33rd Sunday of the Year – November 19, 1972 – CNR
The first reading in this evening’s Liturgy isn’t obviously connected with the others. It sings the praises of a faithful and industrious housewife. If we don’t think it is the only way for a woman to show her worth, it does show her displaying a nice balance of care for her family and concern for the poor. And its final praise is perhaps especially worth mention in an age which seems to have inverted proper values: “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Need I add that the same thing is true of men?
Of the other readings, the Gospel parable might be taken as an illustration of the final lines of Paul’s letter: “All of you are children of light and of the day. We belong neither to darkness nor to night; therefore let us not be asleep like the rest, but awake and sober!” The parable of the rich man who went off on a journey and left his servants sums of money to be kept for him, was originally told by Jesus as an indictment of the religious leaders of his time. They were like the man who had received the money and then gone and buried it, out of fear of losing what had been entrusted to him. He received the master’s condemnation. His audience would have understood Jesus to be criticizing the Scribes for hoarding for themselves the Word of God they were given to care for, burying it in their restrictive and legalistic interpretations, preventing it from being a life-giving force. It is a classic indictment of the fearful conservative, who is so afraid of losing what he has that he buries or imprisons it, and so in effect kills it.
The early church took that parable and applied it to its own day, as it awaited the return of Jesus, who obviously had decided on a long journey. Now, the parable is a warning to the church to use the treasure entrusted to it wisely, to let its life and force operate and grow and be fruitful. It is for that reason a call to us to appreciate our place as Christians, what its value is, and to permit it to liberate our lives. That is always the alternative: either we let go and let the Gospel set us free, or we imprison the Gospel, paring it down to our size, our fears, our doubts. The only true conservatism is a continual creativity, and it is only out where the Gospel can meet men and challenge them that it shows that it is a treasure worth retaining. A Gospel preached by a fearful man is a Gospel deprived of its heart and strength.
Let us try to be aware that we are children of the light not of the darkness in which the fearful slave buried his master’s money. We have a light; let us walk confidently in it. It might even be that others will be moved to walk by it, too.
33RD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – NOVEMBER 18, 1990 – ST. PHILIP NERI
In its present context in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the talents continues the effort, already stated in the parables of the two sons, one obedient and one not, and of the wise and foolish virgins, to instruct us on our duties as Christians between the resurrection of Christ and his return in judgement and glory.
The parable itself, of course, has given rise to the current meaning of the term talent as “ability” or “skill.” Originally, a talent was a large amount of money, perhaps one or several thousands of dollars. The parable used this financial meaning to urge the necessity of creative use of what God has given us. The later sense of the word talent, however, led to the parable’s being interpreted morally as a call on us to develop God-given abilities and to use them for his purposes rather than to bury them, that is, neglect or squander them. This is not necessarily unfaithful to Matthew’s purpose in retelling the parable, and God knows that most of us do have to be reminded that gifts received are really also tasks to be assumed for God’s sake and for the sake of others.
But scholars also make an effort to try to recover the original meaning of the parable as told by Jesus, and one of the more probable of their hypotheses suggests some reflections. On this view, the sum of money given to the servants represents the religious tradition handed on from one generation to another. The criticism of the servant who simply buried the talents in order to prevent their value being depreciated then would be Jesus’ critique of those of his Jewish contemporaries who maintained a static idea of tradition and, out of fear of losing it, failed to see how it was being fulfilled even while being transcended in the teaching and works of Jesus himself. The fearful servant represents thus a generation which fails to enrich the tradition it has received.
Such an interpretation may have particular relevance to our own tasks as a Church today. In two weeks we will be marking the 25th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. At the heart of that event lay a dramatic confrontation between two ideas of tradition or at least of how to defend and preserve a tradition. On the one hand, there were those whose views were based on another NT text which also uses a financial metaphor: “O Timothy,” Paul wrote, “preserve the deposit.” The deposit here means something like a bank deposit: a fixed sum entrusted for safe-keeping. Paul’s injunction was prompted by a perceived threat that the Gospel he had taught would be compromised by an early form of Gnosticism, esoteric teachings which while claiming to be more sophisticated interpretations were in fact emptying the Gospel of its central and distinctive substance and value.
This basic responsibility of each generation of Christians–that they themselves hand on intact what they have received–had, however, been undertaken in a way like that of the fearful servant who had buried his talents in the ground. The people who were responsible for the documents prepared for Vatican II were of the view that a permanently valid way of articulating the Gospel and of drawing out its consequences for human life had been achieved in the previous century and a half; and they were determined to make the Council simply repeat and confirm all that.
