Sunday, November 19, 2023

Homily for the 33rd Sunday

In today’s parable one servant is entrusted with five talents, another two, and another one. In it we are confronted with the mystery of difference in the divine plan. Different ‘talents’ and different amounts of ‘talents’ are bestowed on different people. 

On one level we find natural differences. There are differences of age, physical abilities, differences in intellectual or moral aptitudes, differences in benefits according to the social setting in which one finds oneself, family, whether one lives in the city or country, differences in the distribution of wealth. 

The Catechism speaks of these differences in the article on Social Justice: “On coming into the world, it says, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others… These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from other, and that those endowed with particular “talents” share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment of cultures:

There follows a nice quote from the Dialogues of Catherine of Siena, which includes differences in the more specifically divine gifts. Jesus explains to her:

I distribute the virtues quite diversely; I do not give all of them to each person, but some to one, some to others…I shall give principally charity to one; justice to another; humility to this one, a living faith to that one…And so I have given many gifts and graces, both spiritual and temporal, with such diversity that I have not given everything to one single person,  so that you may be constrained to practice charity toward one another…I have willed that one should need another and that all should be my ministers in distributing the graces and gifts they have received from me. St. Catherine of Siena, Dial. I,7.

In the divine plan, we all need one another, and we are all called to hand on to one another the graces and gifts we have received from the Lord. 

In this parable we have one of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus:

29 For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

This verse appears in chapter 13 of Matthew with the same meaning and the almost exact wording. The context is the parable of the sower. The disciples approach Jesus and ask him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answers: "Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted” (Mat 13:11 NAB) and then, “12 To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Mat 13:12 NAB) 

Jesus’s choice to communicate his message in parables has again to do with difference. Speaking in parables takes into account that people are different and react differently. Since a parable doesn’t carry its meaning on the surface, the hearer goes through a gradual process of enlightenment as he engages with it. If he comes to it with the right attitude and openness, the result will a new perception of the truth and response to it. But it can also be resisted and dismissed as a mere story. For some they will break through the barriers to understanding, and to these, like the disciples, the “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” will be given.

The meaning of “Talents” in today’s parable is open-ended. But whatever else they might refer to, I like the suggestion that they refer first of all to what Jesus refers to here: “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”. 

It is a constant theme in both the Old and the New Testaments, that this gift of knowledge must bear fruit. It cannot be simply kept for oneself. It is either passed on or lost. It is an offence against the giver to return his loan without fruit. 

But the ‘talents’ are not going to bear fruit on their own. God has entrusted us not only with ‘talents’ but with freedom, and with that freedom responsibility to continue to grow in the “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”, by prayer, study, reflection, growth in virtue and by passing them on to those in need; that is, to one another, because none of us possesses the whole, all of us need to share our talents and be given a share in the talents that have been entrusted to the other. 

In the parable, the talents have as their source the man who entrusts them to his servants and they remain his possessions. They are on loan. Therefore, he retains the right to settle accounts on what is given; the servants will be rewarded for using the talents fruitfully and punished when they do not. 

Note that for the master, only increase is acceptable. When he settles accounts, all three must present him with an increase of some sort, even if only investing his talent in the bank. 

Note too that there is a time frame within which the use of the talents is to take place. No specific date is given, but the master is only going away, he will be back and settle accounts. Time to act is provided for, but it is not open-ended. Time and opportunities to use the talents can be taken advantage of or lost. At some point there will be no more time, and there will only be the time to present the talents to the master and how they have been used. 

The talents have been lavishly given without merit. Using them well is to give thanks. The thankfulness that we owe God consists essentially in bearing fruit. ‘Thankfulness’ is a basic Christian disposition, but it can never remain simply an ‘attitude’, which is not actively lived out, nor a celebration of a liturgy that does not pass onto virtuous living, nor a mere pious assertion that one loves God, that is not proved in the love of one’s neighbor. “Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” cannot be separate from active love. This is clear, but as monks we know how easy it is even in this setting to fall into being carried along by the monastic routine, while love grows cold. 

God has laid claim on us and is looking for fruit. Fortunately, help in this regard is inherent in the nature of the talents themselves. We might think of the talents given to the servants as in themselves basically passive and inert. They are given and then the servants make them active so to speak by their trading. But this is not the nature of the word that comes forth from God. Rather, God’s word bears within itself a principle of fruitfulness, it contains an inherent inner dynamic that is ordered to multiplying itself, to increase. Grace is all about increase, overflow, in itself it knows nothing of diminishment. Moreover, by grace, we have been endowed with a creative force that is able to respond to the requirement to bear fruit. In this sense it is no surprise that the two servants who decide to trade with their talents can present a twofold increase to their master, which makes the decision of third servant all the more reprehensible. If we decide to love, in Christ and the Holy Spirit, love will increase, such is its nature. So let us love, let us love one another. That we may have the joy of presenting our talents before the Lord and hear his words, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master's joy.'