When I was 38 years old, I was coming to the end of a 20 year long period of skeptical agnosticism. Approaching middle age, I was becoming more sensitive to the spiritual, and I was wandering off into the new age movement. I had been a pretty hard case as an agnostic. I could annihilate anyone's argument in favor of belief in God, let alone belief in Jesus. I was predisposed to think in purely material, existential terms, but I hadn't yet followed the implications of that to their logical conclusion. Somehow I had built up a set of internal mental boundaries that kept me away from the difficult issues, while I continued to hone the defense of my comfortable position.
When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, that underlying stubbornness was already visible. I had refused to stand up in class and sing a solo like all the other kids had already done. The teacher, who happened to be a nun, took me to the cloak room in the back of class and told me "what for". At the end of it she remarked, "If you were as good as you are stubborn, you would be a saint." Fortunately, she was even more stubborn. I came out of that cloak room in tears (I was always pretty sensitive that way), yet I sang a solo like everyone else did. Today, I look for opportunities to sing a solo. Needless to say, though the experience was very painful for me, it was also very salutary.
How are these vignettes related? In my 38th year, I went to bed and, while I was asleep in the middle of the night, God infused me with a powerful sense of three things: (1) that my moral life was headed down the tubes, (2) that many other people could be damned along with me, and (3) what it was like to spend a moment really separated from God, and is this what I wanted for all eternity? The experience shook me up more than I can describe. When I woke up that morning, I fell on my knees, sobbing and begging God's forgiveness and his help in changing my life. Needless to say, though the experience was very painful for me, it was also very salutary. You see, it was if God took me into the cloak room like that nun did some decades ago. Yet God chose to do it when I was asleep, when my guard was down. It was the only way God could fly under my radar without first destroying my radar installation.
Jesus, the Son of God, frequently told stories in a way that flew under the radar. (In this he was hardly alone. You may recall Nathan telling David a parable about a man with a favorite ewe lamb, so he could get David to appreciate the gravity of his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah.) We call those stories parables. The parable of the talents is like that. His parables are frequently difficult to interpret, sometimes even when he takes the trouble to explain them. Thus he quotes Isaiah,
You are to make the heart of this people sluggish,
to dull their ears and close their eyes;
Else their eyes will see, their ears hear, their heart understand,
and they will turn and be healed.
[Is 6:9-10 NAB]
I always found this quote to be deeply troubling. Why, I thought, would Jesus hide the truth from people? Yet Jesus himself explains his purpose, in part,
This is why I speak to them in parables,
because "they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand."
Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
"You shall indeed hear but not understand you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them."
[Matt 13:11-15 NAB]
Jesus explained that whatever he told the people they could not appreciate it or would not appreciate it. Certainly the Jewish Sanhedrin condemned Jesus to death because they didn't like what he was saying and doing. It's quite likely that the people of Jesus' day would not like what he said if he spoke clearly. The apostles were privileged to hear the truth, but even they were not always ready to hear it, in spite of every effort Jesus made to prepare them.
Thus, if Jesus were to communicate with the people, to get through their hardened defenses, to fly under their radar, he would have to speak in parables. In doing so, Jesus spoke as much to the subconscious mind of his listeners as to the conscious mind. His stories were always so compelling, even when they were not understood, that people remembered them, and when they got to a point in their lives when they were ready to listen and to learn, they remembered what he said.
The Word of God, Jesus Christ, always expressed himself in very memorable terms. His way of putting things would frequently expose the thinking of his listeners, as if under a mental microscope. And he would do this even with an adage, a mere couplet of sentences. One very striking example of this occurs in the parable of the talents. At the end of this parable, as a kind of moral summary, Jesus says
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.
[Matt 25:29, NAB]
Jesus expresses this in the form of a proverb, albeit with an atypical variation in the parallelism of Jewish poetic form. There is a parallelism that is deeper here than the usual. It is almost like a haiku in its brevity, irony and striking phrasing, though its structure is obviously of Jewish literary tradition. It strikes at the heart of human negativity and removes all doubt in the mind of the listener who catches his drift, that continuing to sit on the fence in life is ultimately untenable and leads to spiritual death.
With those preliminary technical remarks aside, what, precisely, is Jesus saying here?
When Jesus speaks of "the one who has not" we are not to understand someone who literally lacks everything, for he immediately tells us, "even what he has will be taken away." It seems to me the obvious interpretation is "As for the person who constantly dwells on what they don't have, that which they do have (being the part they neglect to attend to) will be taken away."
We see this constantly in little children who tend to focus on themselves all of the time and indulge constantly in petty jealousies. Yet Jesus is not talking about children here. Little children may be excused for focusing exclusively on what they're missing. Adults have had lots of time to get adjusted to their plusses and minuses in life, and to learn to value what they do have. In these few lines Jesus is speaking to those of us who haven't yet advanced beyond the pettiness of little, agrieved children. His words are a clear warning. We may wonder about the obscurity of his phrasing, but I strongly suspect that the people of his time, who were well used to Judaic rhetorical parallelism, knew exactly what he meant.
At any rate, one of the advantages of having a faith community is that there will always be people who can explain the obscure passages to us. The question is, do we have the patience and the curiosity to search out explanations when they don't spring immediately to mind, or do we, instead pass quickly over them and move on to something easier to swallow?
There is a certain irony here, if you haven't yet picked it up. There is a great, inexhaustible richness in the bible, but few people bother to make a serious study of it. There is an inexhaustible richness in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but fewer and fewer people bother to partake of it, even on Sundays, the day God has set asside for us to dedicate to getting in touch with him. There is a great richness of wisdom in the 2000 year old tradition of the Church, but fewer and fewer people in our culture today find it worthy of their attention.
Instead, how do we appreciate this vast storehouse? Fundamentally, we devalue it. We go through our lives as if it wasn't there. We lose touch with it. After a while, it drops below our radar and we pay no attention to it whatever. Eventually, we live our lives as if this wonderful gift was never given to us. This is what Jesus is referring to when he tells us, "even what he has will be taken away."
You've heard the expression, "Use it or lose it." This saying refers to our physical and mental faculties. If we fail to exercise regularly, we become flabby, we may gain weight and develop heart disease or diabetes. If we fail to exercise our mind regularly we may develop plaque and suffer memory or other losses early in life.
What happens to us if we fail to exercise our spirit? What happens to us if we fail to exercise our character?
All of these things are God-given, and meant to help us become something greater than we are. They are God's way of helping us climb the stairway to heaven. But if we never exercise our spiritual legs, we may lose the ability to climb spiritual stairs. We will be left at the bottom of this spiritual stairway.
Jesus once told Nathanael, as recorded in the first chapter of John's Gospel,
"I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." He was referring to Jacob's ladder, from the story in Genesis, chapter 28, which relates a dream of Jacob, the future Israel. Jacob dreams of a stairway which "rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God's messengers (i.e., the angels of God) were going up and down on it (i.e., ascending and descending)." [Gen 28:12] Jesus was telling us that he is the stairway to heaven.
He gives us the grace to climb it, but he leaves it up to us to decide whether to claim that grace or to pretend as if we don't have it, and eventually forget that the stairway was ever there.