“All of us have something to offer”

Short Reflection for the Sunday 16 November 2014 – 33 Sunday in Ordinary Time, entitled “All of us have something to offer” by Fr Ray McIntyre.

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A – Lectio divina on Mt 25,14-30

This gospel passage is known as the parable of the talents but the title is somewhat misleading. In fact, the focus of the story is not on the goods left by the owner, but rather on the responsibility of the servants to whom they are given.  In this parable Jesus sought to prepare his disciples so that, when he was no longer with them, they would know how to wait for him and, at the same time, not neglect what they had received from him. They would experience an emptiness during their time of waiting, and they would have to keep busy to fill that void. Jesus knew well that believers normally miss God only when they miss his gifts – that is how inconsiderate we are! The fact is that, unfortunately, we are often not aware of his presence because we do not pay sufficient attention to what he has given us.

At that time: Jesus told his disciples this parable: [14] “A man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; [15] to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. [16] He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. [17] So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. [18] But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. [19] Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.  [20] And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, `Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ [21] His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ [22] And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, `Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ [23] His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ [24] He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, `Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; [25] so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ [26] But his master answered him, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? [27] Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.     [28] So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents.   [29] For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [30] And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I. Read: understand what the text says, focussing on how it says it

This is the third parable in which Matthew tries to shore up the hopes of the early Christian community. The Lord Jesus had foretold his return, many times, but it still had not happened and they were discouraged by the delay. A prolonged delay can shatter hopes. Matthew insists on vigilance and encourages them to be busy and active as they wait.

The story is in two parts. The first (25, 14-18) tells of the master’s decision, as he is about to depart, to divide his goods among his employees. He is not giving away his property. Rather, he entrusts it to them to care for it.  It is important to note, first of all, that the owner does not tell any of them expressly what they are to do with his goods. Secondly, he does not give them all same amount. He gives to each one according to his ability.   The second part of the story is more elaborate (25, 19-30).  It is in the form of a well-constructed dialogue in which the servants give an account to the master. The first two express themselves in almost identical terms. This serves to highlight the stance of the third servant, the one who was condemned because he did little work and made no profit from the goods he had received.

The message of the parable is not spelt out in a concluding statement. To understand it we need to bear in mind that the three servants were given gifts without asking for them, and were not told in advance what to do with them.  The last one did not lose anything of what he had been given.  Fear of his master, who was a demanding man, kept him from trading with what was not his own.  It seems out of proportion, even unjust, that such a cautious ‘conservative’ approach should be condemned so severely.  And the worst thing is not just what happened in the story told by Jesus, but that the same thing will happen again when he returns. He does not want us to wait for him, holding on to what we have received. He wants us to trade with the talent he has given us and make it grow, even at the risk of losing it. Anyone who holds on to what he has received will lose it when the Lord and master returns.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

The early Christians were growing weak in the spirit of waiting-in-hope for the Lord’s coming.  With the parable of the talents, Jesus warns them to nurture their hope. It is not enough to know that we are servants, gifted by the Lord.  We show gratitude, not by holding on to the gifts we have received, but by trading with them, making them grow, even at the risk of losing them.  Preserving them intact without any increase is not the kind of return the master wants of his servants.

The master has divided his goods and gone off on his journey.  His absence is the opportune time for his servants to get to work. If we wait for him with nothing else in mind than to give him back what we have received, we will lose the gifts and the Lord himself. As we wait for the Lord who is to come, it is important to acknowledge that we have been gifted by him. If we want to be able to welcome him without fear, we must work hard to increase what we have received.

We lose trust in God at times when we lack something we need, without bothering to ask ourselves if it is really important for us.  We think God has lost interest in us, just because all our desires are not fulfilled. We are disappointed in God because he does not satisfy our trivial illusions.  We lose God because we do not know how to wait for him.  With this parable Jesus wants to restore our hope and trust in God. He is determined that we should live in hope.  In today’s gospel passage he tells us the way and points out the dangers we run if we do not follow it.

