Homily for Mass of the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A + Parish Visitation

20 Nov 2023
Homily for Mass of the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A + Parish Visitation

St John Vianney and St Thomas More Parish, Greenacre, 19 November 2023

The proverb ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, is simple enough to understand: the promise of less is preferable to the possibility of more; security to be preferred to risktaking; certainty over mere hope. The saying comes down to us from the late medieval Austin friar, John Capgrave.[1] But the sentiment has ancient precedent. Two millennia before, the Persian Story of Ahikar (ca. 700 BC) counselled: “Better a sparrow held tight in the hand than a thousand birds flying about the air.”[2] Aesop’s fable The Hawk and the Nightingale (ca. 600 BC) has a nightingale plead with its captor to let it go, as there are many more satisfying prey nearby; to which the hawk replies, “I’d be mad to let go food already at hand, for the sake of pursuing birds not yet caught or even in sight.” The Greek historian-philosopher Plutarch, in his Moralia on Talkativeness (ca. 100 AD), put it more bluntly, “Only a fool leaves things close at hand to follow what is out of reach.”[3]

The study of the human appetite for risk has fascinated not only storytellers and philosophers, but biologists and psychologists, financiers and insurers. Assessing risk in judging the best course of action is in our DNA, something we do all the time, often subconsciously. But some are more comfortable with risk than others. At one end of the spectrum are the adrenaline junkies, who scale tall mountains with limited equipment or otherwise gamble with their lives or money or both, and not just their own but that of others. At the other end of the scale are those so afraid of danger that they are paralysed to act; they wrap themselves and their loved ones in metaphorical cotton wool to keep safe, even if this means missing opportunities and rewards.

Today’s famous gospel Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) is framed by risk-taking and risk-aversion. The Master entrusts his property to his servants to be applied wisely while he is away. The savvier ones take their chances and make good returns for him. But the more risk-averse have nothing to show for it. He chastises one servant as “wicked,” “lazy” and “good-for-nothing” and has him cast into the outer darkness of hell. What’s going on here? Is Jesus one of those speculators who throughout history have chased super-profits by doing deals with their own and other people’s money? Does he endorse Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” from the 1987 movie Wall Street? Would He dispense with the Audit and Risk Committees and assessments so prevalent in modernity? Is ROI (return on investment) all that matters?

Well, if we think Jesus’ big interest is profit, we’ve missed the point entirely. Time and again He criticizes materialism and greed, and praises simplicity and generosity: we cannot serve both God and mammon.[4] He tells the story of a rich farmer who has made a fortune and stores it all in huge barns. “You fool!” God says to him, “This very night I will demand an account of your soul. And what will all your wealth mean then?” (Lk 12:13-21). Instead of angsting about material things, Jesus says, we should store up wealth in heaven, for where our treasure is, there also is our heart (Mt 6:25-34; Lk 12:21-34).

So, if today’s lesson isn’t about maximising returns, is it about maximising risk? Is God an adrenaline junky? Well, in many ways, it seems God and the godly are comfortable with a certain amount of danger. God took an enormous risk in creating human beings with intelligence and freedom, gifts with which we could do great things but also do great harm. Instead of cutting His losses when this went pear shaped and going for a safer investment, the history of salvation is of God investing in us again and again. The patriarchs and prophets joined in the risky project of making God’s love known. None of their projects was guaranteed success. Each knew their calling was dangerous.

Noah built his ark when everyone thought it nuts. Abraham uprooted His household and took them to an unknown land. Moses courted death in advocating before pharaoh and then leading his people through the sea and into the desert. David dared take on the giant Goliath, mad king Saul and, scariest of all, the People of Israel. Elijah and the prophets lived in permanent danger as they spoke truth to power and conversion to culture. Yet all these persevered, for while they did not know what the future held, they knew Who held the future.

After all this Old Testament risk-taking, something even more acute was coming… God’s ultimate roll of the dice, His biggest investment decision, was entering creation Himself as a creature. Not as All-powerful but as a vulnerable human being. A young woman puts aside her rational fears to say YES to God’s project of redemption. She and her husband-to-be must nurture and protect the infant God. Danger is all around them—from the Romans, bad king Herod, those who will resent the boy’s new teaching. Once grown, Jesus courts danger with His words and deeds, and His disciples are often afraid. As at creation, so now at redemption, God grants humanity the freedom and intelligence to respond whole-heartedly to Jesus, or to resist, reject, now even to kill Him. So, our Church and faith are born among greater danger. God and the godly are big risk-takers!

