Even though only the liturgical year is drawing to its conclusion presently, many of us will not be unhappy to see the old year pass, filled as it was with disaster after disaster – political, weather-related, scandal-ridden, and terrorist-driven. A surging stock market hasn’t made it feel much better, except possibly for mega-billionaires, hedge-fund managers, and bank CEOs. Advent, a season of hope, begins soon. We could all use some hope.
Today, the Feast of Christ the King has taken the place of the 34th Sunday of the year (once called the 22nd Sunday after the Octave of Trinity Sunday or the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, if you are keeping track). Previously celebrated on the last Sunday of October, today’s feast was moved after the Second Vatican Council as part of a joint ecumenical recalibration of the calendar, not least because Reformation Sunday was observed
on that day by many Protestants. Now, thanks to the Revised Common Lectionary, most mainline Christian communities are literally on the same page, happy to say.
Although images of Christ the King antedate the Middle Ages, the liturgical feast was instituted only in 1925 by Pope Pius XI to counter what he considered the growing threat of secularism and atheism. It doesn’t seem to have worked very well. And there are fewer monarchies than ever – about 25, all told.
Historically, people have as a rule considered kings to be a pretty miserable lot. Only a handful are remembered favorably with positive epithets such as the Welsh King, Hywel the Good, Good King Wenceslaus, or Louis the Pious. Much more common are titles such as Ethelred the Unready, Ivan the Terrible, or even Charles the Bald. (I’m not making that up; he was the son of Louis the Pious and the grandson of Charlemagne.) Even fewer were saints, such as Wenceslaus, Edward the Confessor, and Louis IX. And for what it’s worth, there are more sainted Queens than Kings. So when early Christians called Jesus their King, they were saying something far more revolutionary than it might seem to us today, when kings and queens tend to be political decorations, media personalities, and amiable layabouts.
Actually, Jesus himself seemed to be allergic to the title. Matthew’s gospel begins and ends with Jesus as the unlikeliest of kings – the tiny unknown King of the Jews sought by the Magi and then by Herod, and, at the end, a crucified imposter with a mocking indictment nailed over his head. And this is the great divine irony of it all. So you may find our readings today to be a little puzzling.
Of the three sets of readings for this feast, which ends the liturgical cycle, this year’s is the least regal. The first reading is mainly about farm animals — but the clue comes in the last line, when God, the Shepherd of Israel, says through Ezekiel, “Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, rams and he-goats.” For ancient kings were also judges, if few were any good at it. Solomon was the exception, not the rule.
Sheep-and-goat imagery is found elsewhere in the bible, but this passage may be where Jesus found the allusion in today’s gospel. Jesus then speaks of the Son of Man as a King, judging the peoples of the world justly. Although it now passes us by without making even a mental ripple, the abrupt shift from “Son of Man” to “King” in the third verse is strange, because Jesus rejected efforts to make him a king or even to consider him a king. The supreme insult leveled at him by Pilate was the taunt, “Behold your king!” And the sign placed on the cross, “King of the Jews,” was both the warrant for his execution and a humiliating bit of mockery.
So the mention of the Son of Man exercising the judgment of a king at this point in Matthew’s gospel, just before the passion narrative, is doubly ironic and very important. For if Christ is a king, it is certainly not as this world recognizes kingship, then or now.
That might help us citizens of one of the world’s oldest surviving republics (next only to San Marino and Switzerland) to warm a bit to a title we have rejected as a suitable form of government. For Jesus’ kingship is as alien to the regal pretensions of ancient and modern rulers as his teaching about the Kingdom of God is opposite to common notions of power and might. This is brought out in his judgments, just as Ezekiel focused on the weak and weary, the oppressed and injured: “I will seek the lost,” God says, “and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy; I will feed them in justice.” So, too, the Son of man will require of those on his right and his left how they regarded the plight of the wretched and miserable. The judgment is automatic. The sheep and the goats have already been divided. They did it themselves: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’
In the end, Paul tells us, when Christ “has put all his enemies under his feet,” and the last enemy to be destroyed is death, when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will deliver the kingdom over to God, having restored all things to their rightful balance, that God may be everything to everyone. This, truly, is the end of the world — a world that exalts might over right, wealth over compassion and justice, and beauty and fitness over the gift of life itself.
The credentials necessary for admission to God’s realm have not changed from the time of Ezekiel or Jesus: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to provide shelter for the homeless, to clothe the destitute, to visit the sick and imprisoned. Jesus says nothing about merely sending an annual check to the United Fund or the Red Cross. He talks about actively tending to the needs of the unfortunate and desperately needy. If the nightly news broadcasts can be proud of anything, it’s the occasional feature about ordinary people doing extraordinary things for those in dire need. There’s nothing fake about that.
