Father Donald Senior, CP

Nov. 15: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Fear of the Lord

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

I have often wondered about the hardworking editors who put together the Lectionary, the set of biblical readings read at every Mass over a three-year cycle. This was one of the innovations mandated by the Second Vatican Council. 

For whatever reason, when it comes to Jesus’ challenging parable of the talents, the editors for this Sunday give an alternative version for both preachers and listeners. A talent, by the way, was the largest unit of money at the time of Jesus and was probably worth thousands of dollars in today’s currency.

Instead of the version that ends up with the poor guy who buried his talent being thrown out “into the darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” we are offered a happy ending version that concludes the parable with praise heaped on those who invested their talents and made the master happy.

Praise for active investors seems to be the message. I have a feeling Jesus would not be pleased with this choice.

We are approaching the end of the liturgical year, with Advent looming. At the same time, we are coming toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel, and in these later chapters the Evangelist includes several challenging parables of Jesus. 

Last week we heard about the wise and foolish virgins at the wedding feast. Next week it will be the parable of the sheep and the goats. In each instance there is a story about judgment befalling those who fail to act: the foolish virgins forgetting to get oil for their lamps; the “goats” ignoring the sufferings of others and failing to see the face of Christ in the poor; and, this week, the man who instead of investing the talent given him, buries it.

It is important to remember that all these parables are stories with a point. They are not actual descriptions of something that happened but are tales meant to move us to be alert. The characters in the story are humans: exacting masters, doorkeepers, people who either act wisely, are unprepared or do nothing at all. 

Typical of the so-called judgment parables in Matthew, there are dire consequences for not acting. In fact, a strong motif throughout Matthew’s Gospel is the need to take action, “to do the Father’s will.” 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). Matthew’s Gospel, which is steeped in the spirit of Jesus’ own religious heritage of Judaism, emphasizes a strong biblical conviction. While proper statement of doctrine and correct rituals are important, what really counts is what we do, particularly when it comes to responding to human need.

There is another motif to take note of in today’s readings, namely fear of the Lord. Perhaps this is triggered by the end of the parable of the talents, when the servant who buried his talents realizes that his master is an exacting man and is to be feared. 

But the Bible’s notion of fear of the Lord is not dread or servile fear, or fear that terrifies its victim. The word for “fear” in this context in the New Testament is the Greek term “phobos,” which, in turn, is a translation of the Hebrew word “yirah,” which means respect, reverence or awe.

In the beautiful reading from Proverbs that gives praise to a “worthy wife” (husbands, take note), one of her virtues to be praised is that “she fears the Lord.” The responsorial Psalm 128 declares, “Blessed are those who fear the Lord.” “Those who fear the Lord,” the psalmist exclaims, “walk in the Lord’s ways.”

At every turn, the Bible, and surely the teachings of Jesus, point to God’s infinitely tender love and mercy toward us.  So the fear of the Lord we hear about in our readings is best understood as the kind of reverence, awe and deepest appreciation we experience when we realize that someone loves us beyond what we deserve, and we are compelled to respond gratefully.


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