Homily for the 33rd Sunday In Ordinary Times
Cycle A Given at St. Jude, November 19, 2023
By Deacon Ken Steponaitis
As we continue our journey to the end of the liturgical year, the Church wants us to be thinking about the end. And in faith, the Church teaches that there will be a second coming of Jesus at the end of time and it will be then that there will be a judgement of the living and the dead. I don’t know about you, but for me it seems a bit scary whenever I think about the end of anything that I want to keep going.
It’s a fear of losing something. But maybe even more to the point, fear brings about choices in our lives that God does not want of us. And often, fear comes about because of our misunderstandings or because of the unknowns and always because of distrust. So, when we read in our Gospel today about that third servant who, decided to keep his talent safe from possible loss rather than invest it and “out of fear went off and buried [the] talent in the ground,” we have to ask ourselves, why did Jesus consider the servant wicked and lazy, and why would that servant be thrown out into the darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth? That must grab your attention! It might even scare you.
To better understand the fear of the servant and, at the same time, the mind of Jesus … the mind of God … we need to put this parable into context.
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew wrote to a community of mostly Jewish-Christians. It was the Jews, the Israelites, who are called by God as the Chosen people. But they were not chosen to seclude themselves; to separate themselves from the rest of humanity. They were chosen because God wants his “chosen” to be examples to the rest of the world. And often living out the will of God is scary especially around those who oppose that lifestyle or that mindset. It’s just easier to separate ourselves from those who oppose us. Much of what Matthew writes in his Gospel concerns Jesus trying to show the Jews what it means to be the chosen race, the servants of God.
Over the past few Sundays, we have read Jesus telling us parables that are trying to get us to take inventory of our lives. They are about how we can be sure that we are truly ready and able to accept the gift of salvation at the end of time.
Today’s parable of the talents is about those who trust and understand the master enough to be willing to not only take care of the treasure entrusted to them, but also to use that treasure to invest and gain more treasure. And what is the treasure? It is humanity! We are God’s treasures and God wants us back. God wants us to partner with God to share in his joy of obtaining more treasure.
One way we know we are ready for the end times is to not think and do as the servant did who buried the talent out of fear of losing it. In those days it was common for a trusted servant to be given responsibility for their master’s wealth. Whenever the master would journey for a long time, the trusted servant was to act as though they were the owner of that wealth.
A talent is said to be worth 15 years of wages for a common worker. So, for a servant to simply bury the treasure while his master was away would be like you hiring a financial advisor who never invested your money and then 40 years later only returned to you what you gave him when you were ready to retire. You’d probably call him wicked and lazy. And when we don’t invest the talents given to us and just bury them, it’s as if we have been cast out into the darkness where there is wailing and grinding of teeth, not because of God’s punishment, but because of our regret for having been afraid of doing what we knew deep inside us, was right.
One way I can illustrate the mindset of the last servant is to tell you about my own experience with fear.
I was afraid of becoming a parent. I saw how my parents spent so much keeping my siblings and me safe, sheltered and fed. I saw how we inhibited them from doing the things they wanted to do. I saw all the heartache my parents went through when I gave them a hard time.
After having fallen away from the Church and then coming back, I realized one important fact about myself. I was not happy, nor was I fulfilled. It was that kind of wailing and grinding of teeth we hear about in the Gospel. And … I was afraid. I didn’t want to lose what I had. I didn’t want to lose my wealth, my freedom, my comfort, or my safety. And having children threatened all of that. And I was not sure I could be a good father.
By the time Ruby and I decided we should be parents … me reluctantly, her enthusiastically … we had to adopt. And during the entire adoption process, my heart was saying we needed to do this, but my head was saying, be afraid, be very afraid!
And you would think going through the adoption process would put me at ease. But no, they taught us about all the possible problems that children who were put up for adoption could have; from mothers who took drugs during their pregnancy, to the physical and emotional problems these children were likely to have. So, no, that didn’t help. But something inside me … God’s grace? … as well as my wife, Ruby, kept encouraging me to keep going.
One Saturday morning (oddly about 9 months after starting the adoption process) now done with all the adoption logistics, I decided to go take a run … probably out of fear I’d lose my health. While I was running, I began praying and telling God, quite reluctantly, I thought I was ready. So, I prayed, “God, if it is your will bring on a child!”
On Monday morning, we got a call from Catholic Services that a family had selected us as the parents of an 8-week-old infant boy. By Friday evening of that same week, we were on our way to Catholic Services to pick him up. You want to talk about fear, and nerves … I needed a drink!
When we arrived at Catholic Services, they asked us to wait in a seating area. Ruby and I sat there silently. I could tell Ruby sat there with anticipation, but cool as cucumber ... but me? I sat there with dread, sweating up a storm and nervous. When the social worker brought what would be our son, she held him in such a way that she leaned him sideways so that only his head was peering around the door sill of the sitting room. My first sight of what would become my first son was of an oversized head with the cutest and most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I immediately fell in love.
That night, the first night as a parent, God had taken away all those concerns and fears. I never felt so right, so at peace.
It was then that I realized what I could have lost. And if I had succumbed to my fears, it would only be in the end times that I would have learned of that loss. It was then that I realized what Jesus meant when we are thrown out into the darkness where there is wailing and grinding of teeth.
When I think about this third servant who instead of overcoming his fears decided to bury his talent, I can empathize with him.
I think it is better to understand this parable in a way that has more to do with how we can come to regret burying the treasures entrusted to us. It would be as though we recognize how useless we were, or how wicked our motivations or how lazy we were. It would be in that disposition that we would feel thrown into the darkness.
Before coming back to the Church, I saw God as a tyrant. I saw God as someone who would punish me if God didn’t get His way. And if you read this parable closely, I think that third servant saw God the same way when he said, “Master, I knew you were a demanding person.” But God is not demanding. However, God is relentless. God relentlessly pursues us, and God wants us to pursue others in the way He pursues us. God is always trying to convince us of how wonderful our lives can be, and will be, if we can somehow come to understand Him and trust Him and then rely on Him to give us the courage to be good and faithful servants. It is in being good and faithful servants that we obtain joy and peace in our lives.
The servant who buried his talent represents those who misunderstand and distrust God; those who think God will hold it against us for having tried and failed. But the thing is, trusting in God to do His will means, we can’t fail. God never fails and will not allow us to fail at the very task He is asking us to accomplish. But to never even try because we are afraid?
According to several sources I read, scripture tells us 365 times, in various ways, do not be afraid!
To use the talents entrusted to us looks like a high school student who sticks up for the person being bullied or who offers their time to help the person who everyone else stays away from. It looks like that parent who sticks up for their child for saying and doing the right thing when everyone else thinks it’s wrong. It looks like the business owner, willing to hire an ex-convict who is trying to turn away from a life of crime. It looks like a worker who is willing to confront their boss about something they know was unethical or supporting the person who is unwilling to do what they know is wrong. And it looks like a Church, the worthy bride of Christ, that is willing, as our first reading says, “to bring him good and not evil all the days of her life.” A Church willing to stand by her Husband, spreading the gospel and teachings to a world that is telling her, “Get with the times.”
Do not be afraid. God will not have us do anything that He is not willing to help us through. Success in God’s eyes is not always what we consider success. Jesus, from a purely human perspective, was an abject failure. But we know better. It was through the humiliation of the cross that Jesus defeated evil. And it is through our cooperation with God both individually and as a Church that the Kingdom of God is at hand.