I’m sure most of us have memories that stick with us for the rest of our lives. A memory, for us older folks along in years, that may have occurred in our teenage years, or shortly before or just after that age period.
One of those memories for myself was a day I rode home the city bus from school, before the yellow buses were built and clogged up the roads. I rode home from St. Peter’s High School on Main Street in the Main South section of Worcester, before it merged with Marian High School, riding home to Lincoln Street, getting off the city bus each school day in front of St. Bernard’s Church. At the time I believe I was a Freshman, thus 14 years old. And for this bus ride, most days I would have to transfer to another city bus in front of City Hall, to either bus # 26, Lincoln Street, or bus # 19, Burncoat Street.
I remember one day when I got off the bus to transfer in front of City Hall, as I was waiting for # 26 or # 19 to come along for the second leg of my journey home, I saw my grandfather wandering around in the area of City Hall and wondered, “Why is he wandering around here? He has his own car.”
I understand now the reason he was wandering so far from home – he lived right next to Strand’s Ski Shop right up the road. He was wandering because of what we know today as Alzheimer’s Disease. He had lost his sense of direction because of a disease that affects the human brain. My grandfather’s name was Walter Riley. So, if you see me wandering down by City Hall, just bring me back to the rectory.
But this memory stuck with me all these years; the memory of him having lost his sense of direction, due to no fault of his own. It was his body breaking down as his age advanced, drawing closer and closer to the moment of death, when all disease and all pain is finally finished. Except, if we are told to depart to the left by the King of the Universe, the Just Judge, the one who holds all power of our final direction within him.
My memory of my grandfather is a real-life example of losing direction due to circumstances beyond our control. The Gospel we hear proclaimed on Christ the King Sunday presents the possibility of losing direction when direction is very much within our control. The words of Jesus the Just Judge; “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you,” and the words, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” both statements are presently very much within our control. As of now, we have the power and control within our hearts, our minds, our bodies and our souls, to choose either direction.
Whereas someone like my grandfather, and many others today, have lost that capacity as a disease invaded his mind and body, we guard against pretending like we have Alzheimer’s with this expectation of our faith that commands us to love our neighbor. In the present, we possess a solid sense of direction, knowing that we can slip and fall along the way here, but also capable of returning to the good direction of our lives that God calls us to. We’re blessed in our faith to have the Sacrament of Reconciliation that places us squarely back on the path of good spiritual direction.
The Gospel today on this last Sunday of the Church Year, this Gospel familiarly known as Matthew 25, is the most explicit Gospel story of Jesus that gives us the understanding that good works are an absolutely essential dance partner with our Christian faith. That good works are essential to good spiritual direction.
We see this realized as a Parish throughout each year as we support program after program, cause after cause, second envelopes, second collections, Visitation House, hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Haiti. The list is continuous each year. Financial support for worthy causes allows us as a Parish to maintain a sense of good direction before God. It helps to prevent us, as a Christian community, from wandering around City Hall, not knowing where our next step will take us.
As a Parish, we humbly ask the Lord to speak the words to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father.” While this addresses the communal part of our faith, from the passing of a basket to the forwarding of those funds to a needy cause, the stronger sense of good direction is realized in the personal aspect of our faith.
Do we, as individuals, take the initiative to feed the hungry on our own, understanding that doing so is an extension of my Parish, and the living out of my daily faith in Christ? The same for giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming a stranger, clothing the ill-clad, visiting the sick, patiently listening to someone who needs to vent, and so forth.
The words, “Come, you who are blessed,” or “Depart from me, you accursed,” are determined by our present sense of direction as connected to our personal faith in Christ the King. Our sense of direction as a Parish, our communal faith, will take us only so far toward the words, ‘Come, you who are blessed.” But it’s the personal dimension of faith, what we do in our personal lives outside of these walls, that does away with the possibility of wandering around City Hall. The good works Jesus puts forth in this Gospel dispels the wandering.
God bless my grandfather, my namesake, who died not long after carrying his cross of Alzheimer’s. Prior to his losing his sense of direction beyond his control, he had a wonderful sense of direction in his personal faith. So wonderful that Fr. Connors did his Funeral Mass here in 1976. Now is the time for us to have the same sense of good direction in our personal faith in Christ the King.
Our Mass on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, will be held at 9:00 a.m.
