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In yesterday’s post, I maintained that our talents are, just like our very lives, gifts from God. Recognizing that our lives and talents are gifts has three important implications for athletes: gifts must be cultivated, gifts are temporary, and gifts must be used well. These facts—regarding the nature and purpose of athletic gifts—are not often fully appreciated in sport. Thus, in today’s post I draw upon three of Christ’s parables to make these points in the context of sports. In fact, each of the three parables can be aligned with insights from Dante’s Purgatory to help clarify these three important lessons for gifted athletes.

The Rich Fool: Talent Must be Spiritually Cultivated

In the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21), the fool, materially fat, but spiritually gaunt, is damned by his own shallow hubris. Forgetting that all good things come from God, he vainly believed in self-sufficiency and forgets the ever-present reality of death. By putting his hope in material wealth, he “stored up treasures” for himself but was “not rich towards God” (Luke 12:21). In idolizing wealth, the Fool was “tending the wrong garden.” His heart was inordinately set on advancing lesser goods, and so he forgot God. As a result, the Rich Fool was a poor steward. He has failed to properly cultivate the gifts given to him.1

So too with Dante. In Canto XXX of the Purgatory, Dante is reunited with Beatrice—the cause of and inspiration for his journey through the afterlife—near the summit of the mountain. She immediately reproaches him for squandering his time and talents on transitory goods.

This man was so disposed in his new life
that every natural habit, turned to good,
should have been put to wonderous proof in him,
But when bad seed is sown in a rich field
or when earth full of vigor lies untilled,
the thornier and more harmful is its yield…
He turned his steps along a way not true,
pursuing the false images of good,
which promise all and never follow through.2

God providentially blesses everyone with the talents needed to serve the time and place into which they are born. We are responsible for the cultivation and use of those gifts, and we will be held to account for the fruit that those talents do or do not yield (Matthew 7:17-19). Great athletes are worshipped in our culture. This creates significant spiritual danger, for the great athlete is tempted—like the rich fool—to store up treasures for him or herself rather than be rich towards God.3 Such inordinate love of self squanders talent and fails to recognize its temporal nature.

The Wise and Foolish Virgins: Talent is Temporary

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is a story about avoiding spiritual complacency by watching and waiting. Ten virgins are waiting at night for the bridegroom to arrive so that that wedding feast may begin. The five wise virgins took extra oil for their lamps, while the five foolish virgins brought only their lamps. The foolish virgins, awakened at a late hour by the sound of the approaching bridegroom, realize that their lamps have gone out. Given no other choice, they run to buy more oil, and the feast begins without them. Upon returning, the gate into the feast is locked and the five foolish virgins are excluded. The parable is a story about the virtue of prudence, that is seeing reality for what it is and acting accordingly.4 Preparation—or lack thereof—is a key aspect of “seeing reality” because as the parable points out, we “know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13 NIV), or as St. Paul put it, “this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31, NIV). We are pilgrims on earth. Fame, talent, money, power, victories, records, and trophies all pass away and are forgotten. They are good in themselves, but absent God, they mean very little.5 As the prophet Isaiah insists, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (40:8, NRSVCE).

Again, Dante echoes this point in the Purgatory, especially in the ring of pride in Canto XI and the ring of avarice in Canto XIX. In the ring of pride, Dante meets three men purging their sin, one for familial pride, one for artistic pride, and one for reveling in political glory. Dante is reminded there that every great artist or poet or politician is simply succeeded by another. Chasing after fame, as if it is our salvation, whether as artists, poets, politicians, or athletes, is the height of vanity. Dante makes the point this way:

Your fame is like the color of the grass:
it comes, it goes, and it turns brown and dry
in the same sun that made its seedlings green.6

Worldly goods, such as fame—though real—do not last and cannot save us from the grave. In the ring of avarice, we see sinners being cleansed of an inordinate lust for such finite goods. There the penitents are laid low against the ground, forced to confront their lust for the dust to which all temporal things return.

For as our eyes were never raised on high
but fixed themselves upon the things of earth,
here justice humbles them to touch the ground.7

Wise athletes will not miss the lesson. They must lift their gaze above worldly concerns.

The Good, The True, The Beautiful—that is, God—rather than something as paltry as fame, should be the goal. If we’re good, the rest will take care of itself (Matthew 6:33). Like the wise virgins, talented athletes should prepare. They must place their trust and hope in God and his Providence,8 rather than in the praise, honor, or glory lavished by others. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful endure, with or without the acclaim of others.9 In contrast, victories (and losses) are soon forgotten. Trophies rust and crumble. Talent disappears via age, injury, and death. It must be used well—not just “successfully”—while we have it, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, NIV).

The Sheep & The Goats: Talent Must be Used Well

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is a brief analogy that Christ draws when describing the Last Judgment. Christ says: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (Matthew 25:32-33, NIV). The sheep are then praised, and told that they will inherit eternal life, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35–36, NIV).10 The sheep then ask, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or sick, or naked, or in prison? To which Christ replies, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, NIV). The goats, in turn, are condemned to hell for failing in the same regard. When they protest that they never saw Christ hungry, or naked or in prison, he responds, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45, NIV).

