Don't be the Ebenezer Scrooge of mercy

Matthew 25:14-30 (33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Have you ever seen one of those images which at first glance appear to be simply a pattern, but if you stare at them long enough a 3D picture appears? For me, it was an exciting experience when I was first able to see the 3D picture in an image like this. After I saw it, I could never look at the pattern without the 3D picture popping out. My perspective of the simple image was changed entirely. Recently I had a similar experience with the parable of the talents that we heard in today’s gospel when I read a commentary on it presenting an interpretation I never heard before. Like the 3D picture popping out of the image, with excitement I saw a new meaning in the parable that was there all along. It gave the parable new life and fresh meaning.

It turns out I was missing the fact that in this parable Jesus is talking about God’s mercy. Mercy was the 3D picture hidden from my sight in this parable. Until recently, I used to interpret this parable as only being a lesson about the proper use of our skills and abilities. All these are a gift from God which we must not keep hidden away, but rather use in the service of others. This interpretation is valid and helpful, but it is not the whole story. We interpret the parable in this way because we instinctively read “talent” to mean a skill or ability. At Jesus’ time, however, this was not the meaning of talent. As you probably know, a “talent” was a unit used in the measurement of something precious, like silver or gold. In fact, a talent was a large amount, perhaps fifty pounds. Therefore, Jesus’ audience would not have associated talent with an ability but rather with weight. The characters in the parable were all given something weighty. Jesus’ Jewish listeners would then have associated “weight” with the glory of God because the Hebrew word for God’s glory, “kabod”, originally meant “weight” or “heaviness”. Recalling God’s glory, they would think immediately of the place where this glory dwells, in the Temple, about the mercy seat, the lid covering the ark of the covenant. In short, when the first century Jew heard Jesus’ parable, they would not have understood it to be a lesson about the proper use of our skills and abilities. Rather, they would have understood the parable as a lesson about God’s mercy.

In the parable of the talents, Jesus teaches us the physics of God’s mercy. Physics - everyone’s favorite subject! - studies nature in order to understand how the universe behaves. When you study physics, you learn about various laws that govern the natural world. For example, Newton’s third law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the parable of the talents, Jesus instructs us about that laws that govern God’s mercy:
  1. God’s mercy is a completely free gift that He gives in abundance through Jesus. In the parable Jesus is the master who goes away on a journey. At times we can think we need to earn God’s mercy through prayers or good works. God’s mercy is always a free gift. It is not a salary. It is not a reward.
  2. When we are not merciful to others, we cannot experience God’s mercy in our own life. Mercy is a gift so it must be freely given. In the parable, the person given one talent does nothing with it. He keeps it to himself and hides it away. In the end, the talent is taken from him. We can be tempted to be stingy with mercy, thinking we need to make others earn it from us. For example, we won’t forgive someone until they come grovelling to us. Or, we refuse to accept and welcome someone unless they first change things about themselves we don’t like. When we are misers of mercy, we become like teflon to God’s mercy - it cannot stick to us and we fail to experience it in their life. People who are unforgiving and unmerciful usually do not believe and feel that they are forgiven, loved and accepted by God as they are.
  3. If we are as liberal in showing mercy as God, then we find that mercy is multiplied many times in our life. In the parable, those who do something with the talents they are given receive even more in the end. The more generous we are in forgiving others and accepting and welcoming those who have made mistakes, the greater we can experience God’s mercy in our own lives. Mercy multiplies when it is given away. People who are forgiving and merciful generally believe and feel that they are truly forgiven, accepted and loved by God even in their weakness and faults.

It is easier to be merciful to others when we realize we have been given a large share in God’s mercy. At times each of us can struggle to forgive and show mercy. We can get some great tips for how to convert the mercy-miser within us by looking at the conversion story of the stereotypical penny-pincher, Ebenezer Scrooge, found in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”. He shows an incredible lack of generosity to his poor worker Bob Cratchit. During the story, however, Scrooge undergoes a dramatic conversion. By the end he is extremely generous. This change was in part elicited when Scrooge was given a glimpse into his past. In this, he saw clearly the goodness and generosity that other people had shown to him. For example, his former boss who had treated him like a son. When Scrooge realizes that he has received so much from others in the past, it becomes easier for him to be generous to those around him. If we have difficulty forgiving or being merciful to others, it is very helpful to remember:
  • We have all made mistakes in our lives
  • We have all been forgiven, loved and accepted by God in spite of this.
  • We have been forgiven, loved and accepted by countless others in spite of all the wrong we have done

Recall that even one talent is a large amount of something incredibly precious. In the past we have all received a large, generous portion of mercy and forgiveness from God and those around us. Remembering this helps us to forgive and show mercy to others. It is critical we do so, “For to everyone who has,more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Let us not be mercy-misers but rather be generous in showing mercy and forgiveness to others so that we can richly experience God’s mercy, love and acceptance in our own life.