As the end of the Church year approaches, our readings from Matthew turn to the end, and to judgment. How will we be judged? And why?
The reading from Matthew 25, the end of Jesus’s preaching, is certainly familiar: “To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one . . . . ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’”
But the conclusion, perhaps, remains a little obscure: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Why? Why is Jesus like a master who wants “interest on my return”?
Our first clue is in the specific reproach: “’You wicked, lazy servant!” There’s something more specific than wickedness here. His wickedness is laziness.
And on the reverse side, there is his commendation of the others: “Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’” Perhaps we notice the faithfulness in small matters, and miss the deeper point, which follows. “Your master’s joy” is “great responsibility.” Responsibility is the reward.
The deeper point is that our joy is in action. Not in having, but in doing – even were we to be given a reward of money, we could only enjoy it by using it.
And so too the punishment: “darkness outside.” It is a double punishment: to be in darkness, and to be outside. But both signify not being part of the action, not being where we can see, and interact, and be part of things. “Responsibility” is about being alive, doing, action. To lack responsibility, to be in out in the dark, is the ultimate frustration: a place of weeping and gnashing our teeth.
Our Master is “a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant” in the sense that he gives us our humanity not just to hold, but to perfect. He has made us the kind of being that needs to act to be happy.
The two readings give us two angles on this central teaching.
The first is from Proverbs: beautiful words about the “worthy wife.”
“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting.” The deeper purpose of matching this reading with our Gospel is to discover where human worth really lies. The worthy wife is someone her husband can “entrust his heart to,” who “brings him good.” She has “loving hands” – first working with “the distaff” and “the spindle,” but then “she reaches out her hands to the poor.”
She is a woman of action: “give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her.” But what makes this reading so beautiful is the deep humanity of her action.
Sometimes people say we are “human beings” not “human doings.” The truth in that saying is that we have to find the kind of action that truly perfects us; we have to discover what we really are. We have to discover which “doing” we ought to be doing.
Action is bad when it is the frivolous action that distracts us from knowing and loving God and neighbor. But God does not call us to sit around looking pretty. He calls us to love, and look lively.
While the reading from Proverbs focuses on love of neighbor, the reading from First Thessalonians focuses on love of God. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” The point is, “let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”
“Sleeping” is checking out of life. “When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’” it is as if they have stopped caring about life, stopped looking for the Lord.
But we are to watch vigilantly for him – not by sitting still, but by waking up. Our prayer itself should look not like sleep, but like wakefulness, vigilance, aliveness. (This is why the Tradition so insists on the value of words: prayer is not about spacing out, like a Buddhist.)
In our life, too, we should be constantly watching for the Lord, looking for him: in everyone who comes across our path, in every task. Our reading from Paul takes us deeper into our reading from Proverbs: Proverbs itself describes that active, lively, relational woman most deeply as “the woman who fears the LORD” – or, we could say, the woman who is looking for the Lord at every moment.
That is what puts our hands to the distaff, our fingers to the spindle, and causes us to reach out our hands to the poor.
Are there aspects of your life where you are half asleep, not vigilantly looking for the Lord?