By What Name Does God Call Us?

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V.  November 15, 2020

At a recent diocesan catechetical conference, I was talking with two of the speakers, Mike and Louise.  Mike was reading a book called “Multiple Intelligences”.  Apparently, just as there is “intellectual” intelligence to help you understand concepts, there is also “emotional” intelligence, “spiritual” intelligence, “physical” intelligence, and so on.  So I said, “maybe I should get a copy of that book to help me with all the multitasking I have to do as a parish priest.”  Without missing a beat, my friend Louise replied: “I see. Men read books about multi-tasking.  Women just do it!”

In today’s first reading from the book of Proverbs, we meet the original multitasking woman: a considerably-pared down version of a much longer litany of qualities, accomplishments and endeavours associated with the “perfect” or “capable” wife.  You might call her the original Martha Stewart! (Before she went to jail, that is.)  This woman seems to have it all; every talent is hers: business acumen, craft, charity, strength, generosity, wisdom, fidelity, religious devotion, love.  

Men and women have different reactions to this reading, as you may imagine.  Men wonder:  “Wow … where can I find one of these”?  Women, seeing the parallels with all the expectations placed on them in their own busy lives, simply feel exhausted.  Where is her husband?  What does he do all day while she cares for the children, cooks the meals, makes the clothes, helps the poor, instructs the servants, and runs a little real-estate business on the side?

The book of Proverbs was the product of a patriarchal society in which gender roles were firmly set, and in which hard work for all was a necessary condition of survival.  What is original here is this call for praise and public recognition for this woman, and by extension for all women who share her lot in life: “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her before the city gates.” 

It is the Hebrew Bible’s equivalent of the words spoken by the master to the faithful servant in today’s Gospel: “Well done, good and faithful servant: you have earned your just reward.  Enter, come into my presence, and share in the joy of your Lord.”

Today’s Gospel contrasts the innovative and capable servants who make good use of their master’s money, with one who is afraid of his master, fearing him as a harsh and demanding taskmaster.  Instead of developing and investing the talent he has received, he buries it in the earth instead of using it for others.  And so, he finds himself on the outside at the end of the story.  What do we make of him? 

He is important because he reminds us that although God offers his gifts freely to all – yet in a way unique to each individual – they are not given to us to be buried and hidden.  God’s gifts must be gratefully received, unwrapped, and put to work, so that all might enjoy the full benefit of the gift.

One of the most powerful illustrations of this reality comes from one of my favourite films, Dead Man Walking: based on the memoirs of Sr. Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph who worked with the poor in Louisiana and became an advocate for the prisoners on death-row whom she was visiting at the State Penitentiary.  In one powerful scene, she tries to convince young Matthew Poncelet, sentenced to die for his murder of a teen-age couple, to accept some responsibility for the terrible hurt he caused to these young people and their families.  When he tells her he believes now that Jesus has redeemed him, she answers:  

Matt, redemption isn’t some kind of free admission ticket into heaven you get because Jesus paid the price.  You have to participate in your own redemption.  You’ve got some work to do.” 

What is that work, that mission, entrusted to each of us?  It doesn’t have to be anything particularly brave, heroic, or out-of-the-ordinary. It is embracing the challenge to be myself. It means discovering and owning that deep personal vocation God has planted in my heart, and doing my best to live out faithfully the daily consequences of that call. It means accepting myself the way I am – with my gifts and talents, but also my weaknesses and limitations – and humbly asking for God’s grace each day, in both the joys and the difficulties.  And believe me, that is not as easy as it sounds.  We may not like everything we see. We may become painfully conscious of our limitations.  But God doesn’t really expect us to be perfect.  He only asks that we be faithful, that we keep trying. 

Asked to describe the challenges of life in the monastery, a wise monk replied: “we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.”  Burying your talent in the ground is falling down and staying down, isolating yourself from God and others, never bothering to discover the hidden treasure within yourself. There may be all sorts of obstacles to be overcome in coming to that realization, and we need to help people to come to be able to rejoice in that gift of being fully themselves.  That is why we need each other.

A few months ago, I was invited to give a presentation on the theme of “discovering your vocation”. I went with four friends: a Sister, a single laywoman, and a young married couple. We talked of three different understandings of the word “vocation”:  (i) as expression of my work, inspired by the gifts and talents God has given us; (ii) as a commitment to a structured way of life in the Church and the world; and finally, (iii) as a personal call, my deeper self, the unique name by which God calls me.

To be a “good and faithful servant” in the sense of today’s Gospel is to be responsive to each of these levels of our vocation.  It means to name and claim the gifts and talents God has given me, as well as my limitations and weaknesses as well, with acceptance and gratitude.  It means making life-choices and permanent commitments that honour who I am and what I have to offer, and to remain faithful to those as best I can. Finally, it means trusting that God has created me with a unique purpose and destiny in life.  In the words of Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher, who will be leading our diocesan Parish Vitality Conference this coming Saturday, it means recognizing that I am – that each of us is – “Called By My Name”, and “Sent in God’s Name.”  

These are questions worthy of our pondering, in these last two weeks of the liturgical year, in this time of pandemic when, whether we like it or not, many of us have a little more than time than usual to ponder some of the deeper questions of life.  Who did God create me to be?  What is the personal mission God has entrusted to me and to no one else?  What is the unique name by which God calls me? 

Perhaps my name is joy: I am called to take delight in the small things of life – a snowfall, a smile – and inspire that joy in others.  Perhaps my name is peace: my gift is to be slow to take offense, to be able to see both sides of an issue, to sow seeds of harmony and reconciliation.  Perhaps it is wisdom: I use my gift of intelligence not to puff myself up, but to assist others, to help them understand themselves and the complex world in which we live. 

This vocation, this call to life is universal.  And it always involves what will be life-giving for us and for others.  As the pastor Frederick Buechner writes: “You will discover your vocation at the meeting-place of your own deepest desires and the most pressing needs of the world.”  We are called to happiness, to holiness; we are called to make a difference in the world; and ultimately, we are called to union with God, to happiness for all eternity.  And it is all part of the same journey.

To discover my vocation, to live my calling to the full, I need you and you need me.  We all need each other.  At the same catechetical conference I spoke of earlier, a parish priest talked about the efforts of his parish council to come up with a mission statement that would sum up – in a phrase of no more than 15 words – the vocation of their parish of St. Rose.  This is what they came up with – or better, what they received from the Lord, after much prayer and discernment:

In Christ, we are bread for one another:
broken, we gather; nourished, we reach out.”

As we continue to weather this pandemic, as we seek to grow in holiness as individuals, and in vitality as a parish, let this be our vocation too.  May we embrace the Gospel call to invest our talents well, to give of ourselves generously, and not to be afraid to take risks for the sake of the Gospel.  May we be recognized by the world around us as true followers of Jesus, so that when we appear before him, he will also say to us: “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.”