November 19, 2023
Matthew 25: 14-30
Until Dominican Sister Barbara Reid challenged my understanding of “talents,” I heard in Jesus’ parable encouragement for disciples to invest time and effort in enhancing personal abilities. But what if the Greek word talaton does not refer to personal gifts or skills or characteristics? What if this parable rests on the value of the common good in a society which understood wealth as limited? What if an honorable person would not seek more than what was allotted to her because it meant taking away what belonged to another? What if the master is not God?
Jesus begins the parable with a master distributing possessions to servants before going away. Jesus tells us this man claims tremendous wealth as his personal possession and demands that his servants be like him. Sister Reid points out that the Greek word talanton is not related to human gifts and skills at all, but is rather a monetary or weight measurement. The parable goes on to depict two servants who invest and double the vast amount of money with which they are entrusted, which wins their master’s approval. The third servant, by contrast, buries the money, which, she explains, was considered the best way of safeguarding valuables in antiquity. Yet this servant earns harsh punishment from the returning master. One can imagine that the investment activities of the first and second servants may have been aggressive, even ruthless, because doubling investments as large as these by righteous means is highly unlikely in Jesus’ day. Why does the master praise them? Perhaps because these two servants have indeed become like him.
We know Jesus did not live in a capitalist system which presumes that personal wealth can be increased by investment. Ordinary people would have had a notion of limited good: there was only so much wealth, and any increase to one person takes away from another, with corrosive impacts upon the entire community. The aim in life was for all to have enough to take care of their extended family. Anyone amassing large amounts for personal use would be seen as greedy and wicked. In the parable, then, Sister Barbara explains, the master is not a figure for God. It is the third servant who is the honorable one – only he has refused to collaborate with his master in his unfettered greed. The parable warns the rich to stop exploiting those who are poor, and it encourages the poor to take courageous measures to expose greed for the sin against the common good that it is. The last verse is sobering, depicting what can happen to those who oppose the rich and powerful. It can encourage disciples to find ways to stand together as they confront unjust systems.
In the United States, our bishops assign this Sunday for the collection for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development which supports people made poor in “participating in decisions that affect their lives, families and communities.” This Sunday is also called World Day of the Poor, quickly followed by Native American Heritage Day (Nov. 24) and World Day to Eliminate Violence on Women (Nov. 25). Considering this parable from “below” suggests a different interpretation to Jesus’ words: disproportionate personal wealth risks neglect of God and neglect of the poor who are always our good God’s first priority.
Matthew 25: 14-30
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“A man going on a journey called in 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. Then he went away.
Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ His master said to him, ‘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.’
Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’ His master said to him, ‘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.’
Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’
His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. 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.'”
This is the Gospel of the Lord.