Thursday, November 16, 2017

Faithfulness in the Little Things: The 33rd Sunday in OT

St. Josemaría Escrivà, the founder of the personal prelature
Opus Dei, has often been called the “saint of the ordinary” for the emphasis he placed on achieving holiness in every-day living.

In fact, one of his most famous sermons was entitled “The Richness of Ordinary Life.”

St. Josemaría once said he could tell a great deal about a man’s interior life by looking in his closet.  Good order in one’s soul is often reflected by good order in one’s lifestyle.  A man who is sloppy or inattentive in the care of his personal effects will often likewise be careless in his life of prayer.

(Of course, St. Josemaria worked primarily with young, single men of adequate means.  He would have readily acknowledged that there are those who live under constant duress—the poor, the sick, the handicapped, refugees, parents of large families—and are physically unable to keep things in order as they would wish. Nonetheless, it is a virtue to try to live the best order one can, both externally and internally.) 

The Readings for this Lord’s Day focus on the theme of fidelity to the seemingly small matters that God places in our care.  In the Catholic tradition, such small matters constitute part of what is called our “duties of state,” that is, the obligations we have because of our state in life. For example, my state in life includes the roles of husband, father, and teacher, and a whole host of obligations—my “duties of state”—come with those roles.  

The First Reading is one of my favorite passages of the Old Testament, Proverbs 31:10-31:

Reading 1: Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
When one finds a worthy wife,
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life.
She obtains wool and flax
and works with loving hands.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her fingers ply the spindle.
She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy.
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;
the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her a reward for her labors,
and let her works praise her at the city gates.

The Lectionary only presents excerpts from this beautiful poem about an ideal woman.  The entire passage Proverbs 31:10-31 should be read for those interested in entering more deeply into God’s Word for this Sunday.

Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem: each line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  There are 22 letters in Hebrew, from aleph to tav.  The point of an acrostic is that it conveys a sense of completeness or comprehensiveness.  This is a comprehensive description of the ideal wife.

Proverbs 31:10-31 has been given many names, but I prefer “The Song of the Valiant Woman.”  The phrase translated “worthy wife” is, in Hebrew, esheth hayil, “woman of valor.”  The adjective hayil is more robust in Hebrew than the English adjectives “good” or “worthy.”  Hayil means “force,” “valour,” “nobility.”  It occurs frequently in military contexts to describe a combat unit (division, squadron, platoon) or a heroic warrior (a gibbor-hayil, “mighty warrior.”  Thus, the Hebrew expression is rather vigorous, and we should avoid describing this woman in English with bland adjectives that do not do her justice.

Some regard Provebs 31:10-31 as an afterthought to the Book of Proverbs, an anti-climactic epilogue.  I disagree.  I see it as a climactic ending which picks up once again the feminine and nuptial imagery used to describe Wisdom in Proverbs 1–9 in order to conclude the book with a picture of a person who most fully embodies, even incarnates wisdom: a valiant wife. 

It is striking that, of all the different persons the sacred author could have chosen to use as an example of the embodiment of Wisdom—a king, sage, prophet, priest, warrior, farmer—the sacred author chooses a wife and a mother.

His opening line: “A woman of valor who can find? She is worth far more than jewels,” is phrased in such a way as to tip us off to a double meaning of the poem.  Twice already in the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom itself was said to be worth far more than jewels (Prov. 3:15; 8:11).  So there are at least two levels at which to read this poem: on the literal level, it describes an ideal wife.  On a symbolic level, it is a description of Wisdom itself—or better, Herself.  The woman of this poem, as we have already asserted above, is the embodiment of Wisdom.
When one reads through the description of her virtues and activities in Prov. 31:10-31, it becomes clear that, first of all, this woman is very attentive to her “duties of state”; secondly, that her duties are usually quiet activities that take place outside the public eye and do not attract the attention of the “Six-o’clock News.”  Yet, they are of great value to the sacred author.  He recognizes that her activities constitute the network of care and support that keeps the entire community alive and together: her husband, her children, her servants, her neighbors, even the poor of the neighborhood.

The poem has meaning for all of us, whatever our walks of life.  We needn’t be called to the vocation of motherhood to be able to recognize that it is this woman’s fidelity to the small things which constitute the warp and woof of everyday life that attracts the praise of the sacred author and ultimately God Himself.  Whether we the readers are students or professionals, single or married, male or female, the Scripture is calling us to follow this woman’s example by being faithful in our duties of state, faithful in the things that do not attract attention but are important to those who are in relationship with us, those who are depending on us.  

Saint Theresa of Calcutta is often quoted as saying, “We can do no great things; but we can do small things with great love.”  Precisely.  In so doing, we become the incarnation of wisdom, like the Valiant Woman and like Jesus himself, God’s incarnate logos.  This fidelity to the details that give life to an entire community constitute valor—it is not merely good but heroic.

Ancient literature like the epics of Homer tended to exalt the exploits on the battlefield, but the sacred author of Prov 31:10-31 asks us to redefine what we consider valor (hayil) and recognize that true valor consists in faithfully fulfilling all those little tasks without which life, family, and community would fall apart.  St. Josemaría said: “Do everything for love. Thus there will be no little things, everything will be big. Perseverance in little things for Love is heroism.”

