Matthew has piled up warnings about the delay of the Last Times, more than the liturgy has given, and today we hear the last of them. The emphasis on making sure that the days we live are productive.
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
In Hebrew this is a poem, with each line beginning with succeeding letters of the alphabet (‘aleph’ then ‘beth’ – compare our word ‘alphabet’ although the figures are very different). This is lost in translation.
The Bible was written in cultures which are centred on the viewpoint of males. These verses on women which close the book of Proverbs are not an exception, for it is a man describing the perfect wife. Nevertheless, what she is praised for is considerably more that a ‘stay-at-home housewife and mother.’ Looking at the whole poem – this is less than half – we see how her activities are commercial as well as providing for the household. She is busy at work we would consider ‘careers’ today. Important is her caring for the poor and needy, a frequent theme all throughout the Bible.
This is a song in the Wisdom tradition and can be seen as complementing the poem of Proverbs, with a focus turned towards what a man is praised for – though ‘all people’ seem included in the first ‘blessed/happy’. The concluding blessing fits the psalms called ‘Songs of Ascent’ and are thought to be used by pilgrims ‘ascending’ to Jerusalem on feast days. These are joyful in anticipation and may include words they would hear from the priest in the temple, like the final blessing here. Remembering last week’s readings on the Temple, we can adapt the words to the joys of being with Christ, ‘happy all the days of our lives’.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-6
The reference to ‘times and seasons’ is to writings of that turbulent time that tried to predict the end; Paul explains the Christians have been told the day is unknown. ‘The Day of the Lord’ is an image from the Hebrew prophets, where it was a description of God coming as judge in the world and a warning to those who were oppressing others. Christians took it over but more as the consolation that Jesus’ return will be a time of joy for those faithful to him. Those choosing wars, violent crimes, all forms of oppression and causing pain will not have the last word – the promise is that all will be set right for those seeking love, and those who are suffering unjustly. Much of Paul’s language is traditional, but his writing makes a vivid picture of the end coming without warning.
Sons of light/dark: Expressions with the phrase ‘son of’ are a feature of Semitic languages and we find quite a few of them in the New Testament, including Jesus’ own designation of himself as ‘The Son of Man’. Light and dark are frequent metaphors in many languages, more vivid for those who lived before artificial lighting and found dark hard to function in, often fearful, even dangerous. ‘Sleeping’ is an image of being unaware, even useless.
Thessalonians gives us some of the background that fits the Gospel selection.
John 15:4-5: ‘Make your home in me, as I make mine in you’, says the Lord. This gives us a greater spiritual depth to all we find recommended in the readings.
The short version which may be read at mass is easier both to comment on and to understand, being a positive commendation that we can easily take a lesson from, but there are times when it is good to focus on what we find more problematic in the Bible. With the full parable we have the details about the servant who did not act wisely with what was entrusted to him. These are, however, traditional words to indicate that what we do and don’t do is has serious consequences.
The ‘master’: the word in Greek is the same as the one translated ‘lord’, but which was used as a general human title as well as applied to God. How Godlike is the master in the parable? Does our God ‘gather where he has not sown? When Jesus tells a story he is not always making a point-to-point comparison. When he wanted to teach persistence in prayer, he used a parable of an unjust judge or unwilling friend. The gospels, however, are clear about the justice and mercy of God, and we are expected to keep that in mind as we draw our lesson from the actors in these human stories.
A ‘talent’ was originally a measure of weight, applied to a coin of highest value at that time; it is hard to evaluate in our coins but the idea is ‘a great amount’ like our use of ‘zillions’. The exaggeration, which we frequently see Jesus using is an alert to the listeners to think, ‘What is going on here?’ The meaning of ‘talent’ in our modern usage to skills and abilities was taken from this parable, and it has worked well in turning this into a lesson about using the natural and spiritual resources we have been given. This recognizes that the story is not about making lots of money, but more about what we do with whatever we are entrusted with.
In the context of the gospel sequence, just before this passage Matthew has several parables based on the need to be ‘watchful’ and ‘patient’ as the disciples wait for Jesus’ promised return at the end of time. This parable then is a reminder that during the waiting period, disciples are not to be idle, but using their talents profitably – ‘being faithful to God’s instructions and acting on them with all the energy we can muster, with all the abilities God has entrusted to us,’ says John P. Meier. In so doing, we help to create the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Next week’s reading will clarify in more detail what Jesus expects of us.
If we take the parable as advice for our actions and respond to it, we can be among the ‘good and faithful servants’ who enter into the joy of our Lord.