Earlier this Fall I came upon an old commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel by the great 13th-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas’ book, he takes the early church fathers and mothers’ own commentary of this gospel, and lays them side-by-side. Today, I wanted to look briefly at Matthew 25: 14 -30 through the interpretive lenses of these early fathers and mothers, trying to put some of their teachings into the context of our culture today.
What struck me about these early writings were the various interpretations on the literal number of talents, and what their spiritual meaning could possibly point. For example, the 5 talents were theologically represented as humanity’s 5 senses. From our senses, we are able to experience the world; and yet, without the acknowledgment of God’s spirit within our senses (i.e. our bodies) we cannot possibly experience the kingdom of God. The doubling of the 5 talents into 10, mystically represents an infusion of this spirit with flesh. Put theologically – the 10 talents represent an incarnational faith. Put philosophically – they represent the good life.
The 5 talents were also interpreted as the 5 Books of Moses. Keep in mind this is Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus was often represented as “the new Moses”. Jesus Christ, as the very incarnation of Torah and Spirit, revealed to all that his Spirit and resurrected flesh was the way, the truth, and the life.
2 Talents and the 1
The early church teachers taught that the 2 talents represented understanding and action, while the 1 talent represented understanding only. This is a significant teaching because faith requires both. It requires an understanding of the law and the commandments of God on one hand (i.e. Torah), and on the other it activates the spirit of the law through thought, word, and deed. What the early church fathers and mothers were trying to teach – and quite possibly what Jesus was trying to teach – was that faith does not end with understanding – It begins there, and action follows.
With Great Gifts Come Great Responsibility
One of the final teachings on this passage within this ancient commentary has to do with responsibility. Responsibility was placed on those who had been given much, and were represented in the persons with the 5 and 3 talents. When the responsible faithful start to understand much has been given, and much can be taken away (think here the story of Job) those 5 talents begin to take shape, and lead with a posture of humbleness, humility, and prayer. Perhaps those with the 5 talents could also be interpreted as the Church, and how it proclaims God with us in a different way (i.e. no longer in the physical body of Jesus, but in the resurrected spirit of Christ). The Church (as the spiritual body of Christ) further proclaims the resurrected Jesus will come again in glory judging the quick and the dead. Finally, within this proclamation of the church are the 2 talents calling on those individual members who make up the Church helping them to understand the commandments of God, and to act on them accordingly – mainly loving neighbor as self, or loving the other as we have been greatly loved by God.
Quite a lot of burying one’s talents in the earth is going on right now in popular culture – Is it not? What many of us thought were great men of talent, buried their talents in the desires of the world, and are now making excuses and/or apologizing for their pridefulness, lust, and deceit. We are tempted to go along with their excuses because of the great works they have given us – in politics, comedy, movies and music; however, these men that were once considered bigger than life now seem fearfully small when their actions are put against the light of truth.
So much is being uncovered right now. So much that has been drowned through the years is bubbling up to the surface. As Christians, we are called to forgive knowing that judgment is for God – and God alone. We can hold steady to the Rock of our Salvation. We, as the Church, can counter the culture by infusing spirit with flesh and flesh with spirit. In other words, we can pray – not only with our lips – but in our lives. By giving up ourselves to the service of Christ, and by walking before God with humbleness and gentleness of heart.
We could proclaim the cerebral Amen, and stay fixed to our comfortable pews once a week, or we can translate Amen into tangible acts of mercy, goodness, and justice. This ebbing and flowing of Amen and action, action and Amen mimics the very movement of God made flesh – Torah with Spirit, Understanding with Action, Repentance with Forgiveness.
On most days when I read the news, I am struck not only by the 7 deadly sins that cover most of the front page every morning; I also become anxious as to how rapid and liquefied society has become. Classic institutions, morality, tradition, and even reason seem to be evaporating before our eyes. I once believed that politics could solve many of societies ills because politics had traditionally relied on an informed public, and the art of reasoned argument. Emotionalism, relativism, and the loudest voices in room have now destroyed this classical construct. Historically (at least in the West), politics has been infused with a morality and ethics held together by Judeo-Christian teachings and values. And what about the institutional church? If the Church is to survive and give an answer to the polarities of politics, it is to do the responsible thing and not be anything else than the Church – The Church of Jesus Christ. It is to hold up for the world the life, love, and light of Christ found in the Gospel, Holy Eucharist, prayer, and spiritual action – with God’s help.
Honestly, there are some days when I want the Church to be like Noah’s ark who brought in all those creatures in order to save them from the flood – In order to save them while the rest of the world destroyed itself (See here Rod Dreher’s argument for this approach). Then there are times when I want the Church to embrace its newfound role – that is – a subculture that counters the ways of the world by injecting the world with its Divine Truth with a hope that one day God will make all things new. On my better days, I believe our work as the Church of Jesus Christ is a bit of both: It holds to its three-fold ministry of scripture, tradition, and reason while at the same time recklessly scatters the love of God to an un-loving world.
Right now, in our time and place, we have great responsibility and knowledge, understanding and Spirit that are counting on us to invest – invest in the eternal attributes of God, the eternal teachings of God, and the eternal gifts of God that make us people of God. Jesus Christ is still on mission. He’s still calling disciples, and he still upholds his promise that he is with us – even to the end of the age. In this age, may we never forget these promises, and at the same time may we never forget that our Amens are constantly calling us to Action – with God’s help.
One thought on “Not Only With Our Lips, But In Our Lives”
Thank you for this expansion of the interpretation of this parable from the tradition. First time for me to read these interpretations. Honest. And we end at a place that is familiar: the dual call of the beleiver toward both community and action. I know how busy your week has been. I am very grateful for your scholarship and leadership.