by Br Julian McDonald cfc

A good woman…is quick to assist anyone in need, reaches out to help the poor…When she speaks, she has something worthwhile to say, and she always say it in a kindly manner. Proverbs 31, 10-31

“The kingdom of God is like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities…The first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.” Matthew 25, 14-30

Today’s gospel-reading gives us yet another parable about the kingdom of God. To treat it as a parable only about how we use our talents is, I suggest, to over-simplify it. The gospel-reading is complemented by the two readings from Proverbs and Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians. Proverbs presents us with the description of a woman who is a model of fidelity, selflessness and sound, practical common sense. (At the same time, we have to be careful not to degrade women to the point of seeing them merely as having “worthy wife” status.) In writing to the Thessalonians, Paul urges them (and us) not to worry about the future but to focus their attention on how they are living in the present and why they are living the way they do. In the gospel parable we hear about two servants who have paid close attention to their master, listened to him, learned from him and then set about imitating him. We also hear of one fearful servant who has failed to learn from his master and has made no effort to take the risk of trying to imitate him. In failing to take any initiative, this servant stifled the gifts with which he had been blessed.

In-depth reflection on these readings leads us to look not only at our gifts but at how and why we use them the way we do. Moreover, it challenges us to look closely at all those people we encounter and how, and at their capacity to enrich the way we live our lives.

One of the real blessings for those of us who have been or are school-teachers is that we have the privilege of learning from those who have filled our classrooms. In fact, I am confident in stating that we have learned so much more from our students than we can claim to have taught them. Our classrooms have been filled with countless, gifted youngsters, every one of whom has enormous potential to do extraordinary things on any and every stage – from the research laboratory to the ballet stage, from the boardroom to the halls of government. This particular girl could be the founder of the next Google or Microsoft; that young lad may be the first to find a cure for cancer or alzheimer’s disease or motor-neurone disease. They are limited only by their imaginations and the opportunities to learn and to grow that will come their way.

Every single one of us – child or adult, teacher or student. – has been entrusted by God with skills, talents and imaginations to direct towards bettering the world to which we belong. The challenge, of course, is to find the openness to risk embracing the vulnerability needed to involve ourselves with other people, thereby risking failure, criticism and, even, ridicule. Today’s gospel-parable challenges us to steer clear of burying our talents in the safe ground of self-interest, of playing safe, but to direct them towards the service of others, especially those in need.

Yet again, however, we have to tread warily as we engage with this parable. While Jesus introduces it with the words “The kingdom of God is like a man going off on an extended trip”, we would be doing God and Jesus a disservice if we were to rush into equating them with the man who entrusted his three servants with large sums of money.

When the third servant calls his master “a hard man”, adding “You reap where you did not sow and gather where you did not scatter”, the master does not contradict him. Moreover, the master confirms his servant’s judgement, and even tells him he should have gone and sought bank interest – a practice which the Book of Leviticus (Ch. 25) recorded as questionable behaviour. The master in the parable is intent on getting richer and doesn’t seem to care about the methods employed by his slaves, only about the returns on investments they get for him. In telling this parable, Jesus, whose preference was clearly for the poor and under-privileged, would hardly be concerned about giving a lesson in venture capital or the practices of investing for profit.

Surely, this parable, while it is about the way in which we use, express and develop our gifts, is also about the way people are treated by those who employ them and invite them to exercise responsibility. The third servant ranks with those who are despised and mistreated. If we to get an accurate picture of the way in which Matthew sees God’s judgement of the peoples of the world, we need to look forward to the next section of this Chapter 25: “Then the King will say to those on his right: ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me’” (Matthew 25, 34-36). Like those just listed, the third servant belongs to those whom communities, societies and those with wealth and power are quick to throw away. Who are the people I am inclined to dismiss and disregard?

Finally, a story, from a magazine called The Christian Century, of the pastor of a small Christian community that numbered 200 adults. This little community had long provided accommodation for homeless people in a neglected part of Chicago. The need for such accommodation had finally disappeared, so the building was sold to a developer for $1.6 million. Shortly afterwards, the pastor delivered a homily on the parable of the talents, and then announced that each adult in the congregation would be given $500 as he or she left the church that morning: “The money is to be used however you choose, for God’s work in the world. You might well ask if this is unbelievably risky. My answer is ‘yes’. We are doing this because this is what it feels like to do business with God: risky and crazy and vulnerable, yet incredibly threatening and exciting at the same time.”

I suggest that this is worthy of discussion in our own homes and communities: What would you and I do with the $500, if we were members of that church community?