A Sermon for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (15/11/20): Theology Matters!

 Theology Matters!

Matthew 25:14-30

The Parables of the Talents is an odd parable. It is something of an outlier in Jesus’ story telling. It seems out of place. It is odd because it appears to run counter to most of what Jesus teaches elsewhere. The conclusion seems particularly troublesome:
For to those who have more will be given and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away.
This does seem to be the very opposite of the great turning over which Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom of God proposes. More often we would expect Jesus to say something like:
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty(Lk. 2:53)
Blessed are the poor (in spirit) (Mt. 5:3)
Over all Jesus seems much more a “take from the rich to give to the poor” sort of a guy, rather than the reverse which is what he appears to be proposing here. The parable itself does seem to endorse a kind of what we might call entrepreneurial acquisitiveness. The first two slaves are commended for taking the money and using it to make more money. So that Jesus can be seen to endorse capitalism, which is by definition making money out of money. Or at the very least he appears to be endorsing a king of meritocracy, where those who try hardest get the greatest rewards. Where those who have most deserve what they have because they earned it. Which again seems to run counter to the message of universal grace or unmerited love which we might more normally associate with the Kingdom of God. This does seem to be a much more conventional message, in the world’s terms than we would normally expect from Jesus. The one thing perhaps to note is that Jesus’ parable is realistic on one sense, he doesn’t pretend that the world is a level playing field. Those who succeed in his parable, like those who succeed in the real world are those who head start. The two successful slave are the ones who given most to begin with, five times and twice as much as the unsuccessful slave. So taken alongside all the rest of Jesus’ teaching this is an odd parable it is troublesome.

That it makes us feel odd is probably intentional. Jesus tells his story in a way that provokes our sympathy for the third slave. As he often does Jesus tells a story that repeats an idea or image one and half times. The man going on a journey has three slaves, with who he divides his property.
To one he gave five talents, to another two and to another one.
We love an underdog. We do in part because Jesus and the whole bible have taught us to love the underdog. Time and again in the Bible God sides with the younger son, the unloved wife and always with the poor, the dispossessed and the outcast, with the widow and the orphan. We know we’re supposed to be on the third slave’s side. The first slave takes the money and uses it to gain more money. Jesus repeats the scene once: the second slave takes the money and uses it to gain more money. Jesus begins to repeat the scene a second time, but then veers off in another, unexpected direction:
But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his masters money.
In Jesus’ stories we are normally expected to identify or sympathise with the third character to appear: think of the sequence “priest, Levite, Samaritan.” It’s not an accident that that parable is called “The Good Samaritan.” And here far more attention is paid to the third slave who fails, than to the others who succeed. We are given that detailed picture of what he does with the money. Which itself would have greeted by Jesus’ listeners with a knowing nod. By burying it in the ground the slave had done the prudent thing, it was a widely accepted principle that one couldn’t be held responsible for the loss of money which had been secured by burying it. We hearin detail this slave’sinteraction with his Master when the accounts are settled. And his fate is clearly announcedWe have been set up to side with the third slave. So that when he is condemned: 
As for this worthless slave throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
We are shocked and outraged. And in fact Jesus has set us up to feel that way! This is an odd parable, which it would seem is meant to trouble us.

