In our Gospel reading for this Mass, Jesus tells a parable of risk and rewards and the responsibility that comes with great gifts. In the parable, a very wealthy landowner entrusts his servants with vast sums of money. A talent was a measure of gold worth roughly fifteen years’ wages for a day labourer.
The master gives one servant five talents, another two, and the last a single talent. So, for the first hearers of the parable, it was clear that it was large sums of money with which the master entrusted his servants. The one in whom the master put the greatest trust made a vast sum of money, but to do so, he had to put at risk seventy-five years’ wages for a day labourer.
We have a story of three persons entrusted with great responsibility. Even the one who was given the care of a single talent was entrusted with much. Each would have to risk much if they wanted to show a return on investment.
The first two doubled the master’s money. Each was rewarded with more money. Not money for themselves. Each was given more money to invest for their master. The reward for faithfulness was more responsibility. Then came that fateful last servant. He, not too diplomatically, tells the master, “Sir, I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered; so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is; it was yours, you have it back.”
This last servant risked nothing. He took what was entrusted to him and hid it. It was safe. There was little risk in digging a hole but no potential gain. And for not taking any risk with the money entrusted to him, the servant gets the worst possible punishment as his reward.
Jesus taught that the heart of the Good News is love. Our world was created for love, which means the freedom to do great evil as well as good. God gave us choices and through our choices, we can get hurt and we can hurt others. A universe where real love is an option is a risky place, as pain and suffering are not only possible, but likely. And yet, this world of choice founded on love is also what makes possible all the noble acts of self-sacrifice. This world is not only a world of pain and suffering, but also a world of generosity, kindness, and self-sacrificial love.
God invested so much love in you through Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection. You can never repay that love. The good news is that you don’t have to pay Jesus back. God is not looking for a return on investment in quite the same way as the landowner in the parable. Jesus calls on a faith that is put to work and so grows stronger.
At the heart of this parable is really faith and trust that when we step out in faith, God will not leave us alone.
The servant’s failure to fully understand who his master is and what is most important to him leads the servant to think that burying his treasure is the correct course of action. His misconception of what the master demanded caused the servant to act out of fear, a fear so deep he was afraid to even try and do the work expected.
Today our English word, “talent,” comes to its current meaning through the preaching of the Middle Ages. In that time, when the English language as we know it was being forged, this parable was being preached. In preaching the story, congregations were told how these servants were given these large sums of money to watch over for their master. As the preaching went on through the centuries, it became easier to directly see the talents in this parable representing God’s gifts to us, posing the question, “What have you done with the talents God entrusted to you?” This created the meaning of our word, in which “talent” refers to our God-given gifts and abilities.
We, like all the people in today’s readings, are called to work with the talents our master has given us. Like last week’s parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, this parable teaches that God’s judgment will be based on the service we render to God and to one another in accordance with the gifts that God has given to us. Our gifts, or talents, are given to us for the service of others.
This Gospel reminds us that Christian spirituality is not passive or inactive. Our life of prayer helps us to discern the gifts that have been given to us by God. This prayer and discernment ought to lead us to use our gifts in the service of God and our neighbour.