Monday, November 13, 2017

PENTECOST XXIV 2017 (Proper 28)

Annette Gandy Fortt -- Parable of the Talents
The Gospel parable for this Sunday has entered our thinking so deeply that it has changed the meaning of a word. In Biblical times ‘talent’ was a monetary unit (distantly connected, in fact, with our word ‘dollar’). Now it means a special gift or aptitude. This change has come about largely because Matthew’s story has consistently been interpreted to refer to the special aptitudes we find in ourselves. Calling them ‘talents’ has lost all its monetary associations.  The term ‘gifts’, too, has largely lost the theological overtones that it had in former times. Yet, it is precisely because we continue to speak, and to want to speak, in this way, that an important question opens up. Gifts imply a giver. Who is the giver of these 'gifts', if not God? The special aptitudes we delight in – a talent for music or mathematics, or just as importantly, a gift for friendship – are not ours by right. Still less are they our personal accomplishments. Our gifts underlie our best efforts; they are not the result of them. 
 
Here is one place where even the most secularized culture has difficulty abandoning a truly religious sensibility. 'Gifted' people are 'blessed'. Both they and we ought to be grateful for such 'blessings', in exactly the way we are grateful for gifts from friends and family. Without these blessings, we could not make our way in the world. Yet they are benefits we have not earned, and to which we have no natural or human right.


Vilmos Aba-Novak The Light (1926)
The parable Jesus tells relies upon this acknowledgement. But it also goes beyond it. Gifts bring responsibilities, notably the responsibility to use them well. And this, the parable reminds us, implies risk. To use your gifts to the maximum, you have to take a chance. The cautious servant who buried the talent  was ‘risk averse’, understandably so, no doubt, given the severity of the master who gave it to him. Still, however understandable his attitude may be, it brought him to judgment. Life is a gift that we can waste -- to our eternal cost.

The message seems plain. Each of us must make an accurate assessment of the gifts we have been given, and launch out on paths that make the most of these. Of course, there is no guarantee that doing so will bring success as the world understands it. For the Christian, though, this does not mean that we are left stumbling in the dark. On the contrary, Paul tells the Thessalonians in this week’s Epistle, ‘You are not in darkness; you are all children of light’. This is not because they know what the future holds, but because by following Christ they have ‘put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation’. It does not require predictive foresight to be guided by faith, love and hope. And so we run no ultimate risk if we use whatever gifts we have to the best of our abilities.