Lectionary commentary: thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary time
A reading from the book of Proverbs, 31:10-13. 19-20. 30-31
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 128:1-5. R/. v.1
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 5:1-6
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 25:14-30
Why the first reading from our Bible today is taken from the Book of Proverbs may be due to the appearance of five wise young women and five foolish young women in the Gospel reading. It may be that the foolish young women are ill prepared for the arrival of the groom to enable the procession to the bridal home to begin. The danger in pairing the reading from Proverbs with the reading from the Gospel of Matthew is that the preacher may rush to the parable and miss the glory of the woman who is praised in a book that begins with these words about wisdom:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth… .
To come to today’s reading from Proverbs, we have listened to 30 chapters of wisdom and knowledge, covering every subject under the sun (a slight exaggeration), given to us by the wisest of men. When we come to the conclusion of this library of wisdom, we come to the last words and they are words of a woman. Having poked into every nook and cranny of wise instruction, revealing deep wisdom and insight, words that are rich in righteousness and justice, we come to a magnificent conclusion. We come to meet an embodiment of all the counsel that has gone before. To bring this treasure-chest of wisdom to a glorious conclusion we are introduced to a woman. And here is something new under the sun: a woman has the last word.
A reading from the book of Proverbs, 31:10-13. 19-20. 30-31
An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.
The word of the Lord.
To grasp the significance of these words from a woman of wisdom we need to notice the structure of the last lines of the book. This last unit of the Book of Proverbs is an alphabetical acrostic. The original Hebrew text begins with the first letter of the alphabet ‘aleph and ends with tau, the last letter. In English we would say the poem runs from A to Z. This gives the poem a sense of completion, a summary from beginning to end, the total and final words to be said on the subject. The woman is to be praised for living the fullness of all wisdom.
Wisdom of the wise
The poem of praise begins with a woman, not yet a wife:
- A woman of worth!
- Who can find the like?
- Her worth is far beyond rubies!
This woman in whom wisdom is displayed is a wife. Unlike some of the women in the book (see “the evil woman” in 6:24), she is a woman of truth, a woman in whom trust safely resides. Her domestic authority and competence ensure that none go hungry, sitting up all night to make sure that the household’s young women are not neglected (in favour of the sons?). She is as skilled in the market place as within the four walls of her house. God’s non-negotiable demand is ever her concern: she opens her hand to the poor.
Her husband may sit at the city gates participating in affairs of public concern. The business of running a busy household is safe in her hands and her praise for that is a manner of public recognition and praise.
We must, of course, sit in judgement on the ways of the past. The world from which this woman of worth emerges was a patriarchal place. Yet here she is, the sum and total of all wisdom, a woman who surpasses all that has been advised and praised in this book of wisdom. As we have seen in these pages, the word Hokmā (wisdom) in Hebrew and the word Σοφία, σοφία, sophia (wisdom) in Greek are feminine nouns. That piece of ancient grammar must surely speak to our times.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 128:1-5. R/. v.1
R/.Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord.
Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labour of your hands.
You shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. R/.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots around your table. R/.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.
The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life. R/.
Please note a feature that crops up in today’s readings:
A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised
Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord
Thus shall a man be blessed who fears the Lord
… so I was afraid …
There is a lot of fear in the words of the Lord offered us today. Readings from “God’s holy words” (as St. Francis of Assisi called the Bible) are intended to encourage, to sustain, to counsel, to uplift, to challenge. But to fear?
Consider the statistics in our New Testament, the very book that reveals to us our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. In the Gospel of Mark, the first Gospel to be written, the verb “to fear” occurs 12 times and the word “afraid” occurs 7 times. In Matthew “fear” occurs 18 times and “afraid” 9 times. In Luke, a Gospel full of joy and peace, “fear” turns up an amazing 25 times and “afraid” 8 times. In John “fear” occurs 5 times and “afraid” 3 times. In the very books that are given the name “gospel”, good news words indicating “fear” occur 87 times.
In the rest of the New Testament the word “fear” occurs 31 times. If we search the whole of the Bible, “fear”, in one form or another, occurs 385 times. We are even told straight-out:
Fear and trembling
Fear comes to us all. Everyone, at one time or another, experiences alarm, dismay, trouble, even dread and terror. Most references to fear in the Bible are to human reaction to threatening events. Jacob is “feared greatly and was distressed” when he heard that his estranged brother Esau ”was coming to meet him” (Genesis 32:6-7).
