“In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, better homes, a better education, and so on. How likely do you think it is that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents..?” The Gallup Polling Organization has asked that question for over 30 years. If you were being surveyed, how would you answer? The Pew Research Center conducted a similar survey that was released a few weeks ago, asking, “Thinking about the future of our country, in general, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?” as they went through a list of issues from marriage and family life; our country’s ability to get along with other countries; to dealing with moral and ethical issues. In general, how do you feel?
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 19, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
What is troubling was that both firms found that people are more pessimistic now than at any other time in over 30 years, which has only validated some of my own personal experience serving as a Chaplain at Montclair State University. I love working with college students and have been doing so for over 16 years. One of the things that was a universal characteristic for a young man or a young woman starting their college experience was this beautiful, precious, youthful idealism they had. That sense of being able to do anything was encouraged by the different educators and professionals telling them to “Dream Big.” They would “take chances,” and our responsibility as the “adults” was to help them navigate that spectrum of chances that went from expanding their minds, interests, and experiences to the other extreme of recklessness where they foolishly thought they were invincible. Those of us blessed to work with this age group tried to guide them through those extremes. Encouraging ambition, reminding them of responsibilities, and sharing our personal life experience to help them make better, healthier decisions.
But in recent years, that idealism, that adventurous spirit has notably diminished. Students have been struggling with depression and anxiety at levels we hadn’t seen before, which isn’t their fault. If the population as a whole is telling pollsters that they’re pessimistic, why should we be surprised that our kids are picking up on that and feeling the same, becoming depressed and anxious about the future? All of this has left me wondering if the real pandemic that has afflicted us in the last few years isn’t COVID – it’s defeatism. Where people have in a sense given up believing anything can get better collectively and so they have turned inwardly.
This defeatism, in one sense, is understandable. The global pandemic that had us locked in our homes for weeks, months at a time has traumatized a significant number of us. Years later, we still see and hear things that undermine our confidence in every possible institution everywhere we turn. Whether it is financial issues that are causing more and more unpredictability, news of wars and terrorist attacks with graphic stories and images that are horrific, all in this environment where there’s been so much tension and division that has caused a breakdown in healthy dialogue and debate and breeding mistrust. It is certainly understandable why people feel defeatist. And we have to acknowledge our feelings and listen to them to get information about where people’s minds and hearts are.
But what’s so frustrating is that too many of us give into those negative feelings and concede defeat. I don’t need the polls and surveys to tell me what I’ve seen and experienced with the kids I love. We’ve had two suicides on our campus this semester, which is heart-wrenching on so many levels. But on top of that, so many are numbing themselves with sex, drugs, and alcohol, and even the semblance of caution that so many would have offered just a few years ago by some professionals about those things has somewhat disappeared as our government leaders legalized marijuana.
Being scared, acknowledging our fears, and recognizing things that worry us is understandable. But yielding to defeatism; convincing ourselves there’s nothing that can be done, nothing we can do – is a lie straight from Satan himself in the bowels of Hell that has been accepted by far too many of us. Which is an important lie that Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel.
Let’s look at what happens in this parable with this schmo at the end, the defeatist of the group. Each of the three men was given a certain number of “talents” which is a measurement of wealth. (Scholars can give you different formulas and calculations on how much, but they all agree it was a significant amount. One estimated that each talent was worth an equivalent of about $500,000) So, using that theory, the one guy gets $2.5 million, the other gets $1 million, and the last $500,000. This defeatist takes his half a million, and does nothing. He starts off saying, “I knew you were a demanding person” – okay, so he knows the Master has high expectations, yes… “Harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” – okay, so now we hear that he has let his fear twist and distort not just the Master’s expectations but the Master himself, basically calling him greedy and unjust. Which the guy doesn’t realize unravels his excuses. Showing that no, it wasn’t fear that was crippling him; it was his laziness. Because, as the Master pointed out, had he just put the money in the bank, it would’ve at least made interest. It would’ve done something. This guy might have had fears, but he let them become an excuse for his selfishness and his self-centeredness. The guy has wallowed in this shallow existence.
The other thing to remember is that the Master wasn’t being unreasonable. In fact, we kind of can forget that right from the outset; we heard the Master handed out these “talents” according to their ability. So the Master wasn’t putting an impossible task before this guy. But here’s the point doing nothing was not an option.
