THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – November 19, 2017

A reading from the Book of Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians 5:1-6
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:14-30

Dear Reader,

Would you believe it?  We are nearing the conclusion of another Church Year.  Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, each Liturgical year’s final Sunday.  We have journeyed with Jesus all along the Way primarily through Matthew’s Gospel.  With that in mind, you will not be surprised that the readings for this Sunday focus our attention on important things, on how we should live and so be ready for the end times.

I remember sitting at the bedside of a man who was near death.  He lay flat on his back.  His fingers clutched the edge of the blanket covering him.  He held it tight under his chin.  His eyes seldom blinked as he stared at the ceiling.  Terrified of his impending death, he kept murmuring, “What will I have to show God?  What good have I done?”  From what I knew of his history, I believed he had nothing to fear.  I kept whispering to him, “Remember, God loves you.  God loves you forever.”

What is life all about?  Through the eyes of faith, that is, what is life all about?

One thing seems clear from our readings, one thing that we can use as our starting point.  Life should not be frittered away like idlers with nothing to do.  We should not wish we could be among the upper crust of society’s elite, not if we are people of faith.  There is work to be done, even if one is rich, as we prepare for the coming of the Kingdom.  Take the first reading for example.  The translation of the opening line is a bit unfortunate.  When one finds a worthy wife could better be translated, when one finds a powerful, diligent woman.  In other words, her value does not depend on her being a spouse.  It is her industry, her hard work, and the constancy of her care for the poor and the needy that cause her neighbors to marvel and her fame to grow.  Saint Teresa of Calcutta may come to mind.  So, too, might Augustine’s mother, Monica, among many, many others.  Then there is Mary Magdalene, a woman of considerable means who put her fortune at the service of the Gospel.

Of course gender is an issue in the first reading, given the husband’s delight in the industrious woman, but gender is not the primary significance.  The industry is.  Women and men both are to have her attitude.  If the husband in the reading does nothing more than spend his days rejoicing in his unfailing prize, there is nothing to be admired in him.  Let us hope he shares in the labors.

Every once in awhile it happens.  A leader of a fundamentalist sect convinces the followers that the end is near.  Judgment Day is at hand.  The membership drops everything and head for a designated place where the Messiah’s return will occur.  The leader has interpreted the Book of Revelation.  Or, he has read the configuration of the planets and the stars.  Sometimes the followers drink poison in order to get there.  Sometimes they sit and wait.  When the appointed time passes by, the purpose of their being together also passes.  They go back to whatever had lost attraction for them in the world.  Such actions do not seem to fit with Paul’s admonitions in the second reading.  In fact, the opposite seems to hold sway.

Stay alert.  Stay sober.  Of course the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  Some people can focus on that notion and become paralyzed by it.  Notice, Paul speaks to children of the light and children of the day.  Paul speaks to the Church, to the baptized living now in the priesthood of the baptized, living now in this intimate relationship with God in Christ that begins in Baptism.  For Paul, the difference is faith’s effects that contrast so markedly with those who are without faith.  The latter are the ones who are surprised by disaster, the ones victimized by thieves in the night.  They live in fear and dread.  The faithful know that the Lord will return on the final day.  They keep watch and are ready.  They work toward that day.

It seems clear that in the early days of Paul’s preaching he was convinced that the Lord Jesus would return and wrap everything up in Paul’s lifetime.  As a consequence people stopped working, stopped planning for the future, and stopped striving to hand on the truth to the succeeding generation.  People sat and waited and sponged off the faith community.  That is why Paul, once he saw that the end might not be tomorrow, issued the edict that if the people do not work, do not feed them.  We do not know the day or the hour.  As believers in the Lord’s return in glory, we work for that day and at the same time earn our daily bread.  We must do our part to hasten the Day.  Watch.  Be ready.  Work.

Once again we have a difficult parable in the Gospel this week.  Nothing seems fair about it, especially in the lines: For to those who have, more will be given and they will grow rich; but from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.  How is that fair?

Who is the man going on a journey?  From the placement of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel, it would seem the man is Jesus.  The parable can be heard in context of a last word to the disciples before the coming crucifixion and death.  The journey will be the time between those events and Jesus’ return on judgment day.  Jesus is entrusting the Gospel to them, entrusting himself to them to whatever degree of capacity they are capable of.  The questions are: how will they live with the gift?  What will they do with it?  By the way, in strictly monetary terms, one talent was a considerable amount.  Although the parable plays out as a lesson in economics, even to the Master’s asking why the one talent wasn’t at least put in the bank where it could have earned interest, money is not what the parable is about, but the wealth of the Gospel and how belief in that Good News is to be lived out.

