Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
November 16, 2008
Prov 31:10-13.19-20.30-31, Ps 128, 1 Thess 5:1-6, Mt 25:14-30
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
Prepared for the Last Things as Children of the Light
As we talked about two weeks ago on All Souls Day, every November, the Church has us focus our attention on the four last things — death, judgment, heaven and hell — so that we might be always prepared for the first two, enter into the third and totally avoid the fourth. This Sunday is no exception. In the second reading, St. Paul tells us, as he told the Christians in Thessalonika, that “the day of the Lord” — the day of our death or the end of the world, whichever comes first — “will come like a thief in the night … as labor pains upon a pregnant woman.” An expectant mother never knows for sure when contractions will start. Many women —like the worthy wives praised by the Book of Proverbs in today’s first reading — prepare a bag of necessary items for the hospital early in pregnancy in case the contractions come prematurely so that they’re ready to go to the hospital on a minute’s notice. St. Paul says we need to prepare in the same way for the contractions on the other side of life on this earth, which is death. Death can come when we least expect it. It could come for some or all of us as fast as today. This reality will scare some people, because they know that they wouldn’t be ready, much like students who don’t study regularly fear flunking a pop quiz. But St. Paul calls the Thessalonians and us not to be afraid by telling us what we need to do. “You, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness for that day to overtake you like a thief.” We know it’s coming. Therefore he tells us, “You are all children of light and children of the day… So let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” He tells us always to have what we need ready, so that we might go with joy to the Father’s house. The question for us is: What do we need to do to be ready, what do we have to have in our “go bag” so as not to be caught off-guard when the labor pains for eternal life begin?
In the Gospel, Jesus answers that question and tells us what we need to have in that travel sack. He gives us a parable about how we are to be judged and how we are to prepare for judgment describing two people who lived in the light, who were awake and alert, who were sober and responsible, and one person who was in the darkness of fear, laziness, irresponsibility and waste.
Misconceptions about the Parable of the Talents
We know this parable well, but often times we don’t process its true or full meaning because of various popular misinterpretations coming from some of the language used as well as from some of our cultural formation. I’d like to begin by tackling these misconceptions about the parable, to get them out of the way, before turning to the moral that Jesus is telling us in the parable.
The first misconception is that the whole parable seems unfair. Why did God not give to everyone equally? Jesus in the parable says that the Master gave to everyone “according to his ability,” but we can ask why didn’t God just give to everyone the same ability instead of giving one five talents, another two, and the third one? The simple answer, which many of the early saints noted, is that if God did give everyone the same, there would be no real reason why we would have to share the gifts he’s given us with others. The very fact that he has endowed some people with more in one respect than others is so that they can have the opportunity to use that gift for the betterment of others. It’s an opportunity for them to grow in love.
The second reason why people say the parable is unfair comes at the end, when Jesus says, “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.” These words make it seem like God wishes to increase the divide between what the politicians call the “haves” and the “have nots.” But here he’s not giving us an economic program, but teaching us a reality about what happens in the use of our gifts. If a body-builder stops working out and controlling his diet, his muscles will eventually grow flabby and his body fat skyrocket. If a student gifted with languages stops practicing them, her ability to speak those idioms will diminish or disappear. It’s the same thing with all our talents. We either use them or we lose them. Rather than unjust, this is totally fair: if we’ve been given gifts, God wants us to use them for him and others. If we don’t, it’s right that we lose them.
The third misconception comes from paying to much attention to the numbers “five” or “two” or “one.” We can think that the one with one talent shouldn’t really be faulted, because he didn’t have that much. The one with five, after all, could afford to lose two or three of them and still have some resources with which to trade, but if the one with one talent lost it, we can think, he would be totally bankrupt. It seems like an unfair test. But we shouldn’t be focusing so much on the five, two and the one, but on the word “talent,” both what it meant in the ancient world and the type of application Jesus is asking us to make of it today. In the ancient world a talent was a weight of measurement (about 75 pounds) that in silver was equivalent to 6,000 denarii or full days’ wages. That meant that in the ancient world — where one worked six days a week, took the Sabbath off, and didn’t really have any annual vacation — 6,000 denarii was equivalent to more than 19 years worth of work. If someone today was making $30,000 a year, one talent of silver was therefore worth $575,000. The one with five talents was given in today’s money the equivalent of $2.88 million, the one with two talents $1.15 million and the one with one talent nearly $600,000. Each was therefore given a huge amount to invest. Likewise, each of us has been given lavish gifts by the Lord, which we’re called to use for his service. The gift of life is just a beginning. God has also given almost all of us pretty good health — eyes that see, ears that hear, brains that reason, limbs that function. God has also given us a good education and allowed us to live in a free country, where we can enjoy the fruits of our labor. We might not be as smart as Einstein, or as brave as many of our Navy Seals, or as holy as Blessed Mother Teresa, but he has given us all so very much. None of us is a pauper in the endowment category.
