I grew up in a different religious world to the one I inhabit today. I was brought up as a non-conformist and an evangelical, in churches without the advantages of establishment, and in that world there is a strong evangelistic imperative. For children, that seemed to mean inviting one’s schoolfriends to come along to church on a Sunday. In this context, the Parable of the Talents had a simple meaning: as a child it seemed to me that if I didn’t actively evangelise my friends, I would be like the wicked and lazy slave. In my world, real Christians were fruitful evangelists, with fruitful defined in simple numerical terms. As an introverted and self-conscious little boy, this posed a problem for me. I can’t remember any of my school friends coming to church because of me; in fact I can’t remember ever plucking up the courage to ask them.
Looking back thirty years later, I have mixed feelings about the tradition I was brought up in. On the one hand I can see the strength and the value of a tradition that makes spreading the gospel the business of every believer. Of course we should want more people to come to church, and there is only so much that the clergy alone can do about that. But on the other hand I am still horrified that as a primary school boy I had a very real fear of damnation because of my failures as an evangelist. And more than that, the model of evangelism that was offered was narrowly-focussed on bums on uncomfortable seats; it didn’t take adequate account of the different ways of seeing growth, nor did it take account of the different gifts and abilities given to different people.
If we think about the third slave, the one who buried his talent in the ground, his actions seem pretty strange to us. We are inclined to feel sorry for him because he seems so feckless. But what we often don’t notice is that in Jesus’ day burying money in the ground was a common way of ensuring its safety; rabbis taught that someone who buries money entrusted to their care is not liable if it is lost.
From the point-of-view of the rabbinic tradition of Jesus’ day, the third slave’s action was commendable. He didn’t risk losing his master’s money by using it in risky business ventures; rather he kept in safe in the accepted way, by burying it. He is not feckless. He is cautious, one might even say prudent. But caution and prudence are not what the master is looking for, and caution and prudence prevent the slave from seeing the opportunities for growth that bring great reward to the other two slaves.
The third slave is held back by fear. It is fear of losing that which has been entrusted to him that makes him over-cautious. And his preoccupation with the possibility of loss prevents him from discerning the opportunities for growth.
But how are we to understand growth? The phrase that jumps out at me in today’s gospel is “to each according to his ability”. Jesus understands that we are all different. As St Paul writes in his epistle to the Ephesians, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”. Some of us have a ministry of hospitality and welcome, others of teaching and evangelism, others of acts of charity, others of friendship and encouragement, others of a life of deep prayer.
All of these ministries can be fruitful, but the fruitfulness may not always be apparent to us. I don’t think that the purpose of today’s parable is to make us agonise over the lack of a quantifiable output from our lives as Christians; God says through the prophet Isaiah “my word… that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty”, and we must trust that it will be so. The purpose of today’s parable is surely to make us see the danger of fear, the danger of caution, the danger even of prudence, holding us back from the possibilities of growth in its fullest sense.
For example, we might be reluctant to engage with our faith at an intellectual level; we might be reluctant to engage with difficult questions about God and good and evil, or about God and science, or any number of other knotty theological problems. We might be reluctant to engage in such questions because we are afraid; afraid that our faith will be challenged, afraid that our doubts will come to the surface, afraid that we might lose that faith which has been entrusted to us. And so we bury our talent in the ground for fear of losing it, and miss out on the possibility of growth through intellectual enquiry and study.
Or again, we might be reluctant to engage in acts of practical charity. We might be reluctant to be involved in that sort of work which brings us face-to-face with profound suffering. We might be reluctant because we are afraid; afraid of having nothing to say to the homeless person or the refugee or the person reaching the end of their life in loneliness and despair. And afraid too that such encounters will challenge and even undermine our faith. And so we bury our talent in the ground, and miss out on the possibility of bringing God’s love to others through acts of charity, and the growth that brings.
Or again, we might be reluctant to pray. Or we might be reluctant to deepen and intensify our prayer life. We might be reluctant because we are afraid. Afraid of praying for the wrong thing. Afraid that our prayers will not be answered. Afraid that committing more time to prayer will make us miss out on other things we enjoy in our lives. Afraid perhaps of what we might find within ourselves if we take time to be silent before God. And so we bury our talent in the ground, and miss out on the possibilities of growth that can come through a life of prayer.
So I invite you to reflect on where fear may be holding you back; I invite you to reflect on where caution may be preventing you from recognising opportunities for growth in its fullest sense; I invite you to consider where a preoccupation with the possibility of loss might be getting in the way of your life as a Christian. It could be in any number of ways, in any number of areas of activity. As the gospel says, “to each according to his ability”. Your calling may be to prayer or to hospitality or to study or to charity or to evangelism or to any combination of these things. It might even be to inviting your friends to come to church during the approaching festive season, or at least to join us online! Your calling might even be to the priesthood. But whatever it may be, I invite you to reflect on where fear or caution may be leading you to bury your talent in the ground. And I invite you to pray for a spirit of courage and boldness rooted in trust in God, so that you may hear those wonderful words: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; enter into the joy of your master.’