33rd Sunday of the Year A

It seems amazing that we have been taken in by vicariously acting out the dramas of The Dragon’s Den, X Factor, Masterchef and America’s Got Talent. We can watch and be entertained because we are not the ones on show facing trial and possible humiliation. Nothing is required of us to sit back and watch and see others cringe, be scrutinised on their performance and work, and be judged. It is pure exploitation.

The parables of these weeks at the end of the Church year and the Gospel and Year of Matthew’s Gospel point us to fact that there is a sense of accountability for all of us when all that is unbalanced, unfair, inequitable and unjust in this passing world will be rectified. They are reminders to the whole Church believing community that there is, after all, a final reckoning of our individual stewardship; that after death comes particular judgment, heaven or hell, also known as The Four Last Things.
A talent originally was a unit of mass, but became a measurement of currency.

According to one estimate, a talent was the wages earned for 20 years labour. So whether it was 20 years, 40 years, 100 years worth of life, there is accountability.
We might wish sometimes that God would have made us differently, or given us more than our seeming limited resources. We often seem more conscious of what others have and what we lack than thanking God instead for what we have been uniquely given. We sometimes doubt our own abilities and question what exactly it is we have to offer in life to others.

For some people in life, who are successful in business, have ambition, drive and initiative, or are academically, musically or athletically gifted, everything to them – at least to our way of seeing it -seems effortless. These correspond to the man with the 5 talents. But the famous tenor Pavarotti once said that after a day without singing practice for 5 hours, he would notice deterioration, and after two days everybody else would. We forget the ongoing effort required even by those at the top. As someone I know often says, brilliance is really 5 % inspiration, and 95% perspiration.

We have obligations, despite temptations to doubt ourselves, to at least make the effort to develop our 1, 2 or 5 talents.

The man with the 1 talent, rather than focussing his energies on the 1 thing given to him, squandered his chance, and buried it. We might identify more readily with this man with the one talent because we can be too self-conscious. Misplaced fear, hesitancy, reluctance, fleeing to safety rather than face ridicule or criticism from others lest we make a mess of things, lack of confidence, self-pity, navel-gazing, and self-absorption are all qualities we can relate to, but there is a sense of urgency and accountability that seems rather unforgiving in today’s Gospel. There is no excuse in God’s eyes. God expects a return for his investment in us. The man is his own self-fulfilling prophecy and receives worse than nothing as his desserts. As King Lear famously said: ‘nothing shall come of nothing’.*

The delay in the Master’s/king’s return today as with the parable of the wise and foolish virgins last week, is meant to correspond to the time and unique opportunity that is given to us to put to good use the talent or talents we have been given. It spurs us to action to make use of what we have been entrusted with. We will each of us be asked to render account for our talents, each of us according to our ability. We must practice an attitude of gratitude. Our talents are there for us either to use, or are there for us to misuse and finally, lose. We must acknowledge, therefore, what we have been given, despite the seeming unfairness and inequity of talent distribution in a family setting, in school, work, or the world as a whole. Rather than wallow in self-pity and anger because at times we have been unfairly compared to a more gifted sibling, we must learn strive to be the best version of ourselves that God has called us to be.

The shame with the man with the one talent is his decision to play it safe: buried talent, of wasted opportunities and untapped potential, of easily giving in to inner negativity, fear of failure, or to outward sarcasm, put-downs, knocking, cynicism, will only lead to later regret at what might have been.

If there is one talent we all possess and must use – it is that of praise and encouragement. It does not come easily to us, because we don’t want to come across as artificial and insincere. We are not a nation of positive thinkers. We can all think of someone though, who, in our formative years, provided inspiring words of praise and encouragement which made all the difference to us, between perseverance and giving up in despair in some area of life. We all can think of a teacher we liked, who appealed to us because of their positive attitude and the time they had for us. We may never have verbally thanked them but we are grateful years later. It is a truism in life that we may remember what people said to us, we might remember what people did for us, but we always remember how people make us feel, good and bad.
Let us not fear, therefore, to encourage, praise and be positive, not artificially but sincerely. It is all too easy to want to knock others off their perch, rather than give credit where it is due. Let be the first talent to cultivate, and watch others bloom.

May we learn to recognise and appreciate our dignity and uniqueness, as well as the opportunity that is being presented to us to make up for lost time, to put all our energies into putting our 1,2 or 5 talents to use, so that one day we can join, with all the other talented people around us, in our Master’s happiness.

*Old King Lear has decided to retire and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. They are required to come forward and flatter him. His two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, flatter and deceive the old king, and receive their rewards. The youngest, Cordelia, who loves him most, cannot find the words to articulate this love. He asks her to speak up and praise him more than her sisters have just done. When asked 'what do you have to say?' Cordelia responds "Nothing." He repeats this answer as a question. She responds the same. Lear is outraged and tells her that "nothing will come of nothing," and banishes her without money, title, or any part of his kingdom.

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