Sunday, November 19, 2017

Parable of the Talents

                                    33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    


           
Today’s first reading is from the last section of the Book of Proverbs and is taken from a poem which some have called the “Poem of a Perfect Wife.” Our reading calls her a “worthy wife” from the famous opening:

            When one finds a worthy wife,
            Her value is far beyond pearls.

Most historians would agree that sexism was part and parcel of the ancient world. Whether we’re talking about Greeks, Romans, Arabs, or Jews it was all the same, a world dominated by men. The male had absolute authority in his own household and this power extended into all of their communities whether clans, tribes, or cities.

In today’s reading, however, we get a chance to peek behind the scenes and see what actually went on in an ancient household. The picture that emerges, especially if we read the whole poem and not just the excerpts in our missal, is of a wife as business manager or chief executive. What are her duties? She gets up while it is still dark and gets the whole household moving. She feeds her employees and gives them their work for the day. She herself labors well into the night. With the household running smoothly she turns her attention to other matters of concern. For example,

            She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it;
            With what her hands have earned she plants a vineyard.

She doesn’t seem to need her husband’s advice or permission even when she deals in such business matters:

            She weaves linen sheets and sells them,
            She supplies the merchant with sashes.

Finally, at the end of the day with her household and business prosperous and in good order, she can enjoy the fruit of her hard work:

            She is clothed in strength and dignity,
            She can laugh at the days to come.

It is very interesting that the Church uses this account of a hard-working woman to introduce today’s gospel account of our Lord’s parable of the three servants and the talents. Anyone who reads of the works and teaching of Jesus has to realize that there is no hint of sexism there. St.Paul realized as much when he said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. We are all one in Christ.

How many times in the Gospels does our Lord refer to Himself as a servant and insist that we must be good and faithful servants? In other words, the role of the woman in the Book of Proverbs is now the work of all of us. After all, who benefitted from the hard work of the woman in the Book of Proverbs? It wasn’t just her husband, her children, and her entire household. She also benefitted for she found peace, prosperity, dignity and honor.

Isn’t it strange that Jesus called us to be servants even though God has no need of our service? Jesus asked us to use our talents in the service of others. The servants in the Gospel parable were all given talents and asked to grow them. Don’t we admire the athletes who work the hardest to develop their God-given skills? Isn’t it a shame when we see people who bury their gifts in the ground and waste their lives in trivial pursuits?

People in business attend seminars where they learn how to treat or serve their clients. They learn how to provide good “service” not only by doing their job well but by giving recognition and rewards, especially to their best clients. If only we could apply these techniques in our own families. What if husbands and wives were to regard each other as their best clients or customers?

It is so sad when people, especially young people, take the easy way out. So many of our children refuse to take advantage of the education offered to them today. They often brag about skipping class or not doing assignments Some even get through college without ever reading a book.

Even if we have not been given the same gifts, it is still important for us to work with what we have been given. Wouldn’t our lives be happier and better if we worked hard to develop our God-given talents? Also, let’s not waste our time by wishing we had someone else’s gifts or underrating our own? It says in today’s Gospel that each servant was given an amount “according to his ability.”

If we work hard and spend our lives in the service of others, we will be able, like the worthy woman in Proverbs, to rest easy at night and laugh at the days to come. In today’s second reading St. Paul commended the Christians of Thessalonica for avoiding the “darkness” and being “children of the light.” Still, he urged them and us to keep up the good work:

            Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
            But let us stay alert and sober.


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Reading 1. Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-6
Gospel. Matthew 25: 14-30 (to each according to his ability).

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Wise and Foolish Virgins

                                    32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                  


           

Did you ever notice that in scripture wisdom is usually regarded as feminine? Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom seems to be talking about a beautiful and desirable woman.

Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
And she is readily perceived by those who love her,
And found by those who seek her.

We know that originally the Hebrew scriptures were studied primarily by men and perhaps for that reason Wisdom was portrayed as something that should be greatly desired and sought after.

But what is Wisdom? It is obvious today that many extremely intelligent and learned people are not necessarily wise. Book learning and advanced degrees do not necessarily bring wisdom. The foolish or impractical professor is a standard joke in our culture. What about the politicians, lawyers, and financiers who we see regularly led off to jail for misconduct?

Today’s first reading gives us a clue when it calls wisdom “the perfection of prudence.” Now prudence is one of those old fashioned virtues that seem to have gone out of style. We get a lesson on prudence in today’s gospel account of the wise and foolish virgins.

