2nd Sunday before Advent Matthew 25:14-30 vs 25 “I was afraid”
Reflecting on this well known parable of the talents, we might find ourselves with more questions than answers.Is this really what “it”, the kingdom of heaven, is like? Is Jesus really advocating an economy where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? (vs 29)
Is the kingdom something we earn by our own efforts? It’s the return you give God on His investment that counts? What’s happened to the economy of grace?
Does the punishment – outer darkness – fit the crime? There are many who would be happy to just preserve their wealth?
What is this parable all about? Well, even on this there isn’t consensus. For some, and this may be Jesus’ original intention, it’s a criticism of the scribes and pharisees of Jesus day who buried God’s message to His people in the ground; in a heap of restrictions and customs; and in a way which selfishly excluded all but the elite.
For some, and this may reveal Matthew’s interpretation, the point of the parable is “stay alert and active”. (There is something here for us to ponder that the call to waiting and readiness for Christians is not passive but active.) In the early church there was a wide expectation that Jesus’ return would be soon; quick. When that didn’t happen, there was a need to remind believers to “keep on going”. So on this interpretation, the master is Jesus; the journey is the ascension; and the return “after a long time” is the second coming of Jesus.
Even the interpretation of the word talent is the subject of debate. A talent was the largest measure of weight in use, and could refer to gold, silver or copper. It’s questionable whether one man alone could even carry a talent of wealth. It was the equivalent of 15 years wages. What do the talents represent? Probably not cash, nor talents as we use the word , meaning skills. It’s been suggested they represent the gifts of the Holy Spirit. More likely (to me) they represent the treasure of the good news of the kingdom; the gospel; The Word of God; Jesus’ very self.
Perhaps these questions and different interpretations should not surprise us. Jesus’s parables are multi-layered; their meaning dynamic; their content rich. Let me pick out just two aspects of this story – Fear and Risk.
In his sermon on the Lord’s Prayer which introduced this year’s festival of preaching in “online” Oxford, Sam Wells, the vicar of St. Martins in the Field said this – “I am guessing over the last 6 months every single person on this call has experienced fear, despair, paralysis, denial, confusion and frustration.” Fear of covid 19; of losing job; of losing home; of loss. And fear breeds paralysis; introspection; self absorption; hesitation. Fear twists our view of the world and everyone in it. It twists our view of God.
If we have had to confront fear over the last 6 months we have also had to contend with risk. What level of risk am I prepared to take? Should I risk going shopping? Should I risk going out for a meal? Should I risk a holiday and the necessary travel? Several “risk assessments” every day.
How does this parable speak into these areas?
For some this is a parable about risk, taking a risk for God. The servants with 5 and 2 talents are prepared to take a risk. The servant with one talent is not. He is a “mouse-minded man” (Meier). He has been compared to Scrooge – mean spirited.
God is not like that. He is not a “harsh man”. The parable starts with the generosity of God, who distributes his property, his riches, Himself, in abundance. Even the servant with one talent has a huge amount.
The servant with one talent expresses the view his master reaped where he did not sow, and gathered where he did not scatter seed, and it’s a criticism. The reality is that God has shared with us the mission of establishing His kingdom. How generous is that? How risky is that? And is it coincidence that Matthew has this as the last parable Jesus shared before his death? There, on the cross is the ultimate act of generosity and love. And love is a risky business. If this is a parable about risk, then it’s about the risk of embracing the love of God. It’s about the risk of accepting the gift of empowerment God has given us; responding to God’s love, and sharing it in the world. And the more we do for God the more God will use us – that’s why those who have will be given more.
And that love and generosity, which the servant given least buries in the ground will ultimately overcome fear. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan says this. “The world will always teach us fear. Jesus will always command us to love. And when we seek the spiritual good of another, we at last forget our fears and ourselves.” And in 1 John 4: 8 we read “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” The servant with one talent was afraid of his master. He saw him as harsh and grasping, even exploitative. Fear twists our view even of who God is. There is no indication that the other servants thought the same way. On the contrary, they were prepared to take a chance, presumably in the knowledge that the master would back them. And God, who is loving, generous, gracious, will always back us as we actively seek to share the kingdom, and to live our lives in His presence.
So maybe this is a parable about the immeasurable and unfathomable generosity of God; about the treasure with which he has entrusted us, which is His very self; about our embracing and sharing that gift. What we take risks on is key and we needn’t be afraid of that risk!