Tag Archives: responsibility

Lady Liberty and The Statue of Responsibility

Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl would have to be classed among the most profound works of the twentieth century. A survivor of both Auschwitz and two concentration camps affiliated with Dachau, Frankl — a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist — reflects on his holocaust experience and in the face of it responds to life and its meaning.

Frankl lays bare the human condition at its lightest and darkest, best and worst. Boldly speaking about the imperative of life to find meaning, even and especially, in the face of suffering. His experience gives him license to speak rawly about universal and personal truths, lending it something of the prophetic. Despite his own sufferings and ability to maintain a sense of moral integrity during those testing years, he writes honestly, but without resentment against his oppressors, and without taking the moral high ground against those who compromised themselves under the weight of the Nazi jackboot. His sharing challenges our modern sensibilities—pointing out not the demands we should make of life, as we are taught to, but the demand that life makes of us.

There is so much one can take from this work, of what is really an introduction to Frankl’s Logotherapy. For a Christian, a Christian reading of the text is inevitable. The mystery of the Logos, the Word, and the Cross, seeps through the words on every page.

The Cross as Reality

Through Frankl, the Holy Spirit can help us recapture the true meaning of the Cross in our postmodern landscape where that meaning is all too often deconstructed, institutionalised, privatised and novelised. For the Christian today, faced with the crossless standard of secularism, the Cross runs the risk of becoming nothing more than an identity-concept, an intellectual corner stone, a symbol to muse upon and defend—a point of difference, instead of a reality and mystery to be lived and breathed and believed in.

It’s an imperative for every generation and age to rediscover the truths of our faith, particularly the Cross, which always has and forever will run against the grain of the status quo. The Cross will never be cool, and if in certain pockets it ever does become trendy, it could only be a kitsch version of it. It’s a mystery far too great and gritty to be reduced to something bite-sized or to something that merely flashes on a billboard or dangles upon a neck. It will always be more.

The Wisdom of the Cross speaks uniquely in every age to those with ears to listen (Mt 11:15), but the message remains the same—a call to discover the meaning of life in Christ by shouldering his yoke of love and burden of responsibility.

Liberty & Responsibility

In Part II of Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl says the following:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth… Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.[i]

With such a simple proposition Frankl says many things…

Freedom without responsibility is arbitrary, aimlessly egocentric and condemned to meaninglessness. It’s a license for a self-autonomy void of consideration for the other. It’s the kind of freedom that allows an S.S. soldier to push a woman into a gas chamber. Sure, he might find meaning in doing so, but such subjective meaning is arbitrary, false and without substance. One of the many reasons it is exposed as such is because of its inability to register with universally held human values.

Yet what is freedom with responsibility? It is a yielding to the summons of life to be responsible, to take responsibility in the here and now, in fulfillment of one’s vocation.[ii] It demands one’s search for meaning, and one’s execution of their responsibility necessarily supplies it. It is the kind of liberty that rendered the woman being pushed into the gas chamber—St. Edith Stein—free to lay down her life of her own accord (Jn 10:18) despite being forced to die. Sent to the gas chamber but going freely, in her words, “For my people.” It is the kind of freedom that discovers and begets meaning even in situations intended by forces of tyranny to be vacuums of meaninglessness for its victims.

In an opposite strain, the fact that there is only a Statue of Liberty speaks loudly and immaturely of rights, and little of responsibility. It’s indicative of the attitude of the modern western man who first and foremost asks himself, not “What are my responsibilities?” but “What are my rights?”

There’s certainly a place for Lady Liberty but without Lady Responsibility she is like that personification of folly in the Book of Proverbs, who without the wisdom of responsibility leads men astray after the fancies of their own will, for “her steps follow the path to Sheol, she does not take heed to the path of life; her ways wander aimlessly” or we might say—meaninglessly (Prov 5:5-6).

What is this Statue of Responsibility?

We all know well what the Statue of Liberty looks like. Yet what might the Statue of Responsibility look like? There can be no doubt about it. The Cross. History has supplied us with the image, and God with its unexpected force of meaning brought about by the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who shouldered to the peak of Calvary the responsibility humankind owed to God and to itself. And where humanity failed to shoulder its dual responsibility, the humanity of God Incarnate succeeded.

Yet such success was not carried out to deliver us from our responsibilities, but it was carried out to enable us to fulfill them in He who has gone before us—by His strength, His grace and His love.