Do the math, Jesus tells them. Five plus five more equals ten, with profit made. Two plus two more equals four, with profit made. One talent plus zero equals lots of trouble. Anytime there’s a zero with the Lord, anywhere in the equation, some sad result is forthcoming. Remember, even the homebound, those not capable of moving easily from one room to the next, never mind from home to Church, even these wonderful people – at least the ones I know – they pray for others. By doing so, even homebound Christians who have a wonderful deepness to their faith, have no zeroes on their scorecard with the Lord.
In this parable Jesus tells his disciples as we move toward the end of another Church Year next week, he tells them in his colorful language that zeroes are unacceptable. His instructions are clear, even though its flowery language, telling them, “With this faith that has been entrusted to you, you have to produce on my behalf. You have to bring more talent – more talents – more souls, into the fold of my kingdom. I want my banquet hall filled. If you put up a big fat zero with the many graces and gifts I’ve given to you, if you go 0 for 5 in baseball language, then you Peter, Andrew, James, John and the rest of you are useless servants who chose laziness and comfort over truth and possible persecution. Don’t take the easy road, you 12, and make certain you put in the time and effort on behalf of my kingdom.”
We know how the story ended years after Jesus spoke this parable to them. They all went on to double the portion entrusted to them, except for Judas, who had a zero on his scorecard, the zero of betraying his Lord. The rest of them doubled, in some cases tripled and quadrupled the amount of talents entrusted to them. “To those who have, more will be given.”
They remembered well Jesus’ words to them after he ascended and they each went in separate directions to the ends of the earth with nothing but sandals and a sack, and the clothes on their back. His words were drilled into their hearts … “Produce no zeroes … don’t come up empty …. Evangelize … have fortitude for the Kingdom … and if you have to, die for the Kingdom that promises eternal life.” Which they all did except for John. St. Paul took Jesus’ instructions seriously, as seen in his words to the Philippians, “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.” No zeroes for St. Paul the former persecutor, which is why he also wrote in the same letter, “Join with others in being imitators of me,” just as Paul imitated his Lord.
For ourselves, the parable of Jesus is certainly about producing for his Kingdom. This comes with the understanding that our faith is not only a personal faith, which is where our relationship with Christ begins. But our faith is also communal. To be lived out in the community, which is most important today, since we live in a culture that tries awfully hard to privatize religion, into a certain time slot only.
If someone tells me that my religion is to be practiced, lived, worshipped and embraced only on Sunday mornings … after I tell them to go fly a kite with some flowery language mixed in, I will tell them that I cannot put a zero on the scorecard of my faith they wish me to, because my Lord expects me to double my talents, which I would try to do right there with them.
So, who do we satisfy? Do we satisfy those who say, “Bury your talent in the ground? And don’t worry, he’ll understand. He’ll understand, he’s forgiving. He’ll look past our lack of courage, our laziness, and countless excuses. Get the shovel out and bury it, and don’t worry, be happy.” That’s called the tricky language of the Devil, trying his best to get us to not produce for the true Master.
Our challenge today of adding souls for the Lord and more talents for God is not much different from the time of the 12 Apostles. I’m certain there were villages, towns, and cities where the Christian message was flat-out rejected. Where they shook the dust off their feet, and moved on from Worcester to Holden, to Paxton and Rutland, where our old friend Fr. Jim Boland can now convert them.
But if we’re rejected and turned away, hearing the words of today’s culture, “Keep your religion to yourself; keep it private with no communal dimension to it,” then at least we’ve advanced beyond the number zero. If we’re forced to shake the dust off our feet, then we’ve gained at least a half talent for such effort.
So, this parable of Jesus is certainly about filling up his Father’s banquet hall. But it’s also about being ready for opportunities to double our talent, about staying awake. After the servant with one talent buried his talent, working hard to dig a grave for his Master’s money, in essence digging his own grave, you know what he did? I’ll tell you what he did. Instead of imitating St. Paul and working hard for the Lord, he did his best imitation of Rip Van Winkle. He took a really long nap. He hibernated his faith until his boss returned. And when the boss returned, asking him for his spiritual production, all he could do was find the shovel and re-dig the same hole, which was left open for his soul. That’s a useless servant. His Master returned like a thief in the night, and he realized his beard had grown 18 inches from the time he was given the talent.
The Lord has blessed us all with varying degrees of talent for his benefit. Some have more than others. Some is expected of more than others. I wouldn’t want to be a Bishop, where so much is expected. But the Lord entrusts us to use what we are given; from the homebound to the healthiest teenager, and give back to him more than just ourselves.
