This sermon was preached at our Sunday morning service on November 19th. The Gospel was Matthew 25:14-30; commonly known as The Parable of the Talents. In the news recently had been fresh allegations of tax avoidance by the rich, royal and famous, including particular stories of the Queen's Duchy of Lancaster estate having invested in BrightHouse; a rent-to-own company, accused of irresponsible lending.
I hope you enjoy...
# Apprentice Theme Music #
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NARRATOR: Previously on the Apprentice…
Our three remaining candidates were all given large sums of Lord Shudder’s own personal wealth whilst he went away on a business trip. The dividing of the money was determined by how many tasks the candidates had previously won. Aiden, our front-runner, with five wins under his belt, was given the lion’s share of Lord Shudder’s fortune – a cool two million pounds. Bruno, having proven his mercilessness in two sales-focussed tasks was charged with responsibility of one million. Our final candidate, Christian, having only won one task previously, became the recipient of five hundred thousand pounds.
LORD SHUDDER: Well, good morning.Their opportunity to increase the cash is finished. Now, we join the candidates and Lord Shudder in… the Boardroom.
I’ve been looking at the result of this task, and I must say – on the whole – I’m pleased.
AIDEN: That would be myself, Lord Shudder.Let’s start at the top, shall we? One of you managed to double your investment to £4,000,000! Who was that?
LORD SHUDDER: Excellent! Top man, Aiden! Tell me about what you did?
Well, Lord Shudder, I realised with the amount you’d given me, I was able to set up an offshore fund in an obscure tax-haven. I put all the money in that, under an assumed name, then sat back, put my feet up, and let the money grow.
LORD SHUDDER: Now that is some smart thinking! I do dislike paying tax.
Did you come across any issues?
There was one tricky moment when the newspapers got hold of a list of offshore investors, but, thankfully, due to my precautions with the assumed name, my name was kept out of it.
And more importantly, so was mine. That would not have gone down well for you, I can tell you!
BRUNO: That’s right, Lord Shudder.Right – next. Bruno, I see that you also managed to double my money for me, giving me another million to my name?
LORD SHUDDER: Good, good! How did you do it?
I invested in shares, Lord Shudder. I picked companies that were paying back huge dividends; a few arms dealerships, online extortionate payday loan lenders, sports stores with appalling working practices, some rent-to-own stores that fleece their customers into paying several times the true value of what they buy; that sort of thing.
I’ve no issue with any of that. Profit before people is just good business sense. Well done.
CHRISTIAN: Nothing, Lord Shudder.And now, Christian – how much more money did you make me?
LORD SHUDDER: Nothing?!
That’s correct, Lord Shudder. I was aware of your reputation, your ruthlessness and your temper, so I hid the money. Under my bed.
LORD SHUDDER: Under your bed?!
That’s right, Lord Shudder. To be honest, I couldn’t be sure where you’d got the money from, so I didn’t want to put it in the bank. It wasn’t mine to give away either, and I didn’t want to do anything illegal or immoral, so I figured the best thing to do was to hide the money. Under my bed.
LORD SHUDDER: I’ve heard enough.
Aiden, Bruno – you both did exceptionally well with what I gave you. I’ll give you more. You’re both hired. Come, work for me, and together, we’ll make a killing.
Christian, you knew my reputation, ruthlessness and my temper, and still you refused to use what I entrusted you with to make me any more money. And now, you propose to lecture me on morality. You are a work-shy waste-of-space and have no place in my business. I’m suing you for everything you’ve got – your money, your house, the clothes off your back. I’m going to make sure you never work in this city again. You’re fired.
Does my retelling of the parable of the talents make you uncomfortable? My reimagining the situation as an apprentice episode with three candidates left – two of whom are decidedly dodgy – and a corrupt business-owner (absolutely no relation to the actual presenter of the show, I must make clear!) does not really tie in with our traditional interpretation of using the talents that God has entrusted us with, does it? Are we supposed to aspire to be Aiden, or Bruno, our first two candidates? What’s more, the image of God as a cruel, ruthless business-owner is not one that sits in harmony with the God we know, is it?
