Luisa and I live in the next suburb to Merewether. Like some of you, we are not strictly speaking parishioners here. We live on one of the steepest residential roads I have ever seen. When you have lived on a flat road all of your life it’s quite a change to live on a very steep hill. You get a very different perspective from the top of the road, than you do when you are standing at the bottom, especially if you are standing at the bottom with bags of shopping which need to get to the top.
It is like any situation – where you are standing will make a huge difference to what you see. In our society young people want to get older as fast as they can, and old people try as hard as they can to get younger. Depending where you are on life’s journey will alter greatly your perspective on the world, and the way that you respond to it.
Perspective will be important as we reflect on the Gospel reading which we have just heard this morning. It is an account in the Gospel of Matthew of a story which Jesus told to his disciples. The story is divided into three parts. In the first scene the master announces that he is going away on a journey and that he is leaving his talents (his precious coins) in the hands of his slaves, for them to grow the money wisely before he returns.
In the second scene the slaves do what they can to obey their masters wishes. The one who is given the most coins uses them for trade, and ends up doubling the number of coins which he has. The one who is given two talents similarly makes two more, although we are not told how. And the one who is given just one coin, for fear of investing it badly and losing it, digs a hole and hides it in the ground for safe keeping.
All of this leads, in the story, to the third and final scene. When after a very long time the master returns. The two slaves who have doubled their coins are rewarded by being given extra responsibilities – they are taken deeper into the confidence of their master. But the one who started with the least, when he presents what he was given (which he has kept securely for the master’s return) is given nothing, and is banished from his master’s presence.
Like so many of the stories of Jesus this is a meaning story. So the task for us, (which is the case with many of the parables) is to ask two important questions. Firstly, what ideas and teachings did Jesus intend to share with those who listened to his stories when he originally told them; and secondly, what can we learn from those teachings today.
In these meaning stories which Jesus tells, each of the characters represents someone or a group of people in a particular way. The earliest followers of Jesus identified the master with Jesus. And the journey which the master went on symbolised, for them, Jesus’ departure from them when he ascended into heaven. They saw themselves as the slaves who were able to use the master’s coins (the gifts of God) wisely whilst he was absent, and they identified the slave who buried the coin in the ground with the religious leaders of their time who had not accepted Christ.
They believed that Jesus would return very soon to bring the fullness of the Kingdom of God. And they saw in this story a picture, of them working with the gifts which Jesus had left them with as they awaited his return. There hope was that when Jesus, like the master in the story, did return, they would be rewarded greatly. And they presumed that those who had not responded to Christ would be like the slave who dug a hole and buried his coin. Just as the early Christians longed to be rewarded by Jesus (their master) for working hard with the gifts which they had been given, they also presumed that those who had not actively responded to Jesus would be cast into the darkness in punishment when he returned. But this story was not just an opportunity for the first Christians to pat themselves on the back for their faithfulness. It was a reminder to them of the urgency of being ready for Jesus’ second coming at every moment of their lives.
Each of the four Gospels, particularly Mark’s Gospel, have a feeling of breathlessness about them. Jesus is in a rush. Time is short, things must be done straight away, directly, immediately. Jesus has all the time in the world for people, but time is short for preaching, teaching and for the world itself. This feeling of urgency and immediacy is a reflection of the intensity with which the first Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension lived out their lives. They believed that they were living in the last moments before the return of Christ, and stories like the one which we have heard this morning, gave them great encouragement to continue to be ready for Jesus’ imminent return, when they would be rewarded for all that they had done, and would be drawn closer into his life.
Saint Paul, in his first letters, suggested that Jesus would return in Paul’s own life time. If you want an example of this, you can read his letters to the Thessalonians, in which he states his belief that Jesus will return before he dies. But by the time Paul wrote his later letters, and certainly by the time the Gospels were written down, Christians had come to understand that, whilst they knew that they still lived in the last times, and that the end of the world was very near, its immediacy had been diluted because the experience of Christians had been that Jesus had actually not returned.
So the first few generations of Christians still lived with the urgency of being ready for his second coming in their minds, but they increasingly came to understand that this reality may be less immediate than they had previously thought. If I can explain it like this: the early Church became gradually less certain about the timing of the second coming of Christ, but correspondingly became more certain that they needed to continue to live lives which were prepared for that second coming, whenever it might happen. – – That continues to be the view of our Church in the present day.
We shy away from people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have at various points in the past set the date of the second coming of Christ. We are embarrassed by the extreme groups which became excited around the year two thousand, or when various natural disasters have taken place – and who claim that these are signs of a precise date for the return of Jesus. But at the same time, (like the slaves who went out and busily investing what they had been given) we remain committed to the belief that our lives (now) need to be ready and prepared and ordered in such a way that they are
consistent with the hope that Jesus will return to bring the Kingdom which he has already inaugurated, to its fulfilment. Saint Ignatius Loyola expressed this way of living when he said, “live as if you were going to die tomorrow; die as if you were going to live forever.”
One interesting question which we can ask when we read parables like the one which we have just heard this morning is, “who am I in this story?” I don’t know where you would place yourself. Sometimes I think I am like the slave who was given a couple of precious coins, (precious gifts of God) and was able to use them productively. But on other occasions I know that I am much more like the slave who was scared to use the gift which he had been given in case he messed things up. So I bury some of the passions and possibilities which God has given me out of fear. God has given those gifts to me, but I fail to make use of them.
If you are anything like me, then this is the point at which our sense of perspective needs to kick in. We need to find out where we are on the journey, we need to know where we are in the story. Because if God has given us gifts which we have simply buried, and we see ourselves at the end of the story, then (according to the story at least) we might be in trouble! One of the terrifying things about the word “repent” in classical Greek (the same word used for “repent” by the Gospel writers), is that it literally means “to change your mind when it is too late.” But actually we are not at the end of the story, we are still in the middle of it. We live our lives as if Jesus (the master) will return tomorrow, but every day that he does not return, gives us another opportunity to dig up that coin (that gift from God) and make use of it. Whether we do that or not is our choice.
Our Parish programme “Gifting with Grace” has given us the opportunity to identify the gifts which God has given to us and to others. Some of you have been involved in completing forms to help us to help others to identify these God-given gifts. We believe, just as we saw in the images of the story, that God has given precious gifts to each one of us. Over the coming weeks and months our hope is that we will find ways to organise ourselves from the strong foundations which we already have, to provide every one of us with support and encouragement to use those gifts in the life of the Church and in our ministries in the wider community.
Our programme mirrors in some ways other programmes around the Diocese which are seeking to help Christians like you and me to understand the gifts which God has given to us, and how those gifts might be used. And Christians around the Diocese are finding that these gifts, once they are dug up from where they have buried and used as God intended them to be, not only bring joy to others, but to themselves as well.
Let me try to give you one more thought to help. The parable which we are reflecting on this morning is repeated in the Gospel of Luke in a slightly different form. In that version the slave who digs a hole and buries the precious coin in the ground does so only after he has wrapped it in a cloth.
The word which the writers of the Gospel of Luke use to describe the cloth is found in only one other place in the New Testament. It is the word which is used to describe the cloth which covered the head of Christ in his tomb. The grave cloth in the tomb is very significant indeed for all of us. When it is left behind, containing nothing but itself, after Jesus’ resurrection, it is a reminder that in Christ every situation can be made new. Even the hopelessness of Jesus’ death can be transformed into his resurrection. I hope that that is in image which we might reflect on in the coming week.
We need to have a right sense of perspective. We are not at the end of the story, it is not yet the hour for Jesus’ return. There is still time for us to dig up those gifts which are buried, and for them to be transformed and made new in us today.