Perhaps many of us have read the books (or, more recently, seen the films) of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Many readers have concluded that his stories fall into the category of “Christian allegory.” Now, an allegory is a literary device—a tool of communication—in which metaphors are used to explain an abstract idea through storytelling. In the case of Lewis’ books, the fantasy world of Narnia is used to illustrate some of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith: most notably, the battle between good and evil that rages within and around each one of us, and the presence of a powerful king—Aslan—who leads us and inspires in us the faith to persevere in the battle. Parables are very similar to allegories in that they use metaphorical images in storytelling as a way of imparting certain ideas. The difference is that parables are usually much shorter, focused, perhaps, on a particular moral lesson that the author is trying to impart. In a sense, parables are “Allegory Lite.”
In the Gospel reading today (and, for that matter, the last couple of weeks), Jesus tells his disciples a parable. Most of us, I would guess, are quite familiar with this parable and so the meaning of the metaphors the parable utilizes probably shine through. The Master—who is Jesus—is going on a journey to be seated at the Father’s right hand and so needs to entrust his possessions—which is the Gospel—to his servants—otherwise known as his disciples—to care for them until he returns. After a long time—perhaps 2000 years or more—the master will return and call his servants in to see if they’ve been profitable with what they were entrusted with. Those who return with a profit proportional to what they were given—perhaps a number of converts to the faith or a faithful family or works that have helped the poor—will be blessed for their faithfulness. Those who failed to be profitable with what they were given—perhaps out of fear, indifference, or even spite—will be punished for their unfaithfulness. For the disciples to whom this parable was first addressed, I suspect the allegory was obvious and the meaning clear: “We better get out and spread the Gospel so we aren’t caught having done nothing when Jesus returns.” And I suppose that it’s not much of a stretch for us to interpret the allegory in the same way: “Jesus, it seems, is long delayed, but the fact of the matter is that he could still return at anytime, so we better ‘make hay while the sun shines,’” and that’s easy enough. Well, perhaps it’s a bit too easy.
I think, perhaps, that it is too easy to see God as “master” and ourselves as “servants.” When we look at it this way, it’s kind of easy to fall into a “just do the minimum” mindset exemplified by such “bumper sticker wisdom” as: “Jesus is coming, look busy.” Such “wisdom” plays on our very natural inclination—which, in fact, is a disordered inclination—to do only what’s minimally necessary so that when our “master” returns we look like we’ve done something when really we’ve done nothing at all. It’s the mindset that thinks that we can somehow “pull the wool” over the eyes of Jesus to make him believe that we were faithful even when we haven’t been (which, in itself, is a nice piece of irony considering that Jesus is the Lamb of God). This “just follow the rules” mindset, of course, is not what God has called us to. Saint Paul is adamant about this, stating repeatedly in his letters that if being a follower of Christ is just about the rules, then forget about it, it’s useless. Saint Paul knew that when Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, but friends,” he was inviting us to a relationship beyond that of a master and his servant: a much deeper relationship that brings with it greater responsibilities.
In our first reading today, we hear a description from the book of Proverbs—an Old Testament “wisdom” book—of a woman described as a “worthy wife.” I suppose it would be easy to look at this reading and dismiss it as an outdated description of an “ancient middle-eastern housewife” that has no relevance for us today. Our Catholic faith, however, tells us that Sacred Scripture is God’s living Word—Jesus Christ—speaking to us and revealing himself to us, and so perhaps if we feel inclined to think that a piece of the Scriptures has no relevance for us we need to think again, and maybe become a little curious about why these words were preserved for us to read and ponder here today. What I would challenge all of us here today to see in this reading is another allegory—one a little less obvious, perhaps, but no less profound.
The reading tells us that when a man finds a worthy wife, he entrusts his heart to her, and that the worthy wife responds to this trust by working with loving hands to bring him good and not evil. How often we forget that Jesus is not just our master and we his servants, but that Jesus is also the bridegroom and we—his Church—are his bride. This is a much more intimate image. And thus this reading becomes very relevant to our lives today and shows us how we, entrusted with the heart of Jesus, ought to respond so as to be a worthy spouse of so great a husband. In fact, it shows us the only way, really, that we can respond, given our human limitations: that is, by bringing him good and not evil in our daily actions and by working with loving hands to serve him and each other.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus has found a worthy spouse—his Church, that is, all of us—and he has entrusted to her his heart—his very Self—here in the Eucharist. No doubt, it is a fearful thing to be entrusted with so great a gift. We need not be fearful, however, as if our Master seeks only to catch us off guard in order to punish us. Rather, we can be hopeful, trusting that the one who has entrusted his heart to us seeks only our own good and to find us faithful. It is this hopeful trust, then, that leads us to a faithful, fruitful, and joy-filled living of the mystery that God has given to us—a living that can begin here today. May this mysterious love overflow in our hearts and touch the lives of all those around us.