Sunday, November 16, 2014

the parable of the talents

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

You may have noticed over the last number of weeks that our Gospels readings have been eschatological in nature – by which I mean they have been dealing with themes such as the end of days, the judgement that will come at that time, and whether that judgement will result in heaven or hell. And it might seem odd that this is what the lectionary of the Church, the list of readings selected from Sacred Scripture, has chosen for the time coming up to what the world calls the Christmas. Season. The answer to that is two-fold: the first is that we are in the month of November, the month of remembrance, the time when we think in particular of those who have already passed across the veil that separates us from this world and the next; which makes dwelling on such things of especial relevance. And the second is that before Christmas come Advent, which is a penitential season during which it is traditional to consider in particular what are called the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell; making our readings at this time something of preparation for what is to come, in more ways than one!

Another thing that these readings might serve to do is remind us that our Lord spoke rather a lot about such things; the reason being, unless one wishes to believe that Jesus spoke to no purpose on these occasions, was both to warn people of the dangers they faced and also teach them how they might avoid those dangers.

So what do we learn today from our Gospel reading today on this theme, the parable of the Talents? A talent, as spoken of in the parable, as I'm sure you're aware, was a sum of money in the ancient world. A talent of silver would have weighed over 100 pounds and would have been the equivalent of the average man's wages for about 15 years. So it was a huge sum of money. And in the parable, as chance would have it, it also stands for what we would call in English a talent – an ability or gift.

The first thing to note, I would suggest, is what the source of the talents in the passage is. It is the Master, who stands for God. And that is something important for us to note in these days, when we are encouraged by the world around us to take credit for our talents and abilities, as if they were something we had created for ourselves. They are not – each is something that we have as a gift. True, some talents require that we put in a lot of hard work to develop them to the point where they are useful. Without our determination to persevere and succeed, those talents would be of little use. But what is that ability to work hard, and the self-discipline needed to continue working hard to make the most of the talent, but another talent or gift itself? All talents are gifts we are given; and they are given to us by our Master, the one who created us.

Next, look what the servants do with the fruits of their labour. When they are called to give their account – which stands for the day when we will all be called before the heavenly throne - the ones who have made use of the money entrusted them by their master and managed to double it by the time he returns, at once bring it to him and lay it at his feet, the original amount, plus the extra they have made in the time he has been gone. They do not simply give him back the original amount and try to keep the rest for themselves. And from this we learn that the fruits of our labour are not are own, they are for the greater glory of God.

Also clear from the parable is that we are not allowed to do nothing with our abilities. That is clear from what happens to the servant entrusted with only one talent. While the other two are welcomed into the joy of their master, he is told he is lazy and sent away; and not merely dismissed from his position but cast out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And of course I'm sure that all here know that by the entering into the master's joy, Jesus means heaven; and by outer darkness he means hell.

Now, at first reading, the fate of the lazy servant might seem severe. After all, even if he has not increased the value of that entrusted to him, neither has he caused it to grow less; he is able to return the amount in full to his master. But look at his master's response when he hands it back. 'Why did you not give it to the bankers?' he asks. Now who were the bankers in Jesus time? They were the ones who stood at the tables in the temple, changing money. So the Greek here, which is translated as bankers, can also mean those who gather at table. And who is it that gather at table but God's people in the Eucharist? Our Lord's hearers might not have understood that when he spoke; but it has been understood in the generations since. And so what Jesus means when he says that the talent should have been given to the bankers where it would have at least gathered interest is that it should have been put to the use of God's people in some way, that even the littlest increase is better than no increase at all; that God does not give us our gifts and abilities so they can be left idle, whether through fear, as the servant claims, or through wickedness or laziness as his master charges him with. Our gifts must be put to use for the benefit of others and the greater glory of God.

There is one further lesson from the parable, I think. The master distributes the talents to his servants, according to their ability. Some receive more, some less. That is true to life, is it not? We look around and see others with greater gifts than ours – or at least we think so. But that does not mean that any of us are without gifts. Even the servant who received the smallest amount, one talent, still received an enormous fortune. God gives to each of us abundantly, even if is seems that some receive more. But despite that, each in the parable had the possibility of entering into the master's joy, of going to heaven. The actual end result is not of great importance – in the parable the same reward was available to the three, whether they turned five talents of silver into ten, or or collected a few extra denarii in interest on one. And it is the same for us. There is no need to worry; there is no need to fear; all we need do is take the gifts God has given us and, acting as his faithful servants who trust in his grace and mercy, use them for the good of others and his greater glory in the world and we too at the last will enter into his joy. A cheerful note to end on at a time when the Christmas lights are already beginning to twinkle in the shops and the Christmas cards are already beginning to fly through the post – even if we still have Advent to get through before we actually arrive at Christmas. Amen

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