Orthodox Commentary on Theology, Ethics, and Culture
Saturday, February 6, 2016
Investing our Lives and Talents for the Kingdom: Homily for the 16th Sunday of Matthew and the 16th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church
2 Corinthians 6:1-10; Matthew 25:14-30
When the stock market goes up or down, almost everyone hears about it and many pay attention. But those who have money invested in the stock market really take notice. The reason for their interest is clear: their wealth just went up or down. And people do not usually invest in order to shrink their assets; no, they want them to grow.
Today’s gospel reading presents a similar situation Three servants received large sums of money, called talents, from their master when he went away on a long journey. He was a shrewd businessman and expected them to make the most of what he had entrusted to them. One invested so wisely that his five talents turned into ten. The one given two talents did the same and earned two more. They both doubled their money and earned the praise of their master when he returned. But the third servant, who had only one talent to invest, was not such a good steward. Out of fear that he might lose what little he had, he simply buried the money in the ground and produced nothing at all. The master scolded him for not even putting the money in the bank and earning interest. So he took away his talent and gave it to the first servant. Near the end of the parable, we read that “to everyone who has, more will be given and he will have abundance, but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”
Jesus Christ used this story about investing money as a reminder of the importance of being a productive steward of all that God has given us. Life itself and all our blessings and abilities come from the Lord. Ever since He created us in His image and likeness, He has called us to invest ourselves in ways that enable us to flourish as His sons and daughters. He invites us to an abundant life that bears fruit for the Kingdom, blesses others, and radiates the light of holiness throughout the world.
Most of us probably wonder, however, whether that is really possible for us. Perhaps we are so consumed by the practical challenges of just making it through the day that we find it difficult to imagine that our struggles could have any larger significance. Maybe we think that only what rich, powerful, and famous people do really impacts the world in meaningful ways. Perhaps we imagine that holiness is a possibility only for people with no problems or who have never done anything wrong. It may be that our previous efforts to grow in faithfulness have been somehow disappointing or frustrating, so we have given up. I imagine that many of us identify with that cowardly servant who had so little confidence in bearing fruit that he simply buried his talent in the ground.
That might seem like a practical response, but it is actually the opposite; it leads to nothing but weakness and loss. Just as a person who is unable to move physically for a long period of time quickly loses muscle mass and strength, any ability, talent, or gift that we have will become weaker the less use we make of it. Playing it safe by becoming stagnant never works. Nothing in this life ever stays exactly the same over time, and if we are not actively using our gifts to bear fruit in whatever circumstances we face, we will end up worse off than when we started.
What St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in today’s epistle reading applies to each of us, regardless of whether we have one or ten talents, regardless of whether we think that our present situation is especially conducive to becoming a great channel of blessing to anybody. As St. Paul put it, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor. 6:2) If we are going to be faithful stewards, we have to begin with our lives as they are now. To wait until all is perfect and we have time, energy, and resources to spare is to fall prey to an illusion, for life in this world will never be without its challenges. Cowardly servants will always find reasons to be afraid and to bury their talents in the ground. The more practice that we have in doing that, the harder it will be to invest ourselves in ways that bear fruit for the Kingdom. It is nothing but a lie and a delusion to think otherwise.
Remember that St. Paul endured beatings, imprisonment, attempts on his life, shipwreck, and so many other difficulties before he died as a martyr. He did not wait until life was completely peaceful and calm before serving God and blessing his neighbors. He describes the life of the apostles “as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor. 6:10)
We probably do not yet have the eyes to see it, but our paths are ultimately the same as his. No matter how sad, sick, frustrated, or deprived we may be, the Lord still calls us to invest our lives in holiness for the blessing and salvation of the world. We probably will not do that on as large or obvious a scale as St. Paul, but that is irrelevant. The servant with only one talent was still called to be as faithful with what he had as the one who had ten. Like it or not, we have the lives in this world that we have. We cannot say a magic word and become someone else or change anything about the past. We can, however, be faithful stewards of the present as we fulfill our identity as those blessed by God and called to become a blessing to others as a sign of His love, mercy, and holiness.
No matter how much or how little money someone has, the basic principles of making a budget and planning for the future are the same. That is also true about the life in Christ. Regardless of the details, we will all invest ourselves for the abundant life of the Kingdom through common and familiar practices, such as: prayer; fasting; generosity to the needy; repentance; forgiveness; reading the Scriptures, the lives of the Saints, and other spiritually beneficial writings; and doing whatever we are able to do in the service of the Church and our neighbors. We do not have to be billionaires in order to live lives of abundant blessing or to be able to bless others in profound ways. We do not have to be spiritual superheroes in order be faithful stewards of our talents and play our role in fulfilling God’s purposes for the world. We simply have to offer what only we can offer to the Lord in obedience and let Him do the rest.
Nobody else can save or invest your money; you have to do it. Nobody else can become a faithful steward of your life and blessings; you have to do it. The choice that we all face is whether to cower in fear of failure as we bury our talents in the ground, weaken ourselves, and refuse to do what only we can do for the healing and transformation of the world. Or will we make a solid investment of our talents, no matter how large or small they may be, and grow in the abundant life for which God created us in His image and likeness? Unlike financial matters, there is no difference here between those who have a lot in this world and those who do not. The only difference is whether we will offer our humble lives to the Lord like the bread and wine of the Eucharist. If so, then we will receive back infinitely more than what we offered in the first place. And our life in this world, regardless of the outward details, will then become an icon of the Kingdom, producing fruit “thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:8) Now what shrewd businessperson would not want that rate of return?