Let the Scriptures Speak
Good Fear, Bad Fear
“Out of fear I went off and buried your talent
in the ground. Here it is back.” (Mt 25:25)
Along with the Prodigal Son story, the parable of the Talents is one of those stories of Jesus that most people feel pretty sure they understand. “Get off your behind and practice your piano. Some day you'll be judged on how you used your talents,” says a mother to her plugged-in child, confident that she has the backing of the Lord himself on this one. And I am confident she’s right in that application. That dimension of the parable is so obvious that the Gospel word talanton (Greek for a huge monetary unit of silver coinage amounting to something like a lifetime's earnings) has entered our languages with the meaning “God-given ability.” (Besides our English word, I find le talent in French, das Talent in German, il talento in Italian, and el talento in Spanish.)
And yet the parable is about much more than using our native abilities. The parable, in Matthew’s context, is Jesus’ last major speech, and is addressed to Christian disciples. The charge of the master of the servants is nothing less than the whole mission of the Church—living and spreading the Gospel, making other communities of disciples. The wherewithal for conducting the mission is symbolized by these huge cash amounts—five lifetimes’ earnings, two lifetimes’ earnings, one lifetime's earnings (they are all huge amounts). The servants are mandated to “work with” those amounts until the master returns. Two of the servants double what they have been given and are rewarded upon the master's return. The third does what seems, on the face of it, to be a pretty responsible thing. He keeps the talent safe by burying it securely in the ground and, at the time of accounting, returns it intact to his master. Knowing that the master expected more, the servant tries to justify his action by citing his fear of the master. (Apparently he did not fear the consequences of disobeying the master.) Maybe he figured it was better to risk that consequence than to risk losing the original deposit by “working with it” in ways that just might fail.
The story, then, is a wake-up call for Christians who think they are doing the Lord’s will when they simply preserve intact what they have been given rather than venturing it in ways that will enable the talents (the faith?) to grow. The fear of the third servant has led him to opt for security first.
How odd, then, on this thirty-third Sunday of the year, to hear the reading from Proverbs praise the industrious and generous woman precisely for her fear: “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; / the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prov 31:30). Whereas servant number three gets thrown into the outer darkness thanks to his fear of the master, the woman celebrated in the last chapter of Proverbs gets praised for fearing the Lord.
Is there something wrong with this picture? Not really. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “fear of the Lord” is a positive, even essential quality to be in right relationship with the Lord. Indeed, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7; see 15:33). In the context of Israel's Wisdom literature, fear of God is a profound awe of the Creator that frees one from the fear of anything or anyone else, and it energizes one to act justly and generously. The first and second servants were acting obediently according to that healthy fear, whereas the third servant was hobbled by a lesser, craven fear.
Pope John XXIII said something that has found its way into a contemporary icon by Lentz: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” I suspect that such a sentiment was rooted in a fear of God nurtured in a long life of prayer and service. At a moment when many were preoccupied with keeping the deposit of faith secure. Pope John called for a new venture of renewal and dialogue in our life of Christian discipleship and mission.
**From Saint Louis University