Lectionary commentary: thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary time

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READINGS

A reading from the book of Wisdom, 6:12-16

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 63:2-8. R/. v.2

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 4:13-18

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 25:1-13



Keep them and do them,
for that will be your wisdom and your understanding
in the sight of the peoples,
who, when they hear all these statutes,
will say,
‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’

Deuteronomy 4:6

There it is—the word of the Lord. Deuteronomy—that glorious and detailed recipe that will turn the ex-slaves coming out of Egypt into the People of God. All that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai must be listened to, must be taken to heart, and must be done. And not a mention of heavenly reward! All they get is the land.

Called to be holy as God is holy, warned to keep every jot and tittle of the Torah of God, this tired and exhausted straggle of people are solemnly commanded to obey. To be sure, God is in heaven but the people are not invited to join the Lord there. With no eternal happiness on the table, these people are commanded to be a light to the nations. To be capable of carrying out their vocation this tiny and insignificant people are given one fundamental command, the father and mother of all commands:

Listen, O Israel!
The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

Deuteronomy 6:4

What they must do is obey:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all
your soul and with all your might.

Deuteronomy 6:5

Parents must be teachers of all that God has demanded. In a beautiful sentence, worthy of contemplation, the command is,

You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

Deuteronomy 6:7

The reward is life in and peaceful possession of the promised land (it hasn’t happened yet). But if perchance the people abandon their God and go after other gods, the gods of the people around you, God will know and,

… the anger of the Lord your God will be kindled against you, and he will destroy you from off the face of the earth.

Deuteronomy 6:15

That is not all. The loving God and doing all that the Torah, God’s Law demands must include another command:

… and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Leviticus 19:18

There is no speculation to be done. There is no philosophy founded on deep thought. There is no questioning of the Lord’s command’s, no pitting human experience against God’s demands. Get on with it! Only the fool says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1).

But when we come to those areas in the Bible where thought begins to challenge catechism, believers and non-believes alike will be forced to realise that the Bible of the Jewish people is not a single book with a single understanding either of God or of human beings. It is a cacophony of voices. Different opinions are thrown into the ring of human reflection. That is true of the Christian New Testament as well. God does not stop people thinking and, if we have to put up with God, then God has to put up with us.

Today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom takes us into a place where questioning is done:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her
and is found by those who seek her.

People who believe in God are expected to believe, to hope, to love but they must not go mindlessly into synagogue or church, leaving our bundles of doubt, discussion, disagreement and discernment, at the door.

The Book of Job asks God to explain why bad things happen to good people. The Book of Proverbs traipses through human experience to discover what is the best way to run families, to ensure prosperity, and to promise some kind of happiness in this dark world. Qohelet the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes throws his hands up in the air and declares in 1:18,

… in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge
increases sorrow,

concluding that life is absurd:

Vanities of vanities!
Vanitiy of vanities!
All is vanity!

Ecclesiastes 1:2

What are called the Wisdom Books in the Hebrew Bible challenge the other books that make up that great treasure with an alternative understanding of life and of God. The Bible is not a closed shop of one and only one approach to the meaning God and to the realities of life on this earth. What we are given to understand from these books is that God gives us not only heart but minds as well. Mindless faith, mindless Christianity, is not what God wants or God intends. As the Good Book says,

Wisdom is radiant and unfading.


A reading from the book of Wisdom, 6:12-16

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her
and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known
to those oho desire her.
He who rises early to seek her
will have no difficulty,
for he will find her sitting at his gates.
To fix one’s thought on her
is perfect understanding,
and he who is vigilant on her account
will soon be free from care,
because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths
and meets them in every thought.

