Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Incarnation of the Gospel

One thing that struck me about Sunday's reading of the Parable of the Talents was how intimately the Gospel has actually gotten stuck into culture, so deeply that we often fail to realize it's even there.

English-speakers have borrowed a lot of phrases from the King James Bible: apple of my eye (Deut. 32:10), fruit of the womb (Ps 127:3), skin and bones (Job 19:19-20), as well as many others. I am sure the same is the case with other languages. I understand that every swear-word in French is Catholic in origin.

I bet many people fail to realize that not only does 'talent' in that Gospel passage mean a unit of money (a rather large one), but that the very concept of talent comes from this parable and is not explicitly what Jesus means by it (although it is certainly a legitimate interpretation, but remember, it is an interpretation). You will not find this modern concept, 'talent,' in Greco-Roman literature: they had virtus arete (meaning strength, skill), which is not exactly what we mean by talent today. Most often we understand 'talent' as something we are born with. That much is in keeping with the parable: something given by God. The Greeks and Romans, rather, focused on the things you could develop, not things you were born with. Why talk about these things? If you wanted to be brave, practice being brave, said the philosophers. Philosophers have little to say about things you are born with. Socrates never said, "Be tall!"

But my point here is not to contrast pagan and Christian notions, but rather to reflect on the manner in which divine revelation penetrates human culture.

Now, in the Gospel, by 'talent' Jesus seems to mean something given by God. Judging from the rest of the Gospels He usually has in mind money or other material possessions, the Word, and grace. He doesn't, again, talk about natural talent. Moses and Jeremiah both said that they weren't good speakers, but there is no sense in these passages, as far as I can tell, that speaking well is something you are born with. Augustine says that the rules of good-speaking are only good for those with some natural ~talent~ I would have to look up what word he actually used here, but his sense was that rhetorical rules won't do some people any good.

Not one of my talents.
The point here is not how far had the pagans gone in coming up with a notion of 'genetic predisposition,' and how much was this a Christian 'gift.' My point is actually two-fold: the Gospel has created cultural norms, some of these are not strict logical transpositions from the Gospel, but rather fortuitous events. That is to say, the Gospel planted in a certain environment will produce something, though not usually in a strictly logically-reductive manner. John Paul II famously said that it was providential that the first culture into which the Gospel fell was the great Greco-Roman one. (Fides et Ratio) He was contradicting those who say that everything is culturally relative and that we should strip away the non-Semitic elements from the Gospels to arrive at their truth. No, he said. They were given when and how they were on purpose. (It is up to the scholars, and to the Church definitively, to discern that purpose.)

So, take a Gospel, add some Anglo-Saxons, and voila, here's your word talent. The world is God's machine.

All of this said, though, it still doesn't excuse preachers from mentioning that 'talent' doesn't mean talent, but money. It can mean talent too, but money first.

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