Monday, November 17, 2014

The Parable of the Talents - Notes for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

This morning, we hear of a man about to go on a journey who calls together his servants and, to varying degrees, entrusts his possessions to them. Then he leaves. But “after a long time,” the man returns and sees what the servants have done. We hear how two of them do well with the master’s things and so receive greater responsibilities; but we hear of how one simply buried what he had been given. This servant is thrown outside where there is “wailing and grinding of teeth.”

Typically, this parable is used as an exhortation to use the talents God has given you. Use what you have been given or else face punishment.

The problem—as with pretty much any of Jesus’ parables—is that there is more to this parable than just this moral exhortation. And even this moral exhortation, as I just articulated it, is incomplete. It is based on things antecedent to it and which deepen it.

So, for example: what is a talent? In the reading, it says “The man gave… talents… to each [servant] according to his ability.” But if talents are simply abilities, then why are they given according to one’s ability? That doesn’t make sense.

So, again, what is a talent? Quite literally, a “talent” in Jesus’ day was a large sum of money—the equivalent of anywhere between three and sixteen years of wages. So, even the man with one talent is given quite a sum of money. And how much more so can be said of the servant who was given five talents (that’s as much as 80 years of wages)! This is the starting point of our understanding of the parable: the man has given his servants an extraordinarily large sum of money—more than the servants could ever make in their own lifetime.

At this point, we may ask: who is this man?

The Man in the Parable

We hear that this is a man who is “going on a journey.” Later, we hear that he returns “after a long time.” Is he a world traveler? Is he a king? And where is he going? And why does he return after a long time—and not a short one?

Here, it does well to remember another of Jesus’ parables. In this case, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. That parable is the key which unlocks this Parable of the Talents. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Good Samaritan is the one who helped a man who had been robbed. The Good Samaritan cares for him, takes him to an inn, pays the innkeeper a sum of money to care for the man, and then says to the steward there: “upon my return, I will repay you.”

That’s odd, because the Good Samaritan seems to be going on a journey too and, also, will be returning to repay this servant. The plot thickens…. Maybe they are the same person?

In the case of the Good Samaritan, the identity of the protagonist is often seen as us: we are to help those who are less fortunate. But what if it's not about us? What if the parable is firstly about Jesus? Read in that spirit, the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes even more sense: Jesus is the Good Samaritan who helps humanity after it had fallen victim to the robbers (the devil and his minions) and who heals us by the Sacraments (oil, wine, binding), and by the care of His Church (the inn)—which he will visit and reward accordingly upon his return at the end of time.

The same can be said of the man with the talents: it is Jesus: he who goes on a journey (Ascension into heaven) and will return after a long time (The Second Coming) and will repay his servants (us) at the end of time (The Last Judgment)—which, wonderfully enough, is exactly what he talks about in the following verses of the same passage!

Deeper Treasures of Talents 

But.... there is a problem. (Of course there is). Jesus was poor. He wasn’t a rich man who could possibly give a ton of money to his servants. Perhaps the literal meaning of the talents has a spiritual meaning to it.

So, let's look at what happens to the servants when their master returns. The good stewards are welcomed into “your master’s joy.” The bad stewards are thrown “into the darkness outside where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” This is the same language that Jesus uses when he talks about the weeds and the wheat in Matthew 14. There, just as here, the reward and the punishment are clearly meant to produce in us images of heaven and hell—we being the stewards who are judged… judged according to what we have been given and given in return.

But that seems harsh. No matter how extraordinarily large the monetary sum of the talents, it doesn't seem to be within the realm of justice to condemn a servant to an eternal hell for his poor stewardship of a finite treasure-- no matter how large.

Unless..... Unless the treasure isn't finite nor worldly.

Here is where we see what the talents really are: the talents are everything that God gives us about which He expects a return. The talents are more than just our abilities—the talents are every gift that God gives; namely, grace. Grace which is divine and infinite.

 This is why a moral exhortation to “use your talents,” by itself, runs a little flat for me: it focuses only on things that I can do—play the piano, teach kids, kick a soccer ball—while easily overlooking the grace accompanying. Even more, that simple exhortation misses out on many of the really, really big talents that our Lord has given us. For example:

-          how priests are given the power to incarnate Jesus in the Eucharist
-          how married couples literally become one and can bring forth life and image the Trinity
-          how the poor are literally Christ in the world
-          how the Holy Spirit literally pours the transforming life and love of God into our souls

The Talent of Love

You see, Jesus is telling this parable not simply as a moral exhortation. Don’t make this parable about you. This parable is firstly about Him: He is the good master who has given us, his servants, so many treasures! 

So, when we hear about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, etc, don’t make it about you first. It is firstly about Jesus. For hasn't He fed us (and with his very body)? Hasn’t He quenched our thirst by his blood? Has He not clothed us, literally, but also spiritually with his grace?

Only when we see the all-surpassing love Our Lord has lavished upon us does the moral exhortation gain its true meaning: Jesus wants us to become Him: to do the same because, in doing the same, we become another Jesus to the world, a Jesus who loves—which, in turn, deepens our love for Him because we realize in those moments of empathy how profound his gifts to us really are. When it costs us, we realize what it cost Him.

And in this way, we see that love is catalytic: it builds; it grows; it increases. The more a person receives God’s love and gives God’s love, the more God fills that person with His love, expanding that person’s heart… lavishing that person with more and more with that priceless talent which is His love. And the person loves more and is filled more and loves more and is filled more.... 

This is why Jesus sums up the parable by saying:
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.

Insert the word “love” at the end of the first three lines.
For to everyone who has [love]
more will be given and he will grow rich [in love];
but from the one who has not [love],
even what he has will be taken away.

That is the talent: love. That is what is given to us. And thus it also makes sense that our eternity is dependent upon it. Wailing and grinding of teeth to the wicked who knew not, who gave not, who buried Love. Rejoicing in heaven to those who embraced Love.

The Moral Exhortation

Now we can see the ultimate exhortation: do not bury Love out of fear! After all, what person (Jesus) lights a candle (you) and then places it under a bushel basket? Not Jesus!

Rather, “invest” the Love He gives you. Spend it. Use it.

Now, in light of our talents, we can hear the moral exhortations.

To priests: we bury our talent when we forget that we image Jesus! We bury the greatest treasure when we celebrate the Holy Mass without fervor or gravitas. Woe to us—we shall be thrown outside where there will be wailing! Rather, let us pour out our lives in love, walking in dignity and grace, celebrating the Sacraments in spirit and in truth!

To married couples: we bury our talent when we forget the miraculous bonds that are forged by the Marriage Covenant: spouses are one! We bury the greatest crowning of marriage when we refuse to have children. Woe to us—we shall be thrown outside where there will be grinding of teeth! Rather, let us offer our lives as a sacrifice of love, trusting in the Lord and pouring forth his mercy upon our families—and thus build up our world—for we are the foundational building block of society!

To all Catholics: if we have not love, we are nothing. See Jesus in the poor. As Mother Theresa once said: “When I serve the poor, it is not like I am serving Jesus. I am serving Jesus.” The Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. Of what are we to be afraid? The man, who thought he had little, buried his talent because of fear. Take courage, be not afraid!

The Final Judgment

In the end, there is one final talent that we will have to return to the Lord. And that talent is our life. Again, before we see the moral exhortation, see our Lord Jesus: to us, He gave His life.

If you give your life—a life He gave to you in love—then, at the time of His final visitation, He will bring you into His Presence, surrounded by the whole heavenly host, and rejoice with you, praising you, thanking you, and saying to you in total, infinite, and eternal love:

Well done, my good and faithful servant! Well done!

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