Wednesday, November 12, 2014

With Grace Comes Accountability

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Most people would certainly remember one of the most iconic quotes of the superhero film industry, Uncle Ben’s advise to Spiderman, “With great power comes Great responsibility.” Despite what Marvel and the movies would have us believe, this powerful quote does not come from Hollywood. Some say that the quote is attributed to Francois-Marie Arouet, or better known as Voltaire. On the other hand, I am partial to believe that the quote has a more ancient root, it must have found inspiration in the words of Jesus Christ. Wasn’t it he who said that, “to those who much is given much is required” (Luke 12:48) and who in today’s parable reemphasised that with more “talents” comes greater responsibility?

The familiar parable of the talents found in Matthew 25 is the third in the series our Lord gave his disciples at the close of his great discourse on Mt Olive. After outlining the course of events from the time of his first coming through the destruction of Jerusalem under the Roman armies and the turbulent movements that would flow through the intervening age before he came again, he closes with a word of admonition contained in one word, “watch.” To expound what that word means he has given us three parables. They describe what it means to be watching for his return. The common basic pattern that runs through the three parables is an absent Master, characters who await his coming or return and the judgment which follows. Yes, the story ends with judgment. There is an accounting to be made.

To simply dismiss the message of this parable as having to use our talents and nothing more is over-simplifying matters. This is no X-Factor or Asia’s Got Talent storyline. The theme that is often forgotten in the frequent reading and preaching of this gospel is that it reasserts God’s sovereign authority and that the Kingdom of God belongs to him and not to us. This is similar to the truth we saw in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants of the Vineyard. What we see in this parable, as with others, is that what we have really does not belong to us. Rather, it is purely and entirely a gift from God. It all belongs to God and is on loan to us. And because it is merely on loan to us, we are to be good stewards who will be asked to provide an account of how we have used these gifts on Judgment Day.

This leads us to the second point. More than anything else, the parable speaks of fidelity to the vocation and mission for which God has called us to. In modern parlance, it speaks of accountability. The story really has to do with man giving account before God. We have received such “talents” in trust and not as an absolute right, and are supposed to work with them not only for ourselves but for God. For we owe ourselves, together with all we have, to God. The unfaithful servant was judged not for failing to make as much as the other two servants. His sin was not the lack of business acumen but unfaithfulness to the task that had been entrusted to him. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta often reminds us that we shall be measured not by our success but by our faithfulness. And so, we will ultimately be judged by our fidelity to God’s intention and will, and not by our self-perceived cleverness or productivity.

Each of the servants were allocated different amounts according to their respective abilities, in other words, in a very personalised fashion, but when it came to the reward both the first and the second, who had produced unequal amounts were rewarded equally and given further responsibilities. Since all things belong to God, He has every right to dispense with them as He wishes. This provides us with the crucial lesson that we should never compare our individual lot with that of others, but be concerned with our own responsibility to work out our salvation with what each of us have received. The Little Flower, St Therese de Lisieux, too struggled with this mystery, “Why souls all did not receive the same amount of grace?” According to St Therese, God instructed her by using the metaphor of a garden, “The splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.” “God's love is revealed just as much in the most simple soul who does not resist His graces as in the most sublime.” In other words, it’s not how much you possess but how faithful have you been to what had been entrusted to you that matters.

Ultimately, faithfulness to God means having the courage to take bold initiatives in every aspect of our lives, to express our gratitude to God for all that He has given us by making it grow. If we wish to be a disciple of Christ, we must take risk. Why the man who went off and buried his talents – why did he do that?  He wasn’t dishonest or unethical. He could have been lazy, but perhaps, the real reason was fear, as indicated by his excuse to the master.  He took what he felt was the safest part – no action. He felt safer to do nothing rather than take the risk of investing his talents and failing or losing it all.  His ostensible fear let him forget that the nature of the gifts entrusted to him is to produce more – it is a call to be fruitful. Genuine faithfulness must lead to fruitfulness. It is ironic, that he treats a “living” gift as if it were dead, by burying it. His actions bore no fruit, they were barren. Each day we are faced with thousands of decisions and how often do we opt to do nothing rather than taking the risk of doing something.  We worry about what others will think of us, what will happen, if we will look stupid, or if we will fail.  When we are unprepared to take risks for Christ, our lives count for nothing.

To risk means to live dangerously! To risk means to love dangerously! C.S. Lewis wrote, "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements, lock it up safe in the casket or the coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell."

When the master finally returns, there will be an accounting of his resources, of what he had entrusted to each servant. To each of us has been given a certain amount of time, a certain amount of opportunities, a certain amount of gift and graces and a certain amount of talent. At the Final Judgment, God will hold us all accountable. For the unfaithful who chose to take the safe path, who misused the time, resources and opportunities accorded to him and demonstrated unfaithfulness, he will thrown “out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For those who have faithfully served the Master, who chose to take the risk to follow Him even on the path that led to Calvary, who have used his gifts and graces for His glory, this passage reveals a promise, “come and join in your Master’s happiness.”

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