2 Before Advent

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Reading:

Matthew 25.14-30

Sermon:

Matthew 25:14: For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.

O my Luve's like a red, red rose,

That's newly sprung in June:

I wonder what image comes into your mind when you hear those famous words by Rabbie Burns?  My love is like a rose, beautiful, scented, fresh, delicate.  Or do you suppose he meant like a rose, prickly, rambling, thriving off steaming horse manure?  After all, the only descriptive words Burns uses are ‘red’ and ‘newly sprung’, and if you think he must mean the first alternative, because who might find thorns and dung loveable, well, love is famously blind to imperfections – ‘If they could see her through my eyes’ as the song says. 

The point about comparisons is that they can illustrate both similarity and difference – compare and contrast.  To say that something is like something else is not to say two things are identical.  Burns’ love may resemble a rose in delicacy and fragrance, yet be unlike a rose in that she is free of greenfly.

With that in mind, I wonder what Jesus means when he begins a story with the words ‘For it is as if…’?  Jesus tells this story, often called the parable of the talents, in a sequence of warnings about the end of time, when he will come again as the Son of Man, appointed by God to judge the world and to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven, once and for all. 

One way to read it might be simply to understand Jesus to be saying: ‘This is just what it is like in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The property owner stands for God.  If you have worked hard and done well in this life, God will reward you richly, if fear has frozen you from acting, you will be handed over to eternal punishment.’  On this reading the parable is a warning to those who want to be followers of Jesus, urging them to be relentless in their discipleship. 

Now, if it is just about the end of time, this reading may be sustainable.  My problem with it is that Jesus teaches us to pray: ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’  So if this is just what it is like in the Kingdom of Heaven, then those who have power on earth can follow the example of the property owner and deal violently with those who are less unrelenting in the life of faith – well that is not my idea of God’s Kingdom, not here, not hereafter. 

What is more, this story is followed by another illustration of the end of time, the parable of the sheep and goats.  In this account, the ones who are condemned are those who show no compassion, and remember the property owner would be in this group: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit.’  Whereas to those who showed compassion to the least of these, he says ‘You did it to me.’  There is still judgment here, but this time the judge is given specifically as the Son of Man, whereas in the parable of the talents, the one who rewards and condemns is identified simply as ‘a man’.  What is more he expects his slave to lend money on interest, and the Jewish Law forbids this practice within the community.  So the man cannot be a straightforward likeness of God. 

God alone is judge.  And God urges compassion because God is compassion: ‘Jesu, thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art.’  The currency of the Kingdom is not talents, it is love.  ‘Owe no-one anything, except to love one another.’  So the parable of the talents stands in contrast to the Kingdom of Heaven.

I confess to a vested interest here.  If I put myself in the position of those three servants, I recognise my own fearfulness, my failings and shortcomings as a disciple of Christ, I am not relentless in working for God’s Kingdom:  I might well have buried the talent to keep it safe.  If this is just what heaven is like, I might as well give up now.  But when I stand before the throne of judgement I shall rely not on my own talents or my use of them, but I shall depend entirely on God’s compassion, mercy and love, and I shall do so in the light of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, where all my failures are cancelled out.

And as for ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, well, I shall try to work for a world in which human relations are based, not on wealth or labour or merit but on compassion, mercy and love.  Which means acting in ways as unlike as possible to the actions of the man of property, who was interested only in increasing his own wealth, treating the weak with violent contempt, taking from the poorest to reward the wealthy.  Which means trying to live, rather, like a servant of the God who, by way of contrast, puts down the mighty – such as that man of property - from their seat, sending them empty away, who exalts the humble and meek, and fills the hungry with good things.

Questions:

  • This reflection singles out some differences between the man of property and the Son of Man as judge: in what respects are there similarities between the two?
  • Compare (and contrast!) today’s gospel with Luke 16:1-14: in which respects does this manager reveal godlike and ungodlike characteristics?
  • If the possibility of a reward in heaven is not a motivation for the Christian disciple, what is it that inspires true discipleship?  (The hymn ‘My God, I love thee not because’ provides food for thought.)


Page last updated: 6th November 2020 11:39 AM
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