Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

The talent to love spiritually

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This morning our Gospel reading from Matthew was about the Parable of the Talents. This parable is a segment of a private sermon that Jesus gave to the disciples on the Mount of Olives that is recorded in the 24th and 25th chapters of that gospel. It was the last major time of instruction by Jesus recorded by Mathew and took place only five days before the crucifixion. This sermon consists of five elements known to us as “Signs of the End of the Age”, “The Day and Hour Unknown”, “The Parable of the Ten Virgins”, “The Parable of the Talents” and “The Sheep and the Goats”. The first two are apocalyptic and the last three explanatory; they are explanatory about what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like. Note how each of the last three segments starts:

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. [25:1]

Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted property to them. [25:14]

All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate the people one from another. [25:32]

This sermon of Jesus started with “watch out that no-one deceives you” [24:1] and finished with “the righteous (will go) to eternal life” [25:46b]. But in between these two bookends are messages of being ever ready to welcome Christ the King but also to be very aware of what service we are called to do not for the sake of merit by itself but as being Kingdom-ready.

It is in this context that we should consider today’s gospel reading about the Parable of the Talents. For if we are not careful, we may be tempted to consider the verses in isolation and hence draw incomplete or maybe even wrong conclusions.

A frequent consideration of the word ‘talent’ in the parable has been that taken by John Calvin and many since – namely that the talents given out refer to abilities gifted by God. The inclination then would be to consider the outcome of the parable as being the point Jesus wanted to make to the disciples, not the inequality of the gifting at the start – five talents to one, two to another and a solitary one to the third. There is an intuitive logic to this being the case, for Jesus had often both commended and commanded that we use our abilities. Consider these two verses from Matthew:

In the same way, let your light shine before people … and praise your Father in Heaven. [Matt 5:16]

The worker is worth his keep. [Matt 10:10]

We all have abilities gifted to us; and these gifts are diverse in character as Paul referred to in his epistles both to the Corinthians and the Romans [1 Cor 12 & Rom 12]. So this interpretation can still be instructive even if it is not complete.

Alternatively, some have read the word ‘talents’ to refer to money and therefore read the parable to be an economics primer by Jesus that first of all justifies economic inequality of beginnings but then goes on to praise savy investment nous. Such a view is not without semantic justification, for the Greek word used in the parable is τάλαντα [talanta] which represented a weight of money … and a substantial weight it was. The talent of New Testament times was 58.9kg in weight. When we read of talents being given to the servants, we might think that the master was giving a good sum; in fact, the parable records him as having given vast amounts even to the recipient of the solitary talent. At the close of trading of the world’s gold markets on Friday, gold was valued at $AU 55,005.4 per kilogram. Thus today each talent would be worth $AU 3,239,818 – that was the value of the amount given to the solitary talent recipient; the second had received twice that much; and the first five times the amount. Why would Jesus have framed the parable around such extraordinary amounts of wealth which would have been beyond any imagining by his listeners; the values could not have provided any realistic base of comprehension for them. So why did Jesus use such extravagance?

Consider again how the parable started:

Again, the kingdom of heaven will be like…

If Jesus was not wanting to give an impression that the Kingdom of Heaven would be a divine version of the ASX, what was he attempting to do?  I believe he was wanting his listeners to go beyond a monetary view of life, and simply used the money metaphor to give a sense of the awesome and profound richness of the kingdom. In John 10:10, Jesus had said:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that (you) may have life and have it to the full.

Jesus was not wishing a prosperity-gospel richness upon people, he was promoting kingdom values that would lead to full lives. What are those kingdom values? Earlier, on that very same day that Jesus had given this sermon from today’s gospel reading to his disciples, he had answered a group of Pharisees who had had sought to test him about the greatest commandments, by saying:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. [Matt. 22:37-40]

So, when the disciples were listening to Jesus relate the parable of the talents, they would surely have been hearing it in the context of what Jesus had said earlier that day – namely, the two greatest commandments. If ’Love’ – love of God and love of one’s neighbour – was so important, how might they have heard the parable through the lens of love? Considering the vast monetary values the talents given were worth, it would really seem that Jesus was saying that the master had given a bounteous capacity to love to each of the servants; but the outcome would be very different for one who would use that bounteous love quite differently from the other two.

Using this loose interpretation of talent, the first two gave out all the love they were given and, in consequence, as much again came back. The third, on the other hand, had a very parsimonious view of love, that there is only ever so much love to go around; he hadn’t wanted to waste it and so stored it up. This was a view not unlike that which Sigmund Freud would express nearly two millennia later. When asked about the concept of loving one’s neighbour, Freud wrote:

… if (someone) is a stranger to me and he cannot attract me by any worth of his own of any significance that he may already have acquired for my emotional life, it will be hard for me to love him. Indeed, I should be wrong to do so, for my love is valued by all my own people as a sign of my preferring them, and it is an injustice to them if I put a stranger on a par with them. But if I am to love him (with this universal love) merely because he, too, is an inhabitant of this earth … then I fear that only a small modicum of my love will fall to his share.

