Like many priests, I am asked from time to time to preach at a school Mass – often for the end of term or the beginning or end of a school year. I would estimate that about two-thirds of the time, the teacher responsible for organising the Mass chooses the Parable of the Talents as the Gospel. It is not hard to see why: the staff of the school want the children to feel encouraged to share their talents and abilities, to make the most of them, for their own advantage and to the enhancement of the life of the school.
I confess that I take a certain amount of delight in telling the children (and the teachers) that this is a completely fallacious reading of this gospel passage. The word 'talent' has come to mean such innate and/or practised abilities as singing, sporting skill, mathematical ability or juggling, because of this well-known passage and the way in which it has sometimes been understood. But at the time that the Lord spoke these words, a talent was – as is obvious from the passage itself – simply a very substantial amount of money. The parable is not a general exhortation to exert one's abilities to the benefit of society, but a dramatic lesson about the judgement that will fall upon Christians.
For there are two striking things about this parable that the common, banal and moralising reading of it has to overlook: the first is that the servants are entrusted with something of extraordinary value. We are not speaking here of being a good violinist, but of the treasure of grace and mercy that is entrusted to every Christian. These 'talents' are nothing less than a share in the very life of God himself, which is granted to each of us through baptism and is nourished in the Eucharist and the other sacraments of the Church.
This share in God's life is indeed granted to some to a greater extent than to others – are we not all aware that some are extraordinary saints, while many of us find ourselves somewhat less blessed? But even the least of the children of the Kingdom is greater than the greatest of the Prophets. All of us have been granted something absolutely extraordinary. There is no reason why this should overflow into great skill in any earthly activity; it will overflow rather in that superhuman charity which is the love of God himself.
The second striking thing is a consequence of this: from those to whom much is given, much will be expected. The parable invites us to recognise that God expects, nay demands, that the gift he has given us should bear fruit. Even though that gift is the all-powerful Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, yet that life can be petrified, fossilised, by our lack of response to it. Just as the very Word of God, having assumed human flesh, placed himself into the hands of men and allowed them to nail him to a tree, so the Spirit places himself, as it were, into our hands. We can allow it to transform our lives, and through that transformation to participate in the coming-to-birth of the Kingdom. Or we can allow fear, cowardice and timidity to rule us.
God is not a puppet-master. If we will not co-operate with the Spirit, if we listen instead to the voices of fear, to the murmurers who tempt us to give in, to do nothing, God will allow us to do nothing, to dissociate ourselves from the often-hidden but yet inevitable and inexorable spring that is even now overcoming the winter of sin. But when that spring at last bursts into blossom, as it surely will, then we will weep and grind our teeth when we realise what we have done, what an extraordinary privilege we have neglected.
And this is, more or
less, what I like to tell the children at school – 'students', you have to
call them these days. I tell them that the demands of charity may even require
that they give up the human aspirations that their teachers would encourage, in
favour of the more demanding life of true sanctity. And the teachers don't like
it, because of course saints can sometimes be terribly disruptive; but no
amount of clarinet-playing, swimming or whatever will turn us into saints.