Monday, November 14, 2011

Homily 33rd Sun O.T. Year A–Love Makes Service Easy

talentsLike my other recent homilies, this is a revision of a homily I wrote a few years ago but never delivered to a congregation.

As we approach the end of Ordinary Time, our readings have been preparing us for the theme of the coming season of Advent: being prepared and ready for the coming of the Lord; not only at Christmas, but also at our own death, and at the end of time. Today’s readings show us a special way in which we can be prepared: by being faithful stewards. I know the word “stewardship” and the familiar phrase “time, talent, and treasure” are used too much. Sometimes I wonder if they have lost their meaning. We focus too much on questions like “how much do I have to give?” rather than questions like “what gifts has God given me?”; “how does their use reflect my love for Him?”; and “what is God’s will for me?” When we move away from focusing on certain amounts of time or money to prayerful discernment of God’s will, then we can truly bear much fruit in this parish. But, these questions are not only significant to the life of our parish. As our Gospel teaches us today, they are significant for our eternal salvation as well.

Our readings provide many examples of the proper way to approach stewardship. In Proverbs the virtues of a “woman who fears the Lord” are extolled. She is one who is reverent, religious, and faithful, and works hard for God, her husband, and her family. I know many of the ladies of this parish to already be this type of woman. But I encourage all of the ladies of this parish to look at our first reading closely, pray with it, and hold up this woman of Proverbs as your example. While the text we have been given reads “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize”, a better translation would be that he, because of this trust, “will have no lack of gain”. Her work and her service are always productive and fruitful, not just for him, but for God and her community too. She has prayerfully discerned God’s call for her life and has lived it joyfully and abundantly. Of her our psalm exclaims, “Blessed are you who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways!”

Our Gospel, on the other hand, offers us, ultimately, a strong example of what NOT to do in regards to stewardship and it issues us a bold challenge. It forces us to take a good hard look at our lives. Sometimes we fail to answer the call to authentic, Christian stewardship. The temptation to be slothful, like the third servant, can be hard to resist. Now, our Gospel uses the word “lazy”, not “slothful” but sloth is definitely the sin described here. And as you all know, it is one of the traditional seven deadly sins. The woman in Proverbs was everything but slothful. What then is this deadly sin of sloth?

In general it means being disinclined toward labor or exertion; not physical labor, but spiritual labor. St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “sadness in the face of some spiritual good which one has to achieve” (ST II-II:35). One theologian, Fr. Rickaby, describes it as the “don’t-care feeling.” We can all go through bouts of this from time to time:

A man apprehends the practice of virtue to be beset with difficulties and chafes under the restraints imposed by the service of God. The narrow way stretches wearily before him and his soul grows sluggish… at the thought of the painful life journey. The idea of right living inspires not joy but disgust, because of its laboriousness.

“In other words,” he says, “a man is then formally distressed at the prospect of what he must do for God to bring about or keep intact his friendship with God. In this sense sloth is directly opposed to charity.” He violates, therefore, expressly the first and the greatest of the commandments: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30).

There is no time to be slothful in our spiritual lives. I tell myself this as well. That said, I have been greatly encouraged by so many of you who obviously have discerned God’s will and work hard with the gifts he has given you: Like those of you who do so many good things that no one sees; those of you who prepare the sacristy, who serve Mass, distribute Holy Communion, and help out with our music; those of you who put so much work into parish events; who participate in parish council and other groups; who perform the daily tasks of upkeep of the parish; and who are involved in religious education and other ministries. All of you serve with such joy and dedication that it gives me much hope for my own ministry.

But, still there remains much more to do be done; not regarding mere dollar amounts or hours spent, like I said before, but regarding prayerful discernment of God’s will for the gifts he has given us. He is always calling us to follow him down the narrow way, to do good, to grow in virtue. The motto of the Benedictines is “Ora et Labora”, prayer and work. We must do both, now, for St. Paul in our second reading reminds us, just like the Parable of the Ten Maidens last weekend, that our Lord will come again suddenly and unexpectedly, he says, “like a thief at night.” “Therefore let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” so that we will be prepared to give an account of our talents.

This word “talent,” interestingly enough, entered the English language directly from the parable in today’s Gospel. Here, a “talent” is a large sum of money roughly equal, at that time, to 100 pounds of silver or 15 to 20 years’ wages of a laborer. The master entrusted a different number of talents to each of his three servants according to their ability and expected them to make a profit for him. The first and second servants doubled what was given to them and both received the same reward: “great responsibilities” and a share in the master’s joyful banquet. But the third servant out of fear and laziness squandered what was given to him so his talent was given to the first servant and he was thrown out of the master’s presence and separated from him.

This parable, like the others, has a deeply spiritual significance. We are the servants. The talents are the qualities God has bestowed on us, both those we are born with, like intellectual capacity and musical ability or those we receive as supernatural graces, like personal holiness or spiritual insight. The journey of the master, during which the servants where to invest their talents, signifies the duration of our life. His unexpected return signifies our death and his settling of accounts is our judgment. Finally the master’s joy, the banquet, is heaven.

Now is a good time to examine our approach to the gifts we have received from God. The Lord wants to see that his gifts have been well administered. Let us make use of the time we have to be ready. F. Suarez, a Mexican theologian explains that, after all,

When God is known well, it is not hard to love him. And when God is truly loved, it is not difficult to serve him… In fact, it even becomes a pleasure to serve him… The third servant knew his master well… [but] he did not love him. And when love is missing, serving becomes very difficult.

It doesn’t matter how many talents, natural or supernatural, we have received; what matters is discerning God’s will, loving Him and our fellow parishioners, and generously putting our talents to good use. Just as natural abilities like playing the piano become more perfect through use or become atrophied through disuse, so also graces that are used lead to an increase of grace, whereas graces that are neglected tend to be lost. We must respond to grace by making a genuine effort through our entire lives. Fr. Francis Fernandez, one of my favorite authors, illustrates this beautifully:

When life comes to an end, perhaps we may think something like a candle has gone out. But we should also see death as the time when something like a tapestry has been completed. We have watched this tapestry being made from the reverse side where the design of the artwork is blurred and the knots and twisted loops of the needlework are prominent. Our Father, God, contemplates the tapestry from the good side. He is pleased to behold a finished work that manifests a life-long effort to make good use of time.

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