A reflection by Fr. Dave Warren, SFM, on Matthew 25: 14-30
I have always felt sorry for the third slave in the Parable of the Talents. He returns the single talent to his master only to be punished. After all, the master doesn’t lose anything.
The master is a grasping and heartless man. He lives by the principle “To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” In other words, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
The third slave speaks the truth to his master’s face when he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not reap.”
What does the parable mean?
The Parable of the Talents has often been understood as an exhortation to develop our talents in the service of others and for the greater glory of God. It’s true that God has endowed each one of us with certain aptitudes and abilities. It’s also true that, if we “bury our talent,” then we will lose it. (I may have a talent for playing a musical instrument but, if I don’t practice and perform, then I will lose my talent. Here the saying holds true: “Use it or lose it!”) But why would Jesus be teaching a general truth which everybody already knows?
The talent was a unit of money in Palestine at the time of Jesus. However, the Parable of the Talents is not promoting capitalism! (Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus warns us about the dangers of accumulating wealth.)
What does the parable mean?
I believe that the Parable of the Talents is about taking risks and that the talent represents the religious tradition.
A religious tradition is an organic reality. An organism never stands still. If it’s not growing, then it is declining. If a religious tradition isn’t going forward, then it’s falling backward.
An organism lives and it grows. But it only lives and grows if it relates with its environment. If the environment changes and an organism ceases to relate to its new environment, then the organism will die. Similarly, a religious tradition only lives and grows when it relates to history. “Time waits for no man.” Neither does time wait for a religious tradition. A religious tradition must always relate to what the late Pope John XXIII called the “signs of the times.”
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus is challenging the Jewish religious leaders to pay attention to the “signs of the times.” The Jewish religious leaders are so anxious to preserve the faith of their ancestors that they will not admit that God is saying and doing something new in Jesus of Nazareth. They see the teaching of Jesus as a threat to their tradition whereas His teaching is a promise of new life to the tradition. In refusing to see that God is doing something new, they are burying their tradition in time.
Like the Jewish religious leaders, the Christian Church is tempted to bury our tradition in time. This temptation has a name: it’s called “fundamentalism.”
Fundamentalism is the belief that it is enough to keep on saying and doing the same things. Fundamentalism rests on the assumption that we can make time stand still. The problem is that time doesn’t stand still. If we bury our tradition in old ways of thinking, then it will become irrelevant. Far from preserving our tradition, we will actually lose it!
Jesus challenges us to give new expression to our faith in the light of changing situations. He challenges us to restate old truths in new ways. Of course, there’s a risk in that. There’s a risk that we might lose part of the truth. But Jesus doesn’t ask that we always get it right. All He asks is that we take a risk. And He gives us His Spirit to help us.
Imagine that the slave who had received the single talent had invested it in something and had lost it? What would the master have said? Would the master have scolded him? Or would the master have congratulated him on his willingness to take a risk?