ColumnsSunday’s Word

Parable of the talents

November 19, 2017


Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31

The worthy wife …

Ps 128:1-5

Is like a fruitful vine

1 Thes 5:1-6

Stay alert and sober

Mt 25:14-30

Parable of the talents 111917.cfm

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In the final weeks of the church year, the Scripture readings turn toward images of the end times. This year that takes the form of Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians.

First Thessalonians, the first of Paul’s letters, focuses upon the final coming of the Lord. Paul, having experienced the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, was convinced the general resurrection was at hand. His correspondence with the Thessalonian church reflects that. His sense of urgency is communicated to the Thessalonian community, and among their concerns is that some of their members may have missed out.

Paul counsels vigilance. Be prepared for the coming. It can happen at any time. However, today we know that his timing was off. How do we account for the fact that we still read his letter with profit? Even though Paul’s timeline may have been wrong, his sense of urgency remains. Today we appreciate his sense that the present world is provisional. What we experience is not the fullness of reality. We find ourselves in disagreement with Voltaire’s “Candide,” which thought this the best of all possible worlds. For us, more is promised, and in light of that we live in hope. Like Paul, we dream toward a just society in a just world.

This time of the church year also brings us to the final speeches of Jesus in the Gospel readings. And this year of Matthew comes to a strong close with the three parables from Matthew 25. Last week it was the parable of the ten bridesmaids; next week, the Feast of Christ the King, we will hear the parable of the sheep and the goats. This week takes us to the Matthew’s parable of the talents.

In our world, we have appropriated this word, “talent,” to refer to personal ability, like playing the piano or athletic ability. But our interpretation is itself a result of traditional reading of this very parable. Originally, when the parable was first told, a talent was an amount of money—the largest in the ancient world. More precisely, it was a large unit of weight, the largest they had. And a talent of silver was the largest unit of money they could imagine. But when the parable of the talents was interpreted as referring to a gift from God, our present use of the word came about. And with that, the common lesson: What do you do with a gift, a talent? You do good with it. You pay it back.

The first reading seems to take us in another direction. The portrait of the worthy wife concludes the book of Proverbs. For that day it presents a strong picture of women’s roles. It presumes a division of labor in social life, with the husband in charge of relations outside the home, with the wife in charge of the household. Her responsibility was extensive, as the poem indicates. The image of the successful woman has behind it a biblical tradition in the wisdom writings of wisdom personified as a woman. But in this case, it is made concrete in a specific role. The reading highlights her concern for the poor, as well as her gift of wise management of affairs.

Taking our cue from this wise woman, we might decide that the liturgy for the day is telling us that the proper manner of being vigilant is through acting prudently. Prudence does not avoid risk so much as it makes wise choices. Some of them may be risky, but worth it. As a matter of fact, the leap of faith itself seems risky in a world that doesn’t reward it, a world that counts it as naive and somewhat foolish.

For reflection: How does the admonition of vigilance translate to today’s world for you?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.