Homily: Ready With Virtue

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (go to readings)
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
1st Thessalonians 5:1-6
Matthew 25:14-30

Our readings today beautifully tie together two themes: First, the theme we talked about last weekend and throughout the daily Masses this week about personal virtue and holiness. And second, the theme we always get as we approach the end of the liturgical year: the theme of the end times and the divine wisdom to always be prepared for its unexpected coming. Next Sunday is the feast of Christ the King of the Universe, which is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before we begin the new year again with Advent.

Normally our parish hosts a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration, followed by a spaghetti dinner, for our candidates for Confirmation. This year we have decided not to have the spaghetti dinner, but we will still be offering our Christ the King holy hour at 4:00 p.m. this upcoming Sunday.

The key to our parable is the praise given to the first and second servants: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” First, this clues us in that we’re not talking about an ordinary master, but a special master. Second, the reward for being a virtuous servant is twofold: trust with greater responsibilities, and sharing in the master’s own joy. This gives us an indication that Jesus is talking not about an earthly master, but about God, and the reward for virtuously using your talents (or blessings) is that you receive more. And third, you are rewarded by sharing in heavenly joy, if you are found being virtuous whenever the master might return.

Then we get to the third servant. So first, this servant insults the master to his face, calling him a thief, harvesting where he did not plant, and gathering where he did not scatter. Then he uses that as his excuse for having no fruit for what he was entrusted with. The clear expectation of the master wasn’t that he wanted back what he gave, but that he wanted the servant to use it wisely. As Saint Jerome says, he offered excuses for his sin, so that to slothfulness and idleness was added also the sin of pride. For he who ought to have honestly acknowledged his fault, on the contrary, insults the master, and implies that he did so rightly, because it was the master’s fault in being so demanding.

The commentary in the New American Bible provides an explanation of the allegory. The Master going on a journey represents Jesus, and his journey is the Ascension. The talents represent the blessings which God has bestowed on each of us. The Master’s return represents Jesus’ Second Coming, and the Master’s dialogue with the servants represents the reckoning of Judgment Day. The parable teaches us that God will hold us accountable for what we have done—and what we have failed to do — with the gifts and opportunities presented to us. Our reward will depend on how we have developed and used our gifts to their fullest advantage. I’m reminded of another of Jesus’ sayings: that the one who tries to save his life will lose it—that’s the third servant who doesn’t want to risk anything, but just hides the unopened gift—but the one who loses his life will save it—that’s the first two servants, who hand over their gifts as an investment for the greatest good.

My hero of this story is the second servant, which is the character most applicable to most of us. He’s not envious of the first servant, wasting time comparing himself with his co-worker who is literally “more talented.” He doesn’t complain that he only got two talents.  He just gets to work and does what he can with what he has. In the end, his diligence receives the same reward as the first: to share in the master’s joy. It’s a message to all of us to focus on the duties of our state of life: focus on doing the small things of our lives with great love and great faithfulness.

That’s the image we have described in our first reading from Proverbs 31: The Poem of the Woman of Worth. It’s really unfortunate that we only have snippets of this description, and you really should read the whole little chapter. And while this is clearly and beautifully describing a woman of great virtue, it’s also a personification of Wisdom, whose attributes have been praised as Lady Wisdom (the feminine Greek word, “Sophia,”) throughout the book of Proverbs. While some might say it’s just an obsolete image of the virtuous woman in the time of ancient Jerusalem, the important thing is the image of the virtues she displays, and the blessings that her virtue brings, which are timeless.  

On this online version, I decided to include the entire poem here. One of the special things about this poem is that in the original Hebrew, the Hebrew alphabet is given by the first letter of each sentence! The parts that are in the liturgical reading are in bold-face (where the translation in the NAB is different than the liturgical reading, I used the liturgical reading).

When one finds a worthy wife,
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.

She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life.

She obtains wool and flax
and works with loving hands.

Like a merchant fleet,
she secures her provisions from afar.
She rises while it is still night,
and distributes food to her household,
a portion to her maidservants.
She picks out a field and acquires it;
from her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength;
she exerts her arms with vigor.
She enjoys the profit from her dealings;
her lamp is never extinguished at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her fingers ply the spindle.

She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy.

She is not concerned for her household when it snows—
all her charges are doubly clothed.
She makes her own coverlets;
fine linen and purple are her clothing.
Her husband is prominent at the city gates
as he sits with the elders of the land.
She makes garments and sells them,
and stocks the merchants with belts.
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and laughs at the days to come.
She opens her mouth in wisdom;
kindly instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband, too, praises her:
“Many are the women of proven worth,
but you have excelled them all.”
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;
the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her a reward for her labors,
and let her works praise her at the city gates.

The first word, the kind of lead term here, is the Hebrew word hayil. Hayil means strong or capable. We might say she’s independent and well-skilled in her work, whatever her work may be. She doesn’t loaf around, gossiping, she doesn’t slack off and do the minimum, with sloppiness and carelessness.

The second virtue is that she is faithful: “the heart of her husband trusts in her.” So, they are a strong team. Again, she’s not gossiping about him, she’s honest and faithful. They depend on each other, and work with love and devotion to build each other up, including in how they speak of one another to others.

The next characteristic is the one that links with the parable, that she is diligent. She’s hard-working. She “seeks wool and flax”, she “works with willing hands”, she “puts her hand to the distaff”, in other words she’s not idle. In ancient Israel, women worked very, very hard. They worked primarily in the domestic sphere, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t have an important role. She’s managing the home resources, she’s making quality clothing so her family is dressed well, and warm, and this represents them, and her, honorably and well.

