“COME, SHARE YOUR MASTER’S JOY.”
- Once upon a time there were two teenagers who were the ninth and tenth person on Mollie Whopi’s basketball team. They were on the team because Mollie had asked them but they were content to be bench warmers. In fact, they loved to sit on the bench and make fun of those who were playing. They didn’t practice very hard because they knew they’d get into the game only at the last minute when the game was already won or lost. Since it was Mollie’s team they almost always won. Well, one day three of the regular players were out sick and two more fouled out, one of whom was Mollie herself. The referees were simply not fair. So Mollie she had to send in these two kids at the end of the bench. They didn’t try very hard. Of course the team lost. So they’re like well, it’s not our fault because we’re not very good. And Mollie went on to say to them if you’d have played up to your real ability, we would have won.
Now, we all are in God’s team and we all have to play the game of life to the best of our ability in order to succeed. Again, each one of us has been bestowed with multiple gifts and blessings by God. Naturally, He expects us to utilize these blessings for His kingdom and for His people and also to develop the talents and abilities He has given us. He wants us to be diligent and watchful for the coming of the Lord who will take into account all that we have done.
Today is the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time and next Sunday is the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year A when we will be celebrating the feast of ‘Christ the King.’ As the Liturgical Year is about to reach its completion, the Scripture Readings of today fittingly draw our attention on the ‘last things’. They encourage us to prepare worthily for the ‘Day of the Lord’, which could be a day of wrath or a day of grace for anyone – depending on one’s personal response to God’s saving love. The First Reading from the Book of Proverbs, suggests that we should be as diligent and industrious as a loyal and faithful wife. A perfect wife, it says, “is far beyond the price of pearls.”She is hardworking, mainly for her family, but she also “reaches out her hand to the poor extends her arms to the needy.” Her value is not in her charm or her beauty but in her wisdom, that is, in her awareness of where the real priorities in life lie. In the Second Reading from his Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul reminds the Christians at Thessalonica of the unexpected but certain coming of the day of the Lord. He says that, that day will strike like a sudden disaster on people’s lives. It will come unexpectedly, “like a thief in the night.” He exhorts the Thessalonians to stay awake and sober. They must be personally involved and absolutely ready for ‘the Day of the Lord’. In the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, we hear ‘The Parable of the Talents.’ It depicts the creative genius of God’s faithful servants as well as the disappointing cowardice of the feckless. The faithful servants were industrious and resourceful – like the worthy wife of the Book of Proverbs. The parable focuses more sharply on the Christian attitude towards earthly life as we live in expectation of the Master’s return. The implicit responsibility of each servant is to work and to multiply the talents entrusted to him. It is not enough just to preserve what one has been given. The Master expects results from the person who has been given special talents.
‘THE WOMAN WHO FEARS THE LORD’:
The First Reading from the Book of Proverbs speaks eloquently of the qualities of a worthy wife and while the text applies literally to “the woman who fears the Lord”, there is also a valid application to the qualities of each person who lives in expectation of the Lord. The passage emphasizes the industriousness and diligence of the good wife who is busy with useful matters, skilled at her work and cares for the poor and the needy. The exemplary wife is a model of energetic faithfulness and creative response to divine initiative. The heart of our reading is that this woman, who has been caught up in a covenant relationship with God, has generously responded to His love by giving herself in the best way she knnows how. Her works say something about her inner life. Indeed, the fruitfulness of her good deeds gives us a glimpse of the beauty of her soul and the integrity of her personal relationship with God. As an example of wise stewardship of one’s God-given gifts, the reading is a perfect match to the gospel parable. This Scripture passage has been used at funeral services for noble and admirable women who blessed their family and circle of friends in selflessness, gentleness, and compassion.
“LET US STAY ALERT AND SOBER”:
In today’s Second Reading from the Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul continues his discussion on ‘the Day of the Lord’, the Second Coming of Christ. He tells them what Jesus himself had said that his Second Coming would be unexpected and would come like the thief in the night. However, this should not frighten them since they would be prepared because they were living their Christian faith. He tells them that since they are children of the light and children of the day, they should not worry about when the Lord shall return. It is sufficient for them to know that when the Lord does suddenly come “like a thief in the night”, either through His Second and final Coming on Judgment Day or when all Christians are individually called to appear before him at death, whichever comes first, they will be ready. People who nurture a false sense of security will be overtaken by surprise. Those who measure up to their Christian calling are always ready. They live their lives in constant daylight. No nighttime thief will bother them. The Second Coming of Christ will be a joyful event because they will be ready to receive him. St. Paul ends this passage with the advice, “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” Such alertness would allow them to prepare for the Second Coming and to rejoice in it.