The story of the master who goes on a journey, and of the three servants who remain in charge of their master’s goods, unfolds in three stages. They correspond to the three stages of the way that Jesus wants us to go.  The first takes place before the master leaves. It is true that he leaves his servants, but he leaves them well provided for. He shares his fortune among them. There is nothing unusual about a master leaving the house. He is the only one who can do so without seeking anyone’s permission. The master can go and come as he pleases.

What is unusual is that, in this case, the master does not abandon his servants. He leaves some of his property to each of them. They will not enjoy his presence for a while, but they will enjoy his goods. The servants, precisely because they are servants, must get to work on what has been entrusted to them. Their activity and their hard work, and the risk they run, will earn them credit in the eyes of the master when he returns. Because they care about their master’s goods they will not feel too bad about his absence. He has left his fortune in their hands. They have time for nothing else but to trade with it and make it bear fruit. Servants who know how to administer their master’s goods will never feel abandoned. They enjoy his gifts today and tomorrow they will enjoy his presence.

The lesson is not hard to understand. We feel that God has forgotten us only when we are not busy making use of the gifts he has given us. To excuse ourselves from our responsibility we pretend we have received very little, nothing deserving of God’s attention. We refuse to recognise his gifts, so that we will not have to account for them. That is why we feel abandoned by God.  At other times, we desire so much what we have not got that we fail to take account of that we have.  We suffer the absence of God because of our inability to recognise him as the origin and cause of everything we are and everything we possess. What right have we to complain about being abandoned, when God has entrusted so many gifts to us? How can we fail to trust God when he has trusted us so much? The way to discover God in our lives is by discovering the gifts he has given us. The fortune he has put into our hands is the result of his trust in us. Having God as our Lord and Master is our greatest fortune.

The fact is, as the parable insists, while the Lord is absent the servants should not cease working for him. We are now at the second stage.  Each of the three received what he was capable of administering.  Can they accuse their benefactor of being unjust because he gave them only what they could administer, neither more nor less, and, let’s not forget, no more and no less than they would have to account for?

We need to take seriously God’s way of acting. Like the master in the parable, he is just, not because he gives the same to each, but because he will demand of each in proportion to what he has given.  God gives each one only what he is capable of receiving.  This is not unjust, and God will not be unjust when he demands an account of each one.

We do not need to worry about how much we have received, nor should we worry if others have received more. They will have more to answer for.  Since he will demand of each one according to what he has received, God is good enough to give each one only what he is capable of administering — no more, no less. This is a good reason for us to love God more and to be less envious of our neighbour.  We can live happy lives with what we have received, and this is all we will have to account for. God has made it possible for us to be happy without having the gifts we see in others. What he has given us is enough for us, indeed maybe more than enough, when we remember that we will have to give an account of it.  If we have received less, we will have less to account for.

It is worth remembering, the story does not end with the return of the master.  He came to demand an account of his servants and to see if their response matched his generosity.  God’s gifts are preserved only when they are put to use. The third servant was reproved, not because he had achieved little, nor because he had lost what was given to him, but because he had not been courageous enough to trade with the talent he had received.  His laziness was disguised as prudence. He wanted to preserve God’s gift without any risk of losing it. In the end, he lost the talent he had received and the trust of his master, and he himself was lost. He did not live up to the generosity of his master.  In entrusting his goods to the servant, the master had taken a greater risk than the servant was expected to take. God demands in proportion to what he has given. He does not ask for an account of what has not been given, and this is also to our advantage.

There is a problem, however. God gives to each one according to his capabilities. He wants us to serve him with skill and intelligence, but he does not want us to avoid all risk in using the gifts we have received.   The only proper way to respond to God’s generosity is to use his gifts and make them increase, even when this involves risk. Preserving his grace intact, but without any growth, is not the kind of fidelity the master expects of his servants. The master has shared out his gifts and gone off on his journey. While he is away is the time for his servants to get to work. If we wait for him with the intention of giving back only what we have received, we will lose our gifts and lose also our master. The only way to keep the gifts God has given us in life is to make them increase and grow. To risk nothing for fear of losing our gifts is the sure way to lose them and to lose our very selves forever. Like the owner in the parable, Jesus wants us to be busy workers, not just custodians of his gifts.