It’s a little bit mind-boggling that he entrusts us to produce on his behalf, but he knows we can do it. And he provides all the graces we need to double the portion, to share the faith, to express our love for him first. And those divine words in today’s Gospel are addressed to each of us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
The door was locked. The Gospel doesn’t say that God slammed the door in their faces. It says the door was locked. My image is that God gently closed the door, the volume being the sound of a whisper, when he decided it was time for the door to be closed and locked forever. Those left out were not ready, trying their best at the last minute to find a pint of oil for the lamps of their souls, but waited too long. There is such a thing in our faith as waiting too long.
We know all too well that God doesn’t run the universe and the heavens according to our time expectations. How many times have we waited for a prayer to be answered to our benefit or the benefit of someone we love and care about, and by the time the answer was realized, we went from baby clothes to assisted living? The point being that we hope for good results within a certain amount of time, but sometimes God sees it differently.
The door was locked. It’s hard to imagine or accept that five foolish virgins who simply forgot to go to Wal-Mart or Advanced Auto Parts to purchase a can of oil will be locked out of the joys of heaven forever. Because once the door is locked, once Jesus returns, making a better comeback than the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, he won’t be coming back a third time. The chasm between the rich man and Lazarus will be finalized, and the door to the feast will never open again. Because of the absence of oil.
If that’s the case, which it appears to be, then the oil must represent something, or some things, essential to our faith. The absence of oil for the lamps for the five foolish virgins symbolizes apathy toward the vigilance of their faith, never being ready to show off their faith, as well as laziness toward their faith.
Now today, a 5th-grader would probably ask the question, “Fr. Riley, what if foolish virgin # 2 was unable to get to Wal-Mart or Advanced Auto Parts to purchase a can of oil for their lamp because they broke their leg playing field hockey, and was unable to drive? Or, they couldn’t afford a cab, or were recovering from heart surgery?” And my answer to such profound questions would be, “Those circumstances would not make them foolish, and God understands where their hearts happen to be in relation to their faith.”
The oil for the lamp is purchased at our Baptism. At Baptism, we were given all the oil we would need for a lifetime of filling up the lamps of our souls, if we’re open to living out the responsibilities of our Baptism in subsequent years, especially our adult years. What are some of those responsibilities in the context of our Catholic faith?
The oil is refilled every time we avail ourselves of the countless graces of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our Confirmation Class, preparing for reception of the Sacrament next April, will have their lamps refilled in the Spirit at that time, in that moment, as they profess in their openness to the reception of Confirmation that they will now become laborers in the vineyard of our Lord for the remainder of their lives.
Our oil lamps are filled to the brim each week we come to receive the Precious Body and Blood of Christ, and not treating this incredible encounter with the Lord as something routine and somehow normal. Receiving the Creator of the universe and the One who called all things into existence is as far above a normal encounter as one can be.
The lamp gets filled when married couples share their Christian love for each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death appears at the door. Unlike in the Gospel, where the five wise virgins refused the five foolish ones any amount of oil, telling them to “Go get it yourself. Go get your own!” Unlike that sad result, a married couple is the singular relationship where one can fill the lamp of the other through the sharing of their love, and in their common love for God.
And in the Sacrament of Anointing, a person’s lamp is filled with God’s oil of desired healing, or his grace and peace so desired at the end of life so that we may confidently go forward, not only through the door of death, but also through the open door of heaven. This powerful Sacrament prepares us to meet God and to be ready for his return.
The five foolish virgins who were careless having no oil when it was reported the Master was returning soon, had no Sacramental life. No life of experiencing and desiring God’s love and presence right now. They got caught sleeping in the living out of their faith. Their apathy toward the One they waited for was cold, stale, and lazy. No legitimate, good reasons exist for that possibility.
This is why it’s so joyful to be a Catholic who realizes the necessity to be part of the Body of Christ where the wise virgins gather in prayer and worship. It’s because we will have all the oil we will ever need to guarantee our entrance through the holy door of heaven. From Baptism to the Funeral Mass. Not from Baptism to the Funeral Home Service. Don’t cut your oil supply off moments after we cease breathing. Finish the job. From Baptism to the Holy Funeral Liturgy, we have all the oil needed to enter through the open door, well before he locks it for good.
As the first reading from Wisdom says today, she is seeking those worthy of her. The she is Mother Church, the Body of Christ. And for those who seek, they are wise, for much oil is provided here for your lamps.
