The final exam
There are questions that I suspect anyone who’s been a teacher, particularly I think of children, don’t want to hear. My all-time least favorite question is this. It’s when a kid has been absent from class, even if it’s just for a day, and they come back and say, did we do anything yesterday?
I always have to bite my tongue. I don’t want to be sarcastic, but I kind of want to say, no, you know, you weren’t here. We just didn’t know what to do. We looked at each other, and we were just filled and overcome with so much sadness. We just sat here and cried.
Of course we did something yesterday. But the second least favorite question is, in a way, it’s kind of like it. Will this be on the test? In a way, that’s what we’re experiencing as we get to the end of the church year. If you’ve been going to Daily Mass, you’ll see the readings are beginning to take a different and kind of more austere turn, to be honest.
They either come from the book of Maccabees, where we get the encounter of the amazing mother who watches seven of her children die for standing up for the faith, or from the book of Revelation, which describes kind of the ultimate struggle at the end of time, or from the book of Daniel, which is a similar kind of book.
All of them are designed to get us thinking about our life, to get us thinking about how we live our life, to get us thinking about what it means to be a Christian, what it means maybe even more so to be a disciple of Jesus. And we have to understand that as we look at the reading that we heard from today’s gospel.
This is a great story. It is really a powerful story. But we have to kind of understand some things that maybe aren’t readily apparent from this story. First of all, this is a story that Jesus is telling about the kingdom of God. It’s interesting that Jesus speaks in this way where he talks about wailing and grinding of teeth, or he talks about paying back the last penny, or he talks about the end of time and what will happen.
He addresses these areas more than just about anything else in the Gospels. He’s not just simply a teddy bear. He’s calling people to deep and lasting fulfillment. It does not mean that Jesus is trying to paint a picture of God that goes around making people feel horrible about themselves. That misses the point.
But there are some rather interesting parts in this story that might help us to understand and to prepare for the season of Advent, which quite frankly is only two weeks away. Normally, by the way, it’s only one week away, but this year we have five Thursdays in November, so it’s two weeks away.
Anyway, what do we have? First of all, we have a journey. A journey is a popular image for faith, and we see it all throughout the Scriptures that people are going on journeys, and Jesus uses the imagery of journey too. Of course, there’s the big long 40-year journey in the Book of Exodus, which was a quest for faith.
But there are other stories that Jesus tells, the man going on a journey who falls in with robbers who’s cared for by the good Samaritan. There are the two disciples who are on a journey on their way to Emmaus. Journey has long been seen as an image to describe our life, our life of faith.
Then there are these talents. When we hear the word talent in Scripture, what we really are hearing is a valuable thing. And its value wasn’t set or fixed because a talent could be made of silver, it could be made of gold, and what it was made of made the difference in terms of exactly how much it was worth. But what we do know is that all three of these individuals are given priceless things.
We also shouldn’t get caught up in the fact (that unlike) in Luke’s Gospel they all get the same number of talents. Matthew’s Gospel, it’s not that way. They each get a different number of talents. We shouldn’t get caught up in that.
If I have a thimble, and I have a glass, and I have a pail, and they’re full, all of them are full. The thimble isn’t less full than the pail that’s full. They’re all filled to the degree to which they could be filled. And that’s the point of this Matthew’s understanding. They’re all given what fulfills them.
They’re given this great opportunity to be fulfilled. These talents are a symbol for the wisdom of God. And the way in which these talents actually bear fruit is when each individual thinks about the giver of talents. The first two think about the giver of talents, and they go out and they use these talents to grow.
The poor guy that gets only one talent thinks about the giver, but isn’t willing to enter into a relationship with the giver. He can only see that this man is demanding. This is someone who’s made a lot of money, we presume, not simply because he worked hard.
This is what Jesus is trying to help us to understand about the life of faith. This isn’t an economics lesson. Jesus is not suggesting this is good economy. But what Jesus is helping us to understand is that if we’re going to grow in the spiritual life, if we’re going to be able to receive what Jesus promises to us, we have to place ourselves repeatedly in the presence of Jesus.
And we ultimately need to seek to get to know more deeply, more fully the person of Jesus. I’m going to suggest two ways that maybe we could think about encountering more fully the person of Jesus, particularly as we get ready for what I like to say, the Happy New Year on the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year.
What’s the first thing that could be helpful? Gratitude. There are benefits to being grateful. There are benefits when we can recognize in our own lives the blessings that we have been given. And I don’t just mean blessings in a spiritual sense.
In preparing for this homily, I stumbled across an article from the Mayo Clinic about the benefits of being grateful. Why? Because it causes us to think about what we have. And I don’t know about you, but I spend too much of my time sometimes thinking about what I don’t have. Oh, if I only had XYZ. Oh, if I only had the ability or the talent that that person has. Oh, if I only could be friends with that person or whatever.
Those things don’t fulfill because they focus our attention on what isn’t true. Gratitude focuses our attention on what we have. The ways in which God has chosen to bless us. The ways in which we have been given something. And it changes the way we see the world.
Now, I am not suggesting that there aren’t people whose lives are very difficult and very hard for whom it may be difficult to find something for which one should be grateful. I think of the people in Gaza, for example. Hard to imagine how they can feel gratitude in the midst of this terrible violence all around them.
But for us, most of us, I think, can look around and find things that we are grateful for or should be grateful for. We live in a wonderful place.
The second thing I would suggest is each day asking yourself, either at the beginning of the day, in the future tense, where will I, or at the end of the day, maybe in an exam of conscience, where did I encounter the presence of God? Where was God in my life today? Where will God be in my life today when I think about where God was yesterday?
And often that question really can only be answered when we take time to pray in silence. We take time to think about and reflect upon our lives, to think about what an event means. Oh, this didn’t go the way I thought. Where was God in the midst of that? Oh, wasn’t this wonderful thanks be to God. This was such a great, great thing. Where was God in the midst of that?
Where were the ways in which I cooperated with God’s grace today? Where were the ways that God gave me grace, but I didn’t open myself to it? The ones who find deep fulfillment in this reading are the ones who can trust that God, the giver of all gifts, wants more for us than just a little bit of fulfillment. Or this God does not want us to just sneak across the line and get into heaven.
This God wants us to have what the first guy got, the 10 talents plus five more, or plus more, or the two talents plus more. God wants us to be fulfilled with His love. Let us ask the Lord, perhaps on this day, to help us to be more grateful for His presence in our lives and to continue to seek and search out the ways in which through events, through persons, through blessings, that God is present in our lives.
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