2nd Sunday before Advent

17 November 2017

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Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18; Psalm 90.1-8 [9-11], 13 or 90.1-8; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30

 

Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope, may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

 

THE parable of the talents (Matthew 25.14-30) shares with its immediate predecessor, the parable of the ten bridesmaids, a concern for the coming judgement. Its motifs have much in common with earlier parables. The metaphor of sowing and reaping, the rich yield from an initial investment, and the burial of some of the master’s capital take us back to the complex stories of the sower and the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13.1-43).

These narratives not only convey a message, but set out the method and purpose of the parable form, which brings to light “what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” for those who are properly attentive (Matthew 13.35; Psalm 78.2). In addition, there are resonances of the mini-parables in the same chapter: the mustard seed (Matthew 13.31-32) and the treasure in the field (Matthew 13.44).

The absentee master connects the story to another set of parables: the two sons, and the wicked tenants (Matthew 21.28-46). Finally, the exaggerated fate of the slave who did not invest the master’s talent is a reminder of the guest who came improperly dressed to the wedding banquet, the excluded bridesmaids, and the faithful and unfaithful slaves (Matthew 22.1-14, 24.45-51, 25.1-13).

The point of tracing these associations is to keep in view the Gospel-writer’s insistent and progressive reinforcement of the ideas that are all crammed into Jesus’s final parable. It is not a “stand-alone” discussion of using one’s abilities, and commentators are quick to remind us that “talent” has nothing to do with distinctive gifts.

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The audience is invited to concentrate on the fact that the master has entrusted a great deal to the slaves — even to the one who received only one talent (the equivalent of 15 years’ wages for a labourer).

As in the case of the seed sown in varying soil conditions, the allocations to each of the slaves yield different results. In the hands of the first two slaves, the initial investment doubles. We might read into that an interpretation similar to that of the parable of the sower, in which the good ground allows the seed of the gospel to grow and flourish.

To that might be added the trustworthiness of the faithful steward (Matthew 24.45-46) or the careful preparations of the wise bridesmaids. But the slave who buries his talent is much more interesting as a study than either of his colleagues.

His first action is to set the scene for a barren harvest: he buries the money given to him in the ground, where it will be safe but unfruitful. Even there, however, it does not cease to trouble him. What his fellow-slaves treat as opportunity, he treats as a symbol of fear. It represents only the spectre of an angry master who will want an exact account when he returns from his journey.

When the master does return, things are, in every sense, brought to light. The talent must be dug up, and, instead of presenting a profit, the slave can only verbalise everything that has preyed on his mind in his master’s absence: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (Matthew 25.24-25).

Is Matthew inviting his readers to cast their minds back to another occasion of hiding and discovery? God calls to Adam, who is hiding with Eve in the garden after their disobedience, “Where are you?” Adam replies that he has hidden because he was naked (Genesis 3.8-12).

What happens next shows how the frightened slave has misunderstood the trust placed in him. The talent he secreted is given to the one who doubled five talents, while he himself is consigned to outer darkness.

Brendan Byrne observes that this reveals (even negatively) the master’s original intention. He had never planned to retrieve his wealth with interest. He was giving it to the slaves so that they could make something of it for themselves (Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004).

Judgement is not to be taken lightly; nor is the fear of God an empty figure of speech. Equally, the trust that God places in us in every dimension of life is not to be treated as a form of gambling. But the God who “has not destined us for retribution, but for the full attainment of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” wants us to receive that trust as an opportunity for flourishing.

In judgement, God comes looking for us, longing to find us awake and ready to share this life (1 Thessalonians 5.6-9). The Kingdom Season and Advent call us to think seriously about the responsibilities for which we must give account, but always with hope in the God who is revealed in Christ “to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life” (collect of the day).

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