The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’ve often heard stories of those who grew up in the great depression.  Many years later, they still had deeply engrained in them the scrupulous care for everything they have that was etched into their very being during that horrible time in our history.  They spent a lifetime wasting nothing, even hoarding things.  They would eat leftovers well past their freshness dates.  It was just their response to having nothing, completely understandable.

And that’s the lens through which I think we need to see this week’s Gospel parable.  Here Jesus presents the often quoted story of a rich man entrusting his slaves with a great deal of wealth before he sets off on a long journey.  The word “talents” here does not mean what we mean when we use that word: here we are not talking about gifts or abilities, but rather money, and a large sum of money at that.  Scholars suggest that a talent was equal to something like one thousand days’ wages, or what a poor person could have lived on for fifteen or twenty years.  So think about it, even the servant who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years!  That’s a lot of money for anyone.

So who is it, then, that is receiving such a magnanimous gift?  On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  But that’s not what it says.  It says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers.  And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!

And we know the story.  Two of them take what they have and very successfully invest it and when the master returns, are able to hand over the original sum with one hundred per cent interest.  Very impressive!  But the slave who received just a “little” (even though it was certainly still a lot of money), out of fear buries it in the ground and gives it back to the master untouched, with nothing to show for it.  It’s much like a person having gone through something like the great depression placing money under a mattress rather than trust the banks, which they saw fail miserably in their lifetimes.

It’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s see where we can go.  We’ve established that the gift they are receiving – even the slave who received little – is worth an incredible amount of money, especially to a slave who would never have the opportunity to see such wealth if not for the trust the master has placed in them.  So let’s be clear that this parable is not about us using our gifts properly; it’s about we slaves receiving something very great, some inestimable wealth.  What could that possibly be?  Well, of course, it’s God’s love, grace, and favor, which is undeservedly ours and given to us without merit.

So just for background, this is yet another indictment of the Pharisees and religious establishment of the time.  They were the ones who, because Christ was not yet present in the world, received just one talent.  But it was still a huge sum of grace!  Yet, their practice was to protect it so scrupulously by attending to the minutiae of the 613 laws of the Torah, that they missed the opportunity to really invest God’s love in the world and grow the faith to full stature.

So we can’t be like that.  We can’t have the faith taken away from us and be tossed out to wail and grind our teeth.  We have to take the faith we’ve been given, the grace we have received in baptism, and invest it mightily in the world, without fear, so that everyone will come to know the Lord and we would all go on to be put in charge of greater things, in the kingdom of heaven.  That is our vocation in the world, brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have to get that right.  We can’t cower in fear, or think our faith is too little, or we don’t know enough.  That was the cardinal sin for Matthew in his Gospel.  We have to be bold disciples and make sure that Christ is known everywhere we go, everywhere life takes us.  That is the only acceptable response to God’s love.

[[ Today we welcome our candidates for full Communion with the Church.  They have all been baptized in other Christian communities, and have come to us to become Catholic.  They have already been meeting with our RCIA program to grow in their knowledge of the faith and experience of God’s presence in their lives.  Welcoming them today, we have marked them with the sign of the Cross, helping them to remember the treasure of grace and love that God has already entrusted to them in baptism.  As we invest our faith in them today, we have hope that they will do the same for others, so that many more believers may be found for the kingdom of God.]]

We have come to the second-to-last Sunday of the Church year.  Next week, we will celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe, and then look forward to a new year as we begin the season of Advent.  And so it is important that we take today’s Gospel parable seriously.  We need to spend some time reflecting on how well we have invested God’s grace and love in the world around us.  Have we been good examples to our family and others?  Have we been people of integrity in our workplaces, schools and community?  Have we served those who are in need out of love for Christ?  Have we been zealous to grow in our spiritual lives?  Have we taken time to root sin out of our life, and to receive the grace of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance?  Have we been unafraid to witness to our faith in every situation?

If we can’t answer all these questions affirmatively, we have some new-Church-year’s resolutions to make.  Because, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, brothers and sisters, the alternative is wailing and grinding of teeth.  And forever is a long time to be doing that!  No; God forbid.  Our desire is to hear those wonderful words from our Lord one day: “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.”

Saturday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Gospel readings these past few days have warned of rather dire consequences for those who don’t live the Gospel message.  This section of Matthew’s Gospel spells out the urgency of the call to discipleship and the nearness of the Kingdom of God.  Yesterday, the foolish virgins were left out of the kingdom, with their Lord telling them he did not know them.  Today, those who would bury the talent get cast out of the kingdom, to wail and grind their teeth.  These consequences aren’t imaginary inconveniences.  Think of the pain and anguish that would cause one to wail and grind their teeth; imagine the heartbreak of our Lord telling us that he does not know us.

