Sermon: Growing our Talents through Vocation
Dominica XXXIII per annum, A
Don’t you feel sorry for this “wicked, lazy servant”? He hasn’t done anything wrong, has he? His master has entrusted him with a large sum of money. He hasn’t embezzled it, stolen it, or lost it. He gives his master back exactly what was entrusted to him. What has he done to be treated so badly? And why does he have to give over his master’s money to the man who already has ten times as much? In what world is that fair?
We probably know most of the answers to these questions. We know that the master is God the Father, and that the “long journey” he goes on is our time on this earth. We know, hopefully, that the “talents” the master entrusts to his servants represent our own God-given abilities that the Lord wants us to cultivate not only for our own personal good but for His glory and for the advancement of His kingdom. (A talent is an ancient monetary instrument worth 20 years’ wages – about $1.2 million today if we base that on the median household income in Elkhart County. The modern use of the world “talent” comes from that ancient expression and precisely from the way that Jesus uses it in this parable.)
But even if we know all that, the way that the master treats this unfortunate servant could easily still strike us as unjust. Jesus makes very clear that the punishments for such a person will be real and they will be harsh. It has become fashionable for people to think that Jesus did not really believe in eternal punishments – that the whole idea of Hell and damnation are Old Testament notions that Jesus overcame with His Gospel of love and forgiveness. But almost every reference to Hell in the Bible comes from the very lips of Jesus Himself. So the stakes here are very high.
The master judges this servant harshly but justly because he entrusted this large sum of money for him to do something with it. Any businessmen could tell you that the servant has actually cost his master money. If he had entrusted the talent to either of the others, they would have doubled it. So the lazy, wicked servant has cost his master one talent – over a million dollars!
St. Paul tells us today, “You … are not in darkness, for [the coming of the Lord] to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. … Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” We are children of the light. Because of our Baptism, God has chosen each one of us for a critical mission in this world. He has called us to be holy and entrusted us with a far greater fortune than even the five talents given to the most trustworthy servant. He has given us the presence of His very self, living in our souls through the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity. He has given us the treasure of His Son, who drew near to us in the Incarnation and continues to give us His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in Holy Communion.
A critical idea for understanding how each one of us is to develop the talents God has entrusted to us through these immense gifts of His grace is vocation. God has a unique plan for you because he loves you and created you out of infinite love. He knows you better than you know yourself, and He desires to use the amazing person that you are to accomplish a unique mission in this world, and even in the next.
The first vocation or calling of each Christian is the vocation to holiness, to be a child of the light and of the day. We are not valuable to God because we are useful. The most seemingly useless or unproductive people are those most beloved to God. He calls us first and foremost not to do, but to be: to be loved by Him and to love Him in return. He has suffered, died, and risen from the dead not only to pay a penalty due to our sins but to win our love, like a man in love who wins the love and affection of his beloved.
If it does not seem clear to us how God is calling us to use our talents, it is because we have forgotten this first calling, to be God’s beloved sons and daughters. The wicked and useless servant buries his talent out of fear. This is us when we lose sight of the love God has for us, when we focus only on our obligations and the things we think we need to do to win God’s love. It’s easy to be paralyzed by fear if we think that God is out to get us rather than recalling that He does absolutely everything out of love for you, His beloved son or daughter.
After the first calling that we all share – the call to be holy – we can think of three principal callings or vocations. The most common is the vocation to marriage. God has made men and women fundamentally for each other and given us the ability to commit ourselves to a life-long, fruitful, and loving union. We too often short-change marriage as a calling from God. We think of it as the default position – God didn’t call me to the priesthood or religious life, so I must be supposed to get married. Or, we think of marriage as the result of romantic attraction – “we fell in love and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, so we got married.”
Marriage is so much more than this, though. The Catechism tell us, “Since God created them man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.” Married love makes God’s love present in the world. When spouses are faithful, they show us the fidelity of God, who does not abandon His people. When their love is fruitful by being generously open to the generation of new life in their children, they show us that God’s love brings about generous fruit in our lives. “Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves.” In the generation of new life, spouses cooperate in the very creative work of God. There is no higher natural calling that anyone could have on this earth than to join God Himself in being a cause of new life. When spouses sacrifice themselves for each other and for their children, they make it believable that Jesus would sacrifice Himself out of love for us. When they forego the demands of a materialist society in order to focus their lives on Christ, they inspire others to take up their Cross and follow the Lord.
