The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

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,” at least as it appears in English.  That interpretation goes like this: 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, particularly on the heels of our time, talent and treasure campaign.  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, 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.

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 capabilities does nothing with his gifts?  It makes us bristle, I think, to imagine God treating someone like that so poorly.

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, let’s suppose the master is God here – God the Father.  This isn’t supposed to be a perfect allegory, so let’s just bracket the harshness of the parable. And I think it’s our first reading that gives us a clue as to what’s really going on here.  That first reading speaks of the worthy wife whose value is far beyond that of fine pearls.  What, or rather who, could be that valuable?  Our theology teaches us that the husband in the first reading is Christ, the bridegroom, and the worthy wife is the Church.  So we are the ones called to be worthy, to be industrious, to take care of the poor and to fear the Lord.  Hold on to that thought for a bit.

Now the talents, they’re not abilities or gifts, and they aren’t simply money.  The Gospel parable 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 however many God chooses to give them.  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, to double or even triple what they were given for the sake of 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.  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 this little summary so 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 in which we live 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 or at a soup kitchen or our own food pantry.  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.  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 our hearts.  Throughout this Church year, we have received the greatest gift we’ll ever get – Jesus Christ the Lord himself.  Soon it will be time for 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!

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Time, Talent and Treasure

Today’s readings

Mike was one of my favorite people in the world.  He owned the service station where my family had, and still has, our cars repaired and maintained ever since we first moved out to the suburbs, almost forty years ago now.  Dad used to joke that with all the cars we brought in there over the years, we probably had ownership in at least the driveway by now.  Mike was the kind of guy who, if you brought your car in for a tune-up, would call you and say, “your car doesn’t really need a tune-up yet, so I’ll just change the oil and a couple of the spark plugs and you’ll be fine.”  He was honest and did great work, and it seemed like everyone knew him.  He taught that to a kid who came to work for him when he was just sixteen.  When Mike retired five years or so ago, Ted took over for him and runs the business just the way Mike taught him.

Mike was a regular at the 7am Mass on Sunday, and after his retirement was a pretty regular daily Mass-goer.  The church would sometimes ask him to help a person in need with car repairs.  This he did gladly; he was always ready to serve.  A couple of years ago, when Mike died, I took Mom to his wake.  It took us an hour and a half to get in to see him and his family, and it was like that all night long.  His funeral packed the parish church, and eight of us priests concelebrated the Mass.  Mike left his mark on our community in incredible ways, and nobody ever forgot it.

Today’s gospel reading speaks to us about what may be the hallmark of Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor.  This two-pronged approach to loving is what life is all about for us, it is, in fact, the way we are all called to live the Gospel.  The scholar of the law is testing Jesus to see if he can come up with a way to discredit him.  But Jesus’ answer is one that the scholar can’t take issue with.  There were over six hundred major and minor precepts in the Jewish law, but any scholar worth his salt knew that they all boiled down to love.  In fact, the first of the laws that Jesus quoted, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind and soul…” was once that so many students of the law had memorized, so this was not new ground for them.  What was new was putting the love of neighbor parallel to that law.

Today we begin our parish’s annual time, talent and treasure campaign for the strength of our parish.  This is the time when we parishioners of Notre Dame renew in our minds and in our hearts that love of God and love of neighbor are the first priority in our lives.  God is the One who gives us everything that we have and makes us everything that we are.  It is our special task in this life to use what we have been given and who we are and have become to give honor and glory to God.  Worship and prayer is the way that we come to love God.  Service and generosity are the ways that we show it.  That is the way of stewardship; that is the way of the Christian life.

In a couple of weeks, our Finance Council will give you details about our parish’s financial condition; you can also read about that in this week’s parish bulletin.  So today, I would just like to give some highlights.  We all understand that it takes money to run an organization.  Gifts received through the Sunday collection not only help with the utilities and day-to-day operations of the parish, but they also provide resources to continue to build and strengthen our many parish ministries and programs.

The budget for the fiscal year that will end on June 30, 2012 is $1.46 million.  This is a four percent decrease from the prior fiscal year.  What I hope you take away from this news is the following:  First, we are working hard to be financially sound and making decisions that make the best use of the dollars entrusted to the parish.  Second, we are forced to make cuts in our budget because we had a shortfall last year of about $91,000.  The only way we can fulfill our parish financial needs is with a commitment from everyone.  If we all do our part, we will be successful.

Some ask how much they should give.  The truth is that only you and your family can decide that; it looks different for every household.  I just ask that you prayerfully reflect on the blessings you have received and consider a meaningful increase.  If you have not participated in offertory giving, I ask you to prayerfully consider an investment of the salary you earn during the first hour of your work week.  Some people find that first hour on Monday morning to be challenging and difficult; wouldn’t it be great to have the motivation of offering that time to the Lord in gratitude for your many blessings?  Whatever you decide, I will not be asking you to return a commitment form this year.  We want to make things easier and trust that you will respond with great love.  So I just ask that you simply increase your offering as soon as you are able.