THE PARABLE OF THE TALENTS:
Today’s Gospel passage, ‘The Parable of the Talents’, is the middle of three parables on the coming judgment that Matthew has linked together at the conclusion of his Eschatological Discourse. The first parable is that of the ten virgins; five foolish and five wise waiting for the bridegroom. The third is the familiar parable of the sheep and the goats; the judgment at the end of time ‘when the Son of man comes in his glory’. Jesus gives his disciples and the Pharisees this parable to illustrate and emphasize the teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven and how everyone will be judged according the use he makes of the gifts God gives to human persons.
This parable is preserved in three forms: St. Matthew’s version, St. Luke’s (Luke 19:12ff.), and the version in the later non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews. St. Matthew’s is probably nearest to the original, though St. Luke’s may contain some less-developed features than St. Matthew’s, together with some elaborations and additions of his own. The original context may have been the crisis produced by the ministry of Jesus rather than the future parousia. The parable may have been part of Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes, who had ‘buried’ the Law under the mass of their traditions and regulations.
Again, like last Sunday’s parable of the ten virgins, Jesus’ original parable of the talents has undergone a process of allegorization and has been given a strong eschatological orientation in the process of oral transmission and incorporation into St. Matthew’s written gospel. The owner has become a figure for Christ, away for a time on a (heavenly) journey, until he returns (at the parousia) to settle accounts with his servants (early Christian believers). The settling of accounts has become an image of final judgment, and the servants’ rewards and punishments are meant to remind St. Matthew’s audience of the importance of using their gifts wisely and well. So, while we look forward to the Lord’s Second Coming, as Judge and King of the universe, we are advised to make responsible use of the gifts, the time, and opportunities for service given to us.
In the parable we hear about “a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one – to each according to his ability”. He treated them as responsible persons and did not dictate to them how to use these talents. He trusted them as individuals and respected their freedom and initiative.
The master then departs and immediately the first two servants go off at once and trade with their talents. The third servant, on the other hand, digs a hole in the ground and buries his one talent. Why does he do that? Because he is afraid he is going to lose it if he trades with it. He must have reasoned like this: ‘Well, those with more talents can afford to take a risk. If they lose a talent, they can make it up later. But I have only one talent. If I lose it, end of story! So I had better play safe and just take care of it.’ He chooses the most cautious and least risky course of action available to him. Many of us in the church are like this third servant. Because we do not see ourselves as possessing outstanding gifts and talents, we conclude that there is nothing that we can do and bury them under the ground.
The surprise in the story comes when the master returns and demands an account from the servants. We discover that even though the first servant with five talents had made five more talents and the second servant with two talents had made two more talents, both of them receive exactly the same compliments: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” No comparison is made despite the fact that one earned five and the other only two. They are rewarded not in proportion to how many talents each has made, but in proportion to how many talents each of them started off with. In the Kingdom of Heaven we are not all measured by the same rule. It is not the talent given to each that matters but the way they have made us of those talents. So, what can we say about the third servant who decided to hide his talent? Obviously, he might have compared himself to the other servants with more talents, saw himself at the bottom rung of the ladder, and became discouraged. He did not realize that with his one talent, if he made just one more talent, he would be rewarded equally as the servant with five talents who made five more. Instead, he is filled with dread and fear at the thought of losing the talent that he has been given and returns it to the master. He had shown no creativity and in the master’s view he had acted irresponsibly. He tries to give all possible excuses to his master saying that he knew how hard and demanding the master was and therefore out of fear he did not risk investing his money in case he should lose it. The master becomes very angry. He severely condemns him as being both wicked and lazy. As a result he loses everything and ends up being cast out into the darkness outside.
One is reminded here of the branches on the vine which have no fruit and get thrown into the fire. In terms of the Gospel, it speaks of the Christian, who may be very devout, but who makes no contribution whatever to the life of the Christian community or to its mandate to give witness to the Gospel before the world (something that can be far more risky than commercial trading).
Finally, the parable ends with Jesus 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.” It seems rather surprising and unfair, like robbing the poor to pay the rich. But Jesus is rather saying that those who share generously the gifts they have been given are likely to find themselves constantly enriched.
