Monday, 17 November 2008

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The Parable of the Talents is set in the context of the end-time because it is grouped together with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins before it and the Account of the Last Judgement after it. However, a slight difference is that Matthew stands in contrast to Paul who believes, in the 2nd reading, that the Parousia or the end of time is imminent. It is in the context of the “delayed” end-time that the Parable spells out the necessity of being prepared for whenever the end of time catches up with us.

The keyword is to be prepared regardless of whether or not the time has come. How are we to be prepared? The Parable suggests a reflexion on what God has given us and to provide an account of how we have used God’s gifts or talents. The usual measure for our preparation is that much more will be expected of them who have been given more.

It is true that more will be expected of us if we were given more. Unfortunately, this sort of reflexion tends to focus on what God has given us. Paul wrote elsewhere in 1 Cor 4: 7, “What do you have that was not given to you”? People in the community of Corinth were boasting and so in posing that question, Paul pointed out that boasting did not really make any sense since all they had had first been given them. If everything is from God, then the question of talents or gifts is more or less redundant.

It is taken for granted that whatever we have is from God and so, what is relevant is not what God has given to us but what we can give to God. It is not a measure of quantity for if it were, then we would be reduced to measuring how much and comparing with one another what we have. And we know that measurement and comparison may lead to jealousy. Two examples would help. First, when we count what we have, often others will have more. And so, keeping up with the Jones is a result of envious comparison. Second, crab mentality is a reaction to what we do not have. When others have more, the same envy drives us to pull or put down the others.

What we give to God is not quantity but is rather qualified by the attitude of giving God the best. It actually follows the famous Kennedy quote, “Ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country?”. Thus, in the context of the “talents” that we have, giving God the best is as demanding on an idiot as it is on a savant, as demanding on the CEO who has 800 people under him as it is on a daughter preparing dinner for an invalid mother. It does not matter whether we have more or less because the attitude remains the same. If everything is from God, then the only appropriate response is to give God the very best.

This attitude to give God the best is a spirit which no money can buy. That is why it is more than “talents” the way we understand a talent to be an ability to do something. It is not about an ability to do something because clearly there will be limitations to our abilities. It is best described as an attitude that tries to exhaust all possibilities before saying “No”. And this attitude makes all the difference and we instinctively recognise this. In the service industry, how often is it that we encounter a professional whose vision is limited by the impossible? [1] Let’s take the example of the University Hospital. What if you encounter a surgeon who tells you the limit of what can be done and is content to leave it as it is and another one who tells you the same thing but tries to see other alternatives in such way so that no stone is left unturned? In the 2nd surgeon, you know you’ve met someone whose attitude is to give the best—one whose vision is not limited by colour, creed or financial standing of the patient. When our attitude is to give God the best, then our physical, socio-cultural or political limitations are not excuses but rather opportunities, obstacles to be surmounted and when we do that, we are not affected or threatened by what others can do or achieve.

And guess what? This attitude accords with who we are. We are all created to be like that. The human spirit flourishes wherever there is a reaching upwards, a striving for the best and this actually captures the divine restlessness of St Augustine: “O God, my heart is restless until it rests in you”. The human heart instinctively yearns to give the best. People trapped in a particular sin are there because their hearts have mistaken that particular sin to be the best option to place their hearts in. Alternatively, when we find ourselves languishing, being neither here nor there, then it is probably because our hearts have settled upon mediocrity. The human spirit also perishes in mediocrity.

In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, at the end of a meditation on sin, the retreatant contemplates Christ hanging on the Cross and he asks these questions: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ? These three questions are the basis for the Ignatian Magis, the more, the greater glory of God. In this context, it means that being prepared is more than just "passively" waiting for the Lord to come. It is an active embrace of giving the best to God because the way to the fullness of our humanity is to give God our very best. In a way, I am so glad that for us Catholics, the Cross has a “corpus”, a body, a figure hanging there for us to contemplate the possibility of offering Christ our very best. St Irenæus says: the glory of God is Man fully alive and Man becomes fully alive when he gives God the very best.
[1] In general, our civil service is circumscribed with the impossible. In fact, this country is crippled by the “impossibilities” of race and religion. It seems that we cannot give the best because our vision is limited by colour and creed.