The other two principal callings or vocations – the priesthood and religious life – involve the foregoing of the great good of marriage. This is not because marriage is not good or holy, but precisely the opposite. It is only because marriage and the family are so good that the choice to forego them can be a heroic sacrifice by those called to consecrate themselves totally to the Lord. The charism of celibacy – choosing to forego marriage for Christ’s Kingdom – is a gift from God, a gift to be treasured by the man or woman who receives it and also by the Church that is the reason for God choosing men and women to consecrate themselves more completely to Him.
These two vocations – to marriage and to celibacy – complement one another. As a celibate priest, I am inspired to be a greater spiritual father by the heroic witness of natural fatherhood and motherhood on the part of Christian mothers and fathers, and to be a better husband to my bride, the Church, by the fidelity and perseverance of Christian marriages. Priests and religious who are faithful to their own consecration to the Lord in celibate (that is, unmarried) chastity can also be an inspiration to spouses and parents to live true dedication to their own vocation. So the Church’s insistence on celibacy for Her ministers in no way lessens the dignity of the vocation of marriage.
The vocation of marriage and family life gives you fertile ground for growing the talents entrusted to you by the Lord. In the rite of Baptism, a lighted candle is given to the parents and godparents of the child, and they are instructed to keep this light burning brightly until the day of the Lord. As parents or godparents, have you kept those lights burning brightly for your children? Are you growing the talents of their spiritual lives?
It is important to recognize, though, that not all of us here fit exactly into this mold. Some of us may still be discerning our own vocations, trying to figure out what God’s plan is for you. Don’t give in to the fear of the man with one talent. The servant who doubles the five talents took risks. Following God’s plans can seem risky too. Committing yourself to only person for the rest of your life can be scary: What if they change? What if I change? Can I really promise that 30, 40, 50 years from now I’ll still be willing to be married to that one person? Giving up the possibility of marriage to pursue the priesthood or the religious life might seem an even bigger risk yet. Could I really be happy without a spouse and family of my own?
Can anyone really make a commitment for an entire lifetime? Shouldn’t we be free to change our minds? As a priest, I have been privileged to be very close, physically, to people as they make some of the most important decisions in their lives. There’s this neat moment in every wedding, when the bride has been handed off to her groom, and the couple turns and faces me. They get the chance to catch their breath, to pause as the organist finishes the processional. I’m the only person in the entire world who can see their faces in that moment. I’ve seen nearly every emotion imaginable in that one rare moment of their wedding day when there isn’t a camera in their face. I’ve often thought in that moment, that a young couple before the altar demonstrates an incredible amount of faith. They have no idea what God and life have in store for them. But it’s precisely the uncertainty of it all that makes that moment so exciting, so filled with nervous joy. I’ve seen something strikingly similar on the faces of young men who approach the Bishop’s throne to be ordained priests, who can’t help but steal a look of friendly reassurance to calm the nervous excitement.
It is precisely the lack of total certainty about what the rest of life holds that makes these the most thrilling moments of life. Without faith, life cannot have true joy. Faith is not stepping off into a dark abyss – neither marriage, nor priestly ordination, nor the religious life involves a “leap of faith,” which is a profoundly un-Catholic notion. We know, truly know that God will help us to be faithful to such a life-altering commitment if we have made every effort to determine that what we do corresponds to His will, even if we don’t know exactly the circumstances in which God will make good on that pledge. So the question is really not, “Can I actually commitment myself to something for the rest of my life?”, but, “What kind of happiness am I missing out on if I don’t?”
Our Lord’s story of the master who entrusts his servants with these immense sums does leave this out – He is not merely gone on a journey. He has ascended into Heaven, but precisely to be even more present. He expects a big return on His investment in us, but producing those results is not something that depends solely on our own efforts. His Holy Spirit is already at work in us, helping us to be the “children of the light” who “stay alert and sober.” By attentively discerning and living our vocations in this life, we can be those faithful servants who will receive even more and grow rich in God’s grace in this life, and forever with Him in the next.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXXIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXX
Image: The Parable of the Talents by Willem de Poorter. Narodni Gallery, Prague.