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Sunday, 16 November 2008

The parable of the Talents

This was very last-minute; the person scheduled to preach was still away, and I was only asked to step in on Friday. Thanks to those of you who knew about this and were praying for me - I really did feel uplifted by your prayers.

Matthew 25:14-30

I often quail when I’m faced with a very familiar Gospel story to preach on, as I never know whether I shall be able to say anything that you haven’t heard a million times before.

This story is a very old friend – most of us, I expect, have known it since our nursery days. Indeed, it is – or used to be – often employed by teachers and so on to push children on to practice and work hard. If God has given you talents, they say, then you must work to make the absolute very best of them.

But, of course, it isn’t so much about talents in that sense – although it can be taken that way. It’s about money. Or at least, in Jesus’ story it’s about money. I think it’s also about other things, too, but we’ll come to that in a minute.

A talent was serious money back then. Maybe about twenty years’ wages for your average labourer; maybe more. Serious money. So the master was not messing about when he asked his slaves to look after it for him. One slave was given five talents, another two and the third just one. I suppose in these days they would be share portfolios, and the slaves would be young investment bankers or stockbrokers or something like that.

In many ways, I prefer Luke’s version of this story, where each of the slaves are given the same amount of money, and come back with different amounts. But today we have Matthew’s version set in the lectionary, so let’s go with that.

The master goes away, for whatever reason, and shares out the money. And then he goes away, and doesn’t come back and doesn’t come back. Maybe he is away for months, maybe years, maybe even a decade or more: the text just says “A long time”. And while he is away, things happen. The first and second servants both go into business for themselves using their unexpected capital. Perhaps they deal on the stock exchange. Perhaps they open up a business of some kind – a restaurant, say, or buying and selling houses. We’re just told they traded with their money.

I expect they made themselves seriously rich, too. They would have felt able to pay themselves a good salary, while all the time preserving and adding to their Master’s capital.

But what of Number 3? He’s quite comfortable already, thank you. He has a good, secure job; he would really rather be employed by someone than go into business for himself. It doesn’t occur to him that, of all the slaves, he was the one chosen to see what he would do, whether he would have the courage to invest that capital. And in any event, he doesn’t have that sort of courage. Supposing something went wrong and he lost it all? The consequences don’t bear thinking about! Better play safe. Very safe. Not the bank – not with the current banking crisis, just look at Northern Rock! Okay, maybe his money would be safe, but he wouldn’t be comfortable thinking about it, just in case it wasn’t. Better just dig a hole in the ground and pretend you’re planting carrots or potatoes. So that’s what he does; the sort of moral equivalent of putting it into old sock under his mattress, or in his underwear drawer. And he gets on with his life.

And then, one day, the Master comes back. I wonder whether they had ever really expected that he would, or if they had almost forgotten they weren’t in it for themselves.

And the first and the second servant come swanning up with all the trappings of wealth – chauffeur-driven Rollers, Philippe Patek watches, Louis Vuitton briefcases, talking and emailing from their Blackberries all the time, and, finally, able to present the Master with share certificates and bank statements and other records of profit and loss to show him that they had each doubled their investments.

The Master is delighted. “Well done, you good and faithful servant.” he says to each of them. “You’ve been faithful in little things” – not that little; a “talent” was, as I said, serious money – “now you’ll be put in charge of great things. Enter in to the joy of your Master!”

And then along comes the third servant. On a pushbike. And he presents his master with a filthy dirty and rather crumpled envelope containing the original bankers’ order. “I couldn’t face it, Master!” he explains. “supposing it had all gone wrong What would you have said to me You’re very harsh, and you do like your people to make you lots of money, and I was too scared to try. So I have kept it safe, and here you are!”

And the Master is seriously annoyed! “Oh, look here!” he said. “So you didn’t want to play the stock market or start a business, okay, but couldn’t you at least have put it on deposit somewhere for me, so I could have had the interest? Just not good enough, I’m afraid. Take him away!”

