Today’s Gospel [Matthew 25:14-30] reports one of the very last parables of Jesus’ public life. Obviously, we are meant to apply this (and similar parables) to ourselves, as we anticipate Christ’s final coming to judge the living and the dead at the end of history.
This particular parable portrays two good and faithful servants, and a wicked, lazy servant, a somewhat timid type, someone who seems to value caution above all else.
Now, obviously, in our ordinary day-to-day world, an appropriate amount of caution is usually a good idea. These parables, however, are not about our ordinary day-to-day world, but about the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, the wicked, lazy servant gets condemned – at least as much, I suspect, for his fear of failure as for his actual failure to accomplish anything. He is condemned, it seems to me, for the inexcusable inactivity and passivity his excessive caution produced.
The two good and faithful servants, in contrast, are praised and rewarded. They too were prudent - in their own way (which turned out in the end to be the right way). Presumably, they also knew that their master was demanding, but, (like the fear of the Lord, which, as the psalm says, makes people blessed), their master’s expectation that they accomplish something with what he had given them, his determination to hold them to account and to judge them accordingly, far from immobilizing them, instead inspired them actually to do something bold with the resources entrusted to them.
Now, since this is a parable about the kingdom of God, the master’s expectations of his servants seem obviously intended to suggest God’s expectations of us – expectations which, when the time comes to settle accounts, end up being most threatening precisely to the servant who seems so determined to keep his life unthreatening.
But to the other two, their master must seem incredibly generous. Surely, he is the most imaginative and adventurous person in the parable, the one who risks treating his servants as partners and rewards them with greater responsibility and greater closeness. So cautious, however, is that wicked, lazy servant that he fails to see what the other two see so well. He cannot see what he is being encouraged to make of his life, what he is being personally empowered to become. As Pope Francis has reminded us, it is defeatism, which stifles boldness and zeal [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].
With which of the servants do we identify? What do we see when we think about God and when we consider his expectations of us? Do we feel threatened by God, who (we fear) is really just out to get us? Do we - like the wicked, lazy servant - imagine that the challenging situations in which we find ourselves in life are just traps God sets for us to catch us in failure to fulfill his will? Or do we recognize, in his will for us, an unprecedented opportunity - to live a new and abundant life of moral responsibility, and an invitation to a life of ever increasing closeness with God?
With which of the three do we identify? Notice that we have three possibilities here, and I for one have always been struck by the fact that the servant with the 2 talents, in terms of the resources he has to work with, actually starts out a lot closer to the wicked, lazy servant than he does to the superstar servant with the 5 talents. Like the servant with only 1 talent, the one with the 2 seems to lack any obvious star quality or signs of greatness. In terms of what he is willing to do with what he has been given, in terms of his outlook on life, however, the one with the 2 talents seems so much closer to the one with the 5 – and light years away from the wicked, lazy servant with only 1 talent, whose self-absorbed focus on his powerlessness, his sense of himself as a poor victim, have turned him into someone like the person one of my professors once called a silent spectator in the story of his own life!
Like the three servants in the parable – and like the worthy wife, extolled for her endeavors in today’s 1st reading [Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31] – each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by being boldly invested in getting out of ourselves and joining with others - in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church, whose mission it is to share our master’s joy with all the world.
Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 16, 2014.