On Mt 25:14-30.
With the 25th chapter of his Gospel, St. Matthew completes his account of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus’ final extended discourse according to Matthew concludes with three parables, all of them about the end of time, the second coming and the last judgement. We heard the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins last week; today we have the parable of the Talents; next week we will hear of the King dividing the sheep on his right from the goats on his left.
The overall effect is rather like the tremendous finale of a great musical symphony. Jesus is presented here already as the majestic Lord, speaking with total authority. Already He is the Judge who will come again in power; the King in whose hands is the eternal destiny of each one of us. This man is the One we proclaim in the Creed: the only Son of God, who “will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end.” And the servants of this Kingdom, to whom so many talents have been entrusted, are ourselves.
A talent in the ancient world was a colossal sum of money – millions of pounds in modern terms. In the English language, because of this parable, “talent” has come to mean any natural ability or skill. So the world sometimes reproaches monastic life as a burial ground of God-given human talents. We might think, for example of St. Elisabeth of the Trinity, who could have been a concert pianist, or St. Edith Stein, who had one of the finest philosophical minds in Europe – both of whom shut themselves up behind the bars and grilles of Carmel. What a waste!
In fact, of course, these wise women were following St. Paul’s advice, to be ambitious for the higher gifts (I Cor 12:31). They were like the man of another parable (Mt 13:44), who discovered a buried treasure, valuable beyond price. So he joyfully sold all he had, and bought the field, in order to dig that treasure up. This treasure, these talents, in comparison to which all else is as nothing, are the gifts of the Kingdom: the means of salvation entrusted by the Lord to His Church. They are available, in principle, to all of us. Their fruit is union with God, already here on earth. Those who use them assiduously will draw many others with them to heaven.
What, though, of the picture of the Master in the parable? Can Jesus really be portraying himself as a “hard man” who reaps where He has not sown, and gathers where He has not scattered? Is He in truth a terrifying Lord, liable to command, if he finds us wanting, that we be thrown out “into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth”?
During our recent community retreat, we heard how St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a young girl became paralysed by fear, following a blood-curdling sermon all about sin, and God’s detestation of it. It struck me that that reaction to the parable of the talents can’t ever have been intended, because the 3rd servant is rebuked precisely for being paralysed by fear. And in fact Jesus never identifies the master of the story. He has deliberately used a very forceful image: it is indeed important that we use well our time before He comes again. But we would be wrong to read too much into all the details of the story.
The reward given to the two profitable servants is actually very under-stated. “Enter into the joy of your Lord”. Or as St. Paul would say: “what no eye has seen nor ear heard, things beyond the mind of man, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor 2:9). What then of the outer darkness? It is simply the reverse of this: the consequence of its rejection. It is not so much an imposed punishment, as a description of the reality I choose if, refusing to serve the Lord, I retreat into mere selfishness. It is a state of misery and frustration; the opposite of the eternal love, and light, and life to which God calls us in Christ.
Far from wanting to cast us into that state, Jesus came precisely to save us from it. He manifests Himself, and His attitude towards us, above all in His Passion, the account of which immediately follows these parables. Its meaning is explained at the Last Supper: “Drink all of you from this”, says Jesus, “for this is my blood … which is to be poured out … for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27). And here we see Jesus, our Judge, Himself accused and condemned.
Here Jesus our King wears a crown of thorns, amid mockery and humiliation; here the Lord of glory is cast out, to be crucified, amid the darkness which came down over all the land (Mt 27:45). These are the lengths to which this Master will go, in order to open for us the Kingdom of heaven. And three days later He appeared to His disciples with the words, “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:10). And He commissioned them to preach the Gospel to all the nations, promising to be with them, with us, to the end of time (Mt 28:20).
And as a pledge of this promise, He gave us the Holy Eucharist. In the Mass we offer to the Father the one perfect sacrifice that takes away our sins, and opens for us the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Mass Jesus pours His gifts into our lap: superabundantly more than enough to make us holy with all the Saints, if only we would understand and accept what it is we are given.
And it is also in the Mass, above all, that the Church expresses her longing, her waiting, her asking, for the second coming of Jesus in glory. All here is temporary: all is given on trust, “donec veniat”: until He comes again. Before the Holy Communion, we all ask, in the Our Father, that the Kingdom come. Then the priest adds, “in your mercy protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Then, showing the consecrated host to the people, he reminds them of the heavenly banquet, which holy communion prefigures and prepares for. “Blessed are those” he says, “called to the supper of the Lamb”: “Beati qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt.”
Lord, through this Mass, and this holy communion, give me the gifts of your Kingdom, the gifts of your Holy Spirit. Give me the gifts of charity, patience and humility. Help me always to be ready to forgive. Nourish in me the spirit of prayer. So may I, even I, be counted as one of your servants: ready to enter at last, with you, into everlasting joy. Amen.