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

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.


5 Responses to “The Parable of the Talents: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time”

  1. R.O. Flyer Says:

    Hey Mike, the parable is decidedly not capitalist and you are right to call into question these sermons. Doing this surely doesn’t make you unCatholic.

    Good to see you’ve entered the “theo-blogosphere” and I’m glad to know you’re reading Halden’s blog and Michael’s blog!

  2. Brian Says:

    Hello Mike,

    I just found Halden’s blog today and decided to search you out as I too have been looking for intelligent theological conversation.

    I would say this parable is one of the more troubling and difficult ones. Unfortunately, Catholic homilies are generally a disappointment. There are great Catholic thinkers in this era, Hans Urs von Balthasar and the last two popes among them, but it doesn’t seem to have deeply impacted at the parish level.

    A rather difficult, but intriguing reading of this parable is given by the Eastern Orthodox thinker, Pavel Florensky. His chapter on Gehenna in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth treats it at length. It’s speculative and likely to seem outlandish and perhaps heterodox, but I think his reading is in the direction of what is right. For certain, the parable is NOT really about money. The `talent’ has much more to do with the gift of one’s person which is meant to be shared and thus open up into the dynamism of God’s kingdom. The talent that does not multiply is akin to the person who fails to build even a marginal life of holiness upon the foundation of Christ. The empirical self is thus unfit for the kingdom just as the party crasher who lacks a proper wedding garment is unfit.

    This is a `bumper sticker’ version of Florensky. Adrienne von Speyr seems to me to have similar eschatological speculations.

  3. wally Says:

    I agree that “talent” has everything to do with entrusted gifts given to us by God. Could the difficult passage (v26) be interpreted as the Master simply repeating what “one talent guy”said?

    For instance, read this as if the Master is using one talent guy’s words (so you think you know me, huh?)

    “So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered see? 27 Well then you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. NKJV

    I think this works for the following reasons:

    1) He calls into question the goodness of the Master. (Some do the same to God)

    2) Luke 19:22 Parable of the Minas(a similar parable) the master says, “I will judge you by your own words.”

    3) Throughout the Bible, God frowns upon usury (exploiting interest). Why would Jesus now view it as a good thing?

    Jesus’ intention, I believe, is to focus His followers to faithfully use their gifts to worship Him and to serve others until His return. His return was what he was talking about through out this entire discourse.

    Hope that helps.

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