The Parable of the Talents is well known and one of its unsettling elements is the treatment of the third servant. A servant who by all accounts hasn’t done anything wrong. His treatment at the hands of the landowner seems unjust. However, a deeper reading of the parable illustrates that there is more going on than we might first realize. That this parable is less about us and our reaction to it and more about the kingdom of heaven.
Text: Matthew 25: 14-30
If you take a look around you will notice that the Christmas season is in full swing! Christmas music is playing out of speakers in downtown Cobourg, later this afternoon the jolly man in red will parade down King St, radio stations will soon be playing the music of the season. All of this gives me a bit of a chuckle because Christmas doesn’t actually start until December 25th, but why be a stickler. We in the church are looking forward to Advent and the start of the church year.
However, we seem to have gotten things a little backwards as all the advertisements in the papers and on television are telling us that Christmas has arrived. In fact there are only five Sunday’s until Christmas and let me tell you that causes no one to panic more than your minister. Only five weeks to get ready for the birth of Jesus. Yet, all around us the focus is on getting the Christmas shopping started. Yesterday we held our Christmas Tea and Bazaar and based on what I witnessed the Christmas baking has begun in earnest.
It’s a time when we make plans to gather with family and friends. To share old stories and create new memories. A time when we give and receive gifts. Our parable this morning is well known and one of the major elements of the parable of the talents are those talents that are given to the three servants.
In today’s world, we think of talents as abilities. We hold talent shows to demonstrate and enjoy the various gifts people have. However, in the context of the parable a talent was really a large sum of money. To give you a sense of how much, the one talent which was buried would be worth the equivalent of one million dollars today. A tidy sum of money.
The parable of the talents has been misused over time. Our focus is that we must take what we are given and work really hard with it. We can’t be idle, we must be busy working. A nice follow-up from our parable about the ten bridesmaids from last week. The last servant, the one who buries the talent, is idle or not productive and is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew has a thing with the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing teeth. This particular reference is found seven times in all of scripture and six of them are in Matthew. We have problems with this parable primarily for two reasons. First, we are afraid of being treated like the third servant. A servant who in our opinion doesn’t do anything wrong. There was no command to invest the money. So why the punishment? It seems out of character, why punish this servant. At least the servant didn’t squander the money like the prodigal son did. But wait, the prodigal son was welcomed back with open arms. Quite the opposite message from what we have this morning. Both stories from Matthew’s gospel.
The second reason we dislike this parable is because we have problems reconciling how God could punish this servant. A servant we are afraid we might resemble, one who God punishes. This stems from the characterization of the landowner as God. Again, a historic way of reading this parable. However, the landowner is never explained as being God. Instead we are told that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes on a journey. A very different thing.
In many ways I feel that we need to divest ourselves of the way this parable has been taught to us. Growing up this parable was always tied to church stewardship campaigns. Take your talents, use them and give back to the church richly. The metaphor fits, but again I think it misses the mark.
Instead, I want to ask you a question. What have you been given?
Might we list some of those things we have received?
I’m sure we could go on. However, in the context of our parable I will add one further item and that is grace. If these are some of the things you have been given, then what are you going to do with what has been entrusted to you?
What should you do with or about the family you are a part of? What about the love you receive, the respect people afford you? The security you enjoy because of where you live?
But, perhaps the question should not be what will you do with what you have been given, but rather do you realize what you have received?
Now here’s the rub and because I listed two items that are hard for us to overcome about this parable I’ll list two items that we need to stop and consider. The first is that we do not stop and practice the art of gratitude enough. We are not really good at it. Oh we might say thank you, but I don’t think that as a society we really acknowledge what we have received and express appropriate gratitude. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is this and it’s hard. Everything I’ve listed and spoken about is about you, is about me. The problem is that this parable is not about you or me. It is not about our own individual affirmation. We need to take ourselves out of it. The parable is about the kingdom of heaven.
As soon as we begin to think that anything we have is our own, that it is ours because we have acquired it solely by virtue of our individual efforts, and that we must clutch it tightly because there is not enough and we are alone in the world with no one else to help us or care for us, then we have turned aside from the way of Jesus and his kingdom (reference).
Just as we find in this parable, things have been entrusted to us. The love of our families and friends, our possessions, our jobs. These are tangible things we can hold and grasp. God has also entrusted us with grace and mercy. We have been given much and when we are entrusted with things we are called to respond.
We are called to respond to the grace we’ve been given. Just as the oil those bridesmaids had wasn’t really oil, these three servants were never given a talent. They were offered grace and the expectation was that they would share that grace. The third servant missed that. The third servant tried to turn a gift freely offered into a possession.
We have been given much and it is time to stop squandering and squabbling over what we have been given. Behaving in this way does not honour God or accomplish the work of the kingdom. It does not spread the grace that has been offered to us. This is the message of the parable of the talents. The kingdom, the landowner, only returns when we do the work of the kingdom. As disciples of Christ that is what we are called to do.
Remember that Matthew names Jesus as Immanuel, God with Us. This is the same Jesus who taught the sermon on the mount. Here towards the end of his gospel account Matthew is saying Jesus remains with us when we follow his teaching. That the kingdom comes when we offer to others, the gift that has been freely given to us. Amen.