Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Book of Proverbs. The writer describes the characteristics of a perfect wife. “She is always busy with wool and flax.” She also “holds out her hand to the poor, she opens her arms to the needy.” Also “[c]harm is deceitful, and beauty empty; the woman who is wise is the one to praise.” Matthew’s Gospel describes a parable where a wealthy man sets off on a journey. He gave three of his servants different amounts of talents (money) according to their abilities. The first was given five talents, the second was given two talents, and the third was given one. The first two invested their talents and doubled their investments. But the third hid his talent in the ground. When the wealthy man returned he asked for an account of his servants. He was pleased that the first two doubled their sums and rewarded them. But the third servant explained that he hid the money and made no profit: “Sir, I have heard you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathered where you have not scattered…so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground.” The master grew angry and accused the servant of laziness and said if he was afraid he should have deposited the talent in the bank where it would have accrued interest. He ended by saying: “For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Last week I suggested that the parable of the bridesmaids may not be, as we were taught, about children who didn’t study. Today’s Gospel appears to come from the same light. The first two servants were given a generous portion and doubled them. They were the children who got A’s and B’s and they were rewarded for their abilities and hard work. The third did nothing out of fear and was punished with failure.
I’m sorry but this doesn’t sound like the Kingdom of God. Several years ago I was listening to a cassette (yes, that many years ago) by Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM. He pointed out several inconsistencies. If we think of the master as representing God, how can we see a God who is a hard man who reaps what he doesn’t sow and gathers what he didn’t scatter? And how can our God punish someone who reacted out of fear? Furthermore, Jesus often tells us that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” But here we learn that the first shall be rewarded and the last shall be punished.
Additionally, we don’t learn what would have happened if the first two had invested badly and lost their investments. Would the third servant have been a hero? Or would have the master condemned them all? Given what we know about him it’s hard to imagine he would have embraced someone who lost his investment. Then, like now, investing essentially makes a bet on success but recognizes the possibility of failure. And today, while we know all investment is a gamble, virtually nobody will stay with a stock broker who consistently loses our money.
Fr. Rohr suggested that this parable isn’t about the Kingdom of God but out of our kingdom. He believes that Jesus spoke about the world we live in where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I’m reminded of my days in seminary where our rector (who was much attuned to the fact that priests and seminarians lived in a pretty cushy world) talked about how blessed we were. Many of us flew several times per year for meetings and it didn’t take long to log enough miles to qualify for the executive lounges in many airports. He often quoted this reading: To those who have much, more will be given. I suspect this was his way to deal with his guilt over being one of the first two servants.
It’s hard to imagine that Jesus spoke this parable as a way of making us look on the third servant as the hero. But maybe there’s something to this. Next week we’ll read about those who care for the hungry, thirsty, etc.
If that’s true it gives us a good introduction to the first reading. The Book of Proverbs gives us advice on how to follow God. In this reading we have to recognize the patriarchy here. Clearly it’s written for a male audience giving advice on finding a “good woman.” It was written at a time when men chose wives and women virtually never chose husbands. Nor were they encouraged to read Scripture. Today we would have started this reading with “A perfect spouse – who can find one?”
But once we put the sexism aside there is great wisdom here. The first two servants in the Gospel were flashy successes but we know nothing of how they will act in the long run. If I were to ask you what attracted you to your spouse I hope you would give me answers that align with our faith in God and Jesus.
Simply put, not everyone will. Many will suggest that they married their spouse out of beauty or wealth. Those marriages tend to have wonderful weddings and poor marriages and they tend to be profitable for divorce attorneys when wealth is lost and beauty fades. I have a friend who suggests this when looking at a potential spouse: “Don’t imagine this is the person who will watch a beautiful sunset with you. Anyone can do that. Ask instead if this is the person who will hold the bucket when you are vomiting your guts out because of food poisoning.” By the way, she has been happily married for 34 years.
Those who marry out of a love of the other tend to do well. I know several couples (myself included) who met when they found a kindred spirit who “holds out her hands to the poor [and] her arms to the needy.” Those who do this will be given a large portion of talents.
And as for today’s Gospel, I promise to keep struggling with it. Perhaps in three years when we see it again I’ll have a better insight.