The parable of the Talents,
Stained glass executed by Clayton & Bell, London,
For St Edith’s Church, Bishop Wilton,
2nd Before Advent
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
We seem to be in in-between time on the calendar; both the church and in life. The days are shorter and darker. The weather is grey and miserable. Remembrance Sunday has passed.
Have you put up the Christmas decorations yet?
When should you do that without judgement?
Has the Christmas pudding started?
We seem to be waiting around for the next thing. There is a vagueness to everything. You come to church and we are faced with these seemingly dire readings all about the end times and gnashing teeth. Is that what we are waiting for?!
Both Paul writing to the Thessalonians and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable speak to the return of the Lord. The second coming of Jesus. This is what we are preparing for during Advent; God’s return. Yes we spend time preparing and celebrating the birth of Jesus. The bigger picture is God’s return for the second time. Not many people spend much time considering or imagining this event.
After the resurrection everyone (the gospel writers, Paul and the disciples, members of the new church) thought Jesus was coming back imminently. Yet here we are two thousand years later, still watching and waiting. Like the Thessalonians, we do not know the day or the time. Paul and Matthew are concerned with what people do in the meantime. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to put on the breastplate of faith and love, a helmet for the hope of salvation. Paul wants them to encourage and build each other up.
Jesus is coming back, and it matters what was done in his absence. This is true for us too, how are we doing in the meantime? Are we being foolish or wise, investing, hiding or squandering?
Matthew 25, like many of Jesus’ parables, can be read on several different levels and it needs careful attention. As a reminder, Matthew has this parable set in the last days of Jesus’ life. Generally people say some really important things as the end of life nears. This is not an easy parable nor is it made any more comforting by the times we find ourselves living in.
We could read this parable as a call to do more with what God has given us. It does not matter how much (think time, money, gifts, resources) we have been given, just do more with it and be smart about it. Again, if we do not use it, we will be punished.
The tension here is that, given the current situation with post-Covid, cost of living among many factors, many people cannot volunteer or contribute their gifts for the service of others as they may previously have. Should they be made to feel guilty? Punished for what is beyond their control? There is a difference here between inability to help and serve and being unwilling to help and serve.
In Jesus’ parable, the man (master) is going away for an unknown amount of time. He calls his servants and gives them each a talent of silver; but he does not give them any instructions about what to do with the talents. Why not? The man knew his servants, he had worked out what each would do with the talents given.
Through the actions of the first two servants who invested their talents, we can see that they knew their master. Even without explicit instructions, they knew what was expected of them and what would please their master. It is doubtful that these two slaves understood the motivation of their master but possibly suspected that this was some kind of test.
The third slave and the master know each other too. There is dislike and mistrust between them. The master does not trust this slave as much as the others. The slaves’ response is to focus on the negative, what he did not have, did not get and blamed the master for that.
The master replies by pointing out that the slave did not try, did not seek out what he (the master) wanted. Instead of trying to please or get to know his master, the slave gives up and buries the talent. When the master returns to his home, the third slave knows that trouble is coming so tells his master what he thinks of him. This slave had decided a long time ago that nothing would please his master so gave up trying.
Many people can relate to the third slave, that nothing they do is ever good enough, so why try? This is applied to God too. I’ve heard things like, ‘God has never bothered with me, so why should I bother with him?’ or ‘if God is so good, then why did x, y, or z happen?’
Questions like these often come from a place of deep hurt and carry some honesty. However, many people who tend to blame God for their misfortunes, do not seek after him in the first place. Assumptions about who God is and what He is like are often wrong and based on circumstance and feelings rather than knowledge and relationship.
When it comes to talents, by this I mean our gifts and skills; they have come from God. They are given to be used, we are stewards of them, not the owners. The owner is God, and he expects us to use his gifts wisely. Gifts, like the silver talents of the slaves, increase with use. To use them wisely and to the glory of God, we need to know the giver, the true owner of these gifts. God has a genuine and vested interest in what we do in his name.
If we seek to know God and his will for our lives, we do not need to worry about the outer darkness. We are all going to have to account for what we have done with what has been given to us. It does not matter how much; this is not a competition.
If you feel that God was stingy or somehow passed you by when handing out your gifts, seek him, ask him! God knows you, knows your capacity, He also loves and understands you. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to: ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’
The problem is not that Jesus did not know the slave or does not know us. The problem is that the slave, and us, do not fully know who Jesus is. We need to work to correct this imbalance. This is my prayer and hope for this upcoming Advent season; that we will find time and effort to deepen our relationships with God.
For the other slaves and for us, knowing Jesus is a positive, life-giving, life-affirming experience. It is an ongoing and ultimately loving relationship with the Father who loves us more than we can ask or imagine, who gives good gifts for the benefit of all. Let us not waste what God has given each of us, we can work together to build each other up. We can seek the Lord while he may be found, we need to build each other up for the day of the Lord in coming.