Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 16, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament
Four weeks ago we had the nice coincidence that the Gospel passage in which Jesus states that we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s came before us in the last days before a national election. Today we have another coincidence: that in the midst of a severe economic crisis we hear a Gospel passage about the use of large amounts of money. There is a grasping wealthy man who harvests where he did not plant and gathers what he did not scatter. There are two servants of his who trade with the man’s money and double it and earn the master’s praise and reward, while a third servant is rebuked and punished for simply keeping his master’s money safe but fruitless. It could almost be read as a parable in praise of capitalism!
But, of course, this parable is no more about economics than was the other one about the man who paid those who worked all day the same salary as those who worked a single hour. As often, Jesus simply used familiar activities or situations in order to press home his message about the quite unique situation his hearers were facing with his announcement of the coming Kingdom of God.
The talents in the parable, of course, are sums of money. I have a book published in 1953 in which a talent’s value was put at $2,000. Allowing for inflation, perhaps we should today double that figure. In any case, it is a large amount of money. In the parable it stands for the great gifts of the blessings that God has already given and is in the course of giving to Israel in the message and work of Jesus. The servants praised are those who have recognized the moment and welcomed the good news and so multiplied the blessings received, while the third servant, by failing to acknowledge the moment, makes the gifts he has received sterile and in the end loses even what he had once received. Many interpreters take this third servant to stand for the scribes and Pharisees who resisted Jesus or even opposed his work.
In the course of the centuries, of course, the word “talent” has come to mean a person’s special ability or aptitude, and today’s parable is often interpreted along the corresponding lines. This wider use of the parable, while not quite its original meaning, has this value, that it sees these natural talents as themselves gifts of God which bring with them a responsibility not to let them lie fallow but to develop them further to the point that we can return them to God fully developed and fruitful. This requires us, of course, to become aware of our talents and of the opportunities placed before us, and to see them both as at once gifts of God and calls from God.
It is not pride to acknowledge that one has a talent, especially when one knows that it is a gift, and in fact not to acknowledge gifts received is a mark of ingratitude. And it is not only talents that are gifts, so are opportunities. I am not speaking only of opportunities to do great things, but of the opportunities also that are simply the successive situations in which we find ourselves in the course of an ordinary day. Each moment is a gift and a call. In a classic of spiritual theology, Jean-Pierre De Caussade spoke of “the sacrament of the present moment,” that is, of each successive moment of a day as an opportunity to encounter God, just as we encounter him in the sacraments. Each moment sets before us the challenge of how we are to use the gifts God has given us, in particular the primary gift that is our freedom, the freedom by which we decide whether, by our words or actions or, perhaps, by our indifference and lethargy, we add to the great weight of evil in the world or whether, by a kind word or deed or, perhaps, by our forgiveness, we lighten that burden and increase the inertial force of good in the world.
All of the parables of Jesus place those who hear them before the challenge of faith and the necessity of choice: Do we accept that the world is as his parables describe it? And: Do we choose to live our lives in ways appropriate to that world, so described? The parables are always asking us not to bury and render fruitless the great gift God has given us in Christ and his Holy Spirit.