A sermon I preached at Glen Iris Road Uniting Church on 19/11/2017 on the Parable of the talents – Matthew 25:14-30
The video I just showed is a trailer for one of my favourite comedy series – the Detectorists. It’s a gentle, wry comedy about friendship and love and the deep desire for buried treasure. It focusses on two friends whose relationship is based on their shared love for metal detecting. The name is part of a running joke in the series. People are always calling them “metal detectors”, which they wearily correct to “detectorist” because “metal detectors” refers to their trusty tools.
It brings this strange world of the story into the present for me. If a slave buried a talent in a field, it might have lain undisturbed for hundreds of years, only to be found by a geeky guy with a metal detector patiently working over a field. It brings the ancient world of the story suddenly into collision with our own world.
It’s a weird world these people inhabit. Why on earth bury money in a field? And if I were going on a journey, would I really give my fortune to my slaves to look after? Wouldn’t I need it where I was going? And shouldn’t I be managing my assets myself? It reminds of an old joke: What’s the easiest way to get a small business? Start with a large one.
One of the ways in which it is hard to get into the story is that the terms don’t really mean to us what they meant originally. Talents, in particular, is a bit hazy for us. We know that, in the story, it refers to money. But we use the word to mean something more like one’s native giftedness – the potential with which one is gifted at birth. “Gifts and graces,” as we say in the Uniting Church.
But to Jesus’ audience, a talent was cold hard cash. It wasn’t a coin so much as a quantity. Depending on the system we are talking about, maybe thirty-five kilos of silver.
Which, again, doesn’t mean much to me at least. And when I googled it, I discovered that the spot price for silver is 72 cents per gram, I’m not much the wiser.
More usefully is the knowledge that a talent was worth six thousand denarii – the little silver coins that represented a standard day’s wage. So a talent was 6000 days’ work. Call it twenty years.
Which means that, in contemporary terms, where the minimum wage is about $138.98 per day, which gives the equivalent value of a talent as being $833,880. So, the best part of a million dollars.
So, this man is rich enough to have a lazy 9 million or so lying around, looking for investment opportunities. He doesn’t need it to pay his journey, presumably he has other funds available. This is purely investment money. Which means that these slaves are more like his stockbrokers maybe? When it says “slaves” we aren’t thinking about cringing wretches in rags. These are highly trusted members of the household, who are being given significant responsibilities.
Interestingly, this tallies with what we know about how the wealthy and powerful in the Ancient world organised their affairs. One of the gripes that the senatorial class had of the emperors is how much power the emperor’s slaves had in running the empire. To be the slave of a powerful person is to be identified with that person – and perhaps to partake in the power, and responsibilities of that person.
Given the large sums of money involved, it becomes even more mysterious why the third slave wanted to bury it in a field. How many wheelbarrows of silver would we be talking? And even that’s a bit anachronistic, because wheelbarrows weren’te invented in the west until the middle ages. It would mean carrying by hand. The picture I have is of a very anxious man dragging an enormous bag of silver to a deserted area in the middle of the night, twitching at every sound, desperately trying to dig a hole big enough to hide that sort of money, and then having to simultaneously make it inconspicuous enough so that some random stranger doesn’t dig it up, but also somewhere where he will be able to find it, at some undisclosed point in the future.
This was a decidedly nervous person. Perhaps it is his first opportunity. The others have presumably earned more trust, and have been given bigger responsibilities. This guy, however, is in the middle of squibbing his chance.
Why didn’t he take it to the bank, as the master asked? It wasn’t anything to do with laziness – as we saw, hiding that quantity of cash is much harder work. Perhaps it was something to do with fear? He is clearly terrified of failing his master – he describes the master as a “hard man who reaps where he did not sow.” I guess that banks sometimes fail. I think of times when I looked at my superannuation statement and reflect that it would have been better to stick the cash under my mattress instead. Or to bury it.
Let me pull back the focus a bit. To get a handle on what Jesus is saying here, we will need two concepts. Firstly, the Kingdom. Secondly, the apocalyptic.
