Today’s reading is one of those famous parables that we all think we know the meaning of. After all we’ve heard countless sermons on stewardship and live in a capitalist system where, if we’ve got capital, then the idea is to invest it and generate a return on it. What else could this passage be about other than wise stewardship? And yet, I don’t think that is what it’s about at all!
As you may know there is a list of readings for each Sunday of the year. That list is called a Lectionary and it’s followed by most Churches. Back in the 1960s and 1970s a remarkable ecumenical convergence happened and the mainstream Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church agreed to use, more or less the same Lectionary for Sundays. In theory, we could have up to four readings in each service: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a reading from one of the Epistles and, of course, the Gospel reading. My practice, as you’ve probably gathered by now, is to use one or two of the four and, normally, the Gospel reading. The Lectionary is a good discipline for preachers as it stops us gravitating to our favourite texts and makes us address difficult passages. It’s good that in most churches across these islands we hear the same readings and are stimulated to think about the same passages as our sisters and brothers in other denominations. But – there’s always a but – the Lectionary takes chunks of Scripture and rarely sets that chunk in its wider context. That can effect how we interpret a passage.
Today’s Gospel reading, for example, is part of a section of St Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is teaching about the end of the World and his second coming. This is the third of four stories about the impending, but undated, end of the world. All four centre on the return of the king or the bridegroom, the judgement that comes with that coming and how those who await his return should spend their time. If we just understand this passage as about stewardship we miss the basic context of Jesus’ message. It wasn’t a lesson in giving to the church but a lesson in how to live well in response to God’s generosity. It isn’t a lesson in what God has done for us but what God will do for us.
Slaves, Talents and Masters
Each of the three slaves is given a huge amount of money. Some translations called this the parable of the Talents – our version in Church talks about bags of gold coins. The bags of coins were worth many years’ wages and so were unimaginable amounts. The master was being incredibly trusting of his three slaves – after all with that much money they could have just run off somewhere and set themselves up in a new life.
Two of the slaves are good stewards – they both make a good return on their master’s wealth and the one who made less isn’t criticised for not doing as well as his fellow slave. They both double their master’s money and give identical speeches when the master returns but their purpose in the story is to be compared the third slave who simply buried the money in a field. That may seem odd to us but was standard practice in the ancient world when people wanted to keep their wealth safe. The meaning of the parable is bound up in the relationship and attitudes of the master and this third stage. So, let’s look at the master.
He has great wealth and, it seems, great trust. He gave enormous sums of money to his slaves whom he seemed to know well. Perhaps he didn’t give too much to the last slave as he knew he was full of fear but, nevertheless he did give him a chance. From the slave’s perspective the master is harsh and he strikes fear into those around him. Like many who have great wealth they may appear to exist in a different world to the rest of us.
Then there is the slave. We don’t know his back story – how he came to be a slave, what made him so cautious. The master might think of him as being lazy, wicked and worthless.
Neither the master nor the slave evoke much sympathy when we look at them at first. But if we ignore what they say about each other, and instead, look at how they behave we may get a little further.
The master isn’t harsh in his actions – he behaves with generosity, trusting even the third slave with the wealth of more than 15 years’ wages. He doesn’t take the money that has been made through investment but returns it to the first two slaves and, even more, invites them to share his joy and so transforms their relationship from master/slave to something nearer equality. The master turns the third slave’s excuses back on him – if the master really reaped where he didn’t sow then the slave could have gone to the bankers and money lenders and earnt some interest – a sin in Jewish theology.
The third slave is complex too. He doesn’t run off with the money, he doesn’t squander it or steal it. His actions, though, are driven by fear and it’s fear that leads to his downfall. In fearing his master the master becomes fearful.
So what lessons can we learn from this passage if it’s not about stewardship?
The first two slaves took risks – they lived well. The third was prudent and fearful – not a bad man at all yet he is treated very harshly. I suspect if the first two had took a risk and lost they may have been praised still. The point was about doubling your money but about living, investing and taking risks. It’s about Jesus himself and what he has done and what is about to happen to him as he draws closer and closer to his trial and execution. It’s about being a follower of Jesus and what it means to be faithful to Him.
The greatest risk in life, it turns out from this story, is not to risk at all. To care or love deeply involves risk. When we tell another, for the first time, that we love them we risk everything – they may reject us after all. To give your heart away is a huge risk. The greatest danger in life is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently – that’s what the third slave did after all. Maybe to use an old-fashioned word, the third slave committed the sin of sloth. He was lazy – according to the master – and did nothing with what he had been given. He could give the gift back, pristine, unused, perfect to the Master but he hasn’t used it. He has committed sloth – he has not cared, not loved, not rejoiced and not lifted up to his full potential by playing it safe.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was very respectable and middle class. A Lutheran pastor in Germany during the war he was, or at least should have been, the epitome of the Establishment. He said that the sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility. He took his responsibility so seriously that, even as a pacifist, he took part in an abortive attempt to kill Hitler and paid the price with his own life a few weeks before the war ended.
Jesus implies in his parable that playing it safe means not caring, not loving passionately, not investing yourself, not risking anything. Playing it safe leads to darkness and death when the master returns.
So faith isn’t about playing it safe, believing the right things, being respectable and refusing to get our hands dirty. Faith for, and in, Jesus is about getting involved, loving boldly, taking risks. This is living fully. It means stepping out – maybe God is calling us to move – a job, a city or even a country. Maybe God is calling us to serve more radically, to dare to think about forms of ministry we’ve always thought are for people cleverer than us. Maybe it’s about taking the risk to ask someone along to church who is hurting and needing to find God’s presence. Living well is, above all, about taking the risk to follow Jesus wherever he calls.
Help us to live well,
To take risks and not bury our gifts in a field.
Help us to learn to follow you more closely,
That, at the end,
We may rejoice in your presence forever.