Commentary on the Readings
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – November 19, 2017
It seems prudence, but it's cowardice
Jesus recommended to be “wise as serpents” (Mt 10:16), and yet, his behavior and his words seem distant from what is commonly meant by prudence. He pronounced invectives against the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23) and joked about their gait in “long robes” (Mk 12:38), has turned against the Sadducees, disavowing their theological convictions (Mt 22:23-33), he called Herod “fox” (Lk 13:32) and launched barbs to kings, “wrapped in soft raiment,” living in luxurious palaces (Mt 11:8). He broke the Sabbath, frequented the company of the infamous and impure people, called “serpents, brood of vipers,” the spiritual guides of the people (Mt 23:33) and claimed that the tax collectors and the prostitutes would have preceded them in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 21:31) But ... what kind of prudence is this?
The alternative was not to move from Nazareth and to limit oneself to plane work, to keep the mouth shut or to open it only to flatter; to ignore the hungry, tired, in disarray crowd “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34); to close the heart to compassion before the man with a withered hand, and resign oneself to the fact that sometimes a man accounts less than a sheep (Mt 12:12); to plug one’s ears to not hear the cry of the lepers (Lk 17:13) and to let the adulterous woman be stoned to death (Jn 8:5).
The prudence of God is not that of people, an excuse to laziness, idleness, inertia, disinterest. It is better to run the risk of making a mistake for love rather than give up fighting for the great values; it is better to see the seed of the word rejected by barren ground—as happened to Paul at the Areopagus (Acts 17:32-34)—rather than hide it, for fear, shrouded in silence.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Full joy is to getting oneself involved, without fear in the projects of the Lord.”
“Four traits are found in women: They are greedy, curious, lazy and jealous. They are also whiners and talkative.” The rabbis of Jesus’ time spoke thus and, between the serious and the humorous, they added: “When God created the world he had to have ten baskets of words. The women took nine and the men got one.”
Jokes (often miserable) on women are found in the proverbs of all nations, and it is no wonder that they are also found in the books of the Bible. There are texts of the Old Testament in which the woman appears as a seductress, garrulous, jealous, curious, vain (Sir 25:12-36).
They are a reflection of the mentality of the time.
Today’s reading presents a passage in which the woman is praised. It ensures that the perfect woman is invaluable; by comparison, the pearls—much appreciated in ancient times—appear despicable and vile (v. 10).
But the woman can even be dangerous, she can turn into a seductress. It’s easy—warns Sirach—to fall into the nets of the woman of ill-repute or remain entranced by the blandishments of a singer (Sir 9:3-4). How can we distinguish a woman of value from a sorceress? What features make her recognizable? Here’s the list.
First, she is a good wife, she makes her husband happy and spreads peace, serenity, and harmony in the family (vv. 10-12).
She is hardworking (vv. 13,19), she works all the time. She does not waste time on silly and frivolous chatter. She gives herself to working so that in her house everything is in order and everyone is satisfied and happy. She is preoccupied not only of the husband and her children, but she also wants her servants to be well dressed and have plenty of food.
The industriousness of the woman was also underlined by the rabbis: “The woman—they admitted—always works even while talking. It is not the habit of women to sit at home doing nothing.”
The third quality: she has a big heart. She does not close herself in the sweet familiar nest she managed to build. She looks around and, facing the needs of those less fortunate, she feels compassion, rushes to the aid of those in need, shares what she has with the underprivileged (v. 20).
The fourth and final characteristic: she is religious, devout, faithful to the commandments of God (v. 30). The rabbis said: “The woman thinks only of her beauty.” The reading’s ideal woman belies this stereotype. Her heart is not vain. She is interested in what really counts in life.
Are there many of women of this kind? Today’s passage begins with a provocative question: “Who can find such a perfect woman?” (v. 10). We can answer, without fear of contradiction, that yes, there are many. The significant fact is that this Sunday’s liturgy, speaking of hard work, dedication and commitment, has chosen to associate these virtues to the woman. It is an invitation to reflect.