The former slaves about to enter the land flowing with milk and honey were told ”not to fear the people of the land” they were about to invade (Numbers 14:9). When the lion roars, it is perfectly natural to be afraid (Amos 3:8). Even the witch of Endor was afraid when the ghost of Samuel made an unwelcome appearance (I Samuel 28:12). When Job remembers that it that is the rich who prosper, he is dismayed (Job 21:6).
The pages of the New Testament reflect the same intrusion of fear into the even tenor of life. On his return from Egypt with the child and the child’s mother, Joseph feared to settle in Judea because Archelaus, Herod’s son, reigned there (Matthew 2:22). The chief priests and the scribes, though they were determined to seek the death of Jesus, were afraid to do so because of the crowd (Mark11:18-19). Throughout the whole Bible there are hundreds of references to human fear in the face of dangers from without and within.
Fear of the Lord
The fear of the Lord superficially is an ambiguous phrase. The most obvious meaning is the fear of God who abhors sin. This fear acknowledges God that the thoughts, words, and deeds of human beings must be in accord with God’s demands. It is a fear that confesses a departure from living as God determined people to live in order that righteousness (divine justice) and peace prevail. It is a fear that expects punishment and trembles at the certainty of God’s wrath.
An intriguing example comes in the first pages of the Hebrew Bible:
… the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.
Moses is afraid of what God will do to a people who had “sinned against the lord your God”:
… I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also. And the Lord was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him. And I prayed for Aaron also at the same time.
The text from Deuteronomy brings together sin, divine displeasure, fear that the Lord would destroy, and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness:
But he Lord listened to me.
Listen to this:
But you, you are to be feared!
Who can stand before you
when once your anger is roused?
From the heavens you uttered judgment;
the earth feared and was still,
when God arose to establish judgment,
to save all the humble of the earth.
Notice the movement. No human power can stand when the anger of God is roused. The response from heaven is divine judgment. People on earth are afraid and await the inevitable. But what God seeks to establish on earth is to save the humble, to save those who acknowledge sin and appeal to the God whose passion is to forgive.
Consider another psalm that meditates on divine judgment when faced with human failure. Though God had provided manna and water for the one-time slaves making their way to freedom:
In spite of all this, they still sinned;
despite his wonders, they did not believe.
So he made their days vanish like a breath,
and their years in terror.
When he killed them, they sought him;
they repented and sought God earnestly.
They remembered that God was their rock,
the Most High God their redeemer.
But they flattered him with their mouths;
they lied to him with their tongues.
Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
they were not faithful to his covenant.
Yet he, being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh,
a wind that passes and comes not again.
The immediate response to the fearful people who have sinned is to remember. One might say that remembering is the most important word in the relationship between heaven and earth. God remembers and men and women do well to remember that God remembers. For God sees the bigger picture. God remembers the beginning of our story in order to remember what must be done if the story is to reach the destiny for which creation was brought into being. Bread and wine are blessed and broken so that we remember that God remembers. It is for human beings to remember that from dust they come and to dust they will return.
The Day of the Lord
There is a commandment that is everywhere in the Bible. It needs to be written on the forehead of every little baby born into our word. It is this:
Do not be afraid!
It first appears in the story of our father in faith Abraham. The man destined to be God’s new light in a dark came to his vocation in a world where violence covered the face of the earth:
Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight,
and the earth was filled with violence.
Abraham was severely tested and his wanderings to find God’s way to “the land that I will show you” was perplexing, to say the least (Genesis 12:1). To believe the promise that you would be the father of a great nation and a blessing to the whole earth is problematic if you are childless. However, “the word of the Lord came to Abraham:
Do not be afraid, Abram,
I am your shield; your reward will be great.
So it was that the numbers grew, to the extent that the immigrants in Egypt become a threat to Egyptians “who were in dread of the people of Israel” (Exodus 1:12).Immigrants became slaves. Pharaoh and God contested and the slaves eventually came to dwell in a land flowing with milk and honey. Prosperity grew and with prosperity the accumulation of wealth. The rich grew richer and the poor grew in numbers. Israel was surrounded by nations with many gods. Even when the allure of these was resisted, another god became true god of the few: riches.
Cometh the hour, cometh the prophet. In the village of Tekoa, just south of Bethlehem, was born a prophet named Amos. He was a shepherd, with no training to be a prophet or a scribe. To keep body and souls together he needed a second job; he became a pincher of sycamore fruit. Sycamore fruit needed to be pinched in order to ripen to an edible state. It was the food of the poor. It was the food of Amos and he learned from that necessity everything there is to know about poverty. He knew that one child is poor because another child is born into riches. Amos became the voice of the poor, and sometime around 750 B.C. he went north, passing Jerusalem, and settling in Bethel, in the heartland of the most prosperous of regions of the people who believed themselves to be God’s special people. It was there that he proclaimed The Day of the Lord.