The Kingdom – the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God – is what has “drawn near” in Jesus. At the beginning of his public ministry, in Matthew’s account, the summary of Jesus’ message is “repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
However, there is an ambivalence with this idea of the “nowness” of the kingdom. To watch the news of an evening is to be assured that the reign of God has not fully arrived. There is an element of “not-yet-ness.”
As for what is the Kingdom, what does it look like… well there is no easy answer to that. Jesus explains it by parables, and by a life lived.
It requires a second concept– the apocalyptic. The word means something like revelation, or unveiling of things not otherwise known. Consequences.
When I use the term “apocalyptic”, it can sound very alien, very primitive.
Yet there is a solid thread of the apocalyptic in our current cultural imagination. We sort of relish it. It’s the theme of blockbuster movies, like this one. Unless we change our ways, bad things are coming our way.
Not just bad things, the movie suggests, but a judgement on our sinful, environmentally unfriendly, civilisation.
To look at it another way, it is a way of looking at current behaviour in terms of ultimate values. It isn’t a prediction exactly – it is a rhetorical device. If we carry on our bad, sinful behaviour, then this is what will eventuate.
Repent, it says, and believe the good news.
That’s the lens to observe the third slave through. He’s a warning to us, and illustration of what life is like if you don’t use your talent. He is to be understood in contrast to the first two slaves, who “enter into their master’s joy.” He has squibbed the challenge, and chosen safety rather than adventure.
There’s a narrative twist here. Jesus’ audience might have been ready to find the third slave sympathetic. After all, he kept the money safe. It was a responsible, low risk thing to do. We saw in the clip the justification for burying things – it keeps them safe from those who might wish to take them.
But Jesus upsets people’s expectations. It isn’t safety Jesus is asking from us, but making the most of the talent, or talents, entrusted to us. We aren’t to hide it safely – rather we are supposed to venture with it. It may very well be risky – but that appears to be what Jesus wants.
It is, it seems, not a matter of indifference to Jesus how we use the gifts and graces which we have been given. We have been entrusted with something precious, and we are expected to do something with it. The coming Kingdom is not separate to how we live, and what we do.
To put it another way, Jesus is telling us that God wants us to collaborate with him in the Kingdom. God is busily at work in the world, and we are called on to participate.
Which leads to my final pondering. What does this mean to us?
This text is a foundational one in my own sense of call. I was busily doing the IT consultant thing, and wondering if that was a good way to spend my life, and I considered this text: what am I doing with the talents God gave me? How am I collaborating with God in his Kingdom work?
I heard it as a call to take responsibility. That’s one measure of spiritual maturity: my readiness to take responsibility for people and things.
What does it mean to each of us individually? I don’t think this is supposed to make us feel guilty about our failures, but encouraged by the opportunities. Each of us has a particular set of gifts and graces, and indeed opportunities and abilities. It might be that, given our time of life, the most important thing is to pray for and emotionally support people. Or perhaps to bring up a family. We each have to ask the question of ourselves. But if I think that, if we ask ourselves honestly, what is the one thing I could do today to take responsibility, something would occur to us.
Finally, I think it is a question for the church – both the church as a whole, and for this particular congregation, here in Glen Iris in late 2017. What is it that we can do? What is the talent that God has given us that, rather than hide in a safe place, we can do something exciting, even risky, with? How do we collaborate with God in God’s kingdom work here and now? How do I take responsibility?
God is at work in the world. God has also called the church into existence. That suggests to me that there are particular things that God wants done that only the church can do. The question that each particular part of the church is presented with is this: What does God require of us, here and now?
Because, as Jesus is at pains to point out, it matters who we are and what we do.
God of the covenant, even when we fall into sin, your Spirit invites us to remember that you chose us to be your servant people. Awaken us to the power and gifts you pour into us for the good of creation, and grant that we may be trustworthy in all things, producing abundantly as we work to build your realm.