Ministering for the King

When Luisa and I moved to Newcastle from Perth our home was in the Cathedral Close on one of the steepest residential roads I have ever seen.  When you have lived on a flat road all of your life it’s quite a change to live on a very steep hill.   You get a very different perspective from the top of the road, than you do when you are standing at the bottom, especially if you are standing at the bottom with bags of shopping which need to get to the top.

It is like any situation – where you are standing will make a huge difference to what you see. In our society young people want to get older as fast as they can, and old people try as hard as they can to get younger.  Depending where you are on life’s journey will alter greatly your perspective on the world, and the way that you respond to it.  Perspective will be important as we reflect on the Gospel reading that we have just heard. It is an account in the Gospel of Matthew of a story which Jesus told to his disciples.

The story is divided into three parts.  In the first scene the master announces that he is going away on a journey and that he is leaving his talents (his precious coins) in the hands of his slaves, for them to grow the money wisely before he returns.  In the second scene the slaves do what they can to obey their master’s wishes.  The one who is given the most coins uses them for trade, and ends up doubling the number of coins which he has.   The one who is given two talents similarly makes two more, although we are not told how; and the one who is given just one coin, for fear of investing it badly and losing it, digs a hole and hides it in the ground for safe keeping.

All of this leads, in the story, to the third and final scene. When after a very long time the master returns.  The two slaves who have doubled their coins are rewarded by being given extra responsibilities – they are taken deeper into the confidence of their master.  But the one who started with the least, when he presents what he was given (which he has kept securely for the master’s return) is given nothing, and is banished from his master’s presence.

Today we enter the Second Weekend of the Kingdom Season, these last Sundays of the Christian year when we are called to focus on the Kingship of Christ and our part in his Kingdom here and now.  It would be true to say that throughout the history of humanity there have been both good and bad kings and queens: royalty who have sought to rule justly, and royalty who have reigned over their subjects in such a way that they have drawn power and wealth to themselves without regard for others.  But in these final weeks of this Christian year we focus on a king who is unlike any other. Not a king who draws power to himself for his own personal gain, but a king who endures a crown of thorns, and a throne of hard wood to which he is nailed, as an act of loving service for the whole world, and we remember that in these red vestments which speak of his blood.

Last weekend we reflected together on God’s call to us to share in the work of his Kingdom, by following Jesus our King and remaining alert and ready to participate in his mission of love to the world; and this weekend, as we reflect on God’s Kingdom amongst us we are prompted by this incredibly challenging story of the master and his slaves to ask how we use the gifts that God has given us for the service of our King Jesus.

In these meaning stories that Jesus tells, each of the characters represents someone or a group of people in a particular way – we saw this last weekend in the story of the wedding of the bridegroom and his brides.   The earliest followers of Jesus identified the master with Jesus. And the journey that the master went on symbolised, for them, Jesus’ departure from them when he ascended into heaven; and the first Christians saw themselves as the slaves who were able to use the master’s coins (the gifts of God) wisely whilst he was absent,  and they identified the slave who buried the coin in the ground with the religious leaders of their time who had not accepted Christ.

They not only believed that they were living in the Kingdom of God, as they (like slaves) served their master, they also believed that Jesus would return very soon to bring in the fullness of the Kingdom of God; and they saw in this story a picture, of them working with the gifts which Jesus had left them with as they awaited his return.   There hope was that when Jesus, like the master in the story, did return, they would be rewarded greatly.  They presumed that those who had not responded to Christ and re-fashioned their lives to his teachings would be like the slave who dug a hole and buried his coin.

Just as the early Christians longed to be rewarded by Jesus (their master) for working hard with the gifts which they had been given, they also presumed that those who had not actively responded to Jesus would be cast into the darkness in punishment when he returned.  But this story was not just an opportunity for the first Christians to pat themselves on the back for their faithfulness.  It was a reminder to them of the urgency of being ready for Jesus’ second coming at every moment of their lives, and to be acting wisely and fruitfully as they waited.

One interesting question which we can ask when we read parables like the one which we have just heard this morning is, “who am I in this story?” I don’t know where you would place yourself.  Sometimes I think I am like the slave who was given a couple of precious coins, (precious gifts of God) and was able to use them productively.  But on other occasions I know that I am much more like the slave who was scared to use the gift which he had been given in case he messed things up. So I bury some of the passions and possibilities which God has given me out of fear.  God has given those gifts to me, but I fail to make use of them.  If you are anything like me, then this is the point at which our sense of perspective needs to kick in.

We need to find out where we are on the journey, we need to know where we are in the story, because if God has given us gifts which we have simply buried, and we see ourselves at the end of the story, then (according to the story at least) we might be in trouble!  One of the terrifying things about the word “repent” in classical Greek (the same word used for “repent” by the Gospel writers), is that it literally means “to change your mind when it is too late.”

But actually we are not at the end of the story, we are still in the middle of it.  We live our lives as if Jesus (the master) will return tomorrow, but every day that he does not return, gives us another opportunity to dig up that coin (that gift from God) and make use of it.  Whether we do that or not is our choice.

Let me try to give you one more thought to help.  The parable which we are reflecting on this morning is repeated in the Gospel of Luke in a slightly different form. In that version the slave who digs a hole and buries the precious coin in the ground does so only after he has wrapped it in a cloth. The word which the writers of the Gospel of Luke use to describe the cloth is found in only one other place in the New Testament. It is the word which is used to describe the cloth which covered the head of Christ in his tomb.  The grave cloth in the tomb is very significant indeed for all of us.  When it is left behind, containing nothing but itself, after Jesus’ resurrection, it is a reminder that in Christ every situation can be made new.  Even the hopelessness of Jesus’ death can be transformed into his resurrection.  I hope that that is an image which we might reflect on in the coming week.

We need to have a right sense of perspective.  We are not at the end of the story, it is not yet the hour for Jesus’ return.  There is still time for us to dig up those gifts which are buried, and for them to be transformed and made new in us today.

At this Mass, in this second weekend of the Kingdom Season we celebrate the Kingship of Christ, and we ask how we are called to play our part in his Kingdom: are we going to be like the slave who buried his God’ given gift in the ground, or are we prepared to use the gifts that God has placed within us as we await his return in glory?