Nov 15, 2020: 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 seven Wisdom books in the Old Testament. Although the book is attributed to Solomon (Proverbs 1:1), it was actually written over a period of 500 years, from the days of Solomon to the time of Alexander the Great. The book takes its name from the Hebrew word masal, which means “a provocative saying” — that is, a saying designed to grab the listener’s attention.

Today we hear selected lines from the poem of a worthy wife, who is a model of energetic faithfulness to the small tasks to which God gives each of us every day.

When one finds a worthy wife, 

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

her value is far beyond pearls.

Wisdom is often compared to jewels throughout 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 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 some or all of his responsibilities — not in the subservient way a housewife is often stereotypically understood, but in the self-sufficient manner of the one in charge.

This kind of assertion is obviously very 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: industry, versatility, trustworthiness, constancy, and general goodness.

She improves everything she touches.

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.

Notice that here, too, the woman is in charge. She is described as personally reaching out in order to give.

Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;

Charm and beauty are not marks of wisdom. As cherished as these traits may be, they are ultimately vain and empty.

the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

This is the only explicitly religious element of the entire passage. The basis of this woman’s virtue, and the real reason for the praise she receives, is her fear of the LORD. She has a reverential respect for God’s sovereignty, goodness, and justice toward humankind.

This is the foundation of religion. As is stated in Proverbs 1:7, “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”

This sentiment is echoed in today’s responsorial psalm, which proclaims that the same fear of the Lord is to characterize the happily married man.

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 generally wise person. 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.

In the context of the Lectionary, this poem serves as a contrast to the fearful servant in our gospel reading. Unlike him, the worthy wife puts all her talents to good use.

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 we conclude our study of 1 Thessalonians. (We departed from our normal Sunday readings two weeks ago to celebrate All Saints Day, which fell on Sunday this year.)

In this passage, Saint Paul is still responding to questions from the Thessalonians about the second coming.

Concerning times and seasons, brothers and sisters, 

Paul links the two Greek words for time, chrónos and kairós. Chrónos (“times”) denotes successive, measured, chronological time. Kairós (“seasons”) refers to a decisive moment in time.

you have no need for anything to be written to you.

He reminds the Thessalonians that they don’t really need a written answer to this question — they’re already well aware that no one knows the exact time or season of the second coming.

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

Several of ancient Israel’s prophets spoke about the mysterious day of the Lord (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.

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 issue 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.

As “children of the light,” they have nothing to fear.

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. 418 AD), 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 our theme of preparedness.

This parable follows immediately after last week’s, so the setting is the same: Jesus is in the middle of his discourse about the end times.

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 was a silver piece that amounted to about six thousand denarii, and one denarius was a day’s wage. In today’s terms, a talent was the equivalent of more than one thousand dollars.

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.

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 return of the master and the settling of accounts hints at the Second Coming, 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 for his fidelity is a commission of even greater responsibility.

Come, share your master’s joy.’

This is 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.

This story at first seems to simply be a lesson about accountability: the servants who use their talents well are rewarded. However, we will see that when we interpret it as a parable, it has a deeper, very important lesson.

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.’

The dialogue between the master and this servant tells us not only that the servant failed to use the talent entrusted to him, but why he failed. He was afraid of the master’s reaction to his possible failure.

Out of fear, he has ensured he lost nothing of his master’s possessions — but neither has he gained anything.

As we have discussed in previous weeks, to interpret a parable we must ask, “To whom in the story is the audience compared? What lesson is being taught through this comparison?”

The disciples are compared to the servants entrusted with talents in their master’s absence because, during the time between Jesus’ ascension and his second coming (the “in-between time”), the disciples will be entrusted with carrying on Jesus’ mission on earth.

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? 

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 money.

As to the allegation of laziness, recall that the master has been away a “long time,” indicating an extended period of inactivity for the servant.

Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?

This detail tips off the audience that the master is a stereotypically bad person. In our society, charging interest on a loan is acceptable, but in Jesus’ time, it was considered a serious sin.

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 transcends the original meaning: God gives further understanding to one who accepts his 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 was 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.).

As with other parables, this story is easily misinterpreted if it is treated as though it were an allegory. (Recall that in a parable, the details are not emphasized, whereas with an allegory, every character or element represents something in real life.) The parable is not teaching about the free enterprise system, nor about labor relations. It is not teaching about the nature of God or about hell. Obviously the master in the story does not stand for God, as his actions reveal that he is mean and unscrupulous (see the earlier comment about the master’s desire to earn interest).

So what is the parable actually teaching, then? The parable of the talents serves to teach the disciples (and us) that they must not let fear of failure and fear of accountability prevent them from using the gifts that the master has entrusted to them.

One’s eschatological future does not rest on 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.

A disciple who chooses not to act out of fear of failure ensures failure.

Connections and Themes

Good and faithful servant.  It’s not enough that we wait patiently. The reign of God that we anticipate expects that we are 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 must be a certain tentativeness to all our plans. 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’ll never know how successful we might be if we refuse to risk.

The judgment.  The coming judgment will be 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 servant 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.