The word of the Lord.[1]

Five chapters of the Book of Wisdom have offered readers and hearers a way of living a good and wholesome life. It is, we are told, the righteous who are in the hands of God and they are at peace. People who do not oppress the poor may stand before God with confidence but the hope of ungodly people is like chaff carried away by the wind. The righteous live forever and their reward is to be with the Lord. The Most High takes care of them.[2] There is a frightening vision of the destiny of “the madmen” who oppress the poor:

Shafts of lightning will fly with true aim
and will leap to the target
as from a well-drawn bow of clouds,
and hailstones full of wrath
will be hurled as from a catapult;
and the water of the sea will rage against them
and rivers will relentlessly overwhelm them
and like a tempest it will winnow them away.

Wisdom 5:21- 23

When readers and listeners have listened carefully to the good and the bad of humanity, we are introduced to the means by which we can tell one from the other. It is, of course, wisdom. We are assured that “a multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world” (Wisdom 6:23).

The portrait of wisdom given to us this blesséd day is of an elegant and profound “tree of life” that sustains faith, hope, and love, so that God’s people may “dwell in the house of the righteous” —the very place where God is always present.

There is much to be said about wisdom in the Hebrew Bible and much to be learned by those whose lives are shaped by the Christian New Testament. From the richness of the Bible’s meditations on wisdom, one fact might, in our time and place, be deeply pondered: she will bestow on you a beautiful crown (Proverbs 4:9).


Lady Wisdom

In the Hebrew language, in which the Hebrew Bible, for the most part, was written, hokmā, the word for wisdom, is a feminine noun. In the Christian New Testament, every line of which was written in Greek, the word for wisdom is σοφία, sophia, and it, too, is a feminine noun.

In our time it is worth making a short detour to meet the female figure of Wisdom. The earliest reference to hokmā (σοφία) in the part of the Bible called Wisdom Literature is in the Book of Proverbs. There she is presented as a prophet sitting in the street to “teach the fools who hate knowledge” and who ”despise all my counsel”. She speaks “noble things” for her mouth “utters truth” and “all the words of (her) mouth are righteous” and “in the paths of justice”.[3]

The words of hokmā are a “treasure” and a “teaching” that must be written “on the tablet of your heart”. She is “more precious than jewels”; ”long life is in her right hand”, and those who “hold her fast are called blesséd”.

Hokmā is a wise counsellor and a teacher of who “speaks noble things”. She utters truth and “all the words of her mouth are righteous”; “there is nothing twisted or crooked in them”. She can boast that,

I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,
and I find knowledge and discretion …,
I have counsel and sound wisdom;
I have insight;
I have strength.

Proverbs 8:12-14

If we have ears to hear the counsel and teaching of Lady Wisdom we will, says God’s holy words, have treasure indeed:

My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold,
and my yield than choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness,
in the paths of justice,
granting an inheritance to those who love me,
and filling their treasuries.

Proverbs 8:19-21


Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 63:2-8. R/. v.2

R/. O God, you are my God; my soul thirsts for you.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. R/.

So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you. R/.

So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips. R/.

When I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. R/.

This psalm is a prayer, imagined by the poet to be a prayer of David when he sought refuge in the Judean hills. He was being pursued by King Saul and feared for his life (I Samuel 23:15-29).His whole self (“soul”) turns to God as he hides in the wasteland of a desert with no water. He remembers when he stood in the Temple and beheld the glory of God. Of course the Temple was not there in David’s day. But with a great deal of poetic licence, the author of the psalm remembers God’s Presence and, in remembering, is embraced by God’s steadfast love.

The prayer of the poet is not silently prayed. It is shouted loudly and with arms aloft, reaching up to God. Even though food is scarce, God’s right hand will provide. Lying in a bed of fear, in the dark watches of the night, the shadow of God’s wings, like the wings, perhaps, of a gentle dove, or the protective wings of an eagle, will prove to be a sure protection. And so a silent song may be sung.



A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 4:13-18

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The word of the Lord.

