Year A: Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Parable of the Talents
Matthew 25: 14-30
Jesus told his disciples this parable: “A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
“After a long time, the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’ His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So, you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
- What are some “talents” or things of great value that God has entrusted you with in your life?
- What role does “fear” play in your image of God and the use of your freedom to choose separation from or union with God?
- As you reflect on your life, in what areas have you shared or multiplied the spiritual gifts you’ve received from God?
- There’s an old saying that goes “the God you pray to, is the God you become”. Or as the Buddha put it “what you focus on becomes your reality.” Do you pray to a harsh judge, or a forgiving father?
Matthew 25: 14-30
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ
All three readings this week ask us what we are doing with the time of our life. The worthy woman is a model of God’s faithful ones who go about doing good in every circumstance. Paul addresses a community anxious for predictions and tells them not to worry about the end but rather about the way they were living day to day. If they live as children of the light, they have nothing to worry about. With that preparation, we come to Jesus’ parable of the talents. Here we have the question of what we do with the time and circumstances of our lives, but also very directly the question of why we do what we do and what it has to do with God.
The situation Jesus sets up is imaginable in spite of its fantastic dimensions. The people listening to Jesus could envision a wealthy businessman who had a plethora of servants. Some servants would typically be left in charge of the household, etc. Some others would be well prepared and able to carry on the master’s work. The latter were the specially chosen ones, the ones who had a knack for the master’s business.
When the master was going somewhere, he gave his servants charge of everything. In this case, he handed over a good portion of his fortune to the specialists in his business so that they could continue his work. Nobody should feel too sorry for the servant who received the least — what he got was in the realm of a million dollars. What he did was not unimaginable under the circumstances. Where there were no banks one could keep money safe by hiding it; a secret burial place was very secure. The factor which made all the difference was that he didn’t like his master enough to care about what he did for him.
The trouble was that the servant didn’t do what the master wanted. The master himself could have buried the money or even put it in the bank! It was as if the master had given this servant seeds to use while he was gone and the servant put them carefully in a cupboard, saying that he was keeping them safe from floods, droughts or a plague of locusts.
The master handed his fortune over to his servants so that they could keep his business going. Those who did so not only increased the master’s fortune, but they became more like him as they did his work, as they carried forth his mission. When the master returned, he didn’t look at the amounts and rejoice more for a return of five talents than for the return of two. To both of those servants he said, “Come, share your master’s joy,” which was another way of saying, “Come to my feast!”
The whole truth came out when the servant who had received a mere $1,000,000 reported in. Before he ever spoke of what he did, he told the master what he thought of him: “You are demanding, you harvest what you did not plant, you go for everything you can get. So, I decided to have nothing to do with your projects. Look, I return to you exactly what you gave me, nothing more nothing less.” In effect that servant was saying, “I want nothing to do with your endeavors.” While the story says that the master ordered that he be thrown out, that was no more than the logical conclusion of a process the servant himself had set in motion. He had already chosen to exclude himself from the master’s business. If he wouldn’t take part in the master’s plan, it was impossible for him to share the master’s joy.
Today’s readings remind us that everything we have is a gift from God given so that we may know God’s joy. Each of us must then decide what to make of the time of our lives.
The Gospel of Matthew is filled with dire consequences. If people do not respond to Jesus and his teachings correctly, they are in for a considerable mount of trouble. They can be tied hand and foot and cast outside into exterior darkness where they weep and gnash their teeth. They can be handed over to torturers until their entire debt is paid, a debt they will never be able to pay. Finally, they can fry in eternal fire.
Certainly, these images fuel our fantasies of hell. All people know physical pain and, from the pain we know, we can imagine what the pain must be like in chronic situations, chronic to the extreme of eternal. Also, all people know social rejection and, from the exclusion we know, we can imagine the loneliness of being completely ostracized. Flannery O’Connor once said she created grotesque caricatures to catch the attention of the blind and deaf. She might have learned from Matthew. A lake of everlasting fire definitely makes you sit up and take notice.
Of course, these catastrophes happen to people in the stories. But for those reading the stories they are meant as salutary warnings. If self-interest motivates you at all, you should avoid the behaviors that lead to these terrible punishments. Although this is the manifest objective of the story, I suspect it has the latent function of paralyzing people with fear.
Instead of being galvanized to imitate the first two servants, we find ourselves quaking and wondering if we have dug the hole deep enough to bury the single talent we have. The startling end of the narrative exacerbates the one-talent timidity that lurks in every person. When the image of God as a demanding master “who gathers but did not scatter and reaps but did not sow” is taken seriously, it plays into too much psychological and social “hardness.” We know this type of master: the boss or banker from hell.
There are many ways to approach the psychological and spiritual state of fearing God. Some say that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9- 10); fear of the Lord is the ‘”beginning of wisdom” but not the end. Fearing God gets God on the radar screen. Once there—and we explore the transcendent more and more—we realize that the “Almighty” is a Father and the terror of divine immensity and power gives way to the deeper revelation of love.
Others point out the contradictions in the Gospels between gentleness and violence. Matthew uses Isaiah to describe Jesus as one who ‘will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick” (Matt 12:20; cf. Isa 42:3). If a candle was almost out, Jesus would not snuff it. If a reed was so badly damaged it was almost separated, Jesus would not deliver the final blow and break it. Jesus never contributed to death, even when death was imminent. He always gave life. Is this the same Son of God who told stories of divine violent retributions? If we have to choose between the punishing God who, like it or not, generates fear and the gentle God who encourages love, roll the dice and choose love. Still others see the images of punishment and destruction as writ-large pictures of human freedom. They are not the result of literal actions of a separate Divine Being. They are imaginative portraits of the blessings and burdens of human freedom. If people respond to the divine invitation, all goes well, even better than expected. If people do not respond, all goes badly, even worse than expected. The slogan is: ‘Avoid God as creator: meet God as judge.”
But these pictures of punishments should not be seen as fulminating threats from a personal Divine Being. Rather the pictures of loss are simple predictions. As the Bible stresses repeatedly in anthropomorphic images, God is faithful to God’s self. There is a nature to spiritual reality. It works according to certain patterns, sequences, and operations.
What we really fear, however, may not be the demands and harshness of inevitable spiritual dynamics. What we may really fear is the edge of our own freedom.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.