Another virtue, the fifth one here, is generosity. “She reaches out her hands to the poor and extends her arms to the needy.” With her virtue and industriousness, and that of her husband, thanks to the efficient running of the household, they can generously give to the poor who ask for alms.

And then lastly, it says, “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.” So her faith and her holiness are the engine that drives her virtue, and her virtue, as well as her reputation for the quality of her work, and her generosity, and the praise from her family, earn her the respect and praise of the people of the city.

You can imagine why this scripture has been so appreciated over the centuries. While the secular society is praising the exploits of heroes and superstars, here we have the more noble praise of an unsung hero, the beautifully holy ordinary person.

The second reading, finishes out our series of readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. But here’s where we get the other half of our theme for today: “…You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them… We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” In our gospel reading on Friday, Jesus reminded us that in the days of Noah, and the days of Lot, people were just going about the hustle and bustle of everyday life, right up to the sudden catastrophe, that they should have seen coming. Here, Paul, like Jesus, is reminding us that the master will return at an unknown time, and suddenly, and we best have our lamps lit and ready, with virtue and the fruits of virtue, at all times. A while ago we talked about the Latin phrase, “memento mori,” remember death. And we remember by living in such a manner that we’re always ready, with a pure conscience, with faith and virtue, and a generous life.

That was the end of the homily. But I want to connect that with some recent thoughts that God has been giving me to roll around in my brain. You know how I love conceptual connections!

In last week’s homily, we talked about the material offered by Dr. Andrew Jones, and the Catholic view of society being more the image of a family (albeit, with its difficulties), with relationships based on charity and virtue, rather than the image of constant conflict held in check by a leviathan authority of policy and enforcement. I appreciate all the positive responses that homily received. Dr. Jones went on to develop that idea that the improvement of society lies not in better laws, better politics (which, again, in the Catholic worldview, is impossibly bad, because you can’t sufficiently legislate people to be good except by narrower and narrower legislative restriction of freedom, and because the use of political compulsion is by nature a failure of personal charity and virtue), but rather the development of individual responsibility, character, and virtue. It’s odd to imagine a society growing in holiness, but if the people who make up the society are intentional about growing in holiness, that’s what society is.

Then I ran across this video from Dennis Prager (with Jordan Peterson, who I admire). Now I agree with a lot of what Prager says in the 2nd half of the video, but he’s much too partisan for me to share in good conscience. Because my goal is the hope of reconciliation, or at least civility, of right and left, as well as merging the best of both (and the vices of neither), into an even better option. Here’s the video, and you’ll see why I found it interesting (and possibly why I found it imprudent to post without such a disclaimer):

And I was thinking about, wow, that matches up really well with my previous homily. And I kept thinking about that analysis. Now I do disagree that the left en masse excuse themselves from personal improvement by waving the flags of societal improvement, and that the right is the opposite. Both do both, although generally there seems to be some truth to what he says. And as I was thinking about that, and talking it over, I got ready for the next daily reading homily, which was from St. Paul’s letter to Titus (2:1-7):

You must say what is consistent with sound doctrine,
namely, that older men should be temperate, dignified,
self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance.
Similarly, older women should be reverent in their behavior,
not slanderers, not addicted to drink,
teaching what is good, so that they may train younger women
to love their husbands and children,
to be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers,
under the control of their husbands,
so that the word of God may not be discredited.
Urge the younger men, similarly, to control themselves,
showing yourself as a model of good deeds in every respect…

There you see exactly what Dennis Prager and Andrew Jones have been talking about! Yes, of course, we have to publicly and collectively advocate for correcting the societal problems, such as abortion, political corruption, prejudice, etc. But the real key is personal virtue. And I say “virtue” instead of “values” because values are personal and subjective, while virtues are objective and objectively good (there’s probably a whole lot more to write on that!). Your *values* should be *virtuous*.

I think back to the message that Abby Johnson gave (quite passionately) here in Lancaster a few years ago: not just to end abortion, but to make it unthinkable. We’re not going to end abortion by making it illegal; we’re only going to end it by changing the people (and their situations) of those who would seek one. The changing of hearts is the key, not the changing of laws. Of course, good laws and public policy do help. If pregnancy centers who provide support for women and families in crisis pregnancies got as much (or more) government and donated resources as abortion providers got, that would go a long way not only to ending abortion, but also to providing for the needs of the poor and vulnerable, and everybody wins (except the abortion providers).

I would also posit that the right is guilty a bit about what Dr. Prager accuses the left of: putting too much emphasis on societal systems, problems, and corrections (fixing the errors of others), while arguing, defending, and reacting to others with a scandalizing lack of virtue, particularly for a Christian advocating for the need for a more virtuously correct society. I see Christians being more enthusiastically Republican than Christian. I would include in this spreading unfounded insults, conspiracy theories, and other accusations and/or logical fallacies, that by reason one should not go so far as to assert. I have attempted to address some of these unvirtuous displays by conservatives, to have their vitriol turned on me. Of course that doesn’t affect me, because I don’t care what they think about me. But it does affect me in that they continue to negatively affect the public reputation and character of the same labels–such as Catholic, conservative, and even clergy–that fit me as well.

And so my battle cry is bolstered mightily by these recent reflections and insights into the Catholic worldview and virtue: Take part in the social-political arena, but do so as a Catholic, meaning, acting with Catholic virtues, reason, and charity (or if you’re not Catholic, at least do so virtuously). We can’t win the battles and lose our souls. That hearkens back even to the few homilies before this, in talking about rendering unto God what is of God, putting God first, and being society’s good servant by being God’s first.

God bless you!