To Freud, therefore, there was a limit to love; since he was an atheist, his conclusion was not that unreasonable as he could not think beyond the finiteness of this life. Similarly, the third servant was as limited in his understanding; even to the extent of failing to understand his master whom he described, somewhat unwisely to his face, as being a ‘hard man’. [v24] So he didn’t share it, he hid it; and thus prevented more coming back to the master.

Let’s remind ourselves what the transaction was between the master and the servants. The reading this morning had this to say:

(he) called his servants and entrusted his property to them. [v14]

How can this speak to us, if we consider the purpose of the parable to be that God has entrusted his love to us; with the consequence that he expects it to be returned with interest? He has entrusted us with an understanding of his divine love and, as the two greatest commandments instruct, has expected us to invest it by loving both him and also our neighbours as ourselves.

The Christian faith makes much of love. Indeed, the iconic gospel reading that is often held up as proof in public spaces to the wider world, to an often unbelieving world, is John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son.

Last Wednesday, Australia’s Chief Statistician released the results of Australia’s postal survey into same sex marriage. Even those living the most cloistered of lives cannot have failed to have seen the result – nearly 62% of Australians voted in favour with the remaining 38% against.

How should this result be interpreted? The wider community has not unreasonably interpreted it to mean that the federal parliament should legislate to permit same sex marriages at the earliest opportunity; indeed that appears to be the way the parliament is seeing the matter with some MPs who have been publicly against same sex marriage, advising that they will now vote in favour or at least abstain.

How should we in the church respond? I know that we will each be reflecting and praying about this even now; and it is a question of no less importance to those who themselves voted ‘no’ as it is to those who, like me, voted ‘yes’. For the way we respond will influence the way we are seen by the wider world; and to be seen by the world is what Christ calls us to.

This weekend, the Australian Christian Lobby is having their Annual Conference and, understandably, there has been a lot of discussion about the results of the postal survey. I know a number of people within that Lobby, and respect them for their faith and commitment to ministry. But I am concerned to see a couple of statements made at that conference in their discussion about the survey. One delegate has told the conference:

We’ve had some losses … but we are not called to win, we are called to speak truth.


(we’re) trying to fight to ensure that we are not a persecuted minority.

In the aftermath of the postal survey result there has, understandably and justifiably, been a great deal of discussion about the need to respect religious freedom in any relevant legislation. With qualifications, I strongly support appropriate protections for religious freedom in this matter; the freedom not to be forced to act against one’s conscience. My qualification is that Australian law most appropriately already circumscribes some religious freedoms where they have the capacity to impact others against their will – female genital mutilation is illegal in this country as is the prohibition on any attempt to enact Leviticus 20:10 [stoning of adulterers].

However, such statements about winning and losing, about persecuted minorities, could well be heard quite differently by the wider population than may have been intended by those who spoke them. Why did 62% vote ‘yes’? I believe that further research into the result will reveal that, while some Australians were tired of the debate and just wanted it settled, many more voted ‘yes’ compassionately. A great many knew families and friends who have been a marginalised minority over centuries and now they wanted a chance for these relatives and friends to be able to love and be loved in a space of respect and recognition. By seeking to protect our own space, are we at risk of being seen as more concerned for ourselves and our institutions than for others?

The ‘yes’ vote was doubtless strongest amongst non-believing Australians; they cast a vote that they cared about love. Such a result from an 80% turnout, a populace that normally defaults to voting for the status quo in referenda, did something quite different as a result. The first same-sex civil marriages will occur early in the New Year. How will we respond to such marriages?

The American evangelical, Tony Campolo, changed his mind a couple of years ago on the issue of civil marriages of same sex couples and has written this:

(I) recognize a more spiritual dimension of marriage, which is of supreme importance. We believe that God intends married partners to help actualize in each other the “fruits of the spirit,” which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, often citing the Apostle Paul’s comparison of marriage to Christ’s sanctifying relationship with the Church. This doesn’t mean that unmarried people cannot achieve the highest levels of spiritual actualization – our Savior himself was single, after all – but only that the institution of marriage should always be primarily about spiritual growth.

How may we as a church, we as individual Christians, support those who will be married in civil marriage ceremonies, same sex or otherwise, to find such spiritual growth? Jesus’ words as expressed in John’s Gospel can guide us:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. [John 13:34-35]

How will we spend our talent of spiritual love, speaking with that love Jesus gave to us?