Sermon, November 16, 2014

Fr. Larry Ort
St. Paul’s – Brookings

Last week we looked at the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids waiting for the coming of the bridegroom. Jesus begins the parable by noting, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this” (Mat. 25.1; NRSV). The five foolish bridesmaids’ lamps were going out so they asked the wise bridesmaids to share their oil. As we noted, if the oil represents our life in Christ, our life in the Spirit, they were making an impossible request. Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mat 25.13; NRSV).

The Revised Common Lectionary readings for this Sunday include Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25.14-30). Jesus begins this parable by noting, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability” (Mat 25.14-15; NRSV). The “for” indicates this parable is a continuation of Jesus’ eschatological discourse; it sheds further light on the subject of the final days. A talent is a lot of money; it is the equivalent of 6,000 drachmas. A drachma equals one day’s wages. Thus a talent was the equivalent of 16 years of wages.

After a long time the master returned and asked for an accounting. The first two slaves doubled the money. In response, the master told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; enter into the joy of your master” (Mat. 25.21; NRSV). The third slave told his master that he knew he was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter seed; he tells the master he was afraid, so he hid his talent in the ground. He returned the talent to his master, and said, “Here you have what is yours” (Mat. 25.24-25; NRSV). The master responded harshly – he called the slave “wicked and lazy,” and told him he ought to have at least invested his money with the bankers to gain some interest. The master then takes the talent and gives it to the slave with the ten talents. The master further says, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 25. 29-30; NRSV). As a friend of mine asked, “Where’s the Gospel in this?”

This parable lends itself to a number of interpretations, the first of which deals with stewardship. Through the influence of the King James Bible, “talent” took on the more common usage of today (“gift, aptitude, and flair”), a usage which undoubtedly stems from the phrase “to each according to his ability” (Chris Haslam, Consequently, this parable is often interpreted as referring to the proper use of the talents with which God has endowed us. We are reminded and encouraged to develop our talents more fully such that they can be used for the kingdom.  I must confess that I once looked at the passage in this manner. The parable is commonly used as a stewardship text concerning the use of our time, talent, and treasure. We may be able to derive a lesson in stewardship from this parable, but I doubt this is what Jesus had in mind.

Secondly, some Christians who wholeheartedly embrace capitalism interpret the parable to mean that we should make as much wealth as possible, we should shrewdly double our money every chance we get. Don’t hide your money under your mattress, or in the ground. At least invest it for interest, and even better, invest it in stocks, bonds, and precious metals. I doubt this is what Jesus had in mind.

This reminds me of Kenneth Bailey’s story of the British journalist who “asked Mother Teresa how she kept going, knowing that she could never meet the needs of all the dying in the streets of Calcutta. She replied, ‘I’m not called to be successful; I’m called to be faithful.’” Bailey adds in parentheses, “(Very bad capitalism! Don’t invest in her company.)” (Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 409)

These two interpretations appropriate the parable for other uses. Quoting from the Gospel of Fr. Larry, “Woe unto those who appropriate Jesus’ parables for their own ends.”

What would this parable have communicated to one of Matthew’s contemporaries, to the ordinary Jew of the age? How would the parable have struck the disciples, the group to whom Jesus told the parable? With these questions in mind, we must remember that a parable was meant to shock the listener, to cause the listener to reflect critically upon what was said. So where is the shock value?

It is rather doubtful that a wealthy man would entrust such sums of money to slaves. And even if he did so, the conduct of the third slave was more likely the accepted conduct of the day and age. Money was commonly buried for safe-keeping. That is why a cache of coins is discovered with some frequency. Also, a certain amount of respect and admiration was given to those who reaped what they did not sow. Thus, the third slave meant his remarks as a compliment. He must have been very shocked at the master’s reaction. So what is this parable saying? Let me suggest three things.

First, as John Foley, S.J., observes, ( from the standpoint of spirituality, only one thing goes away when buried, but gets greater when used – love. If, like the third slave, we are afraid to love, we will end up in darkness; we will wail and gnash our teeth. The master will not even have to send us there, for this is a natural consequence of our choice.

Second, if we view the master as Jesus, and the Master’s return as the second coming, the parable serves to inform those who hear it of how they are to act while awaiting the second coming. The master has entrusted us with the Gospel and with love. We should shrewdly and openly share the gospel and Christ’s love with others. We should not cower in fear, but should be willing to take risks for the sake of love and life. From this perspective, the parable is saying something significant about the master. The master is generous and gracious. In response, we experience a compulsion to act on behalf of the master in accordance with our ability, in response to the love and the grace entrusted to us.

Third, when we exercise life and love, they are never diminished – they are enlarged beyond our imagination. As the master said, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance.” As we love others, our love grows. As we practice love, we come to love God more, we come to realize more fully the extent of God’s love for us, we come to more fully love ourselves, and we are then capable of loving others more fully. Love expands – it is never diminished by being given away.

When we share God’s grace and love, when we share the Gospel with others, let us act boldly, let us take a few risks in response to all with which we have been entrusted. Let us remember that we have a master like no other, and let us enter into the joy of our master.


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