Catholic Homily/Sunday Gospel Reflection
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
November 16, 2008

It always takes two to tango, as they say. There are always two parties in an agreement, two people at least in a partnership, and two sides of the same coin. Traffic, unless declared otherwise, is always a two-way affair, and in this world of “come and go,” there has to be some form of investment from one AND the other party – trust on the part of one, and responsibility on the part of the other.

The ancient Romans had a concrete axiom that epitomizes this need for mutual cooperation. MANUS MANUM LAVAT! Literally, it means “one hand washes the other hand.” Try washing only one hand. It is really impossible. You have to use both hands, for the two really wash each other…a perfect image of what cooperation is all about.

We Filipinos have an equivalent image to convey a similar concept – a riddle (bugtong in Tagalog). “Takot ako sa iisa; matapang ako sa dalawa.” (I am afraid of only one, but I feel courageous in front of two). The answer to the riddle is a bamboo bridge, as all of us know. Now imagine a bamboo bridge over a deep ravine and that bridge is made up only of one bamboo pole! Don’t you think you need at least two for a little more strength and stability?

Our two hands, the bamboo bridge – they both convey the need for cooperation and synergy, the importance of coming together and pooling efforts together if results are to be expected. This is true of most every human endeavor.

The same is true of our relationship with God!

The Gospel parable, among other things, impresses upon us this dual polarity in our relationship with God: God’s trust as represented by the man going on a journey entrusting all his possessions to his servants, on the other, and the responsibility and initiative (or the lack of it) which was shown by those who were entrusted with such huge amounts. The details could not have been clearer. The Gospel account says that “he went away” soon after entrusting the 5, 2 and 1 talents to three different individuals – a clear clue of the full trust he gave the three servants. (Talents were used to refer to sums of money that were far beyond what ordinary daily commerce would require at that time – huge amounts, by any measure). This speaks about the TRUST that God has for us when he made us “in his image and likeness,” that is, free and intelligent creatures.

But that divine TRUST, the same parable tells us, has to be reciprocated. This is represented by the other details said about what the three servants did with what was entrusted to them. Two of them were praised for investing and thus doubling the money. Their responsibility and initiative earned them praises from the master. But one who just buried the sum, who showed no initiative and no responsibility got the ire of the same master.

The lesson and its concrete applications in our lives should be clear to us. We are talking here about the classical discussion on the issue of divine-human cooperation. Since we humans were created by God as free and intelligent, we enjoy and “share in the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) As such, God does not impose himself on us. God respects our freedom. Grace, which comes from God alone, cannot work unless there is human cooperation. The classical Latin dictum GRATIA SUPPONIT NATURAM (Grace builds on nature) epitomizes this need for the delicate interplay between the twin powers of human nature and divine grace. God meets us halfway. And He meets us where we are at, not where we think we are, or where we have placed ourselves to be. Our human nature needs to take part in this partnership, in this work of salvation. Thus, in a very real sense, salvation is as much God’s work as our own work. This is what cooperation with God’s grace is all about.

Complacency has no role to play in this common effort. Speaking about waiting for the anticipated return of the Lord, St. Paul cautions us against this complacency when he wrote: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” (1 Thess 5:3) A sign of this responsible initiative, too, is what we reflected on last Sunday – mindfulness and watchfulness. “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” (1 Thess 5:6)

A homespun saying that best expresses the need for human cooperation puts it so nicely and succinctly: “When your motorboat engine conks out on you and you are stranded out in the open sea, pray hard to the Lord, but keep on rowing to the shore.” Again, we Filipinos have an equivalent aphorism that best expresses what we are talking about: “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa.” (Divine compassion and mercy are never wanting, but man has to do what he can).