St Bride's: Sermons

Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25: 14-30

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14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

15 And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.

17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.

18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money.

19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.

20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.

21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

22 He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.

23 His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

24 Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

25 And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.

26 His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

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A very long time ago, in the days when I was a graduate student in Cambridge, I used to attend Great St Mary's, the University Church.  And one Sunday evening during my time there, the guest preacher was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.

I can remember very little about the sermon he preached on that occasion, but one remark that he made has stayed with me.  Today, in this era of gender equality and inclusivity he would never have got away with expressing the thought in quite the way that he did then, but nevertheless I do recognise what it was that he was trying to say.  Because at one point in his sermon he addressed the young chaps present in the congregation: 'A word of advice', he said to them.  'By all means tell your girlfriend that you love her.  But you should always be very wary of attempting to tell her why.'

His point being that our attempts to describe our feelings of love adequately - and even more our attempts to account for them - are likely to be doomed to failure.  Indeed, our very best efforts at doing so will probably not only sound banal and trivial, but they may even cause actual offence.

There is a rather wonderful poem on this very theme by Christopher Brennan entitled, 'Because she would ask me why I loved her.'  In the first three verses, the poet warns the woman in his life, who is pressurising him on the subject, of the dangers of attempting to put such an explanation into words.  But it is his closing verse that is most powerful and for me most memorable.  His poem concludes with these words:

Then seek not, sweet, the If and Why.

I love you now until I die;

For I must love because I live

And life in me is what you give.

 

For I must love because I live, and life in me is what you give.

Love is such a powerful and overwhelming emotion - but it is also such a tricky thing to describe; to account for; to pin down.  It is instantly recognisable when we experience it; but it is far, far bigger than any words that we can reach for to try and encapsulate it.

And it goes without saying, of course, that love comes in many different forms.  The love of the young couple we married here yesterday afternoon, is not the same thing as the love that Tara's parents and grandparents feel for Tara; nor the love that members of the London Pembrokeshire Society feel for their Fatherland.  And yet they are not completely unrelated either.

And perhaps the single most distinctive characteristic of love, whichever form it takes, is that love always reaches out beyond itself.  For that reason, a marriage based on real, authentic love will always prove to be far more than simply the sum of the two people within it.

And that is also why the opposite of love, properly understood, is not, as is often assumed, hate.  Love and hate can in fact be surprisingly closely connected: if you really want to see hatred in action, speak to someone whose love has been betrayed: the abandoned child; the deceived wife.  No, it seems to me that there are two possible answer to the question 'What is the opposite of love?', which are far more compelling.  One is indifference - feeling nothing at all.  And the other is fear: whether this is the fear of loss or rejection; the fear of opening oneself up to receive love; or perhaps the fear of losing control.  Fear can be just as multi-faceted as love is.

And fear, of course, like sin (but unlike love) puts self firmly centre stage.  Far from compelling us to look outside ourselves (as love does), the voice of fear prevents us from getting beyond the question, 'but what would happen to me if ...'   As many of you will know by now, my five favourite words in the whole of the New Testament come from the First Epistle of John: they are the words 'Perfect love casts out fear.'  Which brings us, via a slightly circuitous route, to today's gospel reading and the parable of the talents.

A man who is preparing to go away on a journey entrusts his property to his slaves.  The most able of them is given five talents (which, incidentally, was an absolutely vast amount of money.  For those of you who are interested in that kind of thing, the average wage for a labourer in those times was a denarius, and there were six thousand denarii in a talent - so he was entrusted with an amount that was the equivalent of thirty thousand times a labourer's pay).  A second slave is given two talents, and a third is given a single talent.

The owner then returns to find that the first slave has traded with his talents to make five more; the second has taken his two talents and doubled the amount.  Both of them are richly rewarded by the owner, not simply with the promise of still greater responsibilities, but they are also, rather curiously, invited to 'enter into the joy' of their master. (More on that in a moment.)

But it is the third slave, the one entrusted with the smallest amount (in relative terms), who, we discover, has simply buried what was given to him.  And this is what he hands back to the owner, who is furious.  He takes the talent back from the wretched slave and gives it to the first slave - the one who now has ten talents - and Jesus closes the tale with those chilling and perplexing words:

'To those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.'

Jesus really did know how to wind up his listeners, didn't he? - because I am absolutely sure that his original audience will have responded with as much bewilderment and annoyance to such an outrageous statement, as many of us probably did.  But that is because we immediately assume that he is talking about wealth and possessions.  Of course he isn't.  Like the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard which we heard a few Sundays ago, this is not a story about economics - it is a story about the Kingdom of God.

And the point about the third slave in today's parable is the thing that sets him apart from the other two.  Because he is the only one who acts out of fear.  As he himself admits, he buried his talent because he was afraid of his master.  Although entrusted with the smallest amount, he was the one whom fear drove to guard very jealously the lesser amount that he had been given.  To cling on to it.  And it is almost invariably the case that decisions that are taken from fear prove to have been bad decisions.

The Kingdom of God works in the same way that love works.  And love is boundless and infinite in scope; it always reaches out and extends itself.  The first two slaves are not instructed to go out and use their talents to earn more - they simply do it.  They take what they have been given out into the world, they use it, and they watch it increase.  And that is true of people who take love out into the world, and into the lives of those whom they encounter.  What they generate, and what they receive back, is far, far more than they ever give out.

In my parish in Edgbaston I once took the funeral of an elderly lady called Kath Bird.  She was a housewife, a mum and a grandmother.  She liked gardening, and playing bridge, and doing amateur oil paintings; she lived with her husband on a very ordinary house on a very ordinary estate.  And her funeral service was packed - there was standing room only - hundreds and hundreds of people turned up to say farewell to her.  The funeral director was completely taken aback by the size of the turnout and said to me, rather baffled: 'Who was she then?'  To which I gave the only answer possible: 'She was ... Kath - and she was absolutely lovely.'  And I have no doubt that, like the first two slaves in our parable, Kath, too, has now entered 'into the joy of her master'.

Because the Kingdom of God is like that.

Amen

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