Sermons from St Faith's     

Talents Today
Paula O'Shaughnessy, 7th December, 2014

In our late capitalist world, talent is eminently bankable.  Dancing on Ice, Strictly, Bake Off…The Apprentice - scarcely a night goes by without something of the sort – usually with an expert – or a ‘master,’ perhaps – standing righteously and in many cases viciously in judgement.  Popular culture seems to be a place where you can be cast into outer darkness for a soggy bottom, or a mistaken pricing structure.  The grim emptiness  of it all is perhaps most visible in Simon Cowell – he shows both the bankruptcy of popular culture –and, somehow, what it’s really all about – money!  A word from him can set someone on the way to a multi-million dollar career – or to humiliation.  Talent shows reduce humanity to be expendable specs of human capital – and we, the TV audience, are encouraged to be part of what the French anarchist writer Guy Debord calls ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ – perhaps having our feelings manipulated in the rags to riches stories – but certainly, the worst that is in all of us brought out when we are encouraged to participate in the humiliation of those who don’t make the mark – ‘you’re no use to me – you’re fired.’

It is an odd but apt echo of our Gospel today.  For do not be deceived – a talent here is not something you can do, like playing the piano, counted cross stitch, or making a fine Victoria sponge.  No – a talent is a shed load of money – the 7 that the first two slaves accumulate would be worth about £ 500,000 in today’s money.  It’s highly ironic that we’ve reached a place today where its cultural expression is both so literal and so symbolic.

Today’s Gospel, then, isn’t a pleasantly affirming tale of ‘using our talents’ – it is a savage satire of a violently exploitative economic system and the mean and hard faced man that has benefited – for the master is not, contrary to the way this parable is usually interpreted, God – but a savage and cruel representative of violence and injustice – ‘you’re no use to me, you’re fired,’ he says, effectively, to one unfortunate slave.

What else do we know about him? Well, he’s an ‘absentee landlord’ – he’s off on a long journey; he ‘reaps where he does not sow’ – something he doesn’t deny and even boasts about a bit; in other words, he’s a thief – he takes the fruits of the labour of others, and he does so with perfect legal impunity.  Like the likes of Simon Cowell and Alan Sugar, he is rich and powerful enough to get away with it. He charges interest – something that was absolutely forbidden in the Hebrew scriptures – as it still is in Islam, of course – and he keeps slaves – which shows that he must have been in cahoots with the Romans.  And what is his attitude to the third slave?  He is ‘wicked and lazy and worthless.’  The Greek that the latter translates literally means ‘unprofitable.’  The master measures others only by how much profit they can bring him – they are simply instruments in his wider ambition – and if you’re no use, well – ‘you’re fired’.

And what about those slaves?  Well, they were slaves – not servants – but bound in servitude – bound by debt of one kind or another. They were probably ordinary peasants, who had worked the land – but then struggled to pay the tithes of both Empire and Temple – and so were eventually forced off their own land by debt, selling first their seedcorn, then their labour and then, eventually, themselves to exist.

How do they make the money?  Well, possibly – they became useful by exploiting the knowledge of the community from which they came – they understood the cycles of debt and poverty, and what would have maximum effect. They could lend the money entrusted to them to struggling peasants, then foreclose on the debt and take the land; they could, effectively, be pawnbrokers, buying from desperate people and selling at a high profit; or – as Joseph does in Genesis – they could stockpile essentials like wine and grain and oil and manipulate the price.

They are not skilled enterpreneurs; it is not, in one way, that they are using their talents – they are using their master’s power to increase his wealth; to some extent they might share in it – but insecurity is built into the system, making the slaves turn against one another and compete.  It is a classic case of divide and rule.

So who is the hero of this tale?  Well – it is – and would be to Jesus’ peasant audience – the third slave.  He refuses to participate in this game – he radically detaches himself from the system of exploitation and accumulation.  He chooses to express solidarity with the community from which he came. ‘Have what is yours,’ he says – perhaps in an echo of ‘give to Caesar’ – when Jesus, a few chapters ago resists the Pharisees’ impossible dilemma by suggesting the disciples give the blasphemous Roman coin back to the exploitative system where it belongs.

This slave pays the price – he is cast into outer darkness.  And this, of course, is also the price Jesus pays – for unmasking the violence and injustice of the world, he becomes its victim, cast into the utter and outer darkness and violence of the Cross.

So it might give us a start to realise that this is our vocation too – to take up our Cross - radically to disassociate from the violent and exploitative economics of our late capitalist, spectacle- driven world.  It is a vision of course that has inspired radical Christian discipleship – from the highest poverty of the Franciscans, who sought a relationship with the material world characterised by use that was never appropriation, to Thomas Merton’s contemplative radicalism.

Well, we might not manage that – but we do have a means of radically disassociating from the violent economics of our age – it is of course the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Kingdom and of the gentle economy of God’s relentless generosity; and isn’t our calling to live eucharistically?  For in so doing we are indeed – like the slave who represents the radical disassociation for Kingdom values – cast into outer darkness, even perhaps a little discomfort with our comfortable lives; but in order that we might live the Resurrection – to a life not shaped by luxury and insecurity – but by knowing and trusting our complete dependence on our generous God – a God whose relentless love and searing judgement are one.

The sermons index page

Return to St Faith's home page