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33rd Sunday in ordinary time: The middle road

Today’s readings: Proverbs 31, 10-13.19-20.30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5, 1-6; Matthew 25, 14-30.

There were times in the history of Christianity when Christians were persecuted for being Christians. There were also times when they were persecuted for claiming to be Christians and not being so. Coherence is a Gospel mandate, and the times we live in are becoming less and less tolerant of incoherence.

In today’s second reading, St Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, affirms that as Christians we belong to the day, which I take as implying that we are no underdogs, that we should not be ashamed or afraid of what we stand for. He was addressing a situation at Thessalonica where Jesus’s disciples, convinced that the end was near, formed ghetto communities that were very inward looking. The originality of his message in that situation was that discipleship entailed commitment to change in the here and now.

Paul was advocating against the attitude of passivity, which was gaining ground among Christians who were convinced that the return of the Lord was imminent. This form of inacti­vity is also at the centre of today’s gospel parable which metaphorically depicts different attitudes in the way we face the world as it is and in the way we understand what Christian commitment really entails.

Analysing the present-day context and the culture we breathe, we can easily understand why so many feel disenchanted with things as they stand. Ours is a culture that suffers from disconnection and insecurity, with symptoms that at times can easily be disheartening, and which can cause us to be easily carried away.

On the one hand, the feeling of disenchantment can make of us prophets of doom, losing faith in everything and everyone. In many cases this leads to a tragic escapism, at times even in the name of religion. On the other hand, the situation can also instill in us the carpe diem attitude. Carpe diem is a phrase that comes from the Roman poet Horace and which literally means ‘seize the day’, enjoy yourself while you have the chance, enjoy now and think not of the future.

There has to be a middle road between these two extremes. Virtue is in the middle, as the medieval scholastics believed, and as Aristotle already affirmed in his Ethics. We need not give in to tragedy, yet we should neither let ourselves be carried away by the pleasures of the moment. The middle option, the Christian way, is to face reality with realism and to embrace the commitment to a world that is still work in progress and which, to various extents, whether we believe it or not, still depends on our common effort as to the shape it takes.

The attitude that is condemned in the gospel parable today is that of a tragic escapism, the attitude of those who, for fear of what might happen, shun risk and responsibility and simply bury what they have received in the false hope of some day giving it back unadulterated. At times this attitude manifests itself in an inactive religiosity, in forms of spiritualism that are so disincarnate that they shun responsibility and avoid commitment.

The Scriptures make one thing clear: our call is, in fact, to be moral agents of change. One day we will be answerable to God not only for our souls, but also, perhaps mainly, for the world at large, for creation itself, for the good or bad taste we leave behind. The words of Jesus resound remarkably today: “To everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away”.

We can live with the delusion that we are what we have, and would obviously want more and more. But there is an end to what we have, and that will be taken away. What truly makes us who we are cannot be taken away. That is the strength and depth that will endure change and time, and that will make the world a better place, and will make us receive more in abundance.

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