Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland in 1817 and his parents were slaves. When he was a child, he was sold to a family in Baltimore. The wife of the slave owner began to teach Frederick how to memorize the alphabet and how to read. When the slave owner found out he took away the books and forbid her to do any more teaching.
At that point Frederick said to himself, “There must be something very important about being able to read.” He began to use every means available to teach himself how to read. He would give food to hungry children if they would loan him their textbooks for a day or two. He would practice reading by picking up discarded newspapers that he found on the streets of Baltimore.
When he was a young adult Frederick became a writer. He wrote two bestselling autobiographies. Those books made him famous, and he was invited to give lectures in towns and cities and colleges along the east coast.
Then he and Abraham Lincoln were pulled into a debate. And a fierce debate it was. They both wanted to free the slaves. However, Lincoln wanted to achieve their emancipation slowly and gradually. Douglass attacked him by saying, “You cannot do this emancipation gradually. Either you respect our human dignity, or you don’t.”
Lincoln listened to him carefully and called upon him for advice as the weeks and months went by during the Civil War. Frederick revealed to him the true feelings of being a slave. Lincoln asked him to craft a plan for reconstruction after the war, but that plan was cut short by his assassination. When all was said and done, Frederick Douglass had used his God-given gifts for reading, writing and public speaking to help direct the future of our nation.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is calling us to use the talents which God has given to us. Jesus is like the Master in today’s parable. He is pleased with us when we use the talents which we have received and he is very upset when we decide to bury our talents.
When we first hear the parable, it sounds like we are receiving a monetary lesson. It sounds like Jesus is pleased with those who invest their money and upset with those who do not invest their money. But the true meaning of the parable is in the spiritual realm. Jesus is really talking about the spiritual gifts which God has given us.
For example, Jesus is thinking about the gift of inspiration which God gave to the Pharisees. They were supposed to inspire their people to develop a closer relationship with God. But they decided to bury that gift and they chose to cut their people down and humiliate them instead.
Jesus is also thinking about the spiritual gift of generosity which he saw in the little boy on the hillside. The little boy had five loaves of bread and two fish. He gave all of them to Jesus when He asked for them. He did not keep any for himself. He did not bury the spiritual gift of generosity - rather he used it to offer to Jesus everything that he had.
When Jesus thinks about spiritual gifts, He thinks about forgiveness. He tells the story of the master who forgave the servant who owed him a large sum of money. The story could have ended there. But that servant then tortured a fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money. Then Jesus made it clear that he was very upset with the servant who chose not to give the gift of forgiveness to his fellow servant.
Another spiritual gift is the gift of faith. Jesus saw that gift in the Canaanite woman who believed that Jesus could heal her daughter who was very ill. She did not belong to the Jewish religion, but she had received the gift of faith from God, and she used it and Jesus rewarded her. Without a doubt, Jesus was fully aware of the spiritual gifts and fully aware of who was using them and who was not using them in his day.
But what about our day? What are the spiritual gifts and who is using them? Within our Catholic tradition we say that the spiritual gifts which God gives us are called the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. We memorized them in catechism class many years ago: I will look at two of them today: wisdom and understanding.
Wisdom is the gift which is found in people who are prepared for the future. Our first reading today came from Proverbs which is one of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. This reading praises a woman for being wise: She has food and warm clothing in place for her family long before winter arrives.
The gift of understanding takes me to the story of Clara Hale of New York City. Clara was called Mama Hale because she built a care center that provided foster care for more than 500 babies. Many of the children were the babies of drug addicted mothers. These children entered this world with drug dependencies themselves. These children were in pain and crying out for a drug.
She held them lovingly in her arms and she just let them cry because she understood why they were crying. Mama Hale had the gift of understanding and she was able to care for them when they were hurt.
I will close with a quick summary. The parable in today’s gospel calls us to use the gifts which we have received, not monetary gifts, but spiritual gifts, namely, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are called to use them; not bury them like the third servant in the story. We now pray for the grace we need to use our spiritual gifts.