My sermon for the 33th Sunday of the Ordinary Time at St Philips, Brisbane

We are coming to the end of this liturgical year and it is almost time to say goodbye to Matthew. Before we start our next liturgical journey with Mark, Matthew, whose gospel we have been reading throughout the past year, is leaving us with three great parables which help us understand what the kingdom of God is. Last week we heard the parable of the ten bridesmaids, five are prepared even for a delay, five are not. That parable taught us to always be ready, to be prepared even for a long wait for the kingdom of God. Next Sunday we’ll be celebrating Christ as the King of the universe by reading the parable of the final judgement which will tell us how we can enter the kingdom of God while the Sunday after that we will begin the Advent with the Gospel according to Mark. This Sunday we have the famous parable of the talents. I personally believe that the parable we have just heard is one of the most famous in the whole Gospel. I think even people who very rarely go to church know about this parable.

 

I don’t mean now to disappoint any followers amongst you of the prosperity Gospel, but I don’t think this parable’s meaning is a praise of the ability of making money and becoming rich, although, as you have probably heard, the word talent originally did mean a large sum of money, almost a treasure: I did some research and I found out that it is equal to the wages of a day laborer for fifteen years. In modern languages the term refers to God-given abilities “gifts, graces or skills.” But after reading the Gospel over and over again, I was not so sure that talents here stand for any specific qualities or skills that we may have and we need to develop. In my view, this would be a very limited and superficial interpretation of this parable and does not fit well with the other readings of the day. When we read Paul in 1 Th 4:13 – 5:11, we are prompted to think about the end of the times, the last things and God’s judgment.
Paul’s verses are full with apocalyptic imagery, that suggests an imminent end and final days: The proverbial “thief in the night”, the children of light and so on. Yet, Paul’s apocalyptic vision inspired hope, gave comfort, and provided challenge to the socially alienated persons of his days.
With an eye towards the future and yet with a challenge for community solidarity in the present circumstances. Paul’s apocalyptic vision reads the present reality in the light of the future expectation. And I think Matthew too wants us to think about the ultimate purpose of our life.
So, like I said I don’t think talents here mean skills or abilities that we need to use and develop. after all, the gospel says that the master gave these talents to each servant, according to his ability. So Matthew already acknowledges that the servants have different skills and abilities Some people have said that talents here might stand for gifts of another nature, maybe of a spiritual kind, maybe faith, maybe the grace from God. What if the word talent, instead of meaning this or that skill or gift, actually means THE gift we all have received, that is, life itself and what we make of it.

 

Maybe we are confused by the fact that the three servants receive different amounts of money. We might even think that the master hasn’t been fair and we might feel sorry for the servant who got only one talent. But the different quantities simply reveal that each gift is in fact a personal gift, that we all have received a life to live which no-one else can live for us. Luke in chapter 19 also tells us of a similar story in the parable of the kings and the ten servants where they all receive the same amount. In Matthew the gifts are different but again, the source is one and the aim is the same for everyone: so that we may have life, and have it to the full. And that is what the first two servants did and they receive more responsibility because they proved to be trustworthy and even access to their Master’s joy. But what about the third servant? After all, he wasn’t dishonest, just maybe a little too cautious. However, his talent was taken off him and given to the one who had already ten!
It is tipical of Matthew to use strong language. This might take people who hear his stories by surprise and sometimes leave them puzzled. But the strong language is due to the importance of the subject. Matthew seems to tell us: it is your life we are talking about here. So our focus should be on the explanation that the third servant gave to his master and not on the different gifts: it can help s to reflect on our relationship with God, our own understanding of God and the way we live our lives. He said to his master, I know you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.
The point here is that in saying this, he is passing a judgment on God, he has got an image of God that comes from his own assumptions and projections: “ I was afraid, you are a harsh man” he says “ I hid your talent in the ground. So Matthew is telling us, look what he has done: the fear of the Lord, has prevented him from living his own life and in fact he wasted it. By Burying his only talent he buried his own life instead of living it. So this negative image of God has determined the way he lived his own life: in the same gospel of Matthew we read about the parable of the hidden treasure: Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.”
— Matthew 13:44
Here the joy of the discovery of the treasure prompted the man to sell everything, to re-position his life around than field, because the experience of finding the treasure is the experience of the love of God, so great and overwhelming that he thought I don’t need anything else now. . In today’s parable the servant is unable to do anything with the gift because he did not understand it and Matthew is telling us that is unacceptable. His master had expressed confidence in him, but he thought that his master was a harsh man. Generations and generations of Christians grew up with this idea of a rigid and judgmental God and I can still find people who think like that even among young people. But if we think of God as judgmental, hard, rigid, we will behave the same way. For some people It doesn’t matter that the God reveal to us by Christ is completely different from that image: this servant, like many of us, thought that it was better to preserve his own safety and security rather than running the risk of losing the money and angering his master. Therefore he trusted himself, his own projections onto God more than God himself. But can we play it safe all the time? Life demands risk: there is a risk of losing, yes, but also opportunity to do something great and beautiful; when we love, for instance, we take a risk, we are vulnerable, we expose our weaknesses, we suffer but we can also live an incredible joy: and God wants us to live exactly that and experience happiness, to live out our own uniqueness and humanity without being paralyzed by fears or false images of God. God has really given us something extremely precious because he trusts us and wants to make us part of his project. If we do not respond with the same trust to his calling, if we do not dare to live and love to the fullest, we run the risk of missing out the purpose of our life entirely.

 

We, as disciples of Christ, are called to achieve great things, to be the light of the world but sometimes we fail to realize that and we settle for much less. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, appeared to have the same concern for widening our outlook when he wrote to the participants in a European Meeting in Geneva: “To have faith is to be willing to live so as to show that God is alive. And that means to live in ways which show that there are more possibilities than the world recognizes.” In times when we often experience the absence of God rather than his presence, it is imperative that we use the time we have to make the most of our life by working towards the common good, because the Christian life is never individualistic: its source and its purpose is to establish a communion of love with God and with one another. And today’s liturgy gives us an example of such a life if we look at the woman from the book of Proverbs. Yes, the Bible sometimes is very misogynistic which is due to the culture in which those books were written certainly not from the inspiration of God but this reading is a beautiful praise of a woman for being active, trustworthy, responsible, generous and compassionate. She also fears the Lord but this time it is not a paralyzing fear, but it is in fact “faithfulness”, devotion, love to God, that leads to action and involvement that bear fruits.
The gospel, after all, is full of a simple theology: the theology of the seed, of the yeast, of the fruits. It is up to us to be patient and intelligent co-worker in order to bring God’s creation to completion.
These last three parables invite us to evaluate our life with honesty and they contain a sense of urgency too: Matthew uses a harsh language sometimes because our human life is way too important to be wasted away: Instead of staying stuck in our fears, Christ wants us to grow in courage, love and joy certainly not in fear. In the Bible we often hear the words “don’t be afraid!” Although sometimes we have the impression that God has deserted us, we are reminded by Christ himself in the last few words of the Gospel of Matthew that “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Let us pray that we might use the gift of our life as God intended it to be and might be free from fear and darkness to be the children of light we are meant to be.

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