Now go back and reread the first reading and praise of the woman of industry.  What she did with her position and power is what Jesus expects the disciples to do with what has been given to them until the day of his return.  Work hard.  Care for the family.  Be mindful of and respond to others’ needs, especially the needs of the orphans and widows, all the while exercising a fundamental option for the poor, recognizing them as sisters and brothers in the Lord.

Legend has it that during the time of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, the Romans looking on the slaughter marveled at how these Christians love one another.  Perhaps that is why times of persecution often become times of great grown for the Church.  The Gospel makes sense in the context and becomes what it’s all about.  Those looking on and marveling at love in action want to share in it.

Then who is the poor wretch with the one talent?  We will get a vivid picture of that one next week in Matthew’s judgment scene.  For now, suffice it to say that the man with the one talent stands for those who are given faith but do nothing with it.  They do not live the Gospel.  The Gospel is not translated into works of charity in their lives.  Remember the question popular in the 1970s?  If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  The Lord expects that there would be.

For your prayerful consideration, what attitude do you bring to Eucharist?  Certainly there are those who come out of obligation.  They gather around the Table and watch the celebration.  They share in the meal.  But what happens afterwards?  If everything stops there for them, they may be the ones with the one talent.  In Peggy Lee’s song, Is that all there is?

Alfie was asked, What’s it all about?  The Eucharist is, for the Baptized, an exercise of the Priesthood of the Baptized.  They gather with the Presider to celebrate and give thanks to God in the renewing of the dying and rising of Jesus.  They gather to take and eat for this is my body.  They gather to take and drink for this is my blood.  But they do not stop there.  They come also to be sent to do this in my memory.  They are sent to be bread broken and cup poured out in the World’s market place, until all the hungry have eaten, and all the thirsty have drunk and come to know the love of God for them.  What is as important is the understanding of memory.  Do this and I am present.  That is what memory means.  Those Baptized who have eaten and drunk are the continuing presence of Jesus, just as they are enabled by faith to recognize Jesus in those poor who are served.

What will I have to show God?  What good have I done?  In the end it is about love.  Love as Jesus loves you.  Make it practical.  Do all in Jesus’ memory and you will have nothing to fear when the Lord comes again.  You will have done your part to build up the Kingdom.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

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THE THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – November 12, 2017

A reading from the Book of Wisdom 6:12-16
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians 4:13-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:1-13

Dear Reader,

We are celebrating the final weeks of Ordinary Time for this Liturgical Year.  It might seem odd this late in the cycle that this week’s Liturgy of the Word puts the basics before us.  We are invited to grasp what is essential if we are to be successful in reaching our faith-journey’s goal.  If we look back we might conclude that the truths were taught us in the first weeks of the year.  But just in case we missed those basics, they are put squarely before us again, reminding us, as it were, of what should have sustained us along the Way now that we might be a little road-weary from the trek.

Conversion stories always move me, be they stories from the lives of saints or the stories of ordinary people like you and me.  Some stories are dramatic, like Paul’s encounter on the Road to Damascus.  Other stories are quietly mystical like that of a friend of mine who woke one morning and knew her life would never be the same.  In every case what begins is not the result of anything the believer has done and for each one is impossible to explain.  Dorothy Day was an atheist one day and through a chance encounter became a seeker after Baptism the next.  Peter and his cohorts were fishermen until that day Jesus asked them to leave everything with which they were familiar and follow him into the unknown.  Each one made the transition.  The secret that empowered the transformation can be found in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom.  Wisdom is the answer.

The reading speaks of the wonder that Wisdom is.  Notice that wisdom is feminine, a woman who makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her and graciously appears to them in ways and meets them with all solicitude.  Sit with the reading.  Let the words wash over you.  See if you do not start thinking that the one called Wisdom doesn’t soon begin to sound like the one we call Holy Spirit, that One that rushed down and enveloped that timid gathering in the upper room on Pentecost and transformed them into announcers of the Good News.  You might not know it from the English translation for Spiritus, but the gender is feminine.  Just as Wisdom is eternal, so too is the Holy Spirit of God, resplendent and unfading.

Reflect on your own experience of coming to believe.  Most of us will conclude that the journey of faith has been filled with the unexpected.  If you were adult when you began to believe, or if you were Baptized in infancy, what may be common to both is that in the initial days of believing we thought that once we had said we believed there would be no more stumbling blocks along the way.  We would see everything through the eyes of faith.  Everything would make sense.  We may have thought that, but many of us then faced challenges along the way that made us cry out and wonder if we could still be believers, so hard to bear or understand was the onus we felt.  We could identify with what the person said when faced with a difficult decision as Jesus confronted him: I do believe, Lord; help my unbelief.

