SCRIPTURE READINGS: [1 TH 4:9-12MT 25:14-30 ]

Without denying the fact that all of us are unique and different, there is also the danger that an over-emphasis on our distinctiveness can lead to a situation or attitude of exclusivity.  Indeed, there is this over-exaggeration among the present generation of the need to be exclusive in the way they live.  And so we have bred a generation that wants to be members of exclusive clubs, wearing exclusive branded clothing and accessories, dining in exclusive restaurants and even worshipping in exclusive temples and churches.  Such exclusivity goes against the fundamental gospel message that whilst affirming the uniqueness of each person, it also wants all to recognize their equality and common brotherhood.

Indeed, this is the thrust of today’s scriptural readings.  St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians speaks about the love that they had for each other throughout the whole of Macedonia.  St Paul however also urged them to live their lives in such a way that they would earn the respect of those outside the Church so that they too might come to believe and experience the all-inclusive love of God for them in Christ.  In contrast, the gospel today criticizes those who were exclusive in their attitude towards others.  This is the motif that runs throughout the parable of the talents.   When we use the rule of thumb in reading parables, the focus is always on the last person.  This third servant was entrusted with the one talent but hid it instead of investing it to earn interest.  It seems that he wanted to hide it from others so that he could exclude them from having a share in his money.

The question is, who is this third man in the parable?  Firstly, when we interpret this parable on the first level, that is, the situation of the life of Jesus, then we know that the original intention of this parable was directed at the Jewish religious leaders.  They were the ones who were steeped in the Mosaic Law and traditions.  Being so meticulous and legalistic in their observance of the laws, it could not but exclude the ordinary man and the Gentiles because they had to make a living.  If they were to observe the laws the way the Pharisees did, they would not have been able to live a normal life because their trade would have disqualified them from worship.  Hence, in condemning the third man, Jesus was hitting out at the Jewish religious leaders for leading such an exclusive spiritual life, excluding sinners from their tables and treating them as outcasts.  By so doing, they were excluding many people from the Kingdom of God.

What is said of the religious leaders in those days surely also applies to us.  Often, in trying to maintain our distinctiveness as the “holy” people of God, we also unwittingly alienate ourselves from people.  There are some of us who would not want to be seen with people who are so-called “unchristian” or “unholy.”  We regard non-Catholics, sinners, gays, divorcees and lapsed Catholics with disdain and condemnation instead of compassion and understanding.  We only want to be associated with those who are considered “saved”, whereas all others are presumed to be without grace.  Not only that, we draw too distinct a line between the clergy and the laity.  Sometimes, even our liturgy is too daunting for the laity.  At times, the Liturgy of the Hours is only promoted among the religious and the clerical world and ironically, as an “obligation” when it is meant to be the Prayer of the Church.   Some occasions too, we choose to sing hymns, especially Latin chants, which are certainly beautiful at liturgy but unappreciated fully.  This is because we have not taught them how to sing and thus exclude them from our worship.  We make them feel as if they are novices in prayer, whereas we can pray and sing in a special language, or our music is too classical for anyone without musical inclination to be able to sing.  They are reduced to mere spectators!

This is precisely what the Holy Father, Pope Francis wants to avoid, being an exclusive Church.  He preaches a Church of inclusivity and compassion, although many wrongly mistake that he has given up on the teachings of the Church with regard to marriage, divorce, same-sex couples and other “sinful situations” that Catholics find themselves in.  Indeed, the Church must uphold the teachings of Christ and the gospel.  Yet, the gospel is meant for the converted and the renewed.  The Sermon on the Mount is meant for those who were truly believers of our Lord and had experienced His unconditional love and mercy.   The teachings of Jesus cannot be lived by those whose relationship with the Lord is weak.  Unless they experience the love of Christ unconditionally first, they would not be able to find the grace to live out the gospel life.  Otherwise, we would be placing burdens upon them that they are unable to fulfill.  Instead of liberating them for the Good News, we make their spiritual life burdensome, putting guilt on them and making them miserable.  Hence, making the Catholic Church so elite and exclusive would mean closing the door to sinners and those who are struggling to come to know God and live a righteous life.  By accepting their limitations and embracing their weaknesses, we can help them to gradually grow in faith and love so that they can live the life of Christ with His grace. 

On the second level of interpretation of the early Church, this parable would be directed at the Church at large.  The historical fact is that the primitive Church, which was dominated by Jewish converts to Christianity, brought with them their Jewish traditions and customs and practices as well.  But what was unacceptable were their attempts to impose such practices on the non-Christian Jews.  We read of such manipulations and bickering in the Acts of the Apostles.  In fact, this would have been a divisive issue if it were not handled properly by the Apostles.  It would be against the gospel if, as Church, we allowed ourselves to be bogged down by petty quarrels over ecclesiastical disciplines and uniformity.  Such pre-occupations would only divide the Church further and sap us of our energy to build the kingdom of love and unity and, ironically, make us counter-witnesses of the gospel.

In the same vein, when we reflect upon ourselves as Church, we must also consider whether we are open to people who are different from us.  Have our churches become so nationalistic to the extent that we have lost our universal flavor? This can certainly happen if we allow everything to be in line with our cultures.  On the other hand, as it was in the past, the Catholic Church, in stressing unity, has also mistaken unity for uniformity and thus made laws, be it juridical or liturgical laws, that are inappropriate for those of different cultures.  Then again, in our own communities, we must reflect whether we have become so racialistic that we divide ourselves into different communities in competition with each other.  The sad situation we see in some churches is that some communities are not only neglected but they suffer discrimination by the larger communities.

Another consideration in terms of exclusivity is whether our churches have become too sectarian in the way we worship that others are excluded.  Quite often too, we have competition over the different ways we worship and the different spiritualties.  Some are intolerant of other forms of spirituality and even despise those who worship or pray in a different way.  Such spiritual snobbishness certainly is what the parable is against.  Instead of competing with each other and excluding others from our life, we are called to reach out and to share with each other whatever gifts we have.  No one has a monopoly of spiritual life and spirituality.   All are useful for the Church and for different people at different times of their life.  So we should not act in an arrogant manner, looking down on others because they have a different spirituality.

Finally, when we interpret this parable on the level of the evangelist, this parable is transformed into an eschatological parable.  It is concerned with the coming of God’s kingdom.  Here, the evangelist is exhorting us to recognize our responsibility in making the Kingdom known to others.  Between the time of the Church, that is, after ascension and the time of the second coming of Christ, symbolized by the master going away and coming back, all of us in our own ways are called to be faithful to our master by using all that we have to prepare ourselves for the kingdom and to bring more people into that kingdom.  The question is, whether we have been active in bringing Christ to others.

This is possible only if we witness to Christ with our own lives, both in words and deeds.   Every Christian is therefore called to work diligently in love to spread the gospel message that he has received.  It would indeed be a tragedy if he were to keep the Good News only for himself.  In fact, if he did, then it shows his failure to understand the fundamental message of the Good News, which is God’s vision of unifying us all into one brotherhood in love and service under His reign of love.  In this sense, the gospel reaches out to all men and women, even those from other religions.  We are called to work with them in building a community of love and peace.  We must recognize that the Holy Spirit is also at work in them invisibly in ways unknown to us.  Whenever we see truth, grace and love in their religions, we must give them due credit and exhort them to grow in the fullness of truth and grace.