God does not ask us to be successful, but to be faithful

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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Nov. 14, 2010
Mal 3:19-20; Ps 98:5-9; 2 Thess 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19

Looking at the Temple, Jesus said, “The days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone.” The Temple building and complex where he was standing were magnificent. King Herod the Great had started a great reconstruction and expansion of the Temple and indeed the Temple Mount itself some 46 years earlier [John 2:20], and at the time Jesus was standing there it wasn’t even complete yet. And so we hear that people around him were admiring the costly stones that they saw. How could it ever fall, in that kind of destruction? And yet Jesus was right. Just about 40 years after he said these words, the Roman forces were responding to the Jewish rebellion in the Holy Land, and they captured Jerusalem, and burned the Temple, and leveled the walls of the Temple and of the city, all the way down to the ground. Today only a portion called the Western Wall remains—not of the main walls but only of the retaining wall that created that larger Temple Mount.

This is something that you can see in photos or if you visit Jerusalem today. Last month I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land for the first time, and of going and seeing that Western Wall. And you do get a sense, when you see it from a distance or stand right up close to it, and see what huge stones make up the wall there, of just what the Temple area must have looked like when Jesus was there.

Now in our pilgrimage throughout the Holy Land, we saw a lot of ruins everywhere we went. And as guides would give an explanation of where these ruins came from, we heard a fairly similar sequence of events, no matter where we went. It would go something like this: there were different buildings and towns that were destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Many Byzantine churches built in the 300s at particular holy sites; and then, when the Persians invaded shortly after 600, they destroyed them. Many centuries later, the Crusaders often built new churches on those sites; and then, when they were driven out, often the Muslims destroyed those churches. Today there are often churches built again on those sites, built only within the last one or two hundred years. And often, underneath or around those churches, built so recently, you can still see and have explained to you where the different ruins came from.

Seeing all of these ruins can be a lesson in humility. For we all know that those nations then, and we today, build projects that are meant to last. And yet we know that things happen, such as Jesus spoke of in the Gospels: wars, revolutions, invasions; earthquakes, great storms and natural disasters. And they turn our projects, our great projects, into ruins; and that’s all that’s left. “Sic transit gloria mundi”: “thus passes the glory of the world.”

Now, there are some who think that, if we believe that a heavenly reward awaits us; if we believe in the second coming of Christ, and in a coming judgment, and in a transformation of the entire universe into the new heavens and the new earth—there are some that think that, if we believe that, we will then be discouraged; that we will be discouraged from taking action now. For, after all, if, as we hear in the first reading, it will come about that the end times will be like an oven that will turn things into stubble and then burn them up; that wars and insurrections will happen; and so much that has been achieved will be destroyed; in the face of such future ruins, why try? Why try, if that is what is coming, far off in the future?

And indeed this seems to have been the question that the Thessalonians were asking, that St. Paul answered in today’s second reading. For when St. Paul had founded that church in Thessalonica, he had had to leave quickly because of trouble. He hadn’t been able to complete his instruction of them, and so he was having to complete it through these letters. And one of these areas that they seemed to be ignorant about was related to death and to the Second Coming. And so it seems that some had decided, if Christ is coming back soon, why work? And they had just stopped working.

And their question could be our question, or that of those around us. In view of the end times and Christ’s return, why work? Why try?

But the fact is that we don’t have to look far off in the future to ask that question. For even within our own lives, we see that our own achievements can be turned to ruin. After all, we spend years building accomplishments in a career, raising a family, raising up children. But then the body slows down, and we retire, and someone else takes our job. The children grow up, leave home, and begin making their own decisions. And then what happens? We see that at work our successor is changing the things that we built. Or opponents are taking apart what we achieved. Or the children are going off on a different path, even a wrong path, than the one that we taught them. And so, without even looking off to the Second Coming, but simply looking at the course of our lives, an older person might look back and say: why did I put so much effort into these things that I now see being taken apart? Or a younger person, looking ahead and realizing how such things will happen in their future, might say: why try now? In view of ruins, why try?

Well, the answer that we heard first of all from St. Paul to those Thessalonians, was: keep on working; keep busy; work quietly; don’t be a burden; eat your own food. Even though he too was looking forward to Christ returning soon: keep on working; keep on trying.

Now why? It’s an answer; but, having seen the prospect of these ruins, what undergirded St. Paul’s answer? And this is where we turn to the Church’s teaching on work. For we discover that, although this phenomenon of things falling into ruin is true, that there is much more to the story than that.