This is not because God is a Father who demands we earn our salvation by the sweat of our brow, but because to exercise our freedom to live responsibly is the only way to enter into this salvation. A salvation from sin, which is our inability to be perfectly responsible on our own, so that we might be enabled free to love—which is freedom to be responsible, to find meaning, purpose and dignity, not just now and in the face of the grave, but hereafter and beyond the grave.

The Statue of Responsibility is the Cross, and specifically, it is the Crucifix with Jesus nailed to it. Here a flaming torch is not held in the hand, but rather a heart burning with love, consumed by responsibility. The voice from this statue does not declare His rights, but rather invites each Mary and John, each woman and man: “Come to me all you who are weary and overburdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. Pick up your daily cross and follow me.”[iii]

Here the promised rest is not a false comfort secured by the abandonment of personal responsibility. It is that peace of heart and mind the world cannot give—infused by Jesus into one’s soul, and which begets a meaning no nail of suffering can destroy. It is the symptom of embracing one’s cross. The vertical beam representing one’s responsibility to God, and the horizontal, one’s responsibility to one’s neighbor. It’s not a cross without both these beams, and Jesus invites—commands even, that we shoulder it.

Easy and light? Ridiculous it’d seem. Offensive even. But isn’t that the strange miraculous power of love, that it really is madness to the rational observer, yet pure sense to the one afflicted by it… the one liberated by it? That after all is love—not emotion, but embraced responsibility.

The Ultimatum of Life

In the context of considering the divergent extremes human nature can take in the face of the worst kind of suffering, Frankl writes:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.[iv]

He is not saying we deserve or don’t deserve the sufferings we get, but from the Christian angle—the Cross is there, looming large in the midst of our lives—we cannot escape it. Most of the time it makes its presence felt through little things. Yet sometimes the experience of the Cross is deeply felt, and at times it can be experienced as unspeakably terrible, a result of human evil or sickness, in such a way that its reverberations never leave us. Yet whatever form the Cross takes in our lives, it can either be something that crushes and corrupts us with the bitterness of resentment, leading us to lash out at the world with hatred; or a rare and testing opportunity to grow in depth—to be drawn deeper into meaning, into our humanity, and deeper into the Mystery of God who is our Holiness.

In other words, the Cross is surely forced on our backs by circumstances we can’t control, but we can decide whether it is an occasion that will crush us and break us, or an opportunity to carry it with Jesus for love of God and man.

It’s an ultimatum posed to us by human life itself, and Jesus the Life takes it and eternalises its meaningfulness beyond the human sphere. An ultimatum to choose to be crushed by the cross or to carry it, and our response is up to ourselves as individuals. “Let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Mt 16:24): it’s all in the singular because the proposition is profoundly personal. We cannot judge our neighbours, nor probe their motives, nor are we even capable of discerning the difference between being crushed by the cross and carrying it, for these things can look identical to outward appearance. No, it’s a matter for ourselves to consider, and at most, to invite others into an awareness of this summons. Thus our place is to use our often shoddy discernment not to judge, but to discern how to act as a Simon of Cyrene, instead of a shouting, flagellatory Roman soldier who only makes the crosses of others heavier.

One person may be paralysed and haunted by the profundity of their cross, and it may involve the severest kinds of trauma; or one may be able to meander along under its heaviness, and no doubt life will involve moments of both. Yet whoever we are, whatever our cross, the underlying truth is that to be able to bear and carry the Cross we needn’t be professionals who can run circuits with our cross, but we must simply accept it, even if it takes a while, in the faith that God can use this suffering–big or small–to make us better people, to teach us how to love, to give Him glory, and to help save souls.

The option is there, to either suffer meaninglessly in vain or to suffer meaningfully with purpose. To invoke the Name of Jesus is enough to inject our pain with infinite and eternal value.

“May Raise Him”

Frankl then elaborates:

Do not think that these considerations are unworldly and too far removed from real life. It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.[v]

“Man’s inner strength may raise him” indeed. Perhaps in our strength we cannot all rise above our outward fate—prisoners as we are of our own weaknesses. Then on the matter of sin—there is no way anyone can rise above that by their own strength. Just as well. God can achieve all these things, and in Christ Jesus, He has already raised us higher than “man’s inner strength may raise him”. The reality of this resurrection awaits us in our cross: those two beams of responsibility which are far from abstract. For already they weigh upon us and demand our response in the very moment we occupy. We need not search for meaning nor liberty elsewhere. In this respect our Statue of Liberty and Statue of Responsibility are really the same thing, it’s the Cross, through which God in Christ mediates the gift of the liberty of grace through our embrace of responsibility.