When we consider faith, we are talking about something that is gift.  Put more actively, the believer begins as one sought out by grace, or the Spirit.  The believer is the recipient of that grace and is given the opportunity to respond.  As is true with everything that ultimately comes from God, the outpouring is lavish and even excessive.  Think of the language of Pentecost.  There was the sound as of a violent wind blowing where they had gathered.  Tongues as of fire danced over their heads.  Sounds like a hurricane coupled with a firestorm to me.  And in another place, there were twelve baskets of food left over after the 5000 had eaten of the few loaves and couple of fish Jesus had blessed, broken, and had distributed.

The reading tells us that Wisdom is available to those who love her.  The point for us to remember is that the Spirit who empowers faith is available to all who call upon the Spirit, to all who love the Spirit.  The Spirit (Wisdom) will respond and embrace those who seek her.  Sometimes I wonder if only those who have been brought very low will understand the power of what is being proclaimed here.  Only those who have been thrust into the darkest night of near despair will know what the transforming power of the Spirit means.  Some call those periods the dark night of the soul.  One this is certain: the Spirit supports the dawn of deeper faith that follows for those who watch and wait.  It is said that St. Teresa of Calcutta sat and prayed in that darkness for 50 years, all the while hoping for consolation.

Half of the young women in the parable in today’s Gospel teach us what our faith journey is really about.  It is a time of watching and waiting, of being ready when the Lord comes.  Those five with the oil in their lamps were prepared when the bridegroom finally came.  They entered the wedding feast with him.  The Lord expects us to be ready, too.

As is true of most of the parables Jesus told, there can be many interpretations of their elements.  In the context of today’s parable, it can be that the oil in the lamp stands for faith.  The five maidens acquired their supply from the merchants near by.  The five foolish ones’ didn’t bother.  None of us should think that we are on a solitary journey in this faith trek.  We are part of the Body of Christ.  We journey as a community and as Church.  We do not celebrate Eucharist alone.  We gather around the Table as a believing community and united, we give thanks to God in bread and Wine as we renew Christ’s dying and rising.

Two things happen.  The oil merchants support the individual’s faith.  The faith-witness of the believing community supports the individual’s faith.  We believe in God.  We believe in Jesus.  We believe n the Spirit.  We believe in Church.  Gathering with others and experiencing their witness of faith strengthens our own.  There were merchants who could have supplied the five foolish ones with oil.  The foolish didn’t bother until it was too late.

The second thing that happens in our shared-faith experience is that we come to know Jesus.  The Bridegroom’s words at the end of the parable are chilling, words we pray we will never hear from the Lord: Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.  To ensure that we do not hear those words, we must do two things.  First we must come to recognize Jesus where he is.  We will hear more about this in the Liturgy of the Word for the Feast of Christ the King in a couple of weeks.  Here it is sufficient to remember that we are called to be a servant church, called to serve Christ in the poor and all those who suffer.  That is why we must be about working for their dignity and supporting their rights to the basic human needs.  Those on one side of a border are just as much brothers and sisters as are those on the other side.  Gender and sexual orientation do not determine who are our brothers and sisters, and neither does race.  We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and with Christ and through Christ we strive for justice and peace.  See what the Breaking of the Bread is about?

Then, and finally, to ensure we do not hear those dreaded words, we must spend time getting to know Christ personally.  We must spend time in prayer and reflection.  Relationship with the Lord is built gradually and over time.  Granted it is all the result of grace working in us.  Still, we must have the industry to respond and let grace transform.  Take time to pray.  Take time to reflect.  Take time to listen.  It is the Lord who speaks in that silence to tell you of the Lord’s love for you.

May your lamp burn brightly and shine out particularly to those feeling most threatened by the darkness.  Sometimes people need a reason to go on believing.  That reason might be you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

 

THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – November 05, 2017

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 23:1-12

Dear Reader,

This Sunday we hear the Prophet Malachi address a specific audience, the priests.  For those who are not of that class, it would be easy to sit back, relax, and not let the prophecy pierce the heart.  That would be a mistake.  There are chastisements in Malachi’s words that the whole Assembly must hear.

Think of this.  God appoints the prophet to speak to the people what God wants the people to hear.  The Prophet’s message has not so much to do with foretelling the future, the commonly accepted meaning of the word prophet, as it does with calling the people to a change of heart, a conversion, and a return to God’s ways.  If you were to read the deleted lines from Malachi’s oration, you would learn that God is upset because the priests are not following the law.  Imperfect animals are being offered in sacrifice.  Blind and lame animals were considered polluted and therefore unfit to be placed on the altar.  But the people do not escape the reprimand, since they are the ones who present the priests with the inferior animals.

