In 2016, Pope Francis declared that the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time should be celebrated each year as the World Day of the Poor. This day gives us an opportunity for deeper reflection on how we can show solidarity and compassion for our brothers and sisters who are materially and spiritually poor. Today we also acknowledge our own poverty before God. Quite appropriately for this day, the readings that our Holy Mother Church invites us to ponder speak about the deeper meaning of poverty and true wealth, and the connection between them.
The treasure that today’s Gospel speaks of is referred to as “talents.” In the time when the Gospel was written, one talent was equivalent to about fifteen years of a daily laborer’s wages – a significant sum! A master who is willing to entrust his servants with talents is a sign of God’s generosity and willingness to trust us. But while God is lavish, he is also just. Thus, he distributes his gifts “to each according to his ability.” There are two inter-related elements at work here: divine providence and human receptivity. God by his nature is abundance; he made and sustains the whole of the vast creation. And to each of his creatures, God entrusts his gifts “to each according to his ability.” Our receptivity to God’s gifts is what makes us rich or poor.
Differences in how we might receive our “talents” are revealed in the examples of the three servants. Two of them receive their talents with a prompt sense of responsibility. The enormous treasure entrusted to them does not intimidate them nor make them feel self-importance. Rather, they focus on the life-giving purpose behind their master’s generosity; they want to do what he wants done.
The third servant chooses to be overwhelmed with fear. What is worse, he justifies himself by blaming his fear on his generous master, accusing him of being unfair and exploitative: “I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” This blatant untruth becomes the basis for the worst possible attitude. The third servant, a recipient of a huge treasure, impoverishes himself, making himself into a “wicked, lazy servant.” If we want to be spiritually rich, the starting point is acknowledging the gifts of God with gratitude.
But acknowledging and appreciating God’s gifts of grace can have pitfalls too. One danger is complacency. When we are blessed with abilities and wealth, we tend to get too comfortable. We start to focus on ourselves too much and on the good life that we have. We welcome the gifts and forget about the Giver. St. Paul warns us of this today through his Letter to the Thessalonians, where he highlights the need for vigilance: “let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” In this exhortation, Paul calls us to practice the virtue of poverty of spirit. We are never right to sit back and say, “Peace and security,” as if we can rely on material wealth or even on spiritual advantages. We are to be constantly waiting on the Lord, attuned to his will. We are to live our lives soberly, that is, with healthy detachment from whatever advantages and gifts we may have. We are to be poor before God, totally relying on his providence and not on ourselves and our abilities.
For us to live and grow in the virtue of poverty, today’s Psalm prescribes for us Fear of the Lord. “Blessed are you who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways!” This is not the servile fear that characterized the third servant in the Gospel, the fear that fosters antagonism and crippling inaction. The gift of fear that the Psalm refers to is childlike and grateful awe and wonder. “Fear of the Lord” is one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is a fear that animates rather than cripples. It brings out in us a sense of deep gratitude that compels us to share our abundance with others. Fear in this sense helps us to grow in the virtue of poverty because it justly reminds us that all that we have comes from God and that the right use of our talents is to promptly help others as God would have us do.
We can learn a similar lesson on the proper use of what we have received as we ponder the Book of Proverbs’ beautiful description of “a worthy wife.” Like the two faithful servants in the Gospel, this praiseworthy woman is not afraid. She dedicates herself to doing good, investing her talents for the benefit of all. She herself becomes a treasure for her family – “her value is far beyond pearls” – precisely because she is poor in spirit. We must set aside the objection that this description is unrealistic, that no one is so perfect. Such reactions arise from our tendency to focus on ourselves and to compare ourselves with others. Like the third servant, we can fall into blaming God for being too demanding!
In fact, this “worthy wife” represents each of us; she represents the whole Church, the Bride of Christ, in joyful service of her Groom, the Lord. Each of us brings honor to the Lord when we serve him freely, joyfully, generously, diligently. We can only truly help our brothers and sisters who are spiritually and materially poor if we gratefully receive God’s gifts and promptly put them into good use. We are not to be concerned with saving for ourselves, for we have a Husband who provides everything for us and entrusts his Heart to us. He has loved us first. Therefore we can, without fear, in genuine poverty of spirit, spend his abundant love for the sake of others, joyfully looking forward to seeing him face to face.
How do I show gratitude for all the treasures, talents, and gifts that God has given me? How am I poor before God and others? How does my poverty put me in communion with others who are spiritually and materially poor?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.