17 November 2008

The pain of failure

33rd Sunday OT: Prv 31.10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thes 5.1-6; Mt 25.14-15, 19-21
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Never having been pregnant myself, it’s difficult for me to imagine how a pregnant woman might be surprised by her labor pains. Surely after nine months of bloating, vomiting, hormonal surges, that maternal glow, and the all-too-popular weight gain, she is more or less ready for the inevitable cramping and eventual spasms of birth. Oh sure, the exact moment—day, hour, minute—might be a surprise. Who would put real money on that bet?! But that she will experience the pain of pushing out a wet, screaming human watermelon really can’t come as much of a last minute shocker. All the more unusual then is Paul’s metaphor for the surprise that Christians will experience when the Lord returns. He writes to the Thessalonians: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape…” So, in what way will our surprise at the return of the Lord be like the suddenness of “labor pains upon a pregnant woman”? Though the pain of childbirth is dreaded, the reward of a child is anticipated with great joy. Our surprise at the return of the Lord will be both dread and joy, trepidation and elation: the long anticipated relief of our tensed waiting.

Paul tells us that our Lord will return like a thief in the night. He also tells us that our surprise will come like labor pains—hard, clenching, sweaty, but not entirely unexpected. It makes sense to say then that though the thief comes in the night, we have been expecting his arrival for some time, waiting for him to pop the lock of the backdoor, to lift the latch of the window and sneak in. We don’t know the day, the hour, the minute of his break-in, but we know that he will arrive, and we know that what he has come to steal has been his all along. At baptism we make ourselves the Lord’s debtors, owing all we are and all we have to him, everything held in trust until he returns to claim the principal with interest. What have you done with the Lord’s largesse? What have you done with all the Lord has given you? With who the Lord made you to be?

Jesus, ever the lover of a good parable, says to his disciples: “A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away.” The man gave talents to his servants according to their ability. Makes sense. Except that we have to ask: according to their ability to do what? This is the crux of the parable. Knowing his servants well, the man does not distribute his possessions uniformly, giving each servant the same number of talents. Rather, precisely because he knows the varying abilities of his servants, he distributes them equally; that is, he gives each the number of talents equal to the ability of each servant. The man is not foolish. He is not going to give those with little ability the chance to squander his talents on a grand scale. However, by giving them talents equal to their abilities, he is giving them the opportunity to show that they are worthy of more—an opportunity that they would not otherwise have.

Now, here’s the interesting part of the parable: by giving the servants talents equal to their abilities, the man is actually adding to their abilities. Presumably, without the responsibility of keeping the talents none of the servants would have the chance to move much beyond their given abilities. So, on top of their natural talents, the man adds some investment capital. He “invests” in each servant an excess of talents to supplement what they have received naturally. In theological terms, we can say that the man has used his grace to build on their natures, gifting them the chance and the tools necessary to grow well beyond their natural capacities.

What happens? The man returns and the servants line up for inspection. Who has taken advantage of their gift of talents? Jesus continues the parable: “The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, 'Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.' His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.’” This servant, having received talents equal to his abilities, took his master’s principal investment and used it to double his worth. Any of the servants could have done the same. At all of them did. Why not? Out of fear that his master would simply take any interest he might accrue on the investment, one servant simply buried his talent. Out of fear that his work to improve his master’s gift would benefit his master alone, this servant refused to make good on his chance. He planted a dead seed, and not surprisingly, nothing grew. No growth, no harvest. No harvest, no feast. The fearful servant loses his talent to the more gifted servant and the master calls him wicked and lazy!

When our master returns—the night like a thief long expected—will you present him with his principal investment alone, or will you return to him his initial gift with interest? According to your ability you have been gifted with exactly those talents that you need to grow in holiness. You have been given everything you need to invest wisely and move beyond your natural abilities. But what is most important to remember is this: every step beyond your abilities, every level of increasing perfection that you reach is the result of our Lord’s initial investment in you—his gift of talents that equals your abilities. Upon his return he expects to receive a return on his investment. What will you present to him? Who will you present to him? Will you, like the “good and faithful servant,” show him double the talent? Or will you have to go dig up his gift and return it unused? How will you excuse yourself? To say that you had no idea when the master would return is true on its face. You cannot, however, claim that you did not know he was returning. Like the pregnant woman who knows the pain of childbirth is coming though not precisely when, you know the time of judgment is before us. Called to account for yourself, what will you say, “Sorry. But I knew you were just going to take it all back, so I did nothing”? Wicked and lazy, indeed!

Paul writes, “…brothers and sisters, [you] are not in darkness, for that day [of the Lord’s return] to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” Because we see clearly in the light of the Lord, we must take the gifts we are given, invest to the limits of our abilities, tend the growing fruits, and harvest the abundant graces that mature. Though we do not know the day and time of the Lord’s return, as his good and faithful servants, we must be ready always to account not only for our abilities but for wisely investing his gifts as well. The pain of childbirth is nothing compared to the pain of failing in this duty.


  1. I think it's because no amount of preparation is up to the sudden horribleness of labor pains. My mother assures me that there's nothing else like it.

  2. Anonymous3:44 PM


    I think it's fairly easy for us to evaluate our natural abilities that we've been given by God.

    But how do we know how best to invest those natural abilities, so as to make a greater return to the Lord?

    In other words, how do we find/know our vocation?

    I'm struggling terribly with this. I don't want to waste my life.

    Please help and thank you.

  3. Anonymous7:40 PM

    Thank you, Father Powell. I never did know why the Lord was so angry at the servant who buried his one talent. I figured he buried it out of fear of losing it and having nothing to show the Lord on His return. Of course, I didn't understand what the servant was talking about when he accused the Lord either. Now I see what was going on. lois

  4. Patrick, if you are using your gifts to help others out of your love for God and neighbor, then you can't waste your life!

    The quickest and easiest thing to do is volunteer for some sort of outreach program...tutoring, homeless shelter, etc...the kinds of things we did at CM all the time. One of those will spark something for you and you will know! Oh, tutor kids in math...

    Fr. Philip, OP

  5. Lois, I think the motivation of the lazy servant is a direct parallel to our own oftentimes unwillingness to use our God-given gifts for others precisely because we see no benefit to ourselves. In fact, loving others through sacrificial service perfects God's love in us (1 John).