Paul is concerned. The little church in Thessalonica is deeply distressed because some among them have died. Didn’t Paul and Silvanus and Timothy assure them that they would be like Jesus who rose from the dead? Didn’t they promise them that if they became Jesus people they would not die? Weren’t they told that the resurrection of Jesus meant that all who believed would not taste death? But that’s not what has happened. A few of the brothers and sisters have died. Have they believed in vain?

Paul and many first generation Christians believed, to use the time-honoured phrase, “the end is nigh”. Whatever is to become of all creation, it is coming soon. Obviously, it didn’t happen. We can trace the development of understanding in the writings the New Testament. The 27 pieces of writing that make up our holy inheritance cover a period of, say, one hundred years after the death of Jesus. Paul’s contribution is the earliest and his churches lived in expectation that, again to use the cliché, “the end is nigh”. As promised, Jesus will return and take all God’s faithful, indeed, the whole of creation, to their eternal destiny.

But if we move to one of the last writings in our New Testament, an epistle allegedly coming from the hand of St. Peter but written 70 or 80 years after the great apostle’s death, we read this:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming?

Second Letter of Peter 3:4

This epistle, as I remarked above, was not written by St. Peter but by an unknown Christian.[4] Obviously, the issue of when “the end” would come was still an issue one hundred years or more after the death of Jesus. First, the author attacks the short-sightedness of the critics:

… they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.

Second Peter 3:5-7

How many Christians have been persuaded by his words and hold fast to a dismal picture of the destiny God has in store for all that came from God’s creative hand:

  • the end of the world
  • hell fire
  • day of judgment
  • destruction of the ungodly

The author explains the fact that the end is not quite so nigh as some people expected. You may think, as I do, that it’s a pretty weak explanation:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Second Peter 3:8-10

The matter of“the end of the world” is a matter of conceptions and misconceptions among Christians of every persuasion. An outline of what we can discover in the Bible will provide some clarification.


She'ol

The Hebrew word She’ol is found 46 times in the Hebrew Bible. Other words turn up designating the abode of the dead. The Greek word Hades occurs 26 times in disputed writings known as the Apocrypha and ten times in the New Testament. Both identify the abode of the dead. When Jacob was deceptively told of the death of his beloved son Joseph, he refused to be comforted:

I shall go down to She’ol to my son, mourning …

Genesis 37:35

She’ol was the destiny of all who died. It was believed to be a no-place, a ghostly existence, simply a “place” of the dead. While this was the accepted belief of Jewish people, there were voices offering alternative visions. Chapters in the Books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, the whole Book of Daniel, and some sentences in the Books of the Maccabees are preoccupied with visions of the destiny of righteous people and the unrighteous, the good and the bad. These writings and the visions they presented had a very profound influence on the first Christians, insofar as we can detect in the writings of the New Testament. The Apocalypse of John (Book of Revelation) is by no means the only part of our holy books to adopt the cosmic visions of Judaism. One paragraph from Daniel can stand for a host of visions that emerged from the imaginations of prophets and visionaries who were the fathers and mothers of much that we learned in our catechisms and in a million sermons:

At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

Daniel 12:1-4


Judgement

If there is to be a separation, then there must be a judgement. There was much speculation on the necessity of judgement. One piece of Jewish writing that emerged over the Second Century B.C. and the First Century A.D. has a section dealing with judgement. To give him the kudos of ancient wisdom, the author was named after the seventh descendant of Adam and Eve, whose name was Enoch in Genesis 5:24.There we are told that,

Enoch walked with God,
and he was not, for God took him.

Genesis 5:24

That mysterious sentence gave writers a field day and one bright spark identified Enoch as one who was admitted to God’s secrets and the mysteries of God’s world, including its future and destiny. Enoch is guided by Michael, “one of the holy and revered angels—he is their chief— who was with me”. Michael takes Enoch to a mountain and explains to him:

This tall mountain which you see whose summit resembles the throne of God is indeed his throne, on which the Holy and Great Lord of Glory, the eternal King, will sit when he descends to visit the earth with goodness. And as for this fragrant tree, not a single human being has authority to touch it until the great judgement, when he will take vengeance on all and conclude everything forever.

