11Nov Gospel Reading, Sunday 13 November: A second look at the talents

Gospel Reading, Sunday 13 November: A second angle

The most common understanding of the parable in Matthew 25:14-30 is that we must use our talents or suffer the consequences. It is indeed important that we use our God-given talents. However, “talent” at the time was simply a large sum of money – enough money to live for about 15 years. There is also the jarring note that the “master” in the parable is described as a hard man, who reaps where he has not sown and who gathers where he has not scattered.

We could however point out another theme. Society at the time was not capitalist-driven, and the parable could be seen today as an uncritical endorsement of capitalism.

The following example of capitalism today is a true story. You can find their own story on http://www.donegalinternational.net/. (There is no indication of why the company is given that name.) The “About Us” page describes the director as “an expert in debt restructuring”. The “Zambian Debt Project” page offers their account of good capitalist management. In 1999, the company, based in the British Virgin Islands, bought a “distressed asset” for $3.28 million. This was a loan of $15 million taken out by Zambia in 1979, on which few repayments were made. After various negotiations, in 2005 Donegal International went to court in the UK. In 2007 they claimed the sum of $55,568,545.74, including interest and penalties. “You entrusted me with $3 million; here are $52 million more that I have made!”

The court awarded Donegal “only” $15.5 million.

Our Lectionary makes the parable begin with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like …”. These words are not here in St Matthew’s gospel – they have been transplanted from the previous parable of last week, of the wise and foolish young women waiting for the bridegroom. The Greek simply has “As for a man …” The first two servants play their master’s game, and reap the rewards. The third servant refuses to comply, and buried the money (the recommended best way to keep it safe). Interest on loans was problematic. He is thrown out into the dark where there is weeping and grinding of teeth.

The parable immediately following tells of people to whom it is said, “Come you blessed of my father … I was hungry and you gave me food ..”

The following chapter tells of a Servant who has nowhere to lay his head, yet he has fed the hungry, and he has pointed out the hardness of religious leaders. He risks far more than a large sum of money. He experiences great fear and anguish in a garden. The little he has is taken from him, and he is cast into the darkness outside the city, where there is much weeping and grinding of teeth. Following this, he is called to join in his Father’s happiness.

Pádraig McCarthy

4 Responses

  1. Spencer

    The then leader of Zambia, Kaunda, had in the period just before the date of that debt, nationalised almost everything of worth in the country and beggared it as a result of corruption of state bodies coupled with a fall in the price of copper. It was not capitalism, which had in fact served Zambia well, but the then popular African brand of ‘socialism’ that ‘killed the golden goose’ and caused the country to default on its legitimate debts (and thus made future borrowing almost impossible). I would assume that much of that loan, and others, anyway found its way into Swiss bank accounts rather than the cooking pots of the poor.

  2. Máire

    A third angle: Since much of the letters and Acts of the New Testament concerns the spreading of the good news of the Gospel and the growth of early Christian communities, I try to take this parable at face value in that context.

    The “master” is indeed God, who assigns to each servant or slave a different sum of money. To introduce an ecumenical analogy, Anglicans write thoughtfully about the characteristics of “mission.” Anglicans say that mission comes from God, not from the Church according to the inclinations of its leaders or from local problems and needs, nor from individuals according to their particular interests or talents. The mission to which any Christian is called cannot be entirely local or institutional in its scope, now as in the early Christian era, since those entrusted with mission must be ever alert to the signs of the times. And mission succeeds only in association with the work of the Holy Spirit. Growth and change, reform and renewal, draw not only upon individual talents and local needs, but also upon the greater dynamics of change– the Spirit at work in a global context of growth and progress. “To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is the fountain of sending love” (Lambeth Indaba Reflections 2008: http://www.lambethconference.org/reflections/document.cfm).

    A good and faithful servant works to increase the return on his or her investment of time and energy. (Symbolically in this parable, time and energy are money, which has its life in exchange among people who “spend” it.) These are from God, to be put to work for God’s purposes, not for ours. Most important, when our work is connected with the work of the Spirit, we “circulate” these gifts in a larger context, rather than simply conserving or hoarding them up in the place where they originate. We are called to reach out and wear ourselves out in the work of God in the world, exchanging the good news, spreading the gospel, furthering God’s purposes for humanity. Growth, needed change and exchange and the development of Christianity are the return that God, the “master,” desires on our investment of the time and energy he entrusts to each of us. As the Anglicans say, “Think globally, act locally and globally” (Lambeth Indaba Reflections 2008).

    The first two servants understand their master’s purpose. They sent his money abroad, and then they return his generosity generously, with interest, withholding nothing for themselves. The third servant, who acts out of fear and self-interest, keeps his money at home, returns only what he was given, yet expects his master to be satisfied with his narrow vision. He misses the character of his master’s mission entirely and, like the gift he held too fast, he remains in the darkness of those who never engage with the work of the Spirit in the world.

  3. Wendy Murphy

    Thank you so much for this Maire. To ‘engage with the work of the Spirit in the world’ is indeed our mission.

  4. Joseph O'Leary

    It just struck me this time that the talents are not the servants’ but the master’s — hence the insulting nature of the third servant’s attitude (I give you back your money). The message is not “develop your talents” but concerns rather motivation, working for the kingdom of God and not for self-aggrandizement.

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