We have already said last Sunday that there were tensions and concerns in Thessalonica because there was a widespread belief that the end of the world and the Lord’s return were imminent.
Desiring to get a clarification on the matter, the Thessalonians had instructed Timothy and Silas to ask Paul if he was able to give precise information about the time in which these events would occur.
In today’s reading, the Apostle answers: it is not possible to know it (v. 1) and gives the reason. God—he says—usually acts in an unpredictable manner. He intervenes when you least expect it; he behaves like a thief who comes suddenly when people are sleeping. It’s like the pains of giving birth that appear during the night (vv. 2-3).
It’s not worth it—he concludes—to investigate to find out the day and the hour of the coming of the Lord. What is important is to avoid being enveloped by the darkness of evil. Christians should not run this danger because, from the day of their baptism, they have become children of the light and children of the day. It is impossible for them to be caught by surprise, as happens to those who are in darkness or are groggy from sleep (vv. 4-6).
The hardness of the master toward the third servant seems excessive. He could—in our opinion—show himself more understanding because his employee, in addition to feeling intimidated, perhaps also had the impression of being underestimated. It is in this context that, in the early centuries of the church, someone has touched up the parable and has concluded as follows: the third servant was not dishonest, he was only afraid, so the master only rebuked him gently. There was also a fourth servant to whom some talents were given. He gave himself to the good life; he squandered it all with harlots and flute players. The master put him in jail. But everyone was treated with mercy.
The one who has changed the story in this way did not understand that Jesus did not intend to give a moral lesson on honesty and how to invest the money, but rather on the commitment in putting to good use the treasures that belong to everyone. As for the alleged poor esteem of the master for the third servant, this should be excluded: a talent was, at that time, a sum of all respect and corresponded to the salary of about twenty years of work by a worker.
Let’s immediately clarify the meaning of the talents. The idea has made its way—difficult to eradicate—that the talents indicate the qualities that every man has received from God, qualities that should not be hidden, but developed and put into operation. This interpretation does not agree with what is said in verse 15 where the talents are delivered “to each according to his abilities.” Talents and qualities of the individual, therefore, are not the same thing.
We come to the characters. They are introduced in the first part of the parable (vv. 14-15).
The protagonist is a rich oriental person who has to leave for a long journey. He entrusts his possessions to the most trusted servants. He knows the abilities, attitudes, competences, and according to these, he establishes how much to assign to each. This gentleman is clearly Christ who, before leaving the world, handed over all his goods to his disciples.
The master gives no indication on how to manage the talents, giving a sign of full confidence in the intelligence, insight, prudence of his servants and respect for their freedom.
We define what these goods are. This is what Jesus has given to his church: the gospel, the message of salvation intended to transform the world and create a new humanity; His Spirit “who renews the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30), and even himself in the sacraments; and then his power to heal, to comfort, to forgive, to reconcile with God.
The three servants are members of the Christian community. To each of them is given an assignment to be done so that this wealth of the Lord may be put to good use. According to one’s own charism (1 Cor 12:28-30), everyone is called to produce love. Love is, in fact, the gain, the fruit that the Lord wants.
The second part of the parable (vv. 16-18) describes the different behavior of the servants, two are enterprising, dynamic, hardworking, while the third is fearful and insecure.
The time that all three have at their disposal is when the master is away: from Easter until the coming of Christ at the end of the world’s history. It is the time in which the church organizes her life, grows, develops, engages in favor of people awaiting the return of her Lord.
Matthew wants to encourage his community to a test. He invited them to ask themselves first if they are aware of the treasure they have in hand, to check if all the “talents” are used for the best or if any gift is hidden underground, if there are neglected aspects of the ecclesial life, if any ministry languishes.