When some people have been encouraged to take on a new ministry or share their gifts in some way, very often they will say, “Oh, I could never do that.”  Today Jesus says that kind of thinking isn’t kingdom thinking.  What today’s reading tells us is that there is no such thing as a “little gift.”  We are all called and gifted in some unique way, and we must praise God with that gift no matter what the gift is and no matter how insignificant it may seem.  We aren’t just encouraged to use our gifts when it would be nice, but warned that our gifts are essential to the kingdom, and that those who don’t use them aren’t part of that kingdom.

So whether we have a gift that looks like ten talents, or five, or even one, the call is still the same.  No matter how awesome the giver may be, fear of failure can never be an excuse to bury our talent in a hole in the ground.  Every single talent must be reinvested in the kingdom, so that we can come together and bring forth a harvest of justice and peace and life and beauty.  Because, who wants to spend their eternity wailing and grinding their teeth?

Saturday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Gospel readings these past few days have warned of rather dire consequences for those who don’t live the Gospel message.  This section of Matthew’s Gospel spells out the urgency of the call to discipleship and the nearness of the Kingdom of God.  Yesterday, the foolish virgins were left out of the kingdom, with their Lord telling them he did not know them.  Today, those who would bury the talent get cast out of the kingdom, to wail and grind their teeth.  These consequences aren’t imaginary inconveniences.  Think of the pain and anguish that would cause one to wail and grind their teeth; imagine the heartbreak of our Lord telling us that he does not know us.

When some people have been encouraged to take on a new ministry or share their gifts in some way, very often they will say, “Oh, I could never do that.”  Today Jesus says that kind of thinking isn’t kingdom thinking.  What today’s reading tells us is that there is no such thing as a “little gift.”  We are all called and gifted in some unique way, and we must praise God with that gift no matter what the gift is and no matter how insignificant it may seem.  We aren’t just encouraged to use our gifts when it would be nice, but warned that our gifts are essential to the kingdom, and that those who don’t use them aren’t part of that kingdom.

So whether we have a gift that looks like ten talents, or five, or even one, the call is still the same.  No matter how awesome the giver may be, fear of failure can never be an excuse to bury our talent in a hole in the ground.  Every single talent must be reinvested in the kingdom, so that we can come together and bring forth a harvest of justice and peace and life and beauty.  Because, who wants to spend their eternity wailing and grinding their teeth?

Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The rather obvious and certainly oft-repeated application of today’s Gospel reading lies in the very literal interpretation of the word “talent.”  So we have been given many talents, and it’s up to us to use them wisely for the benefit of the kingdom of God.  Woe to the one who ignores his gifts and buries them out of fear.  And that’s a wonderful message.  I could go there.  But it’s wrong – that’s not what Jesus meant, and I think we have to dig just a little bit deeper.

The word we have translated “talent” here does not mean what we think it means.  When our English ears hear that word, we think gifts, we think of abilities, of things we can do.  But that’s not what it means in the original Greek.  “Talent” here does not mean gifts, a talent was a unit of money.  It was actually rather a large sum of money, equal to something like one thousand days’ wages.  So think about it, even the man who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years!  That’s a lot of money for anyone.

The next thing we have to look at is who it was that was receiving such a large sum of cash.  On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  But that’s not what it says.  It says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers.  And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!

If we think of the master as God, and accept the talents simply as money, I think God comes off sounding rather harsh.  The poor servants differed in their ability; that’s pointed out in the story and certainly the master would have known that.  So why would God be so horribly harsh when a simple slave with limited giftedness does nothing with his gifts?  It makes us bristle, I think, to imagine God treating someone like that so poorly.  And maybe that’s as it should be.  Because I think our bristling tells us that we still have to dig deeper into this very interesting parable.

So I think this raises a few questions for us.  Who is the master?  What do the talents represent?  Why would the master entrust such a large sum of money to common slaves?  Who are the slaves?  And what on earth was that third slave thinking when he buried such a wonderful gift in the sand?

Well, first off, I do think the master is God here – God the Father.  Now the talents, they’re not abilities or gifts, and they aren’t simply money.  And I think it’s our first reading that gives us a clue as to what’s really at stake here.  That first reading speaks of the worthy wife whose value is far beyond that of fine pearls.  So this first reading is teaching us to value not someTHING, but someONE.  What, or rather who, could be that valuable?  And I think the answer here is that it’s Christ himself.  Those talents represent Christ, the Gospel he proclaimed, and the Kingdom he came to make manifest.  The Gospel says the Master called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.  What we have translated “entrusted” here means, in the original Greek, something more like “handed over.”  In just the same way, God the Father “handed over” his only Son to us, for the salvation of the whole world.  What could possibly be worth more than that?

Now the slaves of course are the disciples, they’re you and me, people of every time and place who Christ has come to save.  We are slaves to sin, and we need a redeemer.  Some are more open to redemption and to the work of Christ and the call of the Gospel.  They might get five talents or ten, or maybe even a million – the riches of Christ can never be exhausted!  These go forth into the world, pouring out those riches of Christ into a world that desperately needs salvation, healing and hope.  As that message goes forth, proclaimed and lived by disciples ready to embrace it, they are able to earn five more, or ten more, or even a million for the kingdom.

