Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
November 13, 2005
Prov 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1Thess5:1-6; Mt 25:14-30
1) 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 avoid the fourth. This Sunday is no exception. In the second reading, St. Paul tells us, as he told the Thessalonians, that “the day of the Lord” — our death or the end of the world, which 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. If she’s already around 37-42 weeks, she knows that they may be imminent, but she also knows that they can come prematurely, too. Many women, therefore, prepare a bag of necessary items for the hospital early and prudently never wander too far from a hospital. So it is with death. St. Paul’s advice is always to stay awake, alert, so that it will never take us by surprise. “Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake 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 have ready so as not to be caught off-guard when the labor pains for eternal life begin?
2) In the Gospel, Jesus answers that question and tells us what we need to have in that bag. He gives us a parable principally about how we are to be judged and how we are to prepare for it. But in doing so, as he often does, Jesus tells us as well so much about who we are in God’s eyes, where we fit into His plans, and how we should live. The entire history of the world and the vocation of each of us is found in this short story.
3) In the parable we first encounter God. He is the one who has such confidence in us that he has entrusted “his property,” the entire world to us. We see this at the beginning of the Bible, when he told Adam and Eve “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:28 ). He gave us custody over the great gift of human life, of which we were made procreators. He told us to “subdue the earth” as so many of us have, getting energy out of coal, oil, gas, and atoms, making glass and computer chips out of sand, engines out of iron and steel and so much more. He told us to “have dominion” over all living animals, and we have, domesticating many as companions, taking advantage of the gifts of others for transportation and farming, and even using others, as we have “the earth,” for food. But that was just, literally, “the beginning.” God also entrusted us with far greater gifts. Before the God-man, Jesus Christ, went on “the journey” of his Ascension, he summoned his servants the disciples, and, full of confidence in them, “entrusted his property to them.” He gave the Church all the means of salvation, his saving Gospel, his sacred body and blood, the power to forgive sins, the commission to make children of God through baptism, his great commandment to love others as he has loved us, and so much more.
4) That brings us to how God distributed his property, both the gifts of creation and the gifts of salvation.
a. We see first that he gave to everyone “according to his ability.” To one he gave five talents, to another two, to a third, one. We see here that God gives everyone what he knows he or she can handle. Many have asked why God doesn’t just give everyone the same, why he seems to play favorites. The simple answer 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.
b. The second thing we see relative to God’s distribution of his gifts is that he gives to each person lavishly. The people of Jesus’ own day would have recognized this truth from the parable immediately, because they understood what a “talent” indicated. They knew that even the person who received one talent had been gifted with an enormous sum. A talent was 6,000 days wages. If a person worked six days a week, this meant it was the equivalent of 20 years worth of work. In modern terms, for a person who makes $25,000 a year, one talent would mean the equivalent of $500,000 to invest. Sure, it wasn’t as much as the one given $2.5 million, but it was a hefty sum nonetheless and a real sign of great trust. With us, we may always find someone who has been gifted more than we are, but the simple fact is that we have all received an incredible fortune from God that he wants us to put to good use. 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. God has given so many young married couples the gift of fertility and the privilege to cooperate with him in the blessing of new life. He has given us the awesome inheritance of baptism, the opportunity to frequent the sacraments, and so much more. We might not be as smart as Einstein, or as brave as many of our veterans, 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. All of us have been given huge sums by God.
5) That brings us to the third part of the parable: What God wants us to do with the gifts he’s given lavishly to each of us. In the Gospel story, there were two different reactions, one that Jesus clearly wants us to imitate and another that he wants us to avoid:
a. The Lord calls us to emulate the first two servants, who used their talents to make a profit. They invested them. With the same enthusiasm and savvy with which a person 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.
b. 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.”
6) The crucial application that the Lord wants us to make today is to determine, from his perspective, whether we’re like the first two servants or like the third. The question is: What have we done with the talents that God has given us? If he were to come right now and call us to account, what would he say? What would we be able to give him? 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 really buried all of his gifts? The question is whether 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 whether we have feared his judgment and done nothing. 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. 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 God has given them a huge sum of gifts to use for his service and calls them to invest them.