The drama of Vatican II was the emergence and eventual triumph of a view that was no less concerned than the first to preserve the tradition, but refused to identify it with particular formulae or particular attitudes and behaviors. Instead they were of the view that the only way to preserve the value of what was entrusted to them was by a constant process of reinterpretation and re-evaluation and re-application to meet ever new challenges. (It is like the difference between investing one’s money as opposed to leaving it lying fallow. As we all know, the latter inevitably means it is devaluated over time.) As Etienne Gilson once remarked, conservation means continual creation. You only really preserve a valuable tradition if what you received as a meaningful and life-inspiring force you hand on to others as now supplying meaning and direction for their lives.
It was this second group which basically prevailed at the Council, which confirmed the more active and dynamic idea of tradition and of how really and creatively to preserve it. Then and now, the issue was not really whether tradition is important–on that there really can be no dispute for a Church which lives by the continued retelling, by one generation to another, of the story of Jesus Christ. We are here because others before us lived by what they had received and handed it on to us; and there will be another generation gathering in praise of the God and Father of Jesus Christ if we also hand the same rich treasure on to a new generation. For what we have to hand on is a living reality, not a set of mere formulas or habitual activities. What we are supposed to hand on is a Christianity whose truth and value are most persuasively demonstrated by the light it casts on contemporary challenges and opportunities and in the power it gives us to meet them with the love which Christ demanded and himself displayed. We are supposed to hand on a wealth that has been enriched by our own efforts to be faithful to Christ’s word and obedient to his powerful grace. That is what the master will ask of us when he returns to ask us what we have done with the treasure he entrusted to us.
This is a most delicate task, of course, particularly in a culture which tends not to place much value on tradition of any sort, always, it seems, wanting to start all over from scratch. That there are some Catholics today who do not appreciate what a rich treasure has been given to them is undeniable, and for that reason it is always going to be necessary to keep Paul’s injunction in mind: “Preserve the deposit entrusted to you.” But in such circumstances today’s parable is even more relevant, because the preservation of this entrusted wealth will not in fact be achieved simply by wrapping it up in a cloth and effectively burying it, but by a constant effort to enrich it by demonstrating its effective power to illumine ever new situations and to inspire ever new generations of Christians to meet them with the love and service of Christ. The only way to keep the tradition alive and rich in consequences is genuinely, generously, and enthusiastically to live it.
33RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – NOVEMBER 17, 2002 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
As our liturgical year nears its end, we hear once again today a parable of judgment, like the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids last week, like the parable of the sheep and goats at the final judgment next week. The parables are meant to recall to us the seriousness of Christian living, and to bring us to take more conscious direction of our lives.
Perhaps in the ministry of Jesus, today’s Gospel of the talents was directed against the scribes and pharisees, who on this interpretation can be seen in the man who buried his master’s money. The Jewish leaders would have buried the wealth of God’s word to Israel under a mass of human traditions and legal requirements. They would be coming under judgment as Jesus appears.
The parable seems to have taken on a different meaning in Matthew’s Gospel. It now becomes an allegory of our existence as Christians during this time while the master has gone away on a journey–this referring to the Ascension of Christ. But one day he will return and will want an account given of the gifts he has left in the hands of the Church, of us Christians. The word “talent,” of course, originally had no relation to what we understand by the word today–native abilities or developed skills. It was a unit of money, perhaps worth over a thousand of our dollars. Its worth is supposed to give a sense that what Christ has entrusted to us is valuable indeed.
Those who invest the money are rewarded when the master returns. “Come and share your master’s joy,” they hear; “come and enter the joyful feast of God’s kingdom.” The servant who buries the master’s money is rebuked for not having seen that it grows. The gifts of God are meant to be fostered and nourished, multiplied in the course of a Christian life.
The parable is then an occasion for us to reflect on what we have been doing with the gifts of God, both the gifts of grace and of God’s word that gather us here together as the Church, and gifts of other sorts given to us simply as human beings on this good earth. Our existence is gift; our families are gift; our life in this blessed and prosperous country is gift; our opportunities for education and for meaningful employment are gift; our freedom from hunger and poverty are gift. Many of these gifts are not enjoyed by billions of people on this planet. And the knowledge of God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, is gift; knowing that this world, that we ourselves, have been so loved by God in Christ, is gift; entrance into a community of faith, hope, and love is gift; the assurance that our sins may be forgiven is gift; the faith that the last word pronounced over our lives is not death but life, is gift; knowing that things, all things, are in the hands of God whose ways are true and good, is gift.
