For an introduction to this series, click here. To avoid possible negative consequences, names of preachers and parishes are not disclosed in this series.
This Sunday’s Gospel offers a familiar parable, often called the Parable of the Talents. In this story, a householder goes on a long journey and entrusts his wealth to three servants. To the first servant, he gives five bags of gold, to the second two bags, and to the third servant he gives one bag of gold. It is important to realize that each bag of gold was tremendously valuable; each was worth approximately seventeen years of labor. We are talking BIG values!
The first two servants invested and doubled their money. When the householder returned, he was very happy and rewarded them both. The third servant, however, had been afraid. He buried the bag of gold to keep it safe. When this servant returned the single bag of gold, the household became very angry at the servant’s failure to increase his wealth. The householder threw the third servant out into the darkness where there was wailing and grinding of teeth.
This Gospel is problematic. First of all, it does not reflect the forgiveness or compassion that we would expect of Jesus. Secondly, this parable certainly does not reflect a model of economic justice that we have come to associate with Jesus. In this story the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Scholars do address these problems if you want to learn more.
The problem that I would like to focus on today deals with how I usually hear this parable interpreted. We often hear that the bags of gold, or sometimes called talents, symbolize our giftedness. The admonition is to use our giftedness well. If we do, God will be pleased with us, and we will have joy in heaven. This sets up a dynamic of reward and punishment. With this dynamic, we can, through our actions, earn God’s favor, or we can lose it. This presents a major problem. It portrays God’s love as very conditional! That is not the God of the Gospel that so many of us have come to know and experience.
With all the problems in this Gospel, one wonders where is the Good News? What’s our take-away for today? As we listen carefully to the Gospel, we might notice a refrain which is repeated by the householder. When he is pleased with the first servant, he says, “Come and share in my joy.” Again with the second servant, he says, “Come and share in my joy.” Perhaps this invitation is not pointing out how we can get to heaven. Perhaps this invitation is in the present tense. Perhaps we are being invited to invest our “bags of gold” right here and now, and that’s how we will know joy.
The first question to consider then is: what is our “bag of gold”? More than simply our talents or giftedness, I believe this refers to the fullness of who we are. Each of us has a divine spark at our core, the glory of God living within each of us. This invitation is to live from that glory. That is how we will share in God’s joy, right here and now.
Unfortunately, that isn’t easy. Most of us have been taught to contain ourselves. We are boxed in by expectations all around us from our families, schools, jobs, Church, society, and even from ourselves. And we’re quite comfortable inside our boxes. We are good people; we do good things. Moving outside of our boxes causes discomfort, even fear. Living as a Christian, however, and answering the call to discipleship cannot leave us safe within our boxes. We cannot remain unchanged. Today’s Gospel, which I do see as a call to discipleship, calls us past our comfort zone and beyond our fears.
But fear is a big stumbling block. The words of Marianne Williamson can help us put our fear into perspective:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world…. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. (From A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson)
What does this mean for us, this living the glory of God within us? The first thing it means is we must let go of fear. We cannot hold onto our divine spark by hiding it, by burying it inside. This glory shines when we live fully, take risks, and put ourselves out there. We cannot play small; we cannot stay neutral. For example, we may be called to step up and name injustices, just as Jesus did. We may be called to reach out and touch the “untouchables,” just as Jesus did. We may be called to let go of our resentments and forgive, just as Jesus did.
This may not sound like joy. If fact, it is hard work, it’s painful, and often it’s risky. Yet, isn’t it true that when we have lived like this, lived from that divine spark, we have known on some level that we are participating on God’s glory? We are experiencing it? There is our joy! To serve the world with the absolute fullness of who we are – BIG, like bags of gold!
Just as this invitation to share joy applies to us as individuals, it also applies to our Church community – at all levels: our parish, the Archdiocese, and the worldwide Church. Our Church community cannot minimize the divine sparks found in ALL of us. Let me give an example where the Church has failed at this.
The first reading today is from Proverbs. It is a twenty-two verse poem describing the ideal woman. The Church has cut out fourteen verses. This is not unusual; cutting is done routinely to make readings more manageable. What is telling, however, is which verses were kept and which are on the cutting room floor. The verses that Catholics will hear today describe the ideal woman in terms of her domestic abilities and by what value she brings to her husband. What the Church has left out is that she also takes part in business ventures, invests in real estate, and goes out into the world where she is successful. The Church has cut out verses that acclaim her strength, her wisdom, and her dignity.
The official version, which Catholics are hearing today, puts women in a box. We are encouraged to limit ourselves to this ideal. Aspects of women that don’t fit this ideal should be buried. This is not right! This is not what the Gospel calls us to do.
What if the Church community really answered the invitation of this Gospel? What if the Church community nurtured women – and men and children – into the fullness of who they are? What if the Church community embraced LGBT persons in the fullness of their humanity, which includes their sexuality? What if the Church community encouraged theologians, clergy, and all the faithful to dare ask the hard questions, to discuss and debate, to listen and engage, and to seek the truth together?
Wouldn’t our Church then more fully manifest the glory of God? And wouldn’t our Church share more deeply in God’s joy?
Today’s Gospel invites us to share in God’s joy. We must ask ourselves, both individually and communally, “Where are we playing it safe, playing small?” and “What must we do to live fully from our bags of gold, from our divine spark?” To the extent that we can live from the glory of God that is within us, the glory that is powerful beyond measure, then we can participate in God’s life right here and right now, and we can share in God’s joy. And that is Good News.