Ars praedicandi: Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year, Cycle A, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

While I not only appreciate
but regularly celebrate Christian liturgy in general
and its various readings and preaching
as essentially a word-centered
narrative event,
there are sometimes it would be useful
to have access to a projector
or video screen
during the preaching to help make a point.

This is one of those moments.

The point revolves around a famous animal image
created by an unnamed illustrator in late 19th century Germany.
From one perspective,
the figure appears to be a duck.
Yet from another angle, it seems to be a rabbit.
You can easily find the image on the internet
by searching “duck or rabbit illusion” search. [1]

While employed by various authors,
it was made famous by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein
who used it to illustrate two different ways of seeing.
He labeled these “seeing that” and “seeing as”
and the dawning awareness
that it is not just a duck but also a rabbit.
This change in perspective
is what he called “noticing an aspect”
since nothing has physically changed in the illustration
nor in our physiology of seeing
but only in our perception.

The reason for this excursion into ducks and rabbits,
illusions and Wittgenstein,
seeing and not seeing,
is because the meaning of the Word of God in general,
and today’s readings in particular,
may not always be as obvious or transparent
as they first appear.

Today’s gospel, for example, is not only quite familiar
but the very word “talent,”
as in the popular “America’s Got Talent” show,
entered our vocabulary from this ancient usage
as a form of currency
but now means a special gift or skill.

Consequently, this gospel is often interpreted
as a condemnation of those who do not use their skills,
who bury their light under a bushel basket (Mt. 5:14-15),
and who take the easy way out
either in worldly ways or the call to holiness.

A closer reading of this gospel parable in context, however,
could provide a radical change of perspective
and reveal that maybe the 3rd slave was not a bum.
That the Master was the true slacker
and the servant with the “burying gene” is really the hero.

The celebrated preacher and teacher Eugene Lowry
suggests that one key way to shift perspective on a reading
is to look for what he calls the “oops” in the text.
And today’s Gospel has a multitude of them.
Here are a few of key oddities Matthew serves up for us. [2]

First, there is no place in the parable that the slaves are told to invest the money.
The Master simply gives it and goes away.

Second, these are huge amounts of money.
Some estimate that 1 talent is worth about $1.25 million.
So 5 talents is a whopping 6.25 million,
which the returning master considers a trifle,
noting the first slaves were
“faithful in small matters.”

Third, according to some scholars,
the highest legal interest rate allowed then was about 12%,
though in reality, many lenders of the time
charged as much as 50%
and the only reasonable explanation for 2 servants
to “double” their master’s holdings
was probably through such loan sharking.

Fourth, Jewish teaching often speaks of the wisdom
of burying money in the ground as a way to safeguard it. [3]

Finally, the Master gives no indication when or even if
he is coming back; he could have just moved to another place.

When compiling these oddities
and gathering these multiple “oopses,”
one can come to a very different interpretation of this Gospel.

Rather than a cautionary tale about hiding your talents,
a parable about potential payoffs from taking big risks,
or a Gospel admonition not to displease God,
masquerading as a pre-Christian billionaire,
maybe it is a more subtle teaching:
about resistance to mercenary business deals,
about whistleblowing in the face of unethical practices,
about safeguarding another’s assets, even livelihood
without benefit to ourselves.
And maybe even about the cost of integrity.

The Master certainly is no “God” or “Jesus” figure
and as one commentator suggested
he is really the lazy one in this tale,
living off other people’s work on his behalf,
punishing those who do not increase his wealth
while he’s metaphorically lounging on some
Mediterranean beach.

And then there’s the third slave,
the one too often pummeled in our preaching
as an apathetic ne’er-do-well
whose action and very person has “loser” branded all over it.

What if he was the pious Jew
who followed traditional ethical teaching,
who followed the Torah that forbade lending money at interest, [4]
who stood up to the 1% of his day,
who regularly profited from payday loans to the poor,
who planted the money in the ground that the Bible teaches
is ultimately owned by God, [5]
investing in that sacred arena where the poor plant and sew
rather than in some unjust economic system.

And what does he get for his honesty? His integrity? His ethics?
Well, if this parable is to be extracted
from the whole of the gospel narrative,
he sounds like he got fired, exiled, humiliated and erased.
Moral of the story: denouncing injustice is dangerous …
But maybe there is more.

If we reinsert this parable into the whole of the gospel of Matthew,
we see that it is the second in a series of three tales
that come at the very end of this gospel,
comprising the final teachings of the earthly Jesus.

The previous parable, we heard last week,
was the story of the wise and foolish virgins
a cautionary tale of staying awake and being prepared.

Makes me wonder whether our treasure-burying servant
from today’s gospel
had managed a chat with some of the foolish virgins
and learned from their mistake
and, unlike the two other slaves,
actually did anticipate the return of their Master.

And then there is next week’s narrative,
the final wisdom tale in the Gospel of Matthew –
the last judgment instruction with its famous heavenly divide
between sheep and goats,
between those who had cared for the least:
the hungry, the naked, the sick and imprisoned
and those who did not.

In my imagination
the earth-banking slave
who refused to exploit the poor through shady loans
with exorbitant interest rates
was certainly on the side of the blessed.

But maybe even more.
That this humiliated outcast,
at least temporarily relegated to the region of darkness
a place of wailing and suffering,
is an apt Christ figure,
whose public ministry on behalf of outcasts,
whose dedication to the marginalized and powerless
condemned him as well
to the darkness of Golgotha
and the suffering of the Cross.

A number of years ago I heard a segment from the
“This I believe” project that aired on national public radio.

It was entitled: “I believe in Integrity” [6]

The author wrote: I believe in integrity. It’s a belief that’s tested in those gut-wrenching moments when conflicting values pull me in opposite directions.

Back in the early 1980s, I was in a training session for mental health workers who were volunteering to provide counseling to cancer patients who had a terminal diagnosis. Each of us was given 16 index cards and asked to write on each the names of people, abilities, things, and values we hold dear. In the course of our imagined cancer, we had to surrender cards or somewhat abruptly have them taken from us.

At the very end I only had two cards: One read “Integrity” and the other read “My Family.” How could I choose between these two; such a choice was unfair and impossible. My initial thought was that I would give up my integrity, because I love my daughters and would want their comfort at my death. But then, I would realize that dying without integrity might be worse. I drifted back and forth, not wanting to choose. In the end, I uneasily kept the integrity card because I reasoned that if I lost my family, integrity would still be possible; if I lost my integrity, my life would be without value.

Maintaining our integrity
as human beings,
as Christians,
as Children of the Light, as St. Paul calls us today,
Is never easy.
And maybe even less so in these post-election days.

So, in these challenging times we commit ourselves to a renewed sense of integrity
and summon the spirit of that great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr
a sense of serenity in that struggle as we pray:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference” [7]
through Christ our Lord, Amen.


[1] https://www.illusionsindex.org/i/duck-rabbit

[2] Richard Swanson is a helpful resource here at https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/a-provocation-twenty-fourth-sunday-after-pentecost-november-19-2017-matthew-2514-30/; also Stan Duncan at http://jubileejusticeeconomics.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-parable-of-faithful-servant.html

[3] E.g., Tractate Bava Metzia 42 in the Talmud.

[4] Ex 22:20-30

[5] Leviticus 25:23-28

[6] https://thisibelieve.org/essay/25667/

[7] Justin Kaplan, ed., Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 17th ed. (2020), s.v. “Reinhold Niebuhr.”

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