Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 128:1-5
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians 5:1-6
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 25:14-30
Not many people have ever heard of the Jesuit Heinrich Pesch. Before his death in 1926, Fr. Pesch established himself as one of the great Catholic economists of the modern era. His influence is most apparent in the Church’s second great social encyclical, Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931). The invisible hand of Fr. Pesch can be seen not only in papal writings, but also in the works of writers such as the English Distributists G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and their Irish colleague Fr. Vincent McNabb.
The relevance of this weekend’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew to Fr. Pesch and the Church’s vision of economics might at first glance be a bit obscure, yet the core image of the Parable of the Talents – economic risk – demands a look at the Catholic understanding of such issues.
The parable involves three servants who are given five talents, two talents, and one talent, respectively. A talent – mentioned in the New Testament only here and in Matthew’s earlier Parable of the Unforgiving Servant – was, according to the New American Bible, a “unit of coinage of high but varying value depending on its metal (gold, silver, or copper) or its place of origin.” Fittingly, the Greek word used for this ancient currency is the same as that for aptitude, ability, expertise, and, of course, talent.
The servant who was given five talents invested them and doubled his money. The same with the second servant and his two talents, but the third servant buried his talent in a hole in the ground for fear of losing his investment. Upon his return the master is quite pleased with the entrepreneurial spirit of two of his servants and berates the third for doing nothing with his talent.
Catholic economic teaching spells out quite clearly the limits of making money with money rather than with labor. To make money with money without also taking the risk of losing that money is what is traditionally called usury and is a practice condemned throughout the Church’s history all the way back to the Old Testament. Most people have never heard the word, but they have heard of, and probably live under the heavy boot of, its most egregious application: compound interest. It is the practice of, to use the words of the parable, “harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.”
It is a bit of an irony that the master tells the lazy servant that even getting interest – usury – on his talent would have been better than burying it. Yet it is the economic risk taken by the first two servants and their reward for that risk that the master appreciates. As with economics so with personal abilities: we are all called to take the risk of using our talents for the Master rather than burying them, and even poor attempts without risk are better than no attempts at all.
Talents invested wisely, despite – or possibly because of – the risk, will be handsomely rewarded, whether the talents are ancient coins given by a master or personal abilities bestowed by the Master. Those who use their talents well will be given more responsibility, just as in a similar parable St. Luke quotes our Lord as saying “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
Heinrich Pesch came to many of his economic conclusions while studying in post-Industrial Revolution England where he saw people living in conditions that would make Charles Dickens blush. His thesis, known as Solidarism, was that the role of economics is to foster the solidarity of human persons through labor for the common good. That radical notion might not fit in well with the accepted “wisdom” of capitalism or socialism, but a long line of Bishops in Rome think that the Master might see it differently.