33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 13, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
The parable we have just heard is another one of those stories whose main theme is that of decision and judgment. It fits, then, with the parable we heard last week about the wise and foolish virgins and the one we will hear next week about the separation of the goats and sheep at the Last Judgment. These texts are read as the liturgical year comes to an end, as a kind of reminder that in the end we will all face God’s judgment.
The judgment, of course, will be on what we have done with our lives, with what we have made of our selves. Such parables are a reminder that God has made us in his own image and likeness, that is, has given us intelligence and freedom. If God’s providence oversees and directs all natural forces and events to his purpose, to human beings he has given the possibility and indeed the duty to participate in his providence, by their freedom to determine who they will be. My dog’s wonderful fulfilment of what it means to be a dog does not involve freedom; he is what he is by instinct and a certain amount of training which did not involve my trying to persuade him of the wisdom of my commands. But in us human beings instincts play a relatively minor role, and our culture supplies for that lack by bringing us language, beliefs, values, institutions and roles, a knowledge and appreciation of which we drink in with our mother’s milk.
But there can, or at least should, come a moment in our lives in which we discover, each of us, that it is up to ourselves to decide for ourselves what we will make of ourselves. It is a kind of existential moment, that is, a moment in which we may begin to ex-ist, to step out of the self that has perhaps been shaped more by others than by oneself, and to assume responsibility for the selves we will become. It is a moment in which one may cease to be a drifter, thinking and saying and doing what everyone else is thinking and saying and doing because everyone else is thinking and saying and doing it. (Perhaps we might think of it as the man who buried the money he had received: but did nothing with it.) Even when the assumption of personal responsibility may ratify what our culture and the various communities we have encountered have given us, now these gifts become our possession, things we retain because we have come to know them and to choose them for ourselves.
This is a powerful line of thought. It is part of the Catholic “both-and” which some theologians, oversimplifying a little, have contrasted with the Protestant “either-or.” For example, we don’t have to choose between God’s freedom and human freedom. God created us free and wants us to use our freedom to make our way back to him. You don’t have to impoverish God to enrich man, nor impoverish man to honor God. St. Irenaeus, in the second century of the Christian era, had already put it succinctly: “The glory of God is a living man, and the life of man is the sight of God.” A living human being is God’s glory, the purpose of his creation, and we human beings find life, fulfilment, in coming to know God and entering into his glorious life.
This is the vision of the human person on which the Gospel theme of decision and judgment relies. The final judgment on our lives will be on what we have done with our freedom, what we have made of ourselves. This vision is as old as the adage of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” One ancient Christian writer put it in terms of artistic creativity: “Never stop working on the sculpture that is your life.” A modern theologian, Bernard Lonergan, said that the book one is writing with one’s life will have only one edition. These are the bases of our Catholic tradition’s urging of regular, even daily, self-examination (what else, after all, is an examination of conscience?), of regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, of days of recollection (days for re-gathering ourselves), of weekend retreats: all these opportunities to review what we have been doing, are doing, with our freedom. All ways in which to think about the great and glorious weight of responsibility that falls on us in determining the self we will become, the self which one day will stand before God, for him to judge whether with our exercise of our existential freedom we have created something beautiful, or not.