As you may have noticed, I usually begin our Bible Study/Faith Sharing with the first reading and then review the Gospel; if there is time, I then reflect on the second reading. I do this because the first reading is usually selected to prepare us for the principal message for the week which is found in the gospel. This week, however, I would like to start with the second reading because it is through the lens of this reading that the other two readings make most sense. As we approach the end of the liturgical year – next week we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of this liturgical year – we hear in the Gospel another parable of the kingdom of heaven. Like the first Christians, it is completely normal for us to wonder when it is finally coming. We place it in context of what we see around us in the world: two very worrisome wars, climate change, political strife here and in so many other countries around the world, growing numbers of refugees worldwide, ongoing terrorism, famine, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires. So many people see these as signs of the end of times. Of course, the early Christians had the same litany: oppressive Roman rule, expulsion from their synagogues and even families, increasing uncertainty about the stability of the Roman Empire, etc., etc. So, you can just imagine the Christian communities wondering when Jesus would return to finally establish the fullness of his kingdom. St. Paul addresses this in the second reading and we hear how we should behave in the meantime in the other two readings. Let’s examine Paul’s address to the young Christian community in Thessalonica as he speaks about the end of time.
1 Thessalonians 5:1 – 6
Remember that Paul arrived in Thessalonica in 50AD. Despite his short stay in Thessalonica, the Christian community thrived and retained a very cordial relationship with Paul. We have heard from this letter over the last next several weeks. This Sunday, he addresses this issue of the end of time and the Lord’s return.
1 Concerning times and seasons, brothers, you have no need for anything to be written to you.
you have no need for anything to be written to you: As Paul begins this section of his letter, he gets his audience’s attention by praising them: “You surely don’t need to be reminded of what I am going to say. You all know it well.” When we hear something like that, we perk up our ears either to be reinforced in what we really do know or to play a little catch-up, to hear it and then say, “Sure, I know that.” Beginning his message in that way was a subtle way of saying, “This is really important. Act like you know it only too well!” With that attention grabber, Paul goes on to talk about the day of the Lord.
times and seasons: cf. Daniel 7:12 – 14, where it speaks of the eschaton. The phrase signifies the time in the future when the Lord will come in glory.
2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.
like a thief at night: both sudden and unexpected. In the face of those who are trying to divine the “signs of the times” to predict when the Lord would come, Paul uses an image everyone can understand. Thieves don’t show up on schedule; the come when you least expect it and are off-guard.
3 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.
Peace and security: The great threat to vigilance is complacency and the false prophecy of continued prosperity.
4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief.
5 For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness.
Children of the light: as you will read in your footnotes, this refers to belonging to the daylight of God’s personal revelation and expected to achieve it (an analogous development of imagery that appears in John 12:36 – 43).
night or of darkness: Light and darkness are traditionally associated with good end evil, life and death.
6 Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.
With this lens of expectation of the Lord’s return at an unexpected time, let’s examine the first reading and the gospel.
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
This Sunday, we will hear from the Book of Proverbs. You will recall that we read a few passages from this book last week (Prv. 1:20-33; 3:13-18; 4:5-9; 8:1-36; 9:1-6) when we were examining how various books in the Old Testament spoke of wisdom in the feminine. Again, the passage was clearly chosen to prepare us for the Gospel. Let’s talk about this book since we don’t encounter it very often at Sunday Mass – only once a year in each of the three year cycle. It is the earliest of the Wisdom Books and is an anthology of earlier works. Parts II and V are explicitly ascribed to Solomon, who is the founder of Israelite wisdom. Other parts are ascribed to Agur, Lemuel, and “the wise,” but we know nothing more about these people. The final editing of the work was probably accomplished in the early part of the 5th century BC. The section we will hear from this Sunday speaks of the ideal wife, intended to be imitated by the Israelite wife and mother. This is a theme that is found throughout this book as well as Sirach (cf. 5:15-22, 11:16, 12:4, 18:22, 19:14; Sir 7:19, 26:1-4, 13-18).
As you will note in the footnote for this passage, this is an ancient poem written as an acrostic, with the first word of each line beginning with a successive letter in the alphabet; you will find this in some of the more popular psalms as well (e.g. 25, 34). The purpose of this style is probably to help in the memorization of these passages. It also implies that the poem says everything there is to know about its subject; we would say, “from A to Z.” By putting this poem at the end of the Book of Proverbs, the final redactors of this book may be suggesting that all the wisdom they have collected from their tradition came to its apex in the woman described here.
In fact, there are various interpretations for the purpose of this poem. Some think it might have been included in the book of Proverbs to offset the sometimes negative portrayal of women in the book (cf. 5:1-5; 7:1-27; 9:13-18); notice how they are usually foreign women and these verses are juxtaposed with the positive portrayal of women – usually as wisdom.
The more likely interpretation, however, is that this woman is symbolic of Wisdom who will give a man a good life, exemplified by a harmonious household and respect in the community.
I often speak of the male chauvinism that was part of the culture of the ancient Middle East. Here, rather unusually, we hear a woman described like the man we heard about in our opening prayer from Psalm 1. Both prosper because they follow the ways of the Lord.