In a particular way, this Sunday’s First Reading calls us to recognize the heroism of women, especially in their roles as wife and mother.  Our society does not honor women, and if it does, it honors them for taking on roles traditionally associated with men.  Thus, history books praise “women pioneers” in fields like science or politics.  But this backfires socially, because it unintentionally reinforces the attitude that the role women traditionally fulfilled as mothers and wives was and is unimportant compared to accomplishments some women made in the public arena.  All followers of Christ need to repudiate this attitude that fails to recognize the incalculable value to society of faithful motherhood.  If we had to monetize the socio-economic contribution of mothers to society, the economy would collapse because we cannot afford to pay people enough to do what mothers do for free.  Anti-mothering attitudes are evil, demonic, and anti-human, based on a contempt for children, the natural family, the weak and vulnerable, and anything that involves no money, fame, or power.  

The Responsorial Psalm shares the wisdom and domestic themes that characterized Proverbs 31:10-31:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
R. (cf. 1a) Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Blessed are you who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
Your children like olive plants
around your table.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
R. Blessed are those who fear the Lord.

Of course, as Proverbs emphasizes several times, “the Fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom.  Therefore, blessed are those who have embarked on the path of wisdom.  The “fear of the Lord” is not being scared of God, but of acknowledging and worshipping him.  One who “fears the Lord” can have the meaning, a “worshipper of the Lord.”  True wisdom begins with right worship.  Rightly ordered religion is the foundation for an approach to life that leads to human flourishing.

The Psalm promises domestic blessings for the one who fears the Lord: “you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork .. your wife shall be like a fruitful vine … your children like olive plants.”  Oftentimes these blessings do manifest themselves literally.  The “ways of the LORD,” all things being equal, lead naturally to temporal blessing.  Exclusive fidelity to one’s spouse, diligent labor, openness to life—these are all virtues commended (and commanded!) by the LORD which contribute to familial happiness. 

However, in the New Covenant, we recognize that temporal and natural family happiness is a relative good.  Faithfulness to the LORD may also lead to family conflict (Matt 10:34-37).  The good of the natural family is only penultimate.  Our true family is now the Family of God, realize already in this age as the Church, and perfected in the age to come: “Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)

The Apostle Paul exhorts us in the Second Reading that the best way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is not to “sleep” but to “stay alert and sober,”—figurative language for a diligent and disciplined life (as opposed to sloth and drunkenness, quintessential forms of self-indulgence and pleasure-seeking):

Reading 2 1 Thes 5:1-6
Concerning times and seasons, brothers and sisters,
you have no need for anything to be written to you.
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come
like a thief at night.
When people are saying, "Peace and security, "
then sudden disaster comes upon them,
like labor pains upon a pregnant woman,
and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness,
for that day to overtake you like a thief.
For all of you are children of the light
and children of the day.
We are not of the night or of darkness.
Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
but let us stay alert and sober.

This “alertness” and “sobriety” were also characteristic virtues of the “woman of valor.”  Verses not quoted in the Lectionary say, “She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens.   She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night” (Prov. 31:15,18).  The valiant woman is also an anticipation of the model disciple who awaits the coming of the Lord—indeed, she is like one of the wise virgins of last week’s Gospel.  These virtues of “alertness” and “sobriety” need to characterize the lifestyles of all disciples of Jesus Christ.  We have to practice the virtue of temperance with regard to physical pleasures and comforts, otherwise our soul becomes “drowsy” and overly attached to the things of this world.  Then, when trial and temptation come, we are too weak to resist because we have become too addicted.  Spiritual “alertness” requires keeping a reign on the body, and avoiding sensual indulgence that weighs down the soul and causes us to lose the appetite for spiritual things.

This week’s Gospel is also focused on the coming of the Lord in judgment, whether that judgment be the final (the end of time) or the particular (at our own death):

Gospel Mt 25:14-30
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
"A man going on a journey
called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.
To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one--
to each according to his ability.
Then he went away.
Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them,
and made another five.
Likewise, the one who received two made another two.
But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground
and buried his master's money.

After a long time
the master of those servants came back
and settled accounts with them.
The one who had received five talents came forward
bringing the additional five.
He said, 'Master, you gave me five talents.
See, I have made five more.'
His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master's joy.'
Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said,
'Master, you gave me two talents.
See, I have made two more.'
His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master's joy.'
Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said,
'Master, I knew you were a demanding person,
harvesting where you did not plant
and gathering where you did not scatter;
so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.'
His master said to him in reply, 'You wicked, lazy servant!
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant
and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'"

The key message of this parable is the twice-stated response to the two faithful servants:

Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master's joy.'

These two servants share the virtue of the valiant woman: they are faithful in small matters.  As a result, they share in the “joy” of the master.

The third servant is a joyless fellow who applies a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to the master’s motives and activities, and furthermore is disingenuous in his alibi for his sloth.  As the master points out, if the lazy servant had really been so scared of the master because of the master’s supposed greed, he would have at least left the money in the bank to earn interest.  In fact, we realize the servant had just been lazy, and at the point of reckoning, he attempts, unconvincingly, to divert attention from his own behavior by making slanderous accusations about the master’s character and motivations.

My hero of this story is the second servant, which is the character most applicable to most of us mediocre types who fill the pews on Sunday to hear these readings.  We don’t reject the Lord like the third servant.  Yet neither are we the “celebrity” Christians, the living saints who seem to have an abundance of gifts both natural and supernatural.  We are just rather ordinary. 

The second servant is my hero.  He’s not jealous of the first servant.  He doesn’t complain that he only got two talents.  He just gets to work and does what he can.  In the end, he receives the same reward as the first: the Master’s joy.  It’s a message to all of us to focus on our duties of state, focus on doing the small things of our small lives with great love and great faithfulness.  If we do, we can look forward to sharing the Master’s joy along with “five talent servants” like Saints John Paul II, Teresa of Calcutta, and Josemaría.

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