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What would you do with £3million? (or $4m or €3.4m)

November 19, 2017

Matthew 25: 14-30                Sunday of Week 33 (19 November 2017)

The Parable of the Talents

Next week is the last ordinary Sunday before we start Advent – the season we Christians prepare for the Coming of Jesus, not only the ‘First Coming’ at Christmas but, just as importantly, the ‘Second Coming’ when Jesus will return at the end of time. I don’t know whether you have noticed, but Holy Mother Church is already preparing us for the end of time by selecting three readings – last week, this week and next week – which are all taken from Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel. The reading of these final three weeks before Advent all share a common theme: the end of time, the Second Coming, and Judgment.

Last week we heard about the ten young women waiting for the bridegroom to come, and only five of them were wise enough, when he eventually came, to have made sure they had enough oil in their lamps in case he came unexpectedly. The moral of the story is that the end, when it comes, will not be expected. This message is rammed home today when Saint Paul repeats it: “The Day of the Lord is going to come like a thief in the night.” A thief in the night – thieves definitely operate quietly, and they love it when their victim is not expecting them.

Next week we’ll hear what happens when, on the Day of Judgment, Christ the King asks for an account of how, during their lives, individuals treated the less fortunate when they came across them. Did they recognise Christ in the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the sick or the imprisoned?

And this week we hear Jesus telling the Parable of the Talents. Each person is given responsibilities, according to what they are capable of achieving. When the Master eventually returns after being away for a long time, he ask individuals how they have used the resources they were given by their Master. It seems that servants are expected to be bold, to trust in their abilities to work at being faithful servants. Playing things safe, keeping your head down is not an acceptable excuse when the Master returns in judgment.

Why did Matthew include this parable and write it up the way he did? Probably because many of that first generation of Christians were facing a crisis of faith when he was writing his book. What was it that was worrying them? Well, they had been given to understand that Jesus’ Second Coming would be within their lifetimes. The problem was that by the time Matthew was writing his gospel, Jesus’ original disciples were dying, and there had still been no Second Coming. That was not what they had been expecting. So they needed reassurance. And in this parable Matthew is answering their concerns.

Those early Christians hearing this parable would have immediately realised that the Master going on a long journey was a reference to Jesus ascending to heaven. The servants in the story represent the Christians still alive on earth, working to build up the Church. When the Master returns – and note that it says he came back again ‘after a long time’ – this represents the eagerly-awaited Second Coming. And when the Master calls his servants to account, this represents the Jesus returning on the Day of Judgment.

It’s also helpful to know what they would have understood by the word ‘talent’, because modern English means something completely different. A talent was originally a Hebrew unit of weight, defined as the weight in silver shekel coins that a man could carry.[1] At the time of Jesus that weight was reckoned to be about 6,000 shekels. A shekel was one day’s wages. So, in our terms, one talent was worth £600,000. Does that surprise you

So that first man, given 5 talents, was given something like £3 million! That put a completely different light on it doesn’t it! The second man was given well over £1 million! Even the man who was given ‘only’ one talent would have had £600,000. Wow!

Matthew’s readers would also have recognised that the Master’s generosity is about how generous God to those who believe in Him. And like the Master, God is showing tremendous trust in His servants on earth – they would understand, like the three men in the parable, that they are free to use their initiative in their efforts to build up the Church – they are free to make their decisions according to their own experience and circumstances, on the understanding that what they do should be a worthy effort, not some half-hearted, lukewarm, ‘don’t blame me for failing’ type of attitude. They are being told that Christians should be bold in their faith, trusting in guidance from the Holy Spirit, working enthusiastically to build up God’s Kingdom on Earth, by worshipping God, serving other people, and telling people about the Good News.

The original language of the story, Greek, supports this idea. It isn’t obvious in English, but we are told that the man given five talents “promptly went and traded with them”. Promptly, immediately, straightaway (eutheos) gives the idea of enthusiasm, a desire to do something positive, to seize the opportunity. And how did this man double his money? We are told he “went and traded” with the money he had been given. The word translated from the Greek as ‘traded’ (‘ekerdesen’) has already been used by Matthew in Chapter 18 (v.15) when describing how a sinful Christian can be ‘won back’ to the Faith. So reading the parable in its original Greek reinforces this idea that the story is referring to committed Christians working enthusiastically to build up the Church.

Compare that with the man given one talent. He simply buries it in a field. That actually was the way people protected their money in those days – there were no banks vaults. The interesting thing is that were someone to hide money like this, if it went missing, under the rabbinical law they would not liable for its loss. So this man was completely unenthusiastic, and by burying the money he has deliberately avoided all personal responsibility. He was given a considerable fortune, £600,000, but achieved nothing. He didn’t seize the opportunity he had been given; he just wasted his chances. He was ultra-cautious, and didn’t want to risk being blamed.

What does the Parable of the Talents tell us Christians? First, it tells us that God is tremendously generous, and we must not be complacent with what He has given to us. We must be enthusiastic and bold in the way we live out our Faith, otherwise it becomes just useless, empty words. We learn that as Christians we will be held to account for what we have done in this life. Did we fearlessly and enthusiastically work to build up God’s Kingdom on Earth? Did we follow our Lord’s teachings about standing up for the poor, opposing injustice and spreading the Good News? Or do we play it safe, keeping our heads down, trying to avoid doing the right thing for the sake of a quiet life?

[1] 2 Kings 5:23

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