Faith: PSA or Fire Within?

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Matthew 25:14-30

Submitted for our consideration this week is a parable of Jesus known as “The Parable of the Talents”. Because we use the word “talent” to refer to a personal gift or ability one of us may have, it’s easy to assume that this is what Jesus is talking about in this parable. Jesus, in this interpretation, is telling us to discover and use our talents as best we can. 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that advice. It is true, as far as it goes. Many homilists have spoken of this parable in just this way. One problem with this is that it can sound like one more public service announcement, or PSA. Here’s what I mean: (cue the DJ voice)

“Yes, that’s right, ladies and gentlemen: remember to put your talents at the service of God, parish, and community. This public service announcement is brought to you by W-I-N-O, AM and FM. (Cue the music) ‘Wonderful WINO, in winsome Waterville’…” (With apologies to George Carlin, who gave us that routine.)

There’s a problem with that approach, though. As soon as we start in like this, people tend to fade away and tune us out. They’ve heard it before. They may nod their heads once or twice, or even ask themselves if they are doing enough. But that’s about as far as it goes.

Why is that?

We can look at many possible explanations. I’ll stick with one. You see, when we start sounding like public service announcements, we also start sounding like another kind of PSA – public scold announcements! We – those in the pulpit, or others who fancy ourselves as being ‘in the know’ – scold others who need to be reminded of this, as well as other areas of Christian life. We perceive ourselves as “having” the faith, and then “giving” it to others who don’t have it in the same way. In this way, our listeners see this PSA, not as a reminder of something they already believe in and hold dear, but as something outside their experience. Something foreign. Strange. Something that is imposed from without. Something which can only motivate through fear.  If we try to interpret our faith as this kind of PSA, we may not get very far. We inspire no one – not even ourselves.

Now, there are times when we all need to be challenged, reminded, or even scolded (to a point) when it comes to how we live our faith. Any of us can easily drift into a state where we compromise our faith for various reasons. We may lose our sense of centeredness in the Lord. At times, we need someone to wake us up. But, if PSA faith is our only, or our primary, experience of faith, we have a problem.  It will never feel like our own. It will always feel like something strange, imposed on us from outside, something we do only out of fear or routine.  Nothing that would ever inspire is or yield any joy.

The parable itself offers us a vision of faith that cuts deeper than that.

What we have is a master who is about to go away on a long journey. Before he leaves, he entrusts large amounts of treasure to three of his servants. The amount that each gets is based on the master’s knowledge of that servant’s ability. In first century Palestine, a “talent” was a unit of weight – the largest unit of weight that was used to weigh precious metals. A talent of silver, for example, was worth approximately what the average day laborer could earn after fifteen years of working. Even the servant who receives only one talent, then, is still entrusted with a sizable amount of treasure or money.

The master not only entrusts these servants with large sums of money. He gives them no instructions as to what to do with it. He trusts that they know the value of what they have received, that they know him, and that they will know how to handle this appropriately.  The master not only knows these servants, but expresses a great deal of confidence in their abilities and their trustworthiness.

The first two servants recognize this act of trust on the part of the master, and their response shows that they get it. They proceed to work with their money with great skill, enthusiasm, and the willingness to take significant risks. They are themselves totally invested in the project: no PSA scolding necessary! Otherwise, they could not have doubled their master’s money in the meantime. They are ready when the master returns. They respond joyfully, showing the master the fruits of their efforts and risk. The master responds in the same way, and welcomes them to share his joy. The master simply ratifies what the first two servants have already chosen and experienced.  They have already been willing to risk all out of gratitude and love. They already share their master’s joy.

Our third servant is very different. He lives in a PSA world. He does not see the confidence his master is placing in him, nor the honor he is thus given. He sees this gift as an imposition from outside him, or an opportunity to mess up. Without that sense of gratitude for being entrusted with something very precious, he refuses to risk anything for his master’s sake. He won’t invest himself in it at all. He chooses to bury his master’s talent, and just gives it back to him on his return. This servant shows no joy. He claims that fear of his master made him do nothing. The master calls him lazy, and consigns him to the darkness outside, where there is “wailing and grinding of teeth”. Again, the master is not doing anything to this servant. He is simply ratifying what the servant has, in fact, chosen and experienced, and saying to him, in effect, “your will be done”.

To help us enter a little more deeply into this parable, it helps to remember the context. Jesus is in Jerusalem. He will be put to death in a matter of days, and he knows it. He himself has been like those first two servants in the parable. He is putting his human life on the line – risking it all – because of the overwhelming value of the call that the Father has entrusted to him. Jesus knows that, though this great risk, abundant fruit will come. Millions upon millions of people from that time on would come to believe, be forgiven, and saved.

Jesus is, by word and example, handing this same gift, the gift of the Gospel, on to his disciples. They will be first to act as the servants in the parable, after Jesus himself. Knowing what Jesus has done for them and for all the world, and filled with joy and gratitude, they will go forth, with much enthusiasm and skill. They will be willing to risk a great deal – even their very lives – in order to serve their master. They will already share their master’s joy on earth, and the fire within them will spread and motivate countless others to do the same.

This same, incredibly precious gift, is now handed on to us. It is now for us, in our time, to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. As soon as we begin to understand what the Master has entrusted to us, and the confidence he shows in us, we, too, will be like those servants in the parable, and like so many faith-filled people who have gone before us. We will feel a deep sense of wonder and gratitude that we, as small as we are, should be entrusted with so great a gift. We will find ourselves willing, able, and committed, to announcing the kingdom, the Gospel, in and through all we do and all we are. Our willingness to risk for the sake of the Gospel will bear fruit beyond our wildest expectations. Others will catch our fire within, and join the ranks of the servants of the Master.

What holds us back? What keeps the Church from looking more like what I have just described? There are surely many people and groups within the Church that show this energy, enthusiasm, zeal, and willingness to put themselves on the line. But few parishes or dioceses, as a whole, could be described in this way. Our enthusiasm would pale in comparison, say, to a crowd at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, gathered for a Patriots game.

One reason is that we, at least at times, find ourselves caught in that third servant’s trap. We may forget the value of what the Lord has entrusted to us. Or, no one really witnessed to us how valuable it was by what difference it made in their lives. So, we began to lose enthusiasm for it. It began to seem, more and more, like an imposition from without. Preachers of all kinds, seeing this, often turn to PSA homilies and sermons, using scolding and fear as prime motivators. But those don’t get us very far. Fear tends to paralyze people after a while. Besides, if no one feels any sense of commitment to something, or any investment in it, no amount of PSA preaching will force them to be faithful.  They will turn it off, or feel bored to tears.  We may be very busy in many ways, but we get quite lazy when it comes to the ways of God. Fear and boredom numb us to a standstill.

What we need when we are caught in this trap is the witness of others who are like those first two servants. We need to be shown, by personal example, that another way is possible. We need to be shown that something is worth living for, risking form even dying for. We need to believe, once again, that such a risk, undertaken with all the skill, commitment and enthusiasm we can muster – and fed all the while by the ever-present gift of God’s grace – will yield amazing results.

Where can we start? If we look, we will find such people, such examples, even now. Some are not far from us. Others are people we have come to know about over the years. We may recall past times in our own lives when we understood the gift and were ready and willing to take the risk of faith, come what may.

Perhaps this prayer, often said at Pentecost, is a good place to begin, or begin again:

Come Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit
and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.