A: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Fear of Change

October 12, 2002

Matthew 25:14-30

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?  One, but it’s a slow and tedious process and the light bulb has to really want to be changed.

There’s the rub.  Change is difficult, and there are few of us here who welcome it in our lives.  When we possess something which is good, we want to hold onto it just as it is.  When we are in a caring and supportive relationship, we don’t want new ideas or new goals to start shifting things around.  When we are comfortable in our surroundings, secure in our environment, we do not want to contemplate a change of place or an alteration in our circumstances.  The common cry of humanity is, “Things are fine just as they are.  Don’t ask me to adjust.  Don’t ask me to change.”

This resistance to change is what makes today’s gospel parable so important.  The whole point of the Gospel today is that we cannot keep the good things that we now have simply by holding onto them.  Thinking that we can preserve the persons and circumstances in our life just as they are today is as foolish as the slave in today’s parable thinking he could please his master by burying money in the ground.  To hold onto the good that we have today forever is impossible.  We need to be willing to let go, to risk, to let things change.

If we do not let go, if we do not invest what we have, we lose it.  This is true of relationships.  The people in our life are always changing.  Our children change from infants to teenagers to adults.  Unless we are willing to change with them, we lose them.  The relationship we have with a spouse or a friend is in flux with new ideas and new directions.  Unless we are willing to grow with them, we get left behind.  Aging changes us.  Our energy and health shift as the years advance.  To think that we can live today as we lived thirty years ago renders us out of touch and foolish.

Our world is always morphing around us, a new job, a new home, a new set of expectations.  We open our quarterly financial report and realize that we have to rethink what we can spend and what retirement is going to look like.  Our bishop asks us to re-envision what parish life is by imagining ourselves partnering with another parish in the ‘Vibrant Parish Life’ initiative.  Our president tells us that life is not going to be the same because of the threat of terrorism in our midst.

Whether we like it or not, the world around us is changing and we are expected to change as well.  To live is to change, and to live well is to change often.  Now knowing this does not necessarily make it easier because every change involves  risk.  But, the good news in today’s parable is this: every servant who was willing to take that risk succeeded admirably.  The only servant who failed was the one who deluded himself into thinking that he could avoid risk by holding onto what he had and burying his master’s money in the ground.

In the end, change is not the enemy.  Fear is.  Letting go of the good things we now have will not destroy us.  Pretending that we can keep things exactly as they are, will.  Change is difficult, but it is a part of life and a part of God’s plan.  The Gospel today calls us to face the changes in our life with hope.  We are asked to imitate the example of the faithful servants and believe that God will not give us more than we can handle.  Take the risk.  Be willing to let go of the things you now have, and let them grow.  This is the only way to live.  This is the only way that we will ever hear Christ say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into your master’s joy.”

Take it in. Spread it Around.

November 13, 2005

Matthew 25:14-30

It is easier for us to see what is negative rather than what is good. We tend to focus on what is wrong rather than on what is right. We find ourselves more willing to criticize than to praise. Just look at today’s gospel, the Parable of the Talents. What is it about? If I were to take a survey here this morning, I would wager that the majority of people would say, “This parable tells us that God will punish us if we do not use our talents.”

We focus in on the negative. We focus on the one servant who buried his money out of fear and received his master’s wrath. But there were two servants who used their talents and who receive their master’s praise. So if you look at this parable simply from a quantitative standpoint, it tells us that God is more likely to praise us for our successes than criticize us for our failures. Or to say this in another way: there is more affirmation in the parable than there is judgment.

So if we take this positive approach to the parable, what does it say about affirmation? Two things: that we should take it in and we should spread it around. Clearly the master in the parable stands in the place of God. Therefore, this parable is telling us that God affirms us. God is pleased with us. God takes delight in the way that we use the talents that have been given to us. If God is affirming us, how important it is that we take that affirmation in. For you see, affirmation is power. Affirmation can change us. It causes us to grow. Just look at the way that the servants grow in the parable as they are affirmed by their master. They once were only capable of a few things, but now they are trusted with more. They once were unsure, but now they are confident and enter into their master’s joy.

Because God is affirming us, we must let that affirmation in. We are always inclined to look at the negative parts of our life, our failures. But there is no power in our failures. The power comes from accepting God’s affirmation and love. God is affirming us every moment of our lives. God is saying to us, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant. You are a good parent. You are a good spouse. You are a good grandmother, a good sister. You have used your talents generously, faithfully, and creatively. You have been strong and a support to others.”

