instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, November 14, 2005

A no-talent homilist

As it happens, I was thinking about Jeremiah's call for nearly a week when I heard, in a homily yesterday, a point about the Parable of the Talents that echoed my thoughts. (It took me another day to recognize the echo.)

A "talent" is a unit of weight used to measure coinage. One talent seems to have been on the order of 90 pounds. A talent of gold would today be worth about $650,000, give or take $50,000. That's serious money, for most of us, certainly not the sort of thing many of us can pull together in an afternoon with our broker. On the other hand, it's not the utterly unthinkable sum of ten thousand talents from the Parable of the Wicked Servant.

Well, okay, thank you and you may close your Bible dictionaries now.

What I heard in the homily was a rejection of the customary "talents = talents" interpretation, where the money given to each servant by the master represents the talents and abilities given to each of us by God. (The modern English word "talent" even comes from this parable, as analogy according to this interpretation.) In fact, as the parable is recorded, the amount of money is given "to each according to his ability," so unless our talents are gifts given according to our talents, the straightforward interpretation needs some modification.

My pastor modified it in the soundest way possible: the talents given to the servants are nothing other than Christ Himself. A gift no servant could ever earn for himself, in the first and final analyses the only gift God has given to the Church. As His disciples, we are to bring Him into the world, where He will increase.

To bury Him, particularly out of fear, is to fail to see Christ as He is, as the Word of God Who is Love. But -- and here's the tie-in with Jeremiah -- it is also to think that bringing Christ to the world is our own work, at which we will succeed or fail according to our own ability. It's to look at the Gospel with a Pelagian mindset, as though it has no power greater than our own (the homilist allowed that most Catholics today aren't Pelagian, but suggested we're at least semi-Pelagian, some of the time).

Asking what the passage says about Christ is always a good exegetical tool. I hope I'll remember that He isn't always present in only one way, as with the master in this parable. TSO took the time to see what St. Jerome had to say about yesterday's Gospel, and unsurprisingly he saw the talents as "the Gospel doctrine," which is to say Christ under the aspect of teaching. It's always good when your pastor and St. Jerome are on the same page -- er, at least when it comes to interpreting Scripture. Pastorally, not so much.