Sermon - Ordinary 33 Year A

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What is the precious gift?

The point of the parable of the talents is that we will all be called upon to give an account of how we have used what we have been given. More sharply, the message is that anyone who hides their gift and makes no good use of it is in danger of very severe judgement. The sting is in the tail of the story:

We have an English word "talent", and we think of it usually as referring to our natural abilities: some have a talent for music, another might have a gift of administration, another of teaching, etc. Some have many gifts and others few; some with great talent make great contributions to human life, for example great singers, or scientists who make great discoveries, or teachers who inspire their students to learn for the rest of their lives; others with less ability might also make valuable if lesser contributions; and then there might some who are too afraid or lazy and don't do anything to exercise their talents however large or small. So, we might say, those who use their gifts will be rewarded and those who don't will be punished. Is that the sort of thing what this parable of the Kingdom is really about? Is the person who has little natural ability and is afraid to use even what he or she has in mortal danger? Does that not seem a relatively unimportant matter for one's eternal destiny to depend upon it? Surely Jesus must have been talking about something of greater spiritual significance than whether we sing or dance or do mathematics? The parable of the talents is not really about how we use our natural abilities, but the gifts for which we must give an account are of greater value, and I will come back to this in a moment.

How we use our natural abilities is still important. Besides talking about how all members of the body of Christ, the church, should be valued, no matter how humble they might be, Paul referred a number of times to how different members of the church have different gifts. These gifts were gifts of the Spirit for different ways of serving God:

Ministries such as teaching or prophecy, clearly have their specific spiritual gifts which may well be combined with what we would call natural gifts or talents, to be used for the mission of the church and the good of the community. At other times Paul appears to refer more directly to gifts of the Spirit for specific ministries without concern for natural abilities. For example:

There is not a great emphasis here on natural talents. The gifts of the Spirit are certainly more important than human abilities, skill or wisdom. Indeed Paul belittled his own abilities as a preacher, saying that Christ sent him

Although Paul's preaching must have been effective, he was probably right in saying that he was not an inspiring speaker. There is one story of a young man going to sleep and falling out of a window while Paul was speaking. I expect there were plenty of others who slept at times, but this one was remembered because he was sitting on a window sill of an upper floor and fell out when he went to sleep; they thought at first that the fall had killed him. [Acts 20:7-10.] So he was remembered.

What made the apostles and the whole church effective was not that they were an especially able lot. They would have been encouraged in their weakness to remember the words of Jesus about the poor and the meek [Matthew 5:1-11]. They were, in human terms a very ordinary group of people as Paul confessed when introducing his first letter to the Corinthians:

I do not mean to imply that our natural abilities are of no importance. I would hardly have spend many years working in universities if I had thought that; and although I think we might in the past have placed too great a value on human factors in the work of ministry I do believe that God can use and does call into particular spheres of service people with great natural gifts. The church has been greatly blessed by their contributions and, as I was discussing with a professor of theology, it is probably suffering today from a lack of such gifted people and from a tendency to put down and exclude those who have something out of the ordinary to give. But in the long run it is gifts of the Spirit and our faithfulness in discipleship that really matter. Our natural talents are only of secondary importance, valuable and useful though they be.

What then is so precious? What was so important that Jesus taught about it as he did in relation to the end of the life we know and coming of the kingdom in the parable of the talents?

First, what people were being called to account for were things of very great value. One talent was not a small gift, such as we might think when we say, "well I can't sing, and I am no great leader, but I can wash the dishes". There is great value, of course, in doing the washing up, and much more in such a simple thing as being a friend to someone while you are doing it; and we need in the church all sorts of people to do all sorts of things. But the point of the biblical story is quite different: even one talent was an enormous amount, far more than most people could have expected ever to have had in their hands. A talent was a measure of weight which varied which varied from place to place but in Greek commerce it was equal to 6000 silver coins, and one coin was the normal daily wage for a labourer. It was as much as a man might expect to earn in 15 to 20 years. So when a servant was given one talent to look after while his master was away it was a great responsibility, more than most people would ever have.

In fact Matthew emphasises this aspect of the parable by referring to one, two or five talents as the capital each had to invest [Matthew 25:14-15]. Something like half a million, a million or two and half million dollars in our terms. When Luke tells what is probably another version of the same story [Luke 19:11-27] he says they were each given "a pound", still a lot of money in those days, but only about three months wages. It is interesting too that as Luke tells it each was given the same amount, and he makes it clear that the story is not about some being given more than others, but about what each did with what they had. In Luke's story the first to give an account of his stewardship said he had made ten pounds out the one he had been given and the second that he had made five, then the crunch comes for the next who had hidden the same one pound and made nothing more:

The outcome is the same. The point of the story is that whatever amount people are given those who do not put it to work will be harshly judged for not taking the risk to invest it.

They were all given something of great value. What could that be? Where else in the teaching of Jesus do we find him talking of things of great value?

Now here we have something worthy of a little dramatic license, worthy of being given a symbol of great worth, as in the hymn by D T Niles we sometimes sing:

The great love of God
is revealed in his son,
who came to the earth
to redeem every one.

That love, like a stream
flowing clear to the sea,
makes clean every heart
that from sin would be free.

It binds the whole world,
every barrier it breaks,
the hills it lays low,
and the mountains it shakes.

It's yours, it is ours,
O how lavishly given!
the pearl of great price,
and the treasure of heaven.

Here is something truly precious. The great love of God, the treasure of heaven, what the good news of the Kingdom of God is all about. What happens here on earth to the treasure given to us is related to what happens in heaven:

The treasure we have in our hearts if we believe in and follow Jesus is the knowledge of the love of God, the good news of the coming of the Kingdom; it is even one small part of the kingdom itself, an earnest of what is to come. That is a treasure worth guarding, and even more worth using and sharing with others in word and deed. The sharing of it, the investing of it in human life, does include sharing by doing as well as by speaking as we shall see in the parable of the sheep and the goats next week; but it was the teaching of the gospel which was the great treasure for which the early believers were responsible and which they valued most highly.

And this trust was passed on from Paul to Timothy, as they have passed it on to us:-

This then is the treasure, the precious gift, the talent we have been given that we dare not hide away but must let loose in the world: the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the good news of the Kingdom of God. As it is shared it has the power to grow and multiply to bring enormous rewards to many people in this world and the next. It is in our hands and we will be judged by what we do with it!

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