A topic near and dear to my heart throughout my life has been that of true courage, which in my opinion encompasses prudence. After all, if courage is foolhardy, we tend to call it rashness or impetuousness. Courage is acknowledging risks yet not being intimidated by them. Courage is taking control of our fear and doing what we have best discerned needs to be done. It’s one of my favourite virtues, up there with generosity. Of course, courage is one of the utmost forms of generosity, being a willingness to sacrifice oneself. And what is generosity, if not the freedom of self to give in love?
I’ve been drawn to reflect on the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) of late. When I was a child, I was surprised that no mercy was shown to the servant given a single talent, who buried his coin for fear of losing it. I was a somewhat fearful child and appreciated the comfort of certainty, and wondered why those who were free, seemingly even careless, with their money should have profited. I saw more fault with the harsh and demanding Master.
It has taken the wisdom and perspective of some years to come to a better understanding of Christ’s message in this parable. It has taken some maturity to see that the simple portrait of the Hard Master, painted by the Nervous Servant, may be an inaccurate portrayal, coloured by the deficiencies of the observer.
Let us, for a moment, step back from our empathy for the Nervous Servant (if, indeed, you are like me and can easily identify with such a one).
‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’
The perception of the Master as a hard man comes from a timid observer. If we look to the beginning of the story, we see that he “called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” What I see from the objective facts is that the Master trusts his servants, and not only does he trust them, he has the wisdom to see that each has a different level of aptitude and he does not give them more than he sees they can handle. He gives each an appropriate degree of responsibility.
The Nervous Servant has noted that the Master reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he scattered no seed. The Nervous Servant is so blinded by his anxiety and fear that he interprets this as a sign of harshness rather than a sign of trust and respect. As a result, he quails, panics, and buries the entrusted treasure.
“You wicked and slothful servant!” cries the Master, upon learning what the Nervous Servant has done. Now, as a child, I was already standing in the shoes of the Nervous Servant, so I thought to myself that here was the miscoloured assessment of character. Wicked? Slothful? More like prudent, careful, responsible!
No. If I take that perspective, I miss entirely what Christ is trying to tell us.
Let us imagine that God the Father is the Master. He entrusts to each of us a different amount of “talent” (oh, how wonderful to have this synonym in English!), as every homilist I’ve ever heard has observed. What the text does not reveal explicitly is that He does so in an outpouring of His love, but, of course, that is how God executes all his actions, for we are told He is Love itself. To quail before such love is a respectable initial reaction; however, we are then faced with a choice: do we respond in like love and trust Him, as He invites us to, or do we hide in fear, as Adam and Eve attempted? To base our decisions on fear is to listen to the Devil, who wants so desperately to sow doubt and self-loathing in our hearts, to turn the focus away from our relationship with our glorious, infinite God and towards our own dull, finite navels.
The above quotation is taken from Fr Jacques Philippe’s Fire and Light: Learning to Receive the Gift of God (p. 70).
The Nervous Servant thought he was being prudent, but he was not. As we see, it did not end well for him at all, for the Master took the pittance He had entrusted him with and “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.” Why this apparent harshness? Why the seemingly callous claim that “to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? Doesn’t that sound like kicking a man who’s already fallen on his face? But put it in the context of the story: the Master had trusted each of the servants, yet the Nervous Servant proved that he did not in turn trust his Master’s wisdom. The Nervous Servant was proud enough to refuse to believe that he could do anything with what he was given, even though he knew it was expected of him.
Lucy led the way and soon they could all see the Dwarfs. They had a very odd look. They weren’t strolling about or enjoying themselves (although the cords with which they had been tied seemed to have vanished) nor were they lying down and having a rest. They were sitting very close together in a little circle facing one another. They never looked round or took any notice of the humans till Lucy and Tirian were almost near enough to touch them. Then the Dwarfs all cocked their heads as if they couldn’t see any one but were listening hard and trying to guess by the sound what was happening.
“Look out!” said one of them in a surly voice. “Mind where you’re going. Don’t walk into our faces!”
“All right!” said Eustace indignantly. “We’re not blind. We’ve got eyes in our heads.”
“They must be darn good ones if you can see in here,” said the same Dwarf whose name was Diggle.
“In where?” asked Edmund.
“Why you bone-head, in here of course,” said Diggle. “In this pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.”
“Are you blind?” said Tirian.
“Ain’t we all blind in the dark!” said Diggle.
“But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs,” said Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?”
“How in the name of all Humbug can I see what ain’t there? And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?”
“But I can see you,” said Lucy. “I’ll prove I can see you. You’ve got a pipe in your mouth.”
“Anyone that knows the smell of baccy could tell that,” said Diggle.
– The Last Battle (C. S. Lewis)
The Nervous Servant, much like the Dwarfs in the final tale of Narnia, could not see beyond his own dingy perception of the situation. Perhaps the other two servants even attempted to encourage him to think differently, but neither their example nor their entreaties made any difference.
Let’s consider those other two servants for a moment. They were trusted with five and with two talents, each according to his ability. Each went forth in faith and doubled his entrusted fund. Must we imagine that these two were repulsively confident, reckless risk-takers? Or might we entertain the possibility that they were courageous, loving, generous, willing to take risks in the hopes of pleasing their Master? For all they knew, they would fail and have nothing to hand over when their Master returned. Yet they trusted their Master: they knew He had expectations of them, and they saw that He trusted them. With little thought to themselves, they went forth and did their best. Their efforts were rewarded, for although the text does not say so explicitly, we know that the Master blessed their efforts.
Was the Nervous Servant jealous of the other two servants? Quite possibly. He saw how much they had been given, and he despaired. He did not see what he had, but what he had not. There was little room in his heart for love. He was concerned only with his own self-preservation, with not making a mistake, with avoiding the humiliation of failure.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Mt 16:25
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” – 1 John 4:18
Do not be afraid. God is love.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” – Prov. 3:5
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9
I could go on! I cannot think of a faith that is more empowering than that of the Gospel. Who else tells us that we are sons and daughters of God almighty and proves it through the waters of Baptism? Are there any other creeds that bridge that gap between God and man in such an astonishingly intimate manner? Our God loves us so much that He sent His own Son, His own Self, to dwell among us, and to tell us: Do Not Be Afraid.
Walk to the Lord on water and do not doubt. If you begin to flounder in your doubt, trust God, as Peter did, to pull you up and rescue you. With God, you cannot falter.
Let us not be timid like the Nervous Servant, but as confident as a child in her father’s lap, as confident as the Little Flower, St Therese, who clung to the Lord in all her weakness.