That is what resonated in my heart this past week: praying with these scriptures. Over three years ago, during the height of the COVID pandemic, when we had to “isolate at home.” When we were told don’t even think about going to Church – Shop Rite, Home Depot, or the Liquor store, that was okay, but no, we couldn’t go to Church. No, I’m not bitter about the stupidity of it. Because if anything, it was a great wake-up for me. At some point, during those weeks, I realized how easy it was for me to succumb to all these exterior voices that may or may not have had the best intentions or purest of motives – whether it was politicians, commentators, pundits, or celebrities. Even the ones I had chosen to listen to – whether it was cable news, radio/podcasts, or watching video after video online. I could feel how it manipulated and tapped into feelings and emotions that left me outraged, discouraged, angry or afraid. And making me think that the only thing I could do was keep listening, following, and sharing these talking heads with everyone else. In the process being convinced to simply do nothing. It was a moment of clarity where I felt the Lord challenging me, saying, “Stop fixating on what you can’t do – what can you do?” At the height of all that insanity, that meant severely cutting back on all those exterior voices and committing greater time to prayer, really learning about fasting and why it’s such an important spiritual practice, finding ways I could serve, and being challenged to be a bit more creative and think outside of the box. It’s why, with as awful an experience as the pandemic was for all of us, I’m grateful that God was able to use that to teach me some important lessons that were seriously life-changing. Because those defeatist thoughts and frustrations haven’t ceased in the years that have followed. There are temptations for sure to give into them over and over. When I get text messages saying “Did you read this thing the Pope said or did?” When I see reports asking “How have these anti-semitic things happening on campuses been normalized, scaring the heck out of Jewish students and making them feel targeted and unsafe?” When I hear commentators talking about “how bad the economy is? The crime in our cities, the migrant crisis?” There are a lot of things that legitimately have us uncertain and frustrated. And in response to them, it’s easy to get lulled into thinking, “the best thing for me to do is keep my head down, protect what I have, and wait for something to change when things are ‘safe’ again.”
That kind of thinking is what this one talent schmo in this parable is doing in doing nothing. And Jesus expects better of us. Namely, to be alert to the things of God rather than obsessing over the things of this world, remembering, what St. Paul was encouraging the Thessalonians in today’s 2nd reading, we are “children of the light… not of the night or of darkness.” So, acknowledging that there are lots of things that are of “darkness” that we are aware of… (and there are sadly many more that we aren’t aware of) as we run through the list of things that make us feel pessimistic about the future of the nation, the world, even the Church – as we let our minds get weighed down by all the bad news. But to stop ourselves and ask ourselves is Jesus asking me to fix the Church, save the country, establish world peace, end discrimination, alleviate world poverty? The question is ridiculous. We’d be correct to say, “No, I can’t do that.” But no one asked us to.
That’s the beauty of this parable. If you think about it, everyone’s given something; everyone’s entrusted with some responsibility. And the Master isn’t asking you to focus on how or what the guy with five talents, two talents or one talent is or is not doing. He’s saying – you… with what you’ve been given, what are you doing?
So that means for each of us, it starts with evaluating our states in life. What non-monetary “talents” do I possess? What gifts and abilities do I have? What opportunities are before me? What responsibilities and commitments have I made? And just looking at how we’re responding or not to these things. Is God being glorified by what I’m doing, how I’m living these things? Am I trying to be the best spouse that I can – the best son and daughter that I can? Do I do my best in my job? Am I doing the basics as best as I can? That’s why the first reading from Proverbs is so beautiful. While using the example of a good wife, a good mother, who is so attentive and mindful to the normal, day to day things, is the emobdiment of wisdom. This sacred author isn’t contemplating the heads of state, the Generals, the CEO’s, the artists but those who do the ordinary faithfully and diligently that they demonstrate true wisdom.
So one of the most essential things in doing something – of “investing the talent” is starting right where we are and doing the best we can right here and now.
That’s why in working with our students on campus, we have FOCUS missionaries who are recent college graduates encouraging students to have a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. As part of their outreach, they challenge their peers to pursue what they call “the big three.” They are three virtues that college students struggle with the most: chastity, sobriety, and excellence. Trying to help rebuild (or, in some cases, build for the first time) the foundation not only to being a good disciple of Jesus Christ, but to help them be better students, better sons and daughters, better brothers and sisters. For some, it might take them a lot of time to commit to pursuing the “big three.” Maybe it starts with them becoming more faithful to Sunday Mass, coming to adoration during the week, getting involved in other activities at Newman, going to a Bible Study, or making a good confession for the first time in a long time. I know Jesus calls us all to holiness and wants what’s best for us. And how each of us gets there will look different because we’re all at different points in our faith lives and have come from different places and life experiences. But the point is, what are we doing?
That we are here today is great. But it’s simply a starting point, not an end. The very word “Mass” comes from the Latin word missa has been used since the 6th or 7th century to describe the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, which comes from the conclusion of the celebration when the priest said in Latin, Ite, missa est, which translated as “Go forth, you are sent.” For the Catholic Christian, at the Mass, we are nourished on God’s word in scripture and fed with Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharistic host. And then we are sent forth to glorify the Lord with our lives. He doesn’t expect us to solve every problem or even any single problem. But He does expect us to do something. As each of us listens to what that is personally and responds to it, those collective efforts defeat the defeatism and pessimism by bringing Christ’s light and presence into this world.