Jesus tells a parable with a wedding background that all of his listeners would understand.

The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
Who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

The wise virgins were prudent because they were prepared and had taken precautions in the event that the bridegroom was delayed. Typically, the foolish virgins were not only unprepared but they also, when the moment came, had to beg the prudent ones for their oil.

Obviously, this parable is about something much more than virgins and oil. It is a call to be prepared for the day when we will meet the Lord. How can we prepare ourselves for the day of the Lord? Maybe the question should be, “how do we prepare ourselves for anything?”

Students of every age know the awful feeling that comes when we fail to prepare for an important exam or assignment. We leave off studying or writing until the last minute and then have to cram like crazy. Even if we pass, what have we really learned. Many years ago when I was a teacher, students who were not doing well would ask if they could do extra credit. There would have been no need for an extra-credit assignment if they had only done the ordinary work assigned to them.

I doubt if anyone prepares harder in our time than athletes in any sport. No football player, for example, would think of going out on the field without putting in the required hours in the weight room or on the practice field. The athletes who seem to have the greatest natural ability are also the ones who seem to spend the most time in practice. Legendary basketball stars like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were always the first to show up for practice and the last to leave.

How do we prepare and practice for life itself? Prayer is important but prudence does not mean just turning up the volume or the quantity. Jesus warned us against the senseless multiplication of words. When his disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, he just gave them the simple prayer that we call the “Our Father.”

Jesus constantly reminded us to make use of the different gifts or talents that we have been given. In other words, we are to use those gifts constantly in our daily lives, and not bury them in the ground. He asked us to be good and faithful stewards so that when he returns, we would be able to give an accounting.

Even though what we do in church is very important, Jesus always insisted that what we do outside of church is more important. Our practice for the big game consists primarily in performing the duties and fulfilling the responsibilities of our daily lives to the best of our abilities. Practice will make us perfect, and make us ready to meet our Maker when he comes.


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Reading 1. Wisdom 6: 12-16
Reading II. Thessalonians 4: 13-18
Gospel. Matthew 25: 1-13 (the wise and foolish virgins)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Whoever Humbles Himself

                                    31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
                            



        
Today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Malachi contains a very strong warning for priests: “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you.” Malachi claims that the priests have disregarded their duties and broken their original vows. Their bad teaching and behavior has “caused many to falter.” In particular, they have shown partiality in their dealings with those in their care. How dare they favor some over others!

Have we not all one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
Violating the covenant of our fathers?

Today’s gospel is also directed at priests, especially those who have not remained true to their original calling. I think if I was a priest, I would find it hard to read this gospel. Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his time for their hypocrisy and warns their congregations to “observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.”

Jesus claims that these leaders load people down with burdens but never lift a finger to help. The works they perform are just empty show designed to gain honor and respect from others. In other words, they act as lords and masters and have forgotten that they are supposed to serve the people that they lord it over.

Although the condemnation of Jesus is levelled against religious leaders, we should not be smug or hypocritical ourselves. All of us have positions of leadership and responsibility in one form or another. This teaching of Jesus should be taken to heart by any of us in our relations with one another. As Christians we are called upon to serve and not to be served.

Since we all have one Father, we all are brothers and sisters and none of us has the right to lord it over anyone else. It is true that we are called upon to exercise authority in many ways, whether in our families or on the job. But we should be careful to exercise that authority not for our own self-aggrandizement, but for the good of others. In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he gives some helpful hints on how to exercise authority. He says,

We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.

Moreover, instead of laying burdens on them and making them serve him, he was careful to take his share of their toil and drudgery,

Working night and day in order not to burden any of you…

Like his own Master, Paul understood that you should never require someone to do something that you would not be willing to do yourself. The true leader, whether a priest or layperson, should exercise authority not just by words but by example.

Humility is not only a great virtue but it is also a prime requisite for anyone in authority whether priestly or otherwise. Daily in our newspapers and on TV we read about the fall of the high and mighty. Some people think that the words of Jesus are impractical in today’s world but these fallen leaders might have been better off if they had followed the words of Jesus.

The greatest among you must be your servant.Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;But whoever humbles himself will be exalted.


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Reading 1. Malachi 1: 14b—2: 2b, 8-10
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 2: 7b—9, 13
Gospel. Matthew 23: 1-12 (whoever humbles himself).