Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Sermon: The Parable of the Talents - a parable about time.


It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my mother said to me: “How old are you now?” “What? Am I adopted? Were you not there?” You’d have thought that she of all people would have remembered, wouldn’t you? But then sometimes I have to stop and think too: “How old am I now?” The passing of time is a big mystery to me. “Haven’t you grown?” I hear myself saying to kids I last saw when they were three - fifteen years ago.

Where does it go? Why does time pass so slowly when we are young and so rapidly when we are old? And above all—when loved ones leave us, when they die, where are they, if they are not in time? Is it just me?

Centuries ago the psalmist uttered with poignant accuracy,
“. . . our years come to an end like a sigh.”

Or as my mother said equally poignantly: “It’s all right for you; We're in the departure lounge.”

But even though we may identify with the words of the Psalmist - or, indeed, my mother, the question of how the ancients viewed time remains. Their perception must have been different from ours, surely? When the prophets say that the day of the Lord “is at hand,” do they mean that the end is immanent? Since we know that the end of time has not yet arrived, we assume that their religious zeal led them in the wrong direction, or that they were speaking more apocryphally or they must have understood time more loosely.

The prophet Zephaniah warns those who think that God is indifferent to their idolatrous practices, that the day of the Lord for them will be full of darkness, not of light, and that time will have no mercy on their plans:

Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine
from them.


There is no promise here is there? Only a warning. For this prophet, the day of the Lord is at hand and the retribution of those who move away from God is “near and hastening fast.” Are there any applications for us here I wonder?

When St. Paul writes to the young church in Thessalonica, he seems to have a similar conviction: that the day of the Lord is at hand; but for him this is a prospect filled with promise.

“For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep (as in alive or dead) we may live with him.” He says.

Early in his preaching mission, Paul was convinced that the return of Christ was very near, that it would happen within his lifetime. The people of the church in Thessalonica, believing that the day of the Lord was approaching, were falling into doubt and despair because some from that small community were dying before the promised return of the Lord had occurred. So Paul is trying here to encourage them by reminding them that they are “children of light,” and for those who live in the light, even death is not to be feared. It is as if time does not matter.

Because apocalyptic literature is not easily understood by people who live comfortable lives in Britain, talk of the last days has more or less disappeared from our thinking. There is a tendency among fundamentalist Christians to dwell on a violent end for the faithless, and for some kind of apocalyptic rapture for the faithful. But what comes through with clarity in Paul’s writings is a reminder that no one knows the end of time, that it comes like a thief in the night, and that what we need is to be prepared: by living with awareness, with faith, with compassion and with love.

It is this quality of preparedness that we can also gather from the difficult parable of the talents: Jesus was good at telling difficult stories. No doubt they were as hard to hear standing in a group in Palestine as they are from our seats today. I have always felt a certain sympathy for the battered one-talent man who hides his unexpected gift in this strange parable and who was deprived of the gift once it had been given, just because he was shy, or reserved, or cautious.

So, before leaving on a journey, a rich man gives incredible sums to three servants: to the first, five talents, to the second two and to the third one talent (which alone equalled the wages of an ordinary worker for 20 years). Without further instructions he departs and the first two servants doubled their gifts, while the one-talent man dug a hole and hid his. Upon returning the master asks what happened to his money and after identical recitations about doubling the gift, each of the first two is called “a good and faithful servant,” placed in charge of even more possessions and welcomed into the joy of the master.

The one-talent man must be despondent, and he begins immediately with his excuse, “Master, I knew you were a hard man harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not sow, so out of fear I went and buried my talent.” He invokes fear as his defence. This man is a victim of his own fear and cautiousness.

After the predictions of the end time in Ch. 24 and the threats of severe judgments awaiting the unfaithful at Jesus’ return, Matthew is urging his community not to be timid and fearful, but to take risks. The paradox of biblical revelation is that the merciful, gracious and compassionate God who liberates us from slavery is also the God who will judge us on the use of our gifts. Let’s be clear too: we aren’t talking about good works here, we are talking about obedient discipleship.

Unless we belong to a parish facing extinction or financial ruin, or unless we take seriously the statistics about declining membership and revenue, the cost of being a Christian and a Lutheran may seem minimal. If we happen to be among the talented, the question of importance to consider is what we do with these gifts? Do we spend them for the good of others? Do we try to correct systemic wrongs by putting these gifts to work so that they multiply and double in value? Or do we hide our talents, resentful towards the Creator who blessed others more than ourselves, and offer nothing to those who surround us?

Certainly in Jesus' day a “talent” was a significantly valued coin. Nevertheless, we need to forget that. Nowadays, of course, a “talent” is an ability or skill, but despite what I just said, we need to forget that too. Jesus isn't talking about wealth in terms of cash or natural ability. What then? Well, perhaps we should be thinking about it more in terms of our Christian calling and the use of time.

Those early Christians often gave their lives for God: during turbulent times they faced arrest and execution. That’s confusing for us, because the chance of our being martyred and landing up in the Church Calendar or depicted in a stained-glass window is pretty slim. But we are, nevertheless, called by Jesus to give ourselves up in selfless love for God and in selfless service of others.

The fault of the person who did not use the gift he was given was that he was entirely passive. That person was so frightened that he would lose what he had been given that he was paralyzed by an awful fear.

There is a type of fear that is tranquil. There's safety in inertia but when we risk stepping out in obedient discipleship into the misery of our neighbour, we step into danger, if only the danger of doing something for others and thus exposing ourselves to rejection or loss.

Christians often seem paralyzed by the idea of “evangelism" for instance. We are prepared to inflict our politics, our views as to what constitutes good music or T.V. and even our recipes on others, but not our faith. We come up with all sorts of excuses to justify our apathy or take cover under the cloak of not being a fundamentalist. We act as if it's unfortunate that Jesus commanded us to go into the world and proclaim the Good News. We don't want to admit that our own Christian faith rests on generations of people who have passed on the Gospel.

Of course we are not to force our faith on others. Of course we are not to say that we are going to heaven and they are going to hell. That is God's business.

Yet we have been given the grace to witness the faith within us to others, and that may be in showing kindness, providing hospitality or standing out against the prevailing culture or attitudes of the day and hopefully, by telling and showing the love of Jesus at one and the same time.

As we embrace the world in obedient discipleship we commit ourselves to witness in word and deed in our daily life and work, at home, at school, in our hobbies and with our friends and neighbours.

When this passage in the 25th chapter of Matthew is read in conjunction with the parable that follows it, that of the great judgment, we realize that doing good to those who are neglected by our society is what the wise use and multiplication of the talents means. So in this reading of the parable, and in the Old Testament, Psalm and Epistle, we may be permitted to look at the gift of time as a talent, and when we say with the psalmist that our years come to end like a sigh, let it be the sigh of satisfaction for a job well done.

Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Lord. AMEN