Responsibility and Accountability
With those misconceptions out of the way, we can now get to the heart of the parable. Jesus uses this story to highlight two things to help us to live as children of the light, two things to help us to take our lives seriously as Christians, two behaviors that make us good and faithful servants. The first is responsibility. God has entrusted us with great gifts, but we have the responsibility to invest them to help make God’s kingdom grow. The second is accountability. Each of us will have to render an account of how we’ve used the gifts that God’s given us. This goes for all our talents or gifts: our singing, artistic or athletic ability; our intelligence and our work skills; our money and material resources; our health, our family, our life. We’re called to use, not bury, those talents and to employ them not selfishly but for the Master, for God, for building up his kingdom. And the fact that the one who had received five talents earned another five and the one with two talents returned another two shows us that we’re basically to give one-hundred percent back on the talents we’ve been given. And when we seek to give it all back, Jesus promises that we will open ourselves up to receive so many more blessings, for “to those that have, even more will be given and they will become rich.”
The talents that God has given us, however, are far greater than the ones I’ve just enumerated. It’s important for us to ponder what’s the greatest talent that God has given us. The greatest talent is God Himself: he’s given us the ability to talk to him in prayer and receive from him guidance in all the stages of our life; he’s blessed us with the sacraments, in which we encounter him live as he works on us in the most powerful ways imaginable; he’s given us his own Word in the Bible, where he speaks to us through the writings of the Sacred authors; and he’s given us the Church, especially the teachings of the magisterium, the example and intercession of the saints and the crucial importance of a community of believers. God has given us these gifts but he wants us to profit from them, not to bury them or waste them.
Jesus wants to help us examine today how responsible we’ve been up until now for these gifts. Have we invested these talents to build up his kingdom? If he were to come today, would we be able to show him dividends from all the years we’ve been able to pray, all the years we’ve been able to receive his mercy in the Sacrament of Penance and his body and body in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, all the wisdom that we’ve been privileged to have at our fingertips in the Bible, all the assistance we have in the teaching and communion of the Church. What type of a difference have these talents made in our lives and what type of difference have these talents in us made in the lives of others?
Reactions to the Investment God makes in us
In the parable, there were two different reactions to having received great fortunes to invest, one that Jesus clearly wants us to imitate and another that he wants us to avoid. The Lord wants us to emulate the first two servants, who used their talents to make a profit. They invested them “immediately.” With the same enthusiasm and savvy with which a stock broker on Wall Street tries to make money grow, God wants us to invest the talents he has given us so that we might make a fitting return to him whenever he comes to check our accounts. The first two servants, like most entrepreneurs, were risk-takers, capable of making calculated gamble, to achieve a high yield. They were not afraid, because they knew that the proprietor trusted them enough to give these responsibilities to them, and they desired to respond as good stewards would. They wanted to make the master proud. In increasing his fortune, they knew they would be increasing theirs.
The third person in the parable, on the other hand, had none of these qualities. Rather than being industrious, the master calls him “lazy.” Rather than being “good and trustworthy,” he was deemed “worthless.” Rather than looking at the master as “generous,” he looked at him as “harsh.” Instead of taking a risk due to the Master’s trust, he says he was “afraid.” Rather than trying to imitate the Master, who “reaped where he did not sow” and “gathered where he did not scatter,” he simply “buried the talent” and presented it back to him when he came. And rather than “enter into the joy of [his] Master,” he was thrown out into the “outer darkness” where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” a description of Hell.
The Difference between Investors and Non-Investors
The Lord wants to help us today to determine, from his perspective, whether we’re more like the first two servants or more like the third. If he were to come as a thief in the night right now and call us to account, would he praise us for having used the gifts he has given us to build up his kingdom, to make his world a much better place, to spread his salvific joy to others, or would we recognize in his presence that we’ve for the most part buried and wasted all of his gifts? Have we have responded to the incredible trust the Lord has shown us in his lavish blessings as a motivation to do good works to the glory of our heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:16), or feared his judgment and done nothing?
