The National Catholic Review
John R. Donahue
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), November 17, 2002
Blessed are you who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways (Ps. 128:2)

Sister Norice, our sixth-grade teacher, called me out of class and said that the pastor wanted to see me. In fear and trembling I went over to the church, only to find that a server was needed for an unexpected funeral. After Mass, Monsignor Nelligan gave me $2, a huge sum in 1943. Going home on the old, creaky No. 8 street car, I checked my pocket every two minutes to make sure the money was still there, and once home I quickly hid it in my secret bank, tucked behind a water heater.

 

I have always felt a certain sympathy for the battered one-talent man in the strange parable/allegory presented in today’s Gospel, who hides his unexpected gift. Before leaving on a journey, a rich man gives incredible sums to three servants: to the first, 10 talents, to the second five and to the third one talent (which alone equaled the wages of an ordinary worker for 20 years). Without further instructions he departs. Hurriedly the first two servants doubled their gifts, while the one-talent man dug a hole and hid his. Upon returning the master asks what happened to his money. After identical recitations about doubling the gift, each of the first two is called “a good and faithful servant,” placed in charge of even more possessions and welcomed into the joy of the master.

The one-talent man must be despondent, and he begins immediately with his excuse, “Master, I knew you were a demanding person” (lit. a “hard man”), “harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not sow, so out of fear I went and buried my talent.” The master’s outburst is shocking. He berates the man as wicked and lazy, tells him that he should have invested the money with bankers (contrary to the Jewish laws against usury) and gives the talent to the one who already had 10. He then exiles the timid servant to the outer darkness to weep and gnash his teeth.

If the master of this parable is to represent the returning Jesus, he seems vindictive, arbitrary and even somewhat immoral (remember the bankers!). Is there anything the poor third servant did that explains the bitter response and punishment? Comparison of his excuse with the master’s reply gives a clue. He calls the master a hard man, who expects returns from his investment, and invokes fear as his defense. In replying (“So you knew”) the master admits that he expects a return but never repeats or agrees with the servant calling him “hard.” A person who gives away vast sums (even one talent) may be enterprising but is scarcely hard. The tragic flaw of the one-talent man is that he lived out of fear even when gifted.

Such is the deeper meaning of this allegory. Unlike the waiting virgins of last week’s parable, who presumed on the generosity of others, this man is a victim of his own fright. After the predictions of the end time in Ch. 24 and the threats of severe judgments awaiting the unfaithful at Jesus’ return, Matthew is urging his community not to be timid and fearful, but to take risks. The paradox of biblical revelation is that the merciful, gracious and compassionate God who liberates us from slavery is also the God who will judge us on the use of our gifts. Every gift of God is also a mandate to bear fruit in God’s vineyard.

At first glance the traditional “praise of a good wife,” from Proverbs seems little related to this Gospel. Women today may bristle at the overemphasis on household management, but her husband has “entrusted his heart to her.” Unlike the one-talent man, she takes this gift and “brings forth good, not evil”; she “reaches her hands to the poor and extends her arms to the needy.” She “fears the Lord,” which is not the craven fear of the third servant but that love and reverence that spurs to action. The liberation of Israel from Egypt begins with the revolt of the midwives, who disobey the command to kill the Jewish babies and affirm life in the face of death, so “because the midwives feared God, he built up families for them.”

The church in history lives between the times, and some times are worse than others. Today it is easy to let fear govern our lives. A whole political and social culture is nurtured by fear, and it stalks our church life. Traditionalists fear the gift of the Second Vatican Council and a changing church, and want to keep their treasure intact through a return to dated rituals and arcane theology. Those who welcomed the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII often want to freeze it in time and are fearful of renewing the renewal. The wise women at the wedding feast, the enterprising servants in today’s Gospel and the good wife of Proverbs were people of foresight, initiative and independence. The church today has been given vast treasures of “talents.” Will these increase or remain hidden and guarded?

John R. Donahue, S.J., is the Raymond E. Brown Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies at St. Mary's Seminary and University, Baltimore, Md.

Readings: 
Readings: Prov. 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Ps. 128; 1 Thes. 5:1-6; Mt. 25:14-30
Prayer: 

• Prayerfully make an inventory of your gifts and talents.

• Ask God to help you to be aware of those fears that can paralyze your life.

• Prayerfully recall times when God praised you for being faithful “in small matters” and welcomed you into the joy of his presence.