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 each of our own lives and at the end of human history.
This familiar parable portrays two good and faithful servants, and a wicked, lazy servant, who seems to value caution above all else.
Now, obviously, in our ordinary day-to-day world, some degree of caution usually makes sense. 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 is condemned as much for his fear of failure as for his actual failure to accomplish anything - for his cautious inactivity and passivity.
The two good and faithful servants, in contrast, are praised and rewarded. They too were prudent - in their own way (which turned out 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, instead of immobilizing them, inspired them actually to do something bold with what he entrusted to them.
Now, since this is a parable about the kingdom of God, the master’s expectations of his servants 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 the older I get (and maybe it is because I am getting older) I am more and more appreciative of the one in the middle, the one we are more likely to overlook, as if he were just a weaker version of the servant with the 5 talents. The reality of, of course, that, even at our best, we don’t all have 5 talents, and we are not always at our best. Over time we all tend to feel we can do less, not more. The servant with only 2 talents might easily give in to the same temptation as the servant with only 1 talent, focusing on his limitations instead of his opportunities But he doesn’t, and so ends up feeling more like the one with the 5 talents!
Like the three servants in the parable – and like the worthy wife, extolled for her endeavors in today’s 1st reading – 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 outside 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, Saint Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 19, 2017.