Sermon for Ordinary 33 Year A
The Parable of the Talents
I think I have told some of you about my journey to France and the visit to the Louvre to the Egyptians exhibitions and the magnificent ‘Book of the Dead.’ In the picture opposite we see a scroll from the British Museum From Thebes, Egypt 19th Dynasty, around 1275 BC. This is the Book of the Dead of a man called Any and it is full of spells and rules to help Any travel safely on his journey through the Afterlife.
Here he is shown facing his last and most important test – the weighing of the heart. On the left Any and his wife enter the area where he is to be judged. The Egyptians thought that a person’s heart showed all their good and bad deeds. Any’s heart is placed on scales and weighed by the god Anubis (with the black jackal head) against the feather of truth. If it is lighter than the feather he will survive and continue into the next world. If it is heavier then he will be eaten by the Devourer, the monster on the right who is part-lion, part-hippopotamus and part-crocodile. Next to the Devourer stands Thoth, the god of truth (with an ibis head). He is checking that the weighing is fair. If you look carefully at the scales you can work out if Any make it through to the next world !
Weighing is part of judgement and reckoning and in the Parable of the Talents today it is all about this same process of weighing up what we have done and giving an account of ourselves. We probably all know the parable of the talents off by heart but the name is a bit of a problem. When we think of talents we tend to think of things like the ability to play the flute or to draw of sing. When Jesus told the story it was not about those things, a talent was literally weight, of 60 - 90 pounds. It meant a lot of money, so today whilst this parable might have come into our language with the meaning of being good with our hands or something else, there is much more going on.
Jesus tells the story of a master who goes away. In those days there were no phones, no email, no faxes, so he had to leave things in the hands of somebody else. In the Roman Empire slaves were often left in control of estates, they could earn bonuses by managing affairs well. The master gives them talents, a talent was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii and a denarii was a days wages. We can think a talent as being equivalent to 6,000 days labour, 15 - 20 years work! So Jesus is making the point that even the slave with the least amount of money was given a lot, equivalent to perhaps about half a million pounds.
When the master returns from his journey there is a reckoning, just like Any in the story there is a weighing up and an accounting process which takes place, to judge the way that the slaves had used the talents that had been given to them. Jesus tells that the two slaves who had been given much had made much more and they were rewarded with even more. However the third slave had failed. Unlike the others he had been gripped by fear of failure and had buried his money in the ground. Burying things was common in those days and was considered to be a safe way of preserving what you had.
However the master was not into preserving what he had he wanted the talent to be used to produce more. The slave was considered idle. We often think of the things that we do wrong, but the great sin here is not having a go ! In the ancient book of Proverbs the one who is criticised the most is the sluggard, the one who is lazy or slothful. Wisdom literature praises the industrious, those who toil. When the Master left the money with the servants he did so because he wanted and expected a return. People who heard the story would have understood this. Interest rates are now 1 or 2 per cent but then they were high. Most people did not have any spare cash and so those who had spare capital could double an investment. Of course interest on a loan was against Jewish law. (Ex 22:25, Lev 25:36-37, Deut 23:19-20, Neh 5:7), but Jewish people could of course charge gentiles (Deut 23:20) and the law was often broken (Jer 15:10, Ez 18:8,13, 17, 22:12). Business loans may have been treated differently and we know that many Jews followed Greek customs anyway.
Burying the money is a wonderful picture of what is wrong with the servant because of course the most important thing that you have to do when you bury treasure that you have to make sure you don’t tell anybody about it ! The one thing which they follower of Jesus most not do it to keep the good news to themselves, the Gospel is for sharing. Preserving what we have is not considered a satisfactory way of living. Therefore doing nothing and playing safe ends up with the servant being punished.
Jesus uses frightening language about judgement for the slave, ‘gnashing of teeth’. In the Egyptian story it was the Devourer who was waiting to eat the victim. The Jewish people were also steeped in a tradition of prophetic language about judgement and punishment, sometimes by invading armies but sometimes by God. Read Isaiah 13:9, 11, 15-16 ‘their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes. ‘ In Ezekiel 6:5 ‘I will lay the corpses of Israel in front of their idols.’ God’s coming involves salvation and judgement and the language which Jesus uses would have been helped make sure that people took the message seriously.
This is the troubling part of the teaching of Jesus which makes it different from just the normal judgement and afterlife stories. For the Egyptian Any, he would have had to account for his behaviour in his life and whether he had been guilty of crimes such as stealing. However Jesus is saying that God’s judgement is not just about keeping out of trouble, God treats lack of action as a terrible thing. The Christian disciple has been entrusted with the wonderful truth of the Gospel and because of this much is expected of them. They are in a privileged position and the idea of just preserving what you have got and keeping quiet about it is not an option. Burying it in the ground and not telling anybody about it will get you into trouble ! The servant might well have been afraid of failure like the lion in the Wizard of Oz, to frightened to achieve anything. But Jesus is saying clearly to those who would follow him that they must not waste the opportunity to make a difference.
Jesus does not praise the dependable safe course of action. To hear the message of the kingdom is a privilege and a responsibility. Its not about using our gifts it is about the message of the kingdom with which we have been entrusted. It is a call to commitment and faithfulness, we are not called to be passive Christians. We have been given gifts and abilities to be used God’s service it is no good just finishing up where you started.
Our wealth, our influence, our voice, our creativity these are to be used in God’s service. Our presence as part of God’s Church is important, because when Christians are together they are a force for change in the world. The message of the Gospel becomes present right now in the world we find ourselves in. We dare not hide our contribution and just wait for the end of the age or of our lives. We have work to do, and we’ve been given the resources to do it.
This might mean using our wealth to support those who have too little to meet their needs. It may mean offering our time to befriend or serve those who are lonely or isolated or ill. It may mean using our influence to fight on behalf of those who feel that they have no voice or resources. It may mean using our creativity, our attention or our insight to help someone else heal their lives or relationships.
It is impossible not to find ways to be a disciple because we need only open our eyes, or read our church newsletter to and we will discover all around us.
Whatever it may be, it is as we dare to be disciples that we become those who help to bring the reality of God’s reign into being with those around us in our neighbourhoods and our church.
If we refuse to contribute and we keep our resources for ourselves. If we bury deep within us the good news, try to keep it to ourselves and not share what God has given us, then we will shrivel, dry up and die. The good news, though, is that when we do respond and seek to act, we have resources beyond just ourselves, because God and God’s people join with us to make a difference in our world. If we share what God has given us there will be no loss, failure only comes if we waste the opportunities given to us. We have been entrusted with great opportunity, riches beyond belief. Jesus is saying that God does not condemn us for trying, he condemns us for wanting to play it safe.