An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Third Sunday of Year A, Matthew 25:16-30, November 13, 2011
"PARISIAN LIFE" IS now a 120-year-old painting of Juan Luna’s, depicting a woman in a café, on the right side of which are Juan Luna himself, Jose Rizal and Ariston Bautista Lin in a huddle. A few years ago, it was auctioned off by Christie’s auction house in Hongkong where the painting was the second top selling lot, and Winston Garcia, who was then GSIS president and general manager, won the bid at P46 million, but the GSIS would have to pay a premium of 10% of the final bid price. When GSIS won the bid, Garcia was quoted to have said that we were buying not a masterpiece but a piece of Philippine history. But he got a lot of flak. Sen. Manuel Villar said that while Garcia’s objective may have been noble, the welfare of the GSIS members should have been his primary consideration. According to Sen. Teresa Aquino-Oreta, the GSIS should have funneled a hefty part of the money to the members in the form of more benefits, if indeed it was awash in money. Complained the late Bayan Muna Rep. Crispin Beltran: “For years, members have been demanding better services and increased package of benefits from the GSIS. But what they give us are questionable investments, behest loans and ‘barya-baryang’ yearly dividends which are not even commensurate to the amounts we have contributed.”
For many, the people’s money in the GSIS was not invested in a right place. Which reminds us of the third servant in today’s parable of the silver pieces: he placed his master’s money in the wrong place. But that is going ahead of the story’s point. To begin with, the parable, like last Sunday’s, is clearly allegorical, although as Jesus himself told it, it probably had a different point. Most likely, it was intended for the Jewish religious authorities, such as the scribes and the Pharisees, who like the third servant, were so much concerned with the preservation of the religious tradition they had been entrusted with that they refused to hear the new message that Jesus brought. But this main point has given way to allegorization. As it stands in Matthew, the master’s invitation “Come, share your master’s joy” (Matt 25:21b) obviously refers to the messianic banquet in the Kingdom of God. The servants (v 14b et passim) stand for Christians who, through baptism, accept Christ as their master. The silver pieces (v 15) represent the faith that God gives them through baptism. And the “going away” and the long absence of the master (v 15b, 19a) refer to the journey of Christ to heaven and his physical absence from the world. His coming home (V 19) is the parousia, the second coming of the Lord. The early Church moralized the parable with the addition of the saying, “Those who have will get more until they grow rich, while those who have not will lose even the little they have” (v 29). Concerned with the coming eschatological event, it is now a parable of judgment.
While it is true that in this allegorization the story revolves around the three servants to whom the master disbursed his silver pieces, it gives far greater attention on the third servant. In the dialogue between the master and this servant, the former sharply rebuked the latter for his failure to do something with the silver pieces entrusted to him. This unproductive servant is held up as an bad example of one who, having been entrusted with capital, was more concerned about himself and thus about keeping the money intact—an attitude which, in Matthew’s redaction, shows his lazy and sterile life. Because his desire was security, however false, he was unable to obey the master in a very creative way, unlike the two other servants who made capital gains. If Matthew dwells at length on this lazy and unproductive servant, it is because the parable is meant to teach us that the gift of faith given to us at Baptism must grow while we await Jesus’ second coming so that, upon his return, we can give a good account on what we have done to the faith we received. This growth of faith is our creative response to the offer God has given us, while living in the period between now and Christ’s arrival at the end of time.
What does this mean? Like the first servants who, having received five thousand silver pieces, went to invest it and made another five, so we must be believers whose faith grows and bears fruit. Or, if we look at the parable as an allegory on the membership of the Kingdom at the end-time, we are supposed to work out our salvation in the same way that the first two servants invested the master’s money. Of course, salvation is God’s grace (Titus 3:5), but our part is to make a creative and proper response to it. In the second reading (1Thess 5:16), Paul expresses this in terms of being “awake and sober” (v 6)—“We who live by day must be alert, putting on faith and love as breastplate” (v 7). A productive faith is one that bears fruit in love. Thus Paul: “Your love must be sincere. Detest what is evil, cling to what is good. Love one another with the affection of brothers. Anticipate each other in showing respect. Do not grow slack but be fervent in spirit; he whom you serve is the Lord” (Rom 12:9-11). The first reading makes the same emphasis when it speaks of works: “Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates” (Prov 31:31). Of course, Paul himself makes a laconic expression of the growth of faith in love, when he says that in Christ what counts is “only faith that expresses itself in love” (Gal 5:6).
If the master was harsh with the third servant because he was concerned only with his own security, this implies that the growth of faith must benefit others. This brings to mind James’ assertion about unproductive faith: “If a brother or a sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day and you say to him, ‘Goodbye and good luck! Keep warm and well fed’, but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that? So it is with faith that does nothing in practice. It is thoroughly lifeless” (Jas 2:14-17). Obviously, the parable stresses that like any gift, faith, no matter how small, is precious, and has to bear fruit for others. Which brings us back to the “Parisian Life.” One wonders, then, whether by buying the Luna painting, the GSIS was obedient to the mission of the institution in a creative way. No one disputes that the work of art was priceless, that its proper home should be the Philippines. But whether it was the GSIS that should buy the painting for P50.6 million, and whether it made a good creative and productive investment of the people’s hard-earned money, that is what is being disputed. At the end time, Jesus would dispute, too, the way the gift of faith has been invested—whether it grew, or it simply became fossilized.