Mark 13:33-37 (1st Sunday of Advent, year B)

(Because of an extended announcement at the Masses this Sunday, I was told to “keep the homily under two minutes”. Not an easy task for me, but I gave it a shot!)

wikicommons, Liquid 2003 
How many of us here today are truly awake? Years ago, when I was an altar server, I used to doze off at Mass pretty regularly. Now this isn’t really an option for me - too many people would notice. Jesus’ message in the Gospel is simple: be awake!

Today we begin the season of Advent. Advent - with literally mean “coming” - is the time in which we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus Christ in the:
  1. Past. Jesus came into the world some 2000 years ago. During Advent we recall that Christmas celebrates the event in which God became man.
  2. Future. Jesus will come again at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. During Advent, remembering this reality should have an impact on the way we live our lives today. Am I ready to meet Jesus when He comes again? What changes would I like to make in my life?
  3. Present. This is the part we too easily forget. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the king who separates the sheep from the goats. This parable taught us that whatever we do to the needy, we do to Jesus. Whatever we fail to do for the poor and marginalized, we fail to do for Jesus. We meet needy people each and every day. Therefore, Jesus comes to us each and every day.

Distraction keeps us from recognizing the presence of Christ in the needy that we daily encounter. We are asleep and we miss the coming of Jesus. Usually this slumber of distraction is not consciously induced, it sort of just happens. We can get so preoccupied in our work or school that we are blinded to the presence of Jesus in those who surround us. It is easy to get so immersed in our phones and computers that we become oblivious to other flesh and blood human beings. People in the same home begin communicating via text messages. Next time you ride the bus or skytrain, see if you can find five people who are not on their phones and are having an actual conversation with their neighbour. Even while at Mass we get distracted. We can be thinking so much about what is for lunch that we ignore the presence of Christ in the Eucharist who gives Himself as the ultimate meal. We are asleep and missing the simple, daily ways in which Jesus comes into our lives through those we encounter.

What we need is some kind of spiritual coffee. I’m sure that most of of start our day with a cup of coffee. Personally, it is difficult to face the day without it! I have a very simple suggestion for how we can try to enact Jesus’ command to “stay awake”. Each morning when you take the first sip of your coffee (or tea, or chocolate milk, or whatever) make this simple prayer: “Lord, help me to be spiritually awake today so that I do not miss the ways you enter my life”. Advent is here; it’s time to wake up!

(Ok, so maybe that’s longer than two minutes. I tried!)

Show me the money!

Matthew 25: 31 - 46 (Christ the King, year a)

When I was a seminarian, a large and stressful part of my life was studying for exams. One evening after dinner I was having a conversation with another seminarian about all the tests we had coming up. We expressed how worried we were and how much we were studying. We both felt that unless we did well on our exams, we would not see our semester as a success. After speaking for a few minutes, we were surprised when an old priest joined our conversation. He had overheard all we had said. This priest explained that our exams are important and we should study and try our hardest. Before he left, he said one short line I will never forget: “Now remember, no matter how you do on these class exams, just make sure you pass your final exam!” By “final exam”, this elderly priest was referring to the scene that is described in the gospel of today in which the the sheep are separated from the goats by Christ the King.

We all have different ways of measuring whether our life is a success or not. We hold ourselves to certain standards. Sometimes people place these standards on others, particularly their children. If you meet these expectations you are good and your life is a success.  If not, it’s a failure. As I mentioned, for me such a standard was doing well academically. For others, the test of their life’s value may be whether they are popular and have many friends. Or maybe they give themselves a passing grade if they have a great job and are respected in their profession. Still others judge their value based on the amount of money they have. Do you have a nice house? A flashy car? The latest smartphone? We all create different tests to see whether or not we or those around us are “making the grade” in their life. Certainly, many of these goals are important and worth working towards. The problem is that none of these things matter in our final exam.

In the end, Jesus’ test is easy and it consists of just one question: did you show me love by concretely helping those who are in need? It is incredible when we consider the fact that so much of what we consider important, so much of what we spend our time working towards and worrying about, does not come up on Jesus’ final exam. What matters is simply whether we have helped those who are poor and needy or not. This is the way that we show love to Jesus. This is how we will be judged. Mother Teresa lived this reality in a profound way in her life. She was always careful to explain that the incredible work she did with the poor was not mere social work, but rather service done for Jesus, out of love for him. She explained that the Gospel, the entire message of Jesus, is so simple that it can be summarized in five words. She would repeat these words by counting them out on her fingers. Mother Teresa would teach others to do the same. This is what she called the five-fingered-Gospel: you did it to me. Whenever we do something to help someone in need, it is as though we did it to Jesus. Whenever we failed to do for someone in need, it is as though we fail to do it for Jesus. At the end of our life we will be judged on our response to this simple reality.

Jesus’ final exam is a practical test rather than one testing mere theory. Notice that Jesus does not tell us we will be judged based on whether we thought it was a good idea to help those in need or intended to do this. He judges us on whether or not we concretely helped the needy or not. There are many ways we can help those in need. For example, we can volunteer our time at a soup kitchen. I would like to look at a very simple way that all of us can help the poor. It is also a simple test to know whether we are doing so or not. If you have ever seen the movie Jerry Maguire, you will be familiar with the most catchy phrase from the film: show me the money! How generous we are in giving our money to those in need clearly reflects our commitment to the poor. Certainly not all can give as much to the poor as others, but the majority of us can and should be giving something. I am not speaking here about giving a toonie now and then to someone begging on the street. I would argue that this is not the most efficient and prudent use of our money. I am speaking here about giving consistently and regularly to some charity that helps the poor. There are many such groups run by the Archdiocese of Vancouver, for example, the Men’s Hostel or the Door is Open. Giving to Project Advance is also a way to help the poor and needy as this initiative funds many worthwhile Catholic Charities. When we look at our monthly budget we find a long list of expenses. Is one of the items on this list a regular financial contribution to the poor? If we do give regularly, do we give less to the poor than we spent on coffee or going to the movies? In a recent homily, Pope Francis said the following:
“this is a golden rule. When conversion reaches your pockets, it’s certain”. He explained: “Christians at heart? Everyone. Christians in mind? Everyone”. But, Pope Francis asked, how many are Christians when it comes to “our pockets? Few”.