7) Last weekend was a wonderful illustration of what the Lord is talking about with regard to putting the gifts he’s given us to good use. I was amazed, in walking through our parish bazaar, at the multiplicity of talents he has given to the people in this parish and how they were putting them to use to make this parish stronger. Many of our women are so talented in sewing and knitting and produced such quality goods. Many others are gifted in the kitchen and worked with Msgr. Levesque to feed the multitudes. Others used their friendliness and smiles to welcome people, their extroversion to pitch raffle tickets of a thousand sorts, their enjoyment of a jocular-give-and-take to barter in the flea market. Many others, including the kids in the upper grades of our school, used their growing muscles to do so much of the set-up and take down. Whatever they were given — various talents in various degrees — they invested them together and did something beautiful for God.
8 ) But alongside that success, something else was going on that we cannot ignore. Today’s parable doesn’t allow us to duck it. While many of our parishioners were here utilizing the talents God gave them, many others were letting their gifts lie fallow. Out of the thousand plus who come to Mass here each Sunday, only about fifty contributed to the effort last weekend. I raise this point not to imply that every parishioner needs to work at the parish bazaar. The point is that for many of the other activities of the parish — whether teaching CCD, working the food pantry, helping out at Sunday Masses, maintaining our parish plant, or raising money so that we can continue to do the good works that Christ calls us to do — the same small group of people seems to be the only ones involved. In some areas, they have five talents; in other areas, one, but only a small percentage of parishioners seem to be investing their gifts as God wants them to do for the sake of his kingdom. For this parish to be stronger, for it to grow, for it to become what God wants it to be — and each of us, in our deepest hearts, wants it to be — ALL OF US need to become like the first two servants in today’s parable. ALL OF US need to put those gifts God has given us — our various talents, our time, and yes, even our money — to take a risk for Christ and make this parish maximally pleasing to him.
9) I never cease in telling the story of the building of this stunningly beautiful Church. The first pastor, a 34 year-old French-Canadian priest named Fr. Hormisdas Deslauriers, kept telling the poor, hardworking people of this neighborhood that none of the churches in New Bedford were beautiful enough yet for God. He imparted to them a vision of what was possible if they put all of their gifts together. They trusted him. They made great financial sacrifices. Many of the artisans would come here after a long day of work to put in extra hours excavating the foundation, building the scaffolding, erecting the walls, putting in the plumbing and electricity and so many other tasks. Eventually, through all of their efforts, this munificent and glorious temple was built to God’s glory. It would never have happened unless they all pitched in. As churches go, God has given us one worth TEN talents, but, of course, to whom more is given, more is to be expected, in terms of maintenance, costs, and also in terms of discipleship. Almost 110 years after Fr. Deslauriers, another mid-30s French-Canadian priest is here among you saying that no parish in this city, built out of “living stones,” is yet beautiful enough for God. He’s hoping to inspire you to share that vision, to put in your time, your money, all the talents God has given you, to make this parish community — built not out of marble and wood, bricks and glass, but of men and women, boys and girls — even more beautiful than the Church we worship in.
10) For that to happen, we all have to pitch in, just like our ancestors. The Lord has given us individually so much. The Lord has given us collectively as a community of faith so much more. 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 indeed, because of the beauty of this Church, even beyond it. With the parable today he is asking all of us, especially those of us who “are asleep” and have been allowing the gifts God has given them to go unutilized, to start to act like the good and trustworthy servants in today’s Gospel. This starts by being grateful for the gifts and the trust the Lord has given, and desiring not to let them go to waste. Then it involves taking calculated risks, and making sacrifices, to help the talents he’s given to us grow. It means investing the Master’s talents so that the future of this parish will be even more glorious than its past. If we do so, if we inspire each other in this way, then there’s no reason for us to fear death as a “thief in the night” or to fear judgment; for when the Lord returns he will be able to say to each and all of us in this parish the world 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 the joy of your master.”