There’s a saying in business: “If you’re standing still, you’re losing ground.” The idea is that you have to continually improve your product or your services or your competitors will pass you by.
It reminds me of the third servant in today’s Gospel. The other two servants, the one who got five talents and the one who got two talents were very industrious and resourceful, and they doubled the boss’s money, while the third one just sat on the money and gave the same amount back to his boss.
Some of us might say: “Well, at least he didn’t lose it.” And if you’ve watched stock markets all over the world recently, you might think that’s not a bad idea. But his boss didn’t see it that way.
I think it’s neat that the amount of money that Jesus was talking about was a talent, because the story is really about how we use the gifts we’re given – our talents.
We’re coming to the end of the Church year and we’re hearing about the end of our lives and the judgment, and the readings today are in the same vein, but today, instead of just saying: “Be good, don’t do bad things,” we’re hearing: “Do GOOD things!” The third servant didn’t really do a bad thing; he just didn’t do a good thing.
The message is that salvation is not passive – it’s not just something that happens to us – it requires our active participation. It’s not enough that we don’t do bad things – we have to do good things. And it doesn’t matter what our circumstances are – how much we think we’ve been given. The second servant made less than the first servant, but he was given less. It’s like God grades on a curve. That’s good news.
The first reading is a good example. In those days and in the Jewish culture, women were not the heads of their households, and there were many things that they weren’t expected to do or weren’t allowed to do. So we hear about this superwoman who looks after her kids and her house, gets involved in business transactions – including farming – takes care of poor people and – very importantly – has great respect and awe for God. Now even today when we understand that women are competent in many things, this woman sounds pretty amazing. But if we were comparing her to the servants in the Gospel, at least in terms of expectations, she would have been like the third servant – given relatively little. But unlike the third servant, she accomplished many wonderful things.
I think we tend to feel sorry for that third servant – the guy who got only one talent. Sometimes we look at ourselves and think – well, we haven’t really been given many talents – many gifts. We aren’t smart, or athletic, or rich, or pretty, or we were born on the wrong side of the tracks. But in those days, one talent was more than most people made in several years – so even though the boss gave the third servant only one talent, he was showing a lot of confidence in him. The third servant didn’t have much by comparison – but he had a lot.
When we look at ourselves and say: “Woe is me – I don’t have this or that or the other thing,” just like the third servant, we’re seeing our glass half empty – focusing on what’s not there instead of rejoicing in what IS there. And even more – as the Gospel tells us – we’re not focused on using those gifts – meager as we think they are. Remember that we heard that salvation is not passive – it’s active. We are expected to actively use and develop our talents whether they are great or small.
I think we’re all encouraged to downplay our talents – we should be modest – humble. Well, there’s a difference between avoiding bragging and arrogance and honestly acknowledging the gifts we’ve been given.
And think about those words: “the gifts we’ve been given.” While we acknowledge the good things we are and the good things we have, we have to recognize that these things have been given TO us. Sure, we may have taken opportunities, but those opportunities had to be there in the first place – we had to be GIVEN those opportunities.
In fact, the Gospel is encouraging us to take opportunities – to take risks. The first two servants were prepared to take risks, to invest their boss’s money – to buy, to sell – whatever. The third servant wasn’t prepared to take risks – he buried his single talent in a hole, and when his master came back months or years later (we’re not told), he had nothing more than what he started with.
What are the things that keep us from using and developing and growing our talents? I read a book called “Aging Well,” a couple of years ago, and the author had worked with a number of people who were addicted to alcohol or drugs. And he said that people who suffer from addictions stop growing – stop maturing – they get stuck in the same place, just like the third servant in the Gospel. Addictions focus our attention so exclusively on one thing that we stop developing as balanced human beings and as balanced spiritual beings (remember that we are body and spirit). This holds not only for people addicted to drugs and alcohol, but also to people addicted to other things: television, video games, the Internet, pornography – even work. Through our work we can use our gifts to serve God through his people, but the workaholic easily forgets their responsibility to their family, to their physical health, and to God – even IF their job is one that serves other people.
We aren’t told anything about the third servant’s personal life, but when the boss yelled at the third servant, the servant answered by saying: “I knew that you were a tough boss, and I didn’t want to mess up.” In other words: “I was afraid to take a chance – I was afraid I might fail.”
Every year we have a ministry recruitment fare. How often have you said: “Yes, I’d like to get involved at church, but I’m afraid I might mess up? I’m afraid that if I’m an adult server, I might turn to the wrong page for Father Paul. If I join one of the choirs, I’m afraid that I might not sing well enough. If I join one of the youth groups – I’m afraid I might feel out of place – I’m afraid the other kids won’t like me.” And beyond ministries: “if I contribute money to one of the church fund raisers – I’m afraid that I won’t have enough money to buy that new sweater that I saw in the store. I’m afraid that if I ask someone who’s in trouble if they need help, I’ll get all caught up in their problems – and then what!”
I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid! So what do we do – we take that talent and bury it in the ground and hope that when the boss comes – when God comes to us at the end of our earthly lives, he’ll say: “There, there, it’s OK, at least you didn’t lose what little I gave you.” NO! What did the boss say: “You wicked and lazy person – get out of my house.” Those words should scare us – they should scare us out of our La-Z-Boys and away from our TV sets and computer screens.
But the other words of Jesus should give us encouragement and confidence: “For to all who have – more will be given.” If we recognize our talents and put them at the service of God and God’s people, we will be like the first two servants – when the boss comes, we will find that we have much more than we were given.
Each weekend we conclude the Creed with the Stewardship Prayer. I worry that many of us just say the words without thinking much about them. I think it’s a beautiful prayer, and it speaks to the message of today’s Gospel. With Father Paul’s permission, I would like you to help me conclude the homily today with the Stewardship Prayer (a little early). You know where to find it. But don’t just read it – ponder the words and ask how you are being called by God to use your gifts.
The Stewardship Prayer
Almighty God, I give thanks for all that I have and all that I am. Most of all, I give thanks for the great gift of your son, Jesus. I pray that I may be a good steward. That I will follow faithfully, serve joyfully, give generously, live responsibly, posses sensibly, and be open to any vocation you call me to. In gratitude for the abundant gifts you have so graciously given to me, I return to you the first fruits of these gifts, through acts of service and by generously sharing all that you have entrusted to me. Heavenly Father, by your Holy Spirit, give me knowledge and understanding. Help me to be a gift to others in your name. Amen.