Readings for Pentecost 24: Zeph 1:7,12-18; Ps 90:1-8,12; 1 Thess 5:1-11; Matt 25:14-30.
That we are entering a natural time of darkness was unavoidable 2 weeks ago as we changed our clocks to give us more daylight to start our days. This sign of darkening times is echoed well in the readings of this Christian season – today’s, last week, and then into the first week of Advent which approaches – A time of reckoning is upon us….
It’s helpful to have this in mind as context for coming to some understanding of today’s gospel, that familiar story of the Talents. I will not be leading us in the direction of exercising our personal gifts and aptitudes, our personal and talents, as might have been suggested at other times. (as interesting an exercise as that may be!) because “talents = talents” neglects the difficult questions this text raises for me. I want to approach the text in a way that respects our darkening natural reality, that respects the place of the story in the surrounding pieces of the Gospel of Matthew, that respects also the theological and liturgical movement of our Christian Year, all as elements that shape our current, more serious, collective preoccupations and personal musings. Significant in these have been our recent All Souls and Remembrance observances that bring questions about our limitations, about tentativeness, even of “end-times”, that impinge upon us during this season.
Perhaps I should own to how challenging this has been for me this year, just returning from 5 weeks away in Australia where the days are lengthening and warming, and where there was little resonance in the lightening of days, and the living it invites, for the serious movement of the season reflected in our lectionary. It has needed effort for me to enter this darker context this year. The struggle was much more challenging as I tried to make a place for today’s gospel story of the Talents – to find coherence and context within the Good News of Jesus, for a story which on the surface seems to require tacit approval of a perverse ethos of entrepreneurial exploitation, of Trumpean excess which has recently become so blatant, so inescapable, so offensive and disturbing.
The question which comes up for me from the story of the Talents is whether there is another kind of capital or currency to which its apparent praising of monetary greed and excess might point? — a kind of capital or currency to which harnessing of personal talents, gifts, aptitudes might be oriented .. And what of the awful fate of the servant who was afraid, and failed the test of multiplying his apportionment of talents? Related questions would be, what kind of master is it in this account of the Talents by Jesus, as reported by Matthew? And what kind of domain is it in which seemingly, domination, exploitation and colonizing by way of capital are the measures which matter?
We see that the master is a “harsh man”. Is he presented here as what God is like? And we see that the setting is one in which this harsh man and his values are the ruling measure. Is this domain an indicator for the Kingdom of God?
As much as many of Jesus’ parables are presented as similes for God and for the Kingdom, I think not in this case…. This is a parable with a difference.
Perhaps it will help in grasping what Matthew is doing with this Talents story if we look at the beginning of chapter 24 of Matthew (chapters 24 and 25 together are sometimes referred to as his “end-times or Kingdom discourse”) where the disciples ask Jesus when will the end of the age be? And what will it be like? What will be the sign of its coming? The two chapters of Matthew which follow are pretty hard slogging, confronting the disciples, and us, with very hard questions, challenging the disciples, and us, about our willingness to see, to understand, TO LIVE IN the way of the Kingdom which he has come to proclaim and usher in – asking: are we content to foolishly expect it on our terms? pointing out that whatever we can offer or do on our own terms will not be enough, not earn us a place at the table …. and asking pointedly in today’s gospel, who is the master in whose thrall you presently live? – and are you prepared to turn from that, and lose all for the Kingdom? Interestingly, this is precisely the question Jesus asks of Zaccheaus the repentant taxman in Luke by telling him the Talents story.
The master in the Talents story is a hard man – but these are perhaps even harder questions. The answer to the questions, the teaching, the Good News of the gospel only becomes clear in the final section of Chapter 25, which even though we will more fully appreciate it next week when we hear it as the gospel for our celebration of the Reign of Christ, must be acknowledged as that which delivers the twist in Matthew’s Kingdom discourse, the twist (the sting in the tail) that makes coherent the story of the Talents. The Talents story is, as it were, a sub-plot which serves as foil for Matthew’s arrival, in the parable of the sheep and the goats which follows, as the clearest portrayal of what the Kingdom is like and how we will recognize its coming – in answer to the questions pressed by the disciples two chapters earlier.
It is perhaps my favourite gospel text, giving coherence to my vocation as deacon, and as prison chaplain in particular. It has been for me the “Great Commission” for readiness for the Kingdom, calling as it does for visiting the sick and those in prison, welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry etc. ….. clearly prioritizing those as the acts, the vocation, even the mission, the ethos of Church, WHEN, we as his disciples, are in communion not only with those whom we visit and serve but simultaneously, by GRACE, with Jesus himself: “… when you do these things to the least of my brothers and sisters you do them to me….”
Then, when the son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, and sits on the throne of his glory – the Kingdom will have arrived and there will be no doubt, no confusion about who will be blessed….. Without taking anything from next week’s preacher, this needed to be held up, because in its light, we can see it is possible that even the lowly fearful servant who buried his talent, who failed his harsh master, may yet be blessed, we can see that the harsh master is in important ways, a foil for the Son of Man, the king who comes to establish his kingdom…..
And so, the question of what capital or currency these talents, these bags of gold may be pointing to, has a response in the finale of Matthew’s lengthy Kingdom discourse. It counters, is a reversal, the foil he has set up in the talents story. Matthew has Jesus proclaim from the throne of his Glory that the CURRENCY of the Kingdom, HIS CAPITAL , is our loving without gain, our loving without even any expectation of gain, our gratuitous love for the most needy among us. The Economy of the Kingdom has as its currency our agency for the Grace of God which always arrives as gift for its recipient, even as undeserved.
In grasping that the call, the mark of the Kingdom is self-expenditure, we can see that the standard of EVEN MORE for the wealthy, which is the measure in the harsh master’s domain and that economy (and which can so easily pander to the worst in us) would not seem to be supportable in the Kingdom……. Each of these views speak of a kind of economy, with distinctive and unmixable currencies, as distinctive as sheep and goats, as wise and foolish, as good/trustworthy vs wicked/lazy ????.
Oh, IF ONLY that the harshness of our world would have such a denouement as that which resolves the discomfort of the Talents story…. But we are in the Meantime; hasn’t it always been the meantime? (At least since Matthew described it?) it is not yet the end, prevailing ominous signs notwithstanding.
Recent important anniversaries speak to the scale of the meantime:
– we have recently noted the 100th anniversary of the Balfour resolution and its creation of a kingdom of sorts, albeit slap-bang on top of the holy land, as variously understood, a holy land still occupied and oppressed…..;
– We have just noted the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution after which it cannot escape us that Russia yet has a czar of sorts;
– And it is curious that the American Revolution against tyranny has delivered that country, with global implications, into new expressions, machinations of self-interested greed and excess;
I believe the word is CONCUPISCENCE _ I dare to say that this story from Matthew is precisely, ironically, about the ugly normalcy of concupiscence…..
And so, how do we know when the Kingdom of God will arrive?
Well, we don’t know – but if it is near, as our faith perceives, how should we live? How do we manage the meantime? Even if we feel ill-equipped and unqualified for the banquet, even if we have fashioned our responses to life, fearful for our personal welfare,
Matthew records Jesus as showing that we can prepare by spending ourselves – indeed to be a spendthrift, so that the abundance of the Kingdom of the Poor of God will be manifest, rather than growing coffers and granaries of the wealthy.
Just next week, the Reign of Christ will arrive. We know how to enter into that…….