The Gospel passage, however, goes further in pinpointing the ultimate purpose of our activities. It is the parable of the talents. Literally, one talent was a very large sum of money, equivalent to thousands of dollars today. The parable contains words of advice for the interim period between Christ’s resurrection and his final return. It urges a responsible use of the goods the Master has entrusted to us so that we may be ready to face him when he calls us to account.
Points worth noting and applying to our own lives:
a. God gives each person different gifts.
Despite our tendencies always to compare ourselves with others, the actual number and quality is not important. We are only asked to make full use of what we have been uniquely given and to use them for the benefit of the community as a whole. When everyone does that, the community is enriched.
b. Our work is never completed.
When the first two servants showed how much they had earned, they were not told they could sit back and rest. No, because of their trustworthiness, even greater responsibilities were given to them. “To everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough.”
c. The one who will be punished is the one who does nothing.
The man with one talent did not lose it. He did not do anything at all with it. If he had tried and failed, he would have met with compassion and forgiveness. (The image of the master as a “hard man” only emphasises that, if with such a person one should make an effort, all the more should one try where a loving, understanding and compassionate God is concerned.) Even the person with one talent has something to offer to others. It is a sober warning that it is not just those who do evil deeds who will lose out but also those who have no positively good works to show. Saying “But I didn’t do anything!” will not get one off the hook!
d. To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
It seems rather unfair, like robbing the poor to pay the rich. But Jesus is rather saying that those who share generously the gifts they have been given are likely to find themselves constantly enriched. Those who jealously preserve what they have been given, hoard it and go into their shell in fear of the outside world are likely to shrivel up and die. Those who save their lives, will lose it; those who share generously what they have with others, will find themselves immeasurably enriched. It is the law of the Gospel; it also a law of life which many of us, in practice, find hard to believe.
Refusal to change
It is in this context that another interpretation has been given to the parable. Namely, that it is a criticism of a religious tradition which refuses to develop. This is a constant phenomenon of all religions, including our own. Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time jealously protected the Law and tradition. They were opposed to any change or any development. In the process, they forgot the original spirit of the Law and naturally were opposed to Jesus, who constantly criticised this stance. In our Church today, there are people who do not want to change anything, who want to go back to the old ways of doing things. They want to bury the Spirit of God in the napkin of tradition. They want old wine in old wineskins. This is not the way of Life.
Finally, we need to spend some time reflecting – and why not today? – on what particular talents or gifts God has given us. Some of us are clearly very gifted but there is no one, absolutely no one, who can say they have been gifted with nothing. And we can ask ourselves how are we using our particular gifts in the service of our Christian community and the wider society? Any other use of them is to bury them in a napkin and render them unproductive. If we were to die today and meet Jesus and he asks us, “How did you use the gifts and talents I gave you? Who benefited and how from those gifts?” What would you be able to say in reply?
And the Master is going to come back, “like a thief in the night”, so we need to be ready. If you have buried that talent or used it in only selfish ways, get out there quickly and get it working for the Kingdom.
As we approach the end of the Liturgical Year, the Gospel Reading today reminds us of ‘the end-time’, the Second Coming of Christ and the final Judgment. It is in this context that it spells out the necessity of being prepared for whenever the end of time catches up with us. ‘The Parable of the Talents’ which we hear today is often read as an exhortation for us to use our talents. The settling of accounts upon the master’s return is the core of the message of the parable. It teaches us to boldly prefer taking active risk in our lives over passive complacency. Being safe and comfortable is not high in the Lord’s priority of values. The obvious conclusion from today’s parable is also often repeated. We are responsible for the talents that we have received from God. Some of us have more talents than others, and there is no one, absolutely no one, who can say they have been gifted with nothing; but just the same, we have to do an accounting before God. The usual measure is that much more will be expected of them who have been given more. The choice for us is clear: We either make good use of what God has entrusted to us or not. If we do, then we become like the first two rewarded servants whom the master praised and said, “Come, share your master’s joy”. If we do not, then what the master said of the third servant will also be said of us, “Throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
Let us ask ourselves how we are using our particular gifts and talents in a creative way in the service of our Christian community and the wider society to advance the interest of God’s Kingdom. Essentially this means the works of love, as the scene of the final judgment upon Christ’s return makes it clear. Let us be prepared for ‘the Day of Judgment’ when Christ the Lord takes account of the talents we have been so generously blessed with, and eagerly look forward to hear him say to us, “Come, share your master’s joy.” And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.