Parable of the Talents
In this wonderful homily for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly challenges us in our interpretation of the Parable of the Talents.
Readings for Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
- First Reading: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
- Second Reading: First Thessalonians 5:1-6
- Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30 or 25:14-15, 19-20
This is a very tough gospel. And part of it is that we’re so used to Jesus saying sweet and nice things that, when we read this gospel, we feel that there’s something a little bit more than just comfort in what he has to say.
And remember now, if you’re going to try to penetrate inside this gospel, you have to remember the first line, so I’ve got to take you over it a little bit.
Now, the first thing to remember is this: it’s a parable and we told you parables are open-ended stories. Parables are not explanations of the doctrine. The characters in the parable are all made up. Nothing happens. But the parable has an inner truth and parables are used to give them to you so you yourselves can figure out what those truths are. And that’s why we say they’re open-ended stories. And that means that ten of you may read it one way, and fifty another way, and on and on and on.
So why have a parable?
Well, Jesus used parables to help us to think, to think for ourselves. Usually, with someone like Jesus, we just sit and listen, and sit and listen, and sit and listen, and we don’t really think too much at all, because he does all the thinking and all the working. And we do this in our ordinary daily life. But a parable doesn’t let you do that.
And if I asked you all one at a time to stand up and say, “What did you get out of this parable?” chances are most of you would say, “Not very much.” Why? Because you are used to sitting and hearing and listening — and then you’re supposed to go out and put it in practice — but a parable won’t let you do that.
Now I’ll show you, in a sense, the way I read the parable, and you might read it quite differently.
It seems on the surface, in a way, that it is the master of the house, an ordinary gentleman, doing the best in the times.
Now we’re going to go step by step. So if you have one of these little books it’s okay, but if you can understand what I’m talking about, you don’t have to look at the books. Okay, are you ready now?
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
Remember, this is the end of the year, the end. This parable is one that talks about the final days of the world.
And it’s placed there by Matthew. Matthew’s the writer, remember now. Matthew is the tax collector who becomes Jesus’ disciple and writes the first gospel. That means that everything you hear is Jesus a la Matthew, things that he picks out and what he wants you to do and helps you to understand. It just so happens that the man, the main character in this, is also a businessman, as Matthew was, and maybe that’s why he chose a businessman’s parable from what he heard Jesus speaking.
Okay. Here we go.
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“A man …
You notice: not the king, not the leader, just a man, so that means anybody.
“A man going on a journey
called in his servants …
Now the real word is slaves, because servants were slaves and slaves were servants in those days, but “servants” sounds nicer.
called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.
To one he gave five talents …
Now, one talent would be worth one thousand US dollars at that time, so five talents is a lot of money.
To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one —
to each according to his ability.
Remember that now: to each according to his ability. The clever businessman at the top, he gets five, and the ordinary guy, he gets two or three, and then of course the one at the bottom is not too good in making money.
Talent means money. It doesn’t mean abilities or anything like that. A talent is a gold or silver piece. If it’s a gold one, it’s worth one thousand US dollars at the current rate, or, if it’s a silver one, half that.
Now, the third one, and then “to each according to his ability.”
Now, this is very important. Then the man goes away. He doesn’t send them out to make money or anything. He just goes away.
And then, if you remember, he doesn’t come back for a very long time, maybe a few years.
Why would he spend so much time away from home?
You don’t ask that question, because you’re not used to trying to puzzle out the meaning of this kind of parable. But one of the reasons – I’ll give you my reason – one of the reasons that rich men kind of go off after giving their disciples or their servants a little bit of money to run things until they get back, but they usually run off to a foreign country because it’s threatening — the place where they are is threatening — there’s an army or there’s something going to happen and he’s quite frightened and he doesn’t want anybody to get all his money. So he takes the rest of his money, which is a lot of money, and he runs off to this foreign country and he stays there.
Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them,
and made another five.
Immediately he makes five more. This man is very clever. And even though he makes five more, it’s never said, for the rest of the time that the man is away, that he’s made any more. Just five? Do you believe that? He makes five in one week and then sits around the house waiting for the master to come back three years later or two years later? Of course not.
The second one does the same. He makes one talent right away, or two talents, he made another two. Same thing.
These are puzzles now. Think about what’s going on here. The master, is he testing them? He wants to see what they’re going to do, how they’re going to use the money? Because he’s not giving it to them, he’s going to take it back when he gets back. You see this man is no fool.
The one, now the one, listen carefully:
the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground
and buried his master’s money.
Because he was afraid. And he was the least in ability, so he was slow. But he was smart enough to know what? That if he went out and tried to be smart about the money and gain the money, he’d lose it, and then his master would come back and there’d be hell to pay.
Another reason, the reason why we think there was a threatening army was because, in times of great threat, in those days as in our own day not too long ago, when there was a danger of somebody invading, people would run out, take their money, gold and silver, and bury it in a hole. And that’s just what this man does. He’s not going to steal it. He’s not going to take it. He’s an honest man. But he’s going to bury it in a hole. And he does. He buries it deep so that nobody can find it.