The Virgin Mary is a testament to this truth. She is the eminent member of our race raised into immaculacy from the moment of Her conception; sanctified, liberated into union with God, from the get-go. She only rose higher with leaps and bounds into this sanctity through Her profound union with Her Son – realised through Her responsibility to God and man, a responsiveness to Him the God-Man. A union made manifest and typified by Her standing by Him at the foot of the Cross—the True Statue of Liberty and Responsibly.

Lady Liberty & Lady Responsibility

Our Lady can thus rightly be called Lady Liberty and Lady Responsibly. For other than Jesus, who else knows better the twin-beams that make up the Cross? That dual responsibility to God and neighbour which crushed Her Heart in a pain worse than death? She was with Jesus in the face of His Cross, and we need Mary in the face of our own. She can teach us how to carry these beams, and calling upon the Name of Mary–confident in, and obedient to the fact that Jesus has given us to Mary, and Mary to us—is enough to realise Her maternal presence and aid already at our disposal.

As Lady Responsibly She will help to hold on to the splintery wood of the Cross, in the face of every kind of interior and exterior hardship. As Lady Liberty She will help us to do so with love, peace and even joy.

The United States has its own Statue of Liberty, its own Lady Liberty—without a signifier of Responsibility—a gift from the French, and all as a sign of national independence. Through faith, may we allow the Holy Spirit to erect in the land of our soul the real and everlasting Statue of Liberty and Responsibility, the Blessed Cross, and its accompanying Lady, a dual gift of God, and a testament to our freedom as pilgrims whose life and citizenship in Jesus, through Mary, is not of this “mortal coil” on earth but in that “undiscovere’d country” where angels smile,

To rest forever after earthly strife.
In the calm light of everlasting life.[vi]

[i] Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part II, 154-155, full text available from archive.org.

[ii] Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part II, 130.

[iii] A loose synthesis drawing from Mt 11:28-30; Lk 9:23.

[iv] Ibid., Part I, 87.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] John Henry Newman, Lead, Kindly Light (1833).
Other references, Hamlet, and Phil 3:20.

Sicario, Excitement and Paying Your Dues

Recently a trailer for the movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” came across my Facebook feed. It was not a typical trailer. Typically a movie trailer shows clips from the movie with pulse-pounding soundtrack, and possibly a deep, gravelly, middle-aged male voice-over. This trailer had scenes from the movie, but it had explanatory subtitles explaining how the movie related to real-life drug wars. It explained that the movie demonstrated how cartels bring a complicated reality to south and central America, and that the violence that erupts between them is more like a guerrilla war, or even a conventional war, than it is like U.S. gang violence. When that violence spills over onto American soil two of the movie’s characters (who I gather were adversaries in the first film) will join forces to “start a war.” My assumption is that they were trying to aggravate violence south of the border in hopes that it would either draw the violence away from U.S. soil, or provide a reason for U.S. forces to engage in the war outside the U.S.

I don’t have much taste for war movies, or even crime movies, anymore, so up until now the trailer was disquieting but not particularly memorable. But it was the last line that really got me thinking. The final scene of the trailer had the words, “Come experience the excitement in theaters.”

Seriously? That’s what this is about?

I mean, I knew that’s what this was about. It’s an action film, designed to be exciting and to convince people to spend money to experience that excitement, ultimately in order to make money for the directors, producers, actors, investors, etc. Money is the goal, sex and violence sell. Of course they want you to come and experience the excitement.

I just didn’t expect them to be so… bald about it. So obvious.

Essentially the movie makers are selling an experience of adrenaline. In that sense they are no different than the makers of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battleground, Halo, or any of a thousand combat related video games. They are trying to simulate the excitement of combat in a marketable package, i.e. a package that involves no risk of bodily injury or death, no heat, dust, sweat, boredom, no training, no discipline, no obedience, no separation from family…

… see where I am going with this?

I will not deny that war is exciting. Having spent some time in war myself, I acknowledge that some of the most exciting moments of my life have occurred in war, formed of the level of adrenaline, focus, clarity and just sheer aliveness that, for most people not saints, only occurs when your life is in jeopardy. I will go further and say that a young man could do worse than make a career of pursuing that excitement. It is not excitement that I am against, it is cheap thrills.

