33rd SUNDAY (A) November15, 2020

Proverbs 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Ps 128;
I Thess. 5: 1-6; Matthew 25: 14-30

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Talk of the Second Coming makes us main-line church folk uncomfortable. "The End is Near!" – reads the sign carried by the street preacher we rush by. Hope he doesn’t stop me and ask if I’ve "been saved." What would I say? But it isn’t just those street preachers. In light of our national political tensions, extremes of climate, the pandemic, massive forest fires, etc, it can feel like the End is not too far off!

Talk of end times is in the New Testament as well. When we read New Testament texts filled with apocalyptical images, do we feel we are reading texts of a long-gone religion? They seem part of someone else’s traditional belief. But these last weeks of the liturgical year before Advent, while our scripture readings are not filled with exotic apocalyptic imagery, still they suggest we consider Jesus’ return – the Second Coming. What are we to think and say about it to people who seem so thoroughly modern and might find us quaint when we broach the subject?

The Second Coming is no minor event in our faith life. Though it hasn’t happened yet, the scriptural texts we will hear these next weeks nudge us to make it a conscious factor in our faith lives – and while we wait for it to happen, they urge us to consider the quality of our lives. The Parousia, these passages tell us, may be taking a while; but it will happen. When it does, how will it find us? While we may not live to see Jesus’ return, each of us is certain that our world will end. It will happen to all of us, no matter what our worldly stature. As the saying goes, "At the end of the game, the king and the pawn are put away in the same box." So, these "ending parables" remind us that we had better be investing our lives in what will stand up to the questions that will be put to us one day. We will be asked how we used the time we were given? The Second Coming calls us Christians to take our lives very seriously, so that we can meet the inevitable endings we will face with faith and courage.

A 70 year old man I had gotten to know during a recent parish retreat, told me about some medical texts he was to undergo to determine whether a large black spot they had discovered on his lung was cancer. He said, "Just pray I have the strength to take whatever comes." I told him I would. But I know that this devout man had spent his entire life being prepared "to take whatever comes." Like the first two servants in the gospel story, he had invested what was given him in "good investments": his prayer life, his family responsibilities, active membership in his parish community and service to neighbors in need.

Many years ago there was a popular police television series, "Hill Street Blues." The opening scene of each week’s episode would show the precinct squad room at the beginning of a shift. There would be the assembled police officers and the shift sergeant. He would give them their day’s assignments and then send them out with the same admonition, week after week, "Hey, be careful out there." The world can be a very challenging place, not only for police officers, but for Christians as well. Jesus’ parable is encouraging us to go out and get involved, invest ourselves, get into the thick of things. The final judgement, in this parable at least, seems to be based on how much confidence the servants had that their master would support their endeavors, applaud their risk and appreciate whatever returns they could bring in.

Behind this parable are two sureties: Jesus will go away; Jesus will return. We know when the first happened, now we are anticipating the second. No date is hinted at. As for now, we must do is attend to what we have before us; we must be faithful to the risk-taking spirit of Jesus who himself became fully engaged in our world. The third servant acted "out of fear" – and so held back, risking nothing. He thought he was playing it safe. Wrong! His master wanted his servants to go out, take chances and trust that he would appreciate their being just like him; for the master himself took a big chance when he went off and "entrusted his possessions" into the hands of his servants. Quite a risk-taker this master!

We live during these times when people have lost their health, loved ones, jobs, small businesses, etc. Unemployment is on the rise. I used to travel a lot to preach. Two weeks ago American Airlines cut over 100,000 flights for the upcoming holiday season. The other airlines have done similarly. The stock market’s future is very shaky. So, what was wrong with the cautious financial manager anyway? When the master returned, he did not find that the third servant had been dishonest and stolen what was entrusted to him. In today’s economy he would be called prudent and trustworthy. But we learn that his cautious approach comes out of fear, he is out to protect his hide from a master he knows to be a "demanding person."

The parable suggests that gospel living and loving require risk taking. We will have to think about how we can keep our religion from becoming a freeze-dried package put on a high shelf for safe keeping. When things improve, let’s take a chance and visit that grumpy relative; figure out a way to feed the hungry; take our concerns about neighborhood safety to the town meeting; tutor an at-risk teen; become a lector in church; visit and sit with a dying friend... well, you get the idea. Even under these lockdown conditions people are finding ways to be attentive disciples of Jesus: calling people who are alone in their homes; dropping off food for elderly, or sick neighbors, supporting health care worker with cards, snacks and cheers. How much talent do I think has been left with me and how can I invest it? We don’t have to be successful, as much as faithful and trusting in the One who is gone, but coming back.

The first reading from Proverbs speaks to our current conditions. It describes a woman who uses her gifts, not only within the comparative safety of her own home, but in the market place as well. Last week’s first reading was about Lady Wisdom. Today we see Wisdom manifested in the life of this "worthy wife." For her time, she is a most unusual woman. She is not just a good wife, appreciated by her family at home; but she also has fame at the city gates. Her husband receives the benefit of her practical gifts. But so do the others, for "she reaches out her hands to the poor and extends her arms to the needy." Her practical gifts are the fruit of Wisdom.

There is an everyday quality to her holiness. She is a person who "fears the Lord," i.e. holds God in reverence. But the author of Proverbs does not depict her "holy acts" as taking place in isolation, or in hours of prayer spent in the Temple. Instead, this good woman practices a worldly religion. She applies her talents to her home; but she also practices works of kindness beyond the walls of her home. Our culture shines a spotlight on pencil-thin models and young men with "six pack abs." But the author reminds us that exterior looks are deceptive, they will pass. We don’t know what this worthy and worldly wife looks like; but we do see her interior appearance. She is reverent before God, industrious at home and kind to the needy. No wonder her works earn her "praise at the city gates."

(C.f Justice Bulletin Board below for further reflections on the Proverbs reading)

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