“When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.”
Today marks the end of the liturgical year; next week we start anew with the season of Advent. Today, the last Sunday after Pentecost, is better known as the feast of “Christ the King”. There are a few symbols of this feast around our church, some in the stained glass and some in the wood, so for the children among us, I encourage you to seek and find them. There is the cross, the symbol of agonizing death, of total vulnerability, with a crown, the symbol of great power, around it. A cross and a crown, vulnerability and power, both are symbols of Jesus. From this symbol and this feast we are reminded that the king we have in Jesus Christ is very different from the kind of king the Hebrews expected their Messiah to be.
This feast of Christ the King is actually relatively new in the church calendar, although the Biblical references to Christ as king are many. Pope Pius XI instituted this day as a feast in 1925. Think about what was happening in Europe at that time. The leaders on the rise were dictators, Mussolini and Hitler. The Kingship of Jesus was in direct contrast to their world view. Jesus’ dominion is and always has been based on love and service to others. Today’s lessons aid in describing the kind of king Jesus is and what his kingdom is like.
In this parable, the parable of the talents, we find three individuals, three slaves of a master. The master has departed for a time, and gives unto the three slaves three respective portions of his wealth, each according to the slaves’ abilities. These portions of wealth are quantified as “talents,” an ancient measurement of weight that functioned as a unit of currency, its value depending on whether the talent was of gold, silver, copper, etc. In any case, regardless of the substance of the talent, it represented a large amount of wealth to be bestowed. So the original hearers of the parable would have immediately understood the hyperbole involved in talking of talents. It’s classic Matthew, and the point is that the slaves have received a great deal to work with. But upon receiving their talents, the three slaves set themselves to two different kinds of activity. The first two dutifully go out and trade with them and thereby double their initial portions: the one who had five talents acquires five more, the one with two talents, two more. The third slave, however, goes out and buries his single talent. The master returns to settle his accounts and discovers the results of the three slaves’ endeavors. The first two, he honors for their labors, and invites them into his joy and entrusts them with greater shares of responsibility. The final slave, the one who buried his talent, comes forward with an excuse about the master’s harsh nature, attributing his decision to bury his talent to his fear of the master. The master then takes away his single talent in wrath, and condemns the useless slave into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now, the Parable of the Talents has to be one of the most misunderstood and badly botched parables of our Lord’s repertoire. But we come by it honestly, as there are many reasons for our misunderstandings. And so this is one of those parables that comes with a standard interpretation that requires a significant amount of deconstruction up front before we can then return to the parable itself. So here we go.
Today is All Saints Sunday, and saints don’t come solo. They come, as our first reading says, as a great multitude. They come, as our second reading says, in sentences that use the words us, we, us, we, us. They come, as our third reading says, as a community of those whose values are not the world’s values: all the merciful, all the poor, all those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Saints don’t come solo.
The irreducibly communal nature of being in Christ, being part of his body, has always been good news, but I think it’s particularly so right now, when so many traditional forms of connection and community have broken down in American culture. All around us we are seeing signs of fragmentation: angry partisanship, a widespread opioid crisis, cyber-bullying, a rising rate of major depression among adolescents, and the list goes on. Obviously broad societal trends like these have many, many contributing factors, but I can’t imagine anyone claiming that the breakdown of stable forms of community has had no effect.
In this kind of world, being part of something that, like Christian life, is irreducibly communal, is increasingly important, and it’s not just Christians who think so. Some of you may have read the commencement address that Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former Surgeon General, gave at the University of Arizona last year. I want to quote him for a few moments.