Sunday, November 19, 2023

Beyond The Duck Test

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

(7th World Day of the Poor)

Readings: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 127 (128):1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30

Picture: By Marketa Vranova on Unsplash

My dear friends, can you complete this sentence? If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it…? That’s right, it probably is a duck. Which seems to make a lot of sense, right? But we may also recall the story of the ugly duckling. Which looked and acted enough like a duck that everyone treated it as such. Until, of course, it grew into a swan! Which goes to show that sometimes what looks and acts like one thing, may turn out to be something else.

The same can be said about our scriptures today. At first glance, all they seem to offer us is a stern call to hard work. Isn’t this what distinguishes the perfect wife in the first reading from the good-for-nothing servant in the gospel? The wife works hard. She’s always busy. Caring not just for her own household, but also for the poor and needy. The servant, on the other hand, is lazy. He buries the treasure his master entrusts him, instead of working to make it grow. The lesson seems simple: work hard! Work hard for God, just as we work hard for our bosses, our teachers, our families, our nation… Work hard! Sounds like a reasonable message, except that, on its own, it looks suspiciously similar to the religion practiced by Jesus’ enemies in the gospel. They lay heavy burdens on people’s shoulders, and do nothing to move them (Mt 23:4). And isn’t it possible to bury God’s gifts not just in the soil of sloth, but also under the mountain of overwork?

But if hard work alone isn’t the point, then what is? To answer this question, we need to consider not only what is being done (or not done), but also why, and who. Why is the wife so diligent, and the servant so negligent? The readings say it’s because of fear. The servant is afraid of what his master will do to him if he messes up. And the wife too is moved by fear, but of a different kind. The reading praises her for being wise (31:31). In another translation, she’s praised because she fears the Lord (RSV). So how is her fear different from his?

The servant imagines his master to be a tyrant, so he’s afraid of being punished. In contrast, the wife knows from experience that her Lord is a tender Provider, who blesses all who walk in his ways. What she fears is less being punished than breaking the Lord’s Covenant with Israel, made when Moses led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Unlike the servant, the wife is focused first on all the good the Lord has done for her, to which her own activity is a joyful response. So what at first looks like a burdensome warning to work hard, is really a beautiful lesson in right worship and righteous living. A call to remember and trust more in God’s Providence, instead of being driven by worldly pride and ambition. To keep drawing strength and inspiration from the generous sacrifice of Christ, who though he was rich became poor to enrich us (2 Cor 8:9). To truly live as children of the light, ever ready to welcome the Lord, particularly when he comes in the guise of the poor.

Sisters and brothers, sometimes what looks and acts like one thing, may turn out to be something else. What can we do to help one another truly recognise and encounter, in the ugly duckling, the face of the beautiful swan today?

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