Every morning, on our way to Mass we pass two houses that are under construction, side by side. When we first moved to this area, these two houses looked close to completion; the scaffolding around them showed that the contractor was finishing up the facades. Twenty years later the scaffolding is still in place; the facades are still unfinished.
These will—eventually—be very nice houses, in a very desirable location. But obviously something has gone wrong: a contractor who went bankrupt, perhaps; or an owner who ran out of funds; or an estate mired in legal wrangling. Whatever the reason, two valuable assets are sitting empty. The owner of that site, whoever he is, is paying taxes—fairly heavy taxes, I’m sure—and gaining no use from the property.
Today, after driving by that idle construction site, we heard the Lord’s words:
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.
To be honest, I could laugh more heartily at the poor owner of that construction site, if I didn’t have several of my own incomplete projects nagging at me. I’m still not fluent in Spanish—in fact not even close. The novel that I began writing in 1985 is still sitting on my hard drive, awaiting a flash of inspiration or, perhaps more likely, a long siege of sustained concentration. We all have our unfinished projects, reminding us of bold aspirations which we have not fulfilled.
But of course the Gospel message is about something more important than learning a language or writing a novel. It’s about living a life. I’m not worried that, when I face my final judgment, the exam will be given in Spanish. I’m worried that I won’t have finished the all-important task of making myself a saint.
That task, I can assure you, is far from complete. (And my family and friends nod their heads.) In fact as I think about it I realize how little progress I have made. The scaffolding is still up; a valuable resource is unused. And the clock is ticking; I’m running out of time.
But that’s the constant problem of the Christian, isn’t it? We realize how little we have accomplished, and how little we are likely to accomplish. We recognize ourselves as poor instruments, and on our good days we ask the Lord to take over, to do all the work Himself, knowing full well that He can, and will, and does. But then, alas, we get in the way. We have our own projects, which seem so terribly important, and crowd out the work the Spirit is doing.
And then those projects go unfinished, and the world laughs at us. Rightly so, because we have hedged our bets; we haven’t counted the cost. Still it’s not our failures with those little projects that matter. It’s our failure to focus on “the one thing necessary,” our failure to allow the Lord to complete his miraculous work, bringing our fallen nature to perfection by his grace.
As Father Marc, the master of the 2-minute homily, pointed out this morning, the world is going to laugh at us anyway. So it’s better to be laughed at for what seems (to the unbelieving world) an excess of piety or compunction or zeal, than for leaving the one truly important project undone. If we’re practicing the faith, we’re already paying at least part of the cost. But if it’s only a part, we’re like the unfortunate fellow who owns that property; we’re paying the taxes, but the site still isn’t developed.
Tomorrow I’m headed off for a long weekend on spiritual retreat. I’d like to say that I’ll be back on Monday as a canonizable saint. Anyone who knows me would bet heavily against that outcome. But if you believe in miracles perhaps you could say a prayer. Because I’m not above asking for your help, too.
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