One morning, at the start of class, a schoolgirl spoke to her teacher.
Please Sir, can I ask you something? Should a person be punished for something they haven’t done?
“Of course not,” replied the teacher, “No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done.”
“That’s good!” said the girl. “Please Sir, I haven’t done my homework!”
Today’s Gospel starts with a lovely picture of Jesus serving his friends. But then St Peter asks “is this for us or for everyone?” He’s probably not expecting what happens next – Jesus paints a surprising picture of how God treats his “servants”. For those who claim to be disciples, a higher standard is expected. The wicked servant who abuses his master’s trust is dismissed – that’s an image of Hell. The lazy servant who did know what the master expected receives many strokes of the lash – that’s an image of Purgatory. More surprisingly, the one who didn’t know what the master expected, but failed to deliver, is punished. Only lightly, but still punished – by the master who represents God!
Does this mean we’re dealing with an unreasonable God who expects results and deals with us unjustly? No. But there are two things we must remember to avoid reading this parable the wrong way.
The first thing is that the servants were servants. They knew they had a Master. So they knew that something was going be expected of them. The fault of the third servant is that he didn’t try to find out what he should have been doing. This is not a parable for people who’ve never heard of Jesus. This is a parable for disciples – members of the Church who claim they want to follow Jesus and serve God Our Father!
The second important thing is that while human beings judge the outward appearance, God judges the heart. We are judged not on our results but on our choices. Let me offer an example: we know that one of the Ten Commandments requires us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Mother Church takes that and makes an Obligation, saying we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of serious sin. Now, suppose you wake up on Sunday morning and have flu – or find yourself in sole care of a child who is ill in bed. You want to go to Mass. You feel bad about not being able to go to Mass. In these circumstances, is it possible for you to choose to come to Mass? No. So if that happens, please don’t come to confession because you feel bad about not coming to Mass. Confession is about saying “I made a bad choice and next time that happens I’ll make a better choice” – we call that ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. The sign you need to come to confession is that you can put into words what that better choice would have been. If your body has flu, you have no choice. If you have to care for a sick child at home, you have no choice. When you have no choice, what you have are regrets, not sins. So take your sins to confession but take your regrets straight to God in prayer.
At the end of our lives, we will meet Jesus as our judge. We will see clearly what was expected of us. I suspect that what the Bible calls the “punishment” for the servant who didn’t know what was expected will be the firey embarrassment we experience at realising we have let down our beloved Lord in the task he has chosen specially for each one of us. It’s because of this that we have the practice in the church called an “examination of conscience”. This is when we look at ourselves and ask whether we’ve been doing what our master expects. Now it’s easy to make a list of bad behaviour we should avoid – we can tick off a list of “Thou Shalt Nots” to help with that. Today’s Gospel, however, requires something more challenging: an examination of the good deeds which our Master does expect.
Now, none of us can do everything. We can’t all run a Foodbank, visit 50 housebound parishioners every week, take charge of a pack of Scouts, work overtime so a colleague can get home to the kids and spend 8 nights a week at home with our beloved husband or wife. So it’s important to spend time praying about what good deeds God expects each one of us to do. The key is in the gifts and talents God has already entrusted to us – they are given to us to make the world a better place. We will be most effective when we do those things we are called and gifted to do. This is why, following our big diocesan conference in June, our priests and lay leaders in the diocese are examining a process named “Called and Gifted” which could help us do just this. But it would be premature of me to say more before final plans are made.
At this time of year, as we look forward to the “back to school” season, those of us who are parents or grandparents might face a change in mix of caring duties and gaps in our schedule in a typical week. It’s a good time to ask where we can use of our gifts and talents in the year to come.
There is one thing that only we can do – we who worship in the Catholic Church in this place. We are ambassadors for Christ. We can’t expect anyone else promote this parish. It is our calling to invite the people we meet to ask whether they believe Jesus rose from the dead, and whether it’s possible to meet Jesus through Holy Mass. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that Abraham set out to follow God’s call. The First Reading recalls the first Passover, when the faithful Jews were saved from the angel of death. God protects his faithful people, but expects much from his servants – and it’s our business to find out what God wants us to do.
None of us can do everything, but all of us are expected to use the gifts we’ve been given to do something. The Master is calling us. If we want our entry into heaven to be pure joy and free from punishment, the first step is to pray this Dangerous Prayer – “Here I am Lord, use me as you will!” Remember, he doesn’t want to punish you – but you do have to do your homework!