Posted November 14, 2020
Yr A Ordinary Time, 33rd Sunday
The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30) is sometimes understood as Jesus’ blessing upon capitalism or as encouragement for budding Deborah Meadens. More often it is supposed that the talents in the parable represent natural abilities. Jesus told the parable to provide some staple jargon for head teachers when they come to write their end-of-year reports: ‘Lizzie has a talent for leadership’; ‘Craig has a talent for cricket’. And the lesson of the parable? Lizzie and Craig must develop their God-given natural abilities. (Perhaps the compilers of the Lectionary had something similar in mind when they chose to twin today’s Gospel reading with the famous passage from the Book of Proverbs about the multi-talented housewife.)
But I don’t think Jesus had any of these things in mind on this occasion. The parable is not about Dragons’ Den nor about developing one’s natural abilities; it is about seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And everything we know about Jesus tells us that this opportunity is a spiritual opportunity, having to do not with our money or with our natural abilities but with our capacity for God.
I want to suggest that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that God gives to each of us is, simply, time. You see, we have come to the last Ordinary Sunday of the liturgical year. (There remains only Christ the King, which is a the glorious finale, a Sunday set apart.) The message of today’s reading from St Paul (1 Thessalonians 5: 1-6) is that the end is coming very soon, though it will come when we least expect it. The Lord will come like a thief in the night: so keep sober and stay alert! And as for the Parable of the Talents, if we place it back into the context of St Matthew’s Gospel from which the Lectionary has plucked it, we shall see that St Matthew has prefaced it with a long discourse by Jesus on the end of the world, full of dire warnings about an imminent but unpredictable crisis: ‘The Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ And as a direct lead-up to our parable, we have two other parables that have to do with running out of time when you most need it: the parable of the improvident bridesmaids who ran out of oil for their lamps just when the bridegroom arrived, and the parable of the wicked servant whose master returned unannounced. The message of all these parables, including today’s, is: ‘Stay alert: for you do not know the day or the hour.’
Notice also that St Matthew places our parable immediately before the Last Judgment, when the Son of man will come in his glory, and all the angels with him, and he will sit on his glorious throne to judge the nations ‒ surely not to give a verdict on whether you or I have made good use of our natural talents, but to pronounce on whether our lives are to be a cause for rejoicing through all eternity, or a matter of everlasting regret.
The Parable of the Talents is about a one-off opportunity in the face of an imminent but undisclosed deadline. The master will surely return, but no one knows when. The third servant in today’s parable judged the master to be a hard, relentless man, reaping what he had not sown and harvesting where he had not scattered the seed. But once you come out of the story, it is not the master who is relentless, who reaps where he has not sown and harvests where he has not scattered the seed: it is time. Time is inexorably demanding; it brings inescapable finality; it calls us to account without a moment’s notice. It gives us opportunity, but just as surely it whips it away when we least expected ‒ and then it is gone for ever. We may be left with more or less time, but whatever time is left to us is to be invested now. (The parable stresses that the first two servants went off immediately to make use of what had been entrusted to them.) Time is not something that you can leave unproductive and hope that it will still be there when you need it, or when you have to account for it. The improvident bridesmaids ran out of oil when they needed it most, no one would lend them any and there was no time to buy more; the wicked servant ran out of time the moment his master returned.
Now it is worth reflecting that the opportunities illustrated in today’s parable were not given to the servants at birth, or even at the outset of their adult lives. They were given at an unforeseen point in time, when the master suddenly upped sticks and went off on his travels. That’s when time started running out. What counts in the parable is not what the servants had done, or failed to do, in the past: only what they will do now that they are given this opportunity.
Let’s use the time God has given us to try to become the persons God wants us to be. We have one short life, and then eternity. Think what lasting, substantial good you can do, what life-giving changes you can make, in the countdown between now and the moment when the Master returns and all opportunity is at an end. That is the message of today’s parable. A fantastic opportunity is there, but it comes to an end, never to return: and none of us knows the cut-off point. How tragic to have let it slip, out of negligence or timidity!
It really is now or never. Let’s act now, while we still have time, to invest in the only venture that really matters.
Fr Tom Deidun