I Enoch 25:3-4

Notice how close this text is to the opening of next Sunday’s Gospel:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Matthew 25:31-32

The business of judgement will receive further attention when we come to the Feast of Christ the King.


Heaven

For the most part in the Bible “heaven” and “the heavens” meant what we see when we look up to the skies. But when some of our Jewish fathers and mothers looked to the skies, they saw the glory of God:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Psalm 91:1

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 8:3-4

One can see a beginning of a plea for God’s care that must move beyond the dismal destiny of She’ol. The very end of the Book of Isaiah, as the return of the exiles from Babylon is happening, begins to look to a new future. Those who have worked against God shall endure everlasting fire that shall not be quenched. In the new heavens and the new earth, from new moon to the next new moon, the offspring of God’s new, post-exile people “shall remain before me, … says the Lord” (see Isaiah 66:21-24, the last sentences of the book).

The more the prophets and teachers among God’s people reflected and prayed, the more they came to understand that the destiny of humanity had to be more than She’ol promised. If the Maccabee family died defending the glory of God, then God, if indeed, their God is a God, had to recuse them from the cruel death they endured in order to uphold God’s good name among the nations. In the end, to sustain God’s good name must rest with God. If God was really God, the challenge was for God to step up to the plate.


Hell, Gehenna, Hades

Therefore prophesy, and say to them,
Thus says the Lord God:
Behold, I will open your graves
and raise you from your graves, O my people!

Ezekiel 37:12

If there is to be, as Ezekiel imagines, an opening of graves, then in the prophetic visions of Daniel, a division will be made. Some will be destined to everlasting life and some “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

The English word “hell” comes from a Germanic word that means “to cover”. It is usually used in English translations of the Gospel for “the Gehenna of fire” (= “hell-fire”) in Matthew 5:22 (see 5:29 and 30).There are 11 occurrences of gehenna in the Gospels and one in The Letter of James. The word comes from the name of a valley skirting Jerusalem: The Valley of Gē Hinnom.

Josiah, the king of Judah (640 - 609 B.C.) was a devout ruler who sought to persuade his people to turn back to God. He began a restoration project to repair Jerusalem’s Temple. He deposed priests of other gods who had infiltrated his little kingdom. He destroyed their altars in a place called Topheth in the Valley of Gē Hinnom.

Jeremiah pointed to the evils done there

… the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the Lord. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

Jeremiah 7:30-31

This place of child-sacrifice became the city dump, constantly smouldering, and so an obvious image for “the fires of Gehenna”, or, as English translations of the Gospels put it, hell or the fire of hell. The fire of hell is a poetic image and has no substance beyond the flight of poetic imagination.[5] But we must not miss the message. We must do on earth what is done in heaven. So will our lives be stretched into an eternity of glory. God alone knows what is to be the destiny of the unrighteous. We must, however, be ever mindful that it is God’s steadfast love that endures forever.

The name “Hades” occurs 9 times in the New Testament. It is a Greek word for the underworld, the place of the dead and when used in our New Testament it is the equivalent of She’ol.

What we must know is that the images of the when and the how of creation’s destiny is not given in our holy books. But this does not close down the imaginations of poets and peasants. What we do know is what we need to know. The God who made heaven and earth is the God who is shaping creation’s destiny. Our God who is love, the God whose steadfast love endures forever, will not cease to love, cannot cease to love. What is to come is a destiny created by love. It is a future looking to love’s fulfilment. Only God can make a future of love and peace from the mess of our world. Not only can God heal our pain. God will.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 25:1-13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The Gospel of the Lord.

