HOMILY WEEK 21 06 – Year I
Memorial of St. Augustine
(1 Th 4:9-11; Ps 98; Mt 25:14-30)
A customer placed an exquisite greeting card on the store counter and reached for his wallet. Pushing the keys on the cash register, the clerk said, “That will be $4 please.” “$4,” the man reacted, “Forget it.” He jammed his wallet back into his pocket and left the shop. When the clerk returned the card to the rack, she noticed that it read, “To my wife. Because you mean so much to me.”
That humorous and hopefully fictitious incident relates to the readings today that speak about the relationship between love and justice –love must be our priority, come from the heart, mean something and express itself through justice.
It is very interesting that St. Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, puts such an emphasis on love. Think about it – a mature, strong-willed Jewish man writes to a community, and his topic is love. I am trying to imagine my late father, a crusty, hard-working French-Canadian farmer, even writing a letter to me, letting alone writing one that speaks only of love!
But Paul’s message is clear: God wants us to love one another, and Paul urges us to love one another more and more. Moreover, we are to do so without fanfare or ego, but respectfully and discreetly, not drawing attention to ourselves.
James Alison O.P., in his book Knowing Jesus, claims the most credible sign that we truly know Jesus is not a self-centered personal experience that might look like love for him, but rather a caring, selfless, just relationship with the other, whoever that other might be.
That stance suggests two main thrusts to the readings today – love for God and all others must be our priority, and we must show our love by treating others fairly and justly.
Hebrew spirituality offers a wonderful insight into love and justice. In Hebrew spirituality, two activities embody spirituality: devekut, which means “clinging to God” or contemplation, and tikkun o’lam which means “repair of the world” or the work of justice. “Clinging to God” and “Repair of the world” are two sides of the same coin – having an integrated spirituality without either element is impossible. The mystic Hildegard of Bingen understood the need for this balance. Fascinated as she was with the structure and interdependence of all life, she saw the world as charged with God’s glory and us human beings as entrusted with special responsibility for its well-being.
With this thought in mind, I would like to suggest that, were Jesus to give us the great commandment today, he might say it like this: “Love God with your whole being; love your neighbor as you love yourself, and care for all of God’s creation.”
That opens the door to a broader interpretation of the parable of the kingdom that Jesus recounts in the gospel – what we know as the Parable of the Talents.
The usual understanding, of course, is that God has given each of us gifts and talents to be used to build up the reign of God. Those who diligently use those gifts and talents for that purpose will be rewarded, and those who squander those gifts and talents or allow them to languish, will be punished. The saying, “What we don’t use, we lose” expresses this view well. This is certainly a valid interpretation that we can live.
But there is another intriguing insight into this parable. Matthew places this parable within the context of the rejection of Jesus’ teaching by especially the religious leaders of his day as well as in the light of the end times and the criteria for entering the kingdom. What precedes this parable are lines such as, “not one stone of the temple will be left on the other,” “they will put you to death and you will be hated because of my name,” “for at that time there will be great suffering,” “the wicked slave will be put with the hypocrites,” “the foolish bridesmaids took no oil,” and “keep awake, as you know neither the day nor the hour.”
What follows this parable is the judgment scene in which the Son of Man comes in glory, gathers the nations before him, and separates the sheep from the goats. The criteria for entry into the kingdom could not be clearer: love expressed as justice – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger (immigrant or refugee), clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting prisoners – is the main criteria for entering the kingdom of God.
A great concern for Jesus was how the religious leaders of his day failed to carry out these criteria. Instead, they had made religion into a self-serving institutional system that actually took advantage of and oppressed the poor. He would often upbraid the scribes and Pharisees for their unbelief in him and hypocrisy, for acting holy and keeping their own laws, but not carrying out these demands of the law of love. He would describe the people as like “sheep without shepherds,” and had compassion on them.
Within this context, could it be that the ones given the greater number of talents were those who bought into an unjust system and milked it for what it was worth, reaping profits that were not theirs to take? Today we can think of politicians lining their own pockets and financiers bilking investors and seniors out of their hard-earned money through clever schemes. On the other hand, could it be that the one who was given one talent and buried it, represents those who see through this corruption, refuse to be part of it, even report it or try to change it, and often suffer the consequences of being maligned and marginalized? The title for this version could be the Parable of the Whistle-blower.
Whatever interpretation we give to the parable, the message is clear – love for others must be our priority, come from the heart, mean something and express itself through justice. Bro. Thomas Novak OMI of Winnipeg was part of “Just Theatre,” a group of actors who wrote and performed works of drama promoting justice for the poor and oppressed. In that sense, this homily could be entitled “Just Love.”
Today the church honors St. Augustine, who lived these readings in his own inimitable way. Born in North Africa, St. Augustine lived from 354 to 430. After teaching in North Africa for several years, he moved to Milan, where he heard the sermons of Bishop Ambrose and became convinced of the truth of Christianity, abandoned Manichaeism and returned to his Christian faith. At Easter 387, Augustine was baptized by Ambrose, with the prayerful support of his mother St. Monica. In 396, he became bishop of Hippo, where he spent the rest of his life. He founded a community for women headed by his sister and successfully defended the Christian faith against several heresies. His Confessions is a classic of spiritual autobiography. Some of his favorite themes include grace, the Trinity, Scripture, history and the journey to the mind of God. He is one of the greatest Fathers of the Church, known as the Doctor of Grace.
The Eucharist is exactly that – “just love.” By his selfless giving of himself, ritually expressed at the Last Supper, Jesus showed us the depths of love and justice – a totally gratuitous, selfless giving of one’s self for us and for all that is totally apart from any merit or sense of us having earned or deserved that love.
It not only puts forward the way we are to love others, it empowers us to do so. May our celebration today help us make love from the heart our priority, and express that love through working for justice and fairness in our world.