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Second Sunday before Advent, November 15th 2020

hole in the ground

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30

The Parable of the Talents

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read something over and over and ended up being less sure about its meaning the more you read it?

 

I found this happening to me this week with the parable of the talents. I used to think I knew what it meant. Perhaps you know what it means! I’d like us to explore this morning what it feels like to read scripture with an open mind and an open heart.

 

It’s certainly a good little story – easy to remember and retell. It has a familiar fairy tale beginning: a man goes on a journey. Before leaving he summons his three servants and entrusts each of them with a large some of money. Again, the structure is like a fairy tale – we know the drill – the first servant did this; the second one did essentially the same, on a smaller scale, and the third – did something rogue.

 

In some fairy tales, the third person stands out from the others by being the surprising hero. Think Jesse and his sons in the OT: each son came before Samuel but none was right, till the youngest, David, turned up. And against all the odds he was THE ONE. Or take this well-known story: there are two older sisters who are ugly and unkind but the youngest, Cinderella, who sweeps the hearth, emerges as the true princess.

 

I wonder whom you most identify with in this parable. Getting in touch with our gut reactions when we read scripture seems important because it tells us about ourselves and might be a good first step before we engage more cerebrally. The first hearers of Jesus’ parables were often unsettled by what he said. The Samaritan wasn’t supposed to be good; the reckless son wasn’t supposed to be treated generously; the workers in the vineyard weren’t all supposed to receive the same wage. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair. There would have been outrage! There would have been post sermon fallout! There would not have been a polite handshake at the church door and the comment: ‘nice sermon, vicar.’

 

It’s much harder for us to come fresh to the parables, because after decades of listening to sermons on them, we’ve been told what they mean, and by and large we read them theologically, not personally.

 

So I invite you to listen to the story again and try and discern whom you most identify with. Try in this exercise to put away what your brain and church training is telling you and focus on the emotional impact. I sometimes worry that listening to a large number of sermons about what this and that means, has inured us to reacting honestly to Jesus’ words and being able to see their force in today’s situations.

(read story out loud)

Here’s what happened when I did this exercise in the week. This is my stream of consciousness, if you like (I would love to know how yours went – were you able to get into one?)

 

The Master

I didn’t much like him. His moods seemed rather changeable. One minute he’s congratulating a servant, the next he’s getting irate. He’s described by the third slave as ‘reaping where he didn’t sow, and gathering where he didn’t scatter seed’, which I take to mean he benefits from others’ hard work without necessarily acknowledging their input. He’s the most unlikely person to say “I stand here today on the shoulders of others who have gone before me”. He puts profit over people, calls another human being ‘worthless’, which Jesus said we shouldn’t do, and casts him out because he’s been ‘unprofitable’. I imagine him shouting when he says ‘give his talent to the one who has five; for to those who have, more will be given…but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’, which is probably the origin of the unfortunate misquotation: ‘God helps those who help themselves’. I have to be honest – it made me think of the outgoing president of the United States.

 

The first and second slaves

I felt pretty neutral about these two. They were obviously very capable. Like very gifted stockbrokers both somehow managed to double the money entrusted to them, but there’s no information about how this was achieved. Often with very large returns, there has either been a high element of risk (which could’ve backfired) or others might have been treated poorly in the process of maximizing profit – think ‘gig economy’. Because they’ve been successful in their investments, they will be going on to higher things. I want to be generous and say they were faithful; but taking the story at face value, I feel they were being rewarded for being successful. And they were pretty lucky: in the 1980s we took out an endowment mortgage with the suggestion it would return at least triple over 25 years. I can tell you that ours spectacularly underperformed.

 

The third slave.

Even just saying that and I already feel myself to be on the side of the underdog. I mean it’s bad enough being a slave, but ‘third slave’? Did you hear about the research that showed that people who’d played Mary or Joseph in their primary school nativity had gone on to earn more and be more successful than those who were given, like me, ‘third angel’, or ‘third shepherd’, or even ‘back end of donkey’?

 

So – third slave. He’s apparently the least able, and he has a negative view of the Master, whom he calls harsh. But is he right? Being entrusted with money brings him out in a cold sweat. He’s a careful guy. Refusing to join in with the trading scheme, he digs a hole in the ground to keep the money safe. There’s something either pathetic and sad or courageous and prophetic about that digging. When the master comes back, he safely returns the money.

