A reflection on the Sunday readings for November 15, 2020
The latest data tells us that the richest 1% own more than half of the world’s wealth. In the United States, top 20% of Americans own 86% of the country’s wealth and the bottom 80% of the population own only 14%. I begin with these statistics, not only because of staggering the inequality, but also because in a capitalist economy such as ours, the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30) might make us conclude that the top 1% are the heroes of the parable, and that the rest of us are lazy, incapable, or just plain stupid. After all, the master said, “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich” (Mt 25:29). If the master in the parable represents God, and the servants represent us, it becomes very important that we interpret this parable correctly, lest it become a tool for oppression.
The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, from which today’s Gospel reading is taken, is composed of two parables and the scene of the Last Judgement. Last Sunday, we heard the parable of ten virgins, today we heard the parable of the talents, and next Sunday, on the Feast of Christ the King, we will hear Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment. All these passages have an eschatological theme. As the liturgical year draws to a close, through these passages the Church invites to reflect on life and its eternal possibilities. These readings also caution us against those obstacles that hinder the possibilities. Of course, today we reflect on all these things from the perspective of our faith in Jesus Christ.
What lessons should we take from the parable of the talents, and what are the practical implications?
A Good and Generous God
A peripheral reading of this Gospel passage seems to put the master in a negative light. At the end, the third servant and the master engage in a rather contentious dialogue. The third servant described the master as a demanding person, “harvesting where he did not plant, and gathering where he did not scatter” (Mt 25:24). Out of fear of his master, he said, he buried the talent. For this, and because he did not at least return his talent with interest, the third servant was thrown outside, “where there is wailing and grinding of teeth” (Mt 25:30).
It is almost as if the master lives up to the image that the third servant painted of him. If we reach the conclusion that God is like the master in the parable, then we are taking away the wrong message. Rightly understood, this is a very positive parable that reveals God’s true nature. First, the master generously entrusted his own possessions to his servants. This tells us that God is a good and generous God. Second, the parable tells us that the master placed his trust in the servants to whom he gave the talents. Note that he gave his servants the talents and then left town. Indeed, God is a trusting God. Third, the parable tells us that the master gave different amounts of talents to each servant. This means that God gives to each according to his or her ability.
God respects our abilities and our limitations and treats us accordingly. Everything we have as God’s generous gift. God trusts us with our life, the people God has given us, and everything we have. It also means that God does not expect more from us than our God-given gifts and abilities. God is a good, generous, and reasonable God!
If the master in the parable represents God, in the same way, the three servants represent humanity. It tells us that we are all gifted, each according to our abilities. The lesson for us is not merely that we must live our lives meaningfully and use our gifts well. That message is self-evident. The parable further tells us that we have the freedom and the ability to either accomplish God’s purpose or not.
We can use our life and our talents to accomplish good or to the opposite. It is with great pain, for example, that I mention the McCarrick report that was released by the Vatican last week. Theodore McCarrick was the archbishop of Washington, DC. For years, there had been allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against him. Yet, in 2000 he was appointed Archbishop of Washington and in 2001 he was made a cardinal. In 2018, he was defrocked, but look at the damage that he did.
Contrast McCarrick with the many other cardinals, bishops, and priests who use their gifts to do good. Or look at the millions of health care workers who are saving lives in our hospitals from the pandemic.
Now let us contrast these with people who have exploited or destroyed human lives for the sake of advancing a political agenda. Looking at history, we see many very gifted people who left trails of death and destruction. 85 million people were killed as a result of Hitler’s Nazi vision for the world and the resulting Second World War.
On the other hand, there were ordinary people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, St. Vincent de Paul, Mother Teresa, and St. Oscar Romero, who used their gifts to bring hope and love to humanity. Look at the state of God’s creation. Some people are bent on making profit, even if it means destroying this beautiful world, whereas others are trying to preserve it for future generations.
The servants in the parable describe humanity. There is a difference, however. We are no longer servants. We are God’s children. As God’s children, how will history judge your life and mine? When we stand before God, what story will our lives tell? How will our families recount our story to the future generations? The parable of the talents is the invitation to reflect these important questions.
This parable is not about money, investments, the economy or the stock market. This parable is about life—life on earth and the possibilities for eternal life. This parable is about a good and generous God who created us to live good and happy lives. For this, God gave us this great and beautiful earth, gave us the people we have in our lives, and gave us all the gifts have, each according to our abilities. Even when we messed up and ruined God’s vision for humanity, God continued to trust humanity with God’s Son Jesus Christ, and entrusted to us the gospel of life and love, the gospel of goodness and mercy, the gospel of redemption and salvation.
I am not going to labor the point of the parable any further. I think I’ve gotten my point across. Let me end with this final thought: at the end of our lives, every one of us should want God to say to us, “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” (Mt 25:23). However, there is yet another possibility—that God says to us, “You wicked and lazy servant.” We must realize the possibility that we might find ourselves among those “wailing and grinding their teeth” (Mt 25:30). God is a good, generous, and trusting God, but God has also placed our destiny in our hands. Eternity is a gift. But it is also a choice.
Along with creation, our life, our loved ones, and our faith, the Eucharist is also God’s precious gift. As we receive Christ’s real presence in the bread and wine, may we allow the God’s love and live grow through us. May it become the cause of our eternity. Amen.
Image: By Willem de Poorter – The Parable of The Talents, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51094752