Pentecost + 24 A 19-11-2017 Matt 25: 14-30
If you travel in Eastern Europe, the main Christian denomination is the Orthodox Church. Village churches there are very different from ours.
Many have a big painting on the outside of their western wall. The painting surrounds the entry-door and it shows the last judgement. Jesus sits on a throne above the door. There are people on Jesus’s right hand side being welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven, but other people are shown on his left, and they are being sent to the other place.
Going in and out of those doors, we’re meant to remember that Jesus will come back one day and we’ll be among the people either on his right or his left.
Our belief in the second coming of Jesus and his last judgement has a lot to do with the way people read today’s parable; the story of the rich man who entrusted great sums of money to his slaves.
The most common way we understand this parable is that it’s about Jesus leaving the disciples after his resurrection, and trusting us to spread the Gospel.
And as the story goes on, people see the master’s return as being about Jesus’ return at his second coming, and that he will measure our faithfulness by how well we’ve done with our mission. (Barclay Matthew II 375ff)
Matthew certainly wants to get that across to us; he tells us again and again that what we do now really matters eternally.
Matthew grouped the lessons of Jesus into five sets of teachings (discourses):
- Sermon on the Mount chpts 5-7;
- Mission Discourse chpt 10;
- Parable Discourse chpt 13;
- Community Discourse chpt 18;
- Last Things chpts 24-25.
Each of those five discourses finishes by telling us to think about the end times, so that we remember the importance of what we do now.
In the Parable of the Talents, we’re almost at the end of the last group of teachings.
We know this story well – that it reminds us about our spiritual values and obligations.
The talents are our God-given gifts and the Gospel we should be spreading.
That’s a useful way to think about this parable. But is that all it’s saying?
There’s always a risk that we might come to the Gospel thinking we already know all we need to. But then we’ll only find our own ideas there. That can blind us to things God might want to show, or we might only read the bits of the Bible that we like. (Think how Google sees the sort of news stories we look up and then only shows us similar ones – so our world shrinks).
So let’s put aside our usual way of reading this parable for a few minutes – forget what we’ve always thought about it – and try to hear it through different ears; first century ears. What might the first people Jesus told this parable have heard?
First, for the earliest audience, this is a story about the super-rich. The sums involved are massive. One ‘talent’ is about 6,000 denarii; that’s 6,000 standard days’ wages for a worker – 16½ years. This man is allocating 82½ years’ worth of day wages to the first slave, 33 years’ worth to the second, and 16½ to the third. The sums are enormous. So for Matthew’s community this is a story of the super-rich and what they get up to – the sort of people you hear about, but never meet.
The second thing the parable tells the earliest audience is that this is a story of a super-rich Gentile. Putting money out to bankers for interest – like he suggests – was usury. And that was expressly forbidden in Deut 23:19-20. For Matthew’s audience, this is a story about a super-rich Gentile and his followers.
The third thing to notice is the fact that these three people entrusted with such huge wealth are called slaves. In the ancient world, slaves were bodies, not people. If a slave owner were convicted of a crime and sentenced to punishment or even death, the slave owner could send their slave to take the beating, or even the execution. Slaves were bodies that could and did take the place of their owners.
This super-rich slave-owning Gentile must have had lots of slaves, but these three slaves were his special choice; he thought they had ability. He trusted only these three with his money. They would be his bodies at home while he was away.
There’s one more thing we need to know to hear this story like Jesus’ listeners did. In Jewish tradition, to bury money in the ground was a secure and legal way of guarding it. The Rabbis taught that anyone who did this was safe under the law. (b.Bab. Me. 42a). So Jesus’s listeners heard this as a story of a super-rich Gentile business man who had three very capable slaves to act in his place. The first two slaves did just that, and over a long time doubled his money.
But third slave refused to act like the owner. Burying the money was legal, but really he just took a very long holiday. And not only that; he said he was right to do so. He told his master he was a harsh, grasping man who made him so scared that he wouldn’t take any risks. He said it was his owner’s fault that he did nothing.
Matthew’s community would have been amused by the slave’s words – not because the slave was wrong about his master being frightening. No, they’d be amused that the slave thought he could act like a free person. A slave is a slave! This slave had behaved as though he were his own person! Master of his own body! And this slave laid the blame for his years of doing nothing at his master’s feet. Jesus’ listeners would have expected this slave to come to a sticky end.
We’re not meant to read this story as an allegory. The rich man doesn’t represent God or Jesus. The slaves’ use of money to make money is not a model for sharing the Gospel. This story does work with similarities, like an allegory can. But it also works through contrast. We are people who stand in the place of our own Master.
When the world sees us, they are meant to see what Jesus is like; what God is like.
But the big difference with this parable is that our Master, Jesus, the one who told the parable, Jesus is kind and generous and merciful – the opposite of the slave owner. We’re meant to be his body here . We are meant to be like Jesus – kind, generous and merciful, using the time and resources allotted to us to do God’s work. And God’s work is all about giving – not building up great piles of wealth.
So the similarity between us and the people of this parable is that we are like the slaves. We are people with abilities and opportunities – people whom God has put in charge of a great treasure. God trusts us to be faithful representatives of Jesus – bodies of the Master here, while the world waits for him to come again.
We pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to become more like Jesus all our lives. We pray for guidance and strength so that the choices we make and the actions we take will be more and more like the kindness, generosity and mercy that we’ve seen in Jesus. We pray that we might share in the joy of the Master, because it will be our joy too. We pray that our desires can line up with God’s. We rejoice that God gives us the opportunity to use our gifts to be creative,
the courage to take risks, knowing that God trusts us
and the honour of being held responsible for our choices.
May we set our lives in line with God’s purposes and bear the sort of fruit that leads us and many others to joy and freedom.