November 13, 2011 - Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

A talent is not a special ability. That English word is based on an imperfect reading of this parable. We cannot understand this parable correctly until we forget the English word and think about what Jesus’ words meant to those who were listening to him. A talent is a small pile of silver. A talent is 6000 drachmae. Good pay 2000 years ago was six drachmae a week, so think of a talent as being equal to whatever you earn in 1000 weeks, which is 20 years. It is a lot of money, about a million dollars.

So the rich man is going on a journey and he has to decide what to do with his money. He could put it all in the bank, but instead he divides it among three of his slaves. He entrusts it to them, not equally, but to each according to his abilities. Here is a sign that the talents do not stand for special abilities. The master gives to each servant according to his abilities, so the talents cannot symbolize abilities.

So what do the talents stand for, what do they symbolize? The stand for what they are: money. Not simply money, since money is always a symbol itself, but everything that money stands for: power, convenience, fame, influence, comfort, honor, etc. In short, what we call "life". Not biological life, but like the phrase "This is my life." We see the first two servants go out and invest their talents. The symbol here is a willingness to risk their lives, their lifestyles.

I think of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata. She was a successful Sister, teaching in a girl’s school in India. She had no money of course, but she had comforts and respect. Jesus told her to go serve the poor, so she gave up everything and started caring for the people dying on the streets of Kolkata. She went out into the world and risked her position, her honor, and her investments paid back well. In this world, she won the Nobel Prize, started a successful religious order, and became very famous. When she got to heaven and Jesus asked her what she did with the life and opportunities he entrusted to her, Teresa could point to the Missionaries of Charity, and Jesus surely said, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

Then I think of a young actor and playwright named Karol Wojtyła. He might have been a successful actor. For all we know, he could have been the most famous actor in all of Poland. Instead, he heard God call him to the priesthood. So in the middle of World War II, he studied for the priesthood. Then he was ordained a priest during the Soviet occupation of Poland, when the atheist government was trying to get rid of the Catholic Church. He put his honor and safety and comfort on the line. He gave up any chance at being wealthy. In this world, he became a bishop, a cardinal, and the Pope. When he got to heaven and Jesus asked him what he did with the life and opportunities he entrusted to him, John Paul could point to the strengthening of the Church and the clarification of difficult doctrines, and Jesus surely said, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

Then I think of an up and coming student who excelled beyond any of his classmates. His name was Saul. He was a rabbi and might have become one of the great rabbis in history. Then Jesus revealed to him the Resurrection, and he gave up the life, the comforts, his friends and family. He joined a new sect led by some fishermen. For twelve years he made tents for a living. Then he was chosen to wander the world as a poor beggar telling people about Jesus, which he did for about 20 years, sometimes in prison. In this world, he was respected by some and rejected by many. Today, we honor him as the Apostle Paul, with not one but two feast days. When he got to heaven and Jesus asked him what he did with the life and opportunities that he had entrusted to him, Paul could point to Corinth and Thessalonica and Ephesus and many other cities where he brought the Gospel, and Jesus surely said, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

I could go on and on with every saint. So many people who chose to risk their lives and found happiness. The risked everything rather than bury their life in the earth, in the world. So many people bury their lives in their jobs or in games or in vanity. There are many places you could bury your life, but none of them will give you anything back. We give the world so much, and we are foolish to expect anything in return.

Jesus does give a third option. Some people are too afraid to invest their lives in the Gospel mission. Some people are too timid to give up everything and follow Jesus. Clearly, burying their lives in this world is not a good option. Well, they will never make the rates of return that a saint gets, but they should put their talent in a bank so that it will at least earn interest. What is the bank if not the Church? Many people live this way. They go to Mass on Sunday. They love their neighbors. They obey the teaching of the Church in all matters, even when they do not understand it. They have their money in the bank. When they get to heaven and Jesus asks them what they did with the life and opportunities that he entrusted to them, they can say, “I was afraid to go out into the deep. I was too afraid to risk everything, so I entrusted my life to the Church. Here is your talent with interest.” Jesus will say, “You were afraid to risk everything. We could have done amazing things together. Here you will learn to never be afraid anymore. Come, enter into my joy.”

That is a possible path, and if you are timid, you should take it. Better that than expecting this world to give you a return on what you give it. Yet I would not say that I recommend this path, this straddling the fence, this investment strategy. No. Do not be afraid. Risk everything. Begin living your life like heaven is the only thing you want. Begin loving other people like it was your job. Miss out on everything this world has to offer, and be so happy. Be not afraid, if you can.