Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
09 Nov 2020
Christina Zaker

Reading 1: Probverbs 31:10-13,19-20, 30-31
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Reading 2: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6
Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30


The parable that we hear in today’s Gospel is one of the tougher ones to unpack. It is too easily softened: we hear the word “talent” and our current understanding of that word makes us think we are to increase our gifts and talents in the service of the master. But “talent” as it is used in this parable speaks of money, a large sum of money, that the servants are expected to trade and invest in order to increase the master’s wealth. If we pause for a moment and leave behind our thoughts of doubling our talents and focus instead on what it means to double a large sum of money, we need to wrestle with an image of an economy that leaves people behind. How do we double large sums of money in short periods of time?

This parable seems to be painting a picture in which servants can choose to participate in burgeoning economic profits or risk standing in defiance of a system that profits on the backs of others. William Herzog, in his book Parables as Subversive Speech, talks of the third servant as a whistleblower who uses his status as an insider to shine a light on the corrupt system at work in this scene. And as we have seen from whistleblowers in our own times, they are often denigrated and discredited to such a degree that they do, in a sense, experience the “great wailing and gnashing of teeth” at the hands of the master’s supporters.

Herzog’s suggestion is a provocative one for us to consider in our own day. What does it mean to be a disciple of the Lord? The first reading points to a loving and caring wife who extends a hand to the poor and cares for the needy. The second reading suggests that children of the light are not thieves. Perhaps a follower of the Lord is transparent and intentional about caring for the good of all of the community, which in most economic systems means a distribution of wealth that does not allow for unjust profits.

Let us consider the role parables play. Scripture scholars, including Barbara Reid, OP in her book Parables for Preachers: Year A, point to a pattern in the parables that starts with a familiar scene, then offers an image that shocks the listener pointing to a new way to see, and leaves itself open-ended for the listener to contemplate their own response. The new vision offered by the surprising nature of the parable is often seen as the invitation to see things as God might see them: as Good News for those on the margins. As Reid points out, “Jesus’ parables proclaim that God is not neutral. God takes the part of those who are the poorest and most oppressed” (p.10).

So, if we consider today’s parable in this format, then the familiar scene to Jesus’ listeners and perhaps to us today is the scene of a wealthy person who expects his servants to participate in an economic system that helps him continue to increase his wealth. The shocking piece of the parable comes in the form of the third servant who buries the talent and awaits the wrath of his master. Yet even today we domesticate this parable in the lectionary itself by allowing our churches to choose to leave out this image altogether. The option to use the “shorter form” of the reading allows it to end after the first servant hears he has been “good and faithful” and leaves out completely the possible “other” vision offered in this parable. But we need to hear the whole story, we need to be forced to reckon with what this parable invites us to consider. If we only read the shorter form of the reading, we miss the provocative piece.

The familiar scene of wealthy masters and increased profits gives way to the shocking scene of a whistleblower who awaits the wrath of his master, and so we are left to wrestle with how we see this image and how we might respond. When we take a step back, we attempt to see this parable as Jesus might have seen it: with “eyes that can see or ears that can hear.” We might wonder at the courage of the third servant, or we might wonder at his cowardice. We might tremble at the risk he takes, or we might argue that he didn’t go far enough to disrupt the system. But what we have to do in the end is take a long hard look at our own heart and ask what risks am I willing to take for the sake of the Good News? We can tell from this parable that there will be masters and servants who expect us to stay silent or complacent in the face of injustice. We can also tell from the reading that there will be a price to pay for those with the courage to disrupt the system. But what we can’t tell by reading this parable is what each of us will have the courage to do in response. There are many ways to find your courage in our world today. Many ways to shine a light in the darkness. What we cannot do is remain neutral. As Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The invitation today is to take a good look at what you hear as God’s invitation to you and to have the courage to respond with Good News.

Christina Zaker, DMin
Director of Field Education