Scout for “talent” Sunday

When we are presented with a clear dogmatic or moral statement, we either accept or reject it. With a parable or story, however, we are faced with chewing and digesting it and, depending on our situation, arriving at a variety of conclusions.
In the case of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, we may plump for the “traditional” interpretation that it is about how we use the gifts and talents that God has given us. There is certainly truth and value in this.
It would seem to be in line with the first reading from Proverbs about how a perfect wife uses her talents and time. It is part of a fuller description in alphabetical form: 22 statements, beginning successively with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The picture there, of course, is described in the context of its time. In the context of our own culture and time, how would a husband describe the gifts of his wife in 26 such descriptions? And how would a wife equally describe the gifts of her husband?
I would like, however, to present another interpretation of the parable. It need not be a matter of having to decide on just one or the other. We may find value in both. We remember not to assume that a parable describes a way of life which we are to adopt. We do not assume that we are the good guys and the others are the bad. We do not assume that God is necessarily one of the characters in the parable.
In the Lectionary, the story is presented as starting: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man on his way …” In Matthew 25, however, this is not found. Nor is it in the version in Luke 19:12-27. The phrase seems to have been transplanted from the previous parable of the ten bridesmaids; and even there, our Jerusalem Bible translation does not say the kingdom is like the bridesmaids; it says: “The kingdom of heaven is like this: Ten bridesmaids took their lamps…” It tells us that the story itself sheds light on the kingdom.
With the parable of the talents, Jesus jumps right into the story. So perhaps some caution is called for. All the more so because the story does not tell of “talents” in our modern sense, but of a large sum of money – a talent was about 75 pounds or more of silver, the equivalent of 15 to 20 years wages: in modern terms, perhaps €500,000, based on an average industrial wage. And they did not have paper money, or credit cards, or electronic transfer of funds: it was hard cash.
The economy of the time was not capitalist based. It was contrary to Jewish law at the time for Jews to lend at interest to fellow Jews (Exodus 22:24-26; Leviticus 25:35-43). The safest way to protect either your own wealth or that entrusted to you by another was to bury it in the ground. We have seen in our own days how many people entrusted their pension money to financial institutions, only to have it turn to dust. The third servant (doulos: slave!) was the one who acted most honourably. We are not told how the other two slaves doubled their money, but the implication would seem to be that they acted as their master would have, since he praises them. He himself accepts that he is a “hard” (skleros) man, reaping where he has not sown and gathering where he has not scattered. In short, he has become rich by impoverishing others, and the first two slaves follow his example. He is an advocate of “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer” as he states his policy: “To everyone who has will be given more; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Greed is good. The powerful lend, charge high interest, foreclose on the debts, and acquire the homes and land of the debtors.
The “little” people, the “anawim”, the weakest, those whose lives are affected by disability of one kind or another, in this scheme of things are unprofitable. No gold stars, no brownie points. They are a burden on society.
In the culture of the time the master and the first two slaves are anything but admirable. This is anything but good news to a peasant audience with a subsistence living.
If that is what the kingdom of heaven is like, then God looks more like a ruthless tycoon than a loving creator and redeemer. We must play the game to earn our rewards. There is not much room for grace or mercy. It does not sound much like the God of Matthew 5-7, who blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice. It does not sound much like the God who freely gives the blessings of sun and rain to good and bad alike. It does not sound much like the God who feeds and clothes those of little faith like he feeds and clothes the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. It does not sound much like the God who keeps track of every hair of our head (Matthew 10). It does not sound much like the shepherd who seeks the one sheep who is lost so that not one of these little ones will be lost (Matthew 18).
The third servant/slave was afraid – of what? He had two sources of fear – of his master, and of acting contrary to the law which protected the community of God’s people. This second fear (awe?) overcame the first, to such an extent that he was able even to accuse his master boldly, no doubt fully aware of the consequences. “I heard you were a hard man…” He faces complete ruin, and yet he both acts honourably and accuses his master.
Look beyond this story alone. See it as a prelude to what follows immediately in Matthew at 25:31-46, and which we read next Sunday. In contrast to today, when those who double their master’s money are rewarded richly, we will have the judgment: “Come you whom my father has blessed. Take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you … For I was hungry and you gave me food …” “Lord, when did we see you hungry? …” “As often as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me!”
We look to the unspoken dimension of the parable of talents: the speaker. From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. The one who has nowhere to lay his head has fed the hungry, and has pointed out the hardness of religious leaders. In Matthew 26 he experiences fear and anguish. The little he has, including his life, is taken from him, and he is cast out to darkness where there is weeping and grinding of teeth. His “talent” is his own self. He is laid in a tomb. He has no profit whatever to show.
Yet his father says: “Come, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you …”
So we can choose either interpretation of the parable, or both. But if we feel confident and untroubled in telling the story, and in hearing it for ourselves, could it be an indication that we have not gone to the heart of what Jesus says?
But if I try in my homily to alert all of us to the possibilities in the parable to stimulate each person to personal reflection, and if I make a complete mess of it: well, at least the parable itself has been spoken aloud first. It will not be a total loss.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” (Attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson, but source unverified.)
Pádraig McCarthy

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One Comment

  1. Cornelius Maartin says:

    The parable of the talents contrasts two different versions of the interaction of love and fear of the Lord.
    Some months ago The Pope exhorted couples not to let themselves be overcome by the ambient cultural context but to found their homes “on the rock of true love, the love that comes from God”. In a very suggestive image the Pope insists that Christ is quite capable of multiplying the couple’s love just as he multiplied the loaves of bread, giving it to them “fresh and good each day”.
    St. Francis de Sales distinguished between fearing God from love on the one hand, and seeking to love God from fear on the other.
    References to the “fear of God” occur many times in Scripture. It is a phrase easily misunderstood, for to fear something or someone brings to mind the impulse to flee or to avoid whatever or whoever causes the fear. Hence the response of the third receiver.
    One is also commanded to love the one true God: “… and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:5).
    This loving fear of God is also closely intertwined with wisdom—“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7) and with true life—“The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life” (Prov 14:27; cf. Prov 19:23). As the notes to the New American Bible explain, this fear is “primarily a disposition rather than the emotion of fear; reverential awe and respect toward God combined with obedience to God’s will.”
    Is this not the disposition of the 5-and-2 receivers; a disposition at one with the multiplication (growth) alluded to by the Pope?
    This wisdom-based love/fear of God balance ties logically with the Matthew 25:31-46 excerpt next Sunday.

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