Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Proverbs 31:10-13. 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; 1 Thess. 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30

The first reading is from the Book of Proverbs. A probable date for the composition of this book is between 550 and 450 B.C. A collector/editor whose name is unknown is thought to have assembled tribal and clan collections of proverbs. His other sources were collections of Wisdom saying attributed to and perhaps collected by kings from Solomon (died 922 B.C.) and later kings of Israel and Judah. A proverb is usually a short saying expressing a simple truth about life learned through observation. There are also collections of proverbs about one subject, as we see in today’s first reading — proverbs or sayings praising a worthy wife. The purpose of collections of proverbs is to assist individuals and communities to discover the wisdom to make right choices in life. Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs is symbolized as a woman who needs to be courted by a man. We can think of this courting as the pursuit involved by a man dating a woman with dedication and devotion, to be sought after with hope for union. After she is attained, she will be a faithful companion bringing the kind of prosperity envisioned in today’s first reading.

Since Wisdom is characteristically described in the Book of Proverbs with feminine pronouns and adjectives, it is only proper that the grand finale of the book is a poem in praise of a worthy wife. It is an alphabetic poem, each proverb in the collection beginning with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet successively from aleph to Shin. The poem begins, “A perfect wife, who can find her? She is far beyond the price of pearls.” Her husband confides in her to his great advantage. Some of the descriptions may not fit the experience of the younger set among us. For example, “She is always busy with wool and flax (source of linen). She sets her hands to the distaff, her fingers grasp the spindle.” The spinning wheel is no longer a common household appliance. She is described as a merchant vessel bringing food from far away. Today it is called grocery shopping. She rises early to prepare food for the day. She is also a business woman. She sets her mind on a field, buys it with profit from her spinning, and plants a vineyard. She has and needs strong arms for all the work attributed to her by this poem. Not only does she take care of her family, but also extends her hands to the poor. Our reading does not include the whole poem. After omitting the rest, it picks up the ending, “Give her a reward for her labors. Let her works praise her at the city gates,” (the daily newspaper).

The Responsorial Psalm 128 continues the theme of domestic bliss seen in Proverbs. Those who fear the Lord, as the worthy wife does in Proverbs, will eat the fruit of their handiwork. A wife is like a fruitful vine in the home, sings the Psalmist, and the children like olive plants around the table. The people’s response insists on the blessedness of those who fear the Lord. That fear best understood not as a servile fear of punishment but a deep reverence for the Lord, a reverence that assures right conduct.

The second reading continues, from last week, Paul’s instructions about the return of Jesus, which he and his Thessalonian Christians expected in their lifetime. It will come without warning, “like a thief in the night.” A scenario differing somewhat from the visionary, frightening language of the Book of Revelation! Paul also does not desist from terror vocabulary, “Then sudden disaster comes upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” Paul ends his exhortation with praise of his recent converts, “You are children of light and of the day, not of night and darkness, so let’s not sleep like others, but stay alert and sober.”

The gospel reading of this Sunday is the second of Matthew’s great parables of the end times, the Parable of the Talents. In last Sunday’s parable the Bridegroom’s return was “long delayed.” In today’s parable a man goes on a journey and returns after a “long time.” His role is similar to the role of the delayed Bridegroom. Before the man leaves on his journey, he calls together his servants. He entrusts his possessions to them in the form of talents. A talent was a large sum of money. To each he entrusts a sum equal to the servant’s ability. One gets five, another two, the third just one talent. The servants go to work. The two who received, respectively, five and two talents double their employer’s money. The work of the third, who received just one talent, consisted of the work required to bury the boss’ talent. The employer returns. He commends his two productive servants and rewards them with greater responsibilities. The one who buried his talent begins his presentation by insulting his employer about his methods of attaining wealth, causing him to bury his talent to avoid losing it and suffering his employer’s punishment. The employer reminds the servant that he could at least have put the money in the bank and drawn interest. Matthew sees an opportunity to close the story with one of his favorite closings, (the sixth time in his gospel). Accusing the servant of being useless, the employer orders him thrown out into darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

From the context, which began with Jesus’ final discourse in Matthew 24 and ends with the last judgment scene in chapter 25, it is clear that Matthew is speaking about the return of Jesus and the end times. The technical term for the return of Jesus is a Greek word, Parousia, which made its way into English with the same meaning. The man in the parable who will return after a long time is the delay of the Parousia. Those who invest what they received in trust are Christians who make good use of their ability to prepare for the Parousia. They are productive in good works, such as those cited in the last judgment scene of Matthew 25 (next Sunday’s gospel). The man who buried what was received in trust represents those who do not produce good works in preparation for the Parousia. In the end, they will lose everything, which Matthew refers to as the “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”