The worst thing that could happen to gifts is that they be taken for granted. That phrase contains a paradox: what we take for granted we commonly don’t take as given. But where we take these things as gifts, as granted by God, then there should be a basic sense of thanksgiving at the heart of our existence. We need not have been, but God has called us into existence and sustains us, even now, at this moment. We need not have been forgiven, but God has recreated us and called us his children in Christ, his brothers and sisters. If a fundamental gratitude, peace, joy, surrounds the deepest heart of our being, then surely it will spontaneously display itself in the effort to mirror the generosity from which we have so greatly benefitted. The gifts of God then will grow and multiply as those who have been loved love, too; as those who have been forgiven forgive, too; as those who have been graced are gracious, too. These gifts are not diminished by being shared; they increase. It’s like a single candle’s light: to light other candles from that one is not to diminish its light; a single candle’s light shared can illumine a whole room.
That is the kind of return on his investment that God will require of us: to see that gifts he has given us have not been hoarded away, but have gone from us and blessed others as well.
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 13, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
The parable we have just heard is another one of those stories whose main theme is that of decision and judgment. It fits, then, with the parable we heard last week about the wise and foolish virgins and the one we will hear next week about the separation of the goats and sheep at the Last Judgment. These texts are read as the liturgical year comes to an end, as a kind of reminder that in the end we will all face God’s judgment.
The judgment, of course, will be on what we have done with our lives, with what we have made of our selves. Such parables are a reminder that God has made us in his own image and likeness, that is, has given us intelligence and freedom. If God’s providence oversees and directs all natural forces and events to his purpose, to human beings he has given the possibility and indeed the duty to participate in his providence, by their freedom to determine who they will be. My dog’s wonderful fulfillment of what it means to be a dog does not involve freedom; he is what he is by instinct and a certain amount of training which did not involve my trying to persuade him of the wisdom of my commands. But in us human beings instincts play a relatively minor role, and our culture supplies for that lack by bringing us language, beliefs, values, institutions and roles, a knowledge and appreciation of which we drink in with our mother’s milk.
But there can, or at least should, come a moment in our lives in which we discover, each of us, that it is up to ourselves to decide for ourselves what we will make of ourselves (Bernard Lonergan). It is a kind of existential moment, that is, a moment in which we may begin to ex-ist, to step out of the self that has perhaps been shaped more by others than by oneself, and to assume responsibility for the selves we will become. It is a moment in which one may cease to be a drifter, thinking and saying and doing what everyone else is thinking and saying and doing because everyone else is thinking and saying and doing it. (Perhaps we might think of it as the man who buried the money he had received: but did nothing with it.) Even when the assumption of personal responsibility may ratify what our culture and the various communities we have encountered have given us, now these gifts become our possession, things we retain because we have come to know them and to choose them for ourselves
This is a powerful line of thought. It is part of the Catholic “both-and” which some theologians, oversimplifying a little, have contrasted with the Protestant “either-or.” For example, we don’t have to choose between God’s freedom and human freedom. God created us free and wants us to use our freedom to make our way back to him. You don’t have to impoverish God to enrich man, nor impoverish man to honor God. St. Irenaeus, in the second century of the Christian era, had already put it succinctly: “The glory of God is a living man, and the life of man is the sight of God.” A living human being is God’s glory, the purpose of his creation, and we human beings find life, fulfilment, in coming to know God and entering into his glorious life.
This is the vision of the human person on which the Gospel theme of decision and judgment relies. The final judgment on our lives will be on what we have done with our freedom, what we have made of ourselves. This vision is as old as the adage of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” One ancient Christian writer put it in terms of artistic creativity: “Never stop working on the sculpture that is your life.” A modern theologian, Bernard Lonergan, said that the book one is writing with one’s life will have only one edition. These are the bases of our Catholic tradition’s urging of regular, even daily, self-examination (what else, after all, is an examination of conscience?), of regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, of days of recollection (days for re-gathering ourselves), of weekend retreats: all these opportunities to review what we have been doing, are doing, with our freedom. All ways in which to think about the great and glorious weight of responsibility that falls on us in determining the self we will become, the self which one day will stand before God, for him to judge whether with our exercise of our existential freedom we have created something beautiful, or not.
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”: 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.