Preached Sunday, November 15, 2020, at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, the Diocese of Toronto.Readings for this Sunday, the Twenty Fourth Sunday After Pentecost:: Judges 4.1-7, Psalm 90.1-8,12; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30
14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,[a] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
Today’s sermon is about the Parable of the Talents and how Jesus wants us to use the time we’re given to help him to make the world a better place. But first, let’s reframe the parable into today’s terms.
Without any instructions, God gives you a bag of gold. Or, more usefully, because gold is hard to spend, without any instructions, God transfers millions of dollars into your account, because talents in the ancient world represented a lifetime’s wages for most people. So what would you do with it?
I think that if you knew God, and if you understood your vocation as a disciple of Jesus, then you wouldn’t treat this windfall like you would treat Lotto 649. So you wouldn’t buy that Porsche, or that cottage up north. You might talk to Carol Ann at the King Food Bank, or talk to Dave Gordon about clean water in Pikangikum, or put the money to some other use that might serve the purposes of the kingdom of God as you understood them.
This sermon is not, by the way, a stewardship sermon. If you read the letter I sent out last week along with your statements of givings to this parish, you know how grateful I am for all that you contribute to All Saints. The people of All Saints understand the purposes of the kingdom of God, and do what they can to further those purposes.
In fact, this is not really a sermon about money, because I don’t think the parable of the talents is really about money. It is certainly not a celebration of capitalism, as some have suggested over the years, because the master is treating the three servants as his wealth managers.
Yes, the master wants a return on his investment, and he says as much to the third servant (25.27). But the master knows how bankers work! He could himself go to the bankers with his wealth, which he instead risks with these three untried people. It’s a very strange degree of trust, especially as he doesn’t seem to give them any instructions. Focusing too much on the master’s need to accumulate wealth also seems to ignore his notable generosity to the first two servants. The master seems more compelled by the pleasure of giving and rewarding than he is by gathering even more wealth.
I think the parable only makes sense if we understand the master as Jesus, who here in the final chapters of Matthew is predicting his departure for a time until his return. So if the master is Jesus, then what is he using the parable to say to his disciples?
The parable comes just before Jesus’ words about how we will come to judge the nations. What will the nations be judged on? All humanity, Jesus says, will be judged on how they have treated others. Did you care for the hungry and thirsty? Did you clothe the poor? Did you visit the prisoners? Welcome the stranger? Those who did these things, Jesus says, will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25.34). The language of reward here is very similar to that employed in the parable, when the first two servants are invited to “enter into the joy of your master” (Mt 25.21, 23).
Understanding the parable involves understanding the master’s motives, which as I’ve said are primarily generous. The master wants to share, wants to reward those who have helped him make the world a better place. The master’s anger seems to be reserved only for those who do not share in this spirit of generosity and charity. How does it benefit anyone for the third servant to hide the wealth, and merely return it out of fear of punishment? While the third slave is punished, it seems that his punishment began the moment that he chose to hide and guard what he was given, out of misplaced fear of a master who is fundamentally and extravagantly generous. What a squandered opportunity!
Finally, we come to the thorny issue of judgement. As we get to the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear what he wants of his disciples, and makes it clear that there will be consequences for those who do not meet those expectations. If you fear the final words of the parable, the “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, always remember that these words are spoken before Jesus dies on the cross, before Jesus fully opens a new era of grace and mercy. We need not fear God. As I said last week, the gospels should never inspire fear at the prospect we all face, that one day we will stand before God and we will be asked, “what did you do to serve the kingdom of my son? What did you do to make the world a better place?” and Jesus, in his love and mercy, will stand beside us before God as our advocate.
Today this parable comes to many of us who are late in life. You might say, “have I done enough in my life”? “Is there time to do more?” “What more can I do?” It may be that our gifts, our energies, our disposable income are not what they once were, though surely God, who gives us what we have, knows this fully. Even so, I think of two elderly men who in the last years of their life used their gifts well.
Mel was a greeter at my last parish, always at his post in a sharp suit and a broad smile and a bulletin. Even when he suffered the embarrassment of waiting for his dentures, and was too embarrassed to smile, he still smiled with his eyes as he gave you a bulletin. Brother David was ancient and stooped, but whenever I visited his monastery on retreat he would stand at the entrance to the dining room, silently and warmly greeting each guest as they passed. Both men had rich lives, and even at the end of their lives, used their gifts well and richly repayed their master. I like to think that I will see them again, and that they will greet me with love and warmth when I am called to face the master in my turn.
May it be with us as it was with Mel and David, so that in our turn we may hear those words, “enter into the joy of your master”. the third person (24.27).