Context matters. Read this Gospel without context, without an understanding of the whole story, without a sense of the love, compassion and caring of our Lord, and these words can seem harsh and exacting. One might picture a goal-oriented and productivity-driven Master, one who is only interested in results, and good results at that. Without a sense of his whole message, Jesus’ words might seem to encourage a life driven by a panicky effort to do more good works, to somehow earn enough “points” to secure salvation, and to somehow avoid the awful punishment that waits in the outer darkness.
Additionally, the last sentence of last week’s Gospel cautions us to stay awake because we don’t know the day or the hour when the Master will come. Without the context of the whole of Jesus’ message, these readings might leave us feeling caught between a rock and a hard place. At the very least, we need to stay tuned for next week’s Gospel reading so we can hear the remainder of chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel. The liturgical year will close with something of a more complete picture of who Jesus is and what is asked of us. Hint: we are asked to tend to some very doable tasks: welcoming, encouraging, feeding, clothing, caring, and visiting those who are ill or in prison.
In the meantime, let’s also look closely at this lesson. It is interesting to note that the people in this story are aware of the talents they’ve been given. Whether one, two or five talents, each knows exactly what they have to work with. For those who serve the Master, honest self-knowledge is part of the job. After all, we can’t use something if we don’t even know it exists.
No one is judged on the talents given to another. The gifts and graces that have come our way are as unique as our fingerprints. So too, the opportunities and resources which have been placed at our disposal. Our only task is to be trustworthy — to be worthy of the trust that accompanies the talents we have been given. Our task is to put them to use. Hiding them where they will never see daylight is not an option.
We might have a sense of compassion for the one who was afraid of the Master. I know I do. Years ago, in quiet prayer, I heard our Lord ask me the same words he asked Peter: “Do you love me?” As I sat there, unwavering before that question, I had to admit my fear of Jesus outweighed my love of him. I am still on the journey toward the perfect love that casts out all fear.
We hear the word fear in the first reading: “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” We ponder what it means to fear the Lord. We wonder what it means when Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, suggests that we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling.” Over the years, many of us have likely heard various interpretations and understandings of what it means to “fear the Lord.”
For this moment, let’s stay with the literal definition. Fear is real. Recall that when an angel visits, the first words are usually “Do not be afraid.” Mark and Luke tell the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment so that she might be healed. She fell to the ground in fear and trembling when Jesus spoke to her. Of the many who approached Jesus, some were very afraid. Some came alone, and some sought the comfort of the crowd. For many of us, times of fear are part of the journey.
We also ponder how this parable meshes with the teachings of the Master who promises an easy yoke and a light burden. We consider how the task of multiplying our talents fits together with teachings about Sabbath rest. What about taking time to eat and drink and enjoy the companionship of family and friends? Do we set aside our responsibilities and actually take time for rest, relaxation and renewal?
What then, is our best understanding of this Gospel? First, we see that no one is responsible for everything. Each was given a set of talents that was accompanied by an expectation of putting them to good use. We are reminded that these talents are not our property, but are simply entrusted to us. Jesus makes it clear that fear is not an acceptable excuse to bury everything and run away from all responsibility. When he comes to us, he is hoping to be able to say “well done.” He wants to call us good and trustworthy. He wants to invite us into his joy.
Paul reminds us that we are children of the light, we are children of the day. Time after time we turn from darkness, doubt and despair. We turn to face the light. We consider the wisdom of Proverbs, painting a beautiful word picture of a willing worker: industrious, strong, wise and kind. Encouraged by Paul, we keep awake and sober, alert to the changing times and seasons of our lives. We pay attention to the whole of Jesus’ message and we are careful to keep all of it in context. Slowly and surely, day by day, we move toward the perfect love that casts out all fear.
Free from fear, we become ever more free to fully receive the gift of our talents. Awake, alert, and attentive, we put them to good use.
Merk Hildebrand has a passion for education, spiritual and palliative care. She is a Benedictine Oblate of the House of Bread Monastery in Nanaimo, B.C. Contact Brenda through her website: www.thegentlejourney.ca or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org