May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our all our hearts be acceptable to you, our God, that I may speak and we all may reflect in your name, one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Something great and terrible is about to happen. On this, the Bible passages are especially clear. Today, we could just look outside!
The days are getting shorter. The snow is falling. Is this a heavenly white blanket reminding us of God’s cosy love? Or any icy curse above all curses meant to penitentially torment us until Lent? In Montréal small talk about the weather can quickly turn quite theological.
Zephaniah warns us today of an impending “day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” How uplifting. Fortunately Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, offers some reassurance: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
These passages about the coming day of the Lord are at once our finale to the church year and our preparation for the new church year. It is under the snowfall and the city’s, perhaps premature, Christmas lights, that we envision both the triumphant Lord’s coming in glory now, as we will prepare for his humble entrance in a manger soon.
And so we come to this week’s parable. The parable of the talents. Sandwiched between the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the parable of the sheep and goats, this is part two of the “Kingdom” trilogy parables, Jesus’ way of telling us something big is coming.
Dramatically, they come at the end of his mortal ministry, according to Matthew, on the heels of a series of snippy, sassy, yet frequently eloquent exchanges with the scribes and pharisees that we, in the young adult Bible study here we have dubbed Jesus’ “angry week.” Whether Jesus in fact historically offered these three as his final parables or if their placement here was Matthew’s excellent narrative editorial choice, the point is clear: Strange and cryptic as these parables may seem, or quite frankly just are, they matter immensely for understanding what God has in store.
So we begin with a man on a journey. And immediately subverting one of the most ancient of storytelling tropes, because this story is not about the man going on a journey or his journey. Jesus invites us to watch those who stayed behind. His servants. Or his slaves. Or his sons. Depending on translation.
To each, the man gave some talents, to one five talents, another two, and to another one. “Each,” Jesus tell says quite explicitly, “according to his ability.”
In the most literal sense, a talent was a unit of measure. Translations here vary.
Our translation today says talent. Other English Bibles offer more colourful language like “sacks of gold” or even attempt to render it into dollar amounts. What is clear is the sums are exorbitant: years of wages entrusted to each.
“The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”
Notice the three-part story here.
This too is an ancient storytelling technique: In the first part, a pattern is established. In the second, it is reaffirmed. In the third part, we are invited to ask, “What the heck just happened?”
Jesus himself used this pattern in the parable of the Good Samaritan and its most famous iterations may be the story of three little pigs.
In this parable, the first servant was a wise financial manager. He doubled his master’s portfolio. The second, smaller amount of money, he did the same. Even in the ancient world, a return on an investment is the goal. A doubling of the investment may be very optimistic financial planning, but this is Jesus’ story…
So the first two did what was expected of them. They invested. They earned a return.
And the third, took a huge sum of money, dug a hole, and buried it. This is as wise as a savings account managed under your mattress.
The master’s response to the first two, in the King James it is one of the most famous and uplifting passages, often used in funerals, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
But to the third, now, I’ve read the translation, I hear it as, “You had one job!”
The master is infuriated. Frustrated. Exasperated. But remember Jesus said, “Each was given according to his ability.” Disappointed, perhaps, but not surprised.
You do not bury someone else’s wealth in the sand. And it gets stranger.
You do not blame someone else for your failure, especially the one who gave you all you need to succeed. You know better. But the third servant didn’t.
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
In my reading, before the master’s response, “You wicked and lazy…” I hear an “EXCUSE ME? WHAT DID YOU SAY?” And rewards and punishments are given. And the kingdom of heaven is like unto that.
“At first blush,” NT Wright, Anglican bishop emeritus of Durham England, and a former McGill professor, tells us this may seem like God being a schoolmaster obsessed with high stakes testing. Life is a test. Jesus’ triumphant return, or our own deaths, whichever comes first is the surprising moment of the eternal pop quiz. Let us therefore live in perpetual fear and trembling. The Good News!
What if, though, this is not a story about a test, but a story about grace, and two who live like they believe in it, and one who lives as if he does not. The third lived in such a fear of the master that he did nothing courageous, took no risks, experienced no growth, creating self-fulfilling prophesies of the master’s wrath.
What are we even going to do this parable then? Who is the master? Who are the servants? Are we the servants? Which servants are we? And what exactly is a talent?
We have inherited a tradition of assuming the master figure, or the man, or the father, in parables is God. I am going to assume that here, too, but with the caveat that we needn’t always jump to that conclusion! It is always worth asking if that is necessarily the case.