What athletes, who are so used to keeping score, should notice is how different God’s priorities are from our own. Our talents are gifts, and “every gift is better when it is shared!”11 Our talents are not meant for mere self-aggrandizement. They are given to love God and neighbor. This obligation does not mean we must always be serious and dour. Athletic talents are a joy, which means engaging them in the spirit of play is the proper response! Rightly exercised, we use them, we strive, we compete, not to bring glory to ourselves but so that we too can, like David, dance “before the LORD” with all our might (2 Samuel 6:14, NIV). Winning and losing, championships and achievement, fandom and passion are good,but only when they are loved ordinately. Prudence demands we recognize the priority and right ordering of our loves. As St. Augustine recognized and the parable of the sheep and the goats so starkly demonstrates, each love is carried to its proper place.

Once again, Dante echoes the insights of scripture. In Canto XVII in the ring of Wrath, Virgil explains to Dante the sins against love.

Not the Creator nor a single creature,
as you know, ever existed without love,
the soul’s love or the love that comes by nature.
The natural love is just and cannot rove.
The soul’s love strays if it desires what’s wrong
or loves with too much strength, or not enough.
When toward its prime good it is led aright
and keeps good measure in the second goods,
it cannot be the cause of bad delight,
But when it twists to evil, or does not
race for a good with the appropriate care,
the Potter finds rebellion in the pot.12

To stick with the metaphor, Purgatory is about “the Potter repairing his pots.” Rightly understood, there is no paradox in saying that Purgatory is a place of both mercy and suffering, for healing is often painful and is always work.

Athletes would be wise to remember that talent, trophies, and championships will not matter in the economy of salvation. What is needed is a prayerful, humble, and repentant heart, dedicated to love and open to the gift of grace. God will separate the sheep from the goats. What purgatory shows is that although judgment is real, all are candidates for salvation,13 for not every sheep on his right hand will be “unblemished.” Instead, the blemished, those found in imperfect love of God, will be made clean. Once things are set right, once our too often crooked hearts have been set fully straight, once the rebellious pot has been reconciled to its maker, once our inordinate loves are purged away, then we shall see the face of God. If this is right, while fully aware of our sin, every wise person, athlete or otherwise, should use their talents as best they can to serve The Good. Then in the daily struggles of life, while rising and falling, winning and losing, aging and dying, we ought to constantly petition God (1 Thessalonians 5:17), with this simple admonition: Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NRSVCE)!


  1. One is reminded of the echo found in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Marley warns Scrooge about his inordinate focus on profit, wealth, and efficiency: ““Business? . . . Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (New York: Bantam Books, 2009), 17.
  2. Dante, Purgatory, Canto XXX, 115–120; 130–133.
  3. For biblical examples of what counts as “richness towards God” see: (Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 5:3, Galatians 5:22-26, and James 1). For a humorous, but nonetheless insightful take on how such richness towards God can play itself out in sport, watch the 2006 film Nacho Libre.
  4. “One who does not know how things really are cannot do good; for the good accords with reality.” Josef Pieper, The Christian Idea of Man, trans. Dan Farrelly (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011), 13.
  5. As such, we shouldn’t particularly fear their loss. That is, the right ordering of our loves (ordo amoris) implies the right ordering of our fears (ordo timoris). Pieper describes the idea this way: “Christian theology would in no way deny that there are terrible experiences in human existence; Christian teaching is also far from maintaining that, for example, man should not or may not fear the terrible. But the Christian asks about the ordo timoris, the hierarchy of fear; he asks what is really and ultimately terrible, and he is concerned not to fear things which are not really and ultimately terrible, and is concerned not to judge as harmless what is the ultimately terrible. The ultimately terrible is not other than the possibility that the person, through guilt, willingly separates himself from the ultimate ground of being.” Pieper, Christian Idea of Man, 26.
  6. Dante, Purgatory, Canto XI, 115–117.
  7. Dante, Purgatory, Canto XIX, 118–120.
  8. Isaiah Chapter 55 is very beneficial here, especially verses 10–11 (NRSVCE):
    “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
    making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
    so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
    but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
  9. One is reminded of the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “Everything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and terminates in itself, not having praise as part of itself. Neither worse then nor better is a thing made by being praised.
    I affirm this also of the things which are called beautiful by the vulgar, for example, material things and works of art. That which is really beautiful has no need of anything; not more than law, not more than truth, not more than benevolence or modesty. Which of these things is beautiful because it is praised, or spoiled by being blamed? Is such a thing as an emerald made worse than it was, if it is not praised? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a little knife, a flower, a shrub?” Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations,” Book IV,, 167 A.D.,
  10. This is one of the sources for the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in the Roman Catholic Church.
  11. Gregg Twietmeyer and Tyler Johnson, “The Meritocracy Trap and Kinesiology”, Kinesiology Review, advance online publication, 2022, 8,
  12. Dante, Purgatory, Canto XVII, 91–102.
  13. “My sins were horrible, but endless grace/has arms of generous goodness thrown so wide/they take in all who turn to them.” Dante, Purgatory, Canto III, 121–123.

Gregg Twietmeyer

Gregg Twietmeyer is Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Mississippi State University.