The Parable of the Talents: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

November 17, 2008

I attended Sunday Mass twice this week–on Saturday evening at St. Austin’s in North Minneapolis and on Sunday evening at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul.  The Gospel reading (Mt 25: 14-30) was quite troubling to me.

The Parable of the Talents.  A man who is leaving for a journey entrusts his servants with his property–he gives one servant 5 talents, another servant 2 talents, and the final servant just 1.  Talents, of course, are some sort of currency.  The servant who receives 5 talents goes out and makes some deals and doubles his money.  The servant who receives 2 does the same.  The final servant, who receives only one, digs a hole in the ground and buries it.  The master comes home and is pleased to find that two of his servants doubled his money, but his encounter with the other servant is less than ideal.  This servant accuses the master of being “a demanding person” and of “harvesting where [he] did not plant.”  The master calls him wicked and lazy, scolds him for not returning the talent with interest, and finally declares: “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. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

When Fr. George at St. Austin’s finished reading this, I was chilled.  I was sure that I had just experienced a story of evil.  But the homily (given by a parishioner as a part of the parish’s stewardship week) went on to praise the first two servants and denounce the last.  Likewise, at Nativity of Our Lord, the priest gave a homily about duty and responsibility–at one point, he even said something like, “We all know that this is what makes America great: innovation and creative entrepreneurship,” and name dropped “Microsoft, Google, and even Amazon.”

I was aghast.  I came home and read the Parable in context, and still cannot fully come to terms with it.

First and foremost, the Torah forbids the practice of charging interest.  Second, Jesus’ negative attitude towards wealth and riches seems pretty consistent throughout the New Testament–His criticism of the money changers, His teaching that “No one can serve two masters,” and so forth.  With these two facts in mind, it seems impossible that Jesus would tell a parable that admonishes that last servant.

Perhaps, I thought, the Parable isn’t about money at all and shouldn’t be thought of in that way.  If the talents act merely as metaphors for faith, or blessings, or skills, then the Parable is simply telling us to nurture these gifts and make them bear fruit.  However, it still seems to me unlikely that Jesus would use money as a metaphor for anything positive.

I keep returning to the master’s final declaration: “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.”  This is simply irreconcilable with everything I believe about Christ and the Kingdom of God.

So, maybe this Parable is really a denunciation of what is going on in the story.  Perhaps that quote about the rich getting richer is not a description of the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather an indictment of this broken and crucifying world.  Jesus, then, is calling us to be like that last servant–we ought to call the wealthy out on their unjust practices, even if it means that the wrath and persecution of the world will fall upon us.  This reading (that is completely contrary to what both of my priests seemed to think about the Parable) is much more in line with my beliefs.

However, the Parable of the Talents comes right after the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and seems contextually to really be a description of the Kingdom of God.

Then again, the section immediately following our Parable is the part where Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” which is clearly more in line with my dissenting reading of the Parable than it is with the ortho-capitalistic reading my priests offered.

I feel very unCatholic when I write phrases like “ortho-capitalistic,” and it makes me very uncomfortable.  I have trouble calling the Church out on Her sins.  But, perhaps I am called to be like that final servant, the poor man who confronts his master with his injustices.

I got quite angry during Mass at Nativity, and wondered how I could be part of the same Body as this priest who was glorifying American business ingenuity and marketing.  Then he placed the Body of Christ on my tongue, and I felt immediately reconciled with him–through no doings of our own.