33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 25:14-30
To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one – to each according to his ability. […] For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich.
There is great danger in the interpretation of this parable, for one may easily come to the false conclusion that grace is given according to nature, in the sense that man merits grace through his natural efforts – such would be the heresy of the Pelagians.
However, we know that grace DOES NOT build on nature, rather (as St. Thomas said in the first question of the Summa) grace perfects nature. Thus, it is not according to one’s own natural talents, but according to the generous will of God, that one receives more grace and another less grace.
In the final analysis, the divine will alone must be credited with the diversity of graces among men.
The correct interpretation of the parable
In every parable, it is important to recall that certain elements are simply embellishments to the story, others are to be taken in a highly allegorical sense, and some (very few) may be taken almost literally. What is most important is to recognize the central message and teaching of the parable – all the rest will turn upon this.
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide summarizes the parable nicely: “The object of the parable is to show how exact an account Christ will require from the slothful in the Day of Judgment; and how great will be the reward which He will give to the diligent, who have carefully used His gifts to the glory of God.”
It is obvious enough that the man who went off on the journey is the Christ – for our Savior descended into hell and then was raised and ascended into heaven. He will come again, and all will render an account for their works in the final judgment – of course, those who die before the second coming receive the particular judgment immediately upon bodily death.
Those who receive the talents are all men – but, most especially, believers. Still, it is necessary to emphasize that all men receive the talents, insofar as the talent symbolizes actual grace – for all men receive at least sufficient actual graces, though not all receive efficient grace unto salvation (nor do all receive sanctifying grace through faith).
But if the man is Christ and the servants are all people and the talents are graces, how can we explain the fact that one is given more talents (i.e. more graces) than another?
Considered absolutely, grace is entirely depended upon the divine will
We must understand: God DOES NOT love all people equally. The Most Blessed Virgin Mary has been loved more than any other human persons – hence, without any merit of her own, she was conceived immaculate. Likewise, we may consider St. Paul who, while yet a sinner, was given the grace not only of conversion, but also of the apostolate to the gentiles.
God loves some more than others, but he still loves all. Love does not have to be equal when it is gratuitous – for, most assuredly, none of us (not even our blessed Lady) deserver the love of God. To show us that he is merciful and compassionate, God gives some graces to all people (hence, all receive at least one talent). Yet, to prove to us that his love is gratuitous and not a legal requirement, God loves some more than others and gives special graces to some which he does not give to others (hence, some receive five, others two, talents).
The parable mentions that the talents were given to the servants according to their ability, yet we must admit that even this natural ability is itself pre-determined by God as the Creator. Further, it must be emphasized that grace does not simply build upon nature, but rather grace perfects nature. Hence, while one may have less natural talents than anther, grace is able to perfect the limited natural talents of one and raise him above another (consider the examples of St. Francis of Assisi or St. Catherine of Siena, who were not learned but have become great teachers for all the faithful).
The generosity of God, who gives some grace to all and more grace to some
At first, it may be a bit difficult for us to accept the fact that God does not give equal graces to all; but then we must remember that none of us deserve any grace at all! Indeed, the inequality of grace is a proof to us of the gratuity of grace – if grace was given equally to all, we might forget that it is grace (gratis data, freely given), but could instead think it a matter of justice!
St. Thomas Aquinas, surely the greatest theologian of the Church, offers a magnificent reflection on this point (ST I, q.25, a.5, ad 3):
“The reason of the predestination of some, and reprobation of other, must me sought for in the goodness of God. […] God wills to manifest his goodness in men, in respect to those whom he predestines, by means of his mercy, as sparing them; and in respect of others, whom he reprobates, by means of his justice, punishing them. This is the reason why God elects some and rejects others. […] Yet why this particular part of matter is under this particular form, and that under another [e.g. why this is a rock or a tree or a human], depends upon the simple will of God. […] Neither on this account can there be said to be injustice in God, if he prepares unequal lots for not unequal things. […] In things which are given gratuitously, a person can give more or less, just as he pleases (provided he deprives nobody of his due), without any infringement of justice.”
Just as the Almighty chooses to make this bit of matter a tree, and that bit a rock, and this bit a human; so too, he chooses to give more grace to this man and less grace to that one. Still, as existence is given to all matter, so too some grace is given to all men – hence, the Lord is most generous and merciful to all!
Let us strive to be conformed to the divine will, for this is the essence of holiness.