Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB

It is the vocation of each of us to multiply our spiritual gifts

Voices Sept. 12, 2017

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, smiles with the participants of the WCCCLC during their annual camp in Chilliwack. (Photos by Janet Yee / Special to The B.C. Catholic)

This is an excerpt from homily given Sept. 2 during the annual Western Canadian Chinese Living Camp held in Chilliwack.

The Gospel passage recounting the famous parable of the talents, related by St. Matthew (Mt 25:14-30) expresses the vocation and mission of each of us to multiply the spiritual gifts given so generously by the good Lord.

Before examining what Jesus wants to tell us in the parable, let’s dismiss one common interpretation that we often hear. It cannot be invoked to justify a “God helps those who help themselves” approach to treating our neighbours, letting us off the hook of being concerned about the less fortunate and the marginalized, blaming them for the difficult situations they often find themselves in. Here’s what Pope Francis thinks about this attitude: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

Like every parable, this one of the talents, tells us something about who God is – and what it means for us as to follow Jesus as a disciple. Moreover, the word “talent” can be both interpreted in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. In the first century, a talent equalled what a labourer would earn in the span of 15 years, a huge amount of money for the severely underpaid people of those days.

The master distributes vast sums of money to each “according to his ability;” that is, in a very personalized fashion. Not everyone receives the same number or kind of talents. Remember, too, that in the parable of the sower (Mt 13:1-9), Jesus indicated that those called to the kingdom would produce different yields. What is asked of each servant is that they be accountable for what they have received, regardless of the amount.

Perhaps it was because he knew this parable that later the Apostle Paul could write so beautifully and so forcefully about the diversity of gifts in the Body of Christ, where each one is given to build up that Body (Eph 4:1-16). What’s important, of course, is not how many or what particular talents we receive, but how we use them.

The different gifts we each receive, therefore, “belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular ‘talents’ share the benefits with those who need them," as the Catechism says. "These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment of cultures.”

The master in the parable represents Christ himself; the servants are his disciples – let’s think of ourselves – and the talents are the gifts of grace that Jesus entrusts to us. The “journey” of the master is that of his going to Jerusalem to suffer his death and resurrection.        

 The first two servants invest wisely and double what they had received. They receive, in return “the joy of their master.” But the third servant did not make his gift increase in any way. He just buried it. He hid it away, afraid of losing it.

But what really are those gifts or “talents”? While we can see them as personal endowments or natural qualities given to each of us – one is good at calculus, another can make a garden grow, another can teach young children – perhaps another, even better, interpretation is possible. In fact, this is always the case with parables. Many ways of understanding them are open to the listener.

At this deeper level, the talents given represent the riches that the Lord Jesus has given to us as a legacy. What are they? The gift of faith and all the means to preserve and increase it; the Word of God, deposited in the Scriptures; the sacraments flowing from the side of Christ crucified; above all, his merciful love offered to all. These are the great treasure that Jesus entrusted to his friends at the end of his brief life on earth.

What we have received in trust, we are to multiply for the master. What we receive from God – the gifts of natural abilities and, above all, the gifts of grace – are not meant just for ourselves but for the Lord and his people and are to be returned to him with increase. It is through this return to the Lord that we merit the commendation of being “good and trustworthy” (Mt 25: 21,23).

Let’s take, for example, the “talent” or gift of God’s forgiveness each of us has received from Christ, who died for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8). This is a gift designed to be shared: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The gifts we receive – both natural and supernatural – are not meant to be sources of pride but placed in the service of others.

The first two servants “went off at once and traded” with their talents. Unafraid, they multiplied what they had. Is this not like love? The more we give ourselves away, the more we increase love in the world.

The problem with the timid third servant who buried his talent in the ground is not that he was an ineffective venture capitalist but that he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of what he had been given. He feared the master who gave the talent. 