 

We’re all being told to play it safe at the moment: stay home, save lives, protect the NHS, etc. I think the third slave would be seen as a good citizen at this time. Perhaps he knows the banks are corrupt so he’s done the only sensible thing: the equivalent of hiding his savings under the mattress. For which he gets a rollicking, and is not merely sacked, but thrown into outer darkness, whatever that means. It seems a slight over reaction.

 

So that is my emotional response, and the reason I found this talk so difficult to write, is that my emotional response is at odds with my theological intimation. I don’t know if that ever happens to you. If you were able to hear the story straightforwardly and feel nothing but praise for the slaves who invested their master’s money and contempt for the one who was afraid – I kind of envy you! That would have been much simpler, and it’s always easier to go with the flow…

 

But let’s just go with feelings for now. I wonder what comes to mind about the times we live in today, when this parable is brought to bear? We are seeing more and more the limits of unregulated capitalism – this was one of the things we talked about as a group of us looked at Naomi Klein’s book “On Fire” this week. I know this is a political thing to say but it would seem that the trickle down effect hasn’t worked – instead the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and sometimes I feel ashamed to be British.

 

The government tried really hard to resist the call of Marcus Rashford to provide free school meals for the children of poor families over half term, arguing that local councils to whom they’d already given money could provide. They later bowed to intense public pressure and completely changed tack.

 

Wealth creation isn’t wrong in itself; the problem comes at the distribution stage. There is a lot of power in someone famous saying: “I remember what it was like to go to bed hungry”. It helps us imagine what that must do to a person’s view of life, how the world must truly seem like a place of scarcity instead of a place full of  – what? – the generous abundance of God?

 

Maybe we should feel compassion for the third slave because Christ is to be found with those who have nothing, who feel worthless, who hunger and weep in the dark. The parable of the sheep and the goats, immediately following this parable even suggests when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner; that is when we unknowingly minister to Christ. And not to feed the hungry is seen as worthy of judgment, just as some judged the government for failing to feed children over half term.

 

The very fact that some of us might feel sympathy for the third slave shows the deep effect of the Christian message on the Western imagination; something argued by Tom Holland in his book Dominion, so I make no apologies for feeling this way.

 

On the other hand, am I trying to justify myself? Am I over sentimentalizing the parable and reading my own personal perspective into the text, rather than drawing out the original meaning (eisegesis, not exegesis)? These are all questions of hermeneutics, and they are important.

 

So what is my head telling me about this parable? What is your head telling you? What is significant about this master coming back to settle accounts? What does it mean to be faithful in the lesser things?

 

The best way I can describe what I think it means theologically it is by quoting the poet Mary Oliver in The Summer Day, a poem in which she spends the day contemplating the beautiful outdoors. Everything around her is an abundant gift from the creator, even the grasshopper whom she watches as she ‘lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face’. It’s all a free gift and given for our enjoyment. Therefore, in view of all this grace she asks in the last two lines:

 

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?’

 

Contrary to the expectations of that child who goes to bed hungry and knows only scarcity, there is in fact a beautiful and plentiful world out there, given us by a prodigious God, for everyone to enjoy. When we know this, when we let that abundance flow freely through us and out to others in a channel of blessing, when we are generous we discover that the more we give, the more we receive – that is the law of abundance – like the law of compound interest, the more you invest, the more you get back, exponentially.

 

So be careful with parables – don’t lose the shock factor! Let yourself be stirred up. A parable means something is ‘thrown down alongside’ something else. It’s a metaphor, like saying ‘God is a rock’. We can all guess what we mean when we say ‘God is a rock’’. At one level this illuminates our understanding of God, but at another level it obscures it. Because God is in fact quite beyond a rock – God is in fact so different from his creation that in many ways he is unknowable (for those of you who like labels, that’s the difference between kataphatic and apophatic spirituality). So I think we have to be careful assuming the master of the parable is God or Jesus, for example.

 

And one last thought: as we move liturgically towards Advent, we can’t escape the idea of the wrapping up of history, particularly the role of judgment. Matthew chapter 24 and 25 is one whole discourse about the question put to Jesus: ‘what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matt. 24:3). Jesus tells this parable at the end of his ministry, shortly before he is handed over to darkness where he will hold nothing back for our deliverance.

 

So we read scripture and scripture reads us. If you have a strong reaction to something in the bible, listen to it! The bible has broad shoulders. Judgment is a difficult topic for us, but judgment is not a bad thing in itself. If you recoil from the idea of judgment, just remember that not a small number of people celebrated the judgment of the American people this week as they voted out Donald Trump by a margin of 5 million.

 

How are you investing today?