Equal and Unequal by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
It will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one - to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master's money.
After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bring the additional five. He said, 'Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more. His master said to him, 'Well done my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities, Come, share your master's joy.' Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, 'Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.' His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master's joy.' Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, 'Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back. His master said to him in reply, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'
Is God unjust? Does He treat us as unequally? We have been trained to expect fairness and equality. “God shows no partiality,” both Sts. Peter and Paul tell us (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11). We Americans have the phrase “All men are created equal” firmly established in our psyche.
So it may sound odd that the master (who represents God) in Our Lord’s parable of the talents distributes his wealth unevenly: “To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one” (Mt 25:16).
Worse, he bases this unequal distribution on the abilities of the servants – “to each according to his ability” – indicating that the men themselves are not equal. And in the end, they receive unequal rewards. The entire story implies that God creates us as unequal and treats us unevenly. How then should we understand this inequality?
People typically fall into one of two extremes regarding this question. One extreme views all inequality as bad and insists on absolute equality – no one should ever have or achieve more than the other. This produces a culture of envy, resentment of another’s talents and success. The other extreme views inequality as the harsh but realistic, necessary law of the jungle – the way that lesser people are weeded out and the sleek and strong survive. And this leads to a harsh, selfish society.
As always, the proper Catholic view is not either/or but both/and. We are both equal and unequal: equal in dignity and unequal in talent. It is true that God shows no partiality and that all men are created equal because every human person is created in the image of God and called to union with Him.
All members of the Church have equal rights because all have an equal call to heaven. A pope is not “more called” to heaven than a janitor. From the lowliest altar boy to the pope, every person is called to holiness. The Catholic Church is the most egalitarian institution in the world: everyone is called to be a saint . . . not one is off the hook.
At the same time, there is a clear diversity – and yes, and inequality – of talents and tasks. God has not given every person the same talents. Some excel in our area, some is another. Nor do the states of life share an equal dignity. It is better to marry than to remain single, and better to enter religious life than to marry. The work of a pope is more important than that of an altar boy.
So we find in God’s design both equality and inequality. To emphasize one aspect more than the other disturbs the harmony of God’s design. Harmony requires both equality and inequality. Consider a beautiful symphony. There is a basic equality because each instrument is necessary for the piece. Yet at the same time there is an inequality because not each instrument plays as loud, as often, or as long as the others. Only by observing both this equality and inequality can the musicians produce beautiful music. Erring on one side or the other destroys the harmony and beauty.
Returning to the parable of the talents, we can see that the master’s uneven distribution of talents was no slight against his less talented servants. Each servant was necessary for his plans, although no two received the same amount. The greater were not to lord it over the lesser, nor the lesser envy the greater.
But there was a discordant note in the peevishness of the third servant. Perhaps he thought his talent would not be missed precisely because he had only one. But his talent was missed because its absence took away from the beauty of the master’s plan.
So also is God’s plan for Christ’s Body. To some members He gives many talents and great tasks. To others few and small. But in His design, He desires all talents to be employed and increased for His glory. May we never neglect our talents – however small they may be – that no detail will be lacking in making something beautiful for God.
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