Nov 16, 2014: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31

When one finds a worthy wife,
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life.
She obtains wool and flax
and works with loving hands.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her fingers ply the spindle.
She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy.
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;
the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her a reward for her labors,
and let her works praise her at the city gates.

Proverbs is the oldest of the Wisdom books in the Old Testament. Although the entire book is attributed to Solomon (Proverbs 1:1), it is actually a collection and was probably formed over time from the days of Solomon to the time of Alexander the Great.

The book of Proverbs takes its name from the Hebrew word masal which means “a provocative saying;” a saying which gets the listener’s attention.

Today’s reading is a poem praising the virtues of a good wife.

When one finds a worthy wife, 

The adjective hayil is typically translated as virtuous or worthy, but it actually has a much stronger meaning, denoting might or strength, the kind of valor a warrior might have.

her value is far beyond pearls.

Wisdom is often compared to jewels in the Proverbs (3:15; 8:11; 16:16; 20:15).

Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize. She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.

Although it includes the idea of emotion, in Hebrew the word for “heart” (lēb) refers primarily to the mind or will.  It is the richest biblical term for indicating the totality of a person’s inner or immaterial nature.  To say the woman’s husband has entrusted his heart to her is to say she is privy to his inner reflections and is thus competent, even without his guidance, to assume a responsibility that is really his.

This is obviously unusual in a patriarchal society.

She obtains wool and flax and makes cloth with loving hands. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.

The woman exemplifies the virtues needed in a self-sufficient household, particularly industry, versatility, trustworthiness, constancy, and general goodness.

She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.

The woman’s industriousness has made the household prosperous, shown by the fact that there are resources available to be shared with the less fortunate.

Here too, the woman is in charge.  She herself is described as reaching out in order to give.

Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

In the last verse of the poem, we discover the basis of this woman’s virtue, and the real reason for the praise she receives: she is one who fears the Lord.

In the Wisdom tradition, it is not worldly competence or beauty or charm that is the mark of the wise person.  As cherished as these characteristics may be, they are vain and empty.  As is stated in Proverbs 1:7, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Give her a reward of her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.

This woman is the model not only for a good wife but for a wise person generally.  She is virtuous and successful because she possesses the wisdom that flows from fear of the Lord.  Her husband has entrusted his heart to her for the same reason.  This is why she should be praised at the gates of the city, the place where the business of the community was transacted.

Among all women, the one who fears the Lord is truly valiant.

2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6

Concerning times and seasons, brothers and sisters,
you have no need for anything to be written to you.
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come
like a thief at night.
When people are saying, “Peace and security, “
then sudden disaster comes upon them,
like labor pains upon a pregnant woman,
and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness,
for that day to overtake you like a thief.
For all of you are children of the light
and children of the day.
We are not of the night or of darkness.
Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
but let us stay alert and sober.

Today’s reading concludes the study of 1 Thessalonians within Cycle A of the liturgical calendar.  This year we have departed from our normal Sunday readings in Ordinary Time to celebrate All Souls Day and the Feast of the Lateran Basilica, both of which fell on Sundays this year.

Saint Paul has been discussing the final coming of the Lord.  In the passage for today, he links the two Greek words for time, chrónos and kairós.

Concerning times and seasons, brothers, you have no need for anything to be written to you.

Chrónos (“times”) denotes successive, measured, chronological time. Kairós (“seasons”) refers to a decisive moment in time.

Some commentators consider Paul’s statement to simply be a pleonasm with no special significance; others maintain that Paul is telling the Thessalonians that there is nothing about either kind of time that requires explanation.  The first needs no explanation; the second has no explanation.

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord

Several of ancient Israel’s prophets spoke about this mysterious day (Amos 5:18; Isaiah 2:12; Ezekiel 7:10).  It was considered the day of fulfillment, representing the time when the justice of God would be revealed on the earth.  Therefore, it was thought to be a day of rejoicing and vindication for the righteous but of reproof and lamentation for the wicked.

It gradually came to be considered the period of time between this age and the coming age of fulfillment.  As the in-between time, it was a period of both anticipation and anxiety.  As the liminal passage from one age to the next, it was a time of dispossession and suffering.

will come like a thief at night.

The metaphor of a thief in the night emphasizes the sudden and unexpected nature of the event.  It does not belong to chronological time, so it cannot be scheduled; it comes upon us when we least expect it.  The day of the Lord is kairotic, a decisive moment totally out of our control.

When people are saying, “Peace and security,” then sudden disaster comes upon them,

Appealing again to the Israelite prophetic tradition, Paul warns that like the false prophets of old, some people will interpret the signs of the times incorrectly and will announce their erroneous predictions.  They will proclaim “peace” when disaster is on the horizon (see Jeremiah 6:14 and Ezekiel 13:10).

like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

Birth pangs, particularly the birth pangs of the Messiah, was frequently used as a metaphor for this disaster.  It characterizes the suddenness of the suffering that will come, and it also calls attention to the fruit of that suffering.  As agonizing as birth pangs may be, they give way to new life.  So too will be the birth pangs of the Messianic age.

Labor pains of a pregnant woman also adequately describe the unexpected timing of the event: it is inevitable, and we know it is coming, but we do not know when labor will start.

But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. 

Paul uses the dichotomies of light-darkness and day-night to describe both the situation of the Thessalonians and the vigilance demanded of them.

Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.

They must not be found sleeping; rather, they must always be alert, always on the watch, so that when the day of the Lord comes, they are not found unprepared.

