In the ancient world, as in today’s world, the domestic life of women was difficult. Without modern labour-saving devices, household chores were even more laborious and time-consuming. A wife would be expected to run a household, and it was hard and difficult work. Such a demanding role means that paragons in the domestic sphere were to be praised and prized. And, in the Book of Proverbs, we see such an example of industry, of hard work. Throughout Ancient Wisdom Literature, wisdom and industry go hand in hand, they are beautiful and good, as they come from the source of all beauty and goodness, namely God. An excellent wife is more valuable than jewels, because while precious stones possess beauty and value, they are not capable of doing good.
The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. (Proverbs 31:11)
As a result of the relationship between a loving husband and wife, their mutual prosperity is assured. This then leads to generosity:
She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. (Proverbs 31:20)
The point of wealth is not for it to be acquired for its own sake, but so that it may be a blessing to others. God wants humanity to flourish by being loving and generous. This theme runs through all our readings this morning.
St Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is written to a community that is afraid of two things: death and the return of Jesus in Judgement. These are understandable emotions. However, while death and judgement are inescapable, they do not need to be feared. They are compared with the labour pains of a pregnant woman, which are often sudden and sharp. But if we live lives characterised by love, and we have faith in Jesus Christ who died and rose again for us, we have the hope of salvation. This is good news, and leads St Paul to write:
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1Thess 5:9)
Paul’s letter is written to encourage his fellow Christians, to allay their fears and to build up their faith, hope, and love, as a community:
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1Thess 5:11)
We all of us need encouragement, especially when times are difficult, and when we are as afraid or unsure, as we are at the moment. It is good to be reminded that, in trying to lift each others spirits, we are behaving as a Christian community should.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues to talk about the future using parables. Just as with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Jesus begins by showing that he is talking about a future reality: how things WILL BE, not how they are now. This future reality is Christ’s return. Christians believe that Jesus will come again to judge the world. The theme of today’s parable, the Parable of the Talents is judgement. These days, we are not comfortable with ideas of judgement. Many of us remember preachers using ideas of hell-fire and damnation to fill people with fear. But the heart of the Gospel is love not fear, and perfect love casts out fear.
In the parable the master goes on a journey and entrusts his property to his servants. He puts his possessions into their care because he trusts them to look after it. The servants who are assigned five and two talents are both praised for being ‘good and faithful’. They have acted morally and demonstrated their faith, and they will be rewarded. The problem is with the servant who was given just one talent and hid it in the ground. He explains his actions, saying:
‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ (Mt 25:24-25)
This servant does not love his master, he fears him. He does not take care of what has been entrusted to him, because he simply sees it as a possession, a thing. The servant loves neither his master nor what was entrusted to him. By hiding the talent in the ground, he squanders the opportunity his master has given him, because he is jealous and resentful. As all gardeners know, seeds produce different results, just as in the Parable of the Sower, but they all need to be sown in the first place. What we learn here is that bitterness and resentment have no place in the Kingdom, they are not compatible with a Gospel of Love. The tragedy is that the fearful servant condemns himself to being outside the Kingdom, by failing to recognise both generosity, and the value of a relationship.
The Parable of the Talents, just like the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, is a commentary on the life of the Kingdom. These are stories of servants who are prepared and continue to work, until their master returns. They are parables which teach us how to be a Church of loving generous service, not one of fear.
It may sound pedestrian, or even humdrum, but living the Christian life, living the life of the Kingdom, is, at a day to day level, boring, difficult and repetitive. It is about ‘keeping on keeping on’ — loving, forgiving, praying –- nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, fed by Him, and with Him, freed from the fear which is the antithesis of the Kingdom, rejoicing in the gifts which God gives us, being thankful for them, and using them for God’s glory. None of us fully deserve the gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ: we have not earned it. It is not a reward, but rather the gift of a loving God. It is a gift which we are called to receive, and it transforms our lives. The God who will come to judge us, and all humanity, is a God of love and mercy, whose hands bear the mark of nails, wounded for love of us. Judgement and mercy go hand in hand, and if we love God and love our neighbour, we are living the life of the Kingdom, here and now, free from fear.
So let us live out that life together, encouraging one another, so that we may all be built up in faith, hope, and love, and together share in the joy of the Kingdom, so that all may know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.