Red and Black Wooden Chest on White Sand

Moving forward in faith

Sermon given on December 31, 2023 at Central Presbyterian Church Vancouver. Based on Matthew 25:14-30.

We have all heard the saying: “Everyone loves a winner.”

In this parable of the talents, at first glance, we might say that the first two servants are obvious winners. Then we tell ourselves to be as clever as were these two.

The corollary to “Everyone loves a winner” is, however, “No one likes a loser.”

We might be inclined to say that the third servant in this parable was the obvious loser. Then we tell ourselves that we must not be like the lazy third servant. In truth, we gain deeper insight into the message of Scripture the more carefully and the more studiously we reflect on the the lives of Biblical characters who do not seem to have measured up at some point in their lives. Adam. Cain. Abraham. Samson. Jonah. Judas. Peter. Even Paul. So it is with the poor unfortunate third servant in the parable of the talents. He failed. What is the lesson for us in this parable?

A parable is an allegorical narrative designed to teach a moral or ethical lesson. Parables may appear unreal or exaggerated, but this deliberate quality serves to highlight paradoxes, puzzles, dilemmas, and profound life questions. Even the disciples acknowledged the challenges in deciphering the parables of their master, Jesus. When reading ancient parables such as those recounted by Jesus, it is crucial to approach them in their their historical context. To truly grasp the lessons embedded within these narratives, we must as best we can listen afresh with the ears of the people who initially heard Jesus tell his parables two thousand years ago. We may then ask: what then may have seemed unreal and exaggerated to people who first heard the parable of the talents?

A talent was a unit of currency equivalent to about thirty-two kilograms of silver. The common currency in the time of Christ was the Roman denarius. One denarius was worth about four grams of silver. Therefore, one talent would be roughly equivalent to eight-thousand denarii. A common labourer in those days would get paid one denarius per day. Roughly calculating, a labourer in Jesus’ time would have to work twenty-two years everyday for twenty-two years to earn one talent.

Fast forward today. The minimum wage in British Columbia is currently set at $16.75 an hour. If a minimum wager were to work eight hours a day all year, that worker will have earned a cumulative gross income of one million dollars after twenty-two years. In terms of manpower, one talent in the days of Christ is therefore equivalent to 1 million dollars Canadian today.

The master entrusted 5 talents to the first servant. $5 million.

The master entrusted 2 talents to the second servant. $2 million.

And lastly, the master entrusted 1 talent to the third servant. $1 million.

I do not and very likely will never ever rub elbows with rich people with eight million dollars in liquid cash lying around the house. Neither do I think that the people hearing this parable for the first time, the poor who usually followed Jesus, would have been able to grasp the idea of such huge sums of money.

The third servant knew that his master was a harsh man. Pathologically crusty in the extreme might have been a good translation today – the word has come down to us in the medical field as “sclerosis.” What should he do with that one talent worth one million dollars in manpower today? This was the third servant’s dilemma.

Let me suggest that if this were to have happened in real life in those days, the servant might have argued with himself in this manner:

I am a slave and I belong to the master. It would take me more than 20 years of work to even hope to earn a gross income of one talent. What if that talent were to get lost or what if I were mugged and robbed of it? With my position in life I would never be able to pay that huge sum of money back, not in my lifetime. The cruel master might sell my family into slavery to get his money back. I think I should just keep the money safe until the master gets back.

Fast forward today. What if I were a minimum wager and my insanely-rich employer lent me the keys to his Ferrari, Lamborghini or Bugatti, said he was going away for awhile and gave me permission to do what I want with the car? What would I do? Would I drive around around Vancouver? Would I use it as collateral or leveraged asset in hopes of generating more money? Or should I keep the expensive car safely locked up in a secure climate-controlled garage?