So today, as the Church’s year draws to a close, and as we ponder images of ultimate reckoning under God’s judgment, let us pray that our actions, not merely our words, will identify us as loyal subjects of the one and only true King.
Today’s scripture readings continue last week’s theme. They are all about readiness. It figures strongly in many of Jesus’
parables and direct teaching. It has not ceased to be timely.
More years ago than I care to count, I learned that the motto of the Boy Scouts was “Be Prepared.” Someone once asked Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement, “Be prepared for what?” “Why, for any old thing,” the old man said.
My venerable Boy Scout Handbook goes on, “Baden-Powell wasn’t thinking just of being ready for emergencies. His idea was that all Scouts should prepare themselves to become productive citizens and to give happiness to other people. He wanted each Scout to be ready in mind and body for any struggles, and to meet with a strong heart whatever challenges might lie ahead. Be prepared for life – to live happily and without regret, knowing that you have done your best.”
Years later, 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 on just about everything Marines do, but it is the official (Latin) motto of the U.S. Coast Guard — Semper Paratus — always prepared. Their anthem ends with a last 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!
Surely something to bear in mind as this year’s observance of Veteran’s Day recedes. Old Shakespeare had a point: The readiness is all.
But Jesus had even a more urgent cause in mind than Shakespeare or the Boy Scouts, the Marines, and the 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 readiness means before God.
The first reading from the Book of Proverbs continues the portrayal of Holy Wisdom, personified now as a provident wife. I cited this passage at my mother’s funeral, because it brilliantly and poetically sums up how a good wife and mother tries to be ready for just about any eventuality. Spiritually, wisdom means to prepare, to look ahead, to take care, to be alert. It is an attitude St Paul encourages us to adopt in regard to Christ’s return in glory. Given both the frenzy and the paralysis some early Christians were experiencing in regard to their expectation of Christ’s return, wisdom meant living each day as it comes, 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.” Be ready! Take some extra batteries for your flashlights!
Paul’s image of the way labor pains overtake an expectant mother echoes the first reading. A smart wife and mother makes provision for the unexpected as well as the expected — there may not be a smart taxi driver around to help when she needs it most!
The gospel may seem to depart from the image of sudden demands on us that call for us to be well-prepared, but Jesus is really saying the same thing. At first, his parable seems like a very serious and even unfair story. It’s actually pretty funny, 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 wrong.
To begin with, the amounts of money Jesus describes were astronomically high. Jesus loved to exaggerate in order to get his point across. What the gospel actually says is that he gave the three employees “talents” of silver — five, two, and one each. A talent of silver was worth about 12,000 drachmas, and a drachma was the ordinary wage for a day’s work — about $32. Five talents of silver would have been more money than a worker could have made in a very long lifetime. Even today, half the world’s workers earn far less than that, between one and two dollars per day — about one one-hundredth of what the average American earns. (According to economists, a fifth of the world population lives on less than $1 a day, another 30% lives on less than $2 a day while the world’s 500 or so billionaires have assets of 1.9 trillion dollars, a sum greater than the total income of the poorest 170 countries in the world.[i])
Today five talents of silver would be worth about 2 million dollars. So we might be able to understand why someone might hide a small nest-egg in a coffee can and bury it or hide it under the mattress. But not two million dollars! Just the miniscule compound interest from a regular CD would bring in a very tidy sum in only a few years, much less the long time the master was away. Far more than most people in the world will earn over an entire lifetime. 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. But 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. 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. Elsewhere we hear, “Make friends even with filthy money, for they will welcome you into everlasting dwellings” — particularly the poor [see Luke 16:9]. But “if you have not been faithful with the mammon of iniquity, who will entrust you with true riches?”[Luke 16:11].
So what is his point here? Make adequate provision for the return of your Lord — he has high expectations of you, expectations much more like those of the Coast Guard and Lord Baden-Powell than, say, Wilbur Ross or Steven Mnuchin and the other folks from Goldman -Sachs. Still, cashing in on the Coming of Christ requires facing some risk. Maybe even a lot of risk. There are other parables about that. Here, Jesus is simply 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. That IS wisdom.
[i] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats. “The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.” http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats#src3
November has been traditionally the month of the “Poor Souls,” as we used to say, those who have gone before us in death and for whom we pray especially at this time of year. And it is a good idea, for we most certainly will follow them sooner or later. The year itself is coming to an end, and the fall of leaves is a beautiful if melancholy reminder that things end, that all life comes to its close in death. And there seems to have an uncommon amount of death recently, especially shootings, and not only on the streets of Chicago, but in every corner of the nation. We are told that it’s not about guns. But the facts argue otherwise.
