The Meanest Thing Jesus Ever Said


The Gospel from Wednesday’s Mass (Wed. of the 33rd Week – Luke 19:11-27) is known as the “Parable of the Ten Gold Coins.” It has an ending so shocking that, when I read it at Mass some years ago, a young child said audibly to her mother, “Wow, that’s mean!”

I’d like to look at it and ponder its shocking ending.

Today’s parable is like Matthew’s “Parable of the Talents,” but with some significant differences. In today’s parable, ten people each receive one gold coin. We only hear the reports of three of them (as in the Matthean account): two who show a profit and one who shows none.

Another difference is the interweaving of another parable (let’s call it the “Parable of the Rejected King”) within the story. Here is a shortened version, including the shocking ending:

A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. His fellow citizens, however, despised him and sent a delegation after him to announce, “We do not want this man to be our king.” But when he returned after obtaining the kingship … [he said] “Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me” (Luke 19:12,14, 27-28).

In analyzing a text like this I must say that I was disappointed at the silence of most commentaries with respect to this ending. The shocking phrase “slay them before me” goes largely unremarked.

The Church Fathers seem to say little about it. I was, however, able to find two references in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea. St. Augustine said of this verse, Whereby He describes the ungodliness of the Jews who refused to be converted to Him. Theophilus wrote, Whom he will deliver to death, casting them into the outer fire. But even in this world they were most miserably slain by the Roman army.

Hence both Fathers take the verse at face value, even declaring it historically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Josephus indicated in his work that 1.2 million Jews were killed in that dreadful war.

Historically fulfilled or not, Jesus’s triumphal and vengeful tone still puzzles me. If this verse does refer to the destruction of 70 A.D., then how do we account for Jesus’s tone here when just a few verses later He wept over Jerusalem?

As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).

Certainly a variety of emotions can sweep over even the God-man Jesus, but let me also suggest some other contextual and cultural considerations that frame Jesus’s startling and “mean” words (Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me).

1. Jesus was speaking in the prophetic tradition – Prophets often spoke this way, using startling and often biting imagery and characterizations. Though many today try to “tame” Jesus, the real Jesus spoke vividly, in the prophetic tradition. He often used shocking and paradoxical images. He spoke bluntly, as prophets do, calling his hostile interlocutors hypocrites, vipers, children of the devil, whitewashed tombs, evil, foolish, blind guides, and sons of those who murdered the prophets. He warned them that they would be sentenced to Hell unless they repented; He laid them out for their inconsistency and hardness of heart. This is the way prophets speak.

In speaking in this “mean” way, Jesus was firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke similarly. Thus, in understanding these harsh words of Jesus’s, we cannot overlook the prophetic context. His words, which seem to us to be angry and even vengeful, were expected in the prophetic tradition from which He spoke; they were intentionally shocking. Their purpose was to provoke a response.

Prophets used hyperbole and shock to convey and frame their call to repentance. And while we ought not to simply dismiss Jesus’s words as exaggeration, we should not fail to see them in the traditional context of prophetic speech.

Hence Jesus’s words were not evidence of vengeance in His heart, but rather a prophecy directed at those who refused to repent: they will die in their sins. Indeed, their refusal to reconcile with God and their neighbors (in this case the Romans) led to a terrible war during which they were slain.

2. The Jewish culture and language often used hyperbole – Even beyond the prophetic tradition, the ancient Jews often used all-or-nothing language in their speech. Although I am no Hebrew scholar, I have been taught that the Hebrew language contains far fewer comparative words (e.g., more, less, greatest, fewest) than does English (and many other languages). If an ancient Jew were asked if he liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream more, he might reply, “I like chocolate and I hate vanilla.” By this he really meant “I like chocolate more than I like vanilla.” When Jesus said elsewhere that we must love Him and hate our parents, spouse, and children (e.g., Lk 14:26), He did not mean that we should hate them vengefully. Rather, this was a Jewish way of saying that we must love Him more.

This background explains the ancient Jewish tendency to use hyperbole. It is not that they did not comprehend nuances; they just did not speak in that manner, instead allowing the context to supply that “hate” did not mean literal hate.

This linguistic background helps to explain how the more extremist elements of prophetic language take shape.

We ought to be careful, however, not to simply dismiss things as hyperbole. We who speak English may love that our language allows for greater nuance, but sometimes we are so nuanced in our speech that we say very little. At some point we must say either yes or no; we must be with God or against Him. In the end (even if Purgatory intervenes) there is only Heaven or Hell.

The ancient Jewish way of speaking in a rather all-or-nothing manner was not primitive per se. It has a refreshing and honest way of insisting that we decide for or against God, that we decide what is right and just.

Thus, though Jesus’s words were harsh they did make an important point. For either we choose God and live, or we choose sin and die spiritually. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

3. Jesus was speaking to hardened sinners – The audience here is important as well. As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, He was entering hostile territory. The sinners and unbelievers He encountered were very rigid and had hardened their hearts against Him. Hence, Jesus’s words must be understood as strong medicine.

One can imagine a doctor saying to a stubborn patient, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll die soon and I’ll see you at your funeral.” While some may consider this to be poor “bedside manner,” there are some patients for whom such language is both necessary and appropriate.

Because Jesus was dealing with hardened sinners, He spoke bluntly. They were headed for death and Hell and He told them so.

Perhaps we, who live in these “dainty” times, who are so easily offended and so afraid of giving offense, could learn from such an approach. There are some who need to hear from priests, parents, and others, “If you do not change your ways, I do not see how you can avoid being sentenced to Hell.”

4. A final thought—a theory really—that some have advanced – According to this theory, Jesus was referring to an actual historical incident and using it to disabuse His listeners of their fond thoughts of a new king. After the death of Herod the Great, his son Archelaus went to Rome to request the title of king. A group of Jews also appeared before Caesar Augustus, opposing Archelaus’s request. Although not given the title of king, Archelaus was made ruler over Judea and Samaria; he later had those Jews who opposed him killed.

Kings are often despots – Because many Jews thought that the Messiah (when he came) would be a king, some were hoping that Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem in order to take up the role of an earthly king. According to this theory, because the people were pining for a king, Jesus used this fearsome parable as a reminder that earthly kings are usually despotic. Jesus was thus trying to disabuse them of the idea that He or anyone else should be their earthly king.

While this theory has a lot to recommend it, especially historical precedent, it seems unlikely that the Gospel text would use such an historically localized event to make the point. Jesus was not just speaking to the people of that time and place; He is also speaking to us. Even if this explanation has partial historical context, the meaning needs to be extended beyond one ancient incident.

Well, there you have it. I am interested in your thoughts. Because the commentaries I consulted seemed rather silent on this, I am hoping that some of you have read commentaries worth sharing. Likewise, perhaps you know of some other quotes of the Fathers that I was unable to find.

Is Jesus being mean here? No. Is He being blunt and painfully clear? Yes. And frankly, some of us need it. In these thin-skinned times we may bristle at such talk, but that’s our problem. Honesty and a clear diagnosis are far more important than our precious feelings.

A Survivor of a Once Dangerous World

In the video below, a comedy routine from Mad TV shows how many modern notions were non-existent even just fifty years ago. In the sketch, a pregnant mother drinks a martini and smokes a cigarette; children ride bikes without wearing helmets. Of course, like a lot of comedy, the topic is taken to excess for effect.

Nevertheless, most of us who are older grew up in a “dangerous” world and managed to survive. You’ve probably seen lists like this one:

I survived: 

    • drinking from a garden hose,
    • breathing second-hand smoke,
    • running in the misty cloud when the DDT spray truck went by,
    • playing with toy guns,
    • being spanked,
    • paddling in school,
    • praying in school,
    • lead paint,
    • not wearing a seatbelt,
    • not wearing a bike helmet,
    • playing in asphalt playgrounds with metal monkey bars and swings,
    • not every kid making the team,
    • not everyone receiving an award.

I can personally attest to the item about running in the cloud of spray behind the DDT truck. The cloud had a sweet, pungent order; we were told it wasn’t harmful and sure enough, none of us ever got sick from it. At left is a picture of mine to prove that I’m not lying! It was a little bit like the smell of newly mimeographed paper as the teacher handed it out—a strange but pleasant odor. DDT was banned in the 1970s and scientists still debate whether the lives lost (to mosquito-borne diseases) as a result of banning it outweighed the gains made by a purer environment. I leave that debate to them, but for the record, I am a survivor!

The spiritual point I would like to make is one of moderation. I am not recommending that pregnant women drink or smoke. I am not saying that children should stop wearing bike helmets or that seatbelts are unimportant. Rather, I caution against prioritizing safety concerns to the degree that we become too fearful. Life involves risks, and there is no such thing as complete safety.

I lived through many of the things on the list above and depicted in the sketch. In order to live we must take certain risks. A life too obsessed with dangers and too constrained by artificially imposed limits can smother and restrict. Some of the modern preoccupation with safety and for a life without any rebukes or challenges comes from a desire for excessive comfort and reassurance.

Comedy like that depicted in the video below is funny because while over the top, it also has many elements of truth.

Growing in the Fear of the Lord – A Homily for the 33rd Sunday of the Year

The past few Sundays have featured the November theme of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. In today’s Gospel we are reminded that we will one day have to account for our use of the gifts and resources that God has given us.

But today’s readings do more than that; they also set forth a virtue that helps us to use God’s gifts well. That virtue is the fear of the Lord. It is a foundational disposition of the wise, but not the foolish. Scripture says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10).

In today’s first reading contains this nugget: Charm is deceitful, beauty is fleeting, but the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (Prov 31:30). Today’s Psalm says, Blessed are you who fear the Lord (Psalm 128:1).

“Fear” of the Lord can be understood in two ways: perfect fear and imperfect fear. Both are important. Imperfect fear (which most of us begin with and still need from time to time) is the fear of punishment and the loss of Heaven. Jesus often appeals to this sort of fear in His preaching; He vividly warns of the punishments that come to impenitent sinners, both here in this world and ultimately in Hell. While imperfect, this kind of fear is necessary—especially for the spiritually immature (and all of us have our areas of immaturity). It is somewhat like a young child who needs punishment and/or the threat thereof in order to learn discipline and the consequences of bad behavior. As the child matures, we can begin to appeal to his reason and his love for others in order to encourage good behavior. Good preaching and teaching should not wholly neglect the appeal to imperfect fear because congregations have people at many different stages. Jesus did not neglect this kind of appeal and neither should we.

However, just as we hope to be able to appeal to higher motives as our children mature, so as we grow in the spiritual life do we hope to move toward a more perfect “fear” of the Lord. This more mature fear is not a cringing, servile one. Rather, fearing the Lord is holding Him in awe, revering Him, having a deep love and appreciation for Him as the source of all that we are and all that we have. Because we love God and He is Abba to us, we fear offending Him by sin, or severing our relationship with Him by refusing His grace. Out of love, reverence, and a sense of awe, we fear giving any offense to Him, who is Holy, God, and deserving of all our love.

With this background, we can look to a deeper teaching in today’s Gospel. On one level, the teaching is clear: We will all have to account for our use of the talents and resources God has given us. On a deeper level, we are taught of the importance of attaining to a mature fear of the Lord as the essential way of bearing the fruit that will be sought. There is a danger in remaining only in imperfect fear (which has its place and time in our life) because we risk developing resentment and avoidance if we refuse to grow toward a more perfect fear.

Let’s look at it with this perspective in mind and discover the differences of each kind of fear.

A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

Three men are given resources to use. Two succeed; one fails. Why? Ultimately it is the difference between holy fear, love, and confidence on the one hand, and unholy fear and resentment on the other.

Consider the plan of the first two men (the ones who succeed):

  1. Receive Riches – One gets five talents; the other, two—each according to his ability. While the “inequity” may offend modern sensibilities, note the explanation in the passage itself: the men had different abilities. Before getting outraged, consider this: what business owner would not give more resources to an outstanding employee than to a mediocre one? The fact is, God blesses some more abundantly than others due to their good use of gifts. Later in the Gospel, we receive this fundamental rule: We must prove faithful in a few things to be ruler over many (Matt 25:23).
  2. Risk Reinvestment – Something in these two men makes them feel free enough to risk reinvesting the money: It is likely their relationship with the master. They view him as a reasonable man, one who would applaud their industriousness. Though they are taking a risk, they believe that even if there were to be losses, they will not be dealt with unmercifully. They seem to experience the freedom and courage to step out and make use of the talents entrusted to them. Notice that the text says they “immediately” went out and traded. They are eager to work for their master and take the risks on his behalf in order to please him.
  3. Render a ReportUpon the master’s return the men seem somewhat joyful as they report, “Master, you gave me five (two) talents. See, I have made five (two) more.” There is an enthusiasm for the opportunity they were given and a joy for the harvest.
  4. Rise in the Ranks – The men’s presumptions of the master’s fairness and reasonability are affirmed in his response: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” We see that the master is joyful and wants to share his joy with his servants. Further, he is willing to give them greater access to share in his blessings and joy based on their openness to trusting him and their showing themselves to be trustworthy.

The two successful servants see the owner of the riches as a man with whom they can deal. They have a healthy respect for him but not an immature fear. They receive the funds gladly and with gratitude go to work, motivated and enthusiastic about the opportunity they have been given.

Allow the posture of these two servants to be a portrait of a holy and more perfect fear of the Lord. With this sort of holy fear, we love God and are enthusiastic to work for Him, realizing that He shares His blessings and is both reasonable and generous. Confident of His mercy (though not presuming it), we go to work in His vineyard. Although there are risks and temptations in the vineyard, if we do fail or fall, we do not make light of our sin but rather repent of it and are confident of God’s mercy. A mature fear of the Lord does not box us in or paralyze us. It does remind of our boundaries and keeps us away from truly dangerous things that erode our talents, but because we love God we respect His boundaries joyfully, knowing that He protects us from “unsafe investments.” Within the designated boundaries, there is both room to maneuver and safety from the thickets of sin. Mature fear of the Lord is joyful and encouraging, not cringing or hiding from Him. Choose the fear of the Lord.

The servant who fails follows a different plan, one by which he

  1. is Fruitless – for he buries the treasure
  2. is Furious – for he says, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. He considers the owner a hard man. He also sees him as unjust because he has others do his planting, etc. The man sees his work as slavery, unlike the other servants who see it as an opportunity. Notice, too, this subtlety: The man refers to the talent he was given as “your talent.” In contrast, the other men say, “You gave me five (two) talents.” These men see themselves as stewards whereas the third man sees himself as a slave.
  3. is Fearful – for he says that he buried it out of fear. In this case, we see a cringing and servile fear, and immature and imperfect fear of the Lord. This is distinct from the more mature fear of the Lord, toward which we must move to bear fruit. Note that it is his image of the master that drives his fear.
  4. Forfeits – It is clear that he wants nothing to do with his master. In effect, the master says this to him: “Fine, if you don’t want to deal with me you don’t have to. I will take your talent and given it to the one with ten. If you do not wish to be in my presence or deal with me then consider yourself dismissed.”

The failed servant gives way to anger and resentment; he indulges his immature fears that the owner is out to get him, that the deck is stacked against him. He is not grateful for the opportunity he was given. Notice that these thoughts lead to his actions; but are his thoughts true and unassailable? It is clear that the other two men do not see the master in this way. We see through the reaction of the master to the behavior of the first two servants that he is in fact reasonable, decent, just, and joyful. The failed servant’s thoughts were not accurate. Rather than believing everything he thinks, the failed servant should test those thoughts against reality.

To fear the Lord more perfectly is to hold him awe, to rejoice in His power and wisdom, to accept His authority as saving and helpful. In this way we yield an abundant harvest with His gifts.

Now look, if imperfect fear is all you have, go with it! Sadly, many people today in this secular culture conduct their lives as though they will never have to account for it; they go on sinning, scoffing at the idea that they should have any fear of a judgment day. They are going to be surprised and unprepared for what they will face.

So, even if you have an imperfect fear of the Lord, rooted in punishment, don’t cast it away! To grow, though, seek a more perfect fear, rooted in love and awe of God’s majesty and goodness. If we remain in an imperfect fear that does not seek to grow in love, we risk falling into resentment and aversion and will not bear the fruits that the Lord seeks for us. This call for growth is what the Lord means here:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love (1 Jn 4:18).

The fear counseled against here is not the perfect and mature fear of the Lord referred to elsewhere in Scripture. Rather it is the immature fear, rooted merely in the fear of punishment. We are counseled to grow out of this imperfect fear through deepening love of God.

The deeper teaching here is this: grow in love; mature in your fear of the Lord and reap the abundant riches of a faithful servant and child of God.

On the Lost Art of “Pairing ‘em up” and Its Effects on Marriage Today

One of the more common concerns that young adults express to me is the difficulty in meeting and dating. Once adulthood is reached, of course, the purpose of dating is to look for a spouse. Hence, their problem is a problem for all of us because marriage and family are central to the life of the Church as well as the foundation of our culture and nation.

When I was a young priest, more than thirty years ago, I had numerous weddings to celebrate, and most of the couples were in their early twenties. Today, I have far fewer weddings, and the average age seems to be early thirties. In 1990 there 326,079 weddings in Catholic parishes. Last year there were 137,885, a 58% drop.

While there are many practical reasons for the delay of marriage (college debt, longer time spent in college, the rise of the virtual world, etc.) we must consider that we who are older aren’t doing much to help them to “pair up.”

In the video below, an older couple notices that a young man and woman live next to each other but are seemingly lost in their own worlds. Through a series of mysterious mailings, they get them to meet. The old expression calls this “pairing them up.”

Adults used to take a more active role in getting their children to meet potential spouses. My parents’ families knew each other before my parents married and had helped make the introduction. In our parish, we often sponsored dances and other youth and young adult activities. Far fewer colleges were co-ed in those days, and so the faculty was much more intentional about sponsoring activities between the women’s and men’s colleges.  Frankly, there was an expectation that young people should get married soon after high school or college was completed. It was “time to settle down.”

Every now and then, as a priest, I try to make introductions between young adults. At other times I try to coach them into introducing themselves. I also advise many of them to work through other friends to meet someone. I tell them that when I was young I remember asking a friend if he thought his sister might go to the junior prom with me. He laid the groundwork, found out that she had some interest, and set up the occasion for me to ask her. I met my college sweetheart when a friend told me, “She likes you and wants you to ask her out!” I was surprised because she was so pretty; I would never have had the nerve to ask her out on my own. I gladly took the hint and asked her that very evening.

At any rate, we older folks need to do a better job of pairing ‘em up. Elders, families, Church leaders, friends—they all have a role to play; we used to do it more frequently. See if this video gives you any ideas.

 

 

What Does Jesus When He Calls Us Unprofitable Servants?

The Gospel for Tuesday of the 32nd Week of the year records Jesus as saying:

Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here immediately and take your place at table”? Would he not rather 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”? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? 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” (Luke 17:6-10).

This teaching of the Lord’s can irritate us and even seem hurtful if we misunderstand grace and seek to understand this text by the flesh (i.e. our sin nature). Our flesh is self-centered and thinks we deserve praise and good things from God in return for the good things we do. The flesh expects—even demands—rewards, but God can never be indebted to us, never. Our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us.

All our works of charity and faith, for which our flesh wants credit, are God’s work and His gift. This is made clear in this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

If I think that I did something deserving of praise and reward, I am thinking in terms of the flesh, not the Spirit. When I have done something good all I can really do is to say, “Thank you” to God. His grace alone permitted me to do it. God may speak elsewhere of rewarding us, but that is His business. He is not indebted to us in any way. When we have done everything we ought, our one disposition should be gratitude. We are useless servants in the sense that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We can only do what He enables us to do.

That said, it is clear that work is a pillar of faith. The text from today’s Gospel and the text from Ephesians above both make clear that work is something God has for us. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:17). Likewise, Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me. It was I who chose you that you should go and bear fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). Yes, work is a fundamental of faith.

Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning – A Homily for the 32nd Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday presents a number of practical principles of preparation. As always the Lord has a way of teaching us in a very memorable way. Let’s look at four principles taught in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. In the end we will find that the Lord turns the tables on us.

I. Procure your Provisions – The text says, The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.

In looking at this text we see that humanity is divided into the wise the foolish. We generally live in times that like to deemphasize distinctions. While there are times when they truly do not matter, today’s Gospel does not depict one of those times. To be wise is to be richly rooted in God and in what He offers: His love, wisdom, grace, mercy, truth, vision, and priorities—His very life.

If one lacks these things is not merely a matter of unfortunate poverty or bad luck, for they are offered richly and freely to all by God.

Lacking these things shows one to be a fool. Many proceed through this life considering themselves very smart, and they may be smart in science, or finance, or business, or sports; but being smart is not the same as being wise. One can be very smart yet still a fool. One may climb the ladder of success, but if it is leaning up against the wrong wall it will lead only to ruin. The wise, whether smart or simple, know God and are recipients of His gifts. The foolish deny Him or His gifts, whether explicitly through conscious resistance or implicitly through lukewarmness and lip service.

In this parable, the wise virgins bring extra oil. They have procured their provisions.

What is this oil? The Fathers of the Church had many answers. Some said it was love, others wisdom or holy deeds. We need not limit it to any one thing, though. The oil is the love of God, the Wisdom of God. It is God Himself. It is all God’s treasures of Scripture, the Sacraments, prayer, the Church, and the liturgy; it is joy, mercy, forgiveness, peace, and the gift of holiness. The wise virgins have stocked up on God’s abundant gifts. They have richly availed themselves of God’s goodness and plentiful graces.

The foolish virgins are not wholly lacking in God’s gifts, for no human being made in the likeness of God is, but they have endowed themselves sufficiently to see the night of this life through. They are careless and lazy. Perhaps carrying extra oil is too much trouble, just as going to Mass, praying, and reading Scripture are too much trouble for “the foolish” today.

What about you? Are you wise or foolish? Put another way, are you procuring your provisions? Are you availing yourself of the oil of God’s good gifts or do you have other “more important” things to do?

The first principle of proper preparation is to procure your provisions.

II. Prepare Personally – The text says, The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise ones replied, “No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.”

At first the answer of the wise virgins surprises us. Shouldn’t they share? Isn’t that what we would expect Jesus to say?

But there are some things you can’t lend and some things you can’t borrow. You can’t borrow someone else’s relationship with God. You can’t borrow holiness, or mercy, or love, or wisdom. You can’t borrow someone else’s prayer life. You have to have your own.

As a priest, I get lots of requests, sometimes for money, sometimes to use the Church for a funeral. I often inquire, “Was the deceased a parishioner here?” So often the answer is, “Well, no, but his grandmother was,” or “his second cousin used to be.” Now I’ll celebrate the funeral Mass, no matter, but the answer is “No, he wasn’t.” The fact that his Grandmother or his second cousin attended Mass here has nothing to do with it. None of that will profit him before God; none of that adds even a drop of oil to his lamp. You can’t borrow your grandmother’s holiness; you have to have your own.

Hence we must personally prepare to meet God. We must come to know Him and to love Him. We must be open to receiving the gifts He offers: prayer, Scripture, the liturgy, the sacraments, the moral life, a new mind and heart.

What about us? Do we have our own oil, or are we just talking about what a great person our grandmother was? An old gospel hymn says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” Do we? Another old gospel hymn says, “My mother taught me how to pray. So if I die and my soul be lost, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.”

The second principle of proper preparation is to prepare personally.

III. Persevere in Preparations The text says, At midnight, there was a cry, Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him! … and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked.

This is an important reminder we must persevere in our walk until the end. The groom did not come until midnight and the foolish virgins could not hold out to the end.

I cannot tell you, how often people tell me things like this: “I used to be an altar boy.” “I used to go to your church.” “I went to St Cyprian’s School” “I’m old St Cyprian’s. Our family goes way back; my Grandfather helped build the place!” I think I’m supposed to be impressed, but instead I ask, “Where are you today?” Usually they aren’t anywhere at all. If so I often respond with something like this: “You’re telling me that you used to have your lamp trimmed and burning, but it sounds like you’ve run out of oil. Watch out, the Day is drawing nigh!”

The point is that only those who were ready with their lamps trimmed and burning when the groom arrived were allowed to entered the wedding with him. After that, the door was barred. We must be faithful unto the end. Jesus says, He who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13). Scripture also says, Call no man blessed till he die. For it is by his end that a man is known (Sirach 11:28).

Persevere. It’s wonderful that you read the entire Bible when you were in high school, but where are you today? Where will you be at midnight?

The third principle of proper preparation is to persevere in your preparations.

IV. Procrastination is Perilous – The text says, While [the five foolish virgins] went off to buy [the oil], the bridegroom came … those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” But he said in reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

In the end, our wisdom goes with us or our foolishness catches us. The foolish virgins scrambled at the end to get what they needed, but it was too late. The door was barred.

One physical explanation for this detail may be found in the fact that houses of the ancient world were often rather small, but backed out onto a closed courtyard. Hence, when all the guests had arrived, the doors of these small houses were close and the furniture moved up against the walls and the door to make room as the celebration began. To move everything to open the door was problematic, and it was rude to ask for this.

It was just too late for them. Yes, procrastination is perilous.

Two things call for our special attention:

First, there are the words of the Lord, “I do not know you.” The Greek word here is οἶδα (oida) which bespeaks a kind of intellectual knowing. It may surprise us to hear the omniscient Lord say that He does not know them. Perhaps we can understand the word as meaning that He does not “recognize” them as guests; they are not on the guest list. Or, to use another metaphor, they are not among the sheep of His flock. Later in this same chapter of Matthew Jesus will speak of dividing the sheep from the goats. Hence there is a judgment issued here: I do not recognize you as one of my flock; the door cannot be opened; it is too late. But how did it get to be so late and what does it mean that the door is barred?

This leads us to the second point that demands our attention. It is said that the foolish virgins are knocking on the door, or at least calling out, asking for entrance.

But this precisely backward. It is not we who knock, but the Lord. It is He who bids us to open and we who must answer. Jesus says, Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). It is the Lord who calls, It was I who chose you (Jn 15:16).

The way to heaven is not through some door “up there.” It is through the door down here, the door that we must open, the door of our heart. The Lord is knocking now. Procrastination is peril; it is foolishness. Now and every day, we must answer the knock. The choice is ours. Yes, the door to Heaven is opened from the inside of our heart. It is we who ultimately determine our destiny. At the judgment, the Lord merely ratifies our decision.

The Lord wants to know us, to recognize us as His own. That is why He knocks and knocks. Will you answer?

Be careful, the fourth principle of proper preparation realizing that procrastination is perilous. There comes a day when the door is forever closed. Remember, the door is your heart. Answer! Open!

The Not-so-Nice Origins and Meanings of the Word “Nice”

Words can change meaning over time—sometimes dramatically. For example, “manufactured” originally meant “handmade” (manu (hand) + facere (make)). The word “decimate” used to mean “to reduce by a tenth” (decem = ten); now people usually use it mean “to wipe out completely.” The list of examples could go on and on. Yes, words do change meaning over time.

One word that has changed meaning dramatically over time is “nice.” Today it is an overused word that usually means pleasant, kind, or easygoing:  “Stop fighting and be nice now!”

But the adjective “nice” once meant anything but nice in the modern sense. Rather, it was a derogatory word used to describe a person as something of a fool.

The word “nice” comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware” (ne (not) + scire (know)). The Old French word “nice” (12th century) also came from this Latin root and meant “careless, clumsy, weak, simple, foolish, or stupid.”

In the 13th century, “nice” meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless.” In the 14th century, the word started to morph into meaning “fussy.” In the 15th century it meant “dainty, delicate.” By the 18th century it shifted to meaning “agreeable, delightful.” And by the 19th century it had acquired its current connotation of “kind and thoughtful.”

The word “nice” has certainly had a tortured history!

Given its older meaning of “ignorant, stupid, or foolish,” it is not surprising that the word “nice” is used only twice in the Douay-Rheims Bible, (which was published in the 16th Century) and in both cases the word is used  pejoratively: 

“The man that is nice among you, and very delicate, shall envy his own brother, and his wife, that lieth in his bosom,” [Deuteronomy 28:54]”

But to pursue brevity of speech, and to avoid nice declarations of things, is to be granted to him that maketh an abridgment.”[2 Machabees 2:32]

In the first quote “nice” is likened to an effeminate or dainty man. In the second quote brevity is commended to avoid “nice” (unkowning, erroneous or stupid) speech. So “nice” was not a nice word in the 16th Century.

Today the word can have a meaning that is properly praiseworthy and is basically a synonym for “good.” For example, one might comment, “That was a nice distinction you made.” Or, observing a sporting event, one might say, “That was a nice move!”

However, I am also convinced that the word “nice” is beginning to return to its less noble meanings. This takes place when it is used in a reductionist manner that seeks to simplify the entire moral life to being “nice.” Here, nice is used in the sense of being pleasant and agreeable. To the modern world, in which “pseudo-tolerance” is one of the only “virtues” left, being nice is about the only commandment left. It seems that much will be forgiven a person just so long as he is “nice.” And little will be accepted from a person who is not thought of as “nice.”

I suppose niceness has its place, but being nice is too akin to being harmless, to being someone who introduces no tension and is most often agreeable. As such, a nice person is not so far away from being a pushover, one who is easily manipulated, silenced, and pressured into tacit approval. And thus “nice” begins to move backward into its older meanings: dainty, agreeable, weak, simple, and even further back into weak, simple, unaware, and ignorant.

The pressure to “be nice” easily translates into pressure to put a dumb grin on your face and pretend that things are great even when they’re not. And to the degree that we succumb to this pressure, we allow those who seek to shame us if we aren’t nice get to watch with glee as we walk around with s dumb grin. And they get to think of us, “What an ignorant fool. What a useful idiot.” And thus “nice” takes up its original meaning.

We follow a Lord who was anything but a harmless hippie, or a kind pushover. He introduced tension, was a sign of contradiction, and was opposed by many because he didn’t always say and do pleasant things. Not everything he said was “nice.” He often used strong words: hypocrites, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, murderers of the prophets, and evildoers. He warned of judgment and Hell. He spoke in parables about burning cities, doom, destruction, wailing and grinding of teeth, and of seeing enemies slain. These are not kind words, but they are loving words, because they seek to shock us unto conversion. They speak to us of our true state if we remain rebels. Jesus certainly didn’t end up nailed to cross by being nice in any sense of the word.

In the end, “nice” is a weird word. Its meaning has shifted so many times as to be practically without a stable meaning. Today it has further degraded and increasingly returned to its original meaning. Those who insist on the importance of being “nice” usually mean it for you, but not for themselves. They want to have you walk around with a silly grin on your face, being foolishly pleasant, while they laugh behind your back.

To be sure, being “nice” in its best modern sense has its place. We surely should not go around acting like a grouch all day. But just as being nice has its place, so does being insistent, bold, and uncompromising.

Purgatory is Based on a Promise of Jesus’

I have blogged before on Purgatory. Here is a link to one of those blogs: Purgatory – Biblical and Reasonable. I have also written more extensively on its biblical roots here: PDF Document on Purgatory.

On this Feast of All Souls, I want to reflect on Purgatory as the necessary result of a promise. Many people think of Purgatory primarily in terms of punishment, but it is also important to consider it in terms of promise, purity, and perfection. Some of our deceased brethren are having the promises made to them perfected in Purgatory. In the month of November we are especially committed to praying for them and we know by faith that our prayers are of benefit to them.

What is the promise that points to Purgatory? Simply stated, Jesus made the promise in Matthew 5:48: You, therefore, must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. In this promise is an astonishing declaration of our dignity. We are to share in the very nature and perfection of God. This is our dignity: we are called to reflect and possess the very glory and perfection of God.

St. Catherine of Siena was gifted by the Lord to see a heavenly soul in the state of grace. Her account of it is related in her Dialogue, and is summarized in the Sunday School Teacher’s Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism:

The Soul in the State of GraceCatherine of Siena was permitted by God to see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace. It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. ” My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful.” [1].

Yes, this is our dignity and final destiny if we are faithful to God.

So, I ask you, “Are you there yet?” God has made you a promise. But what if that promise has not yet been fulfilled and you were to die today, without the divine perfection you have been promised having been completed? I can only speak for myself and say that if I were to die today, though I am not aware of any mortal sin, I also know that I am not perfect. I am not even close to being humanly perfect, let alone having the perfection of our heavenly Father!

But Jesus made me a promise: You must be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. And the last time I checked, Jesus is a promise keeper! St. Paul says, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Hence, if I were to die today, Jesus would need to complete a work that He has begun in me. By God’s grace, I have come a mighty long way. But I also have a long way to go. God is very holy and His perfection is beyond imagining.

Yes, there are many things in us that need purging: sin, attachment to sin, clinging to worldly things, and those rough edges to our personality. Likewise most of us carry with us hurts, regrets, sorrows, and disappointments. We cannot take any of this with us to Heaven. If we did, it wouldn’t be Heaven. So the Lord, who is faithful to His promise, will purge all of this from us. The Book of Revelation speaks of Jesus ministering to the dead in that he will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4). 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 speaks of us as passing through fire in order that our works be tested so that what is good may be purified and what is worldly may be burned away. And Job said, But he knows the way that I take; and when he has tested me, I will come forth as pure gold (Job 23:10).

Purgatory has to be—gold, pure gold; refined, perfect, pure gold. Purgatory has to be, if God’s promises are to hold.

Catholic theology has always taken seriously God’s promise that we would actually be perfect as the Father is perfect. The righteousness is Jesus’ righteousness, but it actually transforms us and changes us completely in the way that St. Catherine describes. It is a real righteousness, not merely imputed, not merely declared of us by inference. It is not an alien justice, but a personal justice by the grace of God.

Esse quam videri – Purgatory makes sense because the perfection promised to us is real: esse quam videri (to be rather than to seem). We must actually be purged of the last vestiges of imperfection, worldliness, sin, and sorrow. Having been made perfect by the grace of God, we are able to enter Heaven, of which Scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). And again, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the souls of the just made perfect (Heb 12:22-23).

How could it be anything less? Indeed, the souls of the just made perfect. How could it be anything less if Jesus died to accomplish it for us? Purgatory makes sense based on Jesus’ promise and on the power of His blood to accomplish complete and total perfection for us. This is our dignity; this is our destiny. Purgatory is about promises, not mere punishment. There’s an old Gospel hymn that I referenced in yesterday’s blog for the Feast of All Saints that says, “O Lord I’m running, trying to make a hundred. Ninety-nine and a half won’t do!”

That’s right, ninety-nine and a half won’t do. Nothing less than a hundred is possible because we have Jesus’ promise and the wonderful working power of the precious Blood of the Lamb. For most, if not all of us, Purgatory has to be.