It has been another desperately challenging week, especially for healthcare workers who are struggling to keep up with the toll being taken increasingly on our citizens by the new coronavirus. That we, even more than other nations, were unprepared for such an event may be a serious understatement, for there were warning signs and clarion calls as long as five years ago that a new viral pandemic was likely to occur within a few years. The signs were all there, but we were still vastly unprepared when it arrived.
There is much to learned from this dreadful experience, if our leaders are wise enough to pay attention and look ahead. To take precautions. And that is what today’s readings are about. They continue last week’s theme. They are all about readiness, which figures strongly in many of Jesus’ parables and direct teaching. Clearly, it has not ceased to be timely.
The first reading from the Book of Proverbs extols the readiness of a wise and provident wife. I love this passage because it calls to mind the work and sacrifices of the women in my own family who in preceding eras had to improvise and often work hard alongside their husbands or even by themselves to make ends meet during the hard times of the pioneer western settlement, the Great Depression of 1929, and the challenges of facing critical shortages during the Secord World War. (I still treasure the Victory Garden apron that my parents preserved from the 1940s when home gardening and careful rationing were practical necessities.)
I chose this passage from the Book of Proverbs for my mother’s funeral, because it beautifully illustrates how a good wife and mother tries to be ready for just about any eventuality. It is an attitude St Paul encourages his readers to adopt in regard to Christ’s return at the end of days. Given both the frenzy and the paralysis some early Christians were experiencing, true readiness for Paul meant living each day as if it might be our last, but providing thoughtfully for the needs of the future as well. Jesus was clear about that, as we heard last week, for “no one knows the day or hour.” Look ahead! Be ready!
Several years ago, a former student invited me to visit Quantico, VA, where he was in training as a marine. There I learned that “Always Ready” is a slogan covering just about everything Marines are expected to do, but as I mentioned last Sunday, it is the official (Latin) motto of the U.S. Coast Guard — Semper Paratus – “always prepared.” Their marching anthem ends with a refrain that begins, prayerfully enough,
We’re always ready for the call,
We place our trust in Thee.
Through howling gale and shot and shell,
To win our victory.
“Semper Paratus” is our guide,
Our pledge, our motto, too.
We’re “Always Ready,” do or die!
As this year’s memory of Veteran’s Day recedes in the wake of the accelerating pandemic, natural disasters, and political intrigue, it is a call surely worth keeping in mind, as we honor those who were prepared to give everything, even to the cost of their lives. Shakespeare, that good Christian, knew his Scripture: “The readiness is all!” [Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2]
But Jesus had even a more urgent cause in mind than Shakespeare or the U.S. Marines and Coast Guard – the shortness of all human life and the approach of judgment. As we start winding up the Church year, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to what true readiness means before God.
At first glance, his parable seems like a very serious and even unfair story. It’s actually rather comical, although our world is so far removed from first-century values we fail to see the humor that would have been obvious to his listeners in a story about high finance gone very, very wrong.
To begin with, the amounts of money Jesus describes were astronomically high. He loved to exaggerate in order to get his point across. Today just five talents of silver would be worth about 2 million dollars. So while we might be able to understand why some timid soul might hide a small nest-egg in a coffee can and bury it or hide it under the mattress, but not two million dollars! No, the fellow who put a fortune in a hole in the ground was not only lazy, but stupid. You might say he got what he deserved. Or more accurately, lost it. Lost it all. But even that’s not the point of the story.
Jesus is not saying that God is like a banker who will foreclose the mortgage if you miss a single payment. And he pointedly does not say that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. But he is saying that we are all too much like timid investors. We don’t make adequate provision for the future — the future God has in mind for us, and the results can be catastrophic both for us and the world.
So what is his point here? Make adequate provision for the return of your Lord — he has high expectations of you, much more like those of the Coast Guard than the folks from Goldman-Sachs. Still, “cashing in” on the Coming of Christ requires facing risk and inevitable hardship. There are other parables about that. Here, Jesus is encouraging us to count the cost, look ahead, be smart, and not to be afraid to gamble a bit. Basically, don’t put off until tomorrow what we really should take care of today and just hope for the best. What that amounts to he carefully itemizes in next week’s gospel passage which follows directly on today’s. The care and caution required for admittance to the Kingdom has nothing to do with interest on a wise financial investment, but what we do with our resources, financial and otherwise, specifically in view of the desperate needs of the poor, the starving, the homeless, the sick and imprisoned. Be warned.