Well - Zephaniah was a bundle of laughs, wasn’t he? What a miserable Old Testament reading we heard today. “Distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom, clouds and thick darkness, trumpet blasts and battle cries.” I didn’t choose it deliberately. It was just the reading set for today, but I’m glad we got the chance to hear Zephaniah’s words, from his very short book of prophecies, just three chapters long, sandwiched between Habakkuk and Haggai in the Old Testament. Zephaniah gives searingly honest voice to deep human emotions here. He says what people so often feel when things go wrong, that they are being punished for something. We may not agree with him – I certainly don’t see God like this, and other parts of the Bible put very different views. It’s often in dialogue with itself. But whatever the true cause of the disasters which hit us, it can feel like this when a day of reckoning falls on us and all our usual landmarks are swept away. During this pandemic, as many people have struggled with illness, bereavement, economic catastrophe and exhaustion, they have cried out, ‘Why me? Why us? Why now? Why this?’
Zephaniah had good reason to feel so desperate. He was writing not long before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, just as it started to become obvious that the writing was on the wall for his nation. This isn’t some vision of a far distant apocalypse. It was what he saw happening around him, as nation after nation fell to this all-conquering army. There were still some people who wanted to deny reality, “surely, it can’t happen to us!” But the axe soon fell on them too, just as Zephaniah said it would. His words remind us that it’s all right to howl at God, to howl at the world, to tell it like it feels. We don’t have to pretend things are ok when they’re not. In fact, it’s only when we stop doing that that that we have any chance of moving forward.
Zephaniah’s people were coming to a day of reckoning, which would reveal their vulnerability and powerlessness, just as our own day of reckoning has to us. This pandemic has shown us that everything in our garden is far from rosy. It’s revealed the inequalities in our society and the precariousness of so many people’s lives. It’s stripped away the illusion that we could protect ourselves from everything that threatened us. If we were resting ‘complacently on our dregs,’ like some of those Zephaniah was writing about, we certainly aren’t now.
The story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading is also a story about a day of reckoning, and what is revealed by it. It’s a story about a rich man who entrusts his fortune to three of his slaves when he goes away. And it is a fortune. A talent was originally a unit of currency – nothing to do with the ability to sing or dance or juggle! It was, specifically, a weight of gold or silver - about 4 stone– 28 kilos – to be precise. It was worth a huge amount. One talent represented about 15 times the annual salary of an ordinary working man.
So, a talent was treasure beyond the wildest dream of most people. This master is placing a serious amount of trust in his slaves. The first slave gets 5 talents to look after; that’s 75 years’ worth of wages. The second gets 2 talents – 30 years’ worth – and even the third slave is entrusted with 15 years’ worth of wages. Their master doesn’t say what they’re to do with it, but the first two trade with it and double their money.
The third slave though, is afraid, and we probably sympathise. Trade is risky. Investments can go down as well as up, as financial advertisements are always careful to tell us. What if he loses it all? Just as Zephaniah believed God was wrathful, rightly or wrongly, so this slave believes, rightly or wrongly, that his master is a harsh man. We don’t know whether it’s true or not, but, like Zephaniah, it’s what he thinks, and he allows that to shape his actions. He doesn’t want to risk losing a penny of what he’s been given. So, he digs a hole and buries it.
But when his master comes home, it’s precisely that caution, that lack of appreciation of the trust that was placed in him which makes his master furious. He could at least have put the money in the bank, where it might have made some interest! The slave is unceremoniously thrown out into the darkness. That probably seems unfair to us - but I think Jesus means us to feel that way. I think he means to play on our empathy for this slave whose fear has made him too cautious to do anything with the treasure he’s been given, because very often we’re like that too.
I said earlier that times of reckoning can reveal uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and sometimes that is because they show us the treasure we have been given, and ask us what we’ve done with it - the treasure that is the people around us – family, friends, neighbours – the treasure of this beautiful world, the treasure of faith, of the Bible, of fellowship, of prayer, the treasure of life itself, with all its opportunities. How have we “treasured our treasure”? Have we shared it, used our precious opportunities, have we hidden our treasure in a hole in the ground, where it won’t be at risk, but won’t do us, or anyone else any good either. If it’s the latter, this story asks us, then why? Are we afraid of trying something new, going deeper, in case we get it wrong? Are we afraid of what others will think of us, of what God will think of us if it all goes pear-shaped?
Those fears are quite understandable. It could have all gone wrong for the first two slaves. The business ventures they invested in could have gone bust. But its important to note what the master says to those first two slaves when he returned. He didn’t say, “well done, good and successful slave”, he said “well done, good and trustworthy slave”. It is the slave’s faithfulness, their willingness to join in with the master’s work, to try to further it, which he praises, not the amount of money they’ve made.
During this pandemic it has been great to see people in our community and our church here at Seal having a go, taking a chance, connecting with others, responding to need as they can, where they can, not waiting until they can be sure of success, but doing something to help – using their treasure. Not everything may work out, but some things do, things that would never have happened otherwise.
Life can be hard, and it’s quite right, along with Zephaniah, to tell it like it is, to be honest about pain and loss, but Jesus’s story reminds us that although suffering is real, love is real too. We have treasure, great treasure, treasure beyond counting; the treasure of one another, the treasure of a new day, every day, the treasure of God himself, with us, walking beside us. We are called to treasure that treasure right now, at this moment, not by hoarding it or keeping it to ourselves, but by working with the generous God who gave it to us, letting it multiply and grow as we use it, so that it can enrich the world.