“Therefore, not to know the times is something different from decay of morals and love of vice. For, when the apostle Paul said, ‘Don’t allow your thinking to be shaken nor be frightened, neither by word nor by epistle as sent from us, as if the day of the Lord were at hand (2 Thessalonians 2:2),’ he obviously did not want them to believe those who thought the coming of the Lord was already at hand, but neither did he want them to be like the wicked servant and say, ‘My Lord is long in coming,’ and deliver themselves over to destruction by pride and riotous behavior. Thus, his desire that they should not listen to false rumors about the imminent approach of the last day was consistent with his wish that
they should await the coming of their Lord fully prepared, packed for travel and with lamps burning (see Luke 12:35-36). He said to them, ‘But you, brothers, are not in darkness that the day should overtake you as a thief, for all you are children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night nor of darkness.’” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 418), Letters 199,1,2]

Gospel – Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“A man going on a journey
called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.
To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—
to each according to his ability.
Then he went away.
Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them,
and made another five.
Likewise, the one who received two made another two.
But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground
and buried his master’s money.

After a long time
the master of those servants came back
and settled accounts with them.
The one who had received five talents came forward
bringing the additional five.
He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents.
See, I have made five more.’
His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy.’
Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said,
‘Master, you gave me two talents.
See, I have made two more.’
His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy.’
Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said,
‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person,
harvesting where you did not plant
and gathering where you did not scatter;
so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.’
His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!
So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant
and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bank
so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.
And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'”

The gospel reading for today is the parable of the talents, a lesson in eschatology and a continuation of the theme of preparedness.

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “It will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one – to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

A talent amounted to about six thousand denarii, and one denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage.

Entrusting each of his servants with such a significant amount of money suggests that the man has great confidence in all three of them.

The master was not showing favoritism by entrusting them with unequal amounts; he was sensitive to their varying abilities and distributed the financial responsibility accordingly.  We can think of this in terms of the familiar image of a cup of blessings from God: each person has a different size cup, but all are filled.

Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

The first two servants are very industrious during the master’s absence, doubling the amount entrusted to them.  The third protects the money by burying it.

After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. 

The settling of accounts hints at the day of judgment, the parousia.

The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. 

Knowing the disposition of the master, this servant has sought to maximize the potential of what was given to him.  The reward of his fidelity is a commission of even greater responsibility.

Come, share your master’s joy.’

Likely an allusion to the joy of the banquet of the kingdom (Matthew 8:11).

Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master,  you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’

Notice that even though the second servant was charged with less responsibility (two talents vs. five), the reward is the same.

Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’

Out of fear, this servant has ensured he lost nothing of his master’s possessions, but he has gained nothing either.

His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?

The word used for wicked (ponérós) can also be translated as worthless.  Out of fear of failure, the servant has passively waited for his master’s return, literally taking no action except to bury the sum.  Note that the master has been away a “long time,” indicating an extended period of the servant’s inactivity.

Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.

As punishment, the servant loses the money entrusted to him, which is given to the first servant, whose possessions are already great.  He now has nothing.

For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 

The New Testament use of this axiom of practical “wisdom,” the reference transcends the original level.  God gives further understanding to one who accepts the revealed mystery; from the one who does not, he will take it away (see Matthew 13:12; Mark 4:25; Luke 8:18, 19:26).

And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’

As if forfeiting the talent were not enough, he is cast out of the household.  The master’s judgment is swift and unrelenting.

The reference to “wailing and grinding of teeth” is one frequently used by Matthew to describe final condemnation (see Matthew 8:11-12, 13:42, 13:50, etc.).

The point of the parable is this: one’s eschatological future does not rest of the extent or quality of one’s talent, but on how one utilizes that talent as one waits for the master to return.  The time of waiting is a period of opportunity, not of fear; of active engagement and creative growth, not passive inactivity.

Connections and Themes

Good and faithful servant.  It is not enough that we wait patiently.  The reign of God that we anticipate expects that we be industrious while we wait.  We have all been entrusted with talents, talents that really belong to God.  As we live in the interim between the Lord’s departure and his final return, we are required to use these talents to the best of our ability.  We are required to invest ourselves in the here and now.  It makes no difference what our talents may be or how many talents we may have.  They have been entrusted to us as the possessions of the master are entrusted to a servant.

The ideal Wisdom figure in the first reading is an example of industriousness.  She has a broad scope of interests and responsibilities, and she faithfully pursues each one of them.  Her worth is not principally in her productivity but in the fact that fear of the Lord governs her life.  The fear is not servile; it enriches her, unlike the fear that seemed to immobilize the third servant in the gospel story.  It is her commitment to God that results in her resourcefulness.

Willingness to risk.  Fidelity to the reign of God requires that we be willing to take risks.  The time of the coming of the Lord is not known to us, so there will have to be a kind of tentativeness to all our plans.  We will never be certain that they will be brought to fruition.  We must spend and be spent without the assurance that we will be able to reap the rewards of our investment. Yet we must make plans and set out to accomplish them; we must invest our time, our talents, our very selves in this life that is both tentative and contingent.

To refuse to risk oneself is to refuse to trust.  It is to require absolute certitude and knowledge of the future, or at least a certain control over the circumstances of our life.  To refuse to risk is to require the assurance that we will never fail.  We cannot hope to stand before the Lord on the last day and claim that we have done nothing because we might not succeed.  We will never know how successful we might be if we refuse to risk.

The judgment.  The judgment of the household is swift and exacting.  If we have been wise and have industriously employed the Lord’s talents that were entrusted to us, we will be richly rewarded.  However, if we have not realized the potential that is possessed by our talents, and if we have not employed them in the way they were intended to be employed, we will be punished.  If the latter is the situation, if we have not faithfully engaged the talents, we will not be able to blame the Lord for the suffering we will have to endure; we will have brought the misfortune on ourselves.  The foolish man in the gospel knew the householder was exacting; he had some idea of what to expect.  Yet he made his choice and had to accept the corresponding consequences.

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