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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28A)
November 19, 2023

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
1 Thessalonians 5:1-10
Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29

I have been thinking a lot about how we read scripture. The last hundred fifty years have brought us both the literary critical approach to studying the Bible, as well as Biblical fundamentalism. We Anglicans – along with Roman Catholics and most mainline Protestants – have been taught that we must read the Bible critically. We believe that the Bible does relate stories from history, but that the lens through which these historical events are reported is from the perspective of the immanent activity of the transcendent God of Israel. Other civilizations report these same events from their perspective, whether on a Sumerian tablet, in Assyrian epic, in the histories of Josephus or Tacitus, or as an annoying problem described in a letter by Pliny.

We have also been taught that the Biblical writings are relevant, important for us today. Scripture is a place to turn for eternal wisdom, help with ethical decision making, and, I think, most importantly as a perspective from which we can make meaning of our lives, lives still lived in immanent relationship with that transcendent God. The four narratives of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the narratives of the Paschal Mystery that lies at the heart of our understanding of who God is and how that God is calling us deeper and deeper into relationship, each differ, one from the other in content and style. Each has its own perspective on Jesus’ intervention into history, but all within a century of the events the texts describe. Understanding all this may seem daunting, but it is essential so we do not fall into facile traps. It is all too easy to take our texts at face value and apply them directly to our immediate situation, as if everything in the Bible has a direct correlation with the problems in our lives. We do this by allegorising, making one-to-one substitutions for the characters in stories like the parables. We do this by universalising a lesson or a saying intended for a particular moment and problem. The “render unto Caesar” episode is a perfect example. Jesus is specifically talking about the relationship between the Judeans and Romans (and trying to get himself out of a tight spot with the Pharisees), and people go off and make up whole theologies about church-state relations that bolster their personal view of economics. Again, I spoke a couple of weeks ago about the ease with which we can fall into ahistorical, antisemitic interpretations of the passages we have been reading from Matthew’s gospel, unless we understand that this gospel emerges from a very specific moment in the history of Judaism, when Christianity was becoming a distinct religion and Matthew was keen to emphasise the difference between these two groups, groups that would have seemed indistinguishable to a Roman official like Pliny.

Today’s gospel story, the parable of the talents, can lead us into both of these traps. In the first place, the word “talent” complicates our reading, given how laden one meaning of the word has become. How easy is it to say that the story teaches us not to waste the talents we have been given, with which we have been endowed? It is very easy. Talent here, however, is a transliteration of the Greek word found right in the text. It is not an analogous word chosen by a translator. As perhaps you have heard in many a sermon, a talent is a vast sum of money, fifteen years wages for a labourer. It is, actually, a form of money of account – that is to say a figural amount of money, too large to be contained in the weight of a single coin. It would be as if someone transferred five million dollars into your account at Morgan Stanley.

Talent is a term used in this way from antiquity by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. And the word continued to be used in this way in middle- and early modern- English into the fifteenth century, which is around the time that the word acquired that other, now common sense, of a special personal natural ability, or, to use financial words, endowment or gift. (1) You can see how this might have happened linguistically. Here, however, it is simply a very large sum of money made available to these three people to invest. We can infer that the money was to be put to work from the text telling us that the monies were given, “to each according to his ability. ” His ability to what? To make money.

You can not be blamed, however, for still wanting to make the natural inference and generalise. Yet, in this part of the Gospel that leads up to Jesus’ arrest, death, and resurrection, Jesus has been talking very specifically about the time of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus has talked about the coming troubles, about a time when there will be erected a “desolating sacrilege” in the midst of the temple, as there was in the time of Antiochus and the Maccabees. He has been talking about a time when everything will change, when the Lord will come, about how the master’s servant must be ready when that moment comes, how the maidens must be prepared for when the bridegroom will return. Jesus has been talking about how the son of Man will come, that this is not merely one like King David, but how this son of Man will be the very son of God. Jesus is also talking about how this will happen at an unexpected time, at an unexpected hour, and that everyone must be ready for the rising of the Kingdom of God.

Matthew relates these stories to his community in a specific way that addresses the question of when this awaited hour will happen, that it has not already come as some had foretold, but that it will come and at a time when no one expects. This situation demands not only watchfulness, but the need to conform our actions with the expectations of the Kingdom in the here and now so that when the time comes, we will be ready.

It is in this context that we must understand the parable of the talents. God has indeed left his people with a vast and valuable legacy, the legacy of Israel and the new legacy of Jesus’ coming. The people have been left this legacy, each according to their ability. We do not know when we will be called to account, but the master will return and seek a reckoning. What will happen when he does return? The legacy, the treasure of Israel and of Jesus must be put to work to make something new, not simply buried. In this way, Matthew is making a critique of his Jewish opponents who have buried their treasure in order to preserve it. This is how Matthew saw rabbinic Judaism. In the aftermath of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, Matthew argues that out of that rich legacy something new must come and that new thing is in Christ Jesus. This is how and where Matthew’s readers located themselves in the story. (2)

This means that we can not, and must not, extrapolate and understand Christians’ relationship with Jews today through this lens. Matthew was particularly interested in distinguishing his community from that of rabbinic Judaism, highlighting his arguments with these successors of the Pharisees (and I do not mean that judgementally). This interpretation, highlighting the superiority of making something new with the treasure of the legacy of the Temple and Jesus Christ, probably describes exactly what the rabbis thought they were doing. It is a matter of perspective. From which side you are looking. A couple of weeks ago I spent a whole sermon, which you can read on the website, discussing the problem, especially in this moment, of Christian antisemitism, so I won’t belabour the point here.

At the same time, we must also bear in mind that this specific context is why we also can not generalise either about our own finances and make up a theology of investment capitalism, or simply take away the general fuzzy, feel-good lesson that we should not waste the talents with which we have been endowed by God. Perhaps we need a theology of investment capitalism and we certainly should not waste our ... well, talents. Here, however, in these weeks leading up to Advent, that period of watching and waiting for the incarnation of Our Lord, not only to revisit his nativity at Bethlehem, but to anticipate that fulfilment of the promise of the Kingdom of God, we must look deeper and think about – and take all of Advent, it will be worth it – think about what kind of behaviour is demanded of us in this middle season between Jesus’ Ascension and the gift of the spirit at Pentecost and the coming of the Kingdom at a day and hour we do not yet know.

We have learnt today that when the master came, those servants had to make account of themselves and their actions. Next week, when we will mark the last Sunday after Pentecost, we will hear the very next passage from Matthew’s gospel that follows the parable of the talents. There we will learn what this accounting will look like for the followers of Christ, how it will look for us. We learn that in these days, while we still have time, we must love our God and that the way that we do this is by loving our neighbour. What account will we make when that day comes? Luckily we still have time, and we can focus our Advent prayers on this question and we can focus on acting while we still live and breathe.

Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, 18 November 2023

1. OED, XI, “Talent.”

2. Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew Sacra Paigna Series, 1, 1991 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 355.

© 2023 Andrew Charles Blume