Fr. James Martin Treats Sacred Scripture Like a Cheap Logic Puzzle
Fr. James Martin, SJ is at it again. Maybe he’s trying to speed ecumenism with Mainline Protestant churches. Because it seems each week he comes out with a statement every bit as crazy as anything you’d hear from the most jaded post-Christian posers. You know, the kind who gather in ersatz vestments to “bless” abortion clinics with songs by Leonard Cohen, who was vocally pro-life. A few months back, the Institute on Religion and Democracy reported on lesbian Methodist bishop Karen Oliveto. She warned us not to make an “idol” out of Jesus. Oh yes, and she called him a racist, albeit a penitent one.
Not to be outdone, Fr. Martin weighed in this week, completely inverting the meaning of one of Jesus’ own parables.
NB: A “talenton” (τάλαντον) was huge sum of money (15-20 years of wages) and didn’t have the meaning of the English-language “talent.” Also, some NT scholars posit that it’s a cautionary tale against wicked masters and exploitation. I.e., the third servant is the honorable one.
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) November 19, 2017
Now, I’m no priest. My degree is in literature, not theology. But you don’t need expertise to see where Martin is deeply wrong here. What you do need is contact with the living tradition of how the Church reads the Gospel. You need to be humble. To defer to the consensus of the apostles, Church fathers, and faithful preachers who came before us. Not to stumble upon a passage like a bratty high school sophomore and reach for witty ways to subvert it. It’s a story invented by the Son of God to teach us needful truths of eternal salvation. Not some profane logic puzzle.
I was a bratty high school sophomore when I met my first Jesuit. And I posed him “clever” questions. I offered perverse readings of Gospel passages. And he shot me down in flames, every time. The humiliation … did me good.
Smacking Down the Sophomores
I learned that firsthand. I was a bratty high school sophomore when I met my first Jesuit. And I posed him “clever” questions. I offered perverse readings of Gospel passages. And he shot me down in flames, every time. The humiliation … did me good.
Fr. John Hardon was one of a vanishing breed of faithful, highly educated men who doggedly served the church. I think one of the main purposes the good Jesuits once served was to smack down smart alecks like me. To teach us reverence for sacred things, and to prick the soap bubbles of our ever-expanding egos.
The Hard Sayings of Jesus
The Gospel isn’t easy. Jesus does indeed have a number of “hard sayings” which we must struggle with. (I’ve wrestled with them in several books.) What’s more, He is unlike any other person who ever walked the earth: at once fully God and fully man. Tempted, yet sinless. In one sense the omniscient Creator. Yet he “grew in wisdom and in years.”
No surprise, then, that disputes over Jesus’ nature were the first to split the church. The Arians denied His full divinity. The Patripassians overreacted. They claimed that the Father (patri) also suffered (passio) on the cross. The Donatists overemphasized His human nature. So the Monophysites diminished it almost to nothing. And so on.
The echoes of these disputes still split the apostolic churches. The hunted Copts of Egypt are the heirs of the Monophysites. Many persecuted Christians in Iraq descend from Nestorian churches that once reached as far as China. (Read Philip Jenkins’ learned, heartbreaking The Lost History of Christianity for their story.)
Jesus, the Paradox
When reading the Gospels, it’s easy to get sidetracked into false reactions if you forget Jesus’ distinctive, paradoxical nature. Lose sight of His humanity, and you will find His passion pallid. A pantomime. He can’t really be suffering all that much, if He’s also enjoying the presence of the Father and the Spirit. If His divine nature entirely overshadowed the human, then He could never be surprised, or confused, or even really frightened. So in what sense would He be human?
Lose sight of Jesus’ divinity, and He sounds amazingly arrogant.
Lose sight of His divinity, and He sounds amazingly arrogant. The claims He makes are outrageous. He accuses people like the Pharisees of the most appalling hypocrisy … on what apparent evidence? That’s something I pointed out to Father Hardon. He nodded patiently, then pointed out, “But Jesus could read their hearts.”
Well, okay then. That’s different.
I later read a fascinating book (God or Christ, by Jean Milet) on just this subject: how Christians have overemphasized Jesus’ human nature for centuries. The motive was to make the Gospel more appealing, but the outcome was appalling: the milk-and-water humanitarian gibberish that too often passes for Christianity.
The Parable of the Talents
With all this in mind, let’s go back to Fr. Martin’s sophomoric misreading of that parable (Matt. 25). Jesus is trying to help the apostles understand the kingdom of heaven. It’s the second story He’s telling with that in mind. In the previous passage, He’d offered the Parable of the Wise and Foolish virgins. So Our Lord imagines a Master who entrusts servants with “talents.” (As Father Martin helpfully points out, they were very valuable coins!) He rewards those who put them to fruitful use, and punishes the one who buried his in the ground.
The consensus interpretation of that passage, going back to the early Church, is the obvious one. Don’t squander God’s precious gifts — either natural or supernatural. Don’t hunker down in fear or selfishness, but put them to use. Employ your natural gifts (intelligence, charm, leadership, generosity) in service of His supernatural message. To do any less shows smallness of soul (pusillanimity). It brands you as a “worthless servant” who belongs in “the outer darkness” where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matt. 25:30)
Indeed, to make the point even more strongly, Jesus asks us to imagine God as a sharp, hard-driving Master, “reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not winnow.” (Matt. 25:24) Now this part is a “hard saying.” Let’s admit that. (At least that’s what the useless servant says of his master. Though he certainly doesn’t act like it! As the master points out, if he’d really believed that, he would have invested the money.)
Jesus Condemning the Father?
Does Jesus really mean that His Father is unjust? Clearly not, since God has sown and winnowed everything that is. He’s the source of all existence. There are no fields or crops from some other god that He has confiscated. They don’t exist.
So why invoke that image? This is where humble theological reflection comes in, and bends its knee. We ought to assume that what Christ says is coherent. That He said it out of love for us. Or at the bare minimum, that it doesn’t include any heresies. We ought to pay it at least the same respect we would to lines of Shakespeare, and not try to deconstruct it into nonsense.
A Reverent Reading
In light of that, then, what’s a reverent reading of Jesus’ words? Perhaps He meant to provoke a proper “fear of the Lord.” How easily we tell ourselves that it wouldn’t be “fair” for God to hold us responsible for x, y, or z. We take our modern, squishy, therapeutic notions of justice and project them on to God. Modern Europeans who welcome returning ISIS fighters and put them back on welfare probably ought not to be our models of divine justice.
If Jesus is talking about the Kingdom, then the Master is clearly the Father. But if Father Martin is right, then Jesus is telling us something deeply disturbing. He’s warning us that His Father is “wicked,” bent on “exploitation.” That message would be plainly diabolical, so even Father Martin might agree it’s safe to dismiss it.
So then Jesus is not talking about the Kingdom. He’s just introducing some random, proto-Marxist parable about economic exploitation. He’s wedging it in between one passage where He clearly says “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom” and another where He says “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” Maybe Our Lord had ADHD.
Or maybe Fr. Martin needs to learn a little humility when handling holy things, like the Word of God. As it is, he reminds me of a high school religion teacher I once had. He told me, smirking: “Jesus didn’t have a degree in theology. I do.”