Vicar's Sermon - 19th November 2017
Matthew 25.14-30 The parable of the talents.
It’s easy isn’t it? This gospel story. A man goes on a journey. He entrusts his wealth to his servants. Some of them use it to make more wealth. One chap buries his money and pays the price for doing so when his master returns. Moral: use the gifts you are given wisely and you will get your reward.
But there’s always more. For a start: ‘Who is this man? And ‘where is he going’…and ‘why is he going and how long will he be gone?’ One of the difficulties of reading the scriptures in church…and indeed of me kindly printing out the passage for you each week on the pew sheet… is that we don’t hear things in context. What stories have preceded this one? What stories will follow?A glance at those headings in some versions of the bible will help: Matthew 25 puts us firmly in Holy Week. Opposition to Jesus is growing within Jerusalem. Jesus is speaking again and again of the end times: there will be wars and rumours of wars, he says. He speaks of a bridegroom coming to his home to celebrate his wedding only to find that people aren’t ready. He mentions a master who surprises his servants by returning home unexpectedly. False Messiahs will come and lead you astray, he predicts. No one knows the Day or the hour when the Lord will come to His people – BUT He is coming.
Can we say that the man in the parable is Jesus? Yes…probably. So what is this journey he is about to make? Is it the journey into death that Jesus knows lies ahead of Him…and beyond to His return at the resurrection? Or is he thinking of the journey He will make to His Father’s presence and His return at the end of time. Parables are hard to nail down: their meanings shift – it could be both….and I wonder whether the disciples picked up on what Jesus was saying, what he was teaching? In John’s gospel we know they struggle: ‘We don’t know where you are going’ they say? ‘In a little while you won’t see me’ says Jesus ‘but yet a little while and you will see me.’ ‘Why do you have to go anyhow?’ they protest.
But let’s read this parable as if it refers to Jesus making the journey to His Father that we mark at Ascension-tide. What now for His followers? We know of those first disciples’ sense of bereavement, not just at Jesus’ death on Good Friday but also following the resurrection when Jesus ascended to his Father. We live, as they did, without Jesus’ physical presence with us – that’s hard. Jesus has gone on a journey leaving us behind – in our parable it is salutary to notice that the man doesn’t actually say that he is going to return. So let that fact sink in. His servants might trust that he will return…but they don’t know for certain. Anything might happen to Him. How are they to live? (and perhaps I should say that the version of this parable in Luke’s Gospel is very different to the one in front of us this morning: Matthew and Luke heard different things in Jesus’ story).
Well, the man entrusts his property to them. I read that as meaning ALL his property. He doesn’t, in the parable tell them to do anything with it: that’s interesting. He doesn’t tell them explicitly to bank it, or trade with it. He just gives it to them – its for them to decide what to do with his wealth. They could act as if they expected him never to return: they could take the money and run – a holiday, a cruise, the highlife beckons. But no: two of them trade with the man’s wealth and do rather well. These two will be commended. The other man digs a hole in the ground and buries his cash…which seems to be an absolutely bizarre thing to do…so why does he do this?
How about this for an idea? People take money out of banks and hide it under the floorboards of their homes…or in their mattresses…at times of great upheaval and uncertainty. There was that story not so long ago about a fortune being discovered in the inner workings of a piano: money, hidden by its owner (we know not why) perhaps because war was coming. We know that treasure troves are occasionally found from the Saxon times or the end of the Roman era in Britain: why?... because they were buried to preserve wealth against being found by marauding Vikings. I have a dim recollection that Samuel Pepys buried his cash (and for some reason I think some parmesan cheese) against the fire of London!
One of the differences between the servants who trade with their masters’ property and the one who simply buries is rests somewhere in the word ‘Faithfulness’. The first two expected him to return and so were faithful: they trusted Him. The last one doesn’t seem to have this confidence: he’s going to lie low, see how things work out. In the context of Jesus’ mini apocalypse – his teaching and sayings about the travails that will accompany the birth of His Kingdom coming into existence- this parable holds before us two examples of servants who remain loyal to their master, who are willing to act on His behalf and who will stand firm even though they know not the hour or the day of His returning. It seems that the parable is about being both faithful and fruitful.
The servant who is chastised however has no understanding of his master’s character. He believes he is flattering his master by describing Him as a ‘strong or harsh man’, someone ‘who reaps where he did not sow’ and ‘who gathers where he did not scatter seed’. These would be flattering words if applied to a marauding Bedouin ruler – for whom strength is shown in raiding other’s wealth. But he has totally misread Jesus: we are not meant to agree with his assessment. Jesus is no thief! The servant’s attempt at flattery turns out to be totally insulting but notice, the man does not disabuse him of his lack of perception. ‘If that’s what you think of me then you could at least have broken a few more laws by investing the money in a bank and gaining interest on it!’ (Jewish law at least back then spoke against interest payments).
So a few more questions?
What is the wealth that Jesus has entrusted to us?...and what are we to do with it? And can we live as those who believe…as our Creed says…that He will come again to judge the living and the dead?
We could answer the first question with just the one word: Spirit. Our Ascension and Pentecost readings remind us each year that as Christian people we have inherited Jesus’ Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus has been poured out upon us. ‘When He ascended on high He gave gifts to all people’ is a phrase that forms part of the Ascension Day reading. ‘All I have needed thy hand hath provided’ we sing. Do we believe it? All, everything we need to be church entrusted to us: no Christian Community, however small should despise the gifts God has given through Jesus. We have all we need to fulfil His will. For all the church’s obsession with budgets and money everything we need is right here amongst us: Jesus’ gifts are enough.
And there’s the thing! The servants who pleased their master didn’t hog those gifts to themselves, they used them. I suppose this simply reminds us that as His people we are expected to bear fruit: not just as individuals but together, as a church in this place. There is freedom in how we go about doing that provided we honour our master in exercising that freedom…but we will be expected to give an account: how did you live for me through these hard times of my absence.
And again, the difference between these servants is that two expected His return, one wasn’t sure. One was paralysed by fear – he was not prepared to represent His master’s best interests amongst others. He had no real knowledge of His master – in fact without that knowledge he was totally ineffectual. The two however knew their master better than the one. They trusted Him. They knew His character and His will. They were prepared to work for Him in hope of His return. Faithfully carrying out His will as best they could, seeing to it that his purposes flourished. That can be us: Jesus’ people working in hope of seeing Him face to face one day, working to promote His kingdom, seeing that Kingdom grow amongst and beyond this church community. That is us. The people of God to whom Christ has entrusted ‘a share in the Holy Spirit and the life of the age to come’, all the treasures of heaven are ours – so may we use them to His praise and glory.