6 minutes reading time (1120 words)

Homily - World Day of the Poor - Bishop McKeown

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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 15 November 2020

This is the second last Sunday of the Church's year, that annual journey with Jesus in the scriptures and in the sacraments from anxious expectation to glorious fulfilment. These last few Sundays Jesus has been saying that we will all be asked to give an account of our lives, whenever our years are over. That is not a frightening threat handing over us but a call to act responsibly here and now. What might this parable of the talents say to us here in 2020.

Firstly, the talents were substantial sums of money. And in this story, they are given by the master to be used by the servants. In divine terms, all that we have is gift. Everything is entrusted to us to be used well. That attitude of gratitude runs through the scriptures. When Mary goes visits her cousin Elizabeth, she does not focus on her dignity or status but on glorifying the Lord, who is the source of all good gifts. We may have five talents or just one – but we are expected to 'go promptly' and put whatever we have to good use. It is not important how many talents, we have but what we do with them. More gifts mean more responsibility, not more status.

Gratitude is not easy today. Public discourse is very inclined to be confrontational. We are told we have to defend, to protect our rights. Furthermore, there is a cultural bias in favour of acquiring things and status as if they were ends in themselves. One local author coined the helpful phrase 'copy wanting' to describe the dominant pressure to want trinkets, not because they are great but just because other people want them. We gather on the Lord's Day each week to hear a different way of looking at life. We receive the rich word of God and we are nourished by the sacramental presence among us of Calvary in the forms of bread and wine. We proclaim that it is right to give God thanks and praise. Thus, we are not a people who spend time arguing over the comparative benefits of economic models or campaigning to make America or anywhere else great again. Original sin messes up every economic model and political system. Jesus was mainly concerned with people, not systems. All ministry begins with a grateful heart, whatever our circumstances.

Secondly, the people who receive the talents are held accountable for what they did with the gifts with which they were entrusted. As individuals, parishes and a Church, we will be held accountable by God for how we have used what we have in 2020. In this respect, I heard a wise comment recently. It said that there is a temptation for the church to be audible but not visible. We have a huge wealth of teaching and of structures. We have them all as gift, not to make us very strong or secure but so that the Church can make Christ's message concrete for those who most need to know it in their hearts. If we are heard, but not seen on the streets, we are not witnessing to Jesus but a counter-sacrament, apparently concerned only about ourselves. That lies at the heart of Pope Francis' emphasis on the Church as a field hospital. In St Paul's words, Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7).

Thus, I worry about a form of Catholicism that talks more about our rights in the lockdown than they do about those who are suffering most because of the pandemic. Grateful, grace-filled hearts look outwards, despite everything. Frightened hearts are more inclined to build walls of criticism in order to make the insiders feel safe and keep out those who are not as virtuous as we are. Jesus was more concerned with reaching the outsiders than he was with those who wanted to seek shelter in the upper room. A church that is motivated by gratitude and love will see those are harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Church communities that are overly concerned with themselves are not in good spiritual health. When we are over-protective of the gift that we have, we will lose even that.

Thirdly, that twin emphasis on gratitude and outreach has challenged believers in every generation. In the past we developed structures that served a particular time and place – and that produced incredible levels of missionary generosity and outreach. But, as one author put it, 'our goal is not simply efficiency or keeping our parishes viable but rather freeing us to respond to the needs of man and women today.' [1] The servant with the one talent was criticised for living in fear of the master rather than taking risks to serve him.If we focus solely on maintaining a structure rather than on maintaining the mission, then we have missed the challenge of our place and time. That does not mean that we suddenly conform to the passing values of our time and stand for nothing. But spiritual spring-cleaning, means throwing out what does not serve the mission of making disciples for Jesus and responding to the deepest needs of today. Very often the ideology of each generation is part of the problem rather than of the God-given solution. If Christ's disciples lose their prophetic voice, then we belong to the night and darkness rather than staying awake to the needs of today. Serving Christ and serving the needs of hurting people are not alternatives but inseparable. Prayer in church heals our angry, hurting hearts and nourishes us so that we can be pushed out. We do not want to be called good-for-nothing servants who will be thrown out of the Kingdom into the dark because we failed to take Jesus or others seriously.

Today we gather to give God thanks and praise. We are grateful that he calls us to do great little things, especially in times of challenge. We have joy in our hearts, because every crisis is a new chance to witness to God's love and mercy. Like the servants in the Gospel, we know that God values what we do with the talents that we receive. Next Sunday, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. Can we prepare for that celebration this week by giving thanks for our gifts and reflecting on how we can go promptly and use them for God's honour and glory so that work Jesus can work through us to heal the wounds of our hurting world?

+ Donal McKeown


[1] R Huntley and Fr J Mallon, Unlocking Your Parish, 2019, The Word Among us Press, Maryland, USA

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