was completely right in saying that Jesus would come again while his original followers were alive. But the majority of commentators believe that the Pentecost event was only a foretaste of the ultimate 'Second Coming' of Jesus. It has been the tradition of the church, throughout the centuries, that we still await a great climactic event, in which God, through Jesus, will finally intervene in the mess that human beings have made of God's world. He will reign completely over all the earth.
I'm going to leave those thoughts with you to ponder. It is for you to work out for yourself what you think the most likely scenario is, through your own diligent searching of the Scriptures. What is utterly without doubt, however, is the manner in which we are to act, behave and be while we await the Second Coming of our Lord. Jesus' parables are pretty clear on this point, as I've already illustrated. We are to be watchful, and about our Master's business.
It’s in that context that I want to suggest a slightly different reading of the parable of the talents. Instead of thinking of the talents as, well, talents...I invite you to think of them as 'opportunities to do the Master's work'. Take a look, with me at the text...
At the beginning of the story, the Master gives his servants different numbers of talents - 'to each according to his ability'. The word 'ability' implies the kinds of talents - skills - that each servant already has. So, we might conclude, the Master is not giving even more skills, abilities or talents to each servant...he is giving them the opportunity to 'employ', to use, the talents that each already has.
We know, don't we, that human beings are gloriously and wonderfully different. Each of us has a different bundle of gifts and abilities. Some have so many gifts that they make you sick! I might use the illustration of someone like Stephen Fry - who can be a comic, an actor, a quiz-show host, a documentary maker, a talented 'audio-book' reader, a singer, a social activist, a writer, a director...and so on. He makes me sick! (Smiley face!)
But there are others who perhaps have just one or two talents...perhaps they just know how to make the best cup of tea in the world...or they have the gift of being able to sit and listen to lonely people who just need to talk and talk. We accept this difference in people as being 'the way things are'. Some people are simply more talented than others. But, to quote Jesus from Luke's version of the Gospel, "from everyone to whom much has been given, much shall be required...Much is required from those to whom much is given, for their responsibility is greater" (Luke 12.48)
Whatever skills and abilities we have, whatever wealth we have been given in financial terms or in terms of talent, Jesus the Master expects us to use them in his service. We are not to bury them in a metaphorical field...we are to grab every opportunity to use the gifts we have been given for the work of the Master.
What does this mean in practical terms?
Let me quote from a theologian called Fred Craddock (who I don't think is related to Fanny Craddock, the cook!). He says this…
“Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home...teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice and feed the neighbour’s cat. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”. (Fred B, Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990. 193))
Forgive me if I give a personal illustration for a moment. Many of you have asked me why I am choosing to leave this parish now, at this particular point. Everything is going well...the Cafe is thriving, we have exciting plans for the future of the buildings here and at St Nicholas. We have a strong ministerial team, and the hurts of the past have been largely healed. Why should I want to leave just now?
Well, it’s precisely because I feel that God is calling me to use what talents and abilities he has given me elsewhere. I feel just like the servants in the story who have been given the Master's money, and told to invest it wisely. I have tried to be 'about my Master's work' for the last nearly seven years...and I think, together, we've managed to make our Master's money grow...there has been visible growth and life. But, I also sense from the Holy Spirit, that this is not the only field in which the Master needs me to use my particular gifts and talents. He is now calling me elsewhere...and I need to respond.
And if God is calling me onwards, into new adventures and new ways of employing my skills - what is he saying to you. Is he offering you new opportunities for serving the Master? They may be opportunities in another town, another church even...or they may be opportunities that are right in front of your nose...in this town, in this church. I want to encourage each of you to spend some time this week thinking about that very question. Go into a quiet place, close the door, turn off all electrical devices, and let your mind wander free through God's mission field. Is there a homeless person who needs your care? Is there a family member who would be SO uplifted to receive a call from you? Is there a function within the family of the church that you could carry out...but which you have ignored for a while? Is there some money you could give to alleviate the suffering of another human being?
And let me finally, ask you to ask that question with the kind of urgency that Matthew wants his readers to hear. In other words, what will the Master say to you when he comes? Will he call you one of his 'wicked and lazy slaves'? Or will he call you his 'good and faithful servant' and cry 'well done!'?