“I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Matthew 13:35
I never did enjoy John Fowles’ novel: The French Lieutenant’s Woman. You follow the story looking forward to its conclusion and what happens? Fowles offers us a choice of three endings: 1. the hero marries his fiancée and not “the other woman” and the marriage falls flat; 2. the hero drops his fiancée and goes for “the other woman” who then takes off and disappears; 3. the hero finds “the other woman” again but things turn sour, so off he goes to America.
As passive readers we don’t like to have to choose between such alternatives and especially when each leaves one hanging! We expect the author to finish the job. We feel he owes us an ending without our having to work at it. We expect stories to end in a standard pattern - with the good guys winning and the bad guys losing as exemplified in last week’s parable of the ten virgins and this week’s parable of the talents.
Both live up to what we expect of a story. In the one the five wise virgins retain a supply of oil for their lamps and gain access to the wedding feast while the other five, foolish enough to have no reserve, end up outside. In the other, those who increased their talents are promoted while the fellow who buried his ends up gnashing his teeth. Nicely symmetrical, wisdom rewarded, stupidity punished!
But then I wonder! Are we to read these parables passively or does Jesus (and the Church) challenge us to come up with alternative endings to each, even as John Fowles does for his story? I mean, may we not rewrite the parable of the ten virgins so that we, as the wise virgins, share whatever surplus of oil, of luminosity we have with those who for whatever reason have exhausted their fervor, their capacity to brighten the world around them with faith, hope and love? Must those whose souls are empty have doors shut in their faces, never to share in the wedding feast of the Eucharist?
Or to switch to the parable of the talents – must it end with the poor fellow who buried his talent left to wail and grind his teeth in an anguish of crippled self-esteem? I mean, why can’t we change that, to intervene, to say to him, “We know that you are an anxious fellow when it comes to responsibility; that you impose on your master a stern visage even though he has already shown you confidence enough to bestow upon you a worth that’s meant to grow. So snap out of it! Step out of your intimidation; trust that whatever spiritual initiatives you may undertake will widen and deepen your experience of life. So here! We now give you two talents, as evidence of our faith in you and in the Holy Spirit to inspire you. Try again!”
I mean, may we not say that Jesus, having closed these two parables within the standard endings we expect, only did so to challenge us to rewrite their endings in ways that correspond to the behavior he describes in his Sermon on the Mount and to the way he himself behaves with people who are lame, paralyzed, immobilized, foolish, hesitant - mercifully?
Certainly, as far as our own lives are concerned, these parables are presented to us at our liturgies to encourage us to change the ending of our own stories. To encourage us to acquire a surplus of warmth and light to share with others; to be cognizant of the worth God has already bestowed on us and ever ready to multiply that worth by the graciousness we show to others.