The Parable of the Talents
(Readings: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30)
In the gospel passage for Mass this Sunday Jesus informs his listeners that our ideas about God’s basic character radically affect the way we practice our faith. If we see God as harsh and demanding we will concentrate on appeasing him and protecting ourselves from possible punishment. On the other hand a genuine experience of God’s generosity and compassion enables us to radiate those same qualities in our dealings with other people.
To begin Mass we think of the ways we might be responsible for not getting to know God closely, and we ask him to forgive us and strengthen our faith in him.
It's possible, and it's probably been done often, to get a very obvious and even banal message out of this parable of Jesus', about how everybody has different talents and gifts, and how we should use these gifts that God has given us instead of wasting them or not developing them.
But Christ's emphasis, in actual fact, is different from that. It's not so much about individuals developing and employing their personal gifts. It's about a comparison of two different attitudes: the attitude of people who pass on what they have received from God as opposed to the attitude of those who just keep to themselves what God has given them, instead of sharing it out or passing it on to others.
And the focus of the parable is Jesus' criticism of that second attitude.
The important thing to note in Jesus' story here is that the servants who receive the talents from their master, before he goes away on a journey, are not being given personal gifts or qualities of character. They're being given a commission - a job to do - and they’re being handed the responsibility for carrying it out.
They're being given a share in their master's business - the job of looking after his property. It's an image of the responsibility that we have, as the Church, for proclaiming the gospel.
In our everyday life, with it's good moments and bad moments, tensions and conflicts, we have to bear witness to what we believe - not by preaching at people, but by our principles and our way of life and by the priorities and commitments which are implicit in our decisions and our actions.
The first two slaves carry out their duty and they fulfil their master's expectations. They increase what they were given. But the third servant does the exact opposite, and the parable says why: because he had a different idea of what his master was like. He perceived his master as someone who was harsh and demanding, someone it was better to play safe with.
Jesus' point is: this is the idea that some people have of God and that's their attitude to their own relationship with God. God is someone who is hard and ungenerous, more interested in punishment than in love. People who see God as being like that are scared of God, the way the slave in the parable is scared of his boss, and because they're scared, they see their faith in God, or the living out of the gospel, as a set of formal rules or obligations which they have to keep to exactly and without deviating.
They don't take any risks, and they hand back to God exactly what they received from him. That gives them a feeling of security.
What the slave finds out - and Jesus implies what we'll find out eventually - is that that attitude doesn't lead to spiritual progress or a better understanding of God. It leads to a warped understanding of what God is like and to spiritual stultification.
Jesus knew God through his own prayer and contemplation. In his experience God was not someone who merely rewards or punishes people, and therefore faith in God isn't something we need to keep safe to protect it.
Real faith is something that naturally bears fruit, like the servants doubling their investment. If we think of our faith in God as something that happens only between ourselves and God - in a kind of private one-to-one relationship - then obviously the people living around us won't have any place in our Christian life.
Whereas for the person who understands what God is actually like, faith is something that spills over into concern and love and service of the people around them: faith yields that “interest”.
That's what Christ is getting at, I think, in this rather strange saying, “the one who has will be given even more, whereas the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”.
If we get onto the right footing in our relationship with God we grow and develop spiritually - we advance towards maturity. If we don't get onto the right footing, at best we remain static and we don't develop. We stagnate instead.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we find people who talk endlessly in the language of religion, who are very concerned about the details of doctrine or belief, and exact observance of the rules of the Church. But behind all that, their basic attitude to life and to other people is still selfish. It’s legalistic and self-protecting.
For all their devotion to Church teaching, perhaps, they're not people who seem to be very generous or expansive in their concern and service towards their neighbour. On the contrary: they often seem cold, insensitive, unaffected by suffering. And yet the ultimate purpose of the Bible and the tradition of Church teaching is to bring us into real acquaintanceship with God, so that we take on his characteristics ourselves and become remoulded in his image.
It's always a pity when staunch, faithful church people turn out like that. Whereas there are people who wouldn't put their ideas into religious language at all who have nevertheless realised, through their own experiences, that the only truly human life is a life that involves love and sacrifice and self-giving, and not just guarding our own interests and keeping everyone else at arm's length. Aren’t they the servants who have actually invested the talents they've been given?
That's the lesson I would take from this gospel passage. Our fulfilment consists in a Christian life based on receiving God's grace and taking risks in sharing it in concern for others, not on formality and fear and self-protection. I think this is the aspect of living under God's Reign that Jesus wants to emphasise in this particular parable.