Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception


“To each according to his ability.”  Matthew 25:15


                    The parable in today’s Gospel teaches the lessons of freedom and responsibility.  There is a wealthy man going on an extended journey. He calls in three servants and divides his possessions between them.  The absolute key to understanding what happens is in verse fifteen.  “To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:15).  The wealthy man gives his servants the freedom to act responsibly.  “To each according to his ability” means that each got what he could handle, nothing more, nothing less.  To put it another way, each received what he could be responsible for.  There could be no excuses, like the ones we hear sometimes, “You gave me more than I could handle.”  When we make excuses, we are not accepting responsibility.  However, the rich man in the Gospel, like God, gives “to each according to his ability.”  Each is given a responsibility, and there can be no responsibility without freedom.


                    Now each man is free to do with the talents what he thinks best.  The rich man does not tell them what to do.  They are free to know what they should do.  The rich man did not leave instructions, but the two with the larger amounts invest the money and double it.  It made sense.  A rich man doesn’t want his talents sitting in a drawer collecting dust. He expects results.  So why not invest?  “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” says this about freedom: “Freedom is the power to act or not to act, and so to perform deliberate acts of one’s own” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1744).  All are free to act.  All make a choice.  But one servant is incapable of taking responsibility.


                    The third servant who receives the smaller amount merely hides his talent.  He is simply afraid.  He says, “Out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground” (Matthew 25:25).  Fear of the master petrified him.  He could not think reasonably.  He could not accept the responsibility the rich man had given him.  The fearful servant is declared “evil” because he is inactive, unable to follow through, incapable of using his freedom to accept responsibility.  I think we find this attitude increasingly prevalent in the world today.


                    It was Henri de Lubac who, in his excellent book “The Drama of Atheist Humanism”, observed, “Because of free will, all progress is ambivalent.”  We live in a world that makes a veritable god out of progress.  We want progress at all costs.  We must have progress in science and progress in technology.  Now, I am not arguing against progress, because obviously certain advances have taken humanity quite far and offered many solutions to human illness and sufferings, for example.  Perhaps because progress can be so successful, we begin to think that all change is progress. One of the worst insults you can level at anyone these days is to say, “You are an enemy of progress.” Everything is sacrificed for what is thought to be progress.  That includes freedom, because if you are free, you are free to make a mistake. If freedom admits the possibility that someone might fail or not progress, then do away with freedom. If free will renders all progress ambivalent, then we don’t need it, because we must progress at any price.


                    Thus, we will hear people say, “I cannot sin.” Or, “I don’t need any commandments, or church, to tell me what to do because I’m beyond all that.”  If we do not need commandments, if we cannot sin, then we have no choice.  We are no longer free.  If we have progressed beyond the ability to make a decision, then we have no freedom.  I like what St. Paul has to say about freedom.  “For you were called to freedom, brothers.  But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:13-14).   St. Paul sees the Christian as truly redeemed because he is still free to choose right from wrong.  Redemption is enriched precisely because there is a choice to be made.  When we freely choose to do right, then we only increase our cooperation with God’s grace.  God did not create robots.  He created thinking, acting human beings capable of choosing, understanding and loving.  In the marvelous words of St. Irenaeus, “Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts” (St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haeres. 4,4,3: PG 7/1, 983/ quoted in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1730).  That is a frightening and disturbing thought to anyone who denies freedom and responsibility.


                    The rich master gives each servant gifts according to his freedom to multiply them.  The giver of the talents challenges each servant to respond to the best of his ability.  That is the challenge to be free.  “That anxiety-ridden servants is condemned as evil and inactive—indeed, evil precisely because he is inactive” (Meier, The Gospel of St. Matthew).


                    The truly free person has embraced what God wants him to do.  He is not coerced.  He acts out of love, freely given and freely returned.  It is precisely this attitude that St. Paul commends. “Let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” (I Thessalonians 5:6).  I have never met an alert or sober person who did not accept responsibility for the freedom he had embraced as a gift from God.