In the world of the third servant, the bankers were money changers. The money changers were an essential service in cosmopolitan Jerusalem with people bringing in various forms of currencies that needed to be changed to the Temple shekel. Of course they charged exchange fees then as the airport currency exchange kiosks all do today. The money lenders would give part of their profit as “interest payments” to the investor. The problem was this practice violated Jewish law in certain cases. When you think more deeply about this, the master might have been violating Jewish law himself by castigating the third servant for not investing the talent with the money lenders and reaping the interest.

The third servant opted for the metaphorical garage: he buried the treasure, the one talent, to keep it safe. That was the practice in those days: to keep your treasure safe, you bury it in the earth at a location only you knew about.

When the master arrived, the third servant said: “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

With this report, the master took the one talent of money away from him who kept it safe, and gave it to the first servant who doubled the master’s original five talents of money. Then injury upon injury, the master threw the third servant out – fired him. I can imagine the shock and dismay of those listening to this parable for the first time. How can this be justice?

The point of all of Jesus’ parables is not the literal text – it is always the deeper meaning, the metaphorical language, the allegory, the symbolism. Thus we ask ourselves: What might have the talent, the treasure, represented? What did the people of those days, the Jews, hold as their ultimate treasure?

The ultimate treasure of the Jewish people was the Torah: The Torah, Israel’s joy, her life and soul, her identity as the chosen people of God. It is a treasure to be preserved and kept safe, so that when the time comes for it to be returned to God, it will be returned as it had been given: pure and unimpaired, nothing added, nothing taken away.

The behaviour of the third servant was exactly that. The one single talent was both a treasure to protect, but also a responsibility to keep safe from thieves, in order that it be given back to the master upon his return: pure, nothing added, nothing taken away.

This parable was in truth an attack on the religious leaders of the day whose self-proclaimed mission was the fencing and the preservation of the Torah. The consequence of this action as per the parable is exile and violence. Those who study the history of the New Testament believe that the Gospel of Matthew was written after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD70. If so, this parable was written in retrospect, a recall of what Jesus predicted would happen 40 years before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans.

We can now bring the lesson of this parable forward to our time. Where do we fall into this remarkably modern parable? Who do we choose to be moving forward. Do we play “safe church” or do we dare venture outside the box? Do we guard the past as a hedge against the evolving challenges of the present, or do we use the treasure that is Christ as a springboard towards what lies ahead?

Central Presbyterian Church has indeed ventured outside the box – witness the completion of this church building. Central knows about taking risks and trusting that God will show the way through difficulties and into a realisation of a grand vision. At the same time, I sense that Central recognises that it doesn’t stop with the completion of this grand project. In reality, with God, the vision never reaches the end: it always unfolds in ever increasing opportunities. A wise man once counseled me concerning faith: if you think you have arrived, you have reached the wrong place.

The mistake of the third servant was playing it safe while waiting for the return of his master. He understood the immense value of the one talent, and it paralyzed him in fear of losing it. Similarly, the third servant today are like people who understand the preciousness of the kingdom of God, but become paralyzed in fear of the risks of living in it.

God has gifted us with the one treasure that goes beyond our understanding of the meaning of precious: Jesus Christ our salvation in whom we stand, Jesus Christ who is our identity. In Christ we get to the proverbial mountaintop that permits us to see the world for what it is in relation to God who is sovereign over all. In Christ we discover that God has gifted us with unique skills, each one, to be used in service of God’s kingdom, God’s mission for the world, even for Vancouver’s downtown core. I encourage everyone here and those listening via the marvel of the internet, to welcome and live out God’s mission. Let us rejoice in the opportunities, in the skills God has given us to engage these opportunities. Let us set aside the fear that we might come up short: that we are too young, too old, too busy, too worn out. Rather, let us believe and trust in the goodness and overflowing sufficiency of God.

Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans wrote this: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Let us therefore move forward in faith that God will always be, as St. Patrick of Ireland prayed: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left. Let us bring forth that treasure in Christ, with all the strength and vigour by the power of the Holy Spirit, that all may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.

All glory and praise be to God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

1 Comment

This sermon is message to take that leap of faith. Invest in the Lord is what I ear. Well done Victor.

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