Saturday, 27 February 2010

Second Sunday of Lent : Where much has been given...


Philippians 3:17-4:1
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship [COMMONWEALTH!!!] is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Matthew 25:14-30
The Parable of the Talents

Jesus said, ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”


I took a funeral, not so long ago, for someone who had once, with her husband, lived in our parish, but had moved away. Her husbamd explained to me that they felt that leaving the area was the worst mistake they had made, and that this place gets under your skin. I suspect many of you feel the same way. There is a sense in which this a special place. And from an economic point of view there is also a way in which, if you can afford to live here, then by doing so you feel as if somehow you have ‘arrived.’

I suspect that a similar feeling was pervasive in the city of Philippi. In the middle of the reading from Philippians St. Paul says these words, ‘But our citizenship is in heaven...’ I want to use this as our leaping off point because the Greek word that we translate as citizenship is, politeuma, which was quite specific to the kind of place that Philippi was. Robert Hart, an Anglican priest, explains that...

“Within the Roman empire a politeuma referred to a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans. Think of a community of people with the same background, living together in a foreign country. Frequently the Roman emperors paid off their soldiers by given them grants of land in the conquered territories, which led to the creation of such communities. These “commonwealths” enjoyed special prestige and privilege in the Roman empire. Philippi itself was a politeuma.”

The people of Phillipi felt as if they had ‘arrived’ by living where they did. And so, as was often his practice, St. Paul was talking to them within their context, and explaining to them that it was important not to take too much pride in belonging to such a politeuma. Why? Simply because it was not their real home. They may well have had special prestige and privilege by living there, and they may well have felt very proud of their social status, but that wasn’t where they truly belonged. Their true politeuma was in heaven, and they needed to be reminded of that.

Now what makes this even more interesting is that politeuma is not just translated as citizenship. It is actually just as easily translated as ‘commonwealth’, which is an interesting compound word made of two words, ‘common’ and ‘wealth’. So now let me retranslate and paraphrase this passage for us, as the residents and those who feel attached to this largely very well-off and privileged parish.

If St Paul was writing to us, this passage would say, ‘Do not take pride in your privileged location, because this is not your true home. Your true common wealth is in heaven.’ Now I’m saying all this to get us in the right frame of mind to understand our Gospel passage in the context of Lent.

Over the course of this season we are going to be thinking a lot about giving. We have already told you about the scheme of using our gifts and talents to make money for the church, and have some creative fun whilst we’re at it. And now today’s passage puts us firmly in that place where we are to think about where we really belong and about our ‘common wealth’.

The reason for this long introduction is because when we turn to the Gospel reading, which we all know as the parable of the talents, we always translate it in our heads as being about literal talents that we have; gifts that are a part of what we contribute. But that is an interpretation of the parable. Those of you who have joined Lent groups, and if you haven’t there’s still time, will have discussed this passage during the week. So let me give it to you straight.

A talent was an amount of money roughly equivalent to fifteen years worth of wages for an average labourer. Given that the average UK household income for 2008 was close on £30,000, we’re talking the equivalent of even the least able slave being given £450,000 to work with.

So I think that for us this parable is about three things, wealth, the generosity of God, and our responsibilities for what we’ve been given. Now if we are members of a commonwealth of heaven, far more than we are members of a well-off and beautiful community in the West Midlands, what exactly does this passage specifically say to us in the context of giving?

First, perhaps, we need to look at what is meant by the word used for giving here. In the authorized version it says that the slaves were given talents according to their ability whereas in the NRSV it says that the slaves were entrusted with talents according to their ability. Which is it? Actually it’s somewhere in between, a sort of both/and rather than either/or.

According to Brian Stoffregen the word that is used, paradidomi, usually means to give in such a way as to hand over responsibility for, and it’s notable that, at the end, the talent that was taken away from the lazy slave was given to the one who had earned the most. The talents do not appear to have been handed back to the master, yet there is this sense that they still belonged to the master, and he could do with them as he pleased.

So it seems to me that we could read it like this, that the money was given completely as if it belonged to the slaves, even though it was still the master’s. Therefore the money was still his, but he had given it in such a way as to give them complete freedom as to what they would do with it. They had responsibility. With that in mind, what then does this parable say to us?

I would suggest that it is fairly simply this. If you live in this well off area, you may well do so because God has been extremely generous to you. But we should be clear about whose wealth it actually is.

You may think you’re here because you earned it, and as with most things in life there is a degree of collaboration between us and God. Note that the amount of money was given to each slave according to his ability. You are endowed with various gifts and good fortune and you have made use of them and so now you have made five more talents worth of wealth, but this is a mark of the generosity of God towards you, and because God expects you to provide a good return.

The wealth you have been given should be used to generate an equal return. And as citizens of heaven, rather than citizens of this parish, what you do with that return should be done with the understanding that your wealth be put to the common good, for those in need and for outreach to the local community. Although it has been entrusted to you, it is not truly yours, and what’s more I believe you are given responsibility to put to good use what you generate from what you have been given.

Now these figure can’t strictly apply to all of us because some of those who come here travel from somewhere else. Many of you are younger and have yet to earn enough to be able to afford a house in this parish, although you perhaps aspire to. At this stage in your lives, and perhaps with children to think about, you are more in the two talents area, but perhaps with an eye on having a five talents life style one day.

But it seems to me that what Jesus is saying is that if you possess wealth it is because God has entrusted you with it and given you freedom to treat it as if it were yours, but it isn’t! And what’s more, the more you have been entrusted with, according to your ability, the more he expects from you. Don’t forget that even one talent was the equivalent of fifteen years wages.

So here is the message from these passages. You are not citizens of this place. Instead you are citizens of heaven. But while you reside in this place, if you have been given a great deal of wealth, you are expected to remember that it comes from God, entrusted to you to deal wisely with, and he expects you to use it according to your ability.

Now if we remember from our Philippians passage that this place is not our true home, what then do you think is a wise return on the investment God has entrusted to you?

So this is the question I want to put to you. If God has entrusted wealth to us, and if God expects a good return on his investment, what are you going to do with the wealth you have generated?

R Hart
B Stoffregen

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