Wailing and gnashing of teeth


25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

That’s probably not how you want the story to end.  The third servant – poor chap – was over cautious, frightened of  the master.  Perhaps he was a bit foolish and dull, unimaginative and boring    – but sending him to the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?  Well.  it’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?

And it’s not what we want the church to be preaching about nowadays – is it.  If we were rewriting the story for today’s Church,  I think we would want it to be inclusive and affirming.  We would want to encourage the third servant on his journey – at least he hadn’t spent the money on prostitutes, gambling and drinking like the prodigal son did.   At least he had been careful.  It’s not really his fault that he’s not very bright.  And in this age of employer employee relations, you could say that it’s really the Lord’s fault for being such a tyrant -  a harsh man who reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he does not scatter.  If the Lord had been just a bit more modern – seeking out the best in his workforce, then things might be very different.   And so, if we’re honest -  would we tell this parable at all if it were left up to us?   Do any of us nice Church of England types think that God is a harsh God who reaps where God does not sow, and who gathers where God does not scatter … and then sends inefficient slaves to outer darkness and gnashing of teeth?  Perhaps it’s time to cosign the parable of the Talants to the 7th Sunday after Epiphany in year C – a Sunday that only comes round about once every 21 years.

So what’s going on?  What’s Jesus playing at?  Can we do anything positive with the parable of the talants?

First of all, when Jesus told the parable of the Talants, -  somewhere in 1st Century Roman Occupied Jewish Palestine – his hearers knew exactly what he was doing.  They were used to Rabbis telling them stories to prove a point, and there are lots of rabbi’s parables like this one – parables of good and bad servants, of wise and foolish workers, of faithful and faithless disciples .. – But Jesus’s version seems harsher than most.  Most jewish parables just call the servant names .. …  bad, foolish, faithfless.

But Jesus ?

‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

So perhaps we have to start by owning up to the fact that we are very shocked by this parable.  Perhaps we can start by recognising that Jesus does not say what we want him to say.  That this parable does not conform to our image of God or to our  preferred version of Christianity.  Perhaps we can begin by seeing that this parable does not fit in with our views.  This parable is a challenge for us, just as it was a challenge for its first hearers … and let’s admit right here and now that we don’t like it.

And so, now that we have got uncomfortable on our chairs  … let’s go further.  Let’s recognise that we are supposed to feel uncomfortable.  That when Jesus chooses to speak to us in parables, he doesn’t just pat us on the head and tell us what we want to hear.  He says ‘wake up’ ‘repent and believe the Good News’ you  ‘blind pharisees’  ‘hypocrites’  -  You see, Jesus is quite intentional in wanting to kick us out of our complacency and into action:  There are no comfortable words here. There never have been.

So what is the parable about.   Well before we allegorise it, and make it a bit more palatable –  let’s look at it at face value.  The parable is about money, – round gold coins called talants -  it is about business, investment and returns.  And if talking about money in church makes you feel even more uncomfortable -  then just imagine what Jesus’s first disciples thought when they heard this parable on the hillside. …. lending money for interest – usury – is one of the worst sins there is…. and here is Jesus saying the third servant should have done exactly that.  He should have lend his money to the banks for interest.   And because Jews didn’t lend money to other Jews for interest, then  Jesus must have been suggesting that the servant lend his money to Gentiles…. yuk.

But before you think that this is capitalist parable is telling us to buy stocks and shares and make as much money as we can – Not exactly – the money is not ours.  It is the masters.  Everything is on trust,  and one day the master wants his money back.   So it might be that you came to church this morning with the illusion that your hard-earned pension scheme, or your house now that the mortgage has finally been paid off, or your savings in the bank or the jar under the bed, are yours .. think again.  This parable says it is not yours – it is God’s.  You do not own what you own.  So up to you to work out what that means in real and practical terms if you are ever tempted to feel that you can do what you like with ‘your’ money.   The usual answer in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam – is tithing.   …  the joyful recognition that everything we have is God’s – and the duty to give a percentage of it away is a sign of that .. a duty, and a joy – not necessarily a comfort though.   It might be 5% as the Church of England recommends,  or it might 10% as some more traditional churches recommend.  Up to you to work out your tithe.

So, now we’ve tackled the difficult question of money,  let’s allegorise… because yes – the 5, 2, and 1 talants are more than just the round gold coins in our pockets, they also represent all the other gifts we have been given.. our skills, our advantages, our passions, our pastoral or artistic gifts, our work, and above all our time.   That too is not ours to possess but is given to us on trust by the master- and all those things need tithing too.  So when the master comes and asks us what we have made of our gifts, we will not aswere that we have kept them to ourselves, buried in the ground, but that we have made them grow in sharing with others.  Tithing out time is usually much harder than tithing our money.   Yes – This parable is getting very uncomfortable.

And finally – as many of Jesus’s first hearers might have understood the parable, what if the talants Jesus is talking about are faith.  There is another Jewish parable which tells of a rich man who goes away and entrusts two servants with wheat and flax.   One servant grows the wheat, mills the grain and bakes a loaf of bread,  – he works the flax and weaves a tablecloth,  so that when the master returns he can serve a loaf of bread on a brand new tablecloth.  The other servant presents the Master with the same old wheat and old flax that he had been given in the first place – he had done nothing with it.   So which of these two servants pleased the master – the parable asks.    But the meaning given in the explanation is that the wheat and flax are the Law and the Prophets and the wise and faithful servant mills them and weaves them into faith and practice -  the foolish and faithless servant just hears them and does nothing with them.     And that understanding – strange though it might be to our ears – works for us too – we too have been given the Law and the prophets, the Gospels and the Sacraments, the Church and our Christian family … do we just enjoy them as they are, or are we constantly milling and weaving to create a lively faith, and active discipleship, a faithful community … will we end up with a loaf of bread and a tablecloth to offer, or just a basket of wheat and flax?

And finally – what of that horrible place of outer darkness and gnashing of teeth?

25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I wondered what to say about that until I heard something on the radio early on Saturday morning.  It was 72 year old Sheila Young talking confidently about growing up with her stepmother Nanette.  She described how she resented her stepmother as a child,  how she didn’t like her as an adult and when eventually her stepmother died she was the only relative left and so was the only next of kin and so it was she who had to arrange the funeral  -    but she didn’t go.  No-one went to her stepmother’s funeral.  Sheila told the story on radio calmly and clearly – she had come a long way emotionally in those 60 years,  and she told the radio audience that she had learned how to deal with all her negative feelings and that she had put them behind her – ‘negative feelings only rebound on yourself’ she said …  but then,  …….  then she finally broke down in tears – her stepmother had never had the joy of children – she said …..  Nanette had never had that pleasure -  she said –  and through her tears on the radio she said :    and I didn’t help, I didn’t give her any pleasure either……  very sad………….

weeping and gnashing of teeth … and however lovely Sheila has now become, however understanding she now is and sorry for what she did or did not do,  there is nothing that can be done to rewrite history.

The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington