Jesus told his disciples this parable: “A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one– to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’ His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'”
The traditional way of assessing a passage of scripture is by engaging in exegesis first and then applying the hermeneutic. Before you say “what?” I’d like to put it in language that is more accessible. Exegesis is analysis of the text. We ask, “What is actually being said, what is the setting in which the passage was written and what is the situation and circumstance of the actual writing?” Exegesis.
Hermeneutic, from the Greek God Hermes who was the winged messenger, hermeneutic takes the message from back then brings it to us here and now. It is the ancient Word conveyed to us today. In the 15th chapter of Romans, St. Paul wrote “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction…” We have the “there and then” message and the “here and now” application.
Here’s a little exegesis for today’s Gospel lesson. The setting is about Wednesday in Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem; he has cleansed the Temple and he’s had major confrontations with various Jewish authorities. He’s challenged and infuriated enough powerful people to get him crucified. Jesus did this intentionally and time is running short; Friday will soon be here.
The air is thick with tension as Jesus is having a private word with his disciples. He is not speaking to the general crowd or the scribes or Pharisees or other powers that be. It is a personal moment with his committed followers who are really uneasy. Things are happening very quickly. Violence is looming. Jesus is instructing them with a parable. Let’s take a closer look.
Jesus is telling his disciples that a rather affluent man was going on a journey, and he called his three servants to him and gave each one a specific amount of money. A talent was a considerable sum. One commentator mentioned that a talent was about 15 years worth of wages. So if we pick a number, say $50,000 as a year’s wage in present day America, then a talent would be about $750,000 in today’s money. Two talents would be akin to $1,500,000. And 5 talents would be $3,750,000. It’s quite a bit of money. So our Lord is saying that one servant was given 5 talents, a second two and the third servant was given 1 talent, and then the affluent man went away. The servant with the 5 talents doubled the money as did the one with 2 talents, but the servant with the one talent buried his in the garden because he didn’t want to take the risk of losing it.
When the affluent man came home, he called the servants to him and he heaped praise on the two servants who had doubled his money. But the one who buried the equivalent of $750,000 in a hole in the back yard was chastised and ordered to give the one talent to the first servant who had doubled the 5 talents—and then the cautious, but unfaithful one talent servant was banished. This must have been a most upsetting parable for the disciples.
You see, according to the rabbinical tradition of that day, a person entrusted with a considerable sum of money for safekeeping fulfilled his obligation if he protected the money by burying it. To hear otherwise had to have been most unsettling to the disciples. We can hear them asking, “Isn’t burying the money the best way to safeguard the treasure?” Jesus said “no.”
Obviously our Lord was talking about a lot more than money. Time was getting short, and Jesus was making sure that his followers understood the value what he was leaving them: the saving Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Some would have more responsibility than others in spreading this Gospel. But all of them were entrusted with a share of the Good News. It must not be hidden away, buried in the back yard if you will. Nothing was—and is—more valuable.
Now I’d like to open this up a bit and look at the motivation especially of the one talent servant. I can see a lot of reasons why the servant entrusted with one talent might have buried the money. These are some of the excuses he might have used:
- I did not want the responsibility of this much money in the first place, so I thought that if I buried it, I knew it would be safe.
- I’m tired. I’m just plain weary. I’m burned out and the thought of having this kind of responsibility is just too much.
- I’m afraid that I might fail. I do not want to look foolish. There’s something about failing that’s so awful that I’d rather not even try.
- I’ve got some “hang-ups.” I’m from a dysfunctional family. I never did learn how to deal well with authority, especially anyone who put unwanted responsibility and expectations on me. My master is pretty demanding. He reminds me of my father who used to abuse me. I just resent the fact that my master gave me this talent to take care of.
- I just don’t have the time. I have a whole lot of other things to do and this is a most unwelcome burden.
I can just see this servant. Hands plowed deep in his pants pockets, shoulders folded down into a perpetual slouch, face cast in a hardened scowl. He complains about everything: the weather, the economy, the government, the neighbors who don’t rake their leaves and let their dogs bark too much. All of this is just speculation on my part.
In the text, Jesus does tell us why the one talent servant did what he did: Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’ Jesus tells us that the Master was infuriated by this response. He told him to give the money to the one who had doubled the 5 talents and then he was cast out.
The key phrase in this whole passage is often looked at as a “throw away” line. The Master said to the servant who buried the one talent: Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? This verse is critical because I think that this passage is a whole lot less about individual gifts and talents and a whole lot more about asking for help when we need to do what God calls us to do.
Let me develop this if I may. I want to once again offer a basic truth of the Catholic Church : “Catholics are called to think “we” instead of just “me.” We are a people of community. And I think that we can find this especially in this parable. For example we see that the servants given 5 talents and 2 talents had identical results—they both doubled the money entrusted to them. This suggests to me that they probably worked together and the servant entrusted with one talent did not work with the other two.
The exegesis, the “there and then” message was given by Jesus to his disciples in the form of a parable. Like all parables, there are a myriad of interpretations. What is clear however is that Jesus offered this teaching just a couple of days before he was crucified. Last minute instructions tend to be the most important ones. Jesus is clear that at the time of judgment, even disciples will be held accountable for not profitably using gifts and talents that are given to them—to us.
As we apply this to ourselves, we do understand that not all of us who resist God’s will, who don’t want to use our God-given talents for the glory of God look or act like this one talent servant. When we find ourselves in this situation, of knowing what our talent is, we often will do about anything to avoid using it.
Each of us can say: If I have the talent to work with kids, but I’m afraid that they’ll stick me back in the nursery working with the youngsters during a children’s liturgy. Or—If I have the talent to be hospitable, they’ll want me to coordinate coffee and donuts on Sunday morning. If I have the talent to be kind, they’ll probably want me to be a lay Eucharistic minister and take Holy Communion to shut ins. How time consuming.
Applying the exegesis to our hermeneutic, it would be helpful to remember that we are to live as if time is getting short for us too. It may well be Wednesday in Holy Week for us and we need to reflect on the faithfulness Christ is calling us embrace and to use the talents entrusted to us. Some have more responsibility than others, but we all have important talents given to us and we must not bury them in the back yard out by the apple tree.