Father Donald Senior, CP

Nov. 19: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Banality of goodness

Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; 1 Thes 5:1-6; Mt 25:14-30

Some historians probing the tragedy of the Holocaust have referred to the “banality of evil.” Many of those involved in the deportation and mass killings of Jews during the Second World War seemed like “ordinary” people, not moral “monsters.” They were police, city officials, technicians, workers who plied their labor of deadly evil in a seemingly oblivious way and then went back home to their families and their churches and their daily routines.  

If such staggering evil could become “banal” it is also true that there was a “banality of goodness” — ordinary people taking extraordinary risks to help their neighbors.  

I remember reading the account of a family in Holland who hid several Jewish families in the basement of their home for the duration of the war — an action that, if detected, was punishable with death. One evening, the mother answered a knock at her kitchen door and there were several Jews standing there asking for help.  

“What was I to do,” the woman said, “turn away my neighbors?” Just like that, heroic virtue wrapped in ordinary terms. Stories such as these can be multiplied many times over. In Denmark, virtually all of the country’s Jewish citizens were saved by the initiative of ordinary Danes who managed to hide and protect them.
I thought about the banality of goodness when reflecting on the readings for this Sunday. The first reading from the Book of Proverbs praises the everyday goodness of a “worthy wife.” The terms of praise reflect the agrarian setting of the times.  

The woman of the household is faithful and true and her husband can “entrust his heart to her.” She takes care of the home, doing the weaving of cloth and “working with loving hands.” She is generous and compassionate “reaching out her hands to the poor, and extend[ing] her arms to the needy.” She is a woman from a different time and place than the 20th century farm woman in the Holland, but has the same innate goodness.

The Psalm response moves in the same direction. Parents are blessed whose family eat the crops they themselves have grown and who get to see their children “like olive plants around your table.” Idyllic perhaps, but the Scriptures are throwing the spotlight on the beauty and blessing of what for them was ordinary, everyday family life.

In the segment we hear from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessaloniki, he praises them for being “children of the light.” “We are not of the night or of darkness,” Paul acclaims, “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” Yes, be like those genuine human beings and people of faith who recognize their blessings and are ready to help those in need.

The Gospel selection for today is Jesus’ parable of the talents. The story is both familiar to us and baffling — as is often the case with Jesus’ stories. 
A man goes on a journey and entrusts portions of his wealth to several of his servants, matching the portions to each of the servant’s abilities: some got five “talents” (a large denomination in the currency of the day), others two or one. 

The servants with five and two invest the money and make a profit for their master. The servant entrusted with one talent plays it safe, burying the talent in a hole until the master returns. When the master returns, he praises those who invested the talents and made a profit; he condemns the poor dunce who hid his one talent.

This parable may have many layers of meaning, but what is its point as we hear it in tandem with the other readings for today? The man who buried his talent did so “out of fear.” Jesus’ story urges us to not be passive and fearful about our lives but live them to the full, savoring the goodness and beauty that is all around us, reaching beyond ourselves to care for others. He even urges us to take a risk so that life and goodness — among our families, our neighbors, among those who are vulnerable — can abound.