It is especially important it is to take in God’s affirmation when we have experienced a setback in our lives—after an argument with a friend, after we have let down someone that we love, if we experience divorce. In these moments more than others, we have to claim that God is still affirming us, saying to us, “You are still good, because I have made you good. You are still talented, because I have given you talents. You are still loved, because you are my daughter or my son.” God’s affirmation of us is the source of power and life. We must take it in.

It is also important to spread affirmation around. For when we give affirmation, we act like God. We act like God when we affirm others, especially those who are closest to us. It is all too seldom that we praise the people with whom we live. We certainly love them, but the way we show love can often be counterproductive. Sometimes we think that the way to express love is to warn others, to save them from their mistakes. Parents frequently choose to love in this way. They can base their loving on warnings: “Don’t do this. Never forget to do that. Do not make this mistake.” They are motivated, of course, out of a desire to protect their children. They seek to make their sons and daughters better people. There is no power in emphasizing the negative. Power comes from affirmation and love. When was the last time that you praised your daughter or your son? When was the last time that you said, “I am so proud of you. You do this so well.”  Can you imagine the power that is released when such affirmation comes from a mother or father? When is the last time that you paid a compliment to your spouse, or to a close friend? When have you said, “You amaze me at how well you do this. How patient you are, how generous you are, how creative you are.” Can you imagine the sense of power and healing that are released when someone who loves you affirms you in that way? We are truly like God when we decide to spread our praise around.

It is always easier to see the negative, to recognize what needs to be changed. Power and life, however, come from affirmation. This leaves us with two questions:  How will I let in the affirmation God has for me, and who will I affirm today? My suggestion is that for the rest of this liturgy you put out of your mind any problems or failures or shortcomings, and simply recognize that God is present here among us. Open your hearts to receive the love, the delight, the pleasure that God takes in you. God will never stop loving you. You are God’s beloved son or daughter. Then, once you are filled with God’s affirmation, allow the Holy Spirit to suggest to you three people who you will affirm this week. Once you have identified those people, affirm them. Once you have affirmed them, repeat the process again. Make it a pattern of life.  Become a person of affirmation—taking it in, spreading it around.

The Value of Small Gifts

November 16, 2008

Matthew 25: 14 – 30

There is much bad news in today’s gospel.  We discover the master is a harsh man who insists on results.  We discover that the servant who received one talent was paralyzed by fear. So much so that he loses his one talent and is thrown into the outer darkness to gnash his teeth. We discover that the talent which was taken away from him is given to the servant who already has ten talents. Now that poor fellow has even more work to do.  With all of these negative strains, where is the good news in today’s parable?  What positive message can we pull out of it to help us live?  I would suggest two points.  First, everyone is given a talent. Second, even the small talents are worth using.

Every servant in the parable receives a talent. No one is without a gift.  And the gospel is clear that even the person who receives the smallest talent was expected to use it.  So these two ideas are both important. They build on one another.

Everyone receives a talent.  Perhaps there are some here this morning who are struggling with their own worth and their own abilities, who are searching to find a purpose in their life. The gospel says that everyone receives a talent. It encourages you to keep searching for your talent, to keep believing you will find it. If God has created you, God has created you for a reason. That reason cannot be doubted. Everyone receives a talent.

The second point builds upon the first. Even the smallest talent is worth using.  Most of us here know that we have talents.  We know what we are good at. Perhaps we are good at organizing. Perhaps we are a good athlete. Perhaps we are a deep thinker. But along with the clear talents that we know and recognize, most of us here have been given other smaller talents, weaker talents. Those gifts do not measure up to the bigger ones in which we take pride.  Today’s gospel addresses those smaller talents. It tells us that even though they do not compare with our bigger gifts, those small gifts are still worth using.

Perhaps you know that your spouse is much better with your children or grandchildren than you are: better at listening; better at being patient; better at nurturing.  In those areas your gifts are small. But they are still valuable. They are still worth using. The gospel today calls you to use those smaller gifts, to invest them in your family. It assures you that if you make that investment it will not be wasted.

Perhaps you are dealing with sickness or the pressures of growing older. When you look at the energy you once had compared to the energy you have today, today’s energy is small.  What used to be easy now requires effort. What used to spontaneous now requires careful planning.  Strength used to be abundant, now it is reduced, limited, small.  The gospel says that even though your strength may be small it is still valuable. You should still invest it with all of your heart, believing that by giving the little you have God will bless you and bless others.