Violence, like sex, excites because it is a matter of life and death. We were made for life and death, for real struggle, real investment, real risk and real growth. That is, we were made to fight real bad guys to rescue real good guys (both physically and spiritually). We were also made to make real love that forms real relationships and real babies. There is a proper place for both sex and violence in art, namely to illustrate the truth of these realities and to inform our choices about them in the real world.

The problem with video games and action movies is not that they are realistic and exciting, but that they are not real. When you go to a movie theater to watch people get killed on the big screen you invest nothing of yourself. You feel the rush and roller-coaster, and you may even have a significant emotional event, but when that experience is over you have not changed. You are still the same person you were before the movie. You may have a new appreciation of some topical issue of the day, you may be emotionally moved, you may have had a spiritual epiphany, but unless that mental and emotional reaction is translated into decision, and from decision to action, and from action to habit, it has not changed you.

It is necessary to bear this in mind when watching war movies. If you want to experience the excitement of a firefight, or of fighting a fire, or of digging up IED’s, then pursue that. Join the military, or the police force, or the fire department. Suffer through basic training, put in thousands of hours at the gym, thousands of miles on your feet, training-for-ruck-marches-imagethousands of rounds on the range. Obey the orders of those appointed over you, deny your own inclinations, place yourself at the service of your team. Learn to be faithful in little things. Make your bunk, sweep your floor, scrub the platoon’s toilets. Do maintenance on your vehicles and equipment, take pride in them. Endure the boredom of sitting in a firing position all night, or of driving down dusty roads 12 hours a day. Accept the banality of having to answer to idiots and power-trippers who are in charge of you only because they have been in a few months longer. Miss your chance for a “real” fight time and time again, and still keep showing up to work, putting in your time, taking pride in your performance. Volunteer for harder, more difficult assignments, accept greater responsibility.

Sooner or later you may get your chance to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Or maybe you won’t. But if you pay your dues for enough years you will gain something better. You will learn that excitement is not an end, but a byproduct. It is something that happens when you are engaged in meaningful work, because meaningful work in this world is always risky, but you will not pursue the excitement anymore, you will pursue the meaning.

This is something you will not get from action movies or video games. You can only get it from life.

Images: PD-US

The Parable of the Talents

Parable of the TalentsThe Parable of the Talents is a Kingdom Parable couched in terms of reward and punishment,1 outlining the consequences awaiting those who have been entrusted with God’s word and given the freedom and ability to make it bear fruit. God seeks the active cooperation of the faithful in the establishment of His kingdom,2 and failure to act is a dereliction of duty and sin of omission. The parable is a sober warning that the People of God are expected to use the gifts they have been given, or suffer the pain of banishment on top of the loss of what they had received; at the same time, it is a promise of abundant increase for those who fulfill the will of the Lord.3

The Parable of the Talents immediately follows the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, which is explicitly introduced by Jesus as referring to the Kingdom of Heaven.4 The two parables are told following Christ’s foretelling of His Second Coming, the Parousia heralding the end of this world.5 At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has just departed the Temple, where He roundly chastised the scribes and Pharisees for neglecting the teachings of the Law, namely judgment, mercy and faith.6 He predicted their certain doom for ignoring the Word of God and being hypocrites, seeking only their personal comfort and reputation,7 at the expense of the fulfillment of God’s will.

The parables are told while Jesus speaks privately to His disciples of the signs that will accompany the consummation of the world, in response to their queries on the subject.8 They are related to the disciples as the Messiah approaches Jerusalem and they directly precede a description of the Last Judgement as well as Jesus’ declaration of His impending crucifixion.9

Thus, the Parable of the Talents can be seen as a direct commentary on the behavior of the religious leaders of the Jewish nation, the scribes and the Pharisees.10 Like the lazy servant, they have failed to invest what they had been entrusted with: namely, the holy teachings which are the key to the Kingdom of God.11 Instead, they have perverted God’s teachings, burying them beneath their convoluted religious restrictions and regulations,12 oppressing the faithful with heavy tithes.13

Moreover, the parable has eschatological import, being an illustration of the reckoning that will occur at the Second Coming of Christ. It demonstrates the necessity of being ready for His impending advent. This is paralleled in the preceding parable where the foolish virgins, lacking oil for their lamps, pay the penalty for their unpreparedness and are left out of the wedding celebration.14 Throughout Holy Scripture, the wedding feast is a symbol of Heaven,15 the Lamb’s Supper which is the union of Christ and His Bride the Holy Church.16 At the same time, Jesus instructs his listeners that the Kingdom of God is not commencing at once upon His entry into Jerusalem, as those who anticipated a worldly Messiah expected.17 The master, representing Himself, departs for an extended, unspecified period of time.18

Jesus follows the Parable of the Talents with an account of the Last Judgement, where He will judge everyone according to their deeds, separating the just from the wicked, sending the latter to eternal punishment while bestowing eternal life upon the former.19 Likewise, in the parable, the master rewards or penalizes the servants according to what they have done with his property in his absence. The talents are thus clearly symbols of the ability to perform the works of charity which fulfill the Law.