What he saw all around was dead bodies and he pointed unerringly to the cause with an accusing finger:
Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat.
Look at the details. Those who want the seasons of the year to rush so that the grain be ripened, those who want a hurried Sabbath so the wheat market may open, those who fiddle the value of the currency, those who falsify the weights, those sell the indebted poor and needy for the price of a pair of sandals, who even sell the wheat chaff —these are the rich and powerful. Surely God will have something to say about all this?
Amos identifies what God will do “on that day”, the “The Day of the Lord”. It will be a time of reckoning. Popular piety may well have imagined a time when the blessings of God would be showered across the whole land of Israel, even over the whole world. What Amos shouted in the marketplace of Bethel was that “that day”, “The Day of the Lord” would be a time of wailing and mourning:
Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him …
God will not forever tolerate,
those who trample the head of the poor
into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go into the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned.
lay themselves down before every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of God
they drink the wine of those who have been fined.
What is to come is judgment:
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
With his protests in the street, Amos began a rejection of conventional religion. No more reserved seat, no more
pennies for the poor or for “the black babies”.
The day of judgement
The prophet Isaiah (and others) present God as the accuser and judge of Israel. The Lord God is presented as the witness giving evidence of Israel’s infidelity to the whole world, as if the peoples of the earth are in the jury box:
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master's crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
The whole people are called to court and the terms are fairly set out by the divine accuser and the divine judge:
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord,
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
There can be no doubt that there will be a day in court, a day of reckoning, judgment day:
The Lord has taken his place to contend;
he stands to judge peoples.
The Lord will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people …
What is amazing is the charge brought against the sons and daughters of Zion, the people of Jerusalem, representing the whole nation:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
“What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?”
declares the Lord God of hosts.
Hosea’s God comes with a detailed list of charges:
Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel,
for Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
and no knowledge of God in the land;
there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who dwell in it languish.
But it is the stark nature of God’s charge brought before the court in Isaiah’s prophetic imagination that impresses. It is the cries of the poor that put Israel in the dock. And it the final verdict of the court given in the last lines of the Book of Isaiah that strike terror:
For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many.
The God who pronounces sentence will not be silenced and God’s good purposes will not be gainsaid:
… my salvation will be forever,
and my righteousness will never be dismayed.
In other words, there will be judgment but by a Judge whose saving intention endures forever and a day. The final determination of the Lord our God is to come to court bearing steadfast love, compassion, mercy forgiveness, in fact, with a heart that ensures none will be lost. It is to Joseph, the dreamer who marries Mary, that God’s righting of the pain of the world is revealed. A child is to be born,
… and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
A rewarding place to begin delving into Psalm 128 is to go back to the beginning of the Psalter and pray Psalm 1.That psalm emerges from the Wisdom literature. Such writings were common in the ancient Near East and sought to inculcate precepts of right living. It is significant that Israel’s collection of prayerful psalms should begin with words of wisdom.
Lord manages her affairs in the heart of the house (not gadding about on the streets?). Their children are like promising young olive trees.
On Zion’s hill the Temple stood and there dwelt the Presence of the Lord. The God-fearing husband is blessed by the Lord. His blessing permeates the city and offers a long life so that he will enjoy his grandchildren.
The culture in which Middle Eastern wisdom literature flourished was not (is not?) given to liberating the wife from the seclusion of the house. While glorying in the prayers of the past, we must be convinced that neither God nor ourselves are bound by a wisdom that more often than not comes fro a patriarchal society.
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 5:1-6
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers and sisters, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.
The word of the Lord.
The prophets of old, whatever their differences, all believed that the future belonged to God. Whether that future extended to all creation, to all humanity, to the just rather than the unjust, they were certain that a new age would be a work of God. That work would be initiated by One anointed by God to achieve God’s purposes. Various titles emerged in the literature that dealt with expectations: Son of Man, the Beloved, the Elect, and Messiah. That term Messiah, in Greek Χριστóς, Christos, Christ, gradually emerged as the most common title to express the vocation of the one appointed to bring about the hopes of the prophets and sages of God’s people. The title “Christ” is related to the word “chrism”. So the title denotes an anointing with oil to designate a vocation to a particular service.
Those who identified Jesus of Nazareth as the one anointed to bring to earth God’s intentions began to speak of Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ and soon what was a job description became a name: Jesus Christ and often simply The Christ or Christ.
By his claims, and by words and actions, Jesus of Nazareth convinced some Jews that he was indeed the Messiah of God. This conviction was firmly established by his resurrection from the dead. With that certainty came another: the promises given them by the man from Nazareth in Galilee implied that the Jesus who had gone to God would soon return to undo the evil kingdoms of this world and establish on earth the Kingdom of God.
