In Mt. 25:14-30 we find our Lord sharing the parable of the talents. Three servants are given different amounts of treasure to invest for their master while he is away – one is given five talents, the second is given two and the third is given one talent. On the master’s return we learn that the first two servants doubled what was entrusted to them (and were therefore rewarded generously by their master) while the third literally buried the talent away that he had been given. He neither lost nor gained anything for the master and was therefore called out on his laziness and was punished by being cast into “the darkness outside.”
The three servants did not own these talents. This is important to note. The talents were given and entrusted to them by the master upon his departure with the expectation that they would be returned and increased upon his return. The master is the only one in the parable who has a rightful claim on the treasure. I do not believe that the parable is about developing our own skills, gifts and abilities (as important and praiseworthy as this might be) but rather about something much deeper and transformative. The Christian has been given things by God in Christ – things that we have no claim to on our own – and the Christian is expected to make these things grow and will be judged accordingly.
Before getting into what I believe is one set of things given to us by God in Christ I would like to propose that the temptation to live according to a closed secularism – so prevalent in our world today – is the temptation and failure of the third servant. (For a helpful presentation of the distinction between a “closed” and “open” secularism, I would refer you to the book Church, Faith, Future: What We Face, What We Can Do by Fr. Louis Cameli.)
The third servant, out of fear, buried the talent entrusted to him. God calls us to the freedom of his Kingdom but such a freedom can be frightening. Remember the Israelites yearning to go back to the bondage of Egypt? Burying something away is a way of side-stepping and avoiding the responsibility of freedom. Burying also means ignoring. It is safe to assume that the third servant, after tucking away his talent, went about the business of his day and what he wanted to accomplish – not really thinking about the master until the day he shows up again. The first two servants, working to increase the talents given them, were active and they were continually thinking about and focused on the master’s return. They were not going about their own plans but were planning and working for their master even as he was gone. Their doubling what had been entrusted to them demonstrates this attitude. Finally, burying is choosing the lesser and valuing it over that which is higher. In our modern sensibility we stumble with this imagery but the highest goal of the servant should be that of seeking to fulfill the will of the master. The third servant placed his own security and his own designs over the task entrusted to him by his master. He therefore chose that which was lesser.
In the choice for a closed secularism we are in essence burying what has been given us. We are choosing the world before the Kingdom of God. We are side-stepping the true freedom of living as a son or daughter of God with its duties and responsibilities (and abundant graces) for the shallow pseudo-freedoms of choosing our next form of entertainment and/or distraction. We are ignoring the call and promise of God for the business of what we think our day should be about and therefore we are choosing that which is lesser over that which is greater.
Now, what has been given us by God in Christ that we have no claim to on our own? One gift, I believe, are the theological virtues and when we choose to live according to the narrative of the closed secular we, in essence, bury what has been given and entrusted to us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the theological virtues have their origin, motive and goal in God. These virtues, in the Christian understanding, are gifts from God and can only be brought to fulfillment through our having relationship with God. If God and the realm of the divine is bracketed out of our reality we sidestep the responsibility of the freedom of a child of God, we ignore God in favor of our plans and preoccupations and we lose sight of the greater in favor of that which is lesser.
Faith, rather than being the virtue that confirms our belief in what God has said and revealed is reduced to an allegiance to what I and my particular group believe and hold to be true above all else. Hope, rather than being that virtue anchored in the coming Kingdom of God – the virtue which pulls us forward through the tumults of life – becomes (at best) a naïve optimism rooted in the ever-changing slogans of the day. Charity, rather than being the love of God above all things for his own sake and our neighbors as ourselves for the love of God, becomes a bargaining with a God relegated to the role of being the source of my comfort and a care for those people within my own personal echo chamber – a care which allows only a grudging acceptance for those people without.
How do we avoid the failure of the third servant? We learn from the first two servants. We do not bury what has been given us by co-opting and choosing to live by the narrative of the closed secular. We remain active, living in such a way in the reality of today as to keep the Master in our thoughts and anticipate his return. We live in such a manner as to make the talents of true faith, hope and love grow in our hearts and in our world!
The temptation of closed secularism is the failure of the third servant. As in all the parables, there is much to learn here if we have the ears to hear.