Perhaps you are going through a difficult time. You still have a job and a good family, but the future looks grim. You worry about what is to come. Hope is in short supply. The gospel today says even if your hope is small, it still valuable. You need to lift it up, share it with others, and believe in its power. Giving that hope, believing in that hope, investing that hope will not be in vain.

Everyone receives a gift, and even the smallest gifts are worth using.  After all, the gifts that God gives us have been carefully chosen. Even when they look small or diminished, they can still carry a power that is beyond our perception. But that power can only be released when we use what we have been given.  So look at your gifts, even the small ones. Do not be afraid to invest them. If you do they will bless you and bless others, and you will hear the words that were heard by the servants in today’s gospel: “Well done good and faithful servant. Come, enter your master’s joy.”

Conquering Fear

November 13, 2011

Matthew 25: 14 – 30

Three servants, each given money to invest. Two were successful; one was not. The first servant received five talents and made another five. The second servant received two talents and made another two. But, the servant who received one talent buried it and earned his master’s displeasure. Why did he bury the talent? The gospel says he did so out of fear. But surely all the servants were afraid. In fact, those who had received more had more to lose, so they had more reason to be afraid. Yet somehow the first two servants overcame their fear.

If we are to understand the message of this parable, we have to ask why two of the servants were able to overcome their fear while one was not. I suggest to you that the servant who buried the money could not overcome his fear because he did not know his own value.

A story is told about an old man who approached the great nineteenth century artist, Daniel Gabriel Rossetti.  He brought his portfolio of sketches and asked the great artist to evaluate them. Rossetti agreed, and he carefully looked through the old man’s portfolio. Then he closed it, and gently but firmly informed the old man that the pictures had little value. The old man was discouraged, but he asked Rossetti one more favor.  He said, “Would you also look at a set of drawings of done by a young student because I would like to have them evaluated as well.”  Rossetti agreed, and he began to go through the second portfolio. As he did so he grew in enthusiasm. “These are excellent,” he said.  “They show real promise. This student should be encouraged. Who is he? Is he your son?” “No” the old man said sadly. “These are my pictures which I drew forty years ago. I only wished that I could have heard your affirmation then, because without it I gave into discouragement. I gave up too soon.”

Unless we are willing and able to claim our own worth, we will not be able to use the gifts that we have been given, and our lives will be ruled by fear. This is what happened to the last servant in the parable.  For whatever reason, he did not know his own worth. So, when a talent was entrusted to him, he was unable to invest it.

There are no ungifted people, but there are people who do not use their gifts. There is no person in this church today who does not have some talent given by God. But some will be unable to use their talents because they cannot see their value in God’s eyes. In such blindness what will most likely be done is to take what has been given and bury it.

The good news of the gospel is that we do have value in God’s eyes. Therefore we should not be afraid. Earlier in Mathew’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples, “Not a single sparrow falls from the sky without my heavenly Father knowing it.  So, do not be afraid. You are more valuable than many sparrows.” We are indeed valuable in God’s eyes. We must claim that worth so that we can use the gifts that God has given us.

So when your children push you to the edge, when you again fail to communicate with your spouse, when your parents still do not understand and you begin to fear that you will not make it in your family, Jesus says: “Do not be afraid. You are valuable to me and you have gifts you can use.” When school becomes burdensome, when you have to face someone in your class who is a bully, when things at work get turned around, and you begin to fear that you cannot adjust, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows. I have gifted you with talents that can make a difference.”

God would not give us gifts without the ability to use them, but our ability to use them depends on accepting our true status in God’s eyes. Therefore, today let us claim who we really are: beloved daughters and sons of God. In accepting that identity we will drive out fear and be able to use the talents our Father has given us.

Paying Attention

November 16, 2014

Matthew 25:14-30

The third servant in today’s gospel parable buries his master’s money. Why does he do this? Later in the story he tells his master that he’s afraid. Because of this, many people conclude that he buried the money out of fear. But I would like to suggest to you another possibility. I think that this servant buried his master’s money not because he was afraid, but because he was not paying attention.

