Materials for Worship on 19th November, 2023

Nerys writes: I don’t know how many of you, like me, are looking forward to the final of the Great British Bake Off at the end of the month. I have been a fan of the programme for many years now. I am fascinated by the creativity which the challenges bring forth in the contestants and enjoy the suspense surrounding the adjudicating as, week by week, one baker after another is sent out of the tent. I read somewhere that a formula has been worked out to predict which of the competitors are most likely to win, based on their gender, age and where they come from, but I’ve noticed that it is often another more important factor that ensures success in this and other similar programmes. It’s the same quality that Jesus encourages in today’s Gospel, Matthew 25. 14-30.

The Parable of the Talents is often interpreted as a tale with a moral about investing our natural abilities, our skills, our resources in the service of God. But the more time I’ve spent reflecting on Matthew’s version of this story, the more I think it may be about something else. This is the second of two parables where Jesus says that he is giving his listeners a picture of what the kingdom of heaven will be like. The first story is about the relationship between ten bridesmaids and the bridegroom they are waiting for. This one is about the relationship between three slaves and their maverick master.

The Three Servants by Nelly Bube

The first two slaves who successfully invest their master’s money and are rewarded on his return, seem to act as a foil against which to compare the third who is a much more rounded character. It is his interaction with his master and his punishment which forms the climax of the story. We get to see the master through his eyes as a harsh man who takes what is not his and strikes fear in the hearts of those around him. In return, the master calls him wicked, lazy and worthless. But we get a more accurate picture of both characters if we focus on their actions rather than on their accusations of each other.

Far from being harsh and exploitative, the master acts in an extremely generous way, entrusting each of his slaves with a huge amount of money. (In the first century, a ‘talent’ would have been worth half a lifetime’s earnings for a day labourer.) Moreover, the master seems to know each his slaves well. He treats them with care and discretion, taking into account their capabilities so as not to impose an unreasonable burden on them. He doesn’t issue specific instructions for them to follow but gives them the freedom and the power to use their initiative. Then he goes away, giving them space so that they can act
independently of him. And far from reaping what he didn’t sow, he not only returns to the first two slaves the enormous wealth they had accumulated but also invites them to share with him his joy, transforming their relationship into one of friendship.

These slaves respond to his trust and his risky generosity by rising to the challenge unlike their colleague who returns exactly what was given to him, having buried his treasure in the ground. Despite his master’s characterisation of him, his actions show that the third slave isn’t a bad man. He doesn’t squander the money he was given or use it for his own benefit. In fact, in the first century what he does with it would be regarded as much more responsible than the risky speculating of the other two. He admits, though, that his actions are driven by his low regard of his master and it is this, I think, that leads to his downfall.

Time and time again in TV contests I’ve seen competitors being sent home for playing it safe rather than take a creative risk. Instead of regarding the judges as allies who wish to give them opportunities to shine, their fear of their criticism causes them to take a less challenging route. It appears that in the Kingdom of God as in the Bake Off tent, the greatest risk of all is not to risk anything. Paralyzed by his fear and distrust, the third servant rejects the opportunity the master graciously gives him to imitate his risky and trusting approach to life. Jesus’ warning is that the outcome of playing it safe, of not being ready to invest yourself or risk anything in response to God’s astounding generosity is like being banished to the outer darkness.

All our readings today remind us that what we think of God and how we respond to God’s call on our lives is important. We have real choices and power but there are consequences resulting from the ways we use our freedom. What we do or fail to do shapes our lives and our world.

Zephaniah’s prophecy in Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18, contains a relentless attack on those among the Israelites of his day who had a complacent attitude towards God – those who thought they could put God in a box and focus on living a materially comfortable life. They will know the consequences of their neglect of the poor, writes the prophet. To them, God will come as a hostile and destructive army, taking away all their security and giving them only terror.

Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, has a similar message for those Christians in Thessalonica who were tempted to put their trust in living a quiet life under Roman rule. It was as if they were being lulled to sleep by the Empire’s comforting slogans of peace and security instead of living their lives fully and faithfully in the light of the Gospel.

Just as the three slaves were expected to imitate their master’s risky investment in them, we who have been entrusted with the good news of God’s Kingdom are called to be like our Lord Jesus. He told today’s story in the middle of his own personal high-risk response to God’s call, having left the safety of rural Galilee to go to Jerusalem, ready to invest all for the sake of Love.
Jesus invites us to join him on the adventure of faith, to care and trust so deeply that we too are ready to invest our lives riskily and completely for the sake of others. When we follow him like this, encouraging one another and building up each other on the way, this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.