We are “children of light and children of the day.” (Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) What a timely reminder of our true nature and encouragement for those of us feeling fearful, anxious or uncertain. Whether it has been the pandemic, or the election, or the wild fires, or the polarised nature of our society, there are plenty of reasons to feel weary and trend toward despair.
St Paul reminds the people of his time and ours that as those who “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.” While I am not usually a great fan of military language there are times when there is value in visualising being dressed in clothing, literal and metaphoric, that protects the self and enables us to defend those who are vulnerable. I do not think we have to buy into the whole warfare metaphor in order to know that sometimes we and what we believe in are under attack and need to protect ourselves and those we love. We need to do this not with weapons but with the right attitude and approach to life and faith. At this time our faith and love and hope needs to be wide eyed and see what is happening and bear witness. This is not a time for sentimental thinking or paranoid despair but rather for calm, or sober, assessment and reassessment. Now is a time for replenishment and realignment so that we can consider wisely and courageously what next.
The parable that we have been given to consider this week (RCL Matthew ) has often been confused and preached on to encourage people to use their talents for God. That’s probably because this week’s parable has a bit of a red herring in it, and that’s a problem of translation from one language to another. The talents being spoken of are not our natural abilities and gifts. Talents are to denarios what dollars are to cents. That is, talents are a particular unit of money – a big unit! In today’s terms probably about 5 million dollars! Matthew does like to exaggerate to get his point across! Given that the parable would have been told in Aramaic and recorded years later in Greek it doesn’t make a lot of sense to play around with the various modern English meanings of the word “talent” because it simply does not translate!!
It’s important to remember what parables are, in literary terms, and what they are not. Parables are a form of folk stories where the point is teaching. Parables reflect the real life teaching of Jesus in which he takes the ordinary things of life and teaches about the extraordinary things of the Kingdom of God. Not just simple instruction but an engagement between audience and teacher with the need for the listener to make a decision about the issue at hand themselves. Parables also reflect another layer of story and concern – those of the faith communities in which the oral tradition was written down. In this process often the “moral to the story” gets exaggerated or added to according to their concerns.
Parables are not only wise teachings about life, as are other moral fables, they also call upon us to come to an understanding about who Jesus is and what he wants us to understand about the nature of God and God’s kingdom. Parables call us into relationship with God and action for God’s kingdom.
So how do we understand this? One way of understanding this parable is to think of the power of money to get things done as being like the power of God to effect things. Things start to make sense now! The servant who allows God’s power to be invested and bear dividends is entrusted with yet more work and opportunity to serve. (While this is not an entirely comfortable promise we recognise the truth that those who do much get given more!) While the one who resisted the power of God, who buried that power and thwarted any useful growth and change to be effected, has the little they had taken away.
This is not necessarily a punitive moral judgement so much as it is the desire of God to embrace creation and God’s own people. Like the breath of God which blows where it will the power of God will find an out, and if we block it, bury it, deny it, then the Spirit of God will move on and find another outlet!
It is better, like the first and second servant, to cooperate with the power of God, to work with the Spirit rather than against it. But that is harder to do than to say. It requires discernment of what is of God and what is of ego or other temptations. It requires courage to follow even when God seems to be going in directions that we are not so sure of and asking of us things we are not sure we have the ability to do. It requires us to become more and less than we might want to be.
And what happens if and when we give into fear and resistance and bury the power of God like a jar of coins in the back yard or stash God’s call to love and life like a wad of cash under the mattress? Will we be left in the dark to gnash our teeth for eternity?
Matthew’s treatment of the parable, and the words of the prophet Zephaniah certainly sound an alarming warning not to rest “complacently … and to say in our hearts “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” God is not lukewarm about God’s people! And the warnings of Zephaniah against fellow Jerusalemites who did not heed God’s laws probably rang bells for the community who had lived through the fall of Jerusalem, which Matthew seems to have understood to be a punishment for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Certainly the readings this morning strongly encourage us to engage with God now and to decide to look to the kingdom.
However it is important to remember some of the other parables we have heard in the last months. Remember the owner of the vineyard who kept going to the market place and inviting the idle to join the harvest and then paid them all a full day’s wage, even those who had turned up at the last minute? Remember the master who invited his friends and neighbours to the wedding banquet and when they refused he went out and invited others, desiring his banquet to be fully subscribed? These stories bear witness to a sense of urgency in the invitation and to the persistence of the Lord, the repetition of the invitation and that it is maybe never too late in the day to respond.
So why would we answer now rather than leave it until later, when it might be more convenient? Well apart from the fact that tomorrow is not ours to promise there is the joy of the master to be entered into. The joy of living in alignment with the Spirit of the living God, the joy of being fully alive to the purposes of the one who created us and therefore what we on a cellular level were born to do and be. The call of God, whilst often terrifying and sometimes confusing, is at heart, the call to be ourselves, our truest selves.
So as we, as individuals and faith communities, continue on our journeys into the heart of God we might pray with the psalmist that the work of our hands be blessed and that our work prosper whether that be the restoration of church building or the building up of a just and loving society. Let us allow the power of the living God to work in and through us so that God’s kingdom might prosper and flourish and we might know the joy of being who God calls us to be.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ let the power of your light flow through us.