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 gifts of great value that God has entrusted to you in this life?
- How are you being a good steward of your talents? Do you “play it safe” in the faith journey, or are you willing to take some risks in order to multiply the spiritual gifts you’ve received from God?
- Do you fear death? If not, why not? If so, why? “What does fear of death say about a person’s concept of God?
- There’s an old saying, “The God you pray to, is the God you become”. Do you pray to a harsh judge or to a forgiving father?
Matthew 25: 14-30
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
This week’s parable follows immediately after last week’s, so the setting is the same: Jesus is in the middle of his eschatological discourse. his discourse about the end times. Jesus tells the disciples a parable about a master who gives his servants varying numbers of talents and leaves town. On his return he holds each accountable for the way he has used the talents.
On the first reading the parable seems to be simply about accountability. The servants who use their talents well are rewarded. The servant who does not use his talent well is punished. The word talent refers to a silver piece worth more than one thousand dollars. It is the source for our English word talent. Talents are not earned by hard work but are simply placed into our keeping. We are not asked to own them but to use them. Therefore, the word talent acts as a pun for English speaking readers and gives the story an obvious personal application we are each accountable for the way we use our talents. However, when we interpret this parable as a parable we will see that it has a deeper, very important lesson for the disciples and for us.
Once more, to interpret the parable we must ask, “To whom in the story is the audience compared? What lesson is being taught through this comparison?” The disciples are compared to the servants entrusted with the talents in their master’s absence because, during the in-between time, after Jesus’ resurrection and before his second coming, the disciples will be entrusted with carrying on Jesus’ mission on earth. The additional lesson that Jesus is teaching the disciples through this comparison is evident from the dialogue in the story.
The dialogue that takes place between the master and his servant tells us not only that the servant failed to use the talent entrusted to him, but why he failed. He was afraid of the master’s reaction to his possible failure. The servant says, “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.”
In answer to the disciples’ question about “signs,” Jesus has already taught that a number of very frightening events will precede his coming (see Matt 24:1-30). Jesus has next taught that the disciple must always be ready (see last week’s Gospel). Now he teaches his disciples that they should not let fear of failure and of their master’s reaction to that failure prevent them from using the talents entrusted to them as best they can.
Again, the parable is misinterpreted if it is treated as though it were an allegory. The parable is not teaching about the free enterprise system, nor about labor relations. It is not teaching about the nature of God or about hell. Obviously the master in the story does not stand for God. The master’s actions reveal that he is mean and unscrupulous.
This would have been more evident to Matthew’s audience than it is to us because in our society charging interest on a loan is acceptable, but in Matthew’s time it was considered a serious sin. The master is being stereotyped as a bad person when he is pictured saying, “Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?” The parable is obviously not teaching that since God demands a profit, so should we.
The parable of the talents is teaching the disciples (and us) that they must not let fear of failure and fear of accountability prevent them from using the gifts that the master has entrusted to them. A disciple who chooses not to act out of fear of failure ensures failure.
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.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
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.