There’s the rub. In our Gospel parable, the wicked servant justifies doing nothing by saying he’d heard gossip the Master is “a hard man, reaping where you have not sewn”. But we know God is not like that at all: He’s actually a gentle God who gives us far more than we deserve. A protective God who takes the risks upon Himself. A loving God who invests His creativity in making and remaking us. A generous God who gives His all, even His only Son, for our salvation. In responding we’ll face costs and uncertainties, as with any worthwhile project. But to wrap ourselves up in cotton wool and avoid all risky choices is as irrational as wrapping ourselves in danger and avoiding all prudent choices also. If we assume, like the lazy servant, that the danger is too great, we don’t just sell ourselves short, we discredit the God who is on our side. But if we attempt great things for God, He will indeed multiply our investment a hundredfold.

The “spiritual investment company” that is the St John Vianney and St Thomas More Parish Greenacre has much to be proud of. I grew up at the same time as this parish was established in nearby Lakemba. In my lifetime and yours there’ve been ten pastors and thousands of parishioners here. The first church and school opened in 1956, and this new one was opened and blessed by Cardinal Freeman in 1974. Meanwhile the school evolved, as did various other ministries of the parish.

During my visitation I’ve heard from your pastor, principal, lay leaders and faithful, not just what you’ve achieved but your aspirations for more and better. I’ve concluded that much good is happening here, including leadership and teaching, worship and devotions. But that’s no cause for complacency. Some ministries, groups and activities that we might want for the parish are missing. So are some people. Fewer than 1 in 15 Catholics from the parish area is here at Mass on a Sunday. Of course, some of the others are attending nearby parishes or Eastern Rite ones, such as the Maronites. But my challenge to you all today is: to consider how you might reach out to the remaining ones who are at no church on Sunday; to invite and include them in your company; to support them in applying their own gifts along with yours for the flourishing of our people, as we strive together to offer God the return He deserves on His total investment in us. God bless St John Vianney and St Thomas More parish. Thanks be to God for you!

[1] John Capgrave, The Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria (ca. 1445; trans. K.A. Winstead, Notre Dame University Press, 2011). This was then quoted in Hugh Rhodes, The Boke of Nurture or Schoole of Good Manners (1530), John Heywood A Dialogue conteinyng the Nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546) and John Ray, Hand-book of Proverbs (1670).

[2] https://grammarist.com/proverb/a-bird-in-the-hand-is-worth-two-in-the-bush/

[3] Plutarch, Moralia 505 D.

[4] e.g. Mt 6:24; Lk 9:24-25; 11:39; 12:15; Acts 20:35; cf. Prov 1:19; 11:24-28; 13:11; 14:31; 15:27; 22:1; 22:9; 28:20-25; Eccles 5:10-13; 1Cor 6:9-11; 2Cor 9:7; 1Tim 6:6-10,17-19; Heb 13:5; 1Pet 5:2; Jas 5:1-6; 1Jn 2:16.

Introduction to Mass of the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A + Parish Visitation | St John Vianney and St Thomas More Parish, Greenacre, 19 November 2023

Welcome to this morning’s Mass for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. This week I’ve conducted my canonical visitation of the Parish of St John Vianney and St Thomas More Greenacre—the visit of the Archbishop or his delegate to each parish every five years or so. I’ve been treated to:

  • meetings or conversations with Fr Pasquale, the parish and finance councillors, the SRE catechists, liturgical ministers, and other lay leaders;
  • a school concert and conversations with the principal, staff, families and students of St John Vianney school;
  • visits to the sick in their homes; and
  • a great deal of hospitality—in fact I’ve been fed roughly hourly!

While I’ve met some of you already, I hope others will catch me at our morning tea after Mass to share the parish’s challenges and hopes with me. In due course I will send you a report with some feedback.

I’d like to thank you all sincerely for the warm welcome I’ve received these last few days and for sharing with me what you are proud of, what’s challenging, and what your hopes are for the parish going forward. Special thanks to your pastor, Rev. Fr Pasquale Pizzoferro, and the entire parish team for their assistance and hospitality throughout the visitation. To everyone present this morning, a very warm welcome!