Have you ever been given something of great value? It might be a beautiful piece of jewelry, or a lovely painting. It might be a rare book, or the trip of a lifetime. You might even have received a financial inheritance or a house. Or the gift could have been something that was harder to put a dollar amount on, but was no less precious – a family photograph, your great-grandfather’s tools, the cast-iron frying pan your grandmother always used to make Sunday dinner, a chance at an education, a friendship, the way you were taught to throw a baseball or cast a fishing rod and the person who taught you, the stories of those dear to you through the generations, your faith. We all have things we value because of what they represent, what they mean to us, and in many cases, cannot be assigned a dollar amount.
Sometimes when we receive such a gift, we recognize that we are only keepers of the gift, stewards, that it does not ultimately belong to us, but to our family, or to the ages, or to someone else whose interest and care would show that they are suited to receive it. That understanding is the back story of Jesus’ parable today.
Like many story tellers in the oral tradition he uses a multiplier of three. The master has three servants or slaves. Each slave is given a certain amount of money. The master goes away on a long journey without leaving any particular instructions about what to do with the funds, but does return to settle accounts eventually. The first slave has doubled the value of his master’s money. The second slave has also doubled that value of the funds. But the third slave has done nothing, and indeed, has been frozen into inaction by fear. And the third slave is judged very harshly by the master.
In thinking about this parable, we in the English-speaking world sometimes get a little tripped up over the use of the word talent, because in English it’s all about personal skills and aptitudes, rather than money. But in first-century Palestine a talent was a unit of money, equal to fifteen years of a laborer’s wages. So, these are huge amounts of cash that Jesus is describing. We might even wonder why the slaves didn’t just take the money and run?
We need to hear this parable in the looming shadow of the Cross, because in the chronology of Matthew’s Gospel, we are hours away from the Last Supper, and Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and his agony in the Garden before his arrest, and his trial and Crucifixion. And yet, Jesus continues to take things apart for the disciples, and put them back together again in new and strange ways.
He tells this parable as a critique against the scribes and the religious teachers and the Pharisees who had been given the great gift of God’s Law and the Temple – signs and vehicles of God’s life-giving presence for God’s People, and (through them) to the rest of the world. And yet, they had taken what was meant to be holy, filled with joy and life, and turned it into a rigid system of rules and punishments, which pushed anyone who could not keep them further away from God than ever. The first two slaves who took what had been entrusted to them and developed it are the disciples – all those willing to take a risk on Jesus, to trust that he was the One sent from God to bring God’s purposes to fulfillment, to join Jesus in being a light to the world.
But for the third slave the parable speaks of harsh and dire punishment, being thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is where we may start to get a little nervous, wondering how we might be judged, or where the Jesus of love and compassion has disappeared to. We always have to hear and read these apocalyptic parables in the larger context of everything else we know of God, “the maker and lover of the world” who sent Jesus to embody and show us that love. Judgement, then, becomes a theme in the whole symphony; a strong color in the whole painting; but never the last word.
So, what about us, we who follow Jesus? In what ways is the Lord taking things apart and putting them back together again for us in strange new ways? We know that the relationship between Church and society is not what it used to be. We know that our culture keeps pushing faith and the public practice of it further and further to the margins – something very optional to be pursued on your own time, if you can find the time. Sports, work, school events, family events, business travel, all happen on Sundays now, as well as Saturdays – all throughout the weekend. Churches have lost the un-official protected status that we once had, and for many people an hour of quiet and peace with parents and children and spouses all being in one place at the same time may only be possible on Sunday mornings – which doesn’t include church.
There’s also a disinterest, maybe even a distrust for many people, of human community outside one’s own family. Community is hard, it takes investment of time and effort and a willingness to show up and be a least a little vulnerable with one another; and we are a society that has become so fearful of vulnerability for so many reasons.
All of these influences, among so many others, have changed the context for our faith. We are not in the same place we used to be. Our church and our society are not the same as they were for our parents and grandparents. There is much to lament about that, and there is also much to be grateful for. As a woman, I could not have been ordained as a priest fifty years ago, as one example.
So here we are, in a new spiritual and cultural landscape, a fresh opportunity to live and share the message of God’s love and care for the world and its people. It’s a chance to practice the Way of Jesus with greater clarity than we may have had in the past when being (at least a nominal) Christian in America was not so challenging, to share with Jesus in being the light of the world.
Every Sunday we are sent forth in peace to love and serve the Lord. Those are not empty words. We all have a mission from God, and that mission requires something of us. It requires courage, humility, honesty about what it’s like to be human. It requires listening to God and others – real listening, not formulating your answer or argument in your head while the other person speaks. It requires hope, and joy, and trust. Like the first two servants in the parable, we have to use our faith to create more faith – in ourselves and to offer it to others. It’s no good burying our trust and love for God in the ground and hope that others will come along and find it.
We don’t know what the outcome will be – who might receive what we have to offer - and we can’t do it alone, but we don’t go empty-handed. We have faith, we have Scripture – the words of life, we have New Life in Christ, we have each other, and we have the Holy Spirit to go before us like a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. God is calling us, each in our own way, to be light-bearers and Good News-sharers in a world which needs the Lord so badly.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, go with us and before us, for the day is at hand and the evening is not far behind; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture, in the breaking of bread, and in the hearts of those we meet each day. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen. (adptd. from BCP)
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday before Advent
November 19, 2017