The Southern Catholic author Flannery O’Connor was famous for filling her short stories with bizarre and unsettling images. She once explained her motives in this way: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners, p. 34).
We might say that Christ is “shouting” at us in today’s Gospel. The master, to whom Jesus seems to compare himself, comes across as a very “undemocratic” boss. He distinguishes publicly between the abilities of his servants, entrusts his property to them without leaving explicit instructions, goes on a long journey, and then demands a strict accounting when he gets back. Two of the servants were enterprising, and the master rewards them. One of the servants, however, has simply buried his money. Scholars say that, according to Rabbinic Law, one who buried money to be held in trust immediately after receiving it could not be held liable for theft or loss. The servant was, in other, words trying to gain an “indemnity” against his master. The outraged master strips this last servant of his one talent and casts him into the “outer darkness.” These are indeed “large and startling figures.”
The vision that Christ makes “apparent by shock” is, of course, none other than faith. It always is. But today Christ focuses us on a particular element of faith: risk. As Christ sees it, risk is no less essential to the the life of faith than it is to successful investment. An investor always risks what he presently enjoys for a share in a better, but unrealized, future; the believer, likewise, exchanges his present security for a share in the divine promises—a share that he now possess only “in hope.” “Faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Hb 11:1). As Christ sees it, every human person is called to be a venture capitalist of the spirit.
Seen in this light, the question that this startling parable poses to us becomes quite simple. Am I a stakeholder in the truth of Christ’s promise? Or do I secretly seek indemnities against Him? Do I diversify my portfolio, investing in worldly securities, just in case his Kingdom goes the way of Enron? St. Paul was clear about what stake he thought we ought to hold in the soundness of Christ’s enterprise: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1Cor 15:19). Paul expects that true Christians will have such a big stake in Christ’s promises, that they will seem “pitiable” to those who don’t believe.
What are some examples of this kind of investment in Christ’s promises? A certain stake will the Christian have who, for Christ’s sake, gives something from his monthly budget for the sake of the poor or of the Church. The almsgiver surrenders something something he might have enjoyed in the present for an unrealized future.
An even greater stake will the Christian have who, in order to keep himself from sin, or even to amend for sins past, engages in acts of repentance—that is, denies himself even innocent pleasures in order to sharpen his hunger for God. Unless God judges sins and rewards repentance, this person is “pitiable” indeed.
An even greater stake will the Christian have who perseveres, out of hope in Christ’s promises, in costly commitments. This might be someone who remains faithful to a marriage that, for one reason or another, now demands great sacrifices. Or it might be someone who raises a child with severe disabilities, simply because that child bears God’s image. This person has ventured everything on the truth of Christ’s words.
Happily, since Christ is who he says he is, there is no reason for us to fear “going all in.” Since Christ is Truth itself, and since all power in heaven and on earth have been given to him, he will keep his promises. We need not hedge our bets. I would point out that the parable does not even consider the case of a servant who trades with his master’s capital and loses it; for there is nothing ventured on the strength of Christ’s promises—no matter how small or how hidden—that Christ cannot turn to a profit.
Ultimately, Christ recognizes only two kinds of persons: those who have risked and won, and those who– for fear of losing– have not risked at all. The number of talents we start with seems to be besides the point. Ironically, it is those who fear losing anything who will lose everything. And those who risk everything who will receive the greatest share: “Well done, good and faithful servant … come, share your master’s joy.” And the master’s joy will be the largest and most startling of all figures.