Sermon of Talents

Sunday 15th November, Gospel according to Matthew 25.14-30.

Dear sisters and brothers and other siblings in Christ.

This story we just heard feels so unfair to me, so unfair. How can it be that the slave who is too afraid to invest the money but hides it instead, still giving it back to his master, is the one who gets punished? How can he be thrown into the outer darkness with nothing? I am sorry but it does not feel very Christian to me. So, I decided, I have to dig deeper.

I guess most of you have heard the interpretation that this story really is about the spiritual talents we have, our gifts, what we are naturally good at. That we are not supposed to hide our talents, keep them to ourselves but to put them into good use. Of course, who could oppose that? Still, I want us to take a bit closer look at what really happened in the story and then decide what we want to draw from it.

First of all, those slaves were given talents. Each talent contained from 30 to 40 kilograms, from 66 to 88 pounds of metal. During Roman times one silver talent was equivalent to 6000 denarius. One denarius was one day’s pay for a regular worker. So, one talent was a huge amount of money, like one worker’s lifelong pay. And one slave was given five talents, one got two talents and the last one got one talent.

During those times it was a common belief that there was a certain amount of resources for the whole humanity and the question was how those resources should be divided. If someone got more, someone else lost some. That is why greed truly was seen as a sin. There was no honor in collecting too much wealth for yourself. It was comparable to theft. Honor and shame were important factors during those times. That is why the masters often let their slaves do their dirty work, take care of them getting richer and richer. The slaves had no honor to lose.

So, we have this master who is very rich and definitely does not need more. Still, he goes away and hands over his wealth to his slaves to make him even more money. Those are rewarded who have done that but the one who does not want to support his master’s greed gets punished. So, he gives back what was his master’s in the first place. Could we not see that as a courageous act? He is going against his master’s greedy nature preventing him from having too many resources, which would mean less resources to those in need. So, who is really to blame?

Yes, when we spiritualize this story, it becomes a whole different story, because our spiritual talents are not limited. When I share my talents they often just grow stronger, they intensify. Other people get a lot, too. Everyone wins. But why tell a story about money if you are trying to say something about spiritual talents? Even if that would be the right interpretation for this story, I do want to talk about money, too. I think these days we need to talk about it, since the capitalist Western society sometimes seems to have forgotten, that our resources are limited. It seems to have forgotten that we should use our talents for everyone’s benefit, not just for our own – just as those first two slaves used their talents for their master’s benefit and not their own.

Our planet is suffering because of our greed. One per cent of people own more than the other 99 per cent altogether. And still, greed is not seen as such an enormous sin in our culture in general. No, we give awards to best investors. We applaud rich people who give some money to charity while still living a life of material abundance.

I think in some ways we have traveled back to the Middle Ages when the poor people were needed for the rich to be able to do good deeds when giving the poor handouts. We are in need of reformation. We need to learn to settle with less material goods, less pollute lifestyle, sharing our resources more evenly among humankind.

You might say I am not being true to the original meaning of today’s Gospel. It is so common to talk about those talents as those strengths we each have and that we need to put in good use. But who is to say what is the right interpretation? I am saying that the spiritual understanding of those talents at its worst is a nice way to sustain the capitalist structures without them being questioned. To question the rich being allowed to get even richer is not common in our Western society nowadays. We tend to live as the resources were limitless. The Earth, and especially the younger generation using its voice, is finally telling us: “No, the resources are what they are and you have overused them. You need to stop. You need to repent and start living in a sustainable way.”

What if today’s Gospel is not so much a story of how things should be but a description of how things are in reality? Some people have too much and get even more and some people have nothing. “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.” Some people are living their lives as if they were in hell already.

What if the Gospel of today is good news for those who are suffering, both people and the Earth? What if today this sermon is more demanding to people like me and more gospel to those who have not received so many earthly goods, so many resources? And what if the gospel to me and people like me lies in the fact that if we all learn to use our talents in service of the earth and the whole humankind, it is actually better for each one of us. Then heaven touches the earth, the kingdom of God is among us and we all live a life of abundance.

Revd Laura (Late) Mäntylä is a University Chaplain in the University of Helsinki serving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland. She is also a priest for LGBTIQ people. She emphasizes to looking life from the perspective of those who are oppressed. Because, more often, it is the perspective of the most privileged that we hear.