Jesus is, of course, talking about the Kingdom of Heaven here. Last time I preached at King’s Acre, he was also talking about it, trying to find an illustration that would make sense to his hearers, talking of the tiny grain of mustard seed that grew to become a huge shrub, or the tiny bit of yeast that was needed to make the dough rise. And I pointed out then that these stories didn’t say to us quite what they said to Jesus’ first hearers, as mustard was a terrific weed, like stinging-nettles, and nobody in their right mind would plant it deliberately. And yeast – or sourdough, more probably – was not really associated with people of God, since what you had at the holy feasts was unleavened bread, which was then, by association, considered slightly more “proper” than ordinary bread. And the thought of a woman baking it may well have turned people up a bit – women tended to be rather “non-persons” in those days.

And, actually, it’s the same here. Particularly for the third slave – you what? He should have put his money in the bank​? To earn interest? I don’t think so! Jewish people in that time and place took very seriously the commandment that “thou shalt not lend out thy money upon usury”. So here is the master telling the slave that he should have done just that? Yikes!

So what does it all mean? This whole story comes in a section of teaching about the End Times, something we don’t really like to think about these days. Jesus has been saying that nobody, not even he, knows the day and hour – there will be all sorts of signs and symbols and symbolism, but they don’t necessarily mean anything. And people will say “Oh, Jesus is coming on this date,” or “the end of the world is coming on that date”, but not to believe them.

He says nobody knows when it will happen – and these days, increasingly, it’s or even if it will happen – but the idea is to be prepared. “Who,” Jesus asks, “are faithful and wise servants? Who are the ones the master will put in charge of giving the other servants their food supplies at the proper time? Servants are fortunate if their master comes and finds them doing their job. You may be sure that a servant who is always faithful will be put in charge of everything the master owns.”

And the Gospel for last week – although you may not have thought about it as it was Remembrance Day – was the story of the wise and foolish virgins, and whether you would rather be with the wise virgins in the light, or the foolish virgins in the dark.... well, not quite that, but you know what I mean. Again, the sensible girls were prepared and ready – the silly ones hadn’t even thought they might need to light lamps if it got late.

So again, Jesus is trying to draw pictures of things that don’t go into words very well; he’s trying to make his hearers understand what it’s going to be like, when he himself doesn’t have a very clear picture of it. But one thing he does know – we need to live as if he were never coming back, but be prepared for him to return any second now! It’s one of those Christian paradoxes that our faith is so full of.

It’s not just about what we do with our money, or with our time – although obviously we need to make sure we are good stewards of both. It’s maybe more, I think, about what we do with our relationship with God.

We are all, I expect, Christians here; all people who enjoy a reciprocal relationship with their Creator. And some people make the most of it! Most of us do, I am quite sure. We make a point of learning who we are, so we can be honest with God, we make a point of learning from the Bible who God is, and making point of developing the relationship by spending time with God each day. We don’t find it easy – nothing worthwhile ever is easy – and, of course, the ones who are really expert at it tend to make it look easy, which tends to make us feel inadequate. But, of course, most of what we do to grow as a Christian is actually done by God; our job is to be open to being grown – and to use the “means of grace” that we have been given to do that.

But there are others around – not here, I don’t suppose, not for one moment – but I’m sure we know people who joyously responded to God’s call upon their life – and then got stuck. Didn’t grow, didn’t, maybe, even want to grow and change. Stayed as baby Christians, still drinking milk when they should have been weaned on to meat, as St Paul puts it. And maybe, one day, they will have to explain themselves, too. “You had all these opportunities to become the person you were meant to be, but you wasted them. Why?”

The good slaves, in this story, took what they were given and doubled it. The bad one didn’t want to know, and buried his money. It’s a picture – and only a picture – and must be taken alongside the other pictures we have of the end times. But nevertheless, it is a picture we probably need to take seriously. We need to allow God to work in us, to make us the people we have the potential to be, and maybe even to make us more than that. We need to become what we can become, in God. Much has been given to us already; now we need to be open to God working in us. Amen.


  1. Thank you very much for that, it said a lot of the things I have been thinking about rather a lot this past week or so.

  2. That is very challenging. Thank-you...I think!