Reflection – Sunday November 15th

Reflection 21

Lectionary Passage – Matthew 25 vv 14 – 30

A Parable of Jesus – the Talents or the Three Servants

Willem de Poorter (born 1608) The Parable of The Talents or Minas National Gallery Prague
A Passion for God

In an earlier Reflection I made mention of the way in which Matthew, the former Tax Collector, retained a faithfulness to that skill and collected and arranged both the sayings and the stories of Jesus.  Matthew Chapter 25 is a prime example.  Here we find three parables that are linked together – and continue themes from the previous chapter.  There is the note of the need for watchfulness and preparedness and the warning of God’s judgement.  It seems to me that these stories are primarily for us, as Christians and as members of Christ’s Church, to consider very carefully and very seriously.

Because of the Greek word talanta in the original, this parable has traditionally been called the Parable of the Talents.  The title in the NIV is still that whereas in the GNB it is called the Parable of the Three Servants – which in my book, helpfully and meaningfully, shifts the emphasis from money to people.   Originally a talent was a unit of weight – the equivalent of 30kg.  It’s meaning changed and became that of a large amount of money.  Of course, now when we use the word talent, we are meaning a skill, an ability, a gift.  We’ll come back to that.

The setting and the timing in which Matthew places this collection is important.  Jesus is in Jerusalem. He is in his last days.   He has entered the city in triumph – Matthew 21 vv 1 – 11; he has caused mayhem in the Temple – Matthew 21vv 12 – 17; he has lamented over the city, its people and its future – Matthew 23 vv 37 – 39; he is at odds with those in authority in matters of faith – he is seen as a thorn in their side and they want rid of him – Matthew 21 vv 23 – 27.  The crisis is coming!

In the parable the man shows considerable trust in his servants – he puts them in charge.  Each of the three servants, even the third one, is trusted with a small fortune according to the master’s perception of their ability.  The master leaves on his travels.  The first two servants are astute and proactive and their work, wisdom and investment literally pays dividends.  With no banks it was commonplace for valuables to be hidden in the ground, which is exactly what the third servant does. When the master returns after a long time away, the servants are called to give account of their stewardship.   The first two, upon producing 100% profit, are given the accolade ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant.’ and the invitation ‘Come on in and share my happiness.’  It’s a different story for the third one.  With not even a small amount of interest he hears the condemnation ‘You bad and lazy servant.’ and the ultimate discarding ‘throw him outside in the darkness; there he will cry and grind his teeth.’  What a terrible prospect is that place of wailing and gnashing of teeth!

That’s not all.  There is one of those enigmatic statements of Jesus that can be abbreviated to  ‘Them that has, gets.’  The third servant forfeits the money he had hidden, and it is given to the most successful of the servants.  The faithfulness of the first two servants is in stark contrast to the fear of the third.  He calls his master ‘a hard man’ and indeed he is, as he affirms that his expectations are sky high – ‘I reap harvests where I did not sow, and gather crops where I did not scatter seed.’

It’s a parable.  As with almost all of the parables of Jesus, he leaves the interpretation to the hearer. The Parable starts with the phrase ‘The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this.’ That leaves little room for doubt that in this story it is God who is meant to be understood as the master of the servants.  Some have seen in the description of the journey that lasts a long time before he returns, a reference to Jesus and the Second Coming.  The fact that it is the master who, with trust and generosity gives out the talents, seems to me to point to our heavenly Father.

And the servants? – surely the disciples.  There is a continuity in Matthew’s arrangement between chapters 24 and 25.  At the beginning of 24 -it is verse 3, we are told ‘the disciples came to him in private.’  Follow it through and without a change of personnel or scene we come to 25 v14.  Jesus is talking with those closest to him.  But not only disciples there and then in Jerusalem. Disciples here and now, wherever; You and Me.

With trust and with great generosity, God has showered talents on us – the people of his Church.  We have gifts and skills and abilities. No one is excluded or exempt from the gifts of God.   Paul picks this up as an emphasis in several of his letters eg Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.  The worrying thing about the parable is that it tells us that God trusts us to make a return on his investment in us.  The third servant in the story didn’t get that at all.  Consumed by fear, he buried all that was trusted to him.

The Coved pandemic means that we are living in uncertain times. The future looks different.  This week we have heard the very welcome news of the development of a vaccine that just might give us the prospect of a return to some sort of normality next year.  But it will be a new normality and that will apply to the Church as well.   While the people God, let loose from slavery and passing through the wilderness, looked back with longing and remembered ‘the cucumbers, the water-melons, the leeks, the onions  and the garlic’ of Egypt – Numbers 11 v 5, there was no going back.  God always leads his people into a new future.

The questions the parable raise for me are:

  • How will each one of us use our God-given talent in the life of the Church and in the service of others?
  • On the other side of this wilderness experience, how will we work together to shape the future of the Church?
  • Will we be so consumed by fear that we become unwilling to invest in the future, bury our gifts and only look back with misplaced longing on a past that we shall never be able to reconstruct?

And the big question.  You may have noticed that at the top of this reflection I gave a title ‘A Passion for God.’  How can we rediscover and reignite our passion for God, so much so that we are willing to take risks in the investment of our gifts and explore new ways, in the new normality for the Church, of sharing the good news of his love?

God longs to welcome us with his greeting ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant’!

Bryan Coates

November 2020