Many countries that are kind of swaying back and forth between contending armies, that’s what the women do. They wear their gold in good times, and they take it all off and put it deep in a hole so that when the invading army comes they have nothing to steal.
Is that important?
Yes, it is. Because the man could have stolen it, spent it, run away with it, but he was maybe not the smartest man, but he was fair. He wasn’t going to run away on his boss who owned him, remember, because he was a slave.
After a long time
the master of those servants came back
Things must have calmed down in that area …
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.
“Well done good and faithful servant.” He says that twice.
“Well done good and faithful servant,” to the first one.
The second one comes. He brings his two. “Well done good and faithful servant.”
It sounds like he’s memorised this sort of thing. He doesn’t sound sincere, does he? No. He’s being congratulated for holding onto the money. You see, it’s always money, money, money, money. He doesn’t say, “Well done good and faithful servant, because you love me or you care for me.” It’s because, “You made me money, therefore well done good and faithful servant.”
What about the poor little fellow? The poor little fellow comes up and he says – and he’s probably telling him the truth – he says this:
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;
What kind of a person does that – harvest where he doesn’t plant, gathering where he did not scatter – it means the man is not to be trusted, yes? I mean he’s harvesting and gathering in other people’s property.
And this little third man says to him, “So I was afraid.” That’s right. You should be afraid. “I was afraid that I’d go out and lose your money and then I’d lose everything. I’ve got a wife, three children, two dogs or what have you. I’m just a slave. I don’t have anything else. If I lose this money, what’s going to happen to me? I know what’s going to happen to me – you’re going to get angry, because I know you get angry at these things. I know your character.” And that’s what he’s saying to him.
And, of course, what does the man do? That man says 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?
“That’s what you should have done!”
I bet you started off liking this guy, but you can’t like him anymore, right? I mean, here’s the poor man, he knows he’s not too strong up in the head and yet he tests him, not too much, just a little money. And the man does what all men who fear somebody’s going to steal that money from his master and he’s going to guard it.
And what he tells is, “Look, I’ve given you your money back. I’ve been faithful. I’ve kept the money, I haven’t stolen it. I’ve given it to you.” And now he’s yelling at him, “You wicked little man.”
he says to the others,
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;
We used to have a saying in Brooklyn: the rich get richer and the poor have children.
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
meaning the poor man. And then he says,
And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'”
And he sends this poor little guy, he’s fired, he’s thrown out. And that’s where it ends.
Now, it’s up to you to think what you think. Remember now, Jesus is telling you this story and he wants you to learn from this story.
This is the way I read it to you, right off the page. You have one opinion. There might be another opinion where the man is only a man, and the two other men who make the money they are good men, and the real pain in the neck is the little man who gets tossed out into the darkness. And you say, well this parable is the man is God and he is testing his servants and this one is not… But that’s another interpretation. I’m not going to go into that, because we’d be here all day.
But think of this. You go home and don’t take the book, but go to your Bible, read this again and again and again, and it will begin to give you what it means.
But be sure to do this: after you read, read the end of this story. Because you see, in those days, there was no punctuation, there were no paragraphs. It was just a steady read of the material. So what follows right after this is very important if you want to understand what Jesus is talking about.
As it sits, he says this is the way nations are. They’re out to make money against each other and they want men who know how to take care of themselves and get ahead. That’s rewarded. And the guy who doesn’t have the brains or he’s frightened, he’s going to get thrown out.
Are you ready for the gospel according to Matthew? Remember Matthew is a businessman and he knows what money means and he knows how money … he used it himself as a tax collector.
Following this exactly, Jesus says to his disciples:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory …
We’re talking about the end of the world.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you,
whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine,
you did for me.’
That’s the solution that Jesus gives.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re making money or losing money. It doesn’t matter whether you’re brainy or you’re stupid. None of this matters.
The only thing that matters is the little man. The little man was a righteous man. He wouldn’t steal. He wouldn’t cheat.
Yet on the other hand, the wonderful thing about this little man was he stood up, because he knew that the man in charge was a dishonest, small minded person, but he had to tell the truth.
And so he got thrown out of the party, thrown out of whatever it is that everybody else valued to attain.
And who picks up those people? It is the ones who reach out in hope, in love, in care, in an understanding that the value of one man is worth fifty thousand million talents.
And the one man who understood this was the poorest and the most needy of all men.
But he is taken now by Jesus and he is saying, because when you went about your work, you cared for people, you were thoughtful for people, you reached out for people, you helped people, and that makes him the king’s servant.
Think of that now. Every parable is locked full of all these little secret things. You’ve got to sit there and you’ve got to think of them. Just don’t take the first reading.
Is my interpretation, right?
I think so.
Because you have to prove, if you’ve got another one, prove that that is what it’s all about.
But if you do not read the Final Judgment of God, which is the final thing you read, the Final Judgment of God is: if you want to touch God, if you want to be healed and saved, take care of the poor and the needy. And the ones who weep, wipe their tears. And the ones who are frightened, calm them down.
And whatever it is you do, recognise the incredible beauty and incredible importance of each and every human being, so that when you serve them, you’re serving God Himself.