Sunday is the 33rd Sunday of the Church’s year (November 15). We continue reading Matthew 25: last week, the young women waiting in the night (25.1-13), and next week, the parable of the last judgment (25.31-46), and today, Jesus explains how the kingdom is like the following narrative:
“Again, the kingdom will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. (25.14-15)
The setting is straightforward:
“Then he went on his journey. The servant who had received five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five talents more. So also, the servant with two talents gained two more. But the servant who had received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. (25.15-19)
The rich man’s response to the first two servants is exactly the same in each case, since the number of talents was never the issue, only what was done with them:
“The man who had received five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ The man with two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents. See, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (25.20-23)
It is the third servant who is in deep trouble, because he did nothing with what he had been given:
“Then the man who had received one talent came forward. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten talents. (25.24-28)
Use your God-given talents! Live up to your potential! Be everything you can be! All this might be reduced to good moral advice that we rightly might want to pass down to every new generation. Young people need to realize they have talents, that they should not compare themselves to others with different or more talents, and that must use their talents as best they can.
A solid moral message, but we need to stop and think for a moment. Jesus is in Jerusalem; his conflict with the religious authorities is reaching crisis proportions. After this chapter their plot to have him murdered speeds up, and by the end of the week Jesus will be crucified. So would Jesus really stop here, and offer one final lesson on good behavior, “Use your talents”?
There is a clue in the warning at the end of the parable: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” And what does that mean? Well, we’ve heard this before in Matthew, have we not? Think of Matthew 13, where Jesus explains why he speaks directly to his disciples, but indirectly and by parables to the larger gatherings:
Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. (13.11-12)
The secrets of the kingdom of heaven, those are the talents Jesus bothers to teach in the last days. That is, those on mission have been given more intimately and directly the secrets of God’s kingdom, loving pathways into encounter with God on the way to the kingdom: preaching or sacramental ministry or music ministry or educating or caring for the elderly or the ensuring practical maintenance of a community’s spaces — or whatever else. The gifts are wonderful, but the responsibility is awesome. Then use your gift to continue God’s work in the world: invest in the kingdom, for God's sake take a risk!
But if you bury your gift and sit on it, or use it only in the most safe and prudent way that avoids all risk, you are just burying God’s gifts in the dirt. And if you do that, you lazy servant, you will lose what you’ve been given — since it was never yours in the first place. The gift of the mystery of the kingdom will be taken from you and given to those who have taken on wholeheartedly the work of the kingdom.
So: not just “use your talents,” but “use what has been given to you to do the work God has called you to.” This message surely applies to all of us in any community inspired by the admonitions of Jesus, since we all have our vocations and missions in the life of the Church. But since Jesus was speaking most intimately to his closest disciples, it is fair enough to see the sharp edge of the message cutting toward those to whom power and position in the Church have been given.
That is, when we read the text now, we can realize that Jesus is speaking to clergy, priests and deacons, and even more so to bishops and cardinals and popes, as if to say: “I gave it all to you, the mysteries of the Gospel, the keys of my kingdom. Tell me what you did with such gifts? Woe to you if you’ve hidden my mysteries, kept them just for yourselves, as if I was never coming back!”
There is much more that might be said here — aimed also at myself, for I am priest, clergy, Jesuit, surely accountable for any gifts I have received — but I close with two contrasting examples, the wasting of God’s gifts, and the using of God’s gifts to the full.
Wasting God’s gifts: The “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick” was released this week on the scandal surrounding Theodore McCarrick, erstwhile Cardinal Archbishop of Washington and leader among leaders in the Church in America. It is a very long report - about 480 pages - but you can get the gist of it here in America magazine. Mr. McCarrick (as the defrocked cleric is now properly called) disgraced himself again and again, using his power to prey on seminarians and clergy beholden to him, even as he kept rising through the ranks. A gifted man, he used his considerable gifts not simply in service of the Kingdom, but far too often in service of himself and a small group of likeminded clerics. And not just him: the report also makes clear the shocking turn-a-blind-eye laziness of those who should have known better, all the way to the very top of the Church, where leaders should have practiced what they preached but did not. Very sad, talents wasted, buried, misspent. The reply should send a chill down every clerical spine:"Throw those worthless servants outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!"
Using God’s gifts: By chance, I am finishing this homily on Friday, November 13. This is the feast of Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917). Italian by birth, she worked with the poor and needy, orphans and widows, and gathered a group of women who formed the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pope Leo XIII asked her to go to the United States, to work with the Italian immigrant community — the unwanted and marginalized newcomers of the late 19th century, little loved by Americans whose ancestors had arrived in early generations. She worked tirelessly with the poor, eventually dying just before the terrible flu epidemic of 1918 – dying of malaria she caught while working with the poor in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. Her work was incredible, beyond all expectations, particularly given the constraints on women in the Church of her time. That is, she was given the gift of care for the poor and needy, and she used this gift to the full, so that it increased a hundred-fold. She is the first United States citizen to be canonized, and she is buried in New York City. Jesus has words for her too:
"Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!
Our gifts and roles in the Church are for the sake of the kingdom. Let us pray that we be like Mother Cabrini and the countless other women and men who have done what is right, betting everything on the Kingdom, on the Christ who will come again.
(Notes: An earlier version of this written text can be heard in this week's recorded Mass. Also, my understanding of the parable of the talents is indebted to an essay by Ben Chenoweth. “Identifying the Talents” which appeared in 2005 in the Tyndale Bulletin. Contact me if you’d like more information.)