The line introducing the Parable of the Talents is a segueing into that parable from the one of the Virgins, stating: “Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour.”20 Matthew emphasizes that Christ’s return will be unexpected, with judgment falling suddenly upon the wicked and unfaithful.21 Before the Parables of the Virgins and the Talents, Jesus is recorded as referring to His second coming as being like the Great Flood which took mankind unawares, then drumming in the point with the parable of the thief coming unforeseen in the night, as well as the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants whose master returns at an unanticipated moment and deals with them accordingly.22 The Parable of the Talents can be seen as an extension of the point made in the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants.

The Parable of the Talents begins with a man preparing for his departure to a distant land by bestowing his property upon his three servants,23 dividing his assets between each of them “according to his proper ability”;24 this implies that they are expected to manage those assets.25 In Judaism, as can be seen throughout the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel was often referred to in terms of Lord and servant;26 more particularly, the leaders of God’s people were called His servants.27 Therefore, Jesus’ disciples would have instantly recognized this parable as reflecting upon the behavior of the Jews,28 as well as all who purported to be faithful followers of Christ.

The immensity of the trust which the master has placed in each of his servants is comprehended when one realizes the value of a talent. A single talent was worth about 6,000 denarii and constituted the equivalent of about two decades’ labor.29 Considering the shorter life expectancy at the time of Christ, a talent represented just about the entire sum earned in an average man’s life.30 Thus, a talent could be figurative of the graces received for a lifetime, with the varying amounts signifying different graces received by members of the faithful.31 It was a massive sum which a mere servant would have been unable to repay.32

The two servants who have been entrusted with much more, in line with their abilities, trade their master’s property and earn even more, doubling the amounts in their keeping.33 The third servant, in contrast, does less than the bare minimum of depositing the money in the bank;34 in fact, he buries it in the ground,35 where it remains utterly unproductive until the master’s return.

In Jewish numerology, the number ten symbolized absolute completeness, and the number five indicated semi-completeness.36 One may interpret the first servant as having the best ability to employ what he receives, since he is allotted the maximum of five talents and gains five more with them, reaching the symbolic level of perfection. In addition, the number two was one short of the number of holiness, while the number four referred to the quarternity of the universe, encompassing Heaven and Earth and testifying to the glory of God.37 Thus, although the second servant receives less than the first, he is still able to serve his master and symbolically glorify God through his actions: in Judaism, the wealthy were regarded as blessed by God.38 Both the servants are praised equally by the master for their efforts and acumen, for they have both done just as well in producing full returns of the amounts entrusted to them.39 They “are received with equal favor by the Master of the household, who looks not to the largeness of their profit, but to the disposition of their will.”40

Moreover, “the greater the gifts, the greater the reckoning for them”41 – the master commends the second servant for earning two more talents, thus presenting four in total; but if the first servant had come back with just four, that would have been a grievous loss.42 Religious leaders like the scribes and Pharisees, who were learned and blessed with a deeper understanding of the scriptures than the average person, would reasonably have been expected to render more to God;43 similarly, faithful disciples of Christ who have been enlightened by His teachings are more culpable than those who do not know Him that well.

The third servant is given a lesser, though still considerable amount, because the master knows he is not ready to handle more than that.44 Yet, he is inhibited by fear at taking the risk of investing the money,45 and in burying it seeks to divest himself of the responsibility for any loss.46 However, in doing so, he breaches his trust.47 As a servant, he is duty-bound to seek his master’s interests, but he acts self-interestedly, with cowardice.

His self-protective mindset is revealed in the speech he makes when he is brought to account by the master.48 He blatantly accuses his master of being a hard man, because he reaps where he has not sown, and gathers where he has not strewed.49 He has misconceived the character of his master, who was generous with his faithful servants.50 The servant tries to excuse his own behavior by claiming that his fear of the master motivated him to bury the talent,51 a common way of preserving money in Christ’s day.52 He returns the single talent, declaring, “Behold here thou hast that which is thine.”53 He did not fritter the money away for his own ends, and he hopes he might be recognized for his frankness and cautiousness in remitting the exact sum he was given.54 His delusion is soon exposed.

