The parable of the talents
I'd like to speak about being ambitious - about being ambitious for God.
This is the story of three people. They were each given a share of the masters property. Two worked hard. They used what they had been given in order to make more. One did nothing. He buried the gift. And when the master returns he is condemned.
Margaret Thatcher famously used the parable of the talents. She spoke of how it was a story of taking what you have, working hard and making something for yourself from it.
But the parable of the talents is not a theological justification for unbridled capitalism. It is not about the person who made good, who says ‘God I came from a council estate, I had limited education, I never knew my dad, and mum was messed up and I had nothing – but now I have £56 million. I’ve used the nothing that I had but now look at me’.
That is great - depending on how you have made your £56m! It is good to take what we have, whether much or little, and make more for yourself.
But this parable is not about that.
And it is not simply about using our talents, and developing them. It is about using them for him.
It is not about being ambitious for yourself.
[The fact that there are three parables together in Matthew 25 makes that clear.
They are part of the private speech that Jesus has with his followers, which begins in Matthew 24.3. 'As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately ...' And chapter 24 and 25 are spoken to Jesus' followers, to those who profess that Jesus is Lord, who profess to be Christians.
The first parable is the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Jesus is challenging us to keep our faith alive, even when it seems that God is a long way away and taking his time to intervene. And he warns us of the consequences of not keeping our faith alive.
The third parable is the story of the sheep and the goats. We are warned that when judgement comes, and remember he is speaking to those who profess to be believers, it will be based on how much we have loved: not those closest to us - but those who were in need. The hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, stranger and prisoner. And in particular it is about how we have loved our Christian brothers and sisters who were in need.
So the parable of the talents, which is the second of these, is not about taking what you have and doing better for yourself.
It is about taking what God has given you and using it to do much for Him.]
It is about being ambitious for God, and for the things of God: the message of the gospel, reconciliation, justice, mercy, right-ness and love.
Jesus is the master who is about to go away. He is the master who entrusts his property to his servants.
Some seem to have abundantly; others less so.
At times we have abundantly; at other times less so.
But all that we have is gift. We have done nothing to deserve it.
I was speaking to someone who farms 1700 acres on Wednesday. He was saying that this has been an exceptional harvest for arable farmers: the sort of year that they will speak about for many years to come. It is not so much a 5 talent harvest as a 50 talent harvest.
What did we do to deserve that? What did we do to have a mild winter, a rainy spring, a warm and dry summer? It is all gift.
And the point of the passage is not to ask 'what does a person have?' The point of the story is to ask, 'How does a person use what they have?' We are accountable for what we have. Not for what we do not have.
Some of you are 5 talent people. Some of you are 2 talent people. Some of you are 1 talent people. It doesn't matter because, if you notice, the faithful ones double what they have - and if you go on doubling what you have, you soon end up with phenomenal amounts, and it becomes irrelevant what you first began with.
What matters is what we do with that which we have been given. And that includes our understanding of the gospel, our physical strength, our material wealth and possession and our gifts, opportunities, time and abilities.
And although Jesus is going away, and the story makes clear that it will be for some time (‘now after a long time’ v19), he will one day come back. And when he returns he will settle accounts with us.
So how are we to be ambitious for God?
1. We are to use what he has entrusted to us.
Most of us, living in the West, when it comes to material prosperity and the opportunities we have, we are, in comparison to so many others, 5 talent people.
So how are we using it?
Not for ourselves, but for God.
If you have capital, how are you using it? Is it invested wisely in ways that give other people worthwhile jobs, affordable homes or in ways that empower other people to serve? Is it being used in ways that strip other people of human dignity – whether here or far away – or is it being used to clothe people in garments of honour.
If you have a business, what is the bottom line for you? Is it profit - or is it the welfare of your employees, of your customers or clients? Who are you there to serve: yourself or others? Part of the big problem of big business is that the bottom line is profit, because they are answerable to an amorphous blob of shareholders.
There are big issues. I have a friend who has set up a Christians in Business group in Ipswich and hopes for that to be extended here to the Western part of the county. If you are interested in thinking 'How can I use my business to be ambitious for God?', that might be something you could get involved in. Have a word with me.
And of course there is our financial giving. How much does it really cost us? There is the great story of the little boy who wanted to give his Sunday dinner to the dog. Mum would not let him, but told him that he could collect any left overs and give them to the dog at the end of the meal. The little boy took the plate and put it down sadly in front of the dog: 'Dog', he said, 'I wanted to give you an offering, but all I was allowed to do was bring you a collection!' Is our giving a collection from our left overs, or a genuine offering?
And how are we using our gifts? It is not just a matter of developing them - going to evening classes or sports clubs - although that is a great way of honouring God with them. But how are we using them for our master?
How is our home being used for the gospel? I'm not talking about anything big. It might simply be a matter of inviting people round for a cup of tea, befriending them, supporting them in trouble, and when it is the right time, and they are ready to receive, to share the good news of the fact that Jesus has died for them and has risen, that sins are forgiven, that by faith we know that he is with us now, and that we will see him then.