But what is the message for us? Why has Jesus set us up like this, to feel dismayed when he condemns someone he has led us to sympathise with? Often when talking about the Parable of the Talents preachers begin be figuring out how much a talent is worth. (I’m pretty sure I’ve done that myself in the past.) A talent is a considerable amount of money. So one thing should be noted from the start, whilst five and two talents are clearly more than one; one talent is still a large sum. The third slave is not poor. He is very far, at least at the outset, from being dispossessed. He is not the usual object of sympathy in the Bible or in Jesus’ story telling. But worrying about the value of a talent somewhat misses the point. Just for once Jesus isn’t talking about real money. One thing we should always remember about Jesus’ stories; they are fiction. They are indeed “parables.” They are metaphorical, figurative. The elements of the story stand for something else. The pattern and the logic of the story show us something of the pattern and the logic of God’s work and God’s reign.
Historically the English language has actually grasped this. Whilst in Greek a “talent” is a certain (considerable) weight of silver. In English, under the influence of interpreting this parable, “talent” has come to mean something else. It means “natural aptitude or skill.” It is perhaps rather revealing also that in this context the word “gift” is more or less synonymous with the word talent. The association with money is perhaps unfortunate and misleading. Jesus actually says that the talents were given to the slave
To each according to his ability.
Jesus does see that different people have different gifts and aptitudes, and is realistic to recognise that often these gifts have a different economic value. St. Paul finds a different way of expressing the same sort of idea. He pictures a body with each of the members, mouth, eye, hands and feet, having a different purpose. He pictures diversity without emphasising so much different values. Jesus’ story sets up a test. This is the normal pattern for his story telling But at this late stage of his ministry, within a day or two of his arrest and execution, with things so urgent, he sets up the test to give a warning. The test will be passed or failed by the slaves according to what they had done with what they had been given. The first two succeed but the third fails. The first two had taken what they were entrusted with and made use of it and as a result it a had grown. The third had taken what he was given and hidden it away, kept it to himself, to make sure that there was no loss or change, as a result it had remained as it was sterile and lifeless. When we keep in mind that Jesus isn’t really talking about money, but about who we are and what we do, the story takes on a quite different complexion.

So the story is warning to us not to be like the third slave. Jesus uses the discomfort he causes in us, to shake us from our complacency. Jesus warns us not to live our lives trying to hold onto to what we have and never taking responsibility or any kind of risk. But the question arises why did the slaves act differently? Why did the third slave fail? And what was it about the first two that meant they succeeded? This becomes clear when we examine the opinion of the master about his slaves and the slaves about opinion about him. The master calls the third slave:
You wicked and lazy slave. 
The master’s opinion of the slave is every bit as negative as the slave’s opinion is of him, who says: 
I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter.
This negative opinion had left the third slave paralysed with fear. He was more concerned with the negative possibilities of failure than with the opportunity that his master’s trust in him had given. He failed to take responsibility and he failed to act. Preferring to take a secure but lifeless route he hid what he had been given where it could do no good to anybody. In the end the negative opinions of the slave and the master toward each other are a reflection of each other. The slave negative opinion of his master leads to the master’s negative opinion of him.
But we by no means have to accept the third slave’s opinion of his master as accurate. The master describes the first two slaves, he calls them: 
good and trustworthy.
What we don’t hear directly is the first two slaves’ opinion of their master. But perhaps like the other slave there would some sort of parallel between what he thinks of them and they think of him. Perhaps they would have said: “We knew that you were a generous and forgiving man.” Such a view of their master set them free. It enabledthem to take responsibility for what they had been given. They actively used their talents which meant that they increased, for the benefit not only of themselves, but no doubt for those around them.

Theology matters! That is, what we think about God makes a difference. What we think God is like, shapes the kind of people we become. If our picture of God is of an angry old man in the sky, then we are likely to be fearful. We will certainly take no generous risks with our lives. We will tend to hang onto to what we have got, try keep it intact and keep it for ourselves. But that picture of God is in no way the true picture of God which Jesus presents to us. Jesus’ portrayal of God from beginning to end is one of kindness and generosity, love and forgiveness. That true picture of God is what sets us free. Jesus’ invitation is to take responsibility for what each of has been given. We recognise its diversity, and sometimes have to accept that the world at least puts a different financial value on our abilities and aptitudes. But we are called to be open and expansive, to use what we have for the good of ourselves, for our neighbours, for the world and for God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ promises always go with a warning But his warnings also always come with a promise. The promise of a life lived in the knowledge that God is generous and forgiving is to hear at its end:
Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.

Theology Matters by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0CC iconby iconnc iconsa icon

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