The servant’s clumsy attempt to excuse himself is turned against him;55 the master uses the servant’s own words to condemn him: “Wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sow not, and gather where I have not strewed.”56 Instead of truthfully admitting his guilt or even expressing some gratitude for the great trust placed in him, the servant tried to shift the blame and maligned his master in the process.57 This of course enrages his master, who adds the epithet “wicked” on top of decrying the servant for his sloth, chastising him for his intolerable pride.58

The servant’s protest, “I was afraid of thee,” brings to mind Adam and Eve after their transgression, hiding for fear of the Lord.59 They too tried to pin the blame on someone else, with Adam pointing out to God that it was the woman He gave him for company who enticed him to sin.60 God punished them for their disobedience, removing His gifts from them and banishing them from paradise.61 The unprofitable servant is condemned to the same fate, with his talent given to the most productive servant,62 and he himself thrown out into the dark to lament his sorry end.63

In contrast, the good servants are entrusted with even more, since they have proved their faithfulness, and they are invited to enter into the joy of their lord.64 This is a direct allusion to Heaven, where those who are judged worthy are allowed to enjoy the bliss of the Beatific Vision and complete union with God.65 In the end, the first servant is rewarded even more greatly than the second, as he receives the unfaithful servant’s talent.66 This is fitting because he has had to work harder than the second in order to reap five more talents.67

Furthermore, in Christian tradition, the talents have been taken to signify particular gifts from God, with the five talents corresponding to the five senses, which are the means to knowledge; the two talents standing for understanding and action, and the single talent representing understanding alone.68 Thus, the servant with the five talents was appropriately awarded the additional virtue of understanding.69

The master, representing God, reaps where he has not sown – this indicates His decision to save the Gentiles, who were not originally endowed with the seeds of salvation inherent in the Law and the Prophets, but in the end come to constitute part of the Kingdom of God, His property.70

The parable, just like Jesus’ other parables, is set in an ordinary situation, teaching the lesson that “the eschatological occurs within the everyday.”71 Christian faith and the spiritual life are at one with human earthly existence.72 One encounters God – represented by the master – in commonplace events and is held liable for one’s freely-chosen actions or lack thereof in response to the privileges and accompanying responsibilities accorded by Him.73 The servant deliberately chose not to do any good with the talent, and for that exercise of his free will, he must pay for his decision to neglect his master’s affairs. The master was a long time away,74 allowing ample time for the servants to carry out their duties, so practically speaking the capital must have surely depreciated with rising inflation in the meantime. This is analogous to the spiritual life, where God gives sufficient time for the salvation of souls,75 and if virtue is not willingly exercised, it is lost.76 The lazy servant acted as one obstinate in sin, unwilling to invest in the spiritual life, instead dedicating his God-given abilities to earthly things.77 The master is merciful, for he does not even require the servant to perform the more onerous task of reclaiming the money if he had banked it; the master would have done it himself.78 Similarly, as long as we commit ourselves to God’s work, He will attend to its fulfillment.

The Parable of the Talents is related at a particularly crucial moment in Jesus’ mission, shortly before His descent into Jerusalem to undergo His Passion and Death. It is His indictment of the scribes and Pharisees for willfully neglecting the will of God in the interests of self-preservation. Ironically, in seeking to preserve his life, the faithless servant loses it.79 The parable is also an answer to Christ’s disciples’ question regarding the eschaton, instructing them on the behavior expected of them as servants of the Lord.80 As they await His Second Coming, they cannot remain idle, but must prepare for the coming of the Kingdom, using all that God has given them for their task.

___

1 J.C. Fenton, Saint Matthew. Penguin Books (London, 1971), p. 398.

2 Ibid.; Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Ph.D, “Parable of the Talents” The Crossroads Initiative [http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/800/Parable_of_the_Talents.html] (accessed 10th October 2013).

3 Dan Otto Via, Jr., The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimensions. Fortress Press (Philadelphia, 1967), p. 18.

4 Matthew 25:1.

5 Matthew 24:3.

6 Matthew 24:23.

7 Matthew 24:33, 24:27-28.

8 Matthew 24:3.

9 Matthew 25:31-46, 26:1.

10 Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables. SCM Paperbacks (UK, 1966), p. 131.

