First Reading: Pr 31:10-13. 19-20. 30-31; Psalm: 128. R. v. 1a; Second Reading: 1Thes 5:1-6; Gospel: Mt 25:14-30.
THE EARMARKS OF A RESPONSIBLE CHRISTIAN
BY FR VALENTINE NNAMDI EGBUONU, MSP
To a contemporary reader, the parable of today’s gospel would come across as a mere a story told by Jesus to drive home a point. But to the immediate audience of this parable, it is a completely different case. This parable came as a shock. To a contemporary reader, it will be suitable to retain the title of this parable as the Parable of the Talents. But to the immediate audience of Jesus, this parable would be better titled the Parable of the Extortionists. Jesus is generally known for using the cultural practices of his time to contextualise his gospel message. Today’s gospel parable is not different.
In the days of Jesus, there were very few rich people, mainly landowners. But very many poor people, mainly peasants. Majority of these few rich people amassed wealth by extorting the lands and properties of the poor who failed to pay their loans; loans given at an exorbitant rate (30 to 50% interest rate). With this practice, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Now, we read that the master in the parable of today’s gospel shared out his property of eight talents between three of his servants as he embarked on a journey. A talent is a bag of gold or silver coin weighing around 75 pounds with an estimated worth of $1 million dollars plus. To amass such an amount of wealth through descent job in the days of Jesus was outrageous. Yet this master was not satisfied but wanted more.
When this master returned from his long travel, the servant who received five talents returned the five talents with a hundred percent interest. The same with the servant who received two talents. But the servant who received one talent and buried it returned the one talent with no interest. The master rewarded the first two servants but got very angry with the last. He took away his one talent and cast him to a place of torment.
Few questions to ponder on: Does the master in this parable reflect the image of a selfless and merciful God? How did the first two servants managed to make such an outrageous interest? Could they have continued with their master’s extortionate approach in amassing wealth? If we were living in an age and time where masters made wealth in such a cruel way; do we think that the third servant deserved the treatment he got? Wouldn’t he rather be a champion? The last two questions are exactly what will constitute the shock of the immediate audience of this parable. They would suppose that the last servant should be praised and not punished; for he was not a promoter of extortion.
Understanding this parable from its immediate context, the master of these servants obviously does not reflect the true nature of God. But just like the parable of the dishonest steward (Lk 16:1-13), Jesus has a way of drawing out something good from evil. So, there is something about the action of the master in this parable that reflects what God wants from us. God wants hard work and growth but abhors sloth and indifference. We must bear this in mind because hard work improves us and enriches our world but idleness suffocates our potentials and denies those around us the charity and service we could have offered. So summarily, we can say that this parable stresses the need to be responsible: responsibility to God and to humanity.
The first reading of today illustrates the earmarks of responsibility in the qualities of a virtuous woman. A virtuous woman does good and not harm. She is industrious and works with willing hands. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not recognised by charm and beauty but by the fear of the Lord. And her good works speak for her. Succinctly, from these qualities of a virtuous woman, we can infer that to be responsible entails good character, hard work, charity and fear of the Lord. These are the qualities we must possess to be found worthy to enter into the joy of Christ our master.
Every thirty third Sunday of the year is a Sunday penultimate to the Last Sunday in ordinary time when we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King to mark the end of the Church’s liturgical year. As the liturgical year draws to a close, the Church reminds us today of the need to be ready for the end when we shall stand before Christ the true Judge to give account of our lives. Our readiness is contingent upon being responsible Christians just like the virtuous woman in our first reading of today. This requires good character, hard work, charity and fear of the Lord.
Good character demands that we exude attitudes that will only edify one another. Hard work is not all about being economically industrious. It is also about being spiritually productive. Pope Benedict XVI commented that the talents in today’s parable are the “riches that the Lord Jesus bequeathed to us as a legacy, so that we may make them productive.” They are: “his Word, deposited in the Holy Gospel; Baptism, which renews us in the Holy Spirit; prayer, the “Our Father” . . . ; his forgiveness, which he commanded be offered to all; the Sacrament of his Body sacrificed and his Blood poured out; in a word: the Kingdom of God, which is God himself, present and alive in our midst.” (St Peter’s Square, Sunday 16 November 2008).
Pope Benedict XVI highlighted that after receiving these gifts, we sometimes bury them “beneath a blanket of prejudice, beneath a false image of God that paralyzes faith and good works, thus betraying the Lord’s expectations.” And this is so true. How many baptised Catholics today still live by the faith they professed at baptism? How many believes in prayer? How many sees forgiveness as a virtue commanded by the Lord? How many of us still revere and receive the Holy Eucharist with innocence and holy fear as at when we first received this sacrament in our immaculate white dresses? How many still believe in the gospel which is Christ present and alive in our midst? If we have buried these precious riches of Christ through sloth and lukewarmness; then we need to wake up immediately to become spiritually productive, otherwise this will paralyze faith and good work: a two important virtue of every responsible Christian. And what is good works?
Good works is simply charity which is one of the characters of a responsible Christian exuded by the virtuous woman in our first reading. The master in the gospel parable berated his slothful servant for not at least investing his money with the bankers. Commenting on this parable, Pope Francis asked: “Who are the “bankers” who can provide us with long-term interest? They are the poor. . . The poor are like Jesus himself, who, though rich, emptied himself, made himself poor, even taking sin upon himself: the worst kind of poverty. The poor guarantee us an eternal income. Even now they help us become rich in love. For the worst kind of poverty needing to be combated is our poverty of love.” (Pope Francis’ homily, 15 November 2020). When we invest on the poor, it guarantees us God’s mercy.
The fear of the Lord is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. St Thomas Aquinas highlighted that this is not ‘servile fear’ (the fear of punishment), but the fear of separating oneself from God who is the perfection of all we desire. Unlike the slothful servant in the gospel who was overwhelmed by ‘servile fear’ and buried his masters money; a responsible Christian should be guided by ‘filial fear;’ a kind of fear that inspires us to do the will of God so as not to be separated from God. We should not for the fear of lack, hunger and deprivation, choose not to live our faith. We should rather be ready to take risks by doing the will of God in a hostile world, so as to remain one with God.
Good character, hard work, charity, and fear of the Lord are the true earmarks of a responsible Christian. As St Paul exhorts us in the second reading, “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober’ as we await the day when we shall face the Lord the true Judge. To be ready for this day is to begin to live as responsible Christians. Then we shall hear Christ say to us on that day: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”
PRAYER FOR THE DAY
Lord Jesus, grant us the grace to be responsible Christians as we await your coming. Amen.