And we who have been given things, are his servants. Not simply given his exorbitant blessings. But entrusted with them, not as owners, not even as security guards, charged to keep the things of God hidden and safe, but as stewards, charged to make the things of God grow.
And what is a talent? The word talent in English, to mean a gift of something we are good at, has the etymologically curious history of being a metaphor taken so seriously from this parable that it shaped our language. The reading that the parable of the talents is about our innate talents—that to one was given the ability to be athletic, but to another was given the ability to sing, and be athletic, and to do well in school, and to be socially charming, uggh, those people—is certainly a possibility. It has been so dominant in our culture, for some good reason, that I do not wish to dismiss it entirely. But remember that parables reveal layers of non-mutually-exclusive truths.
Our talents are our talents. But they may also be our money! Jesus spoke literally about large quantities of money, and some of us have large quantities of money, and need to ask what multiplying those gifts would mean.
As individuals, Jesus is inviting us to take spiritual risks for growth, trusting in the master’s grace, trusting that sharing what we have with others, does not endanger what we have been given. It is in fact the only way to let it grow.
That we must risk vulnerability to gain intimacy. We must risk rejection to experience love. We must risk failure to learn how to succeed. We must risk embarrassment to achieve visibility. We have to let go of things to let them grow. A seed does not grow clenched in our fists indefinitely. If we hide the treasures, defending them from being touched or risked, we will lose them in the end. As Jesus says, we will lose even that which we have.
As a community of faith, also need to think of being stewards of the treasure we have been given.
As a community of faith, we must also ask ourselves which servant we are, collectively. Which are we called to be? Which are we? Are they the same? Do we need to switch?
Jesus is inviting us, collectively as a church, to take spiritual risks for growth, trusting in the master’s grace, trusting that sharing what we have with others, does not endanger what we have been given. It is in fact the only way to let it grow.
Our traditions of worship, for example, of how we do church, or ideally how we be the church are they talents? They are indeed immensely valuable.
Notice that none of the servants in this parable threw out, rejected, or denied the worth of what they received. To be wise stewards of the Christian faith and liturgy and witness that we have inherited requires acknowledging how precious it is. There is no place in this particular parable for taking precious gifts and throwing them out dismissively.
But sometimes we are so afraid of that God will be displeased or our community will die or our way of doing things will disappear that we treat our Christianity like we are collectively the third servant. We bury it, we hide it, we won’t to keep it safe.
We won’t invite people lest we offend them or worse, they come and change us. This is our talent.
I am honoured to serve as ecumenical Protestant chaplain at McGill University. The position is supported by both the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada. I love the opportunity to be one of very few people who work for both churches. (Why have just a bishop or a presbytery when you can report to both?)
One of the things that I love that we do that I love is holding a monthly worship service and supper. We have supper and then gather for communion. We started last December with twelve people and now we have about forty to fifty people each time. It is growing. And not just in the numbers of people who attend, but in the relationships people have, in young adults coming to church and knowing who one another are and sitting together. It is growing.
It requires risks. It requires investing talents. It is an Anglican and United service, but the students who attend come from over a dozen countries. Many do not come from either church, from Catholicism, from Evangelicalism, from no religious background. We are bilingual, always in English and French, and sometimes sing and pray in third languages. How do we build a community that honours the traditions we have received? And that worships together in a way that honours all the traditions we have and makes everybody happy all of the time? The secret is, we don’t come anywhere close. We never have, and we likely never will.
We take the risks together. We ask people what are the things that matter most to you? We make changes to the service. Some say they need to stand to sing their heart out. Others insist we finish every element of Eucharist. Those are the talents they bring and that we are multiplying together.
But investing our talents in the people around us, in the community around us and the world around us is the only to keep what we have, it is the only way to grow what we have been given, the only way to be those good and trustworthy caretakers.
We have to risk what we have been given so that it may grow into what God wants it to be.
Scott Hiyoshi, the Episcopal bishop of Utah wrote today on his Facebook, we “should not live under a cloud of dread about what [the] future holds for us.”
So is Jesus’ message. Our God is not harsh and quick to judge. God gives to us according to our abilities. God has given us to generously. We have one job. Invest those gifts in those around us. Amen.
November 16, 2014
Christ Church Cathedral, Montréal
The Rev’d Jean-Daniel Williams
Anglican and United Chaplain at McGill
As prepared. Audio version may vary.