33rd of the Year, 15 Nov 2020
“Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen, Robin Hood, Robin Hood with his band of men, feared by the bad, loved by the good,” so went the tune to the 1950s TV series, The Adventures of Robin Hood. I loved all the film versions of Robin Hood as a child, perhaps appealing subconsciously to my love of rebelling and subverting. Robin Hood steals from the rich to give the poor and this is seen as unquestionably the right thing to do. Whether Robin Hood existed or not, He spent the years of King Richard I’s reign taking from those who had much and giving to those who had little.
It couldn’t be further from what Jesus instructs in today’s Gospel of God’s ways and of what His Kingdom looks like. “To everyone who has will be given more, and he or she will have more than enough, but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” It obliterates the way society thinks decent people should be behave and is a reminder that society has constructed a version of goodness and morality which is at odds on occasions with what Jesus expects.
“To everyone who has will be given more.” The substance in question in the parable is a talent. It’s perhaps a bit misleading because the English word talent is quite clearly understood by us: it’s a gift, a quality we possess, a thing we can do, an activity we can perform. However, the word talent in this parable in the New Testament was a huge measure of weight, like a gold nugget. Scholars are not sure what exactly the weight was but we’re talking mega bucks. The servant given ten talents was on a billionaire level of wealth. Even the servant given one would have been secure for the rest of his life on earth. We’re not just talking of a tendency to say the right thing or being good at mental arithmetic.
The talent then is the largest gift God gives to us: His mercy. One of the criticisms Jesus makes of the scribes is that they ignore the weightier matters, focusing rather on insignificant things. One of the weightier matters Jesus identifies in this passage in Matthew 23:23 is mercy. God the Father is ”rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4) and it is chiefly how he shows his almighty power (Collect for the Twenty Sixth Sunday of the Year). The “medicine of mercy“ is how the Church is to reach out to the world (St John XXIII).
For some this is too great. We see this in our lives, those for whom faith is an occasional hobby, those for whom worship is to be done when convenient or safe, those who think God never expects anything of them greater than what they are willing to give. It’s a struggle to realise just how much we have been forgiven because that requires us to recognise our need of an other, indeed to come to the clear understanding that all we have is from God. How awesome is He, the source of our life and the blessings we receive!
Part of the underlying assumption of the parable is that God never gives us more than we can cope with. Pandemics, deaths, exams, relationship failures, work commitments, other people’s expectations can all seem overwhelming but God’s grace is always sufficient. We read in the Gospels Jesus saying, “Is there any among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?” (Luke 11:11) And yet we live our life thinking God does exactly this: giving us something we have not asked for. He gives us all that is needful, all of that which we have asked for that is in accord with His will.
The third servant in the parable is found not to be able to cope with the one talent he had been given. His response to this impressive wealth he receives is to keep it to himself, to hoard it, to hide it, to be lazy and not seek to grow it. The servant might have responded, of course, by saying, “At least I’ve not lost it! It’s not as bad as those others who have thrown it all away.” We so often justify our actions by pointing out others’ failings: be they worse than us or doing the same as us. To know Jesus and not to tell anyone about, to have no visibility to our discipleship is to do God a disservice. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven,” (Matthew 5:16). This is not a Gospel of self-sufficiency.
The context of the Parable Jesus tells is a journey: the land owner goes away abroad. Whenever the first Christian commentators - the Fathers - saw this sort of journey in a parable they thought of the Incarnation: God laying aside His Heavenly Glory, to empty Himself and coming to earth for us. Think also of the Parable of the Good Samaritan where the traveller is journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho: the saints teach us to think of God beaming Man for us. But for this morning’s parable of the man going away and, we are told, returning after “a long time,” the image is not only of the Incarnation, but of Christ’s Ascension. In other words, the period we are living in now: with Jesus our Master having been away for a long time.
We look forward to that time when, as the Creed says, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and His kingdom will have no end.” Then, we will have to give an account of how we will use our talents, yes, but also how we have responded to the gifts more amazingly given. A prayer I used to say a lot as a teenager from the old prayer book included this wonderful line: “We bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and the hope of glory.” It teaches us that we have so much to be thankful for but the most important thing to be thankful for is the salvation won for the world by Jesus. That’s the most important thing: His mercy.
One way we show our awareness of the importance of the mercy shown the world is we share it with others. Jesus tells us to call God “Our Father,” and to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Mercy that is stored up only for ourselves will be taken from us, as in the case of the servant with one talent. Mercy shared will be added to, as with those with the slaves with five or two talents. Forgiveness is about the big bust-ups in families and forgiveness is about the people who rub us up within our Church family. It is also about the person who bumps into us in the supermarket with whom we’re so angry we don’t even really notice who they are, or that they are a person made in the image of God. Forgiveness will be so deeply rooted within us that we have forgiven someone before we have a chance to be angry. It will also teach us to value forgiveness in others: do we have loved ones who will forgive us?
This parable also serves as a warning against envy. The temptation is always to see what others have and to resent it, wanting to take it from them or wishing simply they didn’t have it. Let us remember the tenth commandment: “Do not covet your neighbour’s possessions” (Exodus 20:17). The parable we’ve heard is clear that the Master has the right to have entrusted different levels of gift to the three slaves and to reward them according to how they have looked after them. This must not suffocate aspiration within us: it is right for us to want the children around us to do well and for us to be better than our parents. This aspiration must be about the values of God’s kingdom and not lead us to feel threatened by what we see others possess.
The Parable of the Talents is a chance for us to reflect on the sheer value of the mercy God has shown to us, sinners though we be. We should also be thinking of how Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, can be a time of penitence and fasting and not just an anticipation of a commercially-driven Christmas. What God gives to us and others is part of His divine plan and He will give more to those who are found trustworthy with what they have already received. Let’s be those good stewards and share the mercy of the Lord with those whom we meet.