Scots Church Adelaide
Beware of the Self

Lectionary: Matthew 25: 1-30

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, "Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him." Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise replied, "No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves." And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, "Lord, lord, open to us." But he replied, "Truly I tell you, I do not know you." Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

'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."

After Jesus' all out attack on the Pharisees in Matthew Chapter 23, there is a change of tone in Matthew. The temple destruction takes centre stage as a sign that the end is near. It is the sign that things are coming to a head. We are warned to be ready. Urgency is increased.

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he* is near, at the very gates. (24:33)

Even so,

about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this...

So begins Chapter 25 . The emphasis is on then. Of course for Matthew's readers, living shortly after the destruction of the temple, that meant Now. They really were waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom and the return of the Master. You don't know when this will happen, said Matthew. It could be tonight, or it may be a long time. But don't be caught by surprise. Be ready.

The story of the ten bridesmaids has a relatively benign ending for a Matthew who has those who are unfaithful cut to pieces. (24:51) The bridegroom simply says, "Truly, I do not know you." He is almost regretful. Despite this regret, it is clear there is a certain kind of unreadiness which means we are not really a follower of Christ, but name-only Christians. We are so far removed from living the faith, that he does not know us.

This can raise fear in me. How can I possibly know if am ready? What does it actually mean to "be ready?" In the next parable, the Master who has returned says, "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." To be ready does not require perfection.

The Master comes to us constantly, not just in the future. We see this in the final parable in Chapter 25, when the Son of Man (v 39) says, "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." We are constantly being given the opportunity to "be ready, " or be "trustworthy in a few things," by loving our neighbour as our self... which is to love Christ when he comes to us. "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

This is not always easy, and we constantly fall short of what we could do. The Parable of the Talents (a talent is a measure of gold or silver, not anything to do with skills) offers a word of grace here. The only criticism by the master was of the slave who did nothing. He did not fail, or fall short, but chose not to participate. Are we trying to use what we have been given, or do we simply bury our treasure? Perhaps simply to be trying is enough.

We do need to try, however. Burying your money was apparently the prudent course in Jesus' time. It was not an entrepreneurial or investment culture for ordinary people. There is a sense here in which we are being told that following Jesus is not a prudential course; it is a course of some risk. (I owe this thought to Christian Coon)

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The other afternoon Julie arrived at my door, as I was trying to sleep off some unwellness. She introduced herself as just moved into the flats at the end of our street. She had a two year old and a newborn, she said. "It's all right. I've got support starting from Social Security today"- it was pension day- " but the cheque hasn't been paid in yet, and I need to buy some formula for the baby. Can you help me?"

I've had a lifetime of tall stories seeking money, and although this one was missing many of the common "scam indicators," I was unconvinced. But I gave her the twenty dollars I had in my wallet, saying I hoped it would help. At tea I alerted the family I thought we might receive a return visit. We did- at 1am the next morning!

Her story was word for word the same. "I gave you money for formula this afternoon, Julie," I said. "What happened?"

"Well, could you take me to Crisis Care in Salisbury," she replied, ignoring the question. "They're waiting for me now." I knew this could not be true, but I was not sleeping well, and was strung out. I knew I was not coping or responding as I would have liked; I just didn't have the energy to talk further with her. I said I couldn't take her down there, and she plodded off into the night.

I lay in bed thinking that if she came back I would need to see if there really were two children somewhere, and if I needed to ring the Child Abuse Report Line. There was something in the cadence of her speech that signalled mental un-health, quite apart from the strange hour of her arrival. She might need more help than money.

She has not come back. I failed her, essentially sending her off into the night. I failed her by not spending more time talking earlier in the afternoon. True, it was the middle of the night, and I was barely functioning. But my slow response, and my reluctance to engage with her was mostly because I was burned out like the lamps in the first parable. I'd gotten to the point of being like the five foolish bridesmaids who had no spare oil, and I had nothing left to give.

That's my failure. But at least I began. I did not send her away empty handed at the beginning, or simply rebuff her rudely, without question. That would have put me in the role of the third slave, burying the money he had, instead of using it. I was perhaps trustworthy in a very little, and have been well rewarded. I've been sick with exhaustion for a whole week, but the incident with Julie has caused me to reconsider my priorities even more carefully.

What do we do to ourselves when we harden our hearts, and do not respond at all to those in need? Not to give Julie the benefit of the doubt in the beginning would be to judge her, write her off, and close my heart to any compassion for what was ailing her. That does her no good. And for me? I think it would be to deliberately make myself "unready," burying my riches.

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Typically in a New Testament translation, they call the story of the lamps the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. Our next reading is called The Parable of the Talents. These headings are not in the original text, of course, and reflect the impression of the translators and publishers about something of the meaning of the story. The name The Parable of the Talents always seems unhelpful to me; it begs the comparison of the money with giftedness or ability for English language speakers, which is not really the point of the story. I call this story The Parable of the Man who should have known Better. In the story of the lamps, the Bridegroom says, "Truly, I do not know you." But in this next story, the Master says "As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness." It is a much harsher story. There is no foolishness here; this story revolves around a refusal to undertake the task the Master set.

Just one single talent was still a huge amount of money; this servant was not hard done by compared to the others, or given too little capital to work with. And if we relate his story to the one about the sheep and the goats which follows, we could conclude that by burying the talent, he was steadfastly refusing to help anyone. He was focussed on his fear of the master and his fear of failing. He was, in fact, focussed purely on himself.

One author (Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed, William Herzog, Westminster John Knox Press) sees this parable is deeply subversive. The third slave is something of a hero, refusing to take part in an unjust economic system. That author states what we know is often true, that the rich gain their riches unjustly. "You are a harsh man, reaping where you do not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter." The Master makes a grimly hilarious statement given the current financial crises of 2008, "if it is the case that I reap where I did not sow then you should have placed my money with the bankers!"

As I read it, the Master disavows the charge made against him by the third slave. The story is subversive, and we rich people reading who are reading it should take good notice of what the third servant said. But the point is that this Master is not like the slave claimed. The slave should have known better.

It is clear from Herzog that the people given the talents by the Master are not mere lowly slaves. They may be called slaves to contrast their position with that of the master, but they are entrusted with a huge amount of money and resources. In our terms they are like senior executives, with great power and autonomy. Like them, we are given much: our lives, our faith in the Christ, our place in the kingdom. Will we work with this treasure, or bury it out of selfish fear? If we work with it, says the parable, we will be given more. Bury it, and it will be taken from us. This is a deadly serious choice according to Matthew, for the third slave is cast into the outer darkness, from which there is no return into to the presence of the master.

This parable is not a teaching to use for judging others and consigning them somewhere far from us. It is a teaching with which to remind ourselves of the great dangers of self-ishness. In its purest form selfishness rejects the call of Jesus to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbour as our self. Selfishness puts self "first and only." It has no compassion, and lacks empathy. In the climax of chapter 25, the story of the sheep and goats, we will see the nature of the goats made clear. They have rejected Christ through the rejection of others. Their self-ishness destroys them.

Even if Jesus were just a man, and merely a wise teacher of his time, we can see the sense of his warnings against unbridled selfishness. We can see how "love your neighbour as yourself" is a preventative against finding ourselves stranded across some great gap from our fellow humanity. He is, of course, talking about, and modelling something much more; a greater reality and wholeness that goes beyond our everyday existence. Something glimpsed now, but which is not yet. The warning is that unbridled self, which ignores its neighbour, will lock us out of that reality. Loving our neighbour will bring us into his presence, and into the greater reality.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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