I also ask that all of you: adults, seniors, children, youth and young adults, all of you consider a meaningful contribution of your time and talent.  There are many wonderful ministries in our parish, and all of them would welcome some fresh blood and new energy.  We are in need of people to greet other people as they come in to Mass.  We can always use help with our religious education and youth ministry programs.  We are trying to revitalize our parish council and worship commission, and we could use people who love the Church to be part of those groups.  Our music ministry could always use more voices and instruments to glorify God in song.  If you are a couple who loves your marriage, we could use your passion to mentor engaged couples.  I’d like to start a health care ministry to help people monitor their blood pressure and learn how to take care of themselves, and occasionally look in on a sick parishioner to make sure their needs are being met.  And that’s just to name a few.

Our parish day of service is next Saturday.  This is a wonderful way to try some service with a limited time commitment, especially if you are not sure how God is calling you to serve.  Please stop in the narthex after Mass to sign up for one or more activities, and don’t forget to sign up to come to the dinner after the 5:00 Mass.  Tomorrow/today we’ll also hear from the Invisible Children and learn how we can reach out to those hurting across the globe.  Our love for God and neighbor can make a difference right here in Clarendon Hills and half way around the world.  Love has no limits!

I think that my friend Mike understood quite well why Jesus put love of God and love of neighbor at the top of those six hundred or so Jewish laws.  He knew the joy that came from being connected to a loving God, and made it his top priority to share that love with others any way he could.  Small acts, great faith, awesome generosity.  This is what it takes for the Church to continue to show God’s love to others.  My prayer is that we will all take time to reflect this week on how we can love God and our neighbor by generously returning a portion of our time, talent and treasure that God might be glorified in all things.  Thank you all for all that you do to make our parish as great as it is.  God bless you.

The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

Think about it.  God comes to you in a dream and says that you can have anything you want.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  What would you ask for?  What is the one thing you’d give anything to have?

I think the reason Solomon was even asked that question was because God already knew the answer.  God already knew that what Solomon wanted was something that would be good for Solomon to have.  Solomon asks for a wise and understanding heart so that he could more readily lead the people God had called him to lead.  And so God grants his servant’s request: he gives him so wise and understanding a heart that there was never anyone like Solomon and no one will ever be as wise and wonderful as he was.

Solomon’s answer to God’s question told us what was of most importance to Solomon.  In today’s Gospel, we are asked to answer that same question.  Jesus speaks, as he has been for a few Sunday’s now, of what the kingdom of heaven is like.  A couple of weeks ago, the kingdom was like seed that was scattered and sown.  Some fell on rocks, some among weeds, but some on the good soil that yielded more than anyone had a right to hope for.  The kingdom of God is something like that: the more we nurture and cultivate our life with God, the more we benefit ourselves and others.  Last Sunday, the kingdom was again like seed, which was carefully planted, but was interrupted by someone planting weeds too.  The landowner had the harvesters sort it all out at harvest time.  The kingdom of God is something like that: the good and the bad will all be sorted out in due time.

Today the kingdom is like buried treasure or the pearl of great price.  The treasure is so great that when it is found, the treasure-hunter sells everything he has to buy the field.  The pearl is so wonderful that the merchant gives everything he has to buy it.  Can you imagine their joy?  What they have found is so wonderful that they give up everything to possess it.  Well, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like that.

But not just like that, right?  Because we know that worldly goods can never hold a candle to the riches of the Kingdom of heaven.  The success in our careers is nice, the nice things we have in our homes give us some pleasure, our accomplishments may even give us some pride.  But all of these will pale in the face of the joy of the Kingdom.

And so we have the invitation today.  We don’t have to look, because we have found the great treasure, the pearl of great price.  We have come here today to worship and to receive the Lord in the Eucharist.  There is nothing better on the face of the whole earth.  We know where to find that which is ultimately valuable.  But the fact is that we can come and go from this holy place today and still not have what’s truly worthwhile.  Because in order to receive it, we have to give up everything.  We have to sell everything and buy the field or purchase that pearl of great price.

That might mean walking away from a business deal that is profitable but has consequences for the poor or the environment.  Or perhaps it means giving up a relationship that is destructive.  We may have to give up a leisure pursuit that is enjoyable but separates us from family and friends.  We have to make choices, changes and decisions that amount to selling everything in order to make room for something that is of ultimate importance: that pearl of great price which is the Kingdom of heaven itself.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word leaves us with some very important questions.  What is the pearl of great price for us?  What is worth giving up everything?  How important is it for us to enter the Kingdom of heaven?  What is it that we must give up to get there?  Our prayer today is that we would be strengthened by the Word of God and nourished by the Eucharist so that we would have the courage to sell everything for the Kingdom of heaven, that pearl of ultimately great price.