Saturday, 18 November 2017

Talents



Surgery in hospital and need to travel on courses has meant not many contributions of late. But I am well now and back, and so I hope to me more helpful in future.

D


Matthew 25.14-30 (NRSV): The Parable of the Talents

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.”23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

My text this morning is written in Matthew 25 and verse 29, which reads:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

When I preached on this text for the first time in 1992, as a Probationer Minister in my first appointment in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa, I entered the pulpit from the vestry door to find a church packed – way over 300 people in attendance. It had been announced that I was preaching on this passage and members of the congregation had spread the word, and many visitors, together with my members were asking: “How is he going to explain that verse.”

A wealthy man goes away on business and leaves the remainder of his wealth to his workers – each according to their ability. The wealth is expressed in ‘talents’ which was the largest unit of currency at the time. In NT Greek ‘talent’ only referred to money, in modern times it now refers to ‘gifts’ largely as a result of this parable because of the phrase ‘... according to his ability.’

The words ‘After a long time ...’ (Verse 19) is of significance because of the delay of the parousia a technical, theological term for the Second Coming of Jesus. After this long time, the master does return and demands a reckoning – which is a reference to the final judgement. The first two servants are praised for both their industry and courage in doubling their amounts of money – and for their faithfulness – a vital component because faithfulness in small things means that one can be trusted with larger things – larger responsibilities – and intimate friendship with the master. The fact that both servants receive the same reward shows how it is not one’s accomplishments that matter, but rather one’s faithfulness.

The last servant is condemned because of his inactivity. His defence lacks pure logic putting forward that it was because of the demanding nature of the master that he did nothing. Out of fear of failure; he did nothing and so lost all that he had! This has everything to do with God’s free gift and our human response.

The verse of my text, then, is not that difficult; it can be paraphrased as “A disciple who gives of himself to the gift that God has given him will receive greater grace still; the one who does nothing will lose it.

In the book The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, a devil, briefs his demon nephew, Wormwood, in a series of letters, on the subtleties and techniques of tempting people. In his writings, the devil says that the objective is not to make people wicked but to make them indifferent. This higher devil cautions Wormwood that he must keep the patient comfortable at all costs. If he should start thinking about anything of importance, encourage him to think about his lunch plans and not to worry so much because it could cause indigestion. And then the devil gives this instruction to his nephew: "I, the devil, will always see to it that there are bad people. Your job, my dear Wormwood, is to provide me with people who do not care."
We must always remember that this is a parable and so we need to remember that we are dealing here with something that ought not to be taken literally. It is a story to explain a complex lesson of some considerable depth, so that ordinary language simply would not do. It deals with a scenario that would have been commonplace in the society of the time.

A master was going away so he entrusted his property to his slaves. Those who had proven themselves often held managerial positions. He apportioned property according to the ability of each. He was not asking anything unreasonable: five to one, two to another and one to the last. The one with five made another five, the one with two another two, but the one with only one, buried it in the ground to keep it safe – again a common practice of the day. After a long time, the master returned and praised and rewarded those who had doubled what they had been given but condemned the one who had done nothing and gave what he had to the one who had made the most.

So, what does it all mean?

There is an element of the Parousia – the Second Coming of Jesus - in this passage. We now know that the Gospel narratives were eventually written because the long awaited return of Jesus in the Second Coming had not yet happened. But they did not doubt that Jesus would return as a judge and that people would need to give account of how they had lived their lives. At this level, all Christians have been given gifts and we will all be judged on how effectively we have used them. So, the master’s journey would have been a reference to the Ascension, the slaves are the Christians and the property refers to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that all Christians have been given. The long delay refers to the delay in the return of Christ, and the settling of the accounts refers to the Last Judgement or the Day of Reckoning. The horrible reference to what some people refer to as ‘Hell’ in verse 30 in some translations, is a wrong, because literally, the Greek should be translated as 'outer darkness' (as in the NRSV). The weeping and gnashing of teeth is most commonly agreed by scholars like Fenton, as something added by a later editor and reveals more about the views of the editor, putting his particular spin on the story, rather than what Jesus either said at the time. But they would be correctly reflecting the seriousness of Jesus' warning that not using one's talent would have serious consequences and so is still well stated in this classic ancient hyperbole.

The slaves were probably a reference to the Scribes and the Pharisees and their use – or rather misuse – of the Law of God – the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures. They wanted to keep things exactly as they were, changing nothing at all – like the man who buried his talent. This is why they are condemned.

Jesus is alive and present in the Church as we meet. He still speaks to us through the Scriptures when we open our minds to receive what He has to say to us. This is why a preached message is a sacred thing, and for me one of the greatest privileges possible. Jesus speaks, not only through the mouth of the preacher but also in the discussions and gatherings of the people of God. This is why meetings of fellowship, discussions, Synods and Conferences are so vital. This is why people will be called to give account, and if they persist in burying the truth that is being revealed rather than setting it and people free to discern the mind of God. Jesus challenges us by asking: Are we open-minded? Are we adventurous? Is our faith alive and vibrant? or is it buried and dead in the ground?