But some are not as open to Christ’s life and work and Gospel.  There’s too much at stake.  They worry about what might happen if our world totally embraced Jesus’ teaching.  They can’t get past what discipleship might personally cost them.  They are represented, of course, by Judas, the apostle who was so overwhelmed by Jesus that he gave in to despair.  And in Matthew’s Gospel, this is the cardinal sin, because in at least a dozen places, Jesus says “do not be afraid” in one form or another.  That was Jesus’ message in Matthew’s Gospel, and so this third servant, who was afraid of what the Master might be like, buried his treasure out of fear.  And the parable points out that that fear wasn’t even reasonable, since he dealt so wonderfully with the other two servants, rewarding their work by calling them to share in his joy.

So today’s Gospel is a summary of the whole Gospel of Matthew that we’ve been reading with the Church this year.  We are told that the greatest gift is Christ, that we are called to live the Gospel, that we must take up the task before us without being afraid, that we are called to go out and invest Christ’s presence into a world that always needs to be renewed.  As we come here on this second-to-last Sunday of the Church year, we are brought to a summary of all that in order that we might look back and see how we’ve done that this year.  Have we treasured Christ as the greatest of all that we have been given?  Have we taken on the mission without being afraid, knowing that the gift we have been given in Christ can make up for anything that we ourselves may lack?  Have we accepted that wonderful gift and invested it in the world, proclaiming the Gospel by the way that we live, challenging the corner of the world we live in to take it up also, so that we might bring back another five or ten or a million talents?

Or have we been afraid, thinking that the Master is demanding beyond reason, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of what living the Gospel would mean for us, afraid of what it might cost us?  Because if we have lived this way, we have failed the mission.  Everything we have will be taken from us.  There will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

Here at the end of this Church year, we can renew our commitment, make a new year’s resolution, if you will, to live the Gospel and proclaim the kingdom in the year ahead.  It doesn’t have to be huge.  It doesn’t cost us anything, because everything that we need has been given to us.  Maybe proclaiming the Gospel means doing some kind of service for us.  Reaching out at a homeless shelter like Hesed House or at a soup kitchen or Loaves and Fishes.  Maybe it means leading a small Christian Community so others will hear the Gospel.  Maybe we’ll help teach a religious education class, or sing in the choir, or become a lector.  Maybe we’ll make an effort every day to put prayer in the course of our work day, and try to be people of integrity in our business lives.  On this Donor Sabbath Sunday, maybe we’ll register for organ donation so that lives will be saved even after we’ve gone home to our reward.  Maybe we’ll read the Scriptures each day before we go to bed, even just a few verses, so that the Lord can change our lives and hearts.  Throughout this Church year, we have received the greatest gift we’ll ever get – Jesus Christ the Lord himself.  Now it is up to us to bring back the gift with interest, taking a world of watching people with us. The Psalmist sings of our reward today: “For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork; blessed shall you be, and favored.”  Come, share your Master’s joy!

Labor Day

Today’s readings: Genesis 1:26-31; Genesis 2:1-3; Psalm 90; Matthew 25:14-30

“Well done, good and faithful servant. Come share in your Master’s joy.” These are the words that we all want to hear one day, on that great day, the judgment day, when God gathers us all in to bring us to the reward for which he created us. This parable is Biblical evidence that just accepting the faith and having a relationship with Jesus aren’t enough for salvation. We have to work with God, using the talents he has given us, to help God create that “kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace” (Mass for Christ the King).

And so, like the man who received one talent, we cannot go hiding our talents away hoping that our Lord will ignore our fear and poor self-image. We have to be willing to invest our talents in the work of creation, doubling what we have been given, and bringing it back to the Lord.

So many people say, when they are asked to do some special project or take a place on a ministry “Oh, I could never do that. That’s for people with way more talent than I have.” I have two things to say about that. First, they might be right. Maybe they don’t have the ability, all by themselves, to do what God is calling them to do. But God never said they had to do it by themselves, did he? God can provide infinitely what we lack. Second, this kind of false humility isn’t praiseworthy. It is almost like spitting your talent out of your mouth, back at God, and saying, “God, what you have created is nothing.” God forbid that we should ever say that to the one who made us!

And so, on this Labor Day, we are asked to pause in the busy-ness of life and look at what God has created, and the talents he has given us. The Church teaches that our work is to be an active participation in God’s ongoing work of creation. Our work must build up the world in beauty and splendor, carefully using but protecting the rich gifts of the earth, caring for and loving the poor as God himself loves them, and making the world a better place than we found it. That is the nature of the talents with which we have been entrusted, and we must busy ourselves making good use of them, because we don’t know when our Lord will return in glory to gather everything and everyone back to himself.

Today we are commanded to “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” We take up that call anew on this Labor Day, praising God for the goodness of creation and the blessing of our talents, and resolving to use all of that for his greater honor and glory. The Prayer after Communion sums up what we ask for on this day: “By doing the work you have entrusted to us, may we sustain our life on earth and build up your kingdom in faith.” Amen!