25th Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, 19 November 2023
Rev Janet Spence, Chaplain
There is no room for fear in love.
The final parables in Matthew’s gospel have a common motif – Be ready! The final judgement is coming; and the condemned will be cast into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or at least it can seem that they share this rather terrifying motif.
It isn’t difficult to read today’s parable of the talents and interpret it as a warning that life is like an exam – how we live will dictate our grade and judgement will follow.
But what if we dig a bit deeper into this parable? Who are the characters? The master – what do we know about him?
We are told he is a ‘harsh man’. He seems exploitative: a man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter. He aggressively seeks to expand his estate and takes whatever he can, however he can, to make a profit for his own gain.
He entrusts vast sums of his money into the hands of his slaves (a talent was the equivalent of 15 years of earnings),he entrusts this and then goes away. For a long time. On his return he judges them according to their success in increasing his wealth whilst he has been away.
And the slaves?
As slaves, they’d have owned nothing, worked always for the benefit of their master, and been subject to his discipline and punishment.
In today’s story the master shares out to each ‘according to their ability’: to the first, and most able slave five talents – 75 years' worth of earnings; to the third one talent, because he is, presumably, the least able.
A commonly preached interpretation of this parable has been that the master represents Jesus, and we are the slaves. The master’s time away is the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection and his coming again.
On his return, Jesus will judge how we have lived, and those found wanting will be condemned as wicked, lazy and worthless and thrown into outer darkness.
Is this the God that you know?
Jerome Nadal, one of the early Jesuits and close friend of their founder, St Ignatius, said that “The Good Spirit is gentle, even in reproach”. The master in this parable shows no hint of gentleness.
Sometimes our image of God can be inconsistent – at times God can seem kind and gentle, and at others harsh and threatening. This is challenging.
So who is your God? Is God unconditionally loving … or not.
When challenged by scriptural texts I find it helpful to focus on the man Jesus, God incarnate, and what we know of him through his life and his actions in the gospels.
Jesus repeatedly offers healing, forgiveness, welcome to those on the margins: to the woman with the haemorrhage; to those with leprosy; to the immoral.
They may have been rejected by society, but Jesus sees every one of them as God’s beloved child and in his response to them and his actions he show them love and respect.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers are all blessed. As we are. Blessed.
And later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs us to not store up treasures on earth, but in heaven, for where our treasure is there is our heart also. That we will be clothed even more finely than the lilies of the field because of God’s gratuitous love for us.
This is the God that I meet in the gospels.
Turning now to today’s Gospel reading and thinking about the third slave. This is surely a man with whom we can empathise, and a man who Jesus would have loved and cared for.
In this parable, he is given responsibility for an astonishing amount of wealth, by his harsh, greedy, and exploitative master. In fear he takes the talent and buries it. The harsh master berates him for the fact that he does not even invest it with bankers - a practice forbidden in Hebrew scripture (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-38).
To me, this master’s willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any interpretation of the parable that would directly correlate him with Jesus, who, through the gospels never acts in such a way as to seek personal gain.
So what truths might this parable hold for us today?
Lack of self-belief can make it hard to believe oneself loved or loveable, and can lead to lives plagued by self-doubt, and self-condemnation.
For those of us who have known a loved one suffer from serious depression, or indeed have suffered ourselves, the parable’s description of a place of outer darkness may be horribly familiar. For the experience of depression might be described as living in a place of deep fear, a place where trust or belief in oneself, and in others has been lost. A place where life is characterised by overwhelming darkness and despair.
The third slave is a man filled with fear of his harsh master, because of which he understandably buries the talent, to keep it safe until the master’s return. And so, through the long-time of the master’s absence he remains poor, and unable to trust himself or others.
This story illustrates a horrible truth, visible in our own society and around the world, that to those who have more is given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have is taken away.
This parable is complex and challenging, but holds truths, about the reality of what life can be for those who do not know themselves loved.
Every one of us is a child of God and God’s desire for each of us is that we are able to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
Every one of us carries an inner light of God’s love. By letting our own light shine we implicitly invite other people around us to do the same; in being liberated from our own fear, the beauty of God’s grace is that our presence in the world liberates others.
We can see this in the beautiful generous way that a baby’s smile – God's light shining out from within them – draws out a joy, a light, a smile from those on whom that baby’s smiling light of God shines.
Every person is a beloved child of God. Our Epistle reading today speaks to this shared inheritance - called to be children of light; to let our light shine, and to recognise the light of God in every person, those we love, and those we find hard to love, in every person that we meet.
‘There is no room for fear in love’