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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Buried Treasure: the Parable of the Talents

Here in Keswick, you tend to look up at Skiddaw or across Derwentwater, or around at this little town with its church, market hall and shops and the crowds that surge through the streets in summer. But if you go to the stone circle at Castlerigg, you might think about looking down. This place five thousand years old guards its secrets. Famously you can’t even count the stones: every try gives a different answer. The big mystery is what it was for.  And as you stand on that ancient site, you wonder what lies beneath your feet. What might be buried there, if not a hoard, then witnesses, memories of a world that’s lost to us? You look down, but the grass looks innocently back up at you and yields no clue.

Somewhere, once upon a time, said Jesus, if you had stood in a particular field and looked down and started digging, you would have found buried treasure. A silver talent worth a labourer’s twenty years’ work, a six-figure sum in our money. It’s only a story. But it’s vividly told, this rapacious master who goes away and entrusts his fortune to his slaves so that he can profit from them. Two of them invest their talents profitably and are praised. The third, risk averse or maybe lacking the requisite business skills - or perhaps to get back at his cruel master? – does nothing. He buries his talent, not even playing safe by depositing it in an interest-bearing bank account. I say “only a story”, but the outcome is meant to shock. “As for this worthless fellow, throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” No happy endings there.

I’ve heard sermons without number on this parable that link it to Christian stewardship and time, talents and money. But I’ve never been convinced that the weeping and gnashing of teeth can have much to do with the average Church of England congregation. 

No, the story is about more portentous things. The setting in St Matthew gives the clue. Chapter 25 is the last before we come to the account of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Our parable is one of three about the end time and the crisis is coming upon the world. Jesus has already spoken about “the day and the hour” that no-one knows but God himself, what we call the parousia or the appearing of the Son of Man in his glory. These three parables draw out the significance of this belief that’s so central to the synoptic gospels. The one before is about the wise and foolish virgins: were they ready for the bridegroom to arrive or not? Hard on the heels of the talents follow the sheep and the goats standing before the Son of Man at the final reckoning. How have they lived their lives? How have they served the Lord who is present in his brothers and sisters? Sobering stories to bring the Year of St Matthew to an end and usher in Advent. 

Now I don’t think Jesus intends us to imagine that God is like that master who deals so capriciously with his slaves. See it as a kind of satire or morality play. The fact that he focuses on such fabulous sums of money is meant to tell us that we are in storyland where normal rules don’t apply and everything is exaggerated for effect. But underneath the playfulness is a deeply serious insight. It is that the decisions we make about the way we live are of much more than momentary significance. Like all the parables, this one drives home a challenge, tells us that our decisions have consequences that determine our destinies. I don’t mean that Jesus is thinking about the afterlife. Rather, those references to eternity are a way of focusing attention on the choices we make here and now. And these choices are life-changing in their outcomes. They imprint themselves on our characters. They control our attitudes and motives. They shape our moral and ethical behaviour. They ask us how purposeful we are in pursuing the truth by which we are going to live and die.

So what do we make of the third slave who did nothing with his talent but buried it? The clue is to look at Jesus’ audience in these last days before his passion. He has already entered the temple, thrown out the money-changers and roundly condemned the religious leadership of his times, among them the scribes and pharisees. What’s his criticism? That they did not read the signs of the times, did not see the kingdom of heaven coming, did not point people towards the salvation that they longed for. Instead they laid burdens on them impossible to bear, drove them into the ground by the sheer weight of obligation, took away their hope. It was a religion that demanded everything but gave nothing – at least, that’s how it’s depicted in the gospels. So I think the parable is primarily about what religious leaders do with the treasure they have been entrusted with. They can put it to use in the world to grow the kingdom’s values of truth, justice, goodness, peace and love. Or they can bury it where it does no work, makes no difference, and changes no lives.

But this is also true for each of us, whoever we are. The talent stands for everything that a wise and loving Master has entrusted to us as the people of God. It’s the most precious treasure we have. It can stay buried, like the bad slave’s money, squirrelled away in the dark like the lamp in the sermon on the mount hidden under the bushel and all but snuffed out; like the seed in the parable of the sower suffocated by the weeds that grew up all round it. Or we can invest in this work God wants to do in us and through us. We can release it, expose it to the clear light of day and help it to flourish so that it becomes something renewing and life-changing and profound.

If this is right, it faces us with important truths about ourselves. What does it mean to be a Christian? What do we do with God’s treasure that he has entrusted to us in baptism? How do we become good witnesses to the One who is present among us and whom the nations long for, this God who is so often hidden from sight? Advent is the right time to put ourselves among the audience and listen as Jesus tells these powerful and urgent parables. For the Lord’s coming changes things and will changes us if we want it to. 

Soon we shall sing Come, thou long-expected Jesus born to set thy people free. Born to reign in us forever, he is the most welcome of guests. When he comes, we shall not hide him away where he cannot be seen or touched, where he remains as one unknown. He will teach us what it means to give our lives to him so that we can testify of him to others. We shall greet him gladly, and bless when we hear him say, “enter into the joy of your Lord”. 

St John’s Keswick, 19 November 2017 (Matthew 25.14-30)

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