Here’s my reasoning. First of all, we have to understand the kind of money the parable is addressing. In Jesus’ day, a talent was roughly a million dollars. So the master gave the first servant five million, the second two million, and the third one million. That is eight million dollars altogether. Clearly, this master was a wealthy man. How did he get this way? The third servant tells us. He describes his master as a demanding person who harvests where he did not plant and gathers where he did not scatter. This master was a demanding person towards himself. The minute that he received money, he began at once to invest, buy, sell, and leverage to make more money. This is how he accumulated the eight million dollars to entrust to the servants.

The key to this parable is that the master never tells any of the servants what to do with the money he gives. He simply divides it up and leaves. Yet, the first two servants go out immediately and begin to invest, buy, sell, and leverage to make more money. How did they know that they should do this? They know because they were paying attention. They had watched what their master was doing. They could see that their job was to do what the master had done, to carry on his work. The third servant is clueless. He decides he is going to bury the money because he was not paying attention. All three of these servants grew up in the same household, a household in which the purpose of money was to make more money. The first two servants understand this. The third does not, and that is his downfall.

This parable, then, calls us to carry on the work of our master. Our master is not the master in the parable whose purpose was to make more money. Our master is the Lord. So for us to understand what the Lord’s work is we need to pay attention like the first two servants. We need to recognize what our Lord is doing so that we can do the same.

Parents need to be attentive to their children, to discern what God has begun in each one of them. If a son or daughter is a compassionate person, then it is the role of the parent to see that that compassion matures and grows. If a child is insightful, then a parent should try to foster wisdom to enlarge the child’s intelligence. If a son or daughter is joyful, then the parent’s work is to teach the child how to spread that joy around. Then when Christ comes, the parent will be able to say to him, “This is what you gave me, and here is how I made it grow.”

We need to be attentive to what God is doing in our own lives, what God has planted in our hearts, what is changing, growing, maturing. The minute we see that God has begun to do something, it is our role to support that growth so that it increases. In this way we may become a more confident person, a more humble person, or a more generous person. So that when Christ comes, we can say, “Look. Here is the way that I continued the work that you started.”

We need to be attentive to what is happening in our families, on our job, or in our neighborhood so that we can see what God is trying to bring forth. Once we recognize God’s action, we should commit ourselves to foster that development so that the world around us can be more cooperative, more forgiving, more just. Then when Christ comes, we can say to him, “Look. You gave me five. Here is another five back.”

Our calling is not just to do what we think is best but to discern what God is doing so that we can make it grow. That is why we must be attentive to what God is about in our hearts, in our families, and in our world. When we recognize that God’s action is present in this or that situation, then we, like the first two servants in the parable, must begin to move that work along. Then, when Jesus comes, he will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your master’s joy.”

Accepting the Consequences

November 19, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

The meaning of any parable rests upon our understanding of the characters within it, and, if our understanding of the characters changes, the meaning of the parable changes as well. This is certainly true of the Parable of the Talents in today’s gospel. Usually when we hear this parable, we presume that the master in the parable represents God. God gives us talents, abilities, and blessings and expects us to use them. Like the first two servants in the parable, we are expected to increase what we have been given, so that at the end of our lives we can give back more to God than God gave us. We are not to follow the example of the third servant who, out of fear, buried his master’s money in the ground.

Now, this understanding of the parable is a valid one, and I have used it myself on several occasions. But, there are two aspects of the parable that do not quite fit with this interpretation. The first is the character of the master and the second is the action of the third servant. If we presume that the master in the parable represents God, then the parable presents us with a God who is harsh and cruel. The master in the parable is described as demanding, of harvesting where he did not plant and gathering where he did not scatter. At the end of the parable, he throws the third servant into the outer darkness without a hint of mercy. Is this the kind of God that the parable expects us to accept and serve? First problem.

The second problem is the action of the third servant. He, by his own admission, knows that his master is harsh and demanding and that he will be punished if he does not increase the talents entrusted to him. So why in the world would he decide to do nothing? Why would he bury his master’s money, when he knows that it would only assure his punishment—which is exactly what happens in the parable?

These two problems frustrate the normal understanding of the parable. They raise the question: Is there another way to interpret it? There is. We should not see the master in the parable as representing God but rather a human landowner. What do we know about this landowner? We know that he is rich. At the time of Jesus, a talent was worth about a million dollars. The eight talents that he entrusts to his servants at the beginning of the parable show that he has a net worth of at least eight million. How did he make this money? Here historical research can help us. When we examine the social setting of Palestine at the time of Jesus, we find that it was composed of a handful of very rich landowners and many very poor farmers who were struggling to survive. If a poor farmer had a bad crop, his only option was to borrow money from a wealthy landowner at an exorbitant rate. If he were unable to pay that money back, he would lose his land. So the richer got richer, and the poor lost the little that they had. This is how our landowner made his eight million.

