Andrew Craig Sermons
Sermon for 19 November 2017 (1 Thess. 5:1-11; Matt. 25:14-30)
I want you to think for a moment: what is important in life? What is really, really important? What do we think about and use virtually every day of our adult lives? What can bring the worst out in people and also sometimes bring the best out in people? What is it that, in our attitudes towards it, shows most clearly where our life’s priorities lie? What is it that, if we didn’t have it, most of us would not be able to eat or clothe ourselves or have somewhere decent to live?
You have probably realised by now that I’m talking about money. Jesus realised how important money is because, when he taught, which was often in parables, wealth and money was the topic he chose arguably more than any other one to help people understand truths about God and society and themselves. Think about it – the widow’s mite, the dishonest steward, the two debtors, the prodigal son, the lost coin. Maybe nature and seeds and their growth - the sower, the wheat and the tares, the fig tree – also ranks up there as an important topic, but I think money and wealth shades it as what he used most often to teach people about the KofG. Money is very important and parables used what people were familiar with, what they thought a lot about, what they were interested in, to engage them and take them closer to understanding about God’s great truths.
The parable of the talents is no different. It’s unfortunate that “Britain’s got talent” or “talent shows” is now we understand the word nowadays – and I’m sure countless sermons have been preached on this passage about how we should use and develop our gifts and abilities for God. But actually that’s not the way this parable was intended to work. A talent was a lump of money. And it wasn’t: here’s £10 and see what you can do with it. This was big money. A talent was around 15 years wages for a labourer. So think bankers’ bonuses, think premiership footballers salaries, think winning the lottery. Five talents was, like, well into the millions if you could translate it into today’s money. Serious money.
And this money falls into the hands of a servant – or three servants, or ten if you read Luke’s version. The master transfers it to the servants’ bank accounts and says, “see what you can do with this while I’m away on my business”. This was really scary, especially if, as the listener is expected to assume, servants were a little bit afraid of their masters. A servant was more akin to what we would understand as a slave than an employee of nowadays with a contract of employment and paid holidays. You did the master’s bidding or the consequences were terrible. At best you would be thrown out. You would lose not only your means of supporting yourself but also all your friends and your family. So, basically, you did what your master said and put up with it. Usually servants were told what to do but, on this occasion they were given – real responsibility. A huge amount of money to do something with – and it wasn’t even theirs.
Anybody listening to this parable and entering, in their imagination, into the world of the servants, would have felt the stress attached to this assignment. It wasn’t like: “whoopee, I’ve won the lottery”. It was much more like: “uh-oh. If I mess this one up, I’ve had it”. But nonetheless two of them decided to make a go of it and, we are told, they succeeded in using this wealth to create more wealth.
Incidentally, this parable is one of the reasons I don’t think Jesus was anti-capitalist. The servants went into business and invested the money and traded and made the initial investment grow. Jesus doesn’t judge that aspect of economy at all. But we have a very strong sense of this wealth not actually belonging to the people who were making the money. They were accountable not to themselves, not even to wider society – but to God.
Now responsibility, especially big responsibility, can be frightening. It can make us feel anxious. And this is what happened to the third servant. He was like a rabbit caught in headlights. He hid the money and thrust his head into the sand. (Thank you Julia for bringing it to the church’s attention that 25 years ago I became Hartlepool’s first recycling officer – I like this parable because the servant that did wrong landfilled his resource!) So when the master returned and asked what the servants had done with their commission, he tried to be as honest and straightforward as he could to the master. He even tried to justify himself morally – “Look, you were a bit unfair on me there. I didn’t ask for, I didn’t want that responsibility to be thrust on me. Here it is, have it back”. And for that he was cast into outer darkness.
How unfair! He hadn’t done anything wrong. He responded as, I suspect, many reasonable people would have responded, by taking the line of least resistance, least hassle. But the point is that God gives us responsibility – and that responsibility is part of being made in God’s image. It’s part of our human identity, our dignity, to have responsibility under God. This is the point at which the talents become symbols of the goods God has endowed us with. Not to take our responsibility seriously for what God has entrusted to our care is not to take God seriously. It makes us less than fully human.
This chimes with the theme of the gospel readings for the last few Sundays – they are about the end times – the King, the bridegroom, the wealthy man has been away and who can tell when he will return – and his people, the wedding guests, the servants have to figure out what they need to do – do they work hard and do what is expected of them so that when he suddenly returns everything is in order? Or do they stop taking the king, bridegroom, the top man seriously - after all he hasn’t come back yet – do you think he is going to come, or not – do we really take him seriously? In the gospel account, it is clear what Jesus is about – on one hand he rejects the political order of the day – the corrupt, self-interested elite – hypocritical as well, because they are also religious; and on the other hand he weeps over Jerusalem. The old order has rejected God’s goods and is on the way out. It was only later that the gospel writers realised that Jesus was pointing forwards to his trial, crucifixion and vindicating resurrection as the final judgment – the beginning of the end of the old order and the world as they knew it. And the start of a new age. The restoration of God’s rule, but one only acknowledged through faith, not through human systems. He was teaching about how you can be ready for God’s new order.
If we were following the OT readings in the lectionary, then today we would have been in Zephaniah, who calls the day of Judgement on those who aren’t ready: a fearful day, a day of wrath, that will bring dire distress and a sudden and terrible end to life as people knew it. The hellfire and damnation preaching that had largely died out in the church by the late 20C, like the images of purgatory and souls going to eternal torture that decorated churches in medieval times, have rightly been done away with. But on the other hand there is now a prevailing attitude that God, if he exists, is not relevant but at the same time we expect to go to heaven when we die, that is equally as unhelpful today. In order to understand God’s love for us – in order to understand the true meaning of the cross on which Jesus died – we have first to understand that he is judge of all and we are all accountable to him – and that we must do all we can to be ready.
Last week I explained about this, being ready, in relation to the Beatitudes in Matt. 5 – be where the heart of God is – with the poor, those who find their integrity in relation to God, those who mourn and so on. This week it is angled towards those of us to whom privileges and advantages have been given – good education, free healthcare, more than enough to live on, a stable political situation, democratic rights – above all, we belong to a society that has access to undreamt of material resources and wealth, almost limitless energy, pretty well everything we want – except that those who are genuinely poor even in our society are still excluded from most of it. But we have these as stewards, on trust from God – and how are we going to use them?
When Paul wrote his epistle to the Thessalonians he was mainly responding to concerns that quite a few good, believing people had died and yet there was still no sign of Jesus’ return at the end of time. He teaches that the beginning of the end has already taken place, and that those who have already died are saved on exactly the same basis as those who will still be around at the point that the Messiah returns. But here (Ch 5) he says two things – again, that the end, God’s judgment on the old order will come like a thief in the night. Nobody knows when; and then that what he calls the children of the light will have nothing to worry about – they are the ones whose hearts are ready, and also the ones who have used well – and to God’s glory, not our own - the assets and privileges that God has given us.
So this parable is distinctly scary – something is expected of us, and setting out to live conservative, morally risk-free lives and not put ourselves out too much won’t do. We are not only responsible to the next generations for how we use what God has given us, but, most especially we are responsible to God, to be good stewards of what God has lent us – and witnesses to the fact that we will all have to account to God for it at the end.
© Revd Andrew Craig; St Luke’s, Hartlepool