Twenty-Fifth Sunday: The Lord Upholds My Life

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 2:12, 17-20; PS 54:3-4, 5, 6, 8; JAS 3:16-4:3; MK 9:30-37

This Sunday’s readings are about trusting in God.  The real proof of our faith is whether we believe God is active and will preserve us.  This is the real depth of humility: to trust in God, not in horses or princes.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues to teach the disciples about his coming death: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  “But they did not understand.”  (Interesting: “they were afraid to question him” – because they did not trust in him to care for them.)

What part did they not understand?  Perhaps they did not understand the opposition, why anyone would want to kill Jesus.  But gosh, there’s been plenty of opposition in the Gospel.  That men are violent and unjust is not hard to understand.

What they did not understand was the rising part.  In fact, they did not understand the dying part because they did not understand the rising part.

So often our trust in God is thin.  We believe he will protect us through human means.  We trust in God to the extent that we hope he’ll make everything be fine.  But in the Cross, Jesus calls them to trust even when things are not fine.  God wants to take us to where there is nothing left but trust in him.

***

In the second half of our Gospel reading, we see the practical circumstances.  The disciples are arguing about who is, already, the greatest among them.  Jesus tells them, to be great, become little.

Because the only true greatness is the greatness that is given by God alone. Divine greatness comes from so trusting in God that we do not try to become great by human means.

From this comes, again, love of the poor.  Here it is in the form of a child: “whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”  But the point is, children are not the way to greatness.  We’re looking for the way to become important.  Jesus says the only way is to focus on the things that don’t make you important – and trusting in God, God alone, to raise you to glory.  To find glory, do not seek it – except in God alone.

On one level, Jesus says that he is in the child: whoever receives the child receives him.  But in another way, he is in the renunciation.  By focusing on the child – on the person who can give you no glory; not advance your career; not make you popular – you assert, with your deeds, that you trust in God alone, seek your glory in God alone.

That’s one reason the poor and the little ones matter: because they are a way of renouncing the quest for human glory.  Do you really believe God will give you glory?  Or do you seek it in human achievement?

***

Our Old Testament reading, from the book of Wisdom, talks about this dynamic in terms of the Law.  To follow God’s law is here above all a renunciation of human glory.

The wicked fear the law will get in the way of their worldly success.

But the constant refrain of the just is that “God will defend him and deliver him,” “God will take care of him.”

And so he is gentle and patient.  He does not need to fight – he renounces the fight – because he trusts in God.

***

And in our continued tour through the Letter of James, we get one of his central, defining passages.

On the one side is the way of war.  “You covet but do not possess.”  We have desires and we hope to fulfill them – by taking, and fighting, and scratching to the top.  “You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.”  It doesn’t work.  The way of the world seems “practical” – but it doesn’t get us where we want to go.

And, perhaps, this mentality affects us, too.  Unlike our Old Testament reading, James isn’t talking “us” vs. “them.”  Here it’s his own audience, his own congregation, whom he accuses of war.  He underlines this by saying, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly.”  These are people who pray – but whose heart is not set on God.

He contrast them with “the wisdom from above,” which is “peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy.”  The way of peace – he repeats that most beautiful word three times.

But the way of peace is “first of all pure” – because it sets its heart not in this world, and this world’s means of grasping after worldly success.

Where is God calling you to trust more deeply in him alone?

33rd Sunday: Joy in Action

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

PRV 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; PS 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; I THES 5:1-6; MT 25:14-30

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?