I saw a very funny headline in the news this past week. The headline referred to people who “take the Bible literally, but not seriously.” The second reading today contains a statement that is often taken literally, but not seriously.
Paul wrote, “you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” (1 Thes. 5:2) He was encouraging the community at Thessoloniki to remain watchful for the Lord’s return in glory, and to watch out for those who claim to know when that event will occur.
There have always been people who think they know the mind of God and, specifically, the date when Jesus will return for the day of Resurrection. Those prognosticators have always been wrong. Paul said that the one thing not to get wrong is the hope that God will fulfill God’s promises (on God’s schedule, rather than ours).
Christian fundamentalists aren’t the only people who fall into misunderstanding. Catholics are equally fond of this, particularly when it comes to the Sacrament of Eucharist. There are many Catholics who understand the Eucharist literally, but do not take the Eucharist seriously enough.
Eucharist is the sacramental presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord. Eucharist is God’s gift to the Church, but it is a gift that creates obligations for those who receive it. Today’s Gospel reading speaks about some of those obligations.
In the parable, the master of the house was known to be “a demanding person.” (Matt. 25:24) He entrusted his wealth to three of his servants before going on a long journey. Two of the servants made a profit, but one failed to do so. The two profitable servants were praised by their master, and the third was fired from his position.
Our cultural prejudices lead us to want to imitate the profitable servants who earned their master’s admiration. The parable looks very much like encouragement to put our God-given abilities to profitable use. Jesus’ original audience would have had a very different reaction to this story.(*)
Although we might not be able to discern the parable’s original meaning, it has a very clear application to our lives. The parable, in one way or another, is a lesson about the cost of discipleship. Being faithful to God, and being a faithful follower of Jesus, requires a lifetime’s worth of personal effort. There is a price to be paid for discipleship, and those who won’t pay the price exclude themselves from God’s grace.
This parable’s lesson applies directly to our reception of the Eucharist. Eucharist is God’s gift to the Church, but it is a gift that cannot be received passively. Sunday Mass does not exist for pragmatic reasons; it is not a convenient way to deliver Eucharist to a large number of people. Sunday Mass exists as a reminder of our identity as Jesus’ disciples and our mission to increase the number of his disciples.
When we gather here for Eucharist, we cease to be individuals alone in the world; we become the community of disciples. As we are a community with a specific identity and mission, we cannot rest in passive enjoyment of God’s gifts. The Scriptures and the Eucharistic Liturgy remind us that God’s gift of salvation is to be brought to all people.
The other people at the Mass you attend are not for the purpose of decoration; they are your sisters and brothers in the Faith. All of us have a mutual obligation to be compassionate and trustworthy to one another.
Then, of course, there are those who are not here yet. We have an obligation to them, as well. We have an obligation to show God’s compassion and fidelity to the world, in order that all might come to believe.
Eucharist, and our weekly celebration, are to be taken seriously. Specifically, Eucharist is a sign from God that we are to live according to God’s schedule rather than our own. The Eucharist that we will celebrate and receive in a few minutes is our identity, our mission, and God’s will to redeem all people.
A note on the Scriptures:
During Jesus’ lifetime, people considered material wealth to be a limited quantity that was already distributed in the population, and could not be increased. Our market economy allows for the possibility of gaining wealth by hard work or clever investment. In the subsistence economy of Jesus’ day, the only way to become wealthy was to take wealth from another person.
Jesus’ original audience would have assumed that the two enterprising servants in the parable increased their master’s wealth by fraud or predatory business practices. The servant who was scolded by his master refused to engage in these practices (specifically, he refused to engage in usury – Matt. 25:27); he would have looked like the hero in the story, even though he was punished for his righteous deeds.
While the crowds would have appreciated the third servant’s sense of justice, Jesus made an odd remark about him. Jesus said that the servant was thrown “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Matt. 25:30) Jesus meant either to highlight the cost of living a holy life or to use a shocking contrast to speak about God’s Kingdom. It is probably not possible for us to know which meaning he intended.
Many of those who listened to his preaching would have had the experience of being mistreated by the greedy. If Jesus intended his audience to admire the unprofitable servant for his refusal to engage in predatory business practices, he was expressing the same compassion for the poor that was a distinguishing characteristic of his ministry.
Using this interpretation, the parable is a warning to us about the price we might have to pay for being a disciple of Jesus. Like the servant who refused to defraud his neighbors, we might face rejection if we make the effort to live holy lives; we might be the ones thrown “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Matt. 25:30)
On the other hand, if he intended to shock his audience, this wouldn’t be the only instance of such. The parable about the two sons (Matt. 21-28-32), is a similar instance of Jesus upending conventional cultural expectations. Jesus’ audience would have judged the dishonest son to be the better of the two, while Jesus praised the reluctant son as the more faithful.
If today’s parable represents the use of a startling example used to speak about God’s Kingdom, we can assume that Jesus was recommending ingenuity and initiative to those who would witness publicly to their faith. Like the two enterprising servants, we are to witness to our faith even if it means being subjected to public disapproval.
Although these two interpretations are very different from one another, they lead to similar conclusions. There is a great deal of personal effort required in order to be a disciple of Jesus, and those who make the effort should not expect secular society to praise them for it. In one way or another, faithful disciples should be prepared to share Jesus’ fate. He was crucified by those to whom he ministered. We, too, should not be surprised if we are thrown “into the darkness outside” (Matt. 25:30), because of our faith.
The Scriptures are to be taken seriously, though not always literally. The serious obligation of every disciple of Jesus is to make every possible effort to live and spread the Faith, even if it requires great personal cost.