We’ve reached a familiar story in the book of Matthew – the parable of the talents.
It’s a parable I’ve known since my youth – one I am quite familiar with – and having been in this parish almost 21 years now, it’s one that I am reaching for the 7th time even since I’ve been here, which is why it is all the more astounding that I’ve never preached on this one before.
Indeed, when I finally got around to focusing on my sermon just after midnight last night I thought, “I’ll just recycle and old one”, but there was no old one, and that astounded me until I looked a little more closely, and I could see why I have been avoiding dealing with this parable all these many years. It is a distasteful parable!
Martin Luther feared that there was a dark side to God, and while I think Luther was wrong, I reckon he got a lot of his negative images of God from sole of the depictions of the Almighty that turn up in Jesus’ parables.
I think Jesus used to deliberately go around upsetting people with bizarre depictions of God and He’d sorta throw them out there like theological hand-grenades that would just go off all of a sudden and turn everything upside-down.
St Paul threw one of those hand-grenades in today’s Epistle reading actually, saying that the day of the Lord’s coming is like a thief coming in the night! That’s a very disturbing image!
I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience – and I guess I’m addressing married men here in particular – where you’ve been woken up with a whisper from your wife, “Honey … I think I hear someone in the house downstairs!” You listen for a while and reply, “I think it’s the Lord actually, Honey. Go back to sleep!”
No. That’s not what you say because that’s not an image we’re really read to work with!
At any rate, the depiction of the Master in the parable of the talents in the Gospel reading seems worse that the thief in many ways!
The story begins promisingly enough. A master is going away and he’s leaving his wealth in the hands of his trusted servants, and perhaps there are shades of the Parable of the Prodigal Son here, with dear old dad dividing his inheritance between his ungrateful offspring. The son shouldn’t really be asking his father for his inheritance but dad loves him and will give it to him anyway, and even when he squanders everything he’s been given, dad is still going to love him and want him back, etc., etc. BUT this is NOT the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is it? Not at all!
That much is made abundantly clear right away when the master does something that no self-respecting father would ever dream of doing – he divides his property radically unequally between his servants, and without explanation.
And of course the other, even more significant, difference is that he (the master) hasn’t simply divided his property amongst his servants as his gift to them. He’s put them in charge of his property so that they can manage it for him, but only for a while, for he is coming back and when he comes back he is going to reclaim his property as his own and he wants to see that his property has been responsibly handled!
And then we end up this final scene in this parable that seems to encapsulate everything that I don’t like about Australian society – namely, that the winner takes all!
It was my doctor – Dr. John – who put it like that for me. ‘We live in a winner takes all society’, he said, and he’s right. The guys at the top take everything while people at the bottom struggle to stay alive! And I appreciate that most of us, while we might indeed be struggling in our own ways are probably not struggling to stay alive and yet we know many people we share this city with who are really struggling because they are at the bottom of this system, while the people at the other end argue about their 5 million dollar per year bonuses!
It’s an appalling system, I think – a ‘corporatocracey’ I’ve heard it called – where we are all slaves to the corporations and where those who run the corporations run the governments and wield the real power, and personally I’m looking for my opening to join the Occupy Sydney movement and join my voice with theirs in saying that this system is not good enough, and yet … and yet … Jesus seems to be saying that the Kingdom of God is run along exactly the same lines!
The people at the top get everything while those at the bottom struggle. “To him who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but to him who has not, even the little he has will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12)
It doesn’t sound very fair, does it? Indeed, it’s a brutal image, isn’t it? It sounds far too much like the world we already live in, and it is not the sort of world we want to live in, where the people at the bottom are thrown on the scrap-heap while Mr Qantas chief and his mates continue to pile up their squillions?
That’s not the kind of world we want to live in, is it? And yet that’s exactly what today’s world looks like to me right now and, more disturbingly, as I say, that’s exactly what Jesus’ depiction of the Kingdom of God appears to be like too … at least for as long as we only look at things through the eyes of the one-talent steward!
And I do think that may be the problem – that our sense of justice draws us to want to look at things only through the eyes of the poor one-talent steward, rather than see the bigger picture. For I get the feeling that the one-talent man in this parable, despite the fact that he has worked closely with the master, claims to emulate the master in his business practices, and believe that he knows the mater very well, doesn’t really know his master very well at all and actually gives us a distorted view of the master!
For a start, we must recognize that the ‘poor one-talent steward’ is not really poor at all! A ‘talent’ (as we’ve noted before) is basically a weight – a weight of about 35kg – and if it’s a talent of gold that means this man’s talent is worth roughly a million dollars.
The one-talent man is not a poor man. He’s a millionaire! Perhaps he doesn’t feel like a rich man because he compares himself all the time with his fellow stewards who have five talents and two talents respectively (like so many people that I’m sure we know) but, truly, what has he got to complain about?! Nothing!
That’s the first thing: this steward has not been hardly done by!