When I was in school, teachers would sometimes give us the exam questions ahead of time. When this happened, I always spent a lot of time preparing these questions. I would be foolish not to. Jesus, our King and judge, has told us that at the end of our life we will be tested on only one question. He has told us well in advance what the question is so we all have plenty of time to prepare. You did it to me. Has our conversion reached our wallet? Does the way in which we spend out money show care for Jesus present in the poor and needy or not?

Don't be the Ebenezer Scrooge of mercy

Matthew 25:14-30 (33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Have you ever seen one of those images which at first glance appear to be simply a pattern, but if you stare at them long enough a 3D picture appears? For me, it was an exciting experience when I was first able to see the 3D picture in an image like this. After I saw it, I could never look at the pattern without the 3D picture popping out. My perspective of the simple image was changed entirely. Recently I had a similar experience with the parable of the talents that we heard in today’s gospel when I read a commentary on it presenting an interpretation I never heard before. Like the 3D picture popping out of the image, with excitement I saw a new meaning in the parable that was there all along. It gave the parable new life and fresh meaning.

It turns out I was missing the fact that in this parable Jesus is talking about God’s mercy. Mercy was the 3D picture hidden from my sight in this parable. Until recently, I used to interpret this parable as only being a lesson about the proper use of our skills and abilities. All these are a gift from God which we must not keep hidden away, but rather use in the service of others. This interpretation is valid and helpful, but it is not the whole story. We interpret the parable in this way because we instinctively read “talent” to mean a skill or ability. At Jesus’ time, however, this was not the meaning of talent. As you probably know, a “talent” was a unit used in the measurement of something precious, like silver or gold. In fact, a talent was a large amount, perhaps fifty pounds. Therefore, Jesus’ audience would not have associated talent with an ability but rather with weight. The characters in the parable were all given something weighty. Jesus’ Jewish listeners would then have associated “weight” with the glory of God because the Hebrew word for God’s glory, “kabod”, originally meant “weight” or “heaviness”. Recalling God’s glory, they would think immediately of the place where this glory dwells, in the Temple, about the mercy seat, the lid covering the ark of the covenant. In short, when the first century Jew heard Jesus’ parable, they would not have understood it to be a lesson about the proper use of our skills and abilities. Rather, they would have understood the parable as a lesson about God’s mercy.

In the parable of the talents, Jesus teaches us the physics of God’s mercy. Physics - everyone’s favorite subject! - studies nature in order to understand how the universe behaves. When you study physics, you learn about various laws that govern the natural world. For example, Newton’s third law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the parable of the talents, Jesus instructs us about that laws that govern God’s mercy:
  1. God’s mercy is a completely free gift that He gives in abundance through Jesus. In the parable Jesus is the master who goes away on a journey. At times we can think we need to earn God’s mercy through prayers or good works. God’s mercy is always a free gift. It is not a salary. It is not a reward.
  2. When we are not merciful to others, we cannot experience God’s mercy in our own life. Mercy is a gift so it must be freely given. In the parable, the person given one talent does nothing with it. He keeps it to himself and hides it away. In the end, the talent is taken from him. We can be tempted to be stingy with mercy, thinking we need to make others earn it from us. For example, we won’t forgive someone until they come grovelling to us. Or, we refuse to accept and welcome someone unless they first change things about themselves we don’t like. When we are misers of mercy, we become like teflon to God’s mercy - it cannot stick to us and we fail to experience it in their life. People who are unforgiving and unmerciful usually do not believe and feel that they are forgiven, loved and accepted by God as they are.
  3. If we are as liberal in showing mercy as God, then we find that mercy is multiplied many times in our life. In the parable, those who do something with the talents they are given receive even more in the end. The more generous we are in forgiving others and accepting and welcoming those who have made mistakes, the greater we can experience God’s mercy in our own lives. Mercy multiplies when it is given away. People who are forgiving and merciful generally believe and feel that they are truly forgiven, accepted and loved by God even in their weakness and faults.

It is easier to be merciful to others when we realize we have been given a large share in God’s mercy. At times each of us can struggle to forgive and show mercy. We can get some great tips for how to convert the mercy-miser within us by looking at the conversion story of the stereotypical penny-pincher, Ebenezer Scrooge, found in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”. He shows an incredible lack of generosity to his poor worker Bob Cratchit. During the story, however, Scrooge undergoes a dramatic conversion. By the end he is extremely generous. This change was in part elicited when Scrooge was given a glimpse into his past. In this, he saw clearly the goodness and generosity that other people had shown to him. For example, his former boss who had treated him like a son. When Scrooge realizes that he has received so much from others in the past, it becomes easier for him to be generous to those around him. If we have difficulty forgiving or being merciful to others, it is very helpful to remember:
  • We have all made mistakes in our lives
  • We have all been forgiven, loved and accepted by God in spite of this.
  • We have been forgiven, loved and accepted by countless others in spite of all the wrong we have done

Recall that even one talent is a large amount of something incredibly precious. In the past we have all received a large, generous portion of mercy and forgiveness from God and those around us. Remembering this helps us to forgive and show mercy to others. It is critical we do so, “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.” Let us not be mercy-misers but rather be generous in showing mercy and forgiveness to others so that we can richly experience God’s mercy, love and acceptance in our own life.