11 Ibid.

12 Fenton, op. cit.; Via, op. cit., p. 39.

13 Matthew 23:23.

14 Matthew 25:10.

15 C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom. Charles Scribner’s Sons (New York, 1961), p. 93.

16 Revelation 19:7, 9.

17 Fr Francis L. Filas, SJ, Understanding the Parables. Burns & Oates (London, 1959), pp. 124-125.

18 Ibid.

19 Matthew 25:31-46.

20 Matthew 25:13.

21 Dodd, op. cit., p. 115.

22 Ibid.

23 Matthew 25:14.

24 Matthew 25:15.

25 Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith. Fortress Press (Philadelphia, 1987), p. 345.

26 Dodd, op. cit., p. 119; Psalms 135:22, Isaiah 49:3, Isaiah 44:21, Luke 1:54.

27 David: 1 Kings 8:66; Solomon: 1 Kings 8:30, 52, 59; Isaac: Daniel 3:35; Jacob: Psalms 77:71, Isaiah 44:1, Isaiah 45:4, Baruch 3:37.

28 Dodd, op. cit., p. 119.

29 William Ridgeway, “Measures and Weights” in Leonard Whibley, (ed). A Companion to Greek Studies. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1905), p. 444.

30 Fr Robert J. Carr, “Homily: How Not to Be a Useless, Wicked, Worthless, Lout.” Catholicism Anew [http://blog.cancaonova.com/catholicismanew/2011/11/13/homily-how-not-to-be-a-useless-wicked-worthless-lout/] (accessed 10th October 2013).

31 St Jerome, St John Chrysostom & Origen, in St Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea. [http://dhspriory.org/thomas/CAMatthew.htm#25] (accessed 9th October 2013).

32 Ibid.

33 Matthew 25:16-17.

34 Matthew 25:27.

35 Matthew 25:18.

36 “Symbols”. 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14155-symbol] (accessed 10th October 2013).

37 Ibid.

38 John Martignoni, “The Parable of the Talents (Pt. 3)”. The Men of St. Joseph [http://www.menofstjoseph.com/blog/?p=15] (accessed 10th October 2013).

39 D’Ambrosio, op. cit.

40 St Jerome, in Catena Aurea, op. cit.

41 St Gregory, ibid.

42 Joe Heschmeyer, “Reflecting on the Parable of the Talents: You Are Not St. Francis”. Shameless Popery [http:// catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2011/11/reflecting-on-parable-of-talents-you.html/] (accessed 10th October 2013).

43 Jeremias, op. cit., pp. 131-132.

44 Origen, in Catena Aurea, op. cit.

45 D’Ambrosio, op. cit.; Matthew 25:25.

46 Fr Robert J. Carr, op. cit.

47 Dodd, op. cit., p. 118.

48 Via, op. cit., p. 101.

49 Matthew 25:24.

50 Patte, op. cit., p. 346.

51 Matthew 25:25.

52 Fenton, op. cit., p. 399.

53 Matthew 25:25.

54 Dodd, op. cit., p. 118.

55 St Jerome, in Catena Aurea, op. cit.

56 Matthew 25:26.

57 St Jerome, in Catena Aurea, op. cit.

58 Ibid.

59 Genesis 3:10.

60 Genesis 3:12-13.

61 Genesis 3:16-24.

62 Matthew 25:28.

63 Matthew 25:30.

64 Matthew 25:21, 23.

65 John Martignoni, “The Parable of the Talents (Pt. 2)”. The Men of St. Joseph [http://www.menofstjoseph.com/blog/?p=16] (accessed 10th October 2013).

66 St Jerome, in Catena Aurea, op. cit.

67 Ibid.

68 St Gregory, ibid.

69 Ibid.

70 St Jerome, ibid.

71 Via, op. cit., p. 106.

72 Ibid., p. 107.

73 Ibid., pp. 101, 104.

74 Matthew 25:20.

75 Origen, in Catena Aurea, op. cit.

76 Sts John Chrysostom & Jerome, op. cit.

77 St Gregory, op. cit.

78 Matthew 25:27; St John Chrysostom, “Homily 78 on Matthew”. New Advent [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200178.htm] (accessed 9th October 2013).

79 Cf. Luke 17:33.

80 Patte, op. cit., p. 347.

The Narrow Path Through Reality

Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!
Matthew 7:13-14 (The Sermon on the Mount)

When I was in primary school, Neopets were a massive craze. I assiduously avoided the game, knowing that, with my perfectionist tendencies, I would probably spend hours trying to win as many trophies as possible and keeping my virtual pets well-fed. It was far better to spend my time reading twenty library books a week.

