Veronica Lawson rsm
9 November 2011
In answer to my usual greeting, ‘G’day Muff, what are you up to?’ my lovely polymath brother-in-law, David (nicknamed Muff), would invariably reply, ‘Just contemplating the eternal verities!’ The conversation that followed, usually over a glass of wine, would confirm the accuracy of his response. Contemplating the eternal verities was a way of life for Muff over the six decades of his life, until his all too early death nearly six years ago.
As the end of the church year approaches, the liturgy presents us with texts that invite us all to consider the big questions of life and death. Matthew’s parable of the talents is part of a discourse about the final realities. It is sandwiched between the parable of the ten young lamp-bearers and the end time judgement of the nations (Mt 25:31-46).
The previous story has concluded with the warning: ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ This is usually interpreted as a reference to the second coming of Christ. Today’s story continues this motif. It opens: ‘For it is as if a man going abroad summons his slaves and entrusts his property to them…’ The slaves are entrusted with phenomenal wealth: ten talents, five talents, and one talent respectively. A talent was a measure of weight rather than a coin and one silver talent was the equivalent of 1000 days wages for an ordinary labourer.
The slaves receive no instructions, but later events indicate that the man expects a good return on his wealth. The first two slaves deliver and are invited into the joy of the master, another possible reference to the end time when God will embrace those who are faithful to their mission. The third slave buries his talent and provides a reasonable rationale: the master is a hard man who inspires a fear-ridden response in the slave. The master does not resile from this description. The unproductive slave loses even what he has and is banished to a dark place ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Is the master an image of God? There are certainly elements in the story that point in this direction. There are other features, such as the concentration of wealth in one person and the treatment of the fearful slave, that suggest there is no simple answer to that question. In face of another looming global financial crisis, we might well find ourselves in sympathy with the third slave who challenges the violence and exploitative ways of the master.
Parables are susceptible to multiple interpretations and the eternal verities cannot be encapsulated in one story or one image. They bear enduring contemplation.