This sermon followed a dramatized presentation of the parable of the talents.
When I discussed the script of the Gospel story you have just seen with the cast, I wondered whether I was going to have a riot on my hands. Did tender, loving Jesus actually cast this servant into outer darkness? If God is just, how do we explain the monstrous injustice of this whole story? The script we use comes from St. Matthew’s gospel: in the comparable story in Luke, when we hear the menacing order to give the single talent of the unprofitable servant to the servant who had ten, we hear an anguished cry of protest from some person in the crowd—“Lord, he has ten talents already!” Obviously, the crowd found the story hard to digest.
And the parable does seem appallingly unjust. If the master who gives his capital to his servants represents God, then why is he unjust in giving five talents on one, only two to another, and only one to the third? Why does he give an equal reward of appreciation when one servant brings back more than the other? Why the dreadful punishment of the last servant, who obviously went at least to the trouble of keeping his master’s money safe, so it would be there in full measure when he returned?
Whether it really is unjust, of course, depends on what we think is going on. So many people have a picture of heaven and hell as if it were some sort of celestial examination. Go through life and reach the Day of Judgment, meet St. Peter at the pearly gates, and if you have scored 65% or more in good deeds in life, you may enter the Kingdom of Heaven: get 64% and you may get a recount, and less than that, you are condemned to eternal torments in Hell.
Now, if God is perfectly just, and that were the way in which God operated, we would have to live in a very different world. If an examination is to be fair, then everyone has to have the same exam paper. Everyone has to have the same length of time to answer the questions. Everyone has to have the chance to an equal quality of teaching from the same curriculum. If any of these things are missed, then the exam is not fair.
But what we see in the world is anything but such a perfectly equal set up. Some babies perish even before they are born, and some live a hundred years or more. Some have great natural gifts. Others are born retarded. Some come from a background of education and culture—others have no schooling at all. Some have the opportunities that come from wealth. Others live in poverty. The more we think of the world as we see it as a basis for judgment or condemnation, the more unfair it all appears. So let’s try and find a different viewpoint.
Jesus did not come to earth to condemn the world, but to save it. His task was to bring life to the world—and to do this by founding a team, a body, a Kingdom of Heaven in which all of us are offered the chance to be living parts, just as the cells and the organs are parts of a body. And the key to life in a body is precisely that the parts are not the same. Rather, each part is different, and has its particular function. Bones are not the same as muscles—but it is only because the bones and the muscles work together that the body as a whole is able to stand. There is a difference in the endowment of the component parts, but they cooperate in performance, and the result is a benefit to the body as a whole.
Did you notice something about the awards given to the servants in this production? At first blush, you might assume that each servant was allowed to keep the profit he or she had made—but that was not the case. Rather, because they were slaves, all of the profit in each case was turned over to the master. The reward to the servant was the master’s goodwill, and the chance of a promotion to higher and more responsible service in the future. The happiness of each of them, master and slave alike, lay in the success of the total enterprise, and pride in the achievements of those who had taken part in it.
Perhaps an illustration from our bodies may help. The gall bladder is a small and rather unimportant part of the digestive system. It receives bile created by the liver, and holds it until it is required for the digestion of fats. Occasionally, it refuses to do its job, and causes so much pain and nausea to the body that the only thing to do is to take it out by surgery. When that is done, the body gets by as best it can, with the liver having to do double duty. The gall bladder itself, cut out of the body, ends its life in the incinerator as ‘bio-medical waste’. Doesn’t that illustrate the story we have just seen?
There is a real challenge in this drama to ourselves, as we approach the Christian life. There is a risk in enterprise—in running a lemonade stand, or writing a book—the risk is the risk of failure, and it is a risk we are asked to take. It is something that can often enough give us the feeling of being very much alone, perhaps of being a little bit crazy. It may well be that defeat stares us very frankly in the face. What we will find, though, if we follow our calling and develop the gifts God has given us, is that ‘underneath’, there are indeed the ‘everlasting arms’, and that after ‘casting our bread upon the waters’, it does return to us ‘after many days’.
Everyone in God’s world has been given some talent, no matter how humble. I think of Brother Lawrence, whose life was spent in washing the pans in the kitchen of his monastery, and who wrote that wonderful book The Practice of the Presence of God—the art of being close to God in carrying out the most ordinary duties of life. The temptation is so strong for all of us to think that, because we cannot excel in everything, we are no use for anything. But team-play requires the gifts of everyone: God gave us those gifts; we are accountable for how we use them.
And on the Day of Judgment, the question is not so much going to be “What have you achieved?” Rather, the question is whether you will be able to say “I was a member of Christ’s team.”