Our liturgical year is drawing to its close. Next Sunday is the solemnity of Christ the Universal King. Then the Sunday after the cycle begins again with Advent. This steady rhythm is great consolation. We will be looking for better things in 2021, but year in, year out Christ is with us. Every year is year of the Lord. Every Epiphany the list of feasts can be sung forth, and every Easter Vigil the year is inscribed on the Paschal Candle. “All time belongs to him.”
Next Sunday we will hear St Matthew’s great judgment scene. The Son of Man comes in glory, takes his throne, separates the sheep and the goats, “I was hungry and you gave me food”…or did not. Come, you whom my Father has blessed…Go away from me, with your curse upon you.” Jesus’ teaching in Matthew begins with the beatitudes and ends with the works of mercy.
Today’s parable – the parable of the talents – comes immediately before. It’s very familiar. A man, a landowner about to go on a business trip entrusts his property to three of his servants and goes away. They do what they do, two well, one badly. Their master returns and there’s a reckoning. We don’t have to be a saint or a mystic or a biblical scholar to get the plot. The landowner is Jesus, we are the servants, the talents are the gifts and graces he gives us, the return is the Return and the reckoning the judgment.
Last week, we had the girls, the lamps and the oil, a call to keep awake – a call perhaps to prayer, to the contemplative life. Today, a call to be up and doing, to the active life and a grim warning of the consequences of sloth.
I’m fascinated by how the landowner is away a “long time”. It’s often said the early Christians all expected Jesus to come back immediately. But clearly it was subtler than that. What is this “long time”? It’s the time we between the Lord’s going to his Father through his death and resurrection and ascension and his returning in glory, the time between Pentecost and the Parousia, the time of the Holy Spirit, of the Church, the time of history, a time of which we do not know the duration; it’s also the time of our own lives which we can’t measure either, the time between birth and death, or between our baptism and the passage to eternal life. That’s the outside of it. On the inside, it is the time of our freedom, what we do with our capacity to respond, to initiate, to act.
We say, don’t we, “she has a talent for networking”, “he’s so talented at organising.” I don’t think these are the talents in view here – though they’re not irrelevant, they have their part in the story. Take the wonderful woman in the 1st reading. She’s clearly a talented lady – a great dressmaker, to begin with. But her real talent is the way she gives her husband confidence, the way she sparks gratitude in the needy, her gift for bringing joy into other’s lives. She does good, not harm. Today’s parable comes as the Gospel draws to its end. Jesus is on the brink of his death and resurrection, about to go away, and the talents – vast sums indeed – are the gifts he showers on his disciples when he returns to the Father. The talents are the powers and energies of the Holy Spirit. I should have been in Beauly this morning, confirming, saying, “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” That’s “beyond the price of pearls”. The talents are faith, hope and charity, and all the graciousness and generosity, the prayer and patience, the works of mercy, the seeking of God they can create. “At the end of our lives we shall be judged on love”, says St John of the Cross.
Mr 5-Talent and Mr 2-Talent grasp the intentions of their master. They want their master’s business to do well. They “go”. They engage with others. They take risks. The money bears fruit and they bear fruit. Mr 1- he “goes” too, but off in another direction. He doesn’t engage with others. He goes off by himself and – it’s so expressive – digs a hole. He thinks it’s a hole for the money. He’s actually digging a hole for himself. His life must have been lonely. How different from the busy, generous woman of Proverbs. He’s scared, untrusting, selfish. He hides the money and he hides himself. He hides from responsibility and creativity. He evades his freedom. And his final reckoning is the dark. He is left with his shrivelled self. And left with it for a long, long time.
Lord, save us from ourselves!
Contrast Mr 5 and Mr 2 . Mr 5 especially has a vast fortune to hand. Bill Gates’ pales here. He comes forward, he offers his money, his life to his Master. He calls him “Lord”, and begins by saying what the Lord did to him, “You entrusted me..” His eyes are on the grace in his life. And the Lord’s response to Messrs 5 and 2 is still more astonishing and generous. Praise: good and faithful servant. Then, increased responsibility, “I will trust you with greater.” And finally: “Enter into the joy of your Master”, enter like a river flowing into the sea. You will not be finitely happy; you will be infinitely happy. In all your efforts to do good on earth, you were already imitating me, but now you will share fully in the unlimited expansive all-sustaining oceanic generosity of God.
May grace preserve us from the Mr 1 in ourselves. Don’t go on sleeping says St Paul. Be faithful. Let’s think of Messrs 5 and 2 and the Lady of Proverbs. “You entrusted me”, says Mr 5. “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” You trust me and all you want to do is trust me with more.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 15 November 2020)