Each and every one of us has been given gifts from God and they are immeasurably valuable because they come to us from God according to our ability. We are never asked to do anything that God does not also equip us to do. It is not the talent or gift we have that matters, but what we do with it. What is your gift? Are you using it? When last did you ask: What can I do to enrich the fellowship of the people at Christ Church and the people of Shepshed? Could it be that I am asked to pray regularly? Could it be that I am called to send messages of encouragement? Could it be that I am asked to greet people and welcome them? When you ask, you will find that the opportunities are countless and wonderful and the more you respond in faithfulness, the more you will find to do. Peter J. Blackburn in his book, Using What We Have provides the following helpful illustration:
An anonymous writer has said, "My small son and I were taking a walk. In the far corner of the field we found a small patch of beautiful and fragrant flowers. They were in the middle of weeds, almost completely hidden and unnoticed, yet these flowers were blooming in full beauty and we sensed their fresh fragrance. All of us have met persons unnoticed by many, but who in the middle of struggle and unlikely surroundings far from the centre of attention live lives of beauty and fragrance. And living lives which seemed obscure they faithfully fulfilled God's calling for them. God's question on the last day will not be, 'How much were you noticed?' or even 'How much did you do?' Rather, his question will be, 'Were you faithful in fulfilling your calling where I placed you?' "
The reward we can look forward to when we faithfully use of talents is more work. The ones who doubled their talents were given more, which meant greater tasks and greater responsibilities. This is a great joy. When we are faithful, God blesses us with more and more opportunities and our lives become more and more meaningful and useful, and we have a real sense of purpose.

As soon as we become active by using the talents we have been given,  Jesus comes into our lives and blesses us and others through us, which compounds our blessings over and over and over again. Or as Jesus put it to his listeners:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

Amen

Saturday, 4 November 2017

1 Thessalonians 2.9-13 (NRSV)



1 Thessalonians 2.9-13 (NRSV)

9 You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Most religious experiences often takes place in the ordinary and is in fact when we are involved in living ethical lives; what Paul is writing to the Thessalonians as lives that are pure, upright and blameless in conduct. Even the great mystics through the ages have downplayed the ‘special’ experiences that they have been privileged to have, suggesting that the only experience that matters is that which makes one love one’s neighbour better. This is what the religious life is all about – lives that are worthy of God (verse 12).

But the difference between the lives we have been called to live and those who are committed to ethical living in a secular way is that our lives are inspired by the Word of God – as expressed and demonstrated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth in history – who is the living Word. More than this, we do not live in this way because we have to – in order to earn God’s favour or to achieve some or other end or consequence. We live this way because we are inspired by love – we live ethically because we want to live this way as a loving child would want to please a loving parent – never out of fear.

And what is more, it is the Word that is at work in our lives (verse 13 b) enabling and equipping and making possible that which we desire, but cannot achieve in our own strength.

And so we do this in the midst of our daily toil, working night and day so as to be a burden to no one. That lovely hymn of George Herbert springs to mind:

Teach me my God and king, in all things Thee to see; and what I do in everything, to do it as for Thee. ...  A servant with this clause, makes drudgery divine, who sweeps a room as for Thy laws, makes that and the action fine ...

May we all experience the love and empowering of our Lord as we go about the ordinary things of life.

Paul is trying to encourage his readers, preparing them for the demands that their Christian vocation is going to make of them. He addresses them as brothers (and the NRSV rightly adds ‘sisters’) because in Christ, there is no distinction – all are one in Jesus Christ by faith.

Paul encourages them to remember how, when they were missionaries, they had worked hard so that they would not be any extra burden to anyone else; supporting themselves, in contrast to other roaming philosophers who were always wanting some sort of financial gain.

Just as God’s grace had transformed the lives of Paul and the other preachers, the Thessalonians must also expect their lives to be transformed by the Word of God.

After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Jewish faith became a faith of the Book. When they read scripture, they came to it with a sense of expecting the shekhinah of God to be present with them; touching them and transforming their lives. When they read of Moses receiving the Law at Mt Sinai, they came with the same sense of expectation – as if they too were present on the mountain, wanting God to reveal Himself to them. The first Christians were Jews and they read scripture in the same way, but expecting the Holy Spirit to make Jesus as a living presence among them. They could not wait; the expectation was ever present; and they were blessed.

We need to recapture this sense of expectation – coming with a deep sense of eagerness – with the question: “What has Jesus got to say to me today?”

John Stott suggests that instead of being a burden to the Thessalonians, Paul had been like a father to them, by both his teaching and the example he set for them to follow. While setting children an example to follow, fathers ought also to encourage, comfort and exhort them – urging them to live worthily of God and even insisting on it. There is good purpose and wisdom in this: to live ‘good’ lives is not so much because there will be a reward later; it gives a person a sense of dignity and worth now.

And the good news will always be that we are not left alone to struggle to do this and fail all the time because it is beyond our ability. God’s word can work in us to enable us to live lives worthy of God and it is this way of living that gives us the greatest sense of self-worth, because it is fulfilling the purpose for which we are in the world.

Is what we teach our students and our own children this Word of God? Is our message authenticated by the way it changes lives? Are those in our charge living lives of dignity and worth, because they are living as God intended?

Difficult questions for us to answer, because of the places where we work and the nature of our society today. We also know that being too specific in our message more than often turns people off, rather than encourage them to holy living. Once more, I believe our first and foremost duty is to earn the right to say something specific because the lives we live are like living letters to be read of all (2 Corinthians). It is our conduct that sets the scene – and this is the greatest of all challenges. It is easy to ‘talk the talk’ and too many evangelists fall into this trap thinking that they have  to say something; but the Gospel message only comes with power and people will only be willing to receive it when we ‘walk the talk’ – and this needs all the grace we can get!