Today’s scripture readings continue last week’s theme. They are all about readiness. It figures strongly in many of Jesus’
parables and direct teaching. It has not ceased to be timely.
More years ago than I care to count, I learned that the motto of the Boy Scouts was “Be Prepared.” Someone once asked Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement, “Be prepared for what?” “Why, for any old thing,” the old man said.
My venerable Boy Scout Handbook goes on, “Baden-Powell wasn’t thinking just of being ready for emergencies. His idea was that all Scouts should prepare themselves to become productive citizens and to give happiness to other people. He wanted each Scout to be ready in mind and body for any struggles, and to meet with a strong heart whatever challenges might lie ahead. Be prepared for life – to live happily and without regret, knowing that you have done your best.”
Years later, a former student invited me to visit Quantico, VA, where he was in training as a marine. There I learned that “Always Ready” is a slogan on just about everything Marines do, but it is the official (Latin) motto of the U.S. Coast Guard — Semper Paratus — always prepared. Their anthem ends with a last refrain that begins, prayerfully enough,
We’re always ready for the call,
We place our trust in Thee.
Through howling gale and shot and shell,
To win our victory.
“Semper Paratus” is our guide,
Our pledge, our motto, too.
We’re “Always Ready,” do or die!
Surely something to bear in mind as this year’s observance of Veteran’s Day recedes. Old Shakespeare had a point: The readiness is all.
But Jesus had even a more urgent cause in mind than Shakespeare or the Boy Scouts, the Marines, and the Coast Guard – the shortness of all human life and the approach of judgment. As we start winding up the Church year, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to what readiness means before God.
The first reading from the Book of Proverbs continues the portrayal of Holy Wisdom, personified now as a provident wife. I cited this passage at my mother’s funeral, because it brilliantly and poetically sums up how a good wife and mother tries to be ready for just about any eventuality. Spiritually, wisdom means to prepare, to look ahead, to take care, to be alert. It is an attitude St Paul encourages us to adopt in regard to Christ’s return in glory. Given both the frenzy and the paralysis some early Christians were experiencing in regard to their expectation of Christ’s return, wisdom meant living each day as it comes, but providing thoughtfully for the needs of the future as well. Jesus was clear about that, as we heard last week, for “no one knows the day or hour.” Be ready! Take some extra batteries for your flashlights!
Paul’s image of the way labor pains overtake an expectant mother echoes the first reading. A smart wife and mother makes provision for the unexpected as well as the expected — there may not be a smart taxi driver around to help when she needs it most!
The gospel may seem to depart from the image of sudden demands on us that call for us to be well-prepared, but Jesus is really saying the same thing. At first, his parable seems like a very serious and even unfair story. It’s actually pretty funny, although our world is so far removed from first century values we fail to see the humor that would have been obvious to his listeners in a story about high finance gone wrong.
To begin with, the amounts of money Jesus describes were astronomically high. Jesus loved to exaggerate in order to get his point across. What the gospel actually says is that he gave the three employees “talents” of silver — five, two, and one each. A talent of silver was worth about 12,000 drachmas, and a drachma was the ordinary wage for a day’s work — about $32. Five talents of silver would have been more money than a worker could have made in a very long lifetime. Even today, half the world’s workers earn far less than that, between one and two dollars per day — about one one-hundredth of what the average American earns. (According to economists, a fifth of the world population lives on less than $1 a day, another 30% lives on less than $2 a day while the world’s 500 or so billionaires have assets of 1.9 trillion dollars, a sum greater than the total income of the poorest 170 countries in the world.[i])
Today five talents of silver would be worth about 2 million dollars. So we might be able to understand why someone might hide a small nest-egg in a coffee can and bury it or hide it under the mattress. But not two million dollars! Just the miniscule compound interest from a regular CD would bring in a very tidy sum in only a few years, much less the long time the master was away. Far more than most people in the world will earn over an entire lifetime. No, the fellow who put a fortune in a hole in the ground was not only lazy, but stupid. You might say he got what he deserved. But that’s not the point of the story.
Jesus is not saying that God is like a banker who will foreclose the mortgage if you miss a single payment. But he is saying that we are all too much like timid investors. We don’t make adequate provision for the future — the future God has in mind for us, and the results can be catastrophic. Elsewhere we hear, “Make friends even with filthy money, for they will welcome you into everlasting dwellings” — particularly the poor [see Luke 16:9]. But “if you have not been faithful with the mammon of iniquity, who will entrust you with true riches?”[Luke 16:11].
So what is his point here? Make adequate provision for the return of your Lord — he has high expectations of you, expectations much more like those of the Coast Guard and Lord Baden-Powell than, say, Wilbur Ross or Steven Mnuchin and the other folks from Goldman -Sachs. Still, cashing in on the Coming of Christ requires facing some risk. Maybe even a lot of risk. There are other parables about that. Here, Jesus is simply encouraging us to count the cost, look ahead, be smart, and not to be afraid to gamble a bit. Basically, don’t put off until tomorrow what we really should take care of today. That IS wisdom.
[i] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats. “The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.” http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats#src3