It’s easy to take many things for granted. The sun will come up tomorrow. The moon will rise. The stars will shine in a clear sky. I will never get a hole-in-one in golf. And the Patriots will win another Super Bowl.
Honesty, there is much about our lives we just expect to happen. As a priest, I expect to have my voice to say Mass from one day to the next, even though some people think I work only on Sundays. We expect our vehicles to start every time we turn the key or push the button. We expect, without thinking, the brakes to work when we step on them. And for the most part, they do work.
In our faith, we know already many of the expectations that come with being a disciple of Christ. Such as being a person who is willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of someone else. Sacrifices that find their foundation in the one sacrifice of the Cross. Or, being a person capable of extending where needed the virtue of forgiveness, finding its foundation in the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We know who spoke those words, and the timing of them.
With discipleship in Christ, we know of the expectation of good works that reflect a healthy, active, genuine faith in the one we claim as Savior. As St. James reminds us in his letter, faith without works is dead faith. The good works we perform are grounded in the countless people he healed on the Sabbath, drawing the ire of certain religious leaders, and all other days during the time of his ministry. We know many of the expectations that come with discipleship. To not be a worldly person, but a person that transforms the world. Not a follower of the culture, but a leader for Christ and his Gospel.
In our Gospel today, we have two sets of expectations presented by the Lord. Two ways of living and being. And they couldn’t be more contrasting in their understanding of human life and love.
Our Lord spells out both ways in the clearest terms. The first way, which Jesus is strongly critical of, is the way of widening phylacteries and lengthening tassels. When I read this Gospel earlier this week in preparation, the first thing I wanted to do was shorten my tassel. The old Catholic guilt made itself known in my heart, but didn’t get the best of me.
But our Lord’s criticism about wide phylacteries and long tassels in and of themselves…. There’s nothing un-Christian about looking good. Jesus’ critical comments are spoken by him because of a certain attitude that accompanies the nice clothes. He’s not trying to shut down any clothing stores here. It’s all about the attitude and a certain look that says, “I’m better than you, more powerful than you, more important than you, better looking than you, and you, sir, are a lowlife. You sir, you ma’am, are a nobody.”
“Look at my wide phylacteries that you can’t afford, and check out my long tassels that tell of my self-importance, and of how small you really are.” It’s no wonder why they have no problem testing Jesus in all these recent Gospels we’ve heard; it’s because they think he’s a lowlife. That he’s a nobody. He’s an upstart. It’s easy to understand why Jesus is harshly critical of these funny-looking dudes who wear their precious clothes that come with an attitude.
Let’s remember he’s speaking about them, but he’s speaking to the crowds and his disciples about this group of religious guys standing in front of everyone to see. Therefore, he speaks to us. And his message with this part of the contrast is the message of avoidance. These guys he’s pointing out, they represent much of present-day Hollywood. And what it looked like 2000 years ago. Consumed with fame; and power, and influence; wanting the big screen to say about oneself, “Look how important I am.” There’s no room for that in his Kingdom. We won’t find it there.
Even the 12 fought about who’s the greatest, and who He likes the best; “He doesn’t like you as much as he likes me. He told me last night in the house of Peter’s mother-in-law.”
We know the expectations of being his follower. We hear this message a thousand times over the course of our lives. The contrast to the wide phylacteries and lengthy tassels is humility.
How do we understand and define this virtue, though? Without searching through Mr. Webster’s book of words, what is humility, and why does Jesus command this virtue to be at the heart and soul of our lives? We know a humble person when we see one. And false humility when we see that also.
Humility is to have regard for the good of others. Arrogance will wipe away such regard. Humility is to leave within us a giant space for God’s will and presence. Puffing up oneself will close that space. Humility recognizes the need for prayer, the need to depend upon someone greater than us. Going it alone because no one else is good enough destroys that healthy dependency. Today, we teach independence to the point of not needing even God. That’s a destructive path to place our teenagers on.
Jesus commands humble disciples. The reason being that they will bring others to God, because they are so in love with God themselves, and not with their egos. And if we heed the words of our Lord, we have within us the power and capacity to either lengthen our tassels, to exalt ourselves, or to kneel down in prayer and thanksgiving; to humble ourselves.
We learn as we go in this short life. but humbling ourselves before God and others is realized in the joy of discipleship. Which we know, by far, is the better of the contrast.