Today’s readings might also make us a little nervous if we listen carefully. For not only does the inevitable end of my own world cause me to wonder, but considering the end of everything is likely to give us all goose bumps. And perhaps it should, even though the stock market index has been rising steadily,
unemployment is low, mortgages are cheap, and shiny new cars are appearing on cue. But if we are prone to watch the evening news on television or keep up on line, what’s happening in North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Yemen worries us, and we get the jitters easily about terrorism, the flu, earthquakes, weird storms, and the sleaze that seems to be enveloping the world of politics and the entertainment industry. It’s about ankle deep now.
Putting things into a broader and deeper perspective can be a bracing experience. After all, there are more important things than money, power, and fame. And so the initial reading this morning is especially timely. It comes from the Book of Wisdom, a work composed only a few decades before the birth of Jesus. One of the most beautiful books in the Bible, it extols the wisdom of God, reassuring us that the world, this whole vast universe, lies in wiser and more caring hands than ours. The most telling phrase comes towards the end of the reading: “anyone who keeps vigil for Wisdom’s sake shall quickly be free from care,” that is, from worry and concern.
Keeping vigil is the watchword from now until Christmas, in fact, as the violet shadows of Advent draw closer in the waning of the year. To keep vigil means to stay alert, to keep awake, to watch for God the way a sentinel longs for the first glimmer of dawn. Or as Psalm 63, our responsorial song, has it, “I will remember you, God, as I lay in bed, and through the watches of the night, I will meditate on you. For you are my help, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.” For anyone who has lain awake at night worrying about the future, or even the present, such words can be truly helpful.
The Christians of Thessalonika to whom St. Paul was writing were very churned up about the end of the world, much like many people today who are endlessly twittering about mega-earthquakes, super-volcanoes, asteroid flybys, or the countless other things beyond the economy that can go really, really wrong. Some of those new Christians were panicky while others seemed paralyzed. But Paul reassures them — and us — that death is not the last word, not the ultimate power in the universe. If it seems a little strange at this time of year to hear passages about the Resurrection of Jesus, consider the promise and hope it presents to anyone to whom death has come a little too close. For all our hope centers on the Resurrection of Jesus, the definitive sign God gave the world to steady its faith in the midst of fear and even catastrophe.
The next reading contains one of the parables Jesus created to encourage vigilance and attentiveness among his followers. Again, he compares the Reign of God to a wedding feast, one of his favorite images. This time, however, his focus is not on the guests, but on the attendants, young girls from the village who were waiting not for the bride, but for the groom to appear. That’s so strange, actually, that it’s very likely that Matthew purposely left the bride out of the picture to underscore the coming of the groom, who would have been on his way to take the bride to his home. But the focus is really on the bridesmaids who get sleepy as the delays grows longer.
The parable might seem a little heartless and even uncharitable, since the ten sensible maidens refuse to share their lamp oil with the foolish ones. But with parables, it is important to get the main point, which in this case is not about generosity, but about alertness and common sense. In short, we are to be ready at all times to welcome Christ as Lord not only of Death, but more especially of Life. Keep awake, Jesus tells us, and be prepared. Don’t waste your energy on the senseless predictions of fortune tellers and self-appointed prophets of doom. A later sage might tell the story of Chicken Little to get the same message across. (And if you haven’t heard that one, ask your grandparents.) What Jesus is saying is that no one knows the day or hour, and that is exactly the reason we should be ready for it at any time.
Not only Jesus but many of the great spiritual teachers of the past advise us to live every moment as if it were going to be our last, which gets down to the same thing. Like Paul, they counsel us not to panic or freeze, but rather to stay alert, to keep our wits about us, which is what being prudent means. And when our last moment actually arrives, we may be surprised, but we will also be prepared. As the old African-American spiritual says, “ready to meet my Lord.” For there is a great day coming, and, as Shakespeare said in his own turn “The readiness is all.”
It has been another week of shootings on both coasts of the US, in the Southwest, and here in the Midwest. Other forms of violence seem to be proliferating as well, at least according to news reports. It is generally agreed that the US is in the midst of the greatest drug crisis in its history as the country is flooded with opioids. Clearly, while the stock market zooms ahead, things are not all going well. I sometimes wonder, did they ever? Or were we just not paying attention?
