How have we reached the second half of November? Last time I looked around it was autumn and the kids were on half term… now we’ve had All Saints/Hallowe’en, All Souls/Remembering a loved one, Remembrance/Armistice plus visits to the church from 300 local school kids- oh, that would be how 3 weeks have passed me by…
Anyway, here we are, and what have we got? Well, if you’re from the US Thanksgiving is coming up next weekend- cool for you guys, have a great celebration. If you’re in the UK we have Black Friday week- yup, that’s what I’ve seen it called, because no one has a clue about Thanksgiving and the only aspect we’ve got is the crazed retail madness. Aaargh! It’s enough to make you avoid shopping (except that the deals are so good, and you need that stuff, whatever it is!).
In church we’re looking at some of the things Jesus said just before his death- nice and cheery I know; but particularly looking at Matthew’s presentation of some teaching he did during the last few days in and around the Temple. Last weekend we were looking at Matthew 25, verses 14-30, known as the Parable of the Talents… here’s what I said-
When we read or hear this passage, it’s very easy to focus on one of two aspects- we either hear the ‘throw that worthless servant out and there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth’ verse, and remember a similar verse in Matthew 22 (which we heard read with such feeling a month back), or else we hear the beginning where Jesus talks about the main distributing talents and think ‘not me’… either way, we can be left thinking that this passage either isn’t for us, or just isn’t that helpful. St Luke obviously felt something similar, because in the version of this parable that he includes in his Gospel the emphasis is quite different.
So how should we read and understand this passage?
Firstly, right at the start Jesus says ‘Again…’ he’s using a second parable to explain something he’s already spoken about… this passage follows on from the story of the 10 bridesmaids, which in turn follows on from Jesus’ teaching on the return of the son of man… When the Son of God returns in glory, this is what the kingdom of heaven will look like- and the emphasis there is about being ready, even if we don’t know the timing. Not sleeping on the job, having the tools that we need.
So this passage is a warning to those who consider themselves part of God’s people. It’s addressed to us, as Christians, for sure; but at the time it was another warning, challenge, condemnation if you like, of the established religious people- the same ones who’d asked questions of Jesus were now in his spotlight- the story of the vineyard, the wedding banquet, the bridesmaids and the talents and the final section of this which we’ll hear next week, they’re all addressed to those who think they’re on the inside… time and again, Jesus is saying ‘this is what it’ll be like for those who think they’re all sorted- I’d be doing some self-reflection if I was you…’
And Jesus isn’t the first to have said this- John the Baptist called the people to forgiveness, the Old Testament prophets from Isaiah onwards warned the people, the priests and the kings of Israel, speaking to them about their place in God’s kingdom- you are the chosen people of God and look at how you live… So, yes, this is a warning against complacency, directly against the people of his own time, but it speaks to the church today.
But if we don’t like the ending, the beginning can be even worse- it’s very easy for us to hear it and conclude that it doesn’t apply to us. We use the word talent to mean skill or ability- it used to be a sum of money… about £180,000 in today’s money if I’ve got my sums right- 15yrs of a labourers wages. Either way we look at it, most of us say ‘well I’ve not been given 5 amazing skills’… or we say ‘well I don’t have that amount of money’… However if we think like that, we’re missing the point.
A man- a rich man, a really rich man is at the start of the story, and he goes away, and entrusts his servants to continue his work while he is away. He gives them resources- as much as they could need, and expects them to take the opportunities that lie before them. At its simplest, this is what the parable says-
God, who is rich in all things, gives his servants all that they need, and entrusts them with the privilege and opportunity of partnering with him in his kingdom.
That meant doing all that the Law commanded in the time of the old covenant- that’s what Jesus listeners heard, and then later doing what his Son Jesus did- teaching, healing, serving, freeing, standing up for the rights of the underprivileged and rejected… that’s what Jesus’ followers- the early church who became known as Christians heard.
God, who has given his servants all they need, expects them to get on with the task in hand, faithfully and with perseverance.
That meant, and means, holding on to the truths and the hope that the gospel brings, no matter what the weather or the cultural mood or our own situation, or how ‘successful’ it appears to be-
The church is not a business where success is judged by money or productivity- though neither of those things are wrong, but where faithfulness and perseverance, making the most of the time and opportunities we have are the measures that God uses…
In this parable, when the man returns, he meets with his servants… those who are praised are told ‘well done, you have been faithful…’- not materially successful, and the one who is thrown out is condemned by his own words- if only he’d done something rather than nothing- I was afraid and so I hid the money in the ground…
God doesn’t call us to be successful but to be faithful. God doesn’t judge us for our failed attempts but for our unwillingness to try.
The first servant, who started with a million pounds and made a million more, probably didn’t make it all in one go, and may at one point have nearly lost everything… that is the nature of trying- it sometimes goes very wrong and often feels like it will!
There are many stories about brilliant people who were nearly failures- how Edison experimented with hundreds of different filaments before he found one that would last long enough, how the post-it note was developed by a company who accidentally developed a glue that didn’t set.
There is no guarantee that if you set out on something you will succeed in any measurable way. The only guarantee is that if you fail to set out, you set out to fail.
In life it’s easy to get things ‘just so’ and then try to press pause- but this is not possible- the kids come home, the cat jumps on the table, the wind blows the grass cuttings through the door… in church it is the same, in our personal faith too…all the things we have in our church can disappear if we fail to recognise that God calls us to keep on faithfully persevering… We want and we try to do things the best we can, but we don’t beat ourselves or other up.
Persevering in prayer, persevering in serving God in our community and among the people we know, persevering in seeking to bring healing, peace, justice, freedom for those who are in need.
If you’re not sure what that looks like- then come along next Saturday to our Serving and Growing training event- the notes and keynote talks will be available online if you can’t make it.
If you’re not sure how you can join in, then start by praying for the things your church does, and inviting folk you know to come along to them- take your pick at this time of year- a Christmas Fair, a carol service, a Christmas tree festival, carol singing in the community… if someone likes one of those then they may like to find out more… in January we’ll be offering the alpha course as a way of helping folk find out more about the Christian faith in an open and inclusive way…
Sometimes we feel like we’re not being noticed or heard- but is that a reason to keep quiet? Sometimes we feel like nothing changes despite our efforts- but is that a reason to give up? Sometimes we feel like we’re just tired, or scared, or fed up- and that’s when we need the resources that God has given us in in the Holy Spirit and the people around us here.
Like the servants in the parable, we are given all that we need to be faithful and to partner with God- to play our part. The success of our efforts is not up to us, but up to him… he calls us to be faithful.
So there you have it.
I’m aware that I didn’t start this post by apologising for not posting or for being busy with other stuff- I know I do that a lot and I figured it might get a bit old, but if you’ve got this far then you have probably appreciated this post, or just have nothing else to do. Either way, well done- you get the apology: Sorry I haven’t posted much this month. Next month is going to be just as crazy busy but lots of fun too!