The Second Sunday before Advent
19th November 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“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.”
The more I think about it, the more I believe that this verse is really the key to deepening our understanding of this parable.
But before I go into that, let’s get a few things out of the way.
First, there is no point in pretending that this is not a challenging parable. It ends after all with outer darkness and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
And in this parable Jesus says things that sound remarkably un-Jesusy; for example “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”.
And then there’s the fact that it’s very largely a parable about judgement. Middle class middle aged westerners generally aren’t very keen on the idea of God’s judgement because for the most part we don’t have that burning desire for Divine justice that grows out of poverty and oppression. For lower class Jews in first century Palestine it was a very different story, and it was by and for them that this story was originally told. They had for centuries longed for the promised day of the Lord, bringing judgement on their enemies and oppressors.
Second, we need to be clear that this parable is not about economics or politics. That may seem obvious; but the growing popularity of the prosperity gospel around the world makes it necessary for me to make this point. The broad thrust of biblical social teaching heavily emphasizes justice for the poor; this is true both of Jesus’ teaching and of the Old Testament too. The Parable of the Talents is not some sort of biblical warrant for taking from the poor to give to the rich; it is not a proof-text for kleptocracy.
There is a well-established traditional reading of this parable; so well-established that the English word “talent” was actually derived from it as long ago as the thirteenth century. The original meaning of “talent” was a weight of gold. Talent came to mean a gift or ability precisely because of the dominant interpretation of this parable. The master in the parable represents God, who gives to people different talents for them to make use of according to their abilities. At the last judgement we will be called to account for the use that we have made of our talents. This parable, combined with that of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins that we heard last Sunday, shows us that we are called to use well the time and the talents entrusted to us in this earthly life.
But there is quite a lot more going on in this parable, things that we must be careful not to miss.
First there is the willingness of the master to delegate. He gives to his slaves a high level of responsibility. We could almost call it freedom. He doesn’t tell them how to use their talents. He doesn’t micro-manage them. He gives them each their respective weights of gold to look after and invest, and he lets them get on with it.
Second there is the generosity of the reward. This isn’t exactly spelled out: he lavishes praise on the first two servants, and then invites them to “enter into the joy of your master”. The joy that is his is also to be theirs.
And now we come to the attitude of the third slave. “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.” There is nothing in the master’s attitude to the first two slaves that could be said to justify this statement. He is generous and trusting in his willingness to delegate responsibility to them all, and he is generous too in his praise and in his reward. It is only to the third slave that the master ultimately shows harshness.
God gives generously to all of us, entrusting us with many good gifts, but also giving us the responsibility to use those gifts well, to His praise and glory and for the good of others. What is it that holds us back from making good use of our God-given talents and gifts? Is it not fear? Is it not that our pride and vanity leads us to fear failure and its consequences? Is it not that we do not fully trust in the loving-kindness and abundant generosity of God? God is not setting us up to fall; He pours out His blessings upon us, He entrusts us with gifts of character and personality, skills and abilities; He entrusts us even with the gift of Himself through His Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. He desires that we should flourish in His service, bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit, and entering into His joy.
So yes, the Parable of the Talents is about making good use of the gifts that God gives to each one of us. These gifts and talents are not to be buried in the ground, but are rather to be used in the service of God’s kingdom, bringing forth abundant spiritual profits for all.
But it is also about the nature of God and our attitude to Him. God is loving and generous, giving human beings freedom but also responsibility. We are not to respond to God’s generosity with the cowering, cringing fear that leads the third slave to bury his talent in the ground. Rather, we are to recognize God’s generosity and trust; and we are to respond with generosity and trust of our own, boldly making good use of the talents entrusted to us, confident not in ourselves but in the knowledge of God’s love, perfectly revealed in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages. Amen