The return of the king: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is 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.’”

The shortest job I ever held was the one week in which I sold the Encylopedia Brittanica. In fact, I only use the word “sold” here advisedly; I never did sell a single volume, or even get a single sit-down. In late 1981, when I would have been better advised to start studying my own school books rather than sell encyclopedias, a recruiter somehow convinced me that a great fortune lay hidden in the encyclopedia-starved boondocks of Orange County, California. They armed me with a demonstration set and a stack of leads which they assured me were more golden than the Golden State. I couldn’t wait to sell my first 1,000 sets and become the Encyclopedia King of the OC.

After a week of calling these golden leads, it became clear that my pitch was leaden, at best. The nadir of this little story arc came in a Sunday evening tongue-lashing from an older woman for calling her on the Lord’s day of rest, at which point I threw in the towel on my dreams of Brittanica riches. The recruiter tried to get me to keep pitching, but even a Glengarry Glen Ross motivational speech couldn’t have worked better to make me realize that I had no talent for that kind of career. Those gifts were not in my repertoire.

When this Gospel reading comes up, with its focus on multiplying money, it seems incongruous to the overall message of salvation. In fact, when taken only in its literal sense, it almost seems like a replay of Alec Baldwin’s famous speech in Glengarry Glen Ross. First and second place here gets the Cadillac, while third place means “you’re fired” in a much more eschatological sense.  All the third servant did was hide the money so that his master didn’t lose anything — and yet he’s been castigated as wicked and lazy, and cast into the utter darkness for it. The master even asks why the servant didn’t put the money in a bank to earn interest before condemning him. Is it all about the money?

Of course it isn’t. It’s not about money, but about gifts — gifts of the Holy Spirit unique to each of us. Paul writes about these charisms in his first letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul tries to explain that all of the gifts can serve the Lord equally. (The Corinthians had been fighting over rank based on their perception of the values of each gift.) Paul reminds his friends in Corinth that “the Holy Spirit is given to each of us in a special way. That is for the good of all.”

Jesus aims this parable specifically at His disciples to explain to them the responsibilities they will carry forward after He departs, one of a series of parables explaining their mission and the nature of salvation after Jesus had parried with the temple authorities. In those exchanges with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus had offered parables about the past and present, but with His disciples Jesus looks forward to their eventual Great Commission in the world. Jesus clearly foreshadows His death and resurrection, and His eventual return, in this parable designed to teach the disciples on how they will be judged. When Jesus departs, He will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples, transforming them into apostles and bestowing upon them all the necessary gifts to bring salvation to the world. This unfolds in Acts, and the transformation has an immediate effect: the apostles receive the gifts of prophecy and of tongues, and immediately put it to use in winning converts to salvation from many nations.

The use of the word “talent” in English now relates to innate human gifts, while in the Gospel the word relates to a unit of currency. It’s an etymological accident, but a useful one through which we can more clearly see the meaning of today’s Gospel. We each have gifts, talents if you will, given to us by the Lord. We use those for various purposes — to make a living, to provide for families, and to help others at times. Those are necessary and just uses of the charisms given to us, for we have vocations to do these as part of our existence as children of God, as long as those charisms are used honestly and ethically. But we are also stewards of the kingdom here in this life, and as such we are called to use those charisms not just for our own purposes but also to advance the salvation of others.

What did the wicked and lazy servant do with his talent? He judged his master as unworthy, and then in fear hid the talent and did nothing at all with it. He had not been given as much as the other two servants, but he had the same responsibility to put his talent to use for the master in whatever way he could. Unlike the other two preceding parables in Matthew — the wise and foolish maidens and the unfaithful servant — Jesus’ instruction isn’t about not knowing the hour of His return, but explicitly on the performance of His disciples regardless of when it arrives.

The betrayal of the master is significant in another way. We are given the charisms of the Holy Spirit at baptism regardless of our relative worthiness, and they remain with us through cycles of sin and forgiveness. They are a sign of the fidelity of God that endures despite our continuing infidelities to Him. We can put those to use even when we ourselves need redemption from our own sinfulness and can serve Him while we ourselves struggle. The servant’s rejection of his master is as sinful as his refusal to use his gifts for the master’s benefit. In that sense, the wicked and lazy servant has already cast himself into the darkness outside his master’s love even before the master returns.

Jesus reminds his disciples of all ages and eras that we will be held accountable for the uses of the gifts with which He has blessed all of us. That’s not a multi-level marketing plan; it’s a straightforward decision we make every day whether we will choose to love the Lord and use those talents for the benefit of the mission of salvation. We can choose to engage others and spread the benefits of those “talents” and thus multiplying them. In the end, those gifts properly used will lift us up as well.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” by Claude Vignon, 1629, on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.