Friday, November 17, 2017

Lectio brevior and the Parable of the Talents

The General Introduction to the Lectionary (GIL) has this to say about lectio brevior, or short forms of readings:
In the case of certain rather long texts, longer and shorter versions are provided to suit different situations. The editing of the shorter version has been carried out with great caution. (GIL 75)
This would seem to imply that short forms of readings are a rarity in the reformed lectionary, as there are not that many “rather long texts”. The Gospel readings for the 3rd, 4th and 5th Sundays of Lent in Year A spring to mind, as do the Passion narratives for each year in the Sunday cycle on Palm Sunday. [1] To take the Gospel reading on the 3rd Sunday of Lent in Year A as an example (Jn. 4:5-42), the short form of the reading (Jn. 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42) does preserve the main elements of the narrative.

However, across the three-year cycle, there are a total of 49 occasions where at least one short form of a reading exists. [2] In general, between 20-28% of Masses on Sundays and Solemnities in any given liturgical year will have optional short forms. (The range exists primarily because certain Sundays year to year will be supplanted by Trinity Sunday, Pentecost, etc.). On the majority of these occasions (over two-thirds), it is the Gospel reading that can be shortened, and the rest of the time it is nearly always the second reading from the NT; outside of the Easter Vigil, there is only one short form of a first OT reading (3rd Sunday of Lent [B]).

Given what the GIL says, this figure is a lot more than one would expect, and is not consistent with the magna cautela (“great caution”) claimed by the GIL. Indeed, it is true to say that in the case of certain rather short readings, even shorter forms are provided. The Gospel for the 17th Sunday per annum in Year A (Mt. 13:44-52) is not exactly long, yet a shorter form (vv. 44-46) is provided by the reformed lectionary! And, on occasion, the shortening of the reading has compromised the pericope to such an extent that one wonders how on earth the short form wasn’t eliminated by the 1981 second typical edition of the lectionary, let alone nearly 50 years later.

At the time of writing, one such occasion is coming up this Sunday, the 33rd per annum in Year A. The Gospel reading is the Parable of the Talents (Mt. 25:14-30). It is a little longer than average, but the first and second readings are fairly short, and the Parable itself surely couldn’t be shortened without doing damage to it. Could it? Well, inexplicably there is an optional short form (Mt. 25:14-15, 19-21). Here is the pericope, with the verses that can be omitted in bold:
At that time: Jesus spoke this parable to his disciples: “A man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” (RSV2CE)
The above ought to speak for itself, but I will point out a couple of things.

First, whereas other short forms of the Gospel readings in Year A omit other parables, or the explanation of parables, [3] this short form omits large parts of the parable itself. We have previously seen this happen a few weeks ago, on the 28th Sunday per annum (A), where the end of the Parable of the Marriage Feast can be omitted, but not quite to this extent. If the short form of the Parable of the Talents is used, the parable itself barely makes any sense! It is emptied of a huge portion of its meaning, and the violence done to this text in its short form is almost without precedent in the reformed lectionary. [4]

Secondly, thanks to the generosity of Blackfriars Library in Oxford, UK, and Rev Fr Luke Melcher at the ICEL Secretariat in Washington, DC, I have been able to establish that there was no short form of this Gospel pericope on this Sunday in any of the Consilium’s draft lectionaries before the final version submitted to Pope Paul VI in May 1969. Indeed, if one compares Group XI’s 1967 draft Ordo lectionum pro dominicis, feriis, et festis sanctorum [5] with the promulgated 1969 Ordo lectionum Missae, there are far fewer short forms in the draft: in tempus per annum, for example, there is only one short form, on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost in Year A (Mt. 15:1, 7-20 à 15:1, 7-11, 15-20). Something happened between 1967 and 1969 that resulted in an immense multiplication of optional short forms. I would submit that, if there is to be a third edition of the Ordo lectionum Missae in the future, any rationale for these lectiones breviores needs to be examined in detail, and preferably eliminated in line with the desire of the Council Fathers for the “treasures of the Bible to be opened up more lavishly” to the faithful (SC 51).

* * * * *

I end with a plea to Bishops and Priests celebrating Ordinary Form Masses this weekend. Fathers, please ensure the long form of this Gospel is read! Do not rob the faithful of the words and teaching of Our Lord in order to save barely a minute of time! There can “be no justification for depriving the faithful of the spiritual riches of certain texts on the grounds of difficulty if its source is the inadequacy either of the religious education that every Christian should have or of the biblical formation that every pastor should have” (GIL 76).

* * * * *


[1] Please note that, for the purposes of this article, whether such shorter forms (particularly for the Passion narratives) should exist in the first place for these “rather long texts” is an entirely separate question.

[2] This figure counts the Easter Vigil, the Vigil of Christmas, Christmas Day (Mass during the Day), 2nd Sunday after Christmas, and Palm Sunday three times (as they will occur each year); the days that have more than one optional short form (Easter Vigil, 19th Sunday per annum [B]) are counted only once. The two occasions (Holy Family [ABC], 2nd reading; 21st Sunday per annum [B], 2nd reading) where short forms of readings exist in the English language lectionaries but not in the 1981 Latin editio typica altera are not counted here.

[3] E.g. 16th Sunday per annum (Mt. 13:24-43 à 13:24-30); 17th Sunday per annum (Mt. 13:44-52 à Mt. 13:44-46).

[4] However, the short forms of the Gospel reading for the feast of the Holy Family in Year B (Lk. 2:22-40 à 2:39-40) and the second reading for the 3rd Sunday per annum in Year C (1 Cor. 12:12-30 à 12:12-14, 27) are other examples of highly egregious short forms.

[5] Schemata 233 (De Missali 39). This was published pro manuscripto and a copy sent for consultation to each Bishops’ Conference, every participant in the first Synod of Bishops (1967) and around 800 periti nominated by the conferences of Bishops: cf. A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), pp. 419-420. Bugnini mentions that 460 responses were received.

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