Man is the Apex of Creation — So Let’s Get to Work!
In man, God has a co-creator, a viceroy responsible for his creation.
This Sunday’s Gospel, about the master who entrusts his servants with one, two and five talents respectively, is usually commented on from the point of view of doing something with the talents God gives us. First, let me offer some random thoughts about talents as money and then expand our take on the Gospel from one about using our abilities or qualities to a broader idea of creativity.
Talents as Currency
For English-speakers, this Sunday’s Gospel often turns into a play on words. A talent was a unit of currency in the ancient world, not a personal aptitude or quality. Talents were, in fact, both units of weight and currency.
As a unit of currency, it was exceedingly valuable. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the master only handed out talents in the single digits. It’s hard to say what a talent’s exact value was, because there were different talents. A talent’s value also depended on the precious metal (gold, silver, copper) to whose value it was pegged. That said, as a unit of weight, talents usually measured between 75-80 pounds each, and their value as a currency was usually pegged at the equivalent weight in silver. One scholar held that a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii, the denarius being the usual daily wage in ancient Israel. One source’s suggestion that a talent was the equivalent of wages for about 16 years of work seems reasonable.
The servants, therefore, got the equivalent of 16-80 years of wages. Their talents were not a child’s allowance to see what they might do with it; it was a lifetime investment to see how good they were at capital gains.
In these last weeks of Ordinary Time, the Church’s focus grows ever more strongly eschatological, i.e., on the last things — death, judgment, heaven, hell. This Gospel has that focus: since none of us can apart from God’s wisdom number the days left to us aright (Psalm 90:12) and none of us knows the day or hour of his Coming (Matthew 24:36) — at the end of our lives or the end of the world — those talents represent lifetime investments. So, when the Master calls the servants in for their accounting and their judgment, they are assessed by what they did with a lifetime’s investment. What their lord gave them for a lifetime is what they are now called to account for. Our Lord will do the same.
A Broader Focus
For the Bible, “talents” were a weight and currency. English-speaking preachers have long played on words, talking about “talents” in terms of the abilities God gives us and what we do with them. In some sense, that’s perfectly legitimate. God gives us a diversity of talents and abilities because we are all called to build up the Body of Christ, in which swift legs, sharp eyes, acute ears, keen nostrils and smart brains are all needed, each in their proper places contributing to the whole (1 Corinthians 12).
But I want to expand this idea, because a focus on talents or abilities, while valid, also runs the temptation of speaking to middle class American life, where particular aptitudes are valued and we get ahead by honing those skills in chosen professions. That also runs into the danger of Pelagianism, the idea of self-sufficiency that eventually makes us imagine salvation is more the result of our efforts than of God’s grace. We need first and foremost to be aware that, as sinners, we can do nothing without God’s grace. It’s God’s grace that sets the whole course in motion. We need to contribute, but we are not self-sufficient. There are no Horatio Algers in the spiritual life.
How would I expand the idea? By bringing us back to the broader Catholic teaching about the meaning of work. God created man to carry on his work of creation. Man is the apex of creation, the only creature God wanted for himself. Everything else God creates serves some further purpose, e.g., the sun and moon to mark time, the fish, birds, and beasts to be under human dominion, etc. But man and woman are the only creatures God wanted for their own sakes and for himself, made in his image and likeness. That is why, when God creates them, he then observes a day of rest — not because creation is finished, but because he now has a co-creator, a viceroy responsible for his creation.
As co-creator man is, of course, subordinate to God: there is always a difference between God and man. That said, God gives man responsibility for carrying on that work of creation, and does so not as a task but as a blessing: “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the birds of the air, the fishes of the sea …” etc. (See Genesis 1:28).
In that passage, God speaks of the two primary ways human being sustain and continue the work of creation: by parenthood and by work, by peopling the world with new persons and by exercising responsible dominion over the material world. As St. John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical Laborem exercens, [see nos. 4, 6, and 9, here] work is not a curse but a vocation, a way for human beings to express in the material world the creative abilities God gave them. That creativity ranges from the house or the book that emerges from the tree or the power and light that comes from the atom.
The point is God put an investment, a huge talent, in human hands: his creation. He expects us to do something with that creation, to use it well, not to abuse it nor neglect it, but to employ it to make a person-centered world (because persons are the apex of God’s creation, made in the Divine Image and Likeness).
That’s why God gave Adam and Eve a garden “to till and cultivate” (Genesis 2:5, 15). God puts them in charge of the garden “to work it and take care of it.” He does the same today: God doesn’t provide housing, but he provides trees and brains to figure out what to do with them.
Catholic doctrine has always held that creation is not a finished work. We are not deists: God did not wind up the universe to run on its own and then go fishing. Indeed, if God withdrew his creation and sustainment of creation at any moment of existence, our contingent world would collapse back into nothingness.
But God also wants helpers in the work of creation. That’s us, the servants who are given the talent of reason, will and body to work the material world in a responsible way and for which we will be asked to account.
This Christian vision of the world clashes with some currents of modern environmentalism which consider man as just another “biological entity” (and a generally bad one at that) in the ecosystem. The Christian vision affirms that man is part of the world but still over the world: the fact that he can abuse the world (for which he is morally responsible) does not negate his right to use it (abusus non tollit usum).
The Christian steward of creation and the environment is not the servant who buries his abilities under a rock and pretends that, if he does nothing, the created world will be better off. The Christian steward is not the one who turns against the gift of life, refusing the blessing of parenthood and even engaging in faux virtue-signaling that perhaps his being “concentered all in self” is “for the good of the planet.” That one is “the wicked, lazy servant” whom the Master rebukes in today’s Gospel.
So let us see today’s Gospel as a call to work, work as an expression of God’s mission entrusted to us to care for his universe by peopling it with persons and by giving mute creation voice to sing ad majorem Dei gloriam!