In the words of Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew, "He did so because he assumed that the giver had given a gift that could only be lost [hence the hiding] or used up [hence the fear to use it]. In other words, the one with one talent assumed he or she was part of a zero-sum game. Those who assume that life is a zero-sum game think that if one person receives an honour then someone else is made poorer.”

This servant tried to turn the gift into a possession. Buried in the ground, that is to say, hugged tightly to oneself as one’s own possession, such a talent necessarily disappears.

The harsh judgment on the unproductive servant is easier now to understand. Because we have, all of us, received the message of salvation in Jesus, we bear a great responsibility. To sit on that message or to bury it for ourselves or for a small and congenial group that we like to hang around with is a serious breach of our responsibility to the Lord who calls us to share his good news with the world.

Pope Francis, commenting on the parable of the talents, said this: Jesus does not ask us to preserve his grace in a safe. Jesus does not ask us this! He wants us to use it for the benefit of others, and that’s how it grows. It is as if he tells us, “Here is my mercy, my tenderness, my forgiveness; take it and use it.” And what have we done? Whom have we “infected” with our faith? How many have we encouraged with our hope? How much love have we shared?

It is clear that on the Day of Judgment, a day that is coming for us all, we shall have to render an account for the gift of faith given to us and how we made it increase not just in ourselves but how we have shared it with others. Keeping the gift for ourselves alone is not an option. “Only by investing our gifts and turning a profit for the Lord will we enter the joy of his kingdom.”

The third servant, on the other hand, digs a hole in the ground and buries his one talent. Why does he do that? Because he is afraid he is going to lose it if he trades with it. He must have reasoned like this: “Well, those with more talents can afford to take a risk. If they lost a talent, they could make it up later. But me, I have only one talent. If I lose it, end of story! So I better play it safe and just take care of it.”

Many of us are like this third servant. Because we do not see ourselves as possessing outstanding gifts and talents, we conclude that there is nothing that we do. Do you know someone who loves to sing, and would like to do so, but who would not join the choir because she is afraid she is not gifted with a golden voice?  Do you know someone who is on fire and would like to spread the Gospel to his friends but is afraid he does not know enough Bible and theology?

When people like this end up doing nothing, they are following in the footsteps of the third servant who buried his one talent in the ground. There might be other reasons why the third servant decided to hide his talent. Maybe he compared himself to the other servants with more talents, saw himself at the bottom rung of the ladder, and became discouraged. He did not realize that with his one talent, if he made just one more talent, he would be rewarded as greatly as the servant with five talents who made five more.

We are not all measured by the same rule. To whom much is given, much is required. We are not to lock up his grace in a safety deposit box. 

Each of us has received at least one great talent; indeed the greatest of all, we have received the gift of faith. Our responsibility as men and women of faith is not just to preserve and “keep” the faith, though that is certainly important. We also need to trade with it. We need to sell it to the men and women of our times. We need to promote it among our families and friends, our colleagues and co-workers whose hearts are restless, who are hungry for the truth, even if they do not recognize it and take false paths.

I invite each of us to undertake the adventure of evangelization: to put your faith to work and be a missionary disciple. Be like Mary, who bore the Christ in her womb to Elizabeth. Bring Jesus to others!

This is an adventure that brings with it much risk and inconvenience. But, unless we do this, we stand in danger of losing the faith just as the third servant lost his talent.

The way to preserve the faith, or any other talent that God has given us, is to put it to work and make it bear fruit. As young Chinese men and women you have indeed been showered with many gifts. But you cannot hoard them; you cannot bury the talents received but are called, each one, to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to others: to tell them that meeting this person, they discover the Way, the Truth and the Life. Jesus has come so that we might have life, and life “in abundance” (Jn 10:10).

When we love, we are often called “foolish”; we are driven to taking risks as the wise servants did in the Gospel. God has blessed you with faith. Share it.

Let us pray during this Eucharist that each of us will recognize the gifts we have received from God and make them fruitful for the kingdom. Only then will we enter into the joy of our Lord.