How do we use the gift of our time? In my previous parish there was Betty Walton. She visited the old people; she did their shopping for them and gave them lifts and went to hospital with them. She was 85. I’m really touched when people come to me and say, ‘I am willing to visit people for the church’. I am conscious that I have not taken you up on that. It is not that I am turning down your offer, but my mind just doesn’t work like that. I guess we need a pastoral supremo like Hazel at St Peter’s. But even if I haven’t taken you up on that, please just do it. You are using your gifts for Him.
And what about your spiritual gifts?
If you are one of our preachers, develop your gift, work hard at it. We must never presume that we have made it. We need to continue to read, to think and to study. It is very rare that a sermon for me on a Sunday takes less than 6 hours to prepare.
Or maybe you are someone who finds it easy to talk to others - use your gift for your master. There are many opportunities. Being a steward here in church, Open the Book, services in residential homes, family gatherings, small group events.
If you have the gift of hospitality use it - invite Christians and non-Christians. Use your gift to build up friendships. If you are a party person (and we need more party people in our churches - I’m a party pooper. I’m quite happy sitting in the corner reading a book), put on parties – good parties – but do it for Him.
If you have the gift of speaking in tongues - don't neglect it; use it in your personal prayers. Jackie Pullinger speaks of how her work for God was radically transformed when she began to pray in tongues for 15 minutes every day by the clock.
Whatever your gift or ability. Recognise that it is gift, that it comes from your master, and be ambitious for him: use it for the glory of your master.
2. We are to take risks for God
Harvest thanksgiving is safe. I'm not talking about the people who put so much effort into making it work - the decorators, musicians etc. I'm speaking about those of us who come along each year. The giving, the decorations, the hymns are one massive comfort zone. Woe betides the vicar or organist who does not choose ‘We plough the fields and scatter’. And I guess that is OK, provided we go out of here prepared to take risks for God.
When we live safe, we are 5 talent people who behave like the 1 talent person.
The one talent person is like the employee who has been asked to cash a cheque for her employer. But the office is warm, it is raining outside, and they can't be bothered to walk to the bank. So it gets buried under a pile of papers. And then the employer asks, 'What happened to that cheque. Why didn't you cash it?' And they reply, 'Well I know you strict, so I was scared I might make a mistake. But I’ve found the cheque and here it is!’ It doesn't wash.
The real reason we do not use our gifts for Him is that we can't be bothered with God. It is a bit of a pain. I'll get on living my comfortable life, with my pleasant friends, doing what I want when I want, adding a few feathers to the nest now and then, occasionally doing something that makes me feel good like giving to some appeal, coming along to church - so long as it suits me and it is the service I like – and I will turn to God when life gets awkward.
God made you and me for so much more.
He really does want us to step out of our comfort zone and become bigger people. But for that to happen we need to get off our spiritual backsides and take risks with the gifts that God has given us.
It might be simple.
Crossing the street and knocking on the door of that person who has just moved in, or who has been there for ages but we have never got round to saying hello or even inviting them round for a cup of tea or Christmas drinks.
It might be asking someone to come to the Advent carol or Christmas carol service with you.
It might be joining a small group, joining the cleaning team, missing Sunday lunch and staying behind for a shared lunch, so that you can spend time with people in the church you don’t really know.
Or it might be something big.
I stand in awe of those with medical experience who have chosen to go out to, or to stay in Western Africa to help with the fight against Ebola: many of whom have been inspired by their Christian conviction.
I was speaking yesterday with a pastor from North West Nigeria. He was saying that they are looking for Christians with skills – medical, teaching or farming - to go out and spend a week or two teaching people there, passing on knowledge and experience.
One thinks of Alan Henning or others like him, inspired to go out and use what gifts they had. Perhaps you might say he was foolish, he took unnecessary risks, and should have stayed safe at home. But I don’t. I have deep respect for those foolish risk takers, who step out because they are motivated by a desire to serve those in need.
Some of you will be aware that a couple of weeks ago I went on a conference for clergy in their early 50's who have been in the ordained ministry for a significant number of years. I called it the conference for clergy facing mid life crises. Maybe this is a sermon of a vicar facing a mid life crisis.
I am conscious of how safe I have become in Bury
When I was in London we set up and ran a centre for asylum seekers. They were people who were legally here but who were not allowed to work or have any entitlement to benefits – until their cases had been heard. They had nothing. One family lived for several months in our church crypt. It was possibly illegal, probably broke all regulations and it was pretty grim for them. But there was nothing else, and it was better than living on the street.
I wonder whether I would do that again if the opportunity or need presented itself. It was incredibly stressful, but it was also right and God was in it. And the older son and daughter, both in their 20's became committed Christians.
But I need to challenge myself, and I would ask you to challenge yourself, and ask if you are becoming like the one talent person who, for the sake of a quiet, comfortable and safe life, buries his or her talent.
The parable of the talents reminds us that all that we have is gift from God. It tells us that we are to use those gifts for him, to take risks with them for him, and to be ambitious for Him.
Father God, thank you for the gifts you have given us. Please, in your mercy, take us out of our comfort zones. Help us to use our gifts for you, to take risks for you and to be ambitious for you. Amen.