by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“You wicked lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter…” Matthew 25, 14-30
Every single parable that Jesus told presents us with at least one challenge for the way we live our lives. Often, the challenges are many. But one thing they all have in common is that they invite us to puzzle over their multi layers of meaning. The parable of the talents is no exception. It is considerably more than a pressing call to us to make sure to use our talents responsibly.
On the surface, this is a parable about money, and large amounts of money. A talent, in the time of Jesus, was equivalent to the total earnings an average worker would receive over a 15-year period. It was estimated to be the equivalent of about 22kgs of silver. So Jesus was not telling a story about a small-time investor and his trusted employees. Moreover, it would take a big hole to keep a talent well and truly hidden. Jesus’ parable is about a wealthy businessman who, before setting out on a trip, instructs his employees to make his money work for him. The wealthy boss is not only good at business. He is also very lucky. So it’s clear that, if his trusted employees don’t appreciate his luck, they haven’t really understood him and his expectations. That explains why his reaction is so severe towards the third and least-able employee (the one who was given only one talent to invest): “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant, and gather crops where I did not scatter seed? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have gotten it back with interest, on my return?” (Matthew 25, 26-27)
I suggest that we risk missing the point and spirit of this gospel parable if we start by applying it to our moral lives, if we reduce it to an exhortation on the need to develop our personal talents and direct them towards good works and service of others. This parable is about more than using responsibly our brains, creativity and energy for the purpose of making real in our world the kingdom of God, even though that’s a worthy thing to do. The spirit of this parable comes from its invitation to us to engage with God in a risky venture, in a shared undertaking based on daring, trust and a measure of luck.
This is not a parable about doing our duty. It is not just about how God can work through us and through our gifts. But it is about how God trusts us to do our thing, using our flair and daring, with the gifts God has given us. If the relationship between God and us is one of trust, there is surely an expectation for us to bring our initiative and imagination to the way in which we manage our gifts. Think about it! We flourish in proportion to our willingness to be adventurous and daring with the talents and creativity we discover in ourselves. We have all met people whose personalities shrivel up and whose lives become impoverished and listless because they cannot bring themselves to risk, to dare, to take initiative. Talent simply suffocates if it is not expressed in an atmosphere of trust in God and in the people with whom we live and work.
We also know that we flourish and give of our best when we know that we are trusted. While we might find ourselves quivering at the seemingly chauvinistic style of today’s first reading from Proverbs, it gives us a good example of a woman who uses her talents creatively and well. In describing the ideal wife, the writer of Proverbs points to the relationship of trust that exists between the woman and her husband. He does not give her a list of jobs to do. Instead, “he puts his confidence in her”, and his trust releases her creativity in abundance.
At one level, this is a parable about stewardship. True stewardship is more than looking after something, minding it or keeping it safe. Rather, it is about proper use of time, energy and opportunity in all the affairs of life, including financial management. The third servant made a severe blunder in saying to his master: “I knew you were a demanding person…Here is your talent back.”
Matthew asks us if we are brave and daring enough to put to work the life that is God’s gift to us. If not, we will be handing back something totally sterile.
In conclusion, I offer a parable of a different kind, from a Jewish community that had close links with their Christian neighbours:
Once upon a time, two babies were born on the same day, in the same village. One was born into a poor, struggling family, and all his life wondered what it would be like to be rich. He was a good Jew, obedient to the Law, and even generous to beggars who were worse off than he was. Whenever he looked at the rich man’s family, who lived on the hill overlooking the ghetto, he yearned for the life he was not given. He became jealous. The other man, born into the rich family, had the benefits of wealth, privilege and education. He, too, was a good Jew, who obeyed the Law and was generous to everyone in the town, rich and poor alike.
It happened that both men died on the same day. When they got to heaven they were surprised to find the gates wide open, and Peter waiting for them. Peter stepped forward, pushed the poor man to one side, and welcomed the rich man with a strong embrace. There was even a red carpet rolled out, a band playing and trumpets blaring. It looked as though everyone in heaven had turned out for the welcome, which was followed by dinner and speeches.
The poor man was stunned, managing to creep in through the gates just before they closed. Then, as he watched the way in which the rich man was welcomed, he became increasingly angry. This was not the way things were supposed to be! He had been taught that, because his life on earth had been difficult, he would be richly rewarded in heaven, and that the rich on earth would “have hell to pay”. What he now saw was looking like a repeat of how things were on earth – the rich getting special treatment and the poor being cast aside. He was beginning to wonder if it was all worth it.
He stuck around for the dinner and the speeches, hearing glowing accounts of the rich man’s life. But the last straw came when the rich man was given the keys to a splendid mansion, much better than the poor man had seen or even imagined. There and then, he decided to give Peter a piece of his mind. After all, if this was heaven, he wanted no part of it. So, as things were winding down, he strode boldly up to Peter to demand an explanation, pointing out that he was here, too, and that he was now totally fed up.
At first, Peter was stopped in his tracks. Then he began apologizing for forgetting the poor man. But the poor man was not done. He listed all the privileges the rich man had been given, stated that he had been given nothing, and concluded by saying that the gates of heaven were almost slammed in his face. If that was how things were going to be, he wanted out. Peter was quick to reassure him that there was, indeed, a mansion for him, too, and that it made the rich man’s look no better than a backyard shed. That took some of the steam out of the poor man, and he thought he had better check it out before leaving in a huff.
So the poor man was led deep into the kingdom of heaven and, when he saw what had been reserved for him, he could hardly believe his eyes. But he was still seething with anger. “But why didn’t I get the red carpet, the trumpet fanfare, the band, the dinner and the speeches? It just wasn’t fair!” “I know”, said Peter as he put his arm around the poor man, “I really do know. But you have to understand. People like you arrive here every day, but, for the life of me, I can’t remember how long it’s been since somebody like him came through the big gates.”
With which character do you identify?