Return on Investment

Note: If God expects a return on His investment in us, as Professor Pakaluk argues today, that return has to show in concrete action. In actual promotion of the things that far exceed our other daily concerns. Here at The Catholic Thing we’re quite aware of how modest a contribution we make at a time of great need. But we do as much as we can. Will you? The end of this funding period draws close. We need one final effort by the people on whom we depend – namely you. Help us to reach the return on investment God has made in us. Donate today. – Robert Royal

I think as Christians we can admit that if Christ is an investor in us, and He looks for a return on His investment, then, because He is God and we are His creatures, this investment and His claims would swamp infinitely any other investment concerns we might have.

Here is an analogy.  Suppose you are an investment manager; you want to start an investment fund; and a billionaire friend helps you out with $100 million to put under investment.  You also have another fund on the side where you place a few thousand dollars of your own money.   Clearly, your friend’s wealth should get almost your sole attention.  If his fund showed no growth during the year, you could hardly justify this poor result by saying that you were concentrating on your own money instead, which did show an increase.  Now, suppose that instead of a billionaire friend, it’s your Creator who has “capitalized” your fund.

I am aware that in describing such a divine “investment scheme,” I am speaking in a way that will be unfamiliar and may even seem bewildering to many readers.  And yet, I have simply described the situation of the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.

We think of the word “talent” as meaning an inborn gift, endowment, skill, or propensity.  There are “talent shows.” Academic programs sometimes cater to the “gifted and talented.”  I have a friend who is a polymath and “man of many talents.”  But this meaning arose relatively late, in the Middle Ages.  In the parable and in the meaning of Our Lord, a talent is a measure of weight of silver, a definite sum of money:

It will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. 17 So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.

In the parable, the servants receive sums of money; they “trade with them;” and they are praised if they double that sum over time.  They are entrusted with the master’s money to invest and to grow.

So this parable really does describe a divine scheme of investment.  As such, it should be highly disturbing for us, I think, for three reasons.

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The first is that most Christians, I believe, can assign no definite meaning to these “talents” in their lives, and, therefore, they are in no position to render an account.   What is a talent, and what counts as increasing those talents?  In contrast, the servants in the parable, the ones who were praised, understood from the start what their job was, and they diligently got straight to work.

The early Church Fathers offered various interpretations of this parable, as they did with all the parables, but their consensus is that a talent is a gift in explaining and witnessing to the Gospel.  The man who buries his talent is someone who devotes himself to worldly business instead of apostolate; also, the man who is ashamed of the Gospel, who fears “human respect,” and never shares his faith with anyone.

The second is that, as we can assign no meaning to these “talents,” and our responsibility to invest them, Christians in general rest satisfied with a maimed interpretation of Matthew 25.  That chapter contains three grand parables about the end times and last judgment.   We all know the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:  “whatever you did to the least of these my brethren, you did unto me.”  The hungry, the naked, the homeless, the unjustly imprisoned – it seems “easy” for us to understand what this parable means.

Actually, it’s not.  The couple who conceives a child out of wedlock has made a homeless person, not helped one.  An unborn baby is “naked” yet is frequently rejected under cover of law and “right.”  We kid ourselves greatly if we think that the observance of this parable is satisfied by progressivist policies favoring the ”marginalized.”

But the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is just one of three.  The others are the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, and the Parable of the Talents.  To go astray as regards any of these parables is to risk damnation:

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

28 So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. …30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’

The third reason is that we clearly don’t introduce the “logic” of the Divine Investor in situations where one would think it should be.  Take the vocation to marriage for instance and openness to children.  Prudence is necessary of course, but in such matters there is an Investor whose claims are prior to considerations of ordinary financial predictability.

Or take higher education.  Computer engineering and accounting are wonderful paths of study.  But surely the main Return on Investment that a Catholic should look for in a college education is a truthful, well-grounded grasp of the faith, and a keenness to explain and spread it.

So we need to reflect on which of these parables does our age most need to take to heart?  Which does it risk missing entirely?

*Image: The Parable of The Talents by Willem de Poorter, c. 1650 [National Gallery, Prague]

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.