Homily 19 November 2017
Proverbs 31:10-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30
Many of you may know that July 18th of this year was the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death at the age of 41. She is buried in the South aisle of Winchester cathedral, but the inscription on the tombstone makes no mention of her as a writer. Perhaps to rectify that absence and to honor her as England’s most-read author, the Bank of England issued last September a new £10 note featuring her portrait and this quotation from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” Oh yes, I should mention that to keep Jane Austen company, the queen appears on the back of this new bank note too.
Jane Austen and Penicillin saw me through my first bout of pneumonia when I was just 24 years old. I read myself back into good health with her novels during ten days in the hospital. But only a decade or so ago I discovered and read for the first time the stories she wrote as a girl from ages 11 to 17–stories in which some characters get drunk, others are thrown out of windows, and one named Anna Parker proves herself happily lethal, saying “I murdered my Father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister. I have changed my religion so often that at present I have not an idea of any left. I have been a perjured witness in every public trial for these last twelve years, and I have forged my own Will.” Clearly, although Jane Austen’s father and two of her brothers were Church of England clergymen, her young mind was not focused on and overtaken by the book of Proverbs and the remarkable woman we meet there today. Indeed, may I say that this year I haven’t found any book by any author that brings to life such a strikingly wonderful woman as the one that the book of Proverbs gives us today?
The opposite is decidedly the case. Here are two novels from 2017 that make the point. Colm Toíbín’s recent novel A Book of Names has Clytemnestra cutting her husband Agamemnon’s throat after he kills their daughter to achieve a successful military maneuver ordered by the gods. Then her son, Orestes, kills his mother because she murdered his father. The unanswered question is whether Electra will kill her brother for murdering their mother. Or, set in the present day, there’s Michael Connelly’s The Late Show in which a serial killer of women captures detective Renée Ballard whom he immediately brutalizes. But she escapes his taping her to a chair and shoots him. When she’s asked “Have you killed anyone before?” She responds, “No . . . First time.” Then she’s asked “How are you feeling about it today?” She answers, “To be honest, I feel fine about it” (335). I could go on in this fictional vein, but let me briefly get to life itself.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a Stanford Ph.D. and a Rhodes as well as a Marshall scholar, was raised a Catholic and still thinks of herself as one even though she has been in a stable gay relationship for eighteen years. She is clearly an admirable contemporary woman doing difficult work. Slipping on one of the thirty black jackets that she keeps in the green room next to her studio, she gives us an hour of the day’s events which invariably involve all those things that the admirable woman in the book of Proverbs would want nothing to do with. But Maddow tells us what needs telling however unpleasant it may be. Fiction and fact lead me to say that we are safe in concluding that women today have to find it difficult to be what women were in the fifth century BCE when the last bit of the book of Proverbs was written. We are told by scriptural scholars that “It presents the ideal of a fully integrated human being, one who is liberally educated and morally stable” (624). Its one purpose is “the formation of a whole person by leading a student on paths of uprightness, intelligence, and conviction of human fulfillment” (626). The way to those virtues today is obviously very different from what the way to them was long ago and far away. That leads me back to Jane Austen and into today’s gospel, which I haven’t altogether forgot.
The word talent that the gospel presents to us, the dictionary tells us, is both “a marked innate ability, as for artistic accomplishment” and a “variable unit of weight and money used in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle East” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.). People who have read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice tend to remember its unforgettable first sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” But I think that the more important sentence comes after Elizabeth Bennet rejects the rich man’s proposal of marriage for all the wrong reasons. When she realizes this, Elizabeth says to herself, “I have been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (vol. II, ch. 13). That realization comes smack in the middle of the book. The remainder of the novel has Elizabeth acting sensibly, minutely correcting her errors, and, in doing so, finally marrying Fitzwilliam Darcy. Jane Austen’s talent is knowing human nature well enough to present a scene of this kind in each of her novels. All her heroines have to correct their errors of judgment and action. She shows us that there is always something to be learned about oneself that helps one to remake oneself. When as readers we go from Anna Parker to Elizabeth Bennet, we see Jane Austen as a modern woman investing her talent and more than doubling its return.
The question for each of us clearly is: “What is my talent?”. Is it so radically established in me that I can say what is said of the woman in the book of Proverbs: “She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” Can we in that way do, as St. Paul urges the Thessalonians to do, “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation”? If we can do that, then, I shall have to say of myself that I have been blind, partial, prejudiced and absurd in thinking that we cannot bring to life in our own day at least some of the virtues we valued in our first reading. I’d say that indeed we can do so and thereby make the words of the gospel parable our own: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
On the book of Proverbs see The Oxford Guide to the Bible, pp. 624-26.
On Rachel Maddow see “The Story Teller” in The New Yorker (9 October 2017), pp. 38-47.