David's sermon, 15th November 2020
Here we are with the parable of the talents. We all know that the word has changed its meaning. When Matthew wrote his gospel, it meant a specific amount of money; actually, it meant a lot of money, a talent would have kept a day labourer living in reasonable conditions for fifteen years. It has come to mean natural abilities, gifts and this is almost certainly due to years and years of sermons and homilies on this parable. We now talk about a ‘talented actor, a talented sports player, I suppose it could apply to just about anything. Could you have a talented road sweeper?… probably. Britain’s Got Talent certainly has a wide enough range of skills and gifts in entertainment to include almost anything you could think of. In a long tradition at least as old as TV and in a slightly different form going back to music hall, the talent show has been a way for people to show what they can do and reap the rewards for their skills and abilities. Think of the stars who got their first break decades ago on Opportunity Knocks or New Faces.
So, the message for us as Christians is simple; put your Natural gifts to work for the Lord and you will be rewarded. If you’re a singer sing hymns, if you’re a carer put your skills to work as a doctor, a nurse, a parent or whatever. If you are good at making money be a cheerful and generous giver to church and charities. Whatever it is that you’re good at do it for the Lord and you will hear; “Well done good and trustworthy slave.” It’s an age old, well worn, tried and tested message, and it’s wrong. Just look carefully at the second verse; “to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability”. The talents are not the abilities. They all have natural abilities, the worthless slave has natural ability, everyone has natural ability. The talents are the Lord’s property, and they are not given to everyone, they are given to his servants. They are not natural abilities, but they are given based on natural abilities.
So, what are these talents? Well the master in this parable expects his servants to make risky investments, but the talents are not for their own use, they don’t even get a broker’s percentage. The talents represent the opportunity to use their natural gifts. We are used to the idea of the lucky break, the notion that someone with natural ability needs the opportunity to put that ability to use and some people for some reason never get that chance. Loads of people have gifts and opportunities; here in the parable the servants get that golden opportunity, the opportunity to work for God’s profit. The first and second slaves make a profit for the Lord because they took risks, and notice that they both get exactly the same words of praise, their natural abilities were different, their level of opportunity was different but they both get told, “Well done good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then at the end they are told, “For to all those who have more will be given, and they will have an abundance.” This is not an arbitrary and unfair financial arrangement; it is simply that the more risks you take in serving the Lord the more opportunities you get to take even more risks. In the words of the Irish proverb, the reward for digging good ditches is a bigger shovel. The lesson in this parable is that when the chance to put your natural abilities to use for God’s sake comes you must take the opportunity.
The third slave is condemned not just for being lazy, he is wicked and lazy. He deliberately ignores his opportunity. Once he’s buried his talent, he gets on doing his own thing. And he knows he’s doing wrong, that’s why he has his speech ready when the master returns. “Master I knew that you were a harsh man…” It’s like a kid’s excuse, “I knew that if I asked for permission to go out you would say no so I just went without asking.” The master turns that argument round, “If you knew that then you should have at least banked it.” There’s no pat on the head; “Never mind at least you tried.” because he didn’t try. That’s his sin, not having less natural ability, not making a bad investment, not even squandering the Lord’s gift to him, it’s not trying that gets him cast into outer darkness.
CS Lewis said, “It may be a hard thing for an egg to become a bird; it is a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while it is still an egg. We are like eggs today, and we must either be hatched or go bad.” The worthless slave refused to take the risk, he refused to take the opportunity to change, to be hatched. We are all given chances to take risks for the lord, to live dangerously, to love dangerously. Jesus’ command is to love one another, CS Lewis again.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Risk your life, risk your love, for God’s sake.