Parents want their kids to have long, happy lives. For this reason, they take steps:
To accomplish this, parents avail themselves of a vast array of promises and threats. Some parents limit themselves to positive reinforcement, rewarding good behavior and trying to reason with their children regarding bad behavior. In my family, the approach was somewhat more direct, especially when we did not respond very well to reasoning. For us, a major incentive for good behavior was the threat of what would happen otherwise. My parents wanted sons and daughters they could be proud of.
As an adult, I can understand that being good is its own reward and that happiness flows from a good life — and that evil is its own punishment: twisted, distorted lives are miserable. But children cannot see this big picture, so for them, more immediate rewards and punishments are necessary. We were supposed to behave all the time, not just when our parents were watching. And since they had eyes in the back of their head and informers all over town, we never knew when they would find out about something so gradually, we learned to be good all the time, and not just when we knew they were watching.
In today's Gospel, we have several stories about promises and threats and about being prepared at all times. Jesus starts with positive reinforcement, trying to reason with his hearers regarding the importance of good behavior and the consequences of bad behavior. He promises that faithful servants will be rewarded far beyond their merit; indeed, their master will be so pleased that he will reverse roles with them and wait on them — those servants will be so happy.
But then, so people do not mistake his meaning, Jesus follows this with some very direct threats. He warns that unfaithful servants will be caught on a day they do not expect, and those caught will be punished severely: "That servant who knew his master's will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely, and the servant who was ignorant of his master's will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more."
The punishment God threatens us is obviously in proportion to the wrong done and the capacity of the perpetrator, but more importantly, note that his threats are intended to be medicinal, to set in motion the process of correction so that punishment will not be needed — that's Jesus' basic point. He wants us to be sons and daughters that he can be proud of.
God wants us to be happy, and while respecting our free will, he uses every means at his disposal to induce us to choose those good behaviors that lead to happiness. God wants to protect us from spiritual danger, and so he gives us the 10 Commandments and other teachings regarding evils that we must avoid. God wants us to grow in ways that are physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy; he wants us to find meaning and purpose in his plan for our life. The spiritually mature may say that they do good and avoid evil simply because they love God, but most of us do respond to incentives. We live better than we might otherwise because we hope to go to Heaven. We avoid evils that we find tempting because we don't want to go to hell. There's no evil so desirable that it is worth an eternity in hell.
Jesus' promises and Jesus' threats both point in the same direction: that it's really worth it to be a faithful servant doing God's will all the time; and that if you're not a faithful servant, you're really going to regret it. God has eyes in the back of his head, and he has no need of informers. The only wise thing to do is to be ready all the time. Your master knows everything, and he's coming when you least expect it.
Bishop Anthony B.Taylor delivered this homily Aug. 7.
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