We must ponder these questions because the fact is that there are many Christians who, out of fear or a false sense of humility, bury their gifts “under a bushel basket” (Mt 5:15-16). They never take a risk. They strive not to “lose the state of grace,” not to commit any mortal sins, not to set bad example. They never grow, however, because the only way one grows in faith, hope and love is through acts of faith, hope and love (with the help of God’s grace). Rather than make the world a better place, their goal is simply not to harm it or to leave it as they found it. They think there’s very little they can do to help build up God’s kingdom through the Church, so they deem themselves “worthless” and as a result do nothing. But these are all temptations of the devil to which they’ve succumb. If that’s been our attitude up until now, God wants us to begin to make up for lost time and start to trade on the talents he’s given us for our good, for others’ good and for his glory.
Just about a year ago, I passed out Matthew Kelly’s great book The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, which was a very straightforward presentation of the difference between Catholics who are awake and alert versus those who are sleep-walking, those who are investing the gifts God has given and those who are doing very little with them. Matthew also gives in that book a very doable “investment plan” for us to grow in faith so that we’re ready to give the Lord something back when he at last comes. His research of parishes all across the United States showed that a very small percentage of Catholics were good and faithful stewards of God’s gifts, really using their talents to build up God’s kingdom. The vast majority of people were burying or barely using their divine talents. His research showed that 6.4 percent of registered parishioners contributed 80 percent of the volunteer hours, that 6.8 percent of registered parishioners donated 80 percent of financial contributions, and that there was an 84 percent overlap between the two groups. That meant that for the most part, only 7 percent of parishioners were giving 80 percent of the time and treasure of a parish and 93 percent were giving less than 20. To use the terms of Jesus’ parable today, only 7 percent were living in such a way in which Jesus would be able to say, “Well, done, Good and Faithful Servant,” whereas 93 percent were lazy and irresponsible with these gifts. Matthew started to imagine what the Church would be like, what every parish would be like, if even just the percentage of the good and faithful servants grew by one percentage point. Parishes would be 14 percent more vital. If the percentage of dedicated parishioners doubled, then everything would double. If only a third of registered parishioners became good and faithful investors of God’s gifts, everything in the parish would quintuple.
Matt began to examine what made the 7 percent different than the 93 percent. They were both Catholics who received formation in the faith. They were both Catholics who came to Mass. But their response to the faith was totally different. As he did his analysis, he recognized that there were 264 behaviors that distinguished the 7 percent from the 93. He eventually sifted through all the data to see that those 264 traits fell into four distinct habits. We can call these the habits of the good and faithful investors: the seven percent have a daily commitment to prayer; the seven percent are continuous learners; the seven percent are truly generous with their time, talents, money and their whole life; and the seven percent invite others to grow spiritually by sharing the love of God with them. He encouraged all those who are not in the seven percent to learn from them and grow incrementally in each of these four areas.
Preparing for the Lord’s Review
In this parish, our statistics are better than the average. Here whenever there’s an investment opportunity in the faith, 120 people sign up, which is far more than 7 percent. When we began perpetual adoration, 120 signed up. When we started various adult education opportunities, from a parish mission, to Alpha, to Bible studies, we have had 120 come. When we’ve hosted parish community dinners to build up community and fraternity, like the Parish Harvest Meat Pie Dinner this afternoon, we’ve had 120 come and bring family members. Basically no matter what is being offered, we’ve had 120 investing these talents to grow in the life of faith. And they’re bearing dividends in the way many of them have been coming alive and growing in faith. As they prepare for their judgment, I’m very confident that the Lord will praise them for their response for being faithful in these little things.
On the other hand, even though those not in the 120 are fewer than 93 percent of parishioners, they’re still the majority. And I have to tell you I do worry about them if the Lord were to come for them today or, if they don’t change, if the Lord comes for them in the future. Rather than immediately seeking to bear dividends on the talents that the Lord has put into their lap, they seem to ignore or bury them. The Lord comes to spend time with us — what a gift that is! — in adoration, but these people never make the time to respond. Adoration takes place 24 hours a day, but they can’t find even a half-hour at any time in the day to come to be with him. I wonder if they’re really praying much on their own. When the Lord comes for their judgment, will he say to them, “Well done, Good and Faithful Servant?” for the way they’ve spent their time? Will they be ready to go to spend eternity adoring God if they made no investment in adoration here on earth? Likewise, the Lord wants to help them grow in faith through Bible studies, Adult Education and other opportunities, but these people seem never to make the investment. Will the Lord commend them for being faithful in investing the talent of the minds he’s given them, of the time he’s provided, of the wisdom he’s enshrined if they never seem to respond to these graces? Perhaps they think they can learn the Bible better on their own than the experts provided in our parish Bible Study, but I do worry that for those who never come, they may be just at home watching television thinking that the evening news or sitcoms are a better investment of the gift of life God has given them than learning the faith. Finally, the Lord wants to help all of us grow as a family of faith so that we can help and inspire each other on the pilgrimage of life, but the majority of parishioners never make the time to come to any of these dinners. When the Lord comes, will he praise them for thinking everything else was a higher priority than their family of faith or will he lament that they never profited from this great gift that he provided them of companions on the journey?
