The “Useless/ Foolish” View: We look at death from different perspectives. The month of November is dedicated to praying for our faithful departed and also preparing for the time of the Lord’s visitation. It is important that we learn to face death and the process of dying that lead to it, with the light of faith. Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom is by far the most common Old Testament passage used for a Catholic funeral and it manifests what happens when we look at the mystery of death in the light of faith. Referring to those who have died, the book of Wisdom says, “They seemed in the view of the foolish to be dead; their passing away was thought an affliction; their going forth from us, utter destruction.”
The worst insult that a Jew could hurl was to call someone a “fool,” because this meant someone who did not look at things the way God sees them. To those who do not look at things from the light of God’s revelation, it teaches us, the dead are simply dead. They are gone. They are decomposing. Their chastisement was just worthless afflictions leading to utter destruction.
Today there are still many who look at suffering, dying and death in this same “foolish” way. They believe there’s no meaning to human suffering and that once someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness or is experiencing chronic pain, the only compassionate and humane response is to treat them the way we do our pets, to “put them out of their misery” through “physician-assisted suicide” or euthanasia. They often treat their mortal remains as anything but sacred, incinerating them like we burn garbage, grinding the bones, and scattering them like chaff that the wind blows away. That all begins with the way the foolish “view” things.
The “Good/Faithful” Servant
Those who look with the eyes of faith have a different perspective. They perceive, according to the Book of Wisdom, that “the souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them.” They perceive that even if they are punished, “their hope is full immortality.” They grasp that their chastisements become blessings in which God tests them “as gold in the furnace,” burning off the dross and impurities so that at the “time of their visitation they shall shine”.
Viewing from Christian faith, you see all of these realities, and more, as you see death from the reflection of Christ’s own sufferings, his own chastisements, his own death, and resurrection. They agree that Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday, that to experience the resurrection we must endure the passion, and that in our suffering, dying, death and resurrection, Christ seeks to unite us to his own. The passage finishes by reminding us, “Those who trust in [God] shall understand truth and the faithful shall abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are with his holy ones and his care is with his elect.” These are truths that can only be grasped by those who see through the lenses of faith.
November is an opportunity for us to beg the Lord to increase our faith with regard to the way we regard end-of-life issues. It is also an opportunity for us each day, if we hope to have just souls eternally embraced by the Father’s strong and loving hands, to imitate Jesus here on earth by saying throughout the day the words we hope to exclaim with Jesus at the end of life,“Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” If we look at our life this way, as a free act of entrustment to God, we will approach death as an eternal embrace with a Father who loves us, not as a loss or annihilation.
The point Jesus was making in the Gospel is not that God is not grateful for efforts or that we likewise should not be grateful for others’ efforts. He was trying to change our motivations, so that we are not doing our work for recognition but doing it out of love for God and others.
He is also encouraging us toward humility and gratitude. The Christian life is about serving, rather than being served, and Jesus is calling us to seek to continue to serve, even after a long day’s work. The Christian serves with the life, the talents, and the energy God has given, and so the first response of the Christian ought to be to thank God for these gifts and for the trust he has placed in us by giving us a share in his salvific work.
Yes, in one sense, we’re “useless servants,” but he has given us all the help he knows we need so that we can prove to be “good and faithful servants,” who are “no longer called servants but friends” and who will inherit as a reward the kingdom prepared since the foundation of the world.