A sermon on Matthew 25:1-30 by Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber
Last week’s gospel and this week’s gospel are both difficult stories to grapple with. Last week, Jesus told us about the 10 bridesmaids who were waiting on the groom. Five had prepared well and brought extra oil, but five did not. When the bridegroom came, the foolish ones who didn’t bring extra oil asked the others to share but they did not. The foolish didn’t get to go to the wedding, but the ones with extra oil did.
This week it’s the story of the talents. Three slaves are entrusted with huge amounts of money, and the master goes away for a long time. When he returns, the ones who had lots of money double their money and are rewarded but the one who got the smallest amount simply returned what he’d been given and was admonished.
Jesus tells these stories to share with us what the Kingdom of God is like. And when I hear what the Kingdom of God is like, I immediately jump to what GOD is like. But what if these two stories are less about what God is like, and more about what we are to be like?
What happens to our understanding of these stories when we focus less on the bridegroom and the master, and focus more on us–on the bridesmaids and the servants?
Let’s look at the story in the first part of Matthew 25 about 5 foolish bridesmaids and 5 wise bridesmaids. The wise took extra oil for their lamps, the foolish did not. All 10 waited together, and fell asleep. When they got word that the bridegroom was finally on his way, they prepared to meet him. But the foolish realized they did not prepare well. They did not have the resources they needed to be ready for the welcoming.
The bridesmaids with extra oil did not share their oil because if they did, no one would have enough. The foolish bridesmaids ran off to try to cram at the last minute the preparation that should have been done a long time ago. And while they were gone, the party started without them and they were unable to attend.
That’s a rough story.
When I focus on God, it’s a God I don’t like. How dare those bridesmaids get shut out of the party?
But what about when I focus on the bridesmaids?
What if the oil is not an exchangeable resource, but what if the oil is a metaphor for our own spiritual reserves?
No matter how much I want to, I can not give you any of my spiritual reserves.
The only way you gain spiritual reserves is by doing your own spiritual work. By spending time learning about Jesus and God’s people through the stories in the Bible. By building your relationship with God through different forms of prayer and meditation. By living into spiritual practices that form you day by day into a more God-centered person.
That is the only way any of us can get more spiritual reserves. We have to do it ourselves. We can’t just get some on loan from anyone else.
And so, when we focus on ourselves in this story of the Kingdom of God, we are given an important reminder that each of us–on our own–has a responsibility to nurture and grow our own spiritual life, our own relationship with God, our own reserve to fuel the Holy Fire of love in our souls.
When we move to today’s Gospel story, which follows immediately after the bridesmaids’ story, things change when we put the focus on our own preparation for the Kingdom of God rather than focusing on God in this story.
A master went away for a very long time, giving three slaves some money. One got 5 talents, one 3 talents, and the third got 1 talent. It’s crucial to remember how much money this really is. At talent, depending on if it was silver or gold, was worth 10-20 YEARS’ worth of wages.
So when this master went away, he gave one slave 10 years’ wages, one slave 30 years’ wages, and one slave 50 years’ wages.
So…the slave that got the least amount of money was given, let’s say, a half-million dollars. The one with 5 talents got $2.5 million.
These are not small sums. They are over-the-top amounts.
Again, let’s not focus on the Master, let’s focus on the “us” in the story–the slaves.
So the question becomes: How do we live in order to be prepared for the Kingdom of God? What are we called to do with the abundance in our lives?
The answer is not to simply hold onto what we have and be thankful
The answer is that the Right Response to God’s generosity in our lives is to use what we have been given for the greater good. When we do this, more goodness and more abundance will be created.
If we live a fear-based life like the slave with one talent who was so scared of the master, then we are not able to fully participate in God’s goodness and generosity. We can not be formed and molded into a more generous, more loving, more giving beloved child of God. When we fearfully hold onto that which we have, we turn more and more inward and insulate ourselves from connection and sharing and the life which God intends for us.
When we hold on so tightly to what we’ve been given, our hands and our arms grow immobile and we no longer have the freedom or the movement to take anything else that is offered to us. We lose out on a generous life because we are so focused on holding on to what we have been given.
But when we act like the other two slaves and we look at our lives and see the overwhelming abundance in them, we are able to share and risk and support one another. We are able to build stronger relationships and stronger communities. We are able to hold things loosely and both give and receive in ways of love and generosity. We are able to practice living in abundance, having enough, and ensuring that others have enough. THIS is what the Kingdom of God is like.
So, to sum up, when we think about ourselves in these two parables, Jesus is showing us how to live our lives now so that we will be prepared to live into the Kingdom of God both ultimately at the end times, and also within our own hearts and our lives day by day right now.
From the first story: As followers of Christ, the only one who can deepen our spiritual reserve is us. We can not borrow anyone else’s spiritual reserves. (And wow, we are really going to need more spiritual reserves in the coming months.)
From the second story: As followers of Christ, we are called to see the overwhelming abundance and blessing in our lives right now — right now — and live lives of generosity and community building and graceful love.
In these two ways, we both build the Kingdom of God right now, and we prepare for the Kingdom of God to Come.
As we look towards Advent, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about ways you might focus more specifically on building up your own spiritual reserve and ways that you can claim the abundance in your life and share it with others.
In this way, we will create and prepare for the Kingdom of God.