The educated, devout and fanatical young man, Saul of Tarsus, by a revelation given him from heaven, came to join the Jesus movement that he had been determined to wipe out. Paul became an apostle, convinced that his new Lord would soon return. To the few fellow Jews who believed him and the pagans he gathered into the company of Jesus, he told them of the imminent return of their new Lord “who died for us so that whether we are awake or sleep we might live with him” (II Thessalonians 5:10).
His erstwhile little flock of pagans in Thessalonica were told that they “must abound in love for one another” so as to be “blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints” (I Thessalonians 3:12-13).
What Paul did not reveal to his little church of ex-pagans was when the coming would take place. He assured them that it would be in the near future. Unfortunately, his converts seem to have understood Paul to mean that those who embraced faith in the Lord Jesus and in the near return of their new Lord would not die. The confusion prompted Paul to write from Corinth to clarify his teaching, thus confusing every Christian to this very day, as we learned from our reading of Paul last week. Some folk, such as Thessalonians and Paul himself, and those of us who listen to Paul, who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord will hear the trumpet of God and the voice of an archangel and witness the Lord himself descending from heaven. It has not happened yet. The Lord may indeed “come like a thief in the night” (Thessalonians 5:2) but he has not as yet returned. So far, Paul has been out by two thousand years - and counting.
The churches and Church have struggled to express the destiny of creation and humanity in detail. But what is certain is that our destiny is in the hands of our God whose steadfast love endures forever. Our responsibility is not hurriedly to escape this vale of tears. We are charged to embrace God’s world with the gospel of God. That gospel is writ large in Jesus of Nazareth and we are called to walk with him on the way to justice and peace. We are called to know the cost as we stand at the foot of the crosses we have to bear as, in Paul’s words, “we proclaim Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23).We must bring the world to the joy of an empty tomb and the excitement of meeting with him on the way to Emmaus with burning hearts and shared bread. We must live the future every day we live in this present day.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 25:14-30
… it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more. ’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. ’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more. ’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. ’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours. ’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The Gospel of the Lord.
A shorter form of this long parable is offered in our Lectionary. But this is like ending the parable of the Good Samaritan before the man gets off his ass. Avoid the shorter version.
Whatever situation prompted Jesus to tell this parable, whatever the context of his telling, we must read it in Matthew’s context. According to Matthew, we must hear it as tale told in the last days of the life of Jesus. We must hear it together with all the parables he has crowded into that last week that ended with a cross and a tomb made secure “by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Matthew 27:66).
Matthew tapers the parable of Jesus to teach the communities of Christians in Antioch sixty or seventy years after the death of Jesus. He wants his readers and hearers to understand that Jesus is the master who is about to go on a journey and who entrusted his servants with his property. The servants, each according to his ability, are required to use the master’s property profitably.
It was after along time that the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. The return of Jesus, in Paul’s dramatic scenario, is long delayed. But a reckoning at some point is inevitable. Every disciple, every apostle of Jesus, will have to render an accounts of the stewardship entrusted to their hands. The servant who was afraid to undertake the hazardous responsibility of proclaiming the gospel of God will be cast into outer darkness and in that dark place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The dramatic ending to Matthew’ parable is like the story of the five young women who neglected to fill their lamps with oil. In each story the failure to fulfil the vocation given by Jesus leads to rejection. Yes, we know not the day nor the hour. But if we have listened to the Gospel according to Matthew over the Sundays of this blessed year, we will know that there are commandments to be obeyed:
… stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
… you must be ready,
for the Son of Man
is coming at an hour you do not expect.
If we have not watched, if we have allowed our Church to be broken into and desecrated by unspeakable evil, then we must be glad that the last days are far distant and that there is time to repent, to repair, to become faithful and humble, to be slaves of God rather than false shepherds lording over humanity. Before the great and awesome Day of the Lord comes Matthew’s Jesus has given us a choice:
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Amen I say to you, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions.
But if there is no wisdom—and the signs are not everywhere promising—the end may be in tears:
But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.
This is my translation of the Hebrew. The Book of Ruth calls its heroine “a woman of worth”, using exactly the same Hebrew phrase to describe her (Ruth 3:11) that is used of this great woman of wisdom.
 There are other words relating to “fear”, such as “trembling” and these add to the Bible’s vocabulary of fear.
 Amos was the first prophet to have his teachings collected and eventually to lead to other prophets to be recorded and eventually to become part of the collection of prophets to be found in our Bible.