There’s a reason for that. This morning, I’d like to suggest that our traditional interpretation of this parable could do with a proper rethink. I don’t think this parable Christ tells us is a parable about using the gifts we’ve been given. It’s not the parable of the talents. I think this parable is about something else.
We’ve grown up being told that this is a parable about the kingdom of Heaven, or about God. Let’s question that. Instead of being a parable about what the kingdom of Heaven is like, I’d like us to wonder whether, in fact, this is a parable about what the world is like. There are clues in our reading to back this up. Unlike the previous parable in Matthew’s Gospel – the parable of the foolish bridesmaids, or in many of his other images, Jesus doesn’t begin his story here with the phrase ‘The kingdom of Heaven is like…’. Instead, he starts it by saying ‘For it is like…’. Traditionally, we’ve assumed ‘it’ here means the kingdom of Heaven. That’s an assumption. We know what they say about assuming…
There’s another clue: when our third slave in explaining why he buried the money (or in my story, hid it under his bed), accuses his master of being cruel and harsh – and effectively of theft (he reaps where he does not sow), he is not contradicted. The master really is like that. Is this really an image of God – a ruler who cheats, and steals and is harsh and cruel? Or is it an image of an unjust ruler instead?
The last clue is a literary one. In good story-telling, we build up to the moral. The last person in a set of three should be the example; the one that makes us stop and think. Christ – as an exceptional story-teller – knew this: think of the passers-by in the Good Samaritan as a prime example. What world-changing, good news message are we getting about God or Heaven in this parable to hear that it is God-ordained that the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer… and the poor will be punished for it?
No – there must be another meaning; a different moral.
Here’s another way of viewing it.
There’s a strand of theology called Liberation Theology. Basically, it tries to look at the Bible through the eyes of the poor and the oppressed. A key theme is social justice. Viewing the parable in this way places us immediately on the side of the third slave, taking a stand against the injustice of his master and refusing to be part of the system that gives more to those that already have much, and takes away from those who have little. Perhaps, then, instead of being a call to use our gifts, this parable is a call to do just as that third slave did - to speak truth to power, to take a stand against the injustice inherent in the system (to misquote Monty Python), and to be prepared to risk everything for that. Because, that is what happened to that third slave (or contestant). He takes a stand, and loses everything.
“Er… hang on”, we say, “How on earth is that supposed to be an exhortation to take a stand? Christ points out it’s a completely stupid thing to do – it will cost us everything, and gain us nothing!” And, that’s true. We see it time and time again with whistle-blowers and people who do try to make a difference in this way; their lives are often torn-apart, with very few others willing to stand with them and offer their voice in strength for fear of the same thing – of losing their homes, their neighbours, their jobs, their ability to feed themselves and their families, and the clothes off their back – even risking imprisonment. The risk is too great.
But here’s where context kicks in. For, instead of trying to relate this parable to the previous one in the Gospel, about the foolish bridesmaids, there’s a very, very good argument to be made that it should be related to the next one instead – I’m sure you know it, even if you’re not aware that it comes next: the parable of the sheep and the goats. For in this parable is Christ’s famous ‘well-done’ to those who saw him hungry and gave him food, thirsty and gave him something to drink, a stranger and welcomed him, naked and clothed him, sick and tended to him, and imprisoned and visited him. Can you see how this relates to that now destitute third slave? This is exactly where that third slave now is: naked, hungry, a stranger. Can you see how the knowledge that the church will always care and tend for that third slave can dispel the fear that lies in losing everything should he or she speak out against injustice, and encourage him or her to take a stand?
Herein lies the moral; the message. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is not God’s way. Doing something to change that from happening is. And, if you’re in no position to take such a difficult stand, then you can be eternally thankful – but make sure you watch out and care for those who are in that position, because they will need your help when fighting injustice takes its all-too-heavy toll. With God’s flock willing and able to provide support and succour to those who themselves are willing to take a stand, the story of the whistle-blowing apprentice does not need to end with the words, “you’re fired”.