This understanding allows us to make sense of the action of the third servant. When he receives his million dollars, he decides not to use it. He buries it out of fear. The fear is not that he would be punished. He knows he will be punished, because he knows the kind of master he has. His fear is that if he uses the money the way his master wants him to, he will dispossess more poor farmers from their land. This understanding of the parable, changes its meaning for us. Now, it calls us to imitate the action of the third servant. We are asked to refuse to use our talents for causes that are unjust, even if we have to face the consequences for doing so.

There might be a kid at school who others bully. There is a great deal of social pressure on us to join in. This parable says we should not, even if we know that we may be belittled for taking that stand. There might be someone at work who our boss consistently demeans. It is easy to look the other way. But this parable tells us that we should speak up to our boss, even though we risk having our boss turn against us. There might be legislation in our country that ignores the needs of the poorest among us and caters only to those who already have more than enough to survive. We may believe such an approach is wrong, but we say, “What is the use of opposing it? This parable asks us to work against the legislation, even if we cannot stop it and others will consider us foolish for trying.

The Parable of the Talents is not naïve or optimistic. At its end, the unjust landowner is still in charge and has seven million more dollars than he did at the beginning. The servant who refused to support his oppression is sitting in the outer darkness, grinding his teeth. His only consolation is that his master has one million dollars less with which to dispossess others. This is a dark parable. But if we place it in the light of all of Jesus’ teaching, we can discover at least this consolation: When we follow the example of the third servant and refuse to use our talents in ways that are unjust, we may suffer the consequences for doing so, but our heavenly Father will see the goodness in our actions, and in time we will receive our reward.

The Gift of Opportunity

November 15, 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

In today’s gospel parable, a master goes on a journey and trusts his wealth to his servants. It is important to note that the servants do not all receive the same amount. One receives five talents, the other two, and a third one. Now it is customary to see the master as God and the talents as the abilities and gifts that God gives to each one of us to do God’s will. In this understanding, the varying amounts reflect the truth that we are not all equally talented. Some of us have more abilities than others.

This is a good interpretation of the parable, but it is not the only one. Instead of seeing the talents as abilities we have received, we can see them as opportunities that are available. When you look at the parable in this way, it is telling us that we do not all have the same opportunity to do God’s will. Some people have a variety of avenues to follow God’s commandments. They are the ones with five talents. Others see their opportunities diminish and struggle to find a way to act. They are the ones with one talent.

There are many ways for opportunities in our lives to be reduced. All of us are dealing with the coronavirus. Because it is wise to remain isolated, we lose the opportunity to be with family and friends. We are less able to work to serve the poor or to achieve justice in our society. Those among us who are sick or who are dealing with advanced age lose the opportunity to act in the ways they would like. There is less energy to share their wisdom and support the people around them. If your family is ruptured, if people are not talking to one another, you lose the opportunity to be the mother, father, brother or sister that you want to be. The opportunity to be a real family becomes embarrassingly small.

When we find ourselves in such reduced circumstance, this parable is telling us we should use the opportunity that is given, regardless how limited it might be. In the parable, the servant who received one talent did not use it. He buried it out of fear. What was he afraid of? I suggest to you that he was afraid that his talent was too small to make a difference. This servant is criticized for his decision. The parable is telling us that whatever opportunity God entrusts to us is a gift we are to use.

So even if we are isolated because of the coronavirus, we still have the opportunity to reach out by phone or Zoom to the people in our lives. We can still remain aware of the actions in our society to uplift the poor and protect the environment. Even if we are sick or dealing with old age, we still have the opportunity to use the little energy we have to support others and say the things they need to hear. Even if our family is broken and divided against one another, we can still find some opportunity to take a step forward. We can ask, “Can I give you a phone call?” We can text, “I am thinking of you.”  These opportunities might seem incredibly small but they are still gifts entrusted to us by God.

When we find ourselves standing with one talent, it does us no good to wish we had five. But each talent, no matter how small, is a gift entrusted to us by God. So when such an opportunity appears, we should not dismiss it, doubt it, or bury it. We should use it. That is the only way we can be the good and faithful servants who follow our Master’s will.

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