“I wonder where you are in the story”
That's always my favourite question whenever I sit down to prepare a sermon. Sometimes, with a passage we know as well as this one, it can help us to see past the layers of familiarity and find something new in even the most familiar text.
It certainly helped me this time round, when I found myself relating very definitely to the over-cautious slave – the one who was so fearful of his domineering master that he buried his talent in the ground...I know myself well enough to suspect that if I had a boss like his, I'd be so scared of doing the wrong thing that I'd hesitate to do anything at all - which, when you look at the final verse we've heard, is a rather terrifying prospect.
But then, it seems to me that there's an awful lot of fear in this story...even before we get to the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Not surprising, with a boss like that around.
And yet, we've just agreed “This is the gospel of the Lord”.
Good news, apparently.
I guess the problem comes if we try to read this as an allegory, and not a parable. Allegories have a consistent one to one equation – for example, the lion, Aslan, is ALWAYS the Christ figure in C S Lewis's Narnia books.
Parables are quite different...stories designed to help us to think about the big questions and concepts of faith in ways that are firmly rooted in everyday reality...but stories that demand that we work at them, without an easy code to follow.
So, - how does this parable fit in with our understanding of God?
Surely he can't be anything LIKE the master we hear about in the story..the greedy, vindictive and abusive character who is so quick to condemn.
Ah – yes – that's the point.
It's a PARABLE not an allegory, remember!
We are NOT expected to make that equation of God and master.
How could we?
There's nothing of God in this description of an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labour of his slaves, looking for maximum profit no matter what the cost...
Surely we've learned enough about God's infinite mercy to recognise this. Rather than reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he did not scatter, he is recklessly generous in pouring his resources out, regardless of our tendency to ignore them.
In fact, it would be hard to imagine anyone less like the God we meet in Christ than the master in this parable.
So what is this story about, then? If it's not about appeasing a tyrannical Lord, nor about using the abilities God gave us (these talents are money - not a gift for singing or making cakes)..?
I think the nub of it all lies in verse 29: "to all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” - or in other words "the rich get rich and the destitute lose everything."
Now, that really IS frightening – not least because it's more than a wee bit familiar, if we dare to enage with the social commentators at work today. It can seem to be very close to the principle our society is working on...and it couldn't be less like the kingdom of God.
So – if piling on the profits come what may is NOT a sign of the kingdom, what should we be aiming for. As so often, it's frustrating to find ourselves with a passage isolated from its context. May I invite you, when you get home, to spend a few moments reading what comes next in Matthew's gospel – the prophesy of the sheep and the goats, where we learn that when the Son of Man comes, judgement will not be given on the basis of how much money we made, nor for that matter on how religious we were but rather on whether we cared for the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family.
We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned...and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't.
So – let's try our parable again. It's nothing to do with making the most of your gifts, whether lavish or limited...Instead it's about looking hard at a world in which the rich get rich and the poor get poorer...because that world is NOTHING like God's kingdom. The world in which greedy, exploitative bosses impose a reign of terror on their slaves is not the one we are promised. That world is passing away even now, and Jesus will bring his work to completion; God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Do you believe that? And if so, do you have the courage to live as if that world is already here....to challenge the demands of those who would try to ensalve us to worldy standards by telling us that our security lies in amassing resources for ourselves no matter what?
It's not easy...It's genuinely counter-cultural...but we're kingdom people, and that's how we must live.
And as we inch toward Advent, let's look for the signs that Jesus was right, that the Spirit is living and moving, active in the world. This week we have been celebrating 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. That was quite a moment! People were dancing in the streets and even on the Wall itself as that symbol of division was destroyed; they went home clutching graffiti-covered chips as souvenirs of an amazing event. It was the fulfilment of a dream and a hope, a moment when history changed gear, the moment of a lifetime, even. In 8 days time, Ali and I are going with a group to explore how life in Berlin since has lived up to that high point, to hear at first hand the stories of reconciliation and hope that have flourished there amid the wreckage of the old order. Tremendous!But, you know, I believe that something even bigger and better is on its way – and we need to look out for it.
We're looking for the coming of the Kingdom, remember.
So, where are you in the story?
And where would you like to be?
I'm choosing to step out of it altogether.
Perhaps you'd care to join me and challenge the world that we see here. Let's not be the fearful slave, but dare to take a kingdom risk...the risk of living by kingdom values here and now, as we wait for its dawning reality.