Secondly, he is given this money – not as a father gives an inheritance to his son – but he is given this money in his professional capacity as a steward (as a money-manager) and no money-manager worth his salt thinks that he is fulfilling his duty towards his clients by simply taking their money and depositing it somewhere where it can’t be touched!
No, you give your money to a money-manager so that they will do something creative with it and so generate more money. That’s the way money-people work, and this guy is supposed to be a professional money person!
And yet this money-guy, when he finally makes his speech, claims that he has developed his frugal and uncreative wealth-preservation strategy based on his master’s personality!
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” (Matthew 25:25)
“I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed”, he says. And I think that, by saying that, what the steward really reveals is that he doesn’t really know his master at all!
Jesus gave us an image of the master-sower, didn’t He, in that parable that I like to refer to as “the parable of the crazy farmer!” (Matthew 13:1-23), but the emphasis there, if you remember, was not on the harsh reaping practices of the sower at all but on the reckless way in which the sower threw that seed of His all over the place!
That was another hand-grenade image in many ways, I think – blowing sky-high traditional images of God as quiet and conservative – the type of farmer who put all his little seeds in neat rows, making sure that nothing was wasted. No, this guy sprayed seed everywhere – some went on the path, some fell in the weeds, a lot of it … He didn’t know where it went!
“Oh, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow,…”
Jesus did give us images of reaping as well as sewing, too, where the harvesters come up and ask the master, “what about the weeds that are growing up alongside the wheat? Shall we try to separate them carefully now and preserve the soil for the good crops?” and the master says, “No, let them all grow up together!”
And of course the images of crazy farming that Jesus gave us were frankly outstripped by His stories of outrageous shepherding – the shepherd who thought it prudent to leave ninety-nine of his sheep in the wilderness while he wandered off to look for one missing one, and then returned and decided that it was equally prudent for him to lay down his life for the life of the sheep!
“Oh master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, …”
And so when the master in the story returns and calls all his servants to him he listens to the first steward first tell him how he took his five talents and made 5 more, what does this supposedly harsh master do? Does He complain that the steward took too many risks and that he could have lost his master’s investment?
No! On the contrary, he doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the money at all because he tells the five-talent man that he can keep all the money he made, and he can keep the initial principal as well! It’s all his now! He can keep it!
Likewise with the 2nd guy. He had two million and he made another two million, and the master says, “Well done! You can keep the lot of it!”
“Oh Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, so I was afraid and didn’t want to take any risks with your money, so I took your money and I wrapped it up in my handkerchief and I buried it in a hole in the ground where nobody would ever find it … just like you would have done!”
To which the obvious answer is “I never knew you!” and certainly “you never knew me”.
This is, as I say, a hand-grenade depiction of God, for it depicts the Almighty as a somewhat reckless, risk-taker, who, much like the Lord Jesus Himself, is entirely unconcerned about his own reputation and so is totally ready to part with all of His resources and even bleed and die for His friends when the situation demands it!
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”
The Americans say that, don’t they? We don’t say it, because we know it’s not true!
No two things on earth are created equal. No two babies born into this world ever start out with exactly the same chances in life. Some of us a born with silver spoons in our mouths while others are born to drug-addicted parents and so start out with cravings for heroin from the moment of our birth. Some of us start out with five talents, some with one, and some with ten and some with only half a talent. Even so, if we take our eyes off the inequalities in the story, which are simply true to life, we will catch a very significant glimpse of the true nature of the master here.
For whatever else we can say about the master in this story, two things are abundantly clear. Firstly, it is clear that the master takes all the talents he distributes very seriously.
Even when it comes to the guy who only has one talent, the idea that this guy should bury that talent outrages the master! It’s as if every talent is needed, everybody’s contribution is required. It’s not only the great speakers and the savvy entrepreneurs and the mighty warriors who are need on the team. Every foot solider has to put in his or her bit if this battle is going to be won. Every talent has to be put to good use.
That’s the first thing – that every talent is valuable to the master – and the second lesson is even more counter-intuitive than the first: namely, that putting your talent to good use means going crazy with it!
Like the sower who throws that seed around or the shepherd who throws away his life for the sake of his sheep, the guy who gets five talents, two talents or one talent is supposed to throw those talents around and do something with them, and whether they make more talents or whether they lose the lot really doesn’t seem to be the real issue. The point is that they be put into circulation!
And so we leave this parable, with the smoke of the hand-grenade still lingering in our nostrils. But that scent will pass and we may well not come across this parable again for another three years, which means you’ve got three more years to get out your handkerchief, carefully wrap up your talent, find that hole in the ground, and carefully sink your talent back down there, covering it up neatly so that nobody will ever suspect what’s hidden beneath the surface!
Yes, we can let ourselves be controlled by fear, telling ourselves all the while that God expects us to be good stewards and to act sensibly with whatever it is He has gifted us. Either that or we can get into the spirit of this parable, and go crazy!