This salutary abstinence lasted for a decade, until a friend asked me to look after her Neopets while she went on holiday overseas. I just had to collect all the Advent calendar freebies.

Sure enough, I became obsessed with collecting the daily freebies (not just the Advent items, but all the freebies throughout the virtual world), amassing a collection of virtual books for the Neopets’ gallery, and playing games to amass virtual money. I even entered art and writing competitions on the site, attempting to win more trophies for my friend. In the end, I only managed to end the addiction by giving up Neopets for the following Lent.

Neopets wasn’t entirely a waste of time – there were word games, and the competitions fostered admirable skills and creativity in the young players. However, looking back on the hours spent repetitively clicking on various pages to collect non-existent goodies, I do think I could have spent that time far better – learning to play the piano, or cooking with my father, or reading real books. But those activities take way more effort, and once you develop a habit of gorging on junk food, it’s difficult to switch to a nutritious diet.

Seeking Fulfillment in Fakery

Now, young Japanese women are turning to virtual boyfriends to satisfy their desire for affection. They find that these “perfect” lovers are more attentive than human boyfriends. Porn is also destroying human relationships in Japan.

“Early Christianity’s struggle with idolatry bears striking resemblance to today’s fight with pornography. The development of Christian art and images also informs the conversation about how to catechize on pornography.

Pornography today mirrors all three historical concerns from early Christianity. Viewing pornography leads to an idolatrous turning toward earthly pleasures and away from divine things. Pornography is also deceptive. What is being portrayed is not the reality of sex. Viewers, especially younger viewers, often mistake what they are seeing as what sex is or should be like. Finally, pornography is seductive, creating emotions and desires that are not connected to real life, but rather buy into a fantasy. There are plenty of early warnings against visual art, particularly idols. Christians, however, are not actually anti-image.”

– China Weil, “How to Talk to Young People about the Dangers of Pornography”, Church Life Journal

In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle depicts a hellish planet where everything is controlled by a central mind. Children are not allowed to play freely, but have to bounce their balls in perfect synchrony or face painful punishment. This relentless demand for perfection has killed all human spirit on the planet, reducing the populace to robots governed by fear.

We humans have been granted the intelligence and capability to modify our environments, creating infrastructure and technologies that make life convenient. However, when we seek to eliminate the uncertainties and discomforts which come with any human life, and make everything bend to our own will, we end up with a sterile, empty mockery of life.

True Love and Fulfillment are Found in Reality

Christians know that this world is passing, and we look forward to eternal life. However, we are called to be in the world, and to be loving and responsible stewards of God’s creation. We cannot afford to fritter our time away in chasing after the unreal, becoming isolated addicts imprisoned in fantasy. The path to salvation lies through the concrete reality which we have been given. It is only in this reality that we can truly mature as humans and learn to sacrifice for other real persons.

Living in the real world involves denying ourselves and dealing charitably with uncomfortable, unwanted intrusions into our lives, like lonely friends, crabby relatives, and the needs of parents, spouses, siblings, children, and others in our communities. When we avoid our responsibility to serve one another, we often end up hurting ourselves and others. The harm may not be as extreme as that done to children whose gaming parents let them starve. But each of us has been given particular talents and resources which are not to be hidden under a bushel, buried in the ground, or sunk into a virtual world – we are meant to use them to build the Kingdom of God, which is already here (Luke 10:9), within us (Luke 17:21).

Living in reality does not come with the instant gratification and manufactured dopamine hits of virtual worlds. It usually involves suffering, annoyance and disappointment. However, it also comes with beautiful surprises, profound joy, the satisfaction of comforting or edifying others and being edified in return, and unexpected blessings. It also comes with a deeper consciousness of the presence of God in our lives and the lives of those around us.

This Lent, let us seek for more ways to serve others in real life, and seek God’s Face in reality.

Communities that are great, that are living, never function with perfect smoothness and consistency. When we seek something that runs with the smoothness and precision of a well-oiled machine, we get precisely that — a machine, not a living community. A church that functions perfectly will not be great and living; it will be small and dead.
– Fr. Michael J. Himes

My life is but an instant, a passing hour. My life is but a day that escapes and flies away. O, my God, you know that to love You on earth I only have today!
– St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Image: Wikicommons/PD-US