In the third part of the parable (vv. 19-30), we witness the rendering of account. The scene was initially quiet and serene, then it becomes dark and—as so often happens in the Gospel of Matthew—it culminates in a dramatic way. Let’s see it.
The first two servants present themselves. With justifiable pride, they say to the master of having doubled their possessions. In the parallel passage of Luke’s Gospel, the two servants seem to want to recognize that a very surprising result must be attributed to the goodness of the capital more than their own efforts. “Sir, your pound of silver—they say—has earned more...” (Lk 19:16-18). In Matthew, however, the ability and the personal merit are highlighted: “I have had gained...” said each of the two servants (vv. 20-22). The reward they receive is “the joy of their Lord,” the happiness that comes from being in tune with God and his plan.
Then the third servant who, despite not being the main actor, appears to be the principal character of the parable. “I know—he says to his master—that you are a hard man. You reap what you have not sown and gather what you have not scattered. I was afraid, so I hid your money in the ground. Here, take what is yours.”
The image this servant has of the master, while terrifying, is not corrected, but in fact affirmed. Matthew uses it to indicate how much the good of man is in Christ’s heart, how much he presses that the Kingdom of God be established in the world. The “wrath of God” is a biblical expression which emphasizes his irrepressible love.
The central message of the parable is in the master’s rebuke of the slothful servant: the only unacceptable attitude is the disengagement; it is the fear of risk. Even to the first two, perhaps not all the economic transactions went well. However, he is condemned because he let himself be blocked by fear.
There were neglectful and diligent disciples in Matthew’s time and they continue to be in our communities. There are dynamic and enterprising Christians who are committed to give a new face to the catechesis, liturgy and pastoral work, who are passionately committed to the study of God’s word in order to grasp the true and deep meaning, who are generous and active and that, sometimes for an excess of zeal, they make mistakes and do not always guess the choices to make. Other Christians are rather lazy and afraid of everything. They limited themselves to monotonously and tediously repeating the same gestures, the same phrases. They do not study and are annoyed if someone proposes new interpretations. They do not even raise the question whether certain changes are desired by the Spirit. They feel safe only within what has always been said and done in the past. Any leap toward the future, every human achievement scares them. They do not vibrate for great values of freedom and brotherhood. They are afraid.
It is unbelievable but true. One can be paralyzed by the fear of Christ. A certain spirituality of the past urged to act but especially recommended not to commit mortal sins to remain in the grace of God, remaining faithful to the commandments and precepts. Transgressors are threatened with terrible punishments. This spirituality created the third type of servants, that is, the Christians who, in order to avoid sins, always played it safe. They could not risk it, because those who try, those who commit themselves inevitably expose themselves to the risk of being wrong.
Those who preach this fear, without realizing it, are the cause of the lack of love, sterile goodness, and spiritual lethargy.
The “talent” of God’s word, for example, bears fruit only when one grasps the true meaning, when it is translated into a language understandable to today’s person, when it is applied to life and the concrete situations of the community, or else it remains a dead capital; it produces no change; it does not shake the conscience, does not provoke, does not scare anyone.
The punishment for making the talents of the Lord unproductive is the exclusion from his joy. It is not the condemnation to hell, but it is the fact of not belonging today to the kingdom of God.
What should one, who does not commit oneself, who does not dare to put to use the things of the Lord, do? He should not continue to occupy unnecessarily a charge or a position of responsibility but must give his ministry to the bank, the community, so that she may give and entrust this service to another who is willing to do it with commitment, because the brothers require that all ministries are well fulfilled.
The conclusion of the parable: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who are unproductive, even what they have will be taken from them” is a popular proverb that reflects an easily verifiable fact: wealth tends to accumulate and the rich becomes richer. Invoked in this parable, this saying meant to signify that, with the riches of God’s kingdom, the same thing happens: the community that is generous and attentive to the signs of the times progress and is gaining greater vitality, while those who prefer to withdraw into themselves grow old, lapse and no one will be surprised to see them one day disappear.