The Gospel for August 7th, 2016: “Vigilant and Faithful Servants”
Reflection: Prayer as Vigilance; Prayer as Dialogue
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the servants who have been left in charge of the household while their master is away at a wedding. His point seems to be the servants should remain attentive to their duties and be ready to open the door for the master upon his return. Peter discerningly asks, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone” (41). I think his question is a good one. Is the divine expectation of vigilance to the Lord’s mission just for His priests, for which the apostles are being prepared, or for all of us, lay person and clergy alike. Jesus answers the Peter’s question with another question: “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute [the] food allowance at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so” (42-3). In my view, this avoidance of a direct answer can only mean we must all reflect on the question and put ourselves in the position of the steward. If we do so, we realize we all have a part in stewardship of the Church too. As a result, we must be ready to carry out the master’s will, even when He appears to be absent or delayed in returning. In our baptism, we have all been gathered into Christ’s mission to save the world, each with a calling and part to play in the theo-drama. It is a mission we must strive to understand and carry out, even when it seems beyond us, especially when confronted with the freedom to choose our own plans over God’s.
To this basic point, I want to insert a term I was introduced to in last’s week homily at my church, “practical atheism.” I had not heard this before. As the homilist explained, a person who displays “practical atheism” believes in God but acts as if He does not exist. I realized this applies to my life frequently. At times, it is intentional; I knowingly choose my own plans with awareness that they are in conflict with God’s will. Because the “master is delayed in coming,” I begin to “beat the manservants and maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk….” (45). This willful disregard is clearly sinful. But what may be even more worrisome is when I slip into unvigilance because there has not been some big sign or punishment and the Lord seems absent. Jesus addresses this kind of inattention later on Luke (21: 34), “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise.”
So how do we combat our unvigilance, especially the latter where our call from God has been forgotten in the cacophony of “anxieties of daily life?” I am sure attenders of daily mass have less problem with this. Internalizing the Lord’s presence in daily communion surely fortifies all who practice this habit. Likewise, regular confession helps heighten our awareness to the insidious power of sin. I have often learned the power of the sacraments to sharpen my vigilance not so much when I participate in them out of regular habit, but rather when I allow too long of lapses between them. So, habitual participation in the sacraments is critical. Still, I think there needs to be something more to bridge the gap between sacraments, however long it may be. It is not realistic for many followers to attend daily mass or give weekly reconciliation, even if there is a sincere desire to do so. To fill that void, I humbly offer prayer. In particular, prayer that is spontaneous, honest, and dialogic with God. Even though there is perfection in the words of the Our Father and other scripted prayers, I think sometimes we need to give voice to our resistance and struggle so that it is given to the Lord freely to transform. To say honestly to the Lord or even shout, I feel lazy or angry or lustful or selfish! Why can’t I have a break from all this responsibility? Why can’t I just follow my own desires? You ask too much, Lord!
This dialogic approach to prayer allows God to play the divine psychologist. In venting our frustration, we open those feelings to God’s mercy and wisdom. He reminds us help is present in the Holy Spirit who will ease our burden. He will remove from us the unrealistic expectation that we can achieve perfection on our own and take away our sins so that we remain in His love. In the context of Jesus’s parable, it is kind of like if the unvigilant steward took out his cell phone, called his master, and said, “I’ve been drinking and beating the servants again. What should I do?” Maybe the master returns, not to punish, but to save the steward from his own weakness. Or maybe he talks him through the crisis and shows him how to set things right. Dialogic prayer is a life-line to Jesus when other forms of worship may be beyond us either for practical or psychological reasons. How can I say this with certainty? I just sent Jesus one of those life-lines yesterday. If you don’t mind, I will keep the details private. Nevertheless, I hope you believe me when I say He answered my prayer in unexpected ways. I feel the sweet relief of His salvation and strengthened to remain in Him for another day or even just another hour. This is a moment of being “blessed,” (43) a state of happiness for which there is no replacement. Practical atheism cannot lead to blessedness. Whatever escapes we may find in that approach, they cannot match the peace and joy of being blessed by the Lord.