33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 19, 2017
First Reading: Proverbs 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Responsorial Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6
Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
When St. Teresa of Calcutta was asked how she got started working in the slums, she remembered the moment exactly: “It was on the tenth of September 1946, in the train that took me to Darjeeling, the hill station in the Himalayas, that I heard the call of God…. The message was clear: I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged, but I did not know how to get there.” In the coming years, St. Teresa would repeatedly refer to the big and little acts done out of love for Christ as doing “something beautiful for God.” And she would insist that each one of us has the capacity and the opportunity many times a day to do something beautiful for God, if only we can learn to see the countless invitations God extends to us.
A heart that is on the lookout for these invitations and eager to accept them is, to use the language of our first reading this week and the responsorial psalm, a heart that “fears the Lord.” By now most people have heard that the biblical idea of “fear of the Lord” means something like awe, reverence, and obedience to God. Or, to put it another way, it means to love God. A heart that loves God is attuned to the ways of God, always seeking to learn from God and to respond to God’s promptings. This is why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps 111:10). Those wise virgins we heard about last week loved the Lord, and they were ready for him, filling up their oil lamps daily, weekly, yearly, by responding to his countless invitations to do something beautiful for God.
The First Letter of John tells us that “perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18). I hope the sacred writer will excuse me if I rephrase that: “perfect fear of the Lord drives out fear.” It’s this second kind of fear that’s the problem for the third servant in our Gospel this week. “Master, I knew you were a demanding person…so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.” The servant was afraid that if he tried to do something with that talent and it didn’t turn out right, the master would punish him, or at least be very angry and disappointed. He knew his demanding master–who harvested where he did not plant and gathered where he did not scatter–expected something from him, but he wasn’t sure what it was; the master gave no instructions to any of the servants about what to do with the talents he had given them. Maybe the servant thought, “He only gave me one talent because he doesn’t trust me with more. Well, it’s only one talent; not much I can do with that. And in any case, he won’t be happy with anything I could possibly do with so little. Better not risk messing the whole thing up. I’ll just bury it in the ground and forget about it.”
The poor servant, knowing he was supposed to do something, but not being exactly sure what it was, let his fear get the best of him and it paralyzed him. Rather than get things wrong, he didn’t even try. Rather than just do a little something with what he was given, he did nothing at all because he was sure it wouldn’t be enough. The irony is that he knew one thing for sure–his master had given him something and expected him to do something with it.
Readers through the ages have seen in this parable a symbol of many things, so I too will give it a go. Perhaps we can see in those talents the master gave out the promptings of the Spirit, those little graceful nudges of the sort St. Teresa received on the train that day in 1946. She wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it, but she knew she was being given something to do. The Lord had handed her some talents and expected her to do something with them. She could have, like the servant, discounted what she had been given, brushing it off as unimportant and getting on with her life. Or she could have turned down the invitation–well, she saw it as an order–out of fear of getting it wrong or not doing enough. But she didn’t. She had already developed a heart that feared the Lord, that was receptive to the invitation to do something beautiful for God.
We all get them, these promptings–these orders–many times each day. Sometimes we respond to them and sometimes we don’t. Probably if we thought about it, we could name a persistent nudge we are getting that is calling us to start doing something, or stop doing something, but we are afraid to take the leap, to trust that it’s the right thing to do, that it’s what God is asking of us (or, frankly, ordering us to do). Or maybe we have persuaded ourselves that what we feel called to do is really too small to be consequential. It can’t possibly mean much to God. But we know that holy lives–which mean very much to God–are generally not created in one great moment, but in thousands of little moments, one after the other, daily, weekly, yearly. Our treasure in heaven is built up one talent at a time.
In these last weeks before Advent the Church asks us to reflect seriously on our lives and to consider how prepared we are for their end. Will we look back, like the goats in next week’s Gospel, and suddenly see the countless invitations that we ignored, brushed off as unimportant, or rejected out of fear? Or will we draw inspiration from the famous and not-so-famous men and women we remember this month, those intrepid souls who took those talents and did something with them? Here at the end of the year, we pray for the grace to respond to the countless invitations we receive daily, weekly, yearly–and every single time, not to be afraid to do something beautiful for God.
Br. John R. Barker, OFM
Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies