Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 16, 2014)

At this time of the church year, we hear Jesus’ stories about the end of time. Today, we hear about a giver of talents, who is about to become an absentee landlord.

The parable employs “the format of three.” We are familiar with it in jokes and in stories: “There was the Catholic, the Protestant and the Jew.” “There was the German, the Irishman, and the Italian.” Almost always, the first two set up the third for the punch line or the lesson line. It ends on a good note. But, today’s parable reverses the format; the first two are good news; the third is bad news, but a good lesson.

A “talent”, we are told, was originally an amount equal to 15 years’ wages for a laborer. Today, it means “giftedness.” The English word “talent” originated from this parable, as in “time, talent, and treasure”.

In the story, the first two imaged the master positively. They accepted the confidence the master had in them and doubled the talents.

Then, there was the third man. He was the fearful servant who calls his master “a hard man” and focuses on that negative label. Fear enters and does what fear does best, whether it is Peter walking on the water or a deer in your headlights: fear paralyzes. The man tried to “play it safe - be cool” -- so he thinks. He used the safety deposit box of his time: he buried it

“Hard man” is not an appropriate title for Jesus, but the label does have value in insofar as we come to acknowledge that we will have to account for our stewardship of our talents. Not using our talents renders us “worthless servants.”

Some, like the fearful servant, focus on “playing it safe”. Matthew’s Gospel is famous for its fearsome stories about those who do not respond appropriately to Jesus’ invitation to follow him: being tied hand and foot and thrown outside into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, or handed over to torturers until they pay off the entire debt, or they can be put to the sword, or can burn with unquenchable fire.

Does this sound like the God of unconditional love? How do we come to terms with God’s unconditional love and a state of fear of punishment? We have read: “Fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Just the beginning. And we also hear Paul say: “Perfect love drives out all fear.” The book God First Loved Us by Antony f. Campbell, SJ, offers some helpful observations on this subject.

Campbell says that the “widely held approach” is the “level playing field” theory. The images for god as fearsome judge on one side and god as unconditional lover on the other side are given equal value, but they actually cancel each other out, resulting in indifference about god. How can you deeply love another whom you deeply fear? The tension forms a mystery. Mystery is not “chickening out; “ it is facing fact. Let’s do what we always do when we face mystery: try to somewhat penetrate the mystery, remembering that it is mystery.

The “tilted playing field” gives priority to god as unconditional lover. Fear is subordinated. A loving God invites personal relationship and involvement. I firmly believe that and think it appropriate to take on much more in life than keeping my eyes on the rules. Hopefully, most of the time, our loving God’s will - as we understand it - and “the rules” rules are identical. I will constantly look to our Lord rather than rules. What matters more is how much we love, not what the rules dictate.

Does the unconditional lover image adequately reflect the Judeo-Christian tradition? I want to say it doesn’t. The teaching church, as far as I can see, does nothing to address this issue of love vs. fear at the institutional, teaching level. It leaves us with a conflicted, level playing field. In the tilted playing field, as I view the situation, if there is a little more fearing than loving or a little more loving than fearing, I see no big problem. People’s consciences and priorities are theirs, not mine. It is mystery. If there is a lot of fearing and little loving in someone, we have someone in the same boat as the fearful man in today’s Gospel. But, if there is a lot of loving and very little fearing in someone, I find a kindred spirit.

As our relationship with God grows toward mutual unconditional love, I hope that the God-the-judge image may disappear altogether. When unconditional love is the context for our living, we can be sure that appropriate behavior will be its hallmark.