Zephaniah 1.7,12-18 Matthew 25.14-30
‘For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ (Matt. 25. 29)
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I find that line, from today’s gospel reading, more than a little chilling. Presented in isolation it surely offers a sentiment which can disturb anyone inclined to present a supple, socially tender picture of Christianity. It is a line which insists that those who have nothing will have even that taken from them. They will be cast out where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. It chills me because it takes me back to the years I lived among materially poor communities in both the Caribbean and in Greater Manchester, among people seeking dignity in the midst of immense human need. In a world of haves and have nots, are the have nots to lose even what little they have?
Of course, one might argue that when properly contextualised within Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Talents, this line becomes significantly less troubling. We’ve probably all warmed to highly spiritualised versions of the parable; how quickly we parse its details into an allegorical challenge to make the best of what we are given. We say, it is a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the parable’s ‘master’ becomes a stand-in for God. The slaves become versions of us. To each of us is given a measure of ‘talent’ and we are charged with bringing new things and good things and bigger things out of our respective measure of talent. And, as we see as the parable unfolds, those who dare to speculate on their talents – who invest them, if you will – are the ones who are blessed and praised by God. The one who – in fear of his master – buries the single talent he has been given is chastised and punished. He becomes a symbol of everyone who does not use what has been given him. He becomes the outcast from the Kingdom.
I do not necessarily want to monster that ‘school assembly’ reading. There is power in the picture of us as stewards of great gifts who are called to make a response to the abundance which has been lavished on us. Surely, if we are to be people of the Kingdom at all, we are to be people who make lavish response to the glory of God’s gift.
However, I am alert to how this parable resonates during a time of pandemic, of political and climate crisis and profound loss and grief. I am minded that the very notion of a parable has connotations of ‘throwing aside’, that is, of juxtaposition; that parables are not allegories. I am minded that the word ‘talent’ would have been heard very differently by Jesus’ early audiences. A talent represented, accorded to some authorities, the equivalent of fifteen year’s wages for a day labourer. It is a titanic sum, that might lead many in our present age to panic, should they be presented with it. I think it risky to too readily spiritualise this very real picture of talent as money. Money is public, and potent and generates intense human responses. The master-figures who possess vast pots of wealth are not necessarily seen as benign figures. A first century version of Jeff Bezos is not necessarily to be parsed into God.
Equally, I am alert to the fact that while Matthew often provides a gloss which invites the hearer and reader to interpret a parable in one way rather than another, the best parables invite us to make our own response. It is in that spirit that I want to open the field of this parable.
Perhaps one of the things which has been foregrounded during this season of pandemic is how rapidly inequalities can be further widened or exposed by crisis. I am the chair of a Manchester-based food bank and I suspect it won’t surprise you that use of its services expanded exponentially during the initial lockdown. We expect continued high-use this winter.
Equally, it has been clear that the effects of covid have impacted communities unequally. While research is ongoing into why people from global-majority communities have seen much higher incidents of death than white British ones, it is clearly the case that loss has not impacted rich and poor, male, female and non-binary, young and old, north and south, or white and black equally. Loss has changed so many lives across the nation, but not in such a way that it is clear that we are all equally in this situation together.
How does God speak into this unequal reality of loss and cost? Can we say that God blesses some with abundance and condemns others to a life of misery? Are we to say, when presented with an earthed, and material reading of the Parable of the Talents, that the Kingdom is most revealed in those who generate the largest material profits for a master we should not necessarily immediately identify with God?
The God in whom I trust is revealed in Jesus Christ. As I see it, this God does not permit or encourage such ruthlessness. Part of the power of believing in a God who comes to us as Jesus, as a human like us except without sin, is what it reveals about how we are called to live in a world where loss and suffering lie around every corner. When Jesus does not spare himself but gives himself in obedience to a path which leads to death on the cross, he surely reveals that the Christian life is a life shaped by self-giving and self-offering.
More than that. As the prophet Zephaniah suggests, how we live in the world tells us powerful things about how we live in God. In his vision of God’s judgment on the Kingdom of Judah, Zephaniah says, At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps/and punish those who are complacent,/who are like wine left on its dregs,/who think, ‘The Lord will do nothing,/either good or bad. The work of love to which we are called is not the work of being nice or complacent.
When we face times of trial, such as those we currently face, it is tempting to pull up the drawbridge and become self-centred and self-interested. It is an understandable human instinct. Crisis can knock out our confidence in the call to be open, cherishing and community-focussed. However, the path of selfishness is not the path of God.
If all we have is gift from God, which exceeds even the most abundant but conditional largesse of a human master like Bezos or a Bill Gates, what then? What is the invitation which God makes? At its simplest and most direct, the theological superabundance of God is an invitation to be prepared to give away all that we think is ours. This is abundance that is always in the midst of limit, sometimes the most severe limit, where to live in the gift is unavoidably costly, but holds within itself the possibility of joy. Such a way of living may take all we have. We may be asked to give it all away, and more, so that we yet receive an abundance of life unexpectedly in return.
Over many years of work among materially-poor communities, I’ve discovered that ‘abundance’ has more than one meaning. It has to be said that I’ve rarely witnessed as much generosity as I have than when in the company of those who have – in financial terms – very little. Jesus says, ‘for to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ Perhaps it is time we examined again for ourselves, whether this world’s idea of ‘abundance’ matches God’s idea of abundance and see if we can get on board with what God is up to.