The sum of money used in the parable in today’s Gospel sounds like a familiar English word because the name of that ancient monetary denomination is the indirect source of the familiar English word. In the ancient world, a “talent” was a sum of money roughly equivalent to a lifetime’s wages for a typical laborer. Allowing for the differences in economies and life spans, a “talent” today would equate approximately to two million dollars.
In the parable, three servants were given stewardship responsibility for vast but differing sums of money. The large sums of money given to the three servants were meant to be understood metaphorically as the blessings bestowed on the Church by God. The diversity of the individual blessings is an accurate reflection of human existence. Individual persons enjoy God-given blessings that vary in number and degree. Early in the middle ages, the word “talent” came into common use as a way to refer to the differing capabilities or skills possessed by individuals.
Jesus’ original audience might not have been encouraged by this parable. Most people in the ancient world would have interpreted this parable as yet another example of the maxim that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Today, this parable is used by those who worship material wealth as proof that their hunger for profit serves God’s will. Jesus intended neither of these meanings. He said that the nature and number of one’s blessings count for nothing but what one does with one’s blessings counts for everything.
In the parable, the huge sums of money given over to the stewardship of the three servants were intended to be understood metaphorically; they represented the blessings poured out on the Church as a result of Jesus’ resurrection. According to Matthew’s Gospel, the Church has been entrusted with gifts of great wealth, namely, the Gospel message and the vocation to continue Jesus’ ministry of preaching and healing. At the end of time, there will be a reckoning; the Church will have to account for its use of the great gifts entrusted to it by God.
At this particular point in time, it might be appropriate to reflect on one specific gift bestowed on the Church. The Eucharist has often been a point of contention within Christianity. The pandemic has added to the mixed feelings that Eucharist prompts. Some who choose not to attend Liturgy because of reasonable concern for their health feel deprived of Eucharist. Some who attend Liturgy despite the risks feel aggrieved by the accommodations necessary to reduce the risk of infection. Neither of these attitudes is an accurate representation of the meaning of Eucharist.
The celebration of Eucharist is intended by the Church to be a renewal of one’s baptismal vocation to learn Jesus’s teachings and imitate his faithfulness. The Eucharist is part of the treasure entrusted to the Church but it is not a treasure to be coveted, possessed, or sought after like a commodity. Eucharist is always present to the Church. I wonder if the Church is always present to the Eucharist. We (the Church) have already been given the Eucharist as a reminder and renewal of our baptismal vows. Rather than worry about what more we can receive, we ought to be concerned about what more we can do to imitate Jesus’ faithfulness.
Obviously, there is an essential difference between the experience of attending Mass and the experience of avoiding Mass because of the risk of infection. On a short term basis, however, the difference is negligible. In fact, the choice to honor the unconditional value of human life by not contributing to the risk of infection is an experience of Eucharist, albeit at a distance.
I don’t’ know if there will be any reckoning at the end of the pandemic; it is more likely that all of us will quietly transition back to normal lives. On the Final Day, however, there will be judgment passed on the Church. The judgment will determine the Church’s value in God’s sight. That judgment will not be based on what Church members did for themselves but rather on what they did for the world.
In our culture, a person’s worth is commonly measured in terms of what the person owns or possesses. This parable about the Final Judgment says that the Church community’s virtue, as well as the virtue of individuals, in God’s sight will be measured in terms of what they leave behind – specifically, in terms of the faith inspired by their example and the compassion shown to those is most need.
There is legitimacy to the practice known as “counting one’s blessings.” Every person should express gratitude to God daily for the many gifts of God’s graciousness and fidelity. Eucharist is a means to count one’s blessings; in fact, the word “Eucharist” means to give thanks. Today’s parable says that counting one’s blessings, however, is only the beginning of the life of faith; a faithful life is one that shares and increases God’s blessings in the world. Regardless of what else goes on in one’s life or in the world, God’s gift of the Eucharist to the Church ought to be inspiration to imitate Jesus’ selfless love.
Jesus’ teaching in this parable is the polar opposite of the cultural value that teaches us to accumulate, possess, and achieve self-satisfaction. Jesus says that the value of a person’s faith is measured accurately by the legacy of trustworthiness and mercy shown to others.