First thoughts on a lectionary sermon (homily) for next Sunday 13 November 2011 (Matthew 25: 14-30)

Another election is looming – and this time in a context of worrying change. No doubt the politicians will be assuring us that each of them have the right formula for dealing with the alarming change we are seeing locally, nationally and on the international scene – but we live in uncertain times.

The world population has reached 7 billion, 1 billion of whom have no security of food supply. There is evidence of climate change, of growing energy and oil problems and political and economic insecurity virtually everywhere we look. Locally for this city, the alarming growth in the gap between the rich and the poor is a moral issue just waiting for the appropriate faith led action. Instead of joining in celebrating the number on the rich list who have seen a 20% lift in earnings as “national treasures” as proposed by the business roundtable, the recent increase in unemployment is the worrying change asking for our response.  The church too should be changing form as it responds to changing needs.

This gives today’s reading about the talents particular interest because for Matthew this parable also had a setting of cataclysmic change for the early Christians. Think for a moment about their position. They were following this leader Jesus who was no longer physically on the scene- crucified because his message was seen too dangerous for the mainline Church of the day, particularly remembering his teaching had seemed unsettling for the occupying Roman conquerors of Israel. Despite their stories of resurrection, any chance that the new Christian sect would have had of appealing to the mainline Jewish Church had evaporated when a Jewish rebellion occurred in 66 AD and which was savagely put down by the Romans who had responded to the sign of insurrection with acts of punishment including many crucifixions over the following four years.  This culminated in the Romans sacking Jerusalem, setting in train the Diaspora which scattered the Jewish nation to the corners of the known earth. The Roman historians record the Roman General Titus returning in triumph to Rome with the spoils of Jerusalem (including the Menorah ie the great candlestick stand from the temple) and setting up tableaux to show how he had crushed those who had risen up against the might of Rome.

The leadership of the early Christian Church was very uneven, and without a settled body of teaching that was still to emerge as what we now know better as the New Testament – numerous and somewhat secretive sub sects like the Essenes, and the various satellite Churches in separate cities and regions with poor communications between them, had their leaders vying for control, offering a range of sometimes contradictory beliefs. Their teachings were also uneven with arguments about which of the many available gospels to accept as authoritative and was also characterised by levels of teachings with some writings being designed for the inner circle of believers. Matthew (like the other gospels) was being edited and re-edited by successive teachers. Today’s particular story was a case in point because the equivalent story in Luke had those entrusted with the money being given much less that in the Matthew version. The word talenta used in Matthew was technically a weight rather than a denomination and was a substantial amount (vastly more than a week’s wages). This would in effect be the equivalent of a substantial lottery prize today.

The story would have had particular impact for the day particularly as each church community was virtually on its own and most would have been struggling for survival. With few certain resources the temptation was to hold to what they had and since the technical laws of the day condemned dangerous high interest money dealing there would have been an excuse not to risk investment. The preference for the option of in effect burying the money, and simply trusting to God to make things better would have been very strong.

When I encounter the story of the talents my first impression is that it strikes me that Jesus is being very irreligious. Religious custom was then (and probably still is today) to expect the leadership to petition God for guidance and assistance, and by custom in most Churches this seems to lead to most members staying in a passive spectator mode with few in each congregation being proactive in individual actions and choices. Further we structure our Churches for the most part in such a way, that where if indeed actions are to take place, it seems as if we prefer that selected people will act on everyone’s behalf.

There is a model of Church that seems to lead to us talking glibly of Church as the people – yet in practice behaving as if Church is a set of buildings and a hierarchy of leadership acting as a buffer between situations and required responses. The direct link of the sort in the early stories of faith where for instance Jacob has a personal encounter with one in retrospect he thinks may have been God, and what is more an encounter in a nameless, natural setting, is not normally part of our thinking.

Into this, our passive and relatively undemanding situation, the parable of the talents presents us with an uncomfortable set of truths.

We might start by reminding ourselves that although the natural tendency is to act as if the Church is should be preserved in unchanged form regardless of what happens elsewhere, sociological studies tell us that the setting and indeed the congregations of most churches are undergoing change. If indeed the Church is the people we must expect this change to bring about new needs, and new needs will call on new talents and different abilities to meet those needs. If there is no sign of change of actions, the change is not being addressed and the church becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Matthew in his particular way of ordering his stories has assembled three of Jesus’ parables in this section – each of which talks of the rich master going away for many days leaving his servants to make their own choices. In each, Jesus seems to be stressing that even if the master is to return, we can forget that for the here and now because in the meantime it is we (all of us) who are responsible for acting wisely. I can imagine Jesus in effect saying … no-one else is going to do it for you…you with your varying talents and abilities and different starting points must start acting now.

So the first truth is in fact that there is no escape clause. We may not have been given the largest share of the talents – but regardless of the starting package, we are called upon to do what we can with what we have been entrusted with. There is no-one else.

I once came across another way of stressing the same point in the form of a question.
“If”…. So the question went… “ If you individually and your very own actual personal actions were copied by everyone else in the Church, what would the Church be like? – and what would it then be able to accomplish?”

The second awkward reminder is that the reward for good work – is not resting on the oars to bask in the glow of work once done. Rather the reward is further challenge.

The other – and possibly most relevant in terms of current models of actual Church – is that the only ones deserving of punishment are those who use the excuse of possible difficulties for doing nothing.

I know a standard application for this particular parable is to use it for sermons and programmes on stewardship. Yet I prefer to notice that the word talent is also to do with specific abilities which are not only different in value – but in nature. Again past custom causes us to stress abilities like abilities in worship which have been conventionally valued in the past.
In a Church setting perhaps in view of Jesus actual gospel message we have allowed the form of worship – the songs of praises, the public prayers and the act of reading and preaching to dominate almost to the point where other talents are devalued. Yet what else might “each member a minister” mean in practice. Not all can, or (let’s be frank), not all should preach. Certainly not all can sing. (That is from personal experience!)  But Jesus rarely is found talking of the need to sing or preach. He does however talk time after time of those other gifts. Rather he implies the gift of forgiveness, the gift of servant-hood, the gift of being a good neighbour the gift of touching the untouchable, the gift of seeing past the rules to notice and care about individuals who need our help.

Perhaps there is a case to be made for looking past what normally passes for Church activity – particularly the activity arrived at by custom – and instead start with what Jesus says is important. Jesus parable of the talents appeared to be aimed at those who were reluctant to risk their talents in a time of change. There is little question that we are currently in a time of change ourselves. Under such circumstances is it fair to ask if perhaps the parable of the talents might once more be seen as a reality we need to consider.

(Note to the reader: to use the comment facility for feedback including criticism, suggesting other viewpoints or examples and corrections would be helpful to the author and other readers)

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