As the Church's year draws to its close, our readings at Mass today direct our thoughts to that 'Day of the Lord' which is coming to all of us at the end of our life on earth. Whether we like it or not, whether we choose to think about it or not, death is the ultimate fact of life as we know it in this world ... and after death will come Judgment - a sobering thought.
St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord will come 'like a thief in the night' and that there will be no way for anybody to evade it. He advises them to stay wide awake and sober. What then must we do ?
When I was a schoolboy in Ireland, many years ago, I used to spend my summers on the Dingle peninsula in West Kerry, perfecting my knowledge of the Irish language. I remember on one occasion boarding a bus in the town of Dingle in order to travel West. Shortly afterwards, the bus was boarded by two old women dressed in the big black shawls which the country women wore in those days.
Having greeted each other loudly and joyfully, they took seats on either side of the gangway at the front of the bus, stacked their shopping bags beside them, and settled down for a good chat as we waited for the driver to appear - we were early, and as yet there were no other passengers on board.
Presently, one of the women looked around and cast a furtive glance in my direction, then she turned back to her companion, opened her black shawl and produced a bottle from underneath it - a small bottle of whiskey! "To restore me after the heat of the day!" she exclaimed, and quickly swallowed a mouthful from the bottle.
"You'll take a drop yourself?" said she to her friend.
"Yerra, I don't mind if I do," said the other. "Divil the bit of harm it ever did a body!"
"Only all the good it did them!" said the first.
This snatch of conversation resonates with Our Lord's message in today's gospel parable: it will not be enough for any of us to say, when eventually we stand before his judgment seat, that we never did any harm - the question will be: Did we ever do any good? If not, then we are no better than the good-for-nothing servant in the parable, and, like him, we shall incur the wrath of our Master.
The servant claims that his master is a hard one, whose expectations are so great that the fear of failing to meet them has paralysed him - fearing failure, he dared not attempt to succeed. His master, however, condemns him as a lazy good-for-nothing.
Jesus is telling us that we are not here in this world to play safe. Of course we are to avoid doing wrong - that much is essential if we are to be his disciples, but it is not enough. We are to work tirelessly to make the best possible use of our time, our talents and our opportunities.
Like the 'perfect wife' in today's first reading, we (members of the Church which is the Bride of Christ) must be worthy of the confidence He places in us, doing our work with eager hands. Like her, we must hold out our hands to the poor, and open our arms to the needy.
Everything we have, whether in the spiritual or the material sphere, even life itself, is a 'talent' entrusted to us by the Lord, and we must 'use it or lose it' -
For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
God does not need any return from us, but He requires it - both for our own good, and for the good of our fellow men and women. Their needs are our opportunities, both to see Christ in them and to be Christ to them:
insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brethren of mine, you did it to me
insofar as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.
In short, to make the most of the time of our life here on earth, it is not enough just to avoid doing harm, we must strive also to do all the good that we can - both are necessary, and of course we need God's help for both.
Without Him, we can do nothing, and without us He will do nothing - in the words of an old proverb: God helps those who help themselves!