Pope John Paul II laid it out well in his encyclical on human work [Laborem Exercens] back in 1981. Sure, he said, there is the objective side to work, the outward side. We all know that work involves different activities and processes; raw materials; the tools and technologies that we use; the goals and products that we strive for. And we know that this differs and keeps changing from place to place and century to century. And we know that all those products, however great and well-made, can fail or fall into ruin. We know all that.

But there is a whole other side to the story: besides the objective or outward side, there is also the subjective or inward side. We human beings were created in God’s Image and Likeness. God the Creator is one who works; and so to be made in his Image means that we are made to work. This was true before the Fall, even though the Fall then made work difficult. We are given the privilege of sharing in God’s own work of creation and even redemption. And no matter what kind of work we do, and what it looks like outwardly, on the inside we are first of all constructing ourselves. For we do our work, whatever it is, as persons who are freely applying our minds, our wills, and our abilities; and in this way we carry out who we were made to be, and we fulfill, more and more, who we were made to be. No matter how the outward work changes, this inward aspect to human work persists. And no matter how much our outward product may fall into ruin, our inward product remains: what we have become, how we have grown, what we have made ourselves through our work; the effect we have had on other human persons, our co-workers, our customers, our family members, through our work.

Why work, when our outward products will eventually fall into ruin?

  • Because it helps us to grow in virtue: to become strong, constant, and tenacious.
  • It helps us to become optimistic even when we face challenges, because we know how we overcame challenges in the past.
  • It helps us to grow in our relationships with others; to understand them better; to be able to live and work more harmoniously with them.
  • It helps us to feel compassion for them, and indeed to live out that compassion in practical help to them.
  • It helps us to become less attached to our own comfort, less selfish, less self-centered.
  • It helps us to grow in friendship, in human affection, and in peace.
  • And it helps us, and them, even to grow in faith, hope, and love.

As we recognize the possible ruins that our work can fall into, or what will happen when Christ returns, this should not make us discouraged, or ready to leave work behind and stop trying. But instead, it should make us the most motivated and optimistic people in the world with regard to our work—because we know that we cannot fail. It does not mean that we should not try: it means that we can try all the time, and simply not worry about what ultimately happens to the outward products. Because we know that the inward products will last forever. One who does not believe in God, or who does not believe that there is anything beyond this life or the material things that we see—that person will become discouraged if the outward products begin to decay; for what else is there? But we know that, at the same time that we are building stone walls, or whatever our work products are—that we at the same time are building our souls. And if our walls should fall into ruin, our souls will not. And so Mother Teresa is often quoted as saying: “God does not ask us to be successful, but to be faithful.” Try as we might to make our outward products succeed, even if we are not successful in that, our inward product, through being faithful, in ourselves and others will last forever.

Now that is quite a glowing picture that I just described of work, isn’t it? And perhaps it’s worth comparing that to whatever your own experience of work is. And it should prompt you to ask some questions. And here are three that you might ask:

  • The first is: Are you working? Not necessarily in a job outside the home, for there are many forms of engaging in work. But are you working: for the glory of God; to provide for your family; to improve society; to gain resources with which you can support the Church and give to the poor?
  • Secondly: Have you in fact been encouraged and motivated by the Church’s teaching about work? As you gain insight into how it changes your self and others inside, does it help you to be ready to give your best effort and do the right things, without having to worry about the consequences in this world?
  • And third: Are you in fact producing those virtues that you should? The Second Vatican Council and many Popes since have observed that there is a great modern tendency to split worship and work; to separate off the things of God from the rest of life; to think that morality is something that doesn’t go into the world of world. And so we say, “It’s just business,” as if that excuses everything. But morality does apply. And so we need to ask about our work: Are we in fact not sinning, or not cooperating with sin, in the work that we do? And in the way that we do that work, are we not manipulating, mistreating, or hurting other people? Are we building them up and helping them to learn and grow? Are we working in that way, so that our experience of the reality of our work can be just as glowing and transformative for the world as the vision that we heard a few minutes ago?

It may be, as Christ said, that one stone will not be left upon another. We know that wars and earthquakes will take their toll. But our faithfulness to the Lord will last forever. The Second Vatican Council wrote:

[Gaudium et Spes 39]… For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise [our work], we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.”…

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