22 Trinity (OT 33a)
16 November 2014
Fr. Patrick Allen
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One of the problems with being a priest is that you never get to hear sermons, only preach them. But I do remember hearing sermons, and I know there was a particular genre of sermon which I did not particularly care for – that in which the homilest dwelt interminably on the hidden meanings of the Greek and Hebrew obscured by modern translations.
Well guess what… this is one of those sermons!
Because this morning’s Gospel presents an interesting (at least to me!) case. This is, famously, the “Parable of the Talents.” Our English word “talent,” meaning an innate ability or natural endowment for some skill or task, actually comes to us from this parable – and this applies in the other languages of historic Christendom as well. That meaning of “natural aptitude” became pretty well fixed in the West by the middle 1400’s through, of course, the Church’s use of the Latin Vulgate – St. Jerome didn’t attempt to translate but simply transliterated the term – and the vernacular preaching, teaching, mystery plays, and so on that used the word.
So our word “talent” comes to us from this parable, but we tend to read our word, and its meaning, back the other way – back into the parable. And that’s not surprising. In God’s mysterious providence, we all have gifts, abilities, skills, or even just plain material wealth, that we are given in order to share; they are not for ourselves alone, and they are certainly not for squandering, for wasting, for burying in a hole in the ground as in the case of the wicked and slothful servant in the parable. These are, again, gifts – and that means they are to be used in accord with the wishes and intentions of the Giver. Which is absolutely true. And so, this parable is about stewardship, the proper use of time, talent, and treasure, right?
Well, all of that is true and good – and important. But it is really only a secondary application of the parable’s meaning. We hear “talent” and can’t help but think “aptitude” or “ability.” But of course, the word didn’t carry that meaning when Jesus first spoke the parable, and none of St. Matthew’s original readers would have heard talenton and thought “ability” or “aptitude” – it just didn’t carry that connotation. No, the immediate impression on the mind when those original readers read five, two, or even one talent would have been of weight, or heaviness.
Because a talent was first of all a measure of weight, a heavy weight. It wasn’t so much a unit of currency, a coin – like the denarius we so often run into in the Gospels. So we may think of the British pound – which is more formally a “pound sterling” because, way back in the mists of time, it was backed by, it represented, a pound of silver.
But when Jesus tells this parable, the talent isn’t some species of legal tender that represents some precious commodity somewhere else. No, “it is what it is” as the football coaches are always saying on ESPN. So we shouldn’t think of coins, but rather of ingots – big chunks of precious metal. A talent was about 80 pounds. So, again, weight – leave-a-dent-in-the-ground heaviness – these are the impressions generated by this word and this story.
And in the Hebrew mind, weight and heaviness would have brought up an immediate association which we are not likely make – namely, the greatest weight, the heaviest thing of all: the glory, the kavod, of the Lord.
Kavod is the word used in the Hebrew scriptures to refer to God’s glory. Kavod gets translated into Greek as doxa – as in “doxology,” and into Latin as gloria. Both these terms carry the idea of light, or luminosity, but the basic meaning of the Hebrew word is weight, heaviness: The Lord God – his presence, his reality, his love – is heavy, weighty. We think of God’s glory as shining; the Hebrew people thought of it as heavy and pressing down – not in frightening, oppressive sense, but in the sense of substantial and real.
St. Paul tries to get this idea across in his second epistle to the Cornithians, when he promises them that whatever their “momentary afflictions,” there was stored up for them in heaven an “eternal weight of glory.”
And the kavod, the glory, of God was not just an abstract theological concept – it was a present reality, and to be found in a particular place – in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, and very specifically resting upon the golden cover of the Ark of the Covenant, between the golden cherubim, which was called the Mercy Seat. That’s where God’s heavy, weighty, glorious presence was.
So we may think of the 99th Psalm: “The Lord reigns, let the people tremble; he sits enthroned upon the cherubim.” Or in the book of the prophet Isaiah, where the prophet prays, “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned upon the cherubim, you are God, you alone.”
And perhaps you remember that the Holy of Holies was entered only one day in the whole year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest entered and sprinkled the blood of a sacrificed bull on the mercy seat to make atonement for the sins of all the people. It was there that forgiveness, mercy, was to be found – that’s where it happened. The weight, the heaviness, the dense reality – the glory of God – is then this: to have mercy, to forgive sins.
And here we may recall when God revealed himself to Moses and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
“Merciful and gracious”: that is God’s substantial glory.
This changes the way we think of our Lord’s parable, doesn’t it? When the master lays these great weights on his servants, we shouldn’t think – at least not first – of time, talent, treasure, and the stewardship thereof, but of God’s mercy, toward sinners. We should think of a true participation, as Fr. Robert Barron has said, “in the weight of divine love.”
And receiving mercy changes us – at least it ought to. To receive mercy is to become merciful; to have been forgiven makes us forgiving. This is what is meant by the “investments” of the first two servants – the weight they have received multiplies in and through them as they “spend,” so to speak, their talents – more is added, it just keeps getting heavier, just as God’s mercy multiplies in and through those who have received it, and then share what they have received.
And the problem with the third, timid servant, who buried his talent, is not that he was a bad venture capitalist, but that he doesn’t understand the nature of what he has been given. And the thing about mercy, the thing about love – is that it can’t be possessed, it can’t be hoarded; you can only have it by sharing it. Or maybe we can put it this way (and this is difficult – we’re trying to tie a bow around the ineffable, which I suppose is why our Lord taught in parables): God’s mercy, his love is not a thing, a commodity. It is instead something living and active; it is something that happens – so you can’t have it, but you can participate in it. It is not a cup of water you can hold in your hand, but a mighty rushing river into which you may jump and be carried away.
And this makes sense of the master’s seemingly harsh words: to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This describes not so much a judgement inflicted but rather the dynamics of love: if you’re not giving it away, you won’t have it; and if you’re giving it away, then you have more.
The third servant not only misunderstands the gift, he misunderstands the giver: Master, I knew you to be a hard man… , he says. And yet the master has shared a tremendous gift, entrusted to him a great weight of wealth.
And in fact, to jump back out of the parable, the Gift and the Giver are the same, aren’t they: “God is Love,” St. John tells us. God the Holy Trinity is an eternal communion of self-giving love, and God reveals himself, his heavy, weighty glory, in Jesus Christ, who empties himself, and offers himself, gives himself to and for us on the cross – so that, loving one another, we may have a share in, a participation in, God’s own eternal life of love.
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