Gospel Reflection For Sunday 19th November 2023 by Fr Brian Maher OMI
Gospel Reflection for Sunday November 19th 2023 | 33nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
All of us have noticed, I’m sure, how little we communicate with one another in ordinary, everyday life. It is more noticeable in cities than in towns or more noticeable in towns than in villages, but the trend is still there. At bus stops and in train stations, in shops and walking along streets we look fixedly at our mobile phones, wear iPods or headphones, and avoid eye contact at all costs. To greet another person, smile or say “Hi” attracts unwelcome stares, as if it is in some way intrusive.
It means, of course, that we miss so much of what is happening around us. We walk past the homeless person sitting at our feet without even seeing them. We don’t notice the old man or woman standing at our bus stop with loneliness etched on their faces and we quickly brush past anyone who seems as if they want to speak to us.
Apartment blocks and neighbourhoods are now quiet, private places. If those living close to us don’t disturb us, we are content to leave them alone. A ‘good neighbour’ is very often one we rarely see and never speak to.
We live in societies where privacy has become almost an absolute value. To be ‘left alone’ is very frequently our accepted understanding of ‘living in peace’.
Those of us who grew up in more distant times when strangers greeted one another on the street, where general chatter and polite conversation were everywhere and where neighbours felt able to drop in for a cup of coffee and a chat can bemoan our present situation, but there are times when even I am relieved to know that I can travel from A to B without anyone saying a word to me. It embarrasses me to even admit that to myself!
More and more, it seems, looking after our own interests is paramount. We create for ourselves a cosy, comfortable life which we will not allow others to disturb. Success and happiness are seen in terms of material possessions and a lavish lifestyle and we teach ourselves not to see the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the excluded. At best, we salve our consciences by doing the minimum necessary to feel good about ourselves. We give a few pounds or dollars to an appeal or a ‘worthy cause’ and then we forget again.
The overwhelming message of today’s Gospel is that for Christians doing the minimum is not enough and will not gain us entry into the coming Kingdom of God.
Rather than focusing on self and settling for the minimum we can do for others, Jesus tells us, ““…If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Mtt 5:40-42).
This call is diametrically opposed to the wisdom of the world. The Gospel message is so difficult to live precisely because everything we see around us, everything we hear in the media and everything we are taught in school scream at us to focus only on ourselves and our own interests. Do anything else and we are called ‘foolish’, ‘unambitious’, ‘without drive’, ‘gullible’ and so much more.
The Gospel today may seem straight forward enough, but its message is more difficult to hear than we might think.
The ‘bad servant’, who is stripped of everything he has and thrown out into the darkness “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” is not in any way bad. He does not steal from his master or take the money and run. Quite the opposite is true. Afraid of losing it and aware of his master’s anger, he buries it carefully so that he can return it when the master returns. He is what society would call ‘prudent’ and ‘careful’. He took no risks, was extremely cautious, and returned what he was given. I’m sure his investment managers called him ‘wise’.
But instead of being praised and rewarded for his cautious and prudent care of what he was given he is roundly condemned. The anger of his master is even exaggerated in the parable to highlight that for the Christian his way is not the right way.
The two ‘good servants’ could be considered reckless with the money they were given. They know that their master is a hard and angry man who says of himself, “…I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?”. The wise thing would be to take care of the money, ensuring that it is safe. Instead of that they are reckless and careless with money that is not their own. They take risks with their master’s money, maybe becoming involved in some shady deals along the way.
Yes, when the master returns, they can give him back more than they got, …but that is as much luck as anything else. What if they’d invested badly and lost everything? Would their master be happy then? I don’t think so.
The message is clear. The Gospel is not for the safe and the cautious, the prudent and the guarded. It is not about returning only what I was given and being happy with that. That is settling for the minimum and it is incompatible with the Gospel.
The Christian is called to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom, to stand up for the poor and marginalised, even when that is unpopular. The Christian, far from settling for the minimum, must challenge the values of society. Being a Christian can never be comfortable. There will always be, to quote Robert Frost, “things to do and promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
The strange thing is that despite often choosing the minimum, or telling ourselves that we are satisfied with what is easy, there is something deep within us that calls us to more; that tells us that happiness is not found in minimums but in reaching for the stars.
Why, for instance, do so many of us spend hours in a gym, suffering the tedium of exercise bikes and rowing machines, lifting weights and crunching muscles until they scream at us in pain? Isn’t it that we somehow know within ourselves that doing the minimum or choosing what is easy will not bring us either health or happiness?
As a teacher for most of my life, I frequently came across students who were pleasant and well behaved, always did just enough to stay out of trouble, and always achieved below their potential. No ‘good’ teacher and no ‘good’ parent would be satisfied with this and no ‘report card’ would say that “X is doing excellently. He/she is underachieving in all subject areas but is comfortable in school and finds it quite easy.” !
We might well excuse the child who is young and immature, but as adults we know that this minimum effort is not enough.
As Christians it is easy to settle for the minimum required of us. Saying our prayers, attending Church, keeping the ‘rules’ most of the time, and not going out of our way to hurt others might be such a minimum and we may be tempted to settle for it, but it is not enough.
Jesus always calls us out of our comfort zones. He calls us to notice others and where possible to help them. It does not mean always giving money or going beyond our means. It might mean taking an unpopular stance now and then, or giving some time to someone in need, or smiling a bit more, or listening instead of always talking.
What we cannot do is bury our head in the sand. This is exactly what the ‘wicked servant’ did. He took the ‘easy way’ – no risks, no unpopularity, no effort to earn more for his master. He returned what he was given and nothing more. He may even have been a little smug as he did so.
This Gospel is not an easy one for us to hear, and it is a Gospel that has something to say to all of us.
We must never settle for the minimum. There is always more to do. It would be very foolish to think that when I die, I can stand before God and glibly say: “…I didn’t harm anybody. I minded my own business, kept to myself, said my prayers, went to Mass every Sunday, and here I am. Open the gates, I’m coming through.”
Might not God answer, “Hold on! What about all the things you didn’t notice? What about all the good you didn’t do? What about the opportunities you walked away from because they were ‘risky’ and made you feel uneasy? My friend, you didn’t do a lot wrong in your life…but what did you do for me and for my Kingdom?”
When Pope Francis said, ““Go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel.” (The Joy of the Gospel, 20), he might well have been summing up today’s Gospel.
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Gospel Sunday November 19th 2023||Matthew 25:14-30|
You have been faithful in small things: come and join in your master’s happiness
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