24th Sunday after Pentecost. 15 November 2020. Dig those talents out of the dirt.
How many of you have won Lotto? I know several people who frequently wax lyrical about all the things they would do with the money they won if they got a Lotto jackpot, but then finish the ruminating with the reflection that all those dreams will only come any closer if they just bought a ticket.
Many people, even those who do buy Lotto tickets, have great dreams about what they might do with a fortune if it was suddenly dropped into their laps. It is a very common piece of human fantasising.
So how much would you need for the change to be really significant, for the amount to make a real difference to your life? $1 million? $5 million? $10 million? Sadly the records which have been revealed of people who have actually been handed huge amounts of money, suddenly, suggest that many of them blow it. Life ends up a lot more complicated and not necessarily a lot better. Strange but true.
In the Gospel reading which we just heard (Matthew 25:14-30) Jesus tells a parable about three people being handed a motza of money. It wasn’t theirs to keep, so it wasn’t like winning the Lotto. But it was a huge amount and a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity to do something extraordinary.
In this version of the parable the three people are handed different amounts of talents. I am sure you have heard enough sermons to know that it was a lot of money. In lots of the stories where Jesus mentions coins the coin which is used is the amount usually paid for one day’s labour. A denarius. One account I read suggested that one talent was the equivalent of twenty years of daily wages.
So, the third guy was handed an amount equal to twenty years of working every day. And that was even before taxes! The second guy was blessed with the equivalent of forty years labour. That would be almost a full working lifetime for many people. The first guy though! Wow! One hundred years’ worth of wages! Based on daily wages that is more than any of us will have earned or will ever earn.
I said ‘in this version’ because a very similar parable appears in Luke’s gospel. In Luke (19:11-27) the multiples are based on the equivalent of 100 days wages, not 20 years. Still a lot but not as dramatic. But here we have this extraordinary amount handed to the three people. The first two traded with the fortune and both doubled what they had been handed. There is no time frame given for the distance between the man leaving and returning. To have such a huge amount to invest is startling. To DOUBLE that amount is mind boggling.
The third person digs a hole and buries the fortune. At least none of it was lost but it just stayed as it was, no change. Looking forward to the end of the story we may be quick to criticise this action, but don’t be so hasty. Many of us know of the amazing discovery in 1945 of pottery urns found in a cave at a place called Qumran, urns which contained priceless treasure in the form of ancient scrolls. Putting those urns and the scrolls into the cave was not that different from putting the talent into the ground. It was what people did to keep things safe. We even had someone who did that recently on the Gold Coast until it was dug up! It was an option instead of taking risks. Put it in the ground!
The commentator I explored asked an essential question about this parable, among many questions to explore its meaning. ‘Who was this parable aimed at?’ Who was the target audience? Over time some people have suggested that it was aimed at the Jewish leaders and was criticising them for the way they had failed to make the best use of the priceless gift of the connection with God entrusted to them. While no-one seriously suggests that Jesus was actually talking about huge sums of money this parable is often used as an allegory at times when parishes have stewardship programs to encourage us to use wisely the money entrusted to us. Both of those ways of using these words of Jesus have some justification. One of the truths about parables is that they never have just ONE meaning.
Snodgrass, the commentator on parables who I consulted (don’t mind his odd name. He is a wise theologian), suggests that the parable is addressed to the group of people listening to Jesus, listening and absorbing his words and perspective on God and on life and of what truly makes life extraordinary. The talents are so extraordinarily valuable to emphasise the extraordinary value of what has been placed in their hands, and ours. Jesus was doing what great storytellers did then and do still. They use extravagant drama to emphasise their point.
The thing of great value was the message. This is paralleled in the parable of the ‘pearl of great price’. Despite what some people in certain places do suggest, becoming a faithful Christian is not a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. At least, not the sort of riches you can put in the bank. As Snodgrass explains “To hear the message of the kingdom is not only a privilege but also a responsibility.” (Stories with Intent, p532).
In the drama of the storytelling the terrible consequences of not taking risks by the third person are also an exaggeration for the purpose of making a point. The deep disappointment from the man in charge reflects the raw emotion Jesus was seeking to instil in his hearers, all the way down to us. How sad it is to see someone who is entrusted with something extraordinary and they waste the gift! It stagnated. If you think money can’t stagnate look at what you could buy with $20 forty years ago and look at what you can buy with the same amount today. But it wasn’t about money. It was never about the money.
This is about faithfulness to the extraordinary gift placed in us, with trust and love and hope.
When you first heard the message about how much you are loved by God, how old were you? When you first realised that the events of the Bible are about how far God goes to show that love for you, where were you in your life? When you first connected the dots about how the value which God sees in you is an extraordinary blessing which opens your eyes to recognise the same value in each person around us, how dramatically did that stop you in your tracks?
The good news, the love and hope and trust that God shows you and calls you, and all of us, to live is a gift far more valuable than 20, 40 or even 100 years of wages.
What have we each done with the gift? Over time, for some reason, has that gift become dusty because it has been buried or hidden?
The invitation of this parable is that we live in the middle times. We are not looking back at a completed story. We are in the middle of it!! The kingdom of God is around us, behind us, and still unfolding and the story is not yet over. It is not too late to dust off the talent, dig it up from its hiding place and let it loose.
None of Jesus’ parables are about condemnation. They are always about invitation and realisation and expressions of hope, charged with drama and extravagant imagery.
So how do we let this parable touch us, stir our hearts, fire us up? Recall that time when you first realised how much God loves you, or if that realisation has not yet smacked you in the face with sheer joy, let it in! Know that you ARE loved, deeply, passionately. Letting that love be the core of your living is what makes life extraordinary and deeply blessed. Recall and refresh and let that bubble up inside you.
Dust off your talent and let it shine.