Reading Matthew 25: 14-20
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
You might say, roughly, that some of Jesus’ parables are parables of consolation and some are parables of challenge. The Parable of the Talents is a parable of challenge. But more of that in a moment.
I wonder whether you’ve heard of someone called Jack Cohen. I’m sure some of you will have. He has been in the news recently – sort of, anyway.
In 1919 Mr Cohen started selling surplus groceries from a stall in the East End of London. He made a profit of £1 from sales of £4 on his first day. A modest beginning by any standards. But Mr Cohen was ambitious.
In 1924 he bought a shipment of tea from a Mr T. E Stockwell. His initials TES and the first two letters of Mr Cohen’s surname were combined and, hey presto, the name Tesco was born. Tesco continued to expand and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tesco hasn’t been covering itself in glory recently. All that bad news is, indirectly, how I found out about Jack Cohen.
Now, there’s a view that says that a business has to grow or it will die. If Tesco hadn’t expanded, or so this way of thinking goes, it would have gone under – or been swallowed up by some competitor.
That philosophy of business means a relentless pressure to get bigger, certainly if you want bigger and ever bigger financial rewards.
Continual growth may in that sense be good for a business.
So what about that parable of the talents? Jesus seems to be suggesting that in the spiritual life too growth is definitely good and stagnation is, well, not so good.
Now, there’s one misconception that we need to dispel straightaway – and that’s this use of the word talent. It absolutely does not refer to any natural ability or aptitude we may have – like whether we’re good at playing the piano or Scrabble or knitting – which is the modern meaning of the word ‘talent’.
In the ancient world the word ‘talent’, which was originally a measure of weight – like a pound – came in effect to mean a sum of money – like a pound did. In the case of a talent it was a large sum of money. It was actually because of this very parable that in the Christian world the word ‘talent’ began to take on the meaning of a natural ability or aptitude.
The parable itself spawned a change of meaning in the word. And you can see why the word came to have the meaning it does now, but Jesus himself would have had no inkling of that future meaning. The parable goes deeper than merely talking of our abilities.
So, the illustration he uses comes entirely from the world of business. Talents were large sums of money, so it’s a bit like saying that a boss gives someone £5m to invest, to another £2m, to another £1m. That’s big money. Well, it is to me anyway. Jesus is trying to convey how high the stakes are in our spiritual lives.
Now there are some, seemingly at least, pretty weird things in this parable that sometimes trouble the squeamish, so I’ll deal with those first of all, because they can get in the way of the main message.
First of all, don’t be put off the scent because the God-equivalent in the story is portrayed as harsh and cruel. Sometimes Jesus does that. Perhaps it’s a way of telling us not to take God for granted. The point is that it’s not relevant to the essence of the story.
Second, don’t be put off the scent by the man given one talent being thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. That’s picture language for the state of not being connected with God. The man with one talent doesn’t seem to be doing much harm but he has allowed himself to stagnate. It’s as if his inner being therefore has darkened.
Thirdly, Jesus seems to be suggesting that in the spiritual life the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That doesn’t seem very fair. I think Jesus means the stagnation that I mentioned just now. Unless we keep growing spiritually, we wither. Growth begets growth, stagnation begets a withering of the spirit.
And fourthly, something that has worried me is that this boss-figure gives different sums of money to his employees according to their abilities. Abilities do come into this parable in a way! What I think this means is that we all have a God-given ability to connect with God but sometimes this ability is hampered by other factors – our state of health, our upbringing, peer-group pressure, society as large, the unquestioned assumptions of the age in which we live – and our age has got plenty of those.
So degrees of faith vary as well – but we are meant to do what is possible with what we have. An attitude of spiritual adventure is required rather than spiritual timidity.
And the stakes are high. They couldn’t be higher – our relationship with our creator and the creator of all things. Now, a business, if it wants to reap the biggest rewards, needs to expand and grow. And Jesus is suggesting that there’s a similar rule in the spiritual life: if we wish to reap, as it were, the biggest spiritual rewards, which means becoming more and more deeply and firmly connected to the divine, then we need always to be expanding our spiritual capacities.
Of course we shouldn’t push the analogy too far. Jesus isn’t really condoning the ways of big business. Businesses are at heart self-centred organisations. We as spiritual beings are about becoming less self-centred, and more centred in the divine.
But Jesus, as you may have noticed, isn’t always too fussy about the illustrations he uses to get his point across. And his point here is an uncompromising and a challenging one.
In this life at least there’s no end to our journey into heart of God. Either we’re making that journey into the heart of God, or we’re going nowhere. But that’s not the whole story. We always receive more from God than our actions or our limited faith deserve. That’s just how generous God is. All we need to do is to stop stagnating just a tiny fraction, let God in and we’re on our way.