Leave your talents at the door and make room for God’s compassion
The so-called parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew has perhaps become too familiar. One might read this passage and arrive at the rushed conclusion to avoid laziness and multiply the gifts God has given me. For example, church leaders might be tempted to conclude that they should use their “talents” to increase Sunday mass attendance. Another limited view of this parable might lead parish leaders to encourage their members to donate time, talent or treasure to the church. Such temptations might have a bit of truth to them, but there is another way to view this Sunday’s Gospel reading. What impoverishes the church’s mission is the loss of personal zeal towards those values closest to God’s heart.
Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share in your master’s joy. (Mt 25:21)
What do you perceive as God’s most pressing concern for the world?
Where will you spread compassion this week?
Where is the good of God’s mercy being neglected by society today?
The language of today’s passage contrasts “the good and faithful servant” with the “wicked and lazy servant.” In this Sunday’s Gospel parable, when a man returns from a journey, he is happy to discover his wealth increased. This accounts for the satisfaction of his response to the two faithful servants, “Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities” (Mt 25:21, 23). Since a talent was in fact a large amount of money, it was no “small matter” to handle such wealth, but parables are meant to tease the imagination with their strangeness.
Matthew is the only evangelist to use the word talent in this symbolic way. Even though the word “talent” originally signified a large amount of money, this parable is about more than just increasing the master’s wealth. Matthew’s other use of this unit of measurement, in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, provides a key to his thinking. In that parable, the “wicked servant” was someone who lacked compassion for the fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money. What brings a particular sting to the scene is his own lack of compassion even after he himself had been forgiven a debt of “ten thousand talents'' impossible to repay (see Mt 18:24). This provides a different direction to take the interpretation of today’s parable. The “talents” that faithful servants are given represent their responsibilities to act as disciples of Christ. It becomes the responsibility of the community of disciples to increase what God values most.
Laziness for Aquinas was the willful decision to not pursue the good after having perceived it for oneself.
In the parable the master “entrusted his possessions” to all three of his servants. In the context of our Gospels, it seems that mercy is God’s prized possession. As God shows compassion for all, the generous gift grows in value and “increases” when we share it with others. This is the task of the disciple.
Matthew uses the term “lazy” for the wicked servant that does nothing with the master’s generous gift. “Should you not then have put my money in the bank,” says his master, “so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?” (Mt 25:27). Doing nothing reveals that the servant shrinks from the responsibility of his role. The servant is lazy in the sense of his hesitation, his holding back and his lack of zeal for the work at hand. Elsewhere, St. Paul warns against such hesitation, “Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom 12:11).
Another way to think about laziness is to consider the insights of St. Thomas Aquinas. This spiritual giant did not consider the capital vice of sloth in terms of a “lazy-couch-potato.” Rather, laziness for Aquinas was the willful decision to not pursue the good after having perceived it for oneself. The prized possession that Jesus speaks of today is God’s compassion. Once we perceive this good, our Lord asks us to double its value with the people that need it most around us. As this Sunday’s first reading describes, “She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy” (Prv 31:20). This Sunday’s Gospel reading is not just the “parable of talents,” but the parable of compassion.