These Parables: The Talents

In the line of other parables about productivity (the sower, the mustard seed, and the tares of the field), the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27) could be called “the industrious and static managers.” Much pastoral teaching continues in the uninformed mode of static economics even after an encyclical, Centesimus Annus, has argued for creative wealth. Rusty mid-20th-century socialist biases continue as habits hard to overcome.

If our Lord does not disdain, and even encourages, free enterprise, to leave His parable on that level would be to wallow in Calvinism. He describes the economy of grace. The talents are money, but wealth needs the gift of talent to grow. “A higher gift than grace” is sanctifying grace, the grace of all graces. Like natural resources, actual graces abound in variety (1 Corinthians 12:7-12). The good Christian is a “good steward of the manifold graces of God” (1 Peter 4:10). As Abraham’s blessing was to be fruitful and multiply, so the supernatural blessing is to make more disciples. The apostolic fishermen were ordained to be fishers of souls and not custodians of an aquarium. The temptation to treat grace as a static commodity is as old as the gift of grace itself. St. Paul regretted that he had no one to match Timothy’s zeal for souls: “They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:21). The apostle scorns the private religiosity of those who think keeping the faith is justified in itself apart from spreading the faith. Fidelity is not a spiritualized form of intestinal retention.

One servant is prevented from investing by servile fear, which is a liability different from the virtue of holy fear, for servility does not trust God. Everyone is given gifts in different measure. What matters is the degree of trust in the economy of grace building on grace. Christ does not expect us to be wizards at this; in the economy of that time, a fivefold or tenfold return on investment was not unusual, and doubling was about average. The bottom line is not the amount of grace, but the amount of the self that is invested to spread it. Eternal rewards are commensurate with this self-investment. Nothing will be entrusted to the untrusting: “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:12). Servile fear is a projection onto God of the self’s own mercilessness toward the self: “I knew you to be a hard man.” No one who really knows Jesus knows Him that way. But His truth is harsh when it is up against a lie. We are unworthy servants but are worth all things to Him nonetheless. The hesitant man will say, “Lord, I am not worthy,” but will not say, “Only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” He cannot then enter into the joy of his Master, which probably means feasting (vid. Matthew 10) and is a eucharistic type. Lack of trust in God excommunicates the self.

One advertisement for the recent World Youth Day spoke of “celebrating life,” “promoting the dignity of the human person,” and “building a civilization of love.” All well and good. But Christ was not mentioned once, nor was His gospel, because, as I was told, there was a fear of alienating nonbelievers. This may be prudential proto-evangelization. But caution is not always prudent. General Rundle “never took a risk and was rewarded by never suffering a reverse.” He also never won. At some point, the Lord of Life must be invoked as the cause of celebrating life, and some account must be given of the Source of the dignity being promoted, and someone will have to name the Author of the love that civilizes. I have never known anyone converted by a mere allusion, and John Henry Cardinal Newman said that no one is a martyr for a conclusion.

The parabolic investors had to be talented in propagating their talent; they also had to trust the power of that talent. “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). He also said—in language a bit heavy for official World Youth Day T-shirts—that damnation awaits those who call themselves Christians but do not spread His grace. They are fixtures in an un-heavenly scene: “…waterless clouds, carried along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever” (Jude 12-13).


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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