By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Response: Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; Second Reading: 1 Thess 5:1-6; Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
The Book of Proverbs, like the Book of Wisdom in last Sunday’s liturgy, is an example of Old Testament Wisdom Literature. Both books are attributed to King Solomon, who died in 922 B.C. Proverbs opens in 1:1 with these words: “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.” The reputation of King Solomon as a man of superior wisdom lends authority to this collection of proverbs, which was composed or assembled between 550-450 B.C., when Solomon had been dead for four centuries. Two collections of proverbs are attributed directly to Solomon and may go back to him. (See Chapters 10-22 and 25-29). A proverb is a concise statement expressing a truth in a memorable way. A biblical proverb is often given in double form, two lines parallel to each other in thought, but using different words. In Wisdom Literature, wisdom is often imagined as a woman speaking. This is especially so in the Book of Proverbs. An easily understood way of thinking of the pursuit of wisdom is to compare it to a young man dating a young woman with dedication and devotion — trying to get to know her with the intention of marrying her.
Since wisdom is a woman instructing in Proverbs, it is only fitting that the book close with a song or poem in praise of a perfect wife. The poem is alphabetic — each of the proverbs beginning with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, from Aleph to Taw. The assemblers of our Lectionary do not give us the whole poem, but continue their annoying practice of chopping up a reading to shorten it. We have to deal with what they give us. The reading begins with a lucky husband’s point of view: “When one finds a perfect wife, her value is far beyond the price of pearls.” One thinks immediately of the parable of the Pearl of Great Price in Matthew 13:45-46. Her husband entrusts his heart to her. She brings him good fortune. Some praises may not apply to modern perfect wives. Example: she acquires wool and flax, and works it with loving hands on the spinning wheel. Her husband is proud that she reaches out to the poor. A perfect wife is one who values reverence toward God more than her charm and beauty. Final advice from her husband: “Give her a reward for her work,” and enhance her good reputation publicly.
Psalm 128 responds to the first reading by continuing the domestic theme. Those who reverence (fear) the Lord will eat the fruit of their manual labor. A wife is described as a fruitful vine inside a home. The children are like olive plants around the dinner table. That’s how fortunate will be the father of a household who puts God first in his life. The selected verses of the psalm close with a blessing from the temple in Jerusalem, “May the Lord bless you from Zion,” the hill on which the temple was built.
The second reading continues from last Sunday Paul’s instructions on the end times and the return of Jesus, which he and they expected momentarily. His return will be sudden, “like a thief in the night.” That does not quite harmonize with his earlier description of Jesus returning with a trumpet blast. Thieves do not advertise. No one can escape Jesus’ arrival, says Paul, and it will come as suddenly as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. A final warning: “So let’s stay alert and sober.”
The Parable of the Talents is the second of the three great end-of-time parables in Matthew 25. In last Sunday’s gospel, the Bridegroom was delayed in arriving with his bride for the wedding feast. In today’s parable, an employer goes on a journey and returns “after a long time.” Before he leaves, he entrusts his wealth to three servants. His wealth is in the form of cash or “talents,” a very large sum of money. One is entrusted with five talents, a second with two, a third with one, each according to his ability. The two who received five and two talents respectively, doubled the money for their employer. The third recipient, fearing he might fail and incur the wrath of his employer, buried his entrusted talent. There was no developed banking system, and burying money was frequently done to protect it from thieves. The employer returned after the aforementioned “long time,” to settle accounts with his servants. The two who doubled the boss’ money were rewarded with praise and given greater responsibilities. The one who buried his entrusted talent addressed the boss, telling him he was a demanding, grasping man who seemed to grow wealthy without even trying, so “Here, you can have your money back.” Bad move! The boss did not appreciate the insults, called the servant wicked and lazy, telling him he could at least have entrusted the money to moneychangers who would pay interest for using it. End result: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.”
If Jesus spoke the parable, he would have ended it with the following sentence: “For to everyone who has more will be given more and he will grow rich. From the one who does not have, even what he does have will be taken away.” What was Jesus’ point? A simple lesson: the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer. That does not mean Jesus approved of such practices. He was just reminding his hearers, “That’s the way it goes.” Matthew sets the parable within Jesus’ sermon or discourse about the end times, the return of Jesus and the last judgment. He allegorizes parts of the parable by implying that the man who went on a journey and returned after a long time is Jesus as final judge. According to Paul’s teaching and Mark’s gospel, Jesus was expected to return quickly. Since he did not return as expected, the later gospels, Matthew, Luke, and John, had to deal with that disappointment. Therefore, the boss’ return after a long time is his explanation of the delay of Jesus’ return. He was still coming, but it may be a long time. The three servants with the entrusted money symbolize Christians given time and ability to do the good works, which Matthew will present in detail in next Sunday’s gospel. The lazy, wicked servant symbolizes those who did none of those good works. There are consequences. Exclusion and penalty. This gives Matthew another opportunity for one of his favorite expressions: “Throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”