Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Year of Faith Homily Series
November 12, 2013
In the encyclical The Light of Faith, written by the “four hands” of Pope Francis and Pope-emeritus Benedict, we learn that faith is a new way of seeing. Faith is not only a light that illumines every human reality, the Popes tell us, but it is a participation in Jesus’ own way of seeing. We begin to see things as God sees them and therefore as they really are. We are enabled to go beyond the appearances, beyond superficial human understandings, to see realities to which those who don’t look with faith are blind.
During this month of November, dedicated to praying for our faithful departed and also preparing for the time that the Lord will come for us, it is important that we learn to face death with the light of faith. This is especially important in this Year of Faith, which is meant to influence everything the Church does and identify those areas in which we need to cry out to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” One area in which many people, including Catholics, need increased faith is with regard to chronic suffering, dying and death.
Today’s first reading taken from the Book of Wisdom is by far the most common Old Testament passage used for funeral Masses and it manifests what happens when we look at death and dying in the light of faith.
Referring to those who have died, Wisdom says, “They seemed in the view of the foolish to be dead; their passing away was thought an affliction; their going forth from us, utter destruction.” The worst insult that a Jew could hurl was to call someone a “fool,” because this meant someone who did not look at things the way God sees them, the way through his revelation he has helped those with faith see them. To those who do not like at things from God’s perspective, it teaches us, the dead are simply dead. They’re gone. They’re decomposing. Their sufferings were just worthless afflictions leading to annihilation.
There are still many who look at suffering, dying and death in this same “foolish” way. They believe there’s no meaning to human suffering and once someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness or is experiencing chronic pain, they believe that the only compassionate and humane response is to treat them the way we do our pets, to “put them out of their misery” through doctor-assisted suicide or euthanasia. They often treat their mortal remains as anything but sacred, incinerating them like we burn garbage, grinding the bones, and scattering them like chaff that the wind blows away.
That all begins with the way the foolish “view” things.
Those who look with the eyes of faith see something altogether different. They perceive, according to the Book of Wisdom, that “the souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them.” They see further that even if they suffer, “their hope full of immortality.” They grasp that their chastisements become blessings in which God tests them “as gold in the furnace,” burning off the dross and impurities so that at the “time of their visitation they shall shine.”
Those who look with Christian faith see all of these realities and more as their view death from the prism of Christ’s own sufferings, his own chastisements, his own death and resurrection. They recognize that Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday, that to experience the resurrection we first must endure the passion, and that in our suffering, dying, death and resurrection, Christ seeks to unite us to his own.
The passage finishes by reminding us, “Those who trust in [God] shall understand truth and the faithful shall abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are with his holy ones and his care is with his elect.” These are truths that can only be grasped by those who see through the lenses of faith. This month of November is an opportunity for us to beg the Lord to increase our faith with regard to the way we regard end-of-life issues.
The light of faith is also necessary for us to understand the humanly difficult lesson that Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s Gospel. We live in an affirmation culture, in which we are constantly trying to give everyone ribbons and awards and recognition not principally for merit but just for showing up. This cultural shift is not altogether bad and in some ways it’s a helpful corrective to a highly competitive culture of yesteryear when there was one winner and everyone else was considered losers.
But to the members of this culture of Stuart Smalleys — the former star in Al Franken’s Saturday Live “Daily Affirmation” skit who used to repeat, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!” — Jesus’ words in the Gospel almost seem cruel. It seems to be the exact opposite of this a culture of affirmation, and we believe that if anyone is going to affirm us, it’s going to be God.
But we need to look at what Jesus is saying with the light of faith.
Jesus gives us an image of a hard working servant who has just come in from plowing the field by hand and tending sheep. We can imagine the person’s exhaustion. Jesus asks whether the person’s boss would typical say to him, “Come here immediately and take your place at table,” and then proceed to wait on him. The obvious answer is no. Rather, Jesus says, he would say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished.”
