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Sunday Worship 19 November | Parable of the Talents

Updated: Jan 18

Matthew 25:14-30 (NIV)
Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 
After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I came to this morning's reading as a familiar parable with a familiar interpretation - God has blessed us and we are called to use those blessings wisely in the service of the kingdom. It's a message we see elsewhere in scripture. Jesus says we are salt and light and we must not lose our saltiness or hide our lights. And Paul talks multiple times about the gifts that have been given for the building up of the church. It's an interpretation which seeks to honour and encourage the ways in which we use what we have for the glory of God and the good of others. It is echoed in hymns such as the one we have just sung. And it is at the heart of our belief in the priesthood of all believers. So I'm not going to argue that it's not true or important, and yet every time I read this parable I am left with a sense of discomfort, and it is that discomfort I want to lean into this morning. 


I think it comes from two places, and the first is a fear that we can push the message too far. When I was searching for an image for the screen, I came across a reflection on this passage called “I want to die exhausted”, and it made my heart sink. The writer said that when he comes to face God he wants to know that he has left everything on the field, and while I absolutely get that faith is a commitment of our entire lives, and the work of the kingdom will sometimes be demanding, I do not believe that it is meant to exhaust us. I’m not saying we should never be tired, and I certainly don’t want to go too far in the opposite direction and suggest that we have to be full of energy and enthusiasm all the time, but God does not intend for us to be burnt out or worn through. That is not what we are meant to do with our one wild and precious life, as the poet Mary Oliver so wonderfully puts it. I’m certain of that because Jesus said he came that we might have life in abundance, and God gave us the sabbath so that we could be restored and refreshed. 


Perhaps the writer of that article was exaggerating for effect, and all he really wanted to say is that he wants to know he has done his best, but we have to be careful of the language we use, because I think the church has normalised exhaustion, and it is not healthy. The term ‘Protestant work ethic’ was coined over a hundred years ago, and refers to the ethical significance placed on work within the Protestant tradition. It came from a belief that religion is to be lived out in the world, and so all labour must be performed with diligence and excellence. That is right enough, but it is so easily warped into a sense that our value lies in our work, and from there we can end up pushing harder than we should to prove ourselves, or feeling guilty that we cannot do more. That’s why people boast about how much overtime they’ve done, even though it is costing them time with their families and damaging their mental health, or apologise for being signed off sick, even though the exertion and the stress of their labour is in danger of killing them otherwise. 


The Disney film Encanto is a series of existential crises worked out through the medium of musical theatre, and in one song the character Luisa sings “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service”. It’s a line that cuts deep because so many people have wrongly been made to feel that way. There will be seasons in our lives when we cannot serve, but then it is enough for us to simply be and to be served by others in our turn. Beloved, we are worthy. That is a whole sentence in itself and it does not need to be earned or justified by our work. We have been blessed in ways we may not fully understand yet, and we are called to use and increase those blessings as we are able, but we do not need to exhaust ourselves and we do not need to prove ourselves. So let us serve for the joy of it as well as the duty. Let us receive service with gratitude and grace as we learn that we are enough as we are. Let us multiply blessing in ways that bring abundant life to us as well as others. And let us remember that all we do must be maintained by the nurturing and nourishing rhythm of sabbath.


The second source of my discomfort is that however true and important it may be to say that God has blessed us and we are called to use those blessings wisely in the service of the kingdom, this interpretation seems to require that we leave much of the parable behind. I have said before that parables are not perfect allegories, and in interpreting them we often need to take the sense and not the detail, but the traditional reading relies on seeing the master as representing God, and yet the picture we are given seems unrecognisable. Many translations soften the language to servant, but the original text tells us that the master has slaves, people bound to him by force or obligation and not by choice. He treats them unfairly, giving them wildly disparate amounts according to their power, which is often translated ability but may also suggest status or value. He must be staggeringly wealthy, because the sixteen bags of gold he gives away are the equivalent of three hundred and twenty years of wages, and yet he only seems to use that wealth to make himself richer. He does that by profiting off the labour of others, taking what he has not earned. He declares the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. And he throws the most vulnerable out into the darkness. That doesn’t sound much like God to me.


The Christian activist and writer Symon Hill challenges us to consider what it says about our theology if we assume that a rich and tyrannical figure must represent God, and suggests that the traditional reading is actively harmful as it can be used to justify all kinds of financial exploitation. He points out that “Jesus constantly sided with the poor and marginalised, extending his love to all and making clear that repentance for the rich meant a change in the way they used their money”, and indeed the passage that follows this one is the parable of the sheep and the goats, which seems to commend those who side with the poor and victimised, making it difficult to see how this parable could expect us to side with the master. We are told the third slave is lazy and worthless, but it is possible to read him more sympathetically. He has just been handed twenty years worth of wages by a man he knows to be a hard master and who clearly values him less than the other slaves, so it is perhaps no wonder that he hides the money out of fear of losing it. To quote the Disney film Frozen this time, “people make bad choices when they’re sad or scared or stressed”, but we shouldn’t be scared of the systems we live in, and so perhaps the fault lies not with the slave but with the circumstances.


Hill therefore asks us to consider the possibility that the master is not God, and that instead Jesus intended the third slave to be the hero of the story, as he “tells the rich man the truth about himself and refuses to collude with his unrighteous moneymaking”. In this light, we might reconsider the master’s declaration that those who have will be given more and those who do not will lose everything, understanding it as a skewering of the social and economic climate, a reality to be refuted and lamented. Jesus introduces the parable by saying “it will be like...”, and it follows on from the parable of the ten virgins, which begins “the kingdom of God will be like...”, so it does seem that what is described in the parable is in some way like the kingdom, but perhaps the likeness lies in the third slave’s stand for justice, and perhaps the kingdom is to be found in the outdoor darkness in solidarity with the oppressed. It is certainly not the Sunday school version of the parable, but it is an interpretation that has been explored within liberation theology, and one which I think is worth serious consideration, because it may have radical consequences. Perhaps the Bishop of London had this reading in mind when she proposed the motion to continue the work towards blessing same sex relationships in the Church of England this week, saying “if that means that I need to sit outside with the powerless, the marginalised, the lost, then that is where I will sit - and I am certain that I will also encounter Christ there”. 


It seems then that there are at least two very different readings of this parable. The traditional reading which says that we are given gifts and must use them, and the liberation reading which says that our economic systems are unfair and we must speak out against them. Do we have to choose between them or can we somehow hold them together? This is often known as the parable of the talents, as that was the name of the measure of gold that the master gave to his slaves, and much has been made of the potential for double meaning, with the talents representing both the material gifts that would have been understood by the original audience, and the natural skills that are brought to mind by the modern English. Perhaps in the same way the parable itself could have a double meaning. Both interpretations are supported by the witness of scripture elsewhere, and so I see no reason why we can’t pull the story in both directions, using different filters to reveal different dimensions. And that may offer us a third message to end on, about the possibilities that open up when we dare to look beyond the obvious and challenge what we think we know.

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