Matt. xxv. Trade with this until I come back
'It's not fair'. I can't recollect this cry going around the vicarage all those years ago when the girls were growing up but if so then ours must have been the only house in the world where it didn't. It's the warcry of the frustrated child who can't get their own way, the cry of a teenage girl who is torn between childhood and adulthood, a teenage boy who has been left out of the first team.. It's also the cry of many an older person when looking at some aspect of their lives, crying out to a world that seems cruel.
Life is not fair, fact. It never has been, ever since primitive man walked this earth. Some are born with great gifts that give them the potential for wealth, a high position in life, power; others are born to be unemployed all their lives because they lack the qualities to have such skills. One person is born a prince in a palace, another to a girl in a refugee camp or in the poorest part of the world. One is born incredibly healthy, another is born physically or mentally disabled. One is born handsome or beautiful, another is disfigured. One lives to be over a hundred in perfect health, another dies young of a chronic condition. Add your own examples, these are only the ones that come immediately to mind. It's not fair.
Some people blame God for this, they want the world to be equal, people to start life on a level playing field. Countless people must have looked at themselves and looked around them and thought 'Why me?'. Why didn't God give me the skills to be like X or Y? Or even more sinisterly, 'Why am I disabled when my neighbour is perfectly healthy?'.The parable that forms today's Gospel raises so many questions that you could preach a dozen sermons about it and still not cover the issues raised by it. But today there can only be one!
Life's not fair. In this parable of the talents Christ bypasses this issue and accepts it as a fact. To one servant the nobleman lends ten talents, to another five, to another one, each according to their ability, perhaps their position in his service. There is no debate about fairness, about whether they should all have the same amount; each has a different amount. Then he goes off and he trusts them to use the money responsibly in his service. It's not theirs, it remains his; it's a loan not a gift.
Then when he comes back there is the reckoning. The first has made a huge profit. Brilliant, his faith in him has been justified. The next servant has also made a huge profit, he too will be rewarded. Then he comes to the third. The third has looked at the others. He hasn't had the same amount as the other two and he has sulked. So he has just put the money in a safe place and done nothing with it – here, have it back, it's yours. And understandably the nobleman is furious. He may only have had a little but he could have at least done the best he could with it. He is lazy, ungrateful. He at least had something even if it was only a little. Instead he has thrown the equivalent of a child's tantrum, thrown his toys out of the pram; he is utterly useless.
And the root of it all? The third servant is negative. He has looked backwards at what others have rather than honestly at what he has.
So this parable is not strictly about the inequality of the world; it takes this for granted. It is about two things. One is the fact that all that we are and all that we have is a gift from God. The other is about how we use those gifts, to what end. In other words, it's about being positive and forward looking, not negative and backwards looking.
Now if you read the more modern translations of the Gospels they try and translate this word 'talents' into contemporary monetary terms – pounds or euros or dollars, depending on which part of the world you live in. The trouble is that the value of an ancient talent changes in relation to contemporary currency as the years go on and these translations soon go out of date. So I prefer to see the word for what it is. God you see has given us talents, opportunities. Yes I know you can talk about genetics and families and all the rest of it. But all that we are and all that we have is a gift from God, and God has given these gifts, these situations to be used in His service, not our own alone.
Now this does not mean that we should spend our entire lives and all our efforts serving him to the exclusion of all else – after all He has also given us families to care for and be a part of. But what it means is that our lives, our talents are not for our own use alone.
So this parable is a call to serve Him according to what we can do according to the skills and talents that we have. Some are greater than others and yet those with smaller talents can achieve incredible things.
When I was a very young curate I used to visit a home for those with cerebral palsy to talk to the residents and take prayers. I shall never forget a girl called Mary who like me was in her 20's. She could barely speak, she could not use her hands, yet she was deeply religious in spite of her catastrophic disabilities. She would type letters to me using her toes, sitting on the floor – and she could see into my mind as we talked. She has been an eternal inspiration to me and was a great help in the first two very difficult years of my ministry.
Perhaps you know people like that, who have risen above the situation in which they find themselves by using what few talents they might seem to have and achieving great things with them.
God needs us to use our talents, our skills in His service and not exclusively for our own ends. And he needs the skills of all of us, working together in His service, not just those who are most gifted or can do the most or have the greatest opportunities. So in a sense this parable foreshadows that picture that St Paul painted of the Church as the Body of Christ, with people seeing themselves as a part of something much greater, the whole Body of Christ, serving Him faithfully together. Not looking negatively at what others can do but rather at what they can do. Whether our gifts are greater or smaller, God needs them – small as well as big.
And there is no point in thinking about achievements because that too is negative. We simply do not know what we are achieving, the effects of what we are doing. I may have told this story before but many years ago I was taking a course of confirmation classes in a parish in Manchester where I was working at the time. There was a teenage boy who just sat and never said a word in three months of weekly sessions. I wondered if it had all gone in one ear and out the other, whether he had been bored stiff all the time. After the confirmation his mother told me that he had never enjoyed anything so much in his entire life. We make a great mistake in looking for results, or thinking about results.
What God wants from us is what the nobleman wanted from his servants – faithfulness. Faithfulness to Him, faithfulness in our use of those gifts which He has given to us. Faithfulness regardless of what we can or cannot do – because everything is important in His service.
There is a saying, 'Without God we cannot, without us God will not'.
We are God's servants, God's children, doing his work on earth in His strength and using the gifts which he has given us. He calls us to be faithful. Not to look negatively at what we can't do but positively at what we can do – and then to get on with it.