Note: this was the text I had originally written for my homily on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time.
This week, when I went to visit the 8th graders, I was a bit surprised to walk into a room that was silent. Usually, when they see me walking in, all sorts of pandemonium will begin—bit not this time. They were all busy praying with today’s Gospel, learning to use the ancient method of prayer called Lectio Divina. At its root, Lectio Divina has one primary goal: to allow us to encounter Jesus Christ through the Word, specifically, through the Word of God as given to us in the Holy Bible. One of the things that I like about this way of praying is that it encourages me to slow down, so that when I encounter a strange or troubling passage that challenges my preconceived notions about God or how I should interact with his world I can sit with it and allow God to work on me. When we find such things in the Bible, I occasionally have to remind myself: if the Bible says one thing and I think or say another, it is always going to be the Bible that is right. The Bible is the inspired Word of God, after all.
So, I asked the 8th graders what about this passage stuck out to them about this Gospel, what bothered them about this passage, or what didn’t make sense to them. After they worked through the fact that the priest was asking them what bothered them about the Bible, they presented me with two major issues. First, it doesn’t seem fair that one servant got five talents, another two, and another simply one. Second, how is the master’s response to the servant with one talent merciful?
To answer these questions, we have to step into the spiritual understanding of this reading. One of the best ways to do this is to read what the Church Fathers wrote about this Gospel.
To the first question, we recognize that the master is Jesus Christ, who has ascended into Heaven. He has given the talents to us, his servants. To some he has given more gifts, to some he has given fewer gifts. St. Jerome, who is responsible for the Vulgate, which was the translation into Latin of the Bible used by the Church for 1700 years, wrote that Christ gives “the Gospel doctrine, to one more, to another less, not as of His own bounty or scanting, but as meeting the capacity of the receivers.” Jerome notes that St. Paul mentions doing something similar when he remarks that those who are not ready for solid food are given milk to prepare them. Origen, a theologian in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 200s, notes that to receive even one talent from such a master as Jesus Christ is a great thing, and that the talents cannot be measured against each other in the way that we always desire to do.
St. John Chrysostom, who lived in the later 4th century, is considered the greatest preacher in history, writes in reference to our second question that “not only he who robs others, or who works evil, is punished with extreme punishment, but he also who does not good works.” Origen writes, “If you are offended at this we have said, namely that a man shall be judged if he does not teach others, call to mind the Apostle’s words [that is, St. Paul], ‘Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel.’ (1 Cor 9:16)” St. Gregory—I’m not sure which one, there were several saints and doctors of the Church named Gregory—wrote that “to hide one’s talent in the earth is to devote the ability we have received to worldly business.” This is an error, Gregory teaches, because even the smallest of gifts has been entrusted to us so that we may bring the goodness of God into the world from them.
If we look around, our experience confirms the teachings of these Church Fathers. We encounter many people who are exceptionally talented, who have been given all of the wealth and power a person could possibly want. Are these people happy? More importantly, are they good people? Too often, the answer is “no.” The number of gifts we are given does not impact our ability to love God and to spread the Gospel, which is what each of us has been called to do. Those people who receive many gifts that are good, God-fearing people have done incredible things. We need only to look at the saints to see an example of this. We have saints that started with nothing, who were literally slaves, and we have saints who had everything, who were literally kings. Every one of them was a good steward of their gifts and multiplied what God had given them.
The man in this parable who received one talent was fearful of his master, so he buried his gifts and took care of himself. This is why the master calls him wicked and lazy. He cared only for himself. His master had been generous with him, but the servant, by neglecting the gifts given to him, was not generous in return. He squandered the gifts he was given. The value of the return is less important than the fact that he was given the gift so that he might grow it. St. Jerome writes that the master does not look to “the largeness of their profit, but to the disposition of their will.” If the servant given the 5 talents had squandered them as the servant given one, the reckoning would’ve been dreadful beyond words. Much is expected of those to whom much has been given.
St. John Chrysostom teaches that “[t]his parable is delivered against those who will not assist their [neighbors] either with money, or words, or in any other way, but hide all that they have.” Each one of us has been given immeasurable gifts by God. He expects us to use them.
November 15, 2020
33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30