Both this reading and the Gospel speak of using our talents well; that is the theme we need to pay attention to as we prepare for the end of the liturgical year. Let’s look at the entire passage, including the sections that we will not hear on Sunday.
10 When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls.
When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls: Literally, “Who will find a woman of strength?” This is not to be read pessimistically but as an exclamation of praise. Just as we read in 20:6, it is very difficult to find a true friend and a woman of real strength; when we do, it is worth more than precious pearls.
11 Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.
12 She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.
Good, and not evil: i.e., prosperity, not adversity.
13 She obtains wool and flax and makes cloth with skillful hands.
(14 Like merchant ships, she secures her provisions from afar.
Merchant: literally, “Canaanite” (cf. Prov 31:24), probably because the merchant class had been composed chiefly of Canaanites.
15 She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household.
16 She picks out a field to purchase; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She is girt about with strength, and sturdy are her arms.
18 She enjoys the success of her dealings; at night her lamp is undimmed.
Her lamp is undimmed: indicates that she works well into the night and the result is an abundance of productive work and its accompanying prosperity; cf Prov 20:20; Job 18:6.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.
20 She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.
21 She fears not the snow for her household; all her charges are doubly clothed.
22 She makes her own coverlets; fine linen and purple are her clothing.
23 Her husband is prominent at the city gates as he sits with the elders of the land.
24 She makes garments and sells them, and stocks the merchants with belts.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs at the days to come.
Laughs at the days to come: anticipates the future with gladness free from anxiety because she is confident in her preparations.
26 She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel.
27 She watches the conduct of her household, and eats not her food in idleness.
28 Her children rise up and praise her; her husband, too, extols her:
29 “Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Charm:The true charm of the ideal wife is her religious spirit, for she fears the LORD; cf. note on Prov 1:7. This line contains the only explicitly religious element of the entire poem. The LXX reads: “For a wise woman will be blessed; let her praise the fear of the Lord.”
31 Give her a reward of her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.
This woman – probably symbolic for the Wisdom of God – works hard and with joy in the expectation of an eternal reward. We see the same theme in the gospel.
Matthew 25: 14 – 30
This week, we continue to hear from Matthew’s Gospel, picking up right where we left off last week. Unlike last week’s parable of the 10 virgins, however, which is found only in Matthew, the parable we will hear this Sunday about the man going on a journey is found in Luke as well (cf. 19:12-27). We’ll read that later to see the similarities and differences.
(Jesus told his disciples this parable: “A man going on a journey…”)
14 “It will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.
It will be as when . . . journey: literally, “For just as a man who was going on a journey.” Although the comparison is not completed, the sense is clear; the kingdom of heaven is like the situation here described. Faithful use of one’s gifts will lead to participation in the fullness of the kingdom, lazy inactivity to exclusion from it.
15 To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one–to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately
Talents: see the note on Matthew 18:24. The Greek talent weighed some 50 lbs, the Roman talent weighed 70 lbs and the ancient Israelite talent weighed 130 lbs. So, it was a significant amount and its value varied tremendously, depending on whether it was copper, silver or gold. If the talents were in gold, each talent would be worth $2 million in today’s currency.
16 the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five.
17 Likewise, the one who received two made another two.
18 But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
Buried his master’s money: As we have seen before (cf. Mt 13:44), it was not unusual to guard valuables by burying them. Remember, most of the land was desert, so buried objects would not deteriorate as they would here in the rich, moist soil of Chester County.
19 After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them.
After a long time: again, we see a hint at the delay in the return of the Lord.
settled accounts: Although the first two servants have received and doubled large sums, their faithful trading is regarded by the master as fidelity in small matters only, compared with the great responsibilities now to be given to them. The latter are unspecified here, although we see a very specific responsibility given in Luke’s version.
20 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.’
21 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.‘
Share your master’s joy: probably the joy of the banquet of the kingdom; cf Matthew 8:11.
22 (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.’
23 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.’
24 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;
demanding person: this indicates that the owner is demanding; this is, indeed, the point of the parable.
25 so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’
26 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?
Wicked, lazy servant: this man’s inactivity is not negligible but seriously culpable. As punishment, he loses the gift he had received, that is now given to the first servant, whose possessions are already great.
27 Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
28 Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
29 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.
everyone who has: See the note on Matthew 13:12 where there is a similar application of this maxim. This paradoxical saying indicates that the powers conferred upon followers of Christ grow with use and atrophy with disuse. The punishment for this inactivity is as severe as any positive sin.
30 And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.‘
wailing and grinding of teeth: this is a favorite phrase of Matthew (cf. 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51) but is found only once outside of Matthew (cf. Lk 13:28). It is a reference to hell, and would be very clear to the people of the day, who were familiar with the danger of being thrown outside at night where wild animals hunted.
For comparison purposes, let’s look at the Lucan version of this same parable: Lk 19:12-27. Here, the amount given is much less; 60 minas were equivalent to a talent in ancient Greece. But, the reward is more clearly specified.
This weekend, it’s important to study all three readings; as you saw, the second reading helps us understand the first and third readings. As we are waiting the Lord’s return, we do well to be hard at work, and we do so with joy, using our talents to build up the Kingdom of God here on earth so that, when the Lord comes, we will be rewarded for our labor by being welcomed into God’s kingdom.