The parables we have been hearing for the last couple of Sundays have been ones about being ready. This morning’s is less about being ready per se, although it does urge us to think about what might happen when the master returns, but more about who we are and how we respond, what we have been doing in the meantime.
Today we know ‘talent’ to be ‘gift’, while in Matthew’s time a talent was a weight of silver or gold coin, and we could discuss the subtleties of its message for us today if we prefer to think of it still as money. But the parable’s main relevance to us today is about our use of and engagement with that which God has given us, rather than what exactly it is he has given us.
Let’s assume talent as gift. The man gave talents to his slaves according to their abilities. God gives us skills and gifts with which to work which are appropriate to us. We should not worry about who gets what, because that does not, as we shall see, make a difference in the end. That is not the point of the story. God gives us different gifts – not necessarily more or less than the next person, or more or less valuable or more or less visible, just different.
The first servant used what his master had given him, as did the second. If the distribution of talents was uneven to start with, it was even more so by the master’s return. Five had become ten, two had become four. But is the response of the master different – dependent on the total talents gained?
No, both servants are invited to enter into the joy of the master. Each put in – and made – 100%. Each receives the blessing of the master – they, in our scheme of parables, were not found wanting or waiting – they were wearing their wedding robes, their wicks were trimmed and their supplies of oil sufficient.
But the man who only received the single talent? It was enough – the man gave to his slaves according to their abilities. This is not to say you are worth more than you, you are less capable than you, but each received sufficient for them, each was given a gift relevant to them as individuals. It is not about who gets what.
Have you seen the cartoon about the difference between equality and justice? There’s a football match going on over the fence. Three people, of differing heights, are trying to watch. There are three orange boxes. Equality is where they all have a box each, but this means the tallest, who could see anyway, gets an even better view, the middle one can now see but the littlest one can’t see even with one box to stand on.
Justice, however, is when the one who can see anyway doesn’t have a box, but the little one has two. Then all the heads are at the same level, all watching the game… Each given according to his capacity – and need.
But perhaps the man with the one talent struggled to accept his gift. Perhaps he thought it was so small that he could not achieve anything great with it, so he did not bother to try. Perhaps he feared losing it and having nothing to give back to the master when he returned. So he did nothing with his gift. He just kept it, didn’t use it. Didn’t risk not making anything of it.
And so he doesn’t have 100% return to offer to the master when he comes back. No wedding clothes, no oil. The offer of entering into the joy of the master is not made to the third servant. Rather, as in Matthew’s recent parables, there is to be the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The servant puts up a defence of the master being harsh, of judging unfairly. Of gathering that which he did not sow. He may as well not have given the gift then, retorts the master, ordering the talent to be given to one of the others. It is not about the profit made, but the effort put in to it. The first two servants used their talents, the third did not. Their success was measured by their effort, not by their result. The reward given was the same, regardless.
It doesn’t matter what your gift from God is, but it matters that you do something with it. Burying it – not using it – is not an option. It is not so much about wasting the money – or the talent/quality/gift – but about the opportunity. It may be that you have the brains and the tenacity to be a medical researcher and discover cures; it may be that you give the best hugs and have an uncanny knack of knowing just when they are required.
Do you believe, good and faithful servant, that God has given you a gift which is precious and to be used to his glory if ‘all’ you can do is remember anniversaries or you have a habit of smiling at everyone in the street even if you do not realise that the lonely person feels themself instantly more worthy by your birthday card or note, and the homeless person to be human and not invisible?
Do you believe, good and faithful servant, that this is a gift given to you to be used, to which you should apply yourself? If you have been given the means to honour God, ‘even in the small things’. Do you dare to risk? Those who lose their lives for Christ will save them.
We have a choice whether we use our gifts at all, or at 100% effort, but we will be held accountable ‘when the master returns’. We are called to live and to love abundantly. It is the abundance with which we live that will see us enter into the joy of the master, not the figures on the bottom of the balance sheet. We have free will throughout our lives. It is for each of us to decide how to use what we have been given before answering to our God at the end of our earthly lives.
I always find these parables tricky because at heart I am a bit of (well, a lot of) a universalist, and these texts we have been hearing for the last few weeks seem to make it very clear that there is no guarantee of universal salvation. There is outer darkness, which it is seemingly all too easy to fall in to.
There is ‘without God’, which engenders weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There is an element of time pressure, of making the most of now, because you never know when the wedding banquet will begin, when the bridegroom will arrive home, when the master will return. We have no idea how long our lives will be, and there is no time to start living them, to use the gifts God has given us for the blessing of our brothers and sisters and to his praise and glory, like the present.
God has given us everything each of us needs to do what he calls us to do. The one who calls us is faithful. Are we, in return, good and faithful servants?
Will you pray with me?
Lord Jesus Christ, do I venture enough for you? You who gave his all including his life for me, have I risked my life for your sake? Teach us Lord to know ourselves worthy, know ourselves gifted and equipped, gifted and equipped to build your kingdom on earth. Teach us how best to use those gifts which are particularly ours, peculiarly ours, to your honour and glory, and to the blessing of others. Teach us how to recognise your gifts in each other, how to be the ones who draw out the gifts of those who are fearful, how to encourage one another and build one another up in your name. Teach us to live abundantly, love abundantly, that we may come to the end of our lives in the knowledge that we have given it 100%, given God 100%, that we are his good and faithful servants. Amen.