Jesus never tired of insisting that the measure of our love of God is the measure of how we treat one another, especially how we behave towards those whom the world dismisses as worthless, just useless bumps on the road to personal success and satisfaction. Last week, in contrast with a good deal of political discourse this year, we heard the voice of God urging us to respect and assist orphans, widows, and refugees, and raging with anger when we neglect and abuse them. God cares how we conduct ourselves – singly and collectively, especially when it comes to those who are most vulnerable.
Today, we hear the same message in the readings from the last of the Hebrew Scriptures and the earliest of the
Christian Scriptures – the Book of Malachi and St. Paul’s first Letter to the Christians of Thessalonica. And if we fail to hear the voice of God in the warnings of Malachi and the admonitions of Paul, we can’t easily mistake the serious tone in Jesus’ voice. It’s mostly about teaching.
As a teacher, if not exactly a rabbi, I have to wrestle with their words. But Jesus is right. We have only one true teacher, and the rest of us have a lot to learn.
Despite prevailing attitudes, education is not merely a training period to prepare young people to enter the marketplace. It is the sole means by which one generation passes to the next the values, hopes, ideals, and knowledge that sums up the collective experience of ten thousand years of civilization and culture. Christian education is just another way of talking about handing on the faith.
In Christian scripture the words for “teacher” and “teach” appear about 200 times, and “teacher” is one of the few titles that Jesus not only permitted people to give him, but used it of himself. And not just “teacher,” but “the Teacher.” And we, all of us, are his pupils. Not by accident, one of the earliest Christian works, a treatise on Jesus by St. Clement of Alexandria, was called, simply, “The Pedagogue” — the Teacher.
When we turn back to the first reading in today’s liturgy, from the last book of Hebrew scripture, we hear another
word of caution, a warning not to people looking for teachers, or who ought to be, but to teachers who were failing in their calling:
You have turned aside from the way,
And by your instruction have caused many to falter…
Those who teach not merely falsely but badly deserve not a blessing, but a curse: “I have made you contemptible and base before all the people.” Teaching is a sacred responsibility, not a role to take up lightly or a task to be fulfilled sloppily. And in fact, just because we are Christians, followers of Jesus, we are all teachers to some extent — parents above all. So it’s wise to listen to what Scripture is saying here. God is showing us what a real teacher is.
St. Paul is comparatively gentle and positive in his first letter to the young churches, but the theme is unmistakably the same: how he shared not merely the gospel, but his very self in instructing these new Christians. Even more to the point are the three verses omitted from the reading for some reason:
You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our behavior to you believers; for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. [1 Thess. 2:10-12]
The Word of God presents us with two images of the teacher, then. First, the true teacher as a revered minister of the word of God. That is why Jesus’ warnings, which actually echo that of Malachi, are meant to be sobering. For what could be further from the model Paul describes and Jesus exemplifies than that of the inflated big shot, the self-important man or woman of learning who imposes ideas but fails to inspire or enlighten? Who fails to serve, but demands to be respected and exalted?
So both learning and teaching are important. As Christians, we all have to be engaged in what can only be a life-long quest – first learning how to become more truly human and then just perhaps to teach as Jesus taught.
For a Christian, education is not just the prelude to a lucrative career. It transmits the very substance of what it means to be a citizen, a colleague, a woman or man of moral and intellectual integrity, a human being, an adult follower of Christ. John Dewey summed it up well a century ago when he said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” His younger contemporary, H. G. Wells, added a note of urgency way back in 1915 that is even truer today: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” [The Outline of History, ch. 40.]
This morning, the following excerpts were found in the readings for the day in the Divine Office:
“Peace is not the mere absence of war or the simple maintenance of a balance of power between forces, nor can it be imposed at the dictate of absolute power. It is called, rightly and properly, a work of justice. It is the product of order, the order implanted in human society by its divine founder, to be realized in practice as men hunger and thirst for ever more perfect justice…
“Peace here on earth cannot be maintained unless the good of the human person is safeguarded, and men are willing to trust each other and share their riches of spirit and talent. If peace is to be established it is absolutely necessary to have a firm determination to respect other persons and peoples and their dignity, and to be zealous in the practice of brotherhood. Peace is therefore the fruit also of love; love goes beyond what justice can achieve [From the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et spes, n. 78)].
The stakes we play for are hardly small. Today they are greater than ever before in human history. Let us pray, therefore, that we will be able to pick up and pass on the light and love of learning that inspired and blessed those who prepared our way: our parents and teachers, perhaps especially those who have answered the call to become catechists — to instruct the young in the faith. May we all come to know wisdom and instruction, understand words of insight, receive instruction in wisdom, righteousness, justice, and equity, that prudence may be given to the simple, and knowledge and discretion to the young…