33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
I have to say it is not easy to see a neat thematic connection tying this week’s readings together. Wisdom is the most likely unifier, but then wisdom is characteristic of most biblical passages.
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
It is not immediately obvious that this reading is a bookend passage complementing the opening of the book of Proverbs that waxes lyrical in praise of Lady Wisdom. Put simply, Proverbs opens with the function and desirable characteristics of Lady Wisdom and closes with the function and desirable characteristics of the ideal wife. The wife in these verses is referred to as ʼeshet-khayil a woman of power, strength and therefore ability. Our translation has her as ‘a perfect wife’ but this is not really what the Hebrew says. The masculine of this expression ʼish-khayil does not mean a perfect man, but a warrior, a man of strength and ability.
This entire closing passage is an acrostic poem, where the first word of every line starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So, in Hebrew it reads like an A to Z summary of the ideal wife. It clearly bears the hallmarks of its patriarchal culture depicting the woman as a treasure to be possessed, who will honour her husband by succeeding wonderfully in women’s business at home, raising a family and providing for the food and clothing of the household. Her outstanding achievements will bring her praise because they show her to be wise as well as capable, qualities that far surpass charm and beauty. She has a good business head, can haggle competently and even has the finances to buy land.
A life of goodness and compassion is the beginning of wisdom
The wife is compared to Lady Wisdom who was introduced in the opening chapters of Proverbs. Like Wisdom, she stands out as she shuns wickedness and gives herself to a life of virtue. It is no wonder the poet considers her to be the ideal wife. The tone of the poem certainly fits the intention of the book of Proverbs – written for men as a guide in the pursuit of wisdom.
The book finishes on the same note as it began, making the point that the first step in gaining wisdom is ‘fear of the Lord’ i.e., reverence for the Lord through a life of goodness and compassion.
This psalm reinforces the importance of reverence for the Lord. It also rings with a key theme of Wisdom spirituality, namely, happiness comes with a life of goodness. This ‘happiness’ is not cartwheel or Friday-night happiness but rather the blessedness and satisfaction that comes from right living with integrity and authenticity.
The Hebrew for this happiness is ʼesher, which means to go forward towards a goal, pursuing the Lord’s ways to achieve wholeness and contentment.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-6
Continuing our readings in 1 Thessalonians we again strike the motif of ‘the ‘day of the Lord’ when Christ will come again in glory. Paul is urging the community to keep watch by living the kind of life that harmonises with the attitudes and teaching of Jesus Christ. He is saying we don’t have to be anxious or hope we won’t be caught unawares. The habit of virtuous living will ensure that we are always ready; we don’t have to do anything special. Again, note the reassurance that comes from Paul. If we were to read all his letters, one after the other, we might well be surprised at how often he positively encourages the Christians in his communities. He really is an Apostle of encouragement.
This week’s parable from Matthew’s gospel has been given a variety of titles by Bible editors and commentators. Some examples: The Valuable Coins, The Three Servants, The Picture-Story of the Three Servants and the Money, the Master’s Money. The most common English title is the Parable of the Talents, which is fair enough except that the title has given rise to all kinds of speculation about Jesus’ intention. Was he encouraging the correct use of money or the gainful use of one’s gifts and talents? Probably neither directly.
A key feature of the parable is that each of the servants was given a sum of money along with the definite expectation that they make use of it to bring in some returns. None of the three men is starting out from scratch; each one has a principal and, being aware of the master’s expectation of some kind of profit, that principal has to increase somehow. We also observe that the principal in each case matches the ability of each individual.
In the spiritual life no one is expected to be a world-beater and there is no such thing as competition.
In this parable the man with the two talents is not expected to outdo the man with five. The master responds to his success with the same amount of joy as he shows to the first servant.
Dare to love and be creative and face head-on the possibility of being rejected
Both of these men have taken the plunge to reach out with energy and enterprise to double their principal.
They have taken stock of what they were given and stepped outside themselves to correspond with other human beings, to take the risk of being vulnerable in the business of human relationships, daring to love, daring to be creative and face head-on the possibility of being rejected.
As with other parables, we do well not to carry the allegory too far. For example, identifying the master with God or Jesus does not really add up. Neither God nor Jesus can be compared to ‘a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed’. So, what is the point of this little character sketch, which is given deliberate emphasis by being uttered twice, once by the servant and again by the master?
The key seems to be Jesus’ intention to highlight expectation. Each servant is well aware that the master is handing out money trusting that he has the ability to make a profit. They are equally aware that to achieve success they need to step out into the deep and make their ‘gift’ work. The first two embarked on the task with energy and spirit, making careful choices and undertaking reasonable risks. The third man lacked planning, courage and enterprise. How could he make any less use of his gift that by burying it in a hole in the ground. This is a metaphor of denial, inertia and ‘you can’t get any lower’. In fact, the master accuses him of being wicked and lazy.
Our 21st century minds might see this as a bit harsh, but the point Jesus makes is that the third man was paralysed by fear and the inability to trust and come to terms with his own potential. His fear, most probably combined with a belief in his personal inadequacy, has driven him to shirk his responsibility and devalue the trust his master has placed in him. The problem with this is that the fear of taking one step forward to move beyond feelings of inadequacy soon becomes an excuse for inertia, for staying put in the comfort zone where one doesn’t have to take any risks or make changes that might lead to growth.
We can’t let inertia or fear of taking risks block us on the path to growth
Taking a message from another parable – the sower – we see Jesus encouraging us to make the effort to keep moving in the spiritual life, to keep changing so that we get closer to wholeness. In the parable of the sower there are grades of growth. Some seed produces a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Each one achieves their potential, having worked with what they were given.
Jesus is saying we are not all the same, but we are all salt of the earth and are capable of striving, as works in progress, to become what we can be.
The third servant could have done precisely that if he had overcome inertia with confidence and effort, and gained just one more talent, to produce a hundredfold.
So is today’s parable about using your talents or gifts? Yes and no.
It is not so much about following a dream or achieving success through recognition, much less about becoming a celebrity. In the context of the next part of Matthew’s chapter, it is about making a contribution to the lives of other human beings.
The judgement scene following this parable is about enhancing the lives of others, feeding me when I was hungry, visiting me when I was sick, clothing me when I was naked, both physically and psychologically, that is, encouraging me when I felt lost or bereft. For, as Jesus said, whatever you did to the least of those I love, you did to me. We can’t let inertia or fear of taking risks block us on the path to growth.
We grow by leaving behind our comfortable old beliefs. Meredith Young-Sowers (Author and director of spiritual programs)
Progress and growth are impossible if you always do things the way you have always done things. Wayne Dyer (American spiritual author and motivational speaker)
When I was in America, I really got into the culture. I went into a shop and the guy said, ‘Have a nice day’ and I didn’t. So I sued him. Milton Jones