The priests have become careless in their observances.  This is a source of scandal to the people who in turn have become careless.  In effect, the people are acting like Gentiles.  If they continue in these illicit practices they will become corrupted, and with corruption will come weakness.  Their earlier corruption resulted in the Babylonian Captivity.  This restored people could fall again and become contemptible and base before all the people.  Remember the adage about being doomed to repeat historical mistakes if we do not learn from our history?

Malachi’s final question of the priests today has particular appropriateness for us.  We are the baptized.  Through our Baptism we share in Christ’s priesthood.  Living out our priesthood means that we ought to be a people serious about praising and glorifying God, even as we are committed to treating our sisters and brothers, indeed all people with justice and love.

In the Gospels for the past few weeks, the priests, scribes, and Pharisees have had confrontations with Jesus.  The results have been Jesus’ telling judgment-laden parables.  We have heard that these groups plot against Jesus and look for ways to condemn him.  The scribes and Pharisees are not present in today’s Gospel as Jesus addresses the crowds, i.e., those undecided about Jesus, and the disciples, i.e., those committed to following him.  Both groups ought to pay heed to the official teachers since the teachers sit on Moses’s chair.  They are the official interpreters of the Law.  As such they have the responsibility to be prophetic with they teach the people.  As Jesus says, Observe all things whatsoever they tell you.  To follow the Law is to do God’s will.  But another adage seems to apply here.  Do as they say, not as they do.  Follow the Pharisees teachings but do not act like some of them.

The problem quite clearly is that some of the Pharisees may know the Law well, they may spend time arguing about which law is most important, but they are not facilitating the Law’s intent.  They are being oppressive and judgmental and, in the process, are breaking the spirit of the people.  What has achieved prominent importance for some of the Pharisees is the image they project, how the people perceive them.  They do nothing to ease the burdens of the people, but rather they add to them.  All their works are performed to be seen.  They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.  They love places of honor at banquets…and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’”

Recently I saw a picture of a prelate gathered with a coterie cassock and surplice garbed supporters.  In full regalia, the prelate’s capa magna cascaded down his back and stretched across those assembled with him.  Talk about widened phylacteries and lengthened tassels that Jesus decries.  The bishop is the chief shepherd and teacher in the diocese.  But splendor of garb and life-style make it difficult to see Jesus in the midst of that refinery.  I was impressed many moons ago when Pope Paul VI gave the triple-tiered papal crown to a museum as a historical artifact, never to be worn again in a papal precession.

The image of the church suffers today, not only in the United States, but in Europe as well. The sexual abuse scandal contributes to that, as does the inappropriate response of some bishops to it.  In Ireland, Mass attendance in that Catholic country continues to decline.  Numbers of Catholics are leaving the church, either to join other denominations or to give up the practice of the faith.  St. Pope John Paul II made public acts of atonement for past ecclesial abuses, vis-à-vis the treatment of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the Inquisition.  That attitude ought to be replicated by others in the hierarchy so that the image that emerges is one of a penitential church whose primary functions are to praise God in union with Christ, animated by the Spirit to be servants of the poor and seekers of justice for all.  Harsh judgments and ready refusal of access to Communion do not help that image, except among the ultra conservatives among us.

Pope Francis, from the day he stepped out on the balcony and bowed before the assembled and asked them to pray for him, Francis has continually been prophetic in word and deed.  He has put aside the splendors of the office.  He doesn’t live in the papal apartment.  Rather, he resides in an ordinary ground floor apartment.  He drives himself in an ordinary car.  He breakfasts with street people.  He has washed the feet of the imprisoned and kissed those feet, even if they belonged in women and non-believers.  He pleads for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  He has dethroned some of the hierarchy who live in the midst of excessive bling.  He does not judge and says he believes even atheists can get to heaven.  Racism.  No.  Sexism.  No.  Elitism.  No.  We are all one family of God, loved by God in time and for all eternity.

The Gospel is addressed to all of us.  To hear the proclamation as focusing only on the hierarchy and thereby letting ourselves off the hook, so to speak, is a mistake.  Again, remember that we are united in the Baptismal Priesthood.  We are called to worship god in prayer and praise, to co-celebrate Eucharist as full, active, and conscious participants, and to live as members of the Body of Christ, in service of one another and as seekers of justice.  Actions speak louder than words.  We should not be questing after power, but looking for ways to empower.  That is what Archbishop Oscar Romero was about and may be why his canonization has taken so long.  Some in the church saw him as an embarrassment.

As we listen to Jesus this Sunday, we can hear words of encouragement.  Practice humility, which is nothing more than recognizing that all we have and are, is gift.  Listen to your inner promptings.  That can be the Spirit inviting you to recognize your talents so that you can make them available to God’s people through service.  That is how the lowly will be lifted up.  Paul’s words in the second reading will resonate in your heart: And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus