Sunday, February 7, 2016: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Sixteenth Sunday of Matthew
After-feast of the Presentation (Meeting) of Christ; Parthenios, bishop of Lampsakos; Venerable Luke of Hellas; New-martyr George of Crete
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
Reflecting on his own ministry, the Apostle Paul says that he “put no obstacle” in the way of anyone who—having sensed that “now is the day of salvation”—wished to become like him a “servants of God.” Paul then goes on to enumerate the cost he’s paid for fidelity to the evangelical work of the Church. He has had to bear “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger.” All this and more he endured so that others could come to experience in their lives “the power of God.”
Not only does Paul suffer at the hands of the Gentiles, he is persecuted by the Jews. Nevertheless, he has freely and enthusiastically preaches the Gospel, “the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute” at the hands of unbelievers.
But at the ends of his recollections, his focus shifts; he hints that he suffers at the hands of those who have accepted the Gospel. Paul even suffers at the hands of other Christians. It is his fellow apostles and evangelists, not the Gentile and Jewish authorities, that treat Paul as an imposter, as someone unknown to Christ.
And yet, in spite of all this, he remains faithful to Christ and committed to “making many rich” even though he himself is “poor.” Because of his heroic fidelity to Christ and the work to which he is called, Paul who has “nothing” in the eyes of men, “possess[es] everything” in Christ.
Turning from the epistle to the Gospel, we see the example unfaithful servant who is the anti-type or moral opposite of Paul. This man allowed fear of his master to overwhelm him. Ironically, this results in his fears being realized. He is punished by his master, cast “into the outer darkness” there to weep and gnash his teeth.
On closer examination, though, we see that the unworthy servant was motivated not simply by fear of “a hard man.” No, the servant was gripped by despair; he had no confidence, no trust, no hope in the future. And all this because he simply had no confidence in his master and the gift his master gave him. He also he had no trust in himself because he had no faith in his master.
Yes, the master was “a hard man” who reaped where he didn’t sew and who gathered where he didn’t winnow. But this hard man had confidence in his servants. To be sure varying degrees of confidence signified by the greater or lesser amount of money entrusted to them. Nevertheless, the master was confident in his servants and their abilities to be profitable for him. The servant’s self-doubt and despair are the bitter fruit of his lack of faith in his own master.
On this difference hinges the difference between my being like Paul or being like the wicked and slothful servant. We usually think of sloth as laziness. While there is some overlap between them, sloth is less a matter of not doing what’s right and more of not taking joy in doing it. The slothful person is indifferent or even opposed to the joy that comes from being faithful and obedient to God.
At its foundation sloth is a refusal to accept with gratitude and joy my life as it has come to me from the hands of a loving God. Small and few though they seem to me, the gifts God has given me are able to bear fruit if only I am faithful to God. Joy, to say nothing of progress in the spiritual life, are the fruit of fidelity to our personal vocations.
This is why St Paul takes pains to say again and again that he puts “no obstacle” in the way anyone coming to Christ. Having experienced the joy of discipleship in his own life, he can’t but desire that for others. Having experienced the love of God for him, Paul wants others to come to know God’s love for them. This is why even though he was persecuted by the civil and religious of his time, even though he was criticized and rejected by some in the Church, Paul preached Christ and Him crucified (see 1 Corinthians 2:2), in season and out (see 2 Timothy 4:2). His life was rooted in faithful, hopeful ad loving obedience to Jesus Christ and not the passing approval of men.
When I look at my own spiritual life, do I see a life characterized by gratitude and joy? Reflecting on this morning’s epistle and Gospel makes me ask why do I lack the confidence of St Paul? Might I be more like the unfaithful steward and fear of my master, the Lord Jesus Christ?
Paul’s life reflects the healthy and wholesome self-confidence that is the fruit of fidelity to God. Such fidelity can’t be abstract or merely theoretical; it isn’t a matter of words, ideas or feelings. Fidelity to Christ is the fruit of the careful discernment of our own, personal vocation and our subsequent obedience to the contours and content of the life and work to which we have been called.
How do I know if I am faithful? How do I know if my self-confidence is healthy and wholesome?
We find our answer again in the person of the Apostle Paul. The sign of vocational fidelity and Christ-like self-confidence is joy. Specifically, our ability, like Paul, to rejoice in gifts God has given others and to work to foster their fidelity to what God asks of them. We do this because we know that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (2 Corinthians 12:26. NKJV). Joy in the honor God bestows on others is the sign of our own fidelity to the will of God. To live otherwise is to fall into the divisions that plagued the Church in Corinth. Such joy is balm for a world battered and broken by sin and death and is certain and trustworthy evidence “for the hope that lies within” us (see 1 Peter 3:15).