Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18 | Psalm 90:1–12 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 | Matthew 25:14–30
For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
Once again, we are nearing the end of the Christian Year: the Church’s yearly rhythm of retelling the story of God’s salvation. In two weeks time we’ll begin the season of anticipation in Advent, where we look ahead in hope for the coming of God’s Messiah. In a little less than six weeks time, we’ll be celebrating Christmas: the birth of Jesus Christ, God-with-us, in the flesh. Next will come the season of Epiphany, where God’s great rescue mission through Jesus comes into focus. And then we come to the season of Lent: a time of reflection and repentance… preparing us for the horror and world-changing joy of Holy Week: where Christ suffers and dies on Good Friday for the sins of the world, and is raised again on Easter bringing God’s New Creation to life. 40 days later, we’ll celebrate Christ’s Ascension to the right hand of the Father, and then the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Form there we’ll enter the long season of Ordinary time, where we dig deeper into what it means to be God’s people hear and now. And then the year will end with the feast of Christ the King, where we celebrate the good news that Jesus is Lord of Lords, now and forever.
All year long, the Church retells this story… we’re drawn into it again and again, allowing its message of joy and hope to take root deep within us… to transform the way we see our world, and our own place in it… to help us learn to live each day as God’s own faithful children. Today’s readings, though they may seem dark and troubling, and confusing, have that same good goal in mind: to help us to become children of God’s light.
In our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, we find ourselves confronted with one of the parables of Jesus, commonly known as the Parable of the Talents. On the surface, it seems pretty straightforward, almost like a moral lesson, meant to reinforce a bit of wisdom to help us succeed in life. Something like: “Be diligent; don’t be lazy and waste your talents.” That seems like pretty good advice, and no doubt, we should follow it… but if we follow the parable more closely, that moral message gets a bit messy: “Don’t waste your talents… or… God will… punish you?” Is that what Jesus is saying? “Use your talents well, or else?” How does this message fit in with the Good News of Jesus? With all we know about the story of God’s salvation?
I don’t think it does… but not because there is something wrong with the parable… but with how we often try to read the teachings of Jesus: as if they were simply bits of spiritual wisdom for us to learn from, instead of a part of a wider story He is constantly calling us to share in. This parable, along with the rest of the teachings of Jesus, belongs together with the story of what Jesus Himself has done… bringing about the precious gift of God’s salvation… and confronting all that stands in the way of the Kingdom of God. If we want to understand what this parable is about, we need to keep it close to the rest of God’s story.
Before getting too far ahead though, there’s one word we should talk about first: what does the word ‘talent’ mean in this parable? In English, we use this word to talk about our gifts or abilities: like in the reality TV show “America’s Got Talent”. In the Bible though, a talent had nothing to do with someone’s abilities… a talent was a sum of money. A whole lot of money! Which some claim was “worth roughly what a labourer could earn in 15 years.” We’re talking about serious wealth here, with genuine treasure.
What’s more, in the parable, we’re dealing with someone else’s treasure. The wealthy master hands the money over to the servants, who obviously expect him to return for it one day. This is where the understanding of this parable as simply a lesson in using our abilities really breaks down: Though it’s good to use our abilities and gifts wisely and with purpose, Jesus is talking about something else entirely: not about using well what we have, but being faithful with what we’ve been given. Or better yet, being faithful with the treasure we have been entrusted to manage. This is a message about stewarding the precious treasure of God… and it’s a message directed at those Jesus claimed had dropped the ball.
Where this parable fits into the Gospel of Matthew is important: It’s not found when Jesus is teaching his followers in Galilee, but at the height of His confrontation with the leaders in Jerusalem… where Jesus calls out the unfaithfulness of those charged with guiding God’s people, who were instead fighting against the signs of God’s Kingdom Jesus was bringing about… all while claiming to be God’s true and faithful servants. Christ identifies those religious and political leaders of His people with the wicked servant who had abandoned his responsibility… burying their Master’s treasure, instead of helping it grow. The bishop and scholar NT Wright makes the point like this:
“The scribes and Pharisees had been given the law of Moses. They had been given the Temple, the sign of God’s presence among them. They had been given wonderful promises about how God would bless not only Israel but, through Israel, the whole world. And they had buried them in the ground. They had turned the command to be the light of the world into an encouragement to keep the light for themselves...They had been worthless slaves. And now, when their master was at last coming back, he was going to call them to account.” This parable packs a powerful punch: it is a prophetic indictment of the faithless leaders of God’s people… accusing those who abandoned His holy ways and followed their own, much like the prophet Zephaniah had proclaimed in our first reading, when calling out the complacency and corruption he saw in his day.
At it’s core, this parable is intended as a warning, one which we too must also take to heart. As God’s people today, have we also grown complacent, refusing to believe the Living God is still present and at work? Tired of trying to live as those set apart for His service? Are we comfortable with compromising our commitments to our LORD? Giving our hearts to idols, like security, success, pleasure, and power? Are we, like the unfaithful servant, trapped living in dread, unwilling to move forward at all, out of fear of failure? Are we like those who plotted the death of the Son of God; completely misunderstanding the mind of our Master, and fighting to keep His good kingdom from coming to light?
We too have been entrusted with God’s own precious treasure. Will we bury it in the ground, or will it grow in our hands?
I guess we should ask: What is this treasure? I believe it’s the gift of belonging in God’s kingdom. The treasure of sharing in the holy life and love of the Living God… a treasure meant to bring hope and joy to us and to our world. We know that as God’s people, we’ve often been careless with the gift of being God’s children; abandoning the way of life our Lord has entrusted to the Church.
So how do we handle it faithfully? How do we keep from burying the treasure of God’s Kingdom in the ground? For starters, we can remember the bigger story that we are a part of: the story of God’s salvation come to us in Jesus Christ.
In writing to those early believers in Thessalonica, St. Paul was careful to pass on to them the core of the Christian story: Christ Himself. The conviction that ultimately, we are not left here alone to rescue and fend for ourselves… but to receive and to hold onto the Good News of Jesus Christ… that in Jesus, the Living God has come to take us from the darkness of our sin and into His life-giving light… to bring forgiveness and mercy, instead of condemnation… to reconcile us to God even when we were still sinners… “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep… [alive or dead] we may live with him.”( 1 Thess. 5:9–10). We faithfully handle the treasure of belonging in God’s Good Kingdom by placing our trust, our faith in Jesus, so that God’s story of salvation becomes our story too.
In light of all Christ has done, St. Paul reminds us this means we’re to stop acting as though we belong to the story of darkness anymore… behaving as if the dawn of God’s new day has not arrived. NT Wright puts it well: “God’s new world has broken in upon the sad, sleepy, drunken and deadly old world. That’s the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the spirit— the life of the new world breaking in to the old. And you belong to the new world, not the old one. You are wide awake long before the full sunrise has dawned. Stay awake, then, because this is God’s new reality, and it will shortly dawn upon the whole world.”
So as children of the light, let’s keep awake and be alert… sober, self-controlled, intentional as we follow Jesus, and in Him taking our part in God’s unfolding story; secure in the faith, and love, and hope we are given in the Holy Spirit; looking ahead to the joy of our Lord for all eternity; and seeking ways to bring this blessed life with those around us today. Not burying the treasure of belonging in God’s Kingdom, but sharing it. Amen.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 137.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 138.
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 128.