To the culture of the time and to the culture of our time in many businesses, this type of treatment of employees — not to mention slaves — is standard. Jesus even seems to be affirming it.
But he ups the ante with the moral he draws from the story. He asks,“Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?,” implying that the answer is a definitive “no.” Then he adds, “So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what we were obliged to do.’”
Unprofitable servants. The same phrase can be translated as “useless.” To our modern ears it seems that Jesus is basically engaging in verbal abuse, saying that no matter how hard we work for him, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we succeed, at the end of the day we’re just useless. He implies that he isn’t “grateful” for anything we’ve done, but that all we’ve done is what we were obliged to do and should expect no thanks.
I remember once being in a parish where the pastor refused to give thanks for recognition to people no matter how hard they worked. He cancelled the parish’s annual thank you dinner for volunteers. He stopped sending in a name to the bishop’s office for the annual Marian Medals, given each year to one dedicated parishioner per parish in a beautiful ceremony at the Cathedral. When the Diocese instituted a St. Pius X Award to recognize the dedicated sacrifices of young people working in the parish, the pastor again refused to send anything in, memorably telling me, “The kids don’t need encouragement. They need to remember that at the end of the day, they’re just useless servants.”
He had interpreted Jesus’ words literalistically, but missed their literal and true meaning.
The point Jesus was making in the Gospel is not that God isn’t grateful for efforts and that we likewise should not be grateful for others’ efforts. He was trying to change our motivations in doing our work for the Gospel, so that we’re not doing it for recognition but doing it out of love for God and others.
During the Sermon on the Mount, with words we hear every Ash Wednesday, Jesus told us not to pray, fast or give alms “so that others may see them,” because if that were our motivation, we would already have received our reward. He told us, rather, to do them with purity of intention, to do them for God, to do them out of love, promising us that “The Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward” us.
Jesus is not encouraging us to do good things just to receive this reward from the Father; rather, he’s encouraging us to do good things out of love for God and others, merely reminding us that the Father is never blind to our actions and motivations and will in fact remember and reward us for all that we do with the proper motivations.
He’s also encouraging us toward humility and gratitude. The Christian life is about serving, rather than being served, and Jesus is calling us to seek to continue to serve, even after a long day’s work, something exemplified by many hard working mothers who continue to care for their families after long days of work. And the Christian serves with the life, the talents, and the energy God has given, and so the first response of the Christian ought to be to thank God for these gifts and the trust he has placed in us by giving us a share in his salvific work. Yes, in one sense, we’re “useless servants.” But he has given us all the help he knows we need so that we can prove to be “good and faithful servants,” who are “no longer called servants but friends” and who will inherit as a reward the kingdom prepared since the foundation of the world.
So when we read this Gospel with the eyes of faith, we grasp a particular call during this Year of Faith. Even though many of us may have worked hard until now to spread the faith, to plow God’s fields and tend his sheep, it’s not time for us to retire, put up our feet and let others serve us. It’s time for us to continue working, even if the type of work required is different. That’s what we see in Pope Benedict, who gave up the enormous responsibilities of the papacy not to retire in the classic sense, but to dedicate himself to the even more important and persevering work of praying for us all.
We also grasp with the eyes of faith that even though according to human logic, no slave would ever be invited in from working the fields in order to be served by the Master, that’s exactly what God the Father promises to do for all those how in fact serve him and others in this way. Just as Jesus put on an apron and washed the feet of the apostles during the Last Supper, Jesus promises that at the eternal wedding banquet, those who have always been vigilant in working, he will seat at table, gird himself with an apron and proceed to wait on them. (Lk 12:37).
Those who see and live with the light of faith here on earth will— with St. Josaphat whom the Church celebrates today, who was always a good and faithful servant of the Lord and of unity, even when it cost him his life and to the foolish seemed dead!— one day have the joy of beholding that prophecy fulfilled with glorified eyes.