If you’re not in the camp of the 120, if you’re not regularly taking advantage of the opportunities God has been providing for you to grow in faith together with others, if you’re not really investing these little responsibilities to make a yield capable of presenting to the Lord today, tomorrow and forever, I’m praying that you’ll respond to Jesus’ words today and start to get your priorities straight, seize the moment, and begin to invest this spiritual wealth for a great, eternal fortune. Those who are faithful in little things will be faithful in the biggest things of all, and I’m praying that you’ll respond faithfully and wholeheartedly to these little things.
Not Locking God’s Grace in the Safe
Today Pope Francis spoke to us about the meaning of this parable in his Sunday Angelus meditation. It’s a fitting review of what we’ve prayerfully pondered together about the Lord’s love for us in entrusting to us the gift of salvation and how we’re supposed to respond to that trust. Pope Francis said, “The meaning of this [parable] is very clear. The man of the parable represents Jesus, we are the servants and the talents are the wealth the Lord entrusts to us. What is this wealth? His Word, the Eucharist, faith in the Heavenly Father, His forgiveness, so many things. In short, his most precious goods. This is the wealth that he entrusts to us. Not just to guard it, but to make it grow. … The talents represent the goods of the Lord, which He entrusts to us so that we make them fruitful. The hole dug in the ground by the ‘wicked and lazy servant’ (v.26) shows the fear of risk that blocks the creativity and fruitfulness of love. Jesus does not ask us to preserve His Grace in a safe. … He wants us to use it for the benefit of others and that’s how it grows. It’s as if He tells us: ‘Here is my mercy, my tenderness, my forgiveness: take it and use it.’ And what have we done? Whom have we ‘infected’ with our faith? How many people have we encouraged with our hope? How much love have we shared with our neighbor? They are questions that do us well to ask. Any environment, even the most distant and impractical, can become a place where talents can bear fruit. … This parable urges us to not hide our faith and our belonging to Christ, not to bury the Word of the Gospel, but to make it circulate in our life, in our relationships, in our concrete situations, as a power that undermines, that purifies, that renews. Likewise forgiveness, which the Lord gives us especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: let us not close it in ourselves, but rather let it unleash its power, which breaks down those walls that our selfishness has built up, which makes us take the first steps in relationships that are stuck, to resume dialogue where there is no more communication. Use these talents, these gifts that the Lord has entrusted to us be given to others, so that they grow and bear fruit with our witness. … God trusts us! God has hope in us! And this is the same for everyone. Do not disappoint Him! Do not be fooled by fear, but reciprocate trust with trust!”
Investing the Talents Immediately
The Lord has given us individually so much and the Lord has given us collectively as a community of faith so much more to build up his kingdom. He has done it because he has confidence in us, trusting us with the carrying out of this saving work in this part of his vineyard and even beyond it. Whether up until now we have been faithful in all these matters or asleep, now is the time to respond to God’s grace to begin to invest the treasures he’s given us so as to help him save the world. If we do so, if we inspire each other in this way, then there’s no reason for us ever to fear death as a “thief in the night” or to be terrified of judgment; for when the Lord returns we will be able to present to the Lord the ways that the gifts he’s given us have grown in us and through in in the lives of others and he will be able to say to each the words he created our ears to hear, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into your Master’s joy.” He’ll say those words if we invest what he’s given us. Let’s receive the treasure of his word today and the even greater gift of his Body and Blood and run out immediately like the one who received five talents to invest it, for our salvation and the salvation of the world!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 PRV 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life.
She obtains wool and flax
and works with loving hands.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her fingers ply the spindle.
She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy.
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;
the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her a reward for her labors,
and let her works praise her at the city gates.
Responsorial Psalm PS 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Blessed are you who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R/ Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
Your children like olive plants
around your table.
R/ Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
R/ Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Reading 2 1 THES 5:1-6
you have no need for anything to be written to you.
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come
like a thief at night.
When people are saying, “Peace and security, ”
then sudden disaster comes upon them,
like labor pains upon a pregnant woman,
and they will not escape.But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness,
for that day to overtake you like a thief.
For all of you are children of the light
and children of the day.
We are not of the night or of darkness.
Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
but let us stay alert and sober.
Gospel MT 25:14-30
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“A man 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
bringing 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.'”