McCarrick and the Apocalypse

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Matthew 25” in stained-glass window
“Matthew 25” in stained-glass window (photo: Andrea Don)

Today’s Gospel, the parable of the talents, ends with the “darkness outside,” the “wailing and grinding of teeth.” These words appear again and again in Matthew’s Gospel, from which we’ve been reading all year. (Our year ends next week, with Christ the King, when our final Sunday Gospel from Matthew is the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which also ends with eternal punishment as well as eternal reward. In Advent we begin a year of readings focused on Mark’s Gospel.)

Judgment — reward and punishment — is a fearful topic. Maybe we’d rather not hear about it. In fact, the Lectionary options today would allow us to skip it if we liked! There are two versions of this Gospel: the longer one we just heard and a shorter version that leaves out the servant burying the talent of silver and getting punished in the end. (Here at Saint John’s, we pretty much always read the longer version — with good reason!)

Ultimately there’s no getting away from this theme in Jesus’ teaching. Next Sunday, the goats are sent to eternal punishment. Last Sunday, the foolish virgins are shut out. All three of these parables are from Matthew chapter 25, part of the “Apocalyptic Discourse” or “Little Apocalypse,” which is all about finality and judgment.


Sins of omission and commission

Perhaps in today’s Gospel, the parable of the talents, it might seem to us that the master was a little harsh. I mean, it’s not like the servant squandered his master’s silver partying or something! 

What did he really do? Nothing. Like the goats in next Sunday’s Gospel. It’s not like they were stealing from the hungry, killing the stranger, bearing false witness against the imprisoned. 

What did they do? What are they condemned for? Nothing. They did nothing. Their sins are sins of omission: not feeding the hungry, not welcoming the stranger, not visiting the imprisoned. The wicked servant in today’s parable is the same. His judgment isn’t for any evil he did, but for the good he should have done, and didn’t.

We may remember, though, another parable just a little earlier in Matthew’s Apocalypse about another master going on a trip and returning to judge a servant. 

In that case, the servant is one who has been given responsibility over the other servants, to make sure they’re fed at the proper times and so forth. And the wicked servant in that case is one who begins thinks to himself “He’s not coming back any time soon” and begins to beat his fellow servants and get drunk at parties. But the master returns unexpectedly at an unknown hour, and then comes the wailing and grinding of teeth. 

You see, there are worse things that a servant can do than just burying his master’s silver in the ground — especially a servant who has responsibility not just over silver but over other people’s lives.


Silence and abuse

I thought about that a lot this week with the release of a long-awaited Vatican report on former cardinal Theodore McCarrick: once archbishop of our own archdiocese (of Newark). 

A man with responsibility over other servants — seminarians and priests — who abused his authority, who abused human beings, and got away with it for decades before new accusations in 2017 that his victims included minors, leading to his removal from ministry, a church trial, and his defrocking or removal from the clerical state.

This also is a topic many of us would rather not talk about. But not talking about it is part of what allows such things to happen.

This applies to any kind of abuse or violence — physical, emotional, sexual, of children, women or men — in any setting: the home or the extended family, public or private schools, workplaces of every kind, government institutions, charities, prisons, and so on.

One of the things that makes every kind of abuse and violence possible is that silence is in a sense easier than confrontation — easier for everyone. That’s why it’s so important that we finally have this report.

Those with more power target those with less, and the less powerful are silenced by a combination of fear, shame, denial, helplessness. Silence protects the offender, obviously, and it can feel to the victim like it “protects” them too from humiliation, disbelief, retaliation. 

More insidiously, silence “protects” bystanders from the necessity of confronting a painful reality and the consequences that follow. Family members who don’t want to rock the boat or make waves. Fellow teachers or police officers or members of any institution who want to protect the reputation of their organization. 

Confrontation is difficult and disruptive. It causes bad feelings. We’re afraid to confront, as the servant was afraid. The “easiest” thing, for everyone, is just not to acknowledge the terrible reality. Do nothing. Sins of omission, like the servant who buried his talent in the ground.


Judgment and healing

This dynamic is horrible in any context, but especially in the Church, where priests, bishops, church officials and laity put the Church’s reputation and avoiding scandal and the preserving the image of the priesthood above the safety of children or adults. 

For every McCarrick, every wicked servant who actively harmed others, beating fellow servants and getting drunk, there were many other servants who found it easier to do nothing, risk nothing, see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

There’s a reason our Lord returns again and again to the fearful theme of judgment, of reward and punishment, of the outer darkness and wailing and grinding of teeth.

Judgment is real because evil is real and the Lord’s justice is real, and we all need to know, especially those who have suffered evil — anyone in this church, or any of your loved ones, who has suffered any kind of abuse or violence from anyone: a family member or romantic partner, a teacher, a fellow student, coworker, or, God forbid, a priest or religious — all of you should know that you are infinitely precious to the Lord, and he cares so much about your pain. 

He knows humiliation and suffering. He is with us in everything, but never more than when we suffer. But he has also overcome all suffering and evil, and he will overcome it in us — finally and fully when he returns, we know not the day or the hour, to wipe every tear from our eyes, and put an end to death and mourning and crying and pain.


Being Christ to one another

But if we are Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and body on earth in this life, then the wiping away of tears and the healing of wounds should begin here, in this life — as judgment for all the McCarricks of this world, wherever they are, must begin in this life. 

We must care for one another, for it’s in caring for one another that Christ cares for us. We must bear one another’s burdens, for this is how Christ bears our burdens. Christ comforts each of us in all our afflictions so that we can comfort others who are afflicted. This is what it means to be the Church, the body of Christ.

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the one sacrifice of the Cross, Christ lays down his life for us and gives himself to us, in so doing calling and enabling us to live for one another. To feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned. To care for our fellow servants, even if it’s hard — not to hold back out of fear and never to be silent or do nothing in the face of evil.

The more we do this, the more we will make Christ visible on earth in his holy Church, and the closer we will come, by the grace of God, to the day when we will hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.”