instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Keep on Trading!

Today's Gospel reading is St. Luke's record of the Parable of the Talents (though technically, Luke gives us the Parable of the Minas):
"A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. He called ten of his servants and gave them ten gold coins and told them, "Engage in trade with these until I return."
I've always taken these coins to signify the natural talents and supernatural gifts each of us have. This parable is, after all, the source of the English word "talent." (Well, again, St. Matthew's version is the source. We could, I suppose, use "mina" to mean "an ability that allows someone to do something 1/60th as well as someone with talent," but that might come off as forced.)

In reading the Catena Aurea on this passage, I find that the Fathers generally regarded the coins as the Gospel itself. It's the Gospel that Jesus directly gave His disciples, through His preaching, miracles, and example. We've each been given the same Gospel and the same commission to engage in trade -- a trade that follows supernatural economics, in which we give away what is precious in exchange for what is worthless, and are none the poorer for it.

There's no real contradiction in the two readings, I'd say. The Gospel is the matter we trade in, and our talents and gifts are the means by which we trade it. The more we use our talents and gifts to advance the Gospel, the more fruit our efforts will bear.

What caught my attention reading this parable this morning is that nothing is said of the other seven servants. I was thinking that I'm supposed to see myself as one of these, the result of whose trade has not yet been judged. St. Ambrose offers a different, rather harrowing take on them:
Nothing is said of the other servants, who like wasteful debtors lost all that they had received.
The investment strategy still works out for the new king on this reading. What was ten gold coins is now eighteen. The 80% failure rate of servants is disappointing, but a) that's hardly the king's fault; and b) it's not an altogether implausible empirical percentage. Of the Catholics you know, how many are returning five- and ten-fold to Jesus?

This is not to suggest we can infer a rate of salvation among the baptized from this parable. I think we can, though, infer the need to pray and work to be profitable servants of the Lord, and not -- whether through action (like St. Ambrose's seven) or inaction (like the lazy servant, a figure of those with faith but not works) -- find ourselves with nothing to show for our lives when we come before Him on the Last Day.