It is important to be careful with parables. It is all too easy to look at every detail in a Jesus story and invest importance in every dot and comma. To speculate on the wealth of the Good Samaritan enabling him to care for the man who fell among thieves is to reveal the mind of a little shopkeeper who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The emphasis is on the fact that the man is a Samaritan and his action is God-like, not on his bank-balance. So the fact that the women in the story are virgins means no more than that unmarried young women came from the bride-to-be to escort the man to the nuptials. St. Augustine thought that the five wise virgins represent those who can control their carnal desires—which is more than he did!

The most revealing detail in the story is that the bridegroom was delayed. That is what created the crisis. We can speculate that the delay was caused by the bargaining being done to settle on the dowry. The fact to hold on to is simply that there was delay.

Five had prepared appropriately; five did not. So the unready five are sent off to fill their lamps. However, the bridegroom arrives, the procession to the marriage feast was done and the doors is shut. Five were left out in the cold, shouting,

Lord, lord, open to us!

But there is a chilling answer from within:

Amen I say to you, I do not know you.

The lesson to cautionary tale is drawn by Jesus himself:

Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day not the hour.

To grasp what this story is all about we must remind ourselves of the parables that have been given to us by St. Matthew in the last few days before Jesus is condemned to death. The fig tree is destroyed because it did not realise that the Lord was coming and so was not dressed in fruit to greet him. The barren tree fails to recognise the coming of the Son of Man in glory, seated on his glorious throne.[6] Matthew’s readers and hearers have been given parables of choices, of choosing the appropriate action in given circumstances. Choices have to be made. The fate of the fig tree stands as a warning. Making the wrong choice leads away from the path of God.

There are two sons. Which one does the will of his father? There are tenants who come to “a miserable death” (21:41) because they ignored the rights of “the master of the household”. Some invited to a wedding feast refuse to come and murder the slaves delivering the invitation. The king’s troops “destroyed those murders and burned their city” (Matthew 22:7).The good and the bad were herded in, except, of course, for the unfortunate man who was not dressed for the occasion. Next week we will hear of people entrusted with a man’s investment portfolio. The one who plays safe and yields no profit is “cast into other darkness”. The five unwise bridesmaids are of a kind. They ignore the demands appropriate to their vocation: they took no oil with them. They are not ready to accompany the groom. They are not admitted to the wedding or to the marriage feast. As someone said, readiness is all.

These parables are told to Matthew’s readers and hearers, and now to us. Matthew assembles them in the week when there is a choice to be made. Is the man before priests and before the authority of Rome to be sentenced to death or is he to be acknowledged as,

… the Christ, the Son of God?

Matthew 26:63


Dr. Joseph O'Hanlon.



[1] In the Hebrew Bible, that of the Jewish people, and in the Bibles of the Churches that come from the 16th century Reformation, three books are regarded as belonging in the Bible: Job, Proverbs, and Qohelet. The Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholic Churches regard Tobit, Judith, 1 and II Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon as part of Scripture. These are known as Apocrypha or Deutero-canonical books. Many Protestant Churches now regard these, not as Scripture, but as of such importance that they must be regarded as important and as rich witnesses to the ways of God.

[2]These sentences are a collection of words and sentences taken from the first five chapters of the Book of Wisdom.

[3] Read Proverbs , chapters 8 and 9.

[4] This author did not write the First Letter of St. Peter. To be technical, this second letter seems to have been written to Christians in general and not to a specific community. It was written around 150 A.D. and so reflects what some Christians believed long after the death of Jesus.

[5] There is an ancient prayer known as The Prayer of Manasseh, a prayer of an evil king of Judah(see II Chronicles 33) who offered children in sacrifice in the Valley of Ge-Hinnom. He is said to have repented of his sins when he was captured by the Assyrians and taken into exile. The prayer is one of my most treasured prayers. It used to be part of our Bible and it is still published in an appendix in the official Bible of the Catholic Church, the Latin Vulgate.

[6] We will meet the coming of the Son of Man in the Gospel reading on the Feast of Christ the King in two Sundays time.