The Gospel parable for this Sunday has entered our thinking so deeply that it has changed the meaning of a word. In Biblical times ‘talent’ was a unit of currency, distantly connected linguistically with the modern ‘dollar’. It has now come to mean a special aptitude, largely because Matthew’s story has consistently been interpreted to refer to talents in this modern sense. The word ‘talents’ has lost all its monetary associations, and is often interchanged with the word ‘gifts’. Yet this term too has changed, and for the most part lost the theological overtones that it had in former times. Gifts imply a giver, and who is the giver of these 'gifts', if not God? Nowadays, however, people happily refer to special aptitudes such as a talent for music or mathematics, as ‘gifts’, and they even speak of people being ‘blessed’ with such gifts. Yet they do so without thinking of any giver. A gift is a matter of chance, just something we happen to be born with.
In the parable Jesus tells, though, there is a giver -- the man who goes on a journey – and the ‘talents’ he gives his slaves are sums of money. The principal focus of the story is not on the talents, but on those who have been given them. How effectively have they used the resources with which they have been entrusted? On his return, the master is pleased with the first two slaves, but exceedingly angry with the third. But why? He has not squandered or wasted the money. He has simply kept it safe, lest he get into trouble. In modern parlance, the third slave is ‘risk averse’. This would not have cut much ice with Jesus’ hearers. They would have found it much easier to sympathize with the master’s anger than we can. That is because human beings in the 21st century are more ‘risk averse’ than at any other time in history. This is odd, really, because especially in developed countries, we are also wealthier, healthier, more secure and longer-lived than ever before.
So, the most obvious lesson to draw from this parable is a very hard one. Relative to human beings throughout history, in the last seventy years or so we have been given great prosperity and immense resources. And yet we have constructed for ourselves an emphasis on ‘health and safety’, and absorbed it so deeply, that we are far too ‘risk averse’ to venture forth as the great saints and heroes did in times past. The current pandemic illustrates this. It has generated far more widespread fear and anxiety, far greater caution, and far more reliance on political measures, than far worse plagues ever did in the past. What should we make of this?
Since the season of Advent is approaching, the Lectionary has paired the Gospel parable of the talents with an Old Testament lesson from the prophet Zephaniah in which he issues a very stern warning. “The day of the LORD is at hand . . . At that time, says the Lord, I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs . . . Their wealth shall be plundered, and neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them”. Could this apply to us any more directly or more pertinently? Can silver and gold in the form of vast amounts of public spending lead us out of the fear and social fragmentation into which we have sunk?
The Christian Church, if one is honest, has not borne much witness in this time of consternation. Yet if we do look to Jesus, we ought not to be stumbling in the dark. On the contrary, Paul tells the Thessalonians in this week’s Epistle, “You are not in darkness; you are all children of light”. This is not because the Thessalonians have any special knowledge of what the future holds. Rather, it is because by following Christ they have, Paul says, “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation”. It does not require predictive foresight to act in faith, love and hope. But if we are not inspired by these, then, as Zephaniah warns us, we will cut ourselves off from the God who chose a Cross to be the perfect sign of love and hope.
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