November 19, 2023: Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Gospel: 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.’”
Ouch! A harsh tone to this parable — harsh words and harsh actions. Jesus intends his parables to challenge his listeners and this one surely does. It’s an annoying parable on at least six counts.
Its tone is harsh and scolding. The master’s motivational technique is fear. Rarely does fear result in increased profit and effective team building. His servants know it’s his way or the highway.
It’s puzzling. If the master deliberately gave each servant talents he deemed “according to each one’s abilities,” why is the master so happy or so angered when each behaved exactly as the master anticipated?
If each performed “according to his ability” why is the praise so lavish for the two skilled and savvy enough to double the investment, applauded for doing what they were good at? These two rose to the level of “good and faithful” servants. On the other hand, the servant who seemingly didn’t have much talent or skill in investments received this scorching tongue lashing — wicked, lazy, and useless. Perhaps lazy but how is he wicked?
What about the reward for the two who built up more treasures for their already rich boss? Did these two “good and faithful servants” get a bump in pay? Upgraded living quarters? Honorable mention at the annual awards banquet? No. Their reward was “greater responsibilities.” Presumably uncompensated responsibilities. Cool, eh?
What’s the punishment for being a cautious, play it safe, take no risks, don’t play fast and loose with the boss’s money kind of servant? The master knew this servant’s abilities, knew risk taking wasn’t on his list of skills: but he really lost it when he met up with the servant. Being called wicked and lazy and worthless was nothing compared to what he decreed. Off to the darkness with you. Welcome to the land of “wailing and grinding of teeth.”
As if Jesus hadn’t piled on enough hard sayings in this parable, he ends with the totally unsatisfying and bewildering promise that “from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Really?
What does Jesus hope is our take away as we ponder this parable? What are we to learn, put into practice? Is doing what others expect of us a worthy goal? Is the ever present challenge in our lives to be free of others’ expectations, free to figure out, through trial and error, how best to use our unique talents, skills, insights and gifts? Is fairness the ultimate criterion in judging how to treat one another? Does generosity enter in? Forgiveness? Is being awake, ready, tuned into how and when and for what reason God shows up in our lives a goal? Perhaps the questions are a way to enter into the parable. Perhaps not. Perhaps each of us has our own questions.