H O M I L Y
Anyone who has some money invested in the stock market, and who has watched his hopes and projects wobble and dwindle during the past month or so must have second thoughts about the meaning of this gospel. One may wonder if, after all, the guy who buried his money instead of investing it would not be better off at the end in the present situation. But this parable is not, obviously, a teaching about sound investments or about economics. It's about the generosity of God, whose reward is always disproportionate with what we have to bring to him.
This text is part of the great eschatological discourse of Jesus in Matthew. And, during the next few Sundays, we will hear a good deal about the "eschaton" or end of time. When we speak of end of time, however, we must be attentive to the fact that the concept the Jews had of time ‑‑ and therefore the concept Jesus had of time ‑‑ was quite different from ours. We have a quantitative notion of time; they had a qualitative one. The Hebrews spoke and thought of time as a quality. This is very clear in a passage from Ecclesiastes: "There is a time for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven: a time for giving birth and a time for dying... a time for tears and a time for laughter, a time for mourning and a time for dancing." For them, to know the time was not a matter of knowing the date, it was a matter of knowing what kind of time it might be. Was it a time for tears or a time for laughter? Time was the quality or moods of events.
We see time as a progression of instants on a continuous line, with a long series of such instants behind us and a long series ahead of us. And we figure out that there will be one of those instants that will be the last one. Then it will be the end of time, and the end of history. Such a view would have been absolutely unintelligible for Jesus or any Jew of his time. We locate ourselves in the middle of a long imaginary line of time with the past behind us and the future ahead of us. The Jew of ancient times did not locate himself anywhere, he located events, places and times and saw himself as on a journey past these fixed points. Sacred events like Creation, Exodus, places like Jerusalem, Sinai, and times like the festivals and times for fasting or sowing were fixed points. The individual traveled through or past these fixed points. The people of the past had been there before him and had gone ahead of him, in front of him. The people of the future would be coming up behind him, after him. When the individual reaches a fixed point, for example the Passover festival or a time of famine, he becomes contemporaneous with his ancestors and his successors who have passed or will pass through the same qualitative time. He and his ancestors and successors share the same time, no matter how many intervening years there may happen to be between them.
The nature of the present time was felt to be determined either by the saving act of God in the past (e.g. the Exodus) or by a saving act of God in the future. The future act of God was always seen by the prophets as a completely new and unprecedented event. It represented a break with the past that was do deep that this could not be understood as a continuation of what went before.
So when we read the texts about the eschaton, the end of time, to consider it as a moment beyond history, that is beyond time as a measurement, is to confuse two completely different concepts of time. The events of history are acts of God. So, When Jesus announces the imminence of God's final and definitive kingdom, he announces that God himself has changed, and that one can see it in the signs of the times.
The God of Jesus is radically different from the image of God in the Old Testament, and indeed from the God whom most Christian worship. Actually Jesus was not presenting a new image of God. He was announcing that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was going to do something totally new and unprecedented. God Himself had been moved by compassion, and was going to express his mercy and his love in a way that was totally disproportionate to our doing. Any act of faithful stewardship would obtain someone to be accepted for ever in his master's joy. The only one who was not going to receive that largess was the one who had shut himself from it through fear and lack of trust.
We may, if we want, draw from this parable the lesson that we must use the talents we have received. But Jesus' preoccupation in this text is not with our talents. It is with his Father's largess and compassionate benevolence.