The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
13 November 2011
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Today’s Gospel presents us with a message that is, perhaps, jarring to our ears and antithetical to our sensibilities: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Could Jesus really be telling a story the moral of which states that those who already have lots of money will be rewarded with more and those who do not have much will have what little they do possess taken away? Taken quite literally, this is what the Gospel seems to be saying.
The problem is that this interpretation flies in the face of everything else we hear in the Gospel of Matthew. It certainly is out of step with Matthew’s understanding that the religious authorities of the day will lose power in favour of those tax collectors, harlots, and sinners, among whom Matthew counted himself. It is also very much at odds with what follows in Matthew’s narrative, the account of the Judgement that will be our Gospel lection next week, and in which those who have cared for the least and the lost will be counted amongst the righteous. We must, therefore, work harder to understand what this passage means.
This important work, the search for the meaning of Biblical texts beyond their simplest explanations was something that Thomas Cranmer and the authors of the First Book of Common Prayer of 1549 understood:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Scripture is something that was written for a purpose, to teach us about God’s relationship with human kind, which is nothing other than our faith. Scripture is not something to be taken lightly, but to be considered, to be heard, read, marked, learnt, and inwardly digested. We are called to meditate upon scripture and understand it because in doing so, we come to know ourselves better, we more fully engage our faith, and, ultimately because we may realise that God calls us to something extraordinary, to everlasting life with him.
Today’s Gospel is something that truly challenges us and we are called to hear it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it so that it may give us hope of everlasting life. It is quite clear, then, that there must be much more to the interpretation of the passage than the lesson that the rich are to get richer and the poor poorer. In my desire to inwardly digest this important parable, known generally as the Parable of the Talents, but perhaps better called the Parable of the Money in Trust(1), I turned to the work of the great twentieth-century Biblical scholar C. H. Dodd.
Dodd, a Presbyterian who was the first non-Anglican to hold a chair in theology at Cambridge, suggested that the moral of the story with which I started—“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”—is probably an authentic saying of Jesus, but was originally independent from the parable and appended to it later. Once we have detached the moral from the story of the man and the servants to whom he entrusted his capital, we no longer really know what that thing is of which having “more” is commended. Furthermore, this saying is not exactly illustrative of the narrative that precedes it because the third servant, the one who is castigated for only returning the principal, did not lose the money and at the end had exactly what he has been given in the first place. In its original context, therefore, the independent saying was most likely about “spiritual capacity” or gifts: that those who have more spiritual capacity will see that gift increased and those with little spiritual capacity or depth will find themselves suffering for it.(2)
Apart from its moral, which gives an allegorical and eschatological cast to the story as a whole, the parable of the Money in Trust takes on a different character, a character that has nothing to do with upholding the lot of the “one per-cent,” as we might say today, but rather which speaks in the language of the world of high finance to the way in which we are called to take risks and engage our faith.
The man—who must have been quite wealthy—calls his servants and entrusts to each (according to his ability) a sum of money. We can assume, given the introduction of this notion of “ability,” that the servants were expected to put the money to use and make some sort of profit. When the man returned some time later, at enough of an interval to have expected his capital to have grown, he met with each servant for an accounting.
The first two had “traded” with the money and each had made a one hundred per-cent profit. Both were commended and rewarded. The third, giving the excuse that the man was “a hard man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not winnow” and he was afraid to fail such a man, returned the initial sum, having buried it rather than invested it. The German Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias has pointed out that burying a sum entrusted to you was the safest thing you could do and freed you from liability if the money were to be stolen.(3) It seems clear, therefore, that the third man was taking the safest possible route and doing the minimum required of him. Indeed, this third man seems proud of his actions, complacent that he had been faithful in fulfilling his duty, and that he had not lost the money. In response to his action, however, the third man was jolted out of this complacency and called, "wicked and slothful." This third servant, it turns out, had a fiduciary duty to his master to invest the money he was given. This failure was considered to be both a breach of trust and a squandering of precious resources.
Jesus’s tale, however, is not a lesson in finance. Rather, as in all the parables, Jesus uses this real-life business case-study, a situation drawn from the every-day experience of his listeners, and sheds light upon an aspect of our faith, our relationship with God, and his call to us. Here, Jesus is making a point about the ways in which we are called to use the gifts we have been given. Entrusted with real treasure by God, we are to put those gifts to work and even take some real risk, doing more than the minimum required of us. God gives us these gifts—our talents, skills, and even our treasure—for a purpose greater than simply keeping them safe, for more than simply holding onto them. Christians have always been called to take risks to go beyond simple observation of the law, and indeed this is a theme of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus repeated the formula said, “You have heard it said ..., but now I say unto you,” as a way of teaching that he requires more from his followers than simple observation of the minimum requirements. This is what Jesus seems to be suggesting in the Parable of the Money in Trust: that we are called to use the gifts we have been given, invest those gifts in the midst of life, do more with them than simply hold onto them, even risk them in the service of the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
Now we have better understood the likely original meaning of the story, we now can see how the story as a whole, within its whole scriptural context, meets the ongoing life of the Church. Over the last couple of weeks, we have begun to sense that change is in the air. We have heard several of the parables of the kingdom from Matthew in which we are called to watchfulness as we head towards Advent and await the return of Christ and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God. Today’s parable has been given this cast by Matthew as he shaped it for inclusion in his Gospel by talking about a man returning from his journey and looking to take account of what has happened in his absence. He sharpens this point by appending the moral and other words about judgement at the end. These themes of both judgement and the impending Second Advent buttress this sense of urgency in how we are called to invest our talents in God’s project, cooperate with God as he works to usher in his Kingdom. Indeed, with this focus upon the master’s judgement and reckoning, it becomes clearer and clearer that what we do here, in our Earthly lives, matters. It matters to our fellow human beings and it matters to God. God cares what we do with our gifts, what sort of a return he will receive on his investment in us, for he is investing in his own Kingdom.
We are called therefore, as we read in First Thessalonians, to “put upon the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” We are to prepare ourselves for God in Christ to break into our lives at any moment. We are to “encourage one another and build each other up.” We are to take the risk to invest the talents given to us by God so we, and all creation, may reap the rewards of unity with the God who made us and who loves us, which is nothing less than salvation itself, and to whom, with his only Son Jesus Christ our Lord and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Friday within the Octave of All Saints, 4 November 2011
1. C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribners, 1961), 114
2. Dodd 1961, 115.
3. Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables (New York: Scribners, 1966), 48.
© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume