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Scripture In Depth
33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Year A
November 19, 2023
Reginald H. Fuller

As we approach the end of the Church year and Advent draws near, the mood of the liturgy changes perceptibly and becomes eschatological. This is in accord with tradition, for in ancient times Advent started earlier and laster longer. The Church of England now sensibly designates the last three Sundays of the church year “Sundays before Advent.”

Reading I: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31

Proverbs’ picture of the virtuous woman is a beautiful one, though it is hard to see its connection with today’s other readings. Perhaps the last verse will help us: “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,” a thought that is found also in the parable of the talents: the profitable servants are given a share in their earnings.

But to concentrate on this point detracts from the main thrust of both readings.

The First Reading is a picture of a gracious wife and mother who practices love for both God and neighbor in that state of life into which it has pleased God to call her.

Responsorial Psalm: 128:1-2, 3, 4-5

The first part of this psalm (through verse 8) falls into the category of an individual lament. The soul expresses its thirst for communion with God in the temple, and its delight when communion is established.

We may link this with the search for the divine wisdom (First Reading) and with the virgins’ longing o meet the bridegroom (Gospel).

Reading II: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6

Paul is apparently replying to a question from his correspondents concerning “the times and the seasons,” that is, the precise date of the parousia, which Paul’s original preaching had led them to expect imminently. Paul rejects the inference. There is one thing they need to know: the end will come suddenly (cf. Mk 13:32 and Acts 1:6-7).

Despite these warnings of Scripture, however, curiosity over the date of the end has continued to exercise the minds of Christians ever since, and ignorant and unscholarly fanatics claiming to know the date of the parousia can always win a ready hearing.

But the Book of Revelation is about events in the first century, not the twentieth century or any other. The experience of history shows that announcements of the exact date of the end have invariably been proven wrong. As fundamentalists, such fanatics should take 1 Thes 5:1-6Mk 13:32, and Acts 1:6-7 to heart!

Jesus’ parable of the thief in the night (Mk 13:35 par.; Lk 12:39f.) is one that the Thessalonians apparently knew already (1 Thes 5:2)—an interesting indication that Paul may have transmitted more Jesus tradition than the letters suggest. By citing this parable, Paul elevates the parousia hope from one of curious speculation to one of existential attitude. The Christian must always live on tiptoe, as if the parousia were coming at any moment.

But there is more to it than “as if.” In a manner typical of his teaching (cf. Rom 13:11-14), Paul insists that the End has in some sense already come. Christian believers are already children of the light and the day. The imperative is based on an indicative: Be what you are, children of the light and the day.

Here is the final answer to the fanaticism of parousiac excitement. It is not a matter for idle curiosity but one of living here and now in the power of the future that we have already begun to participate in through baptism.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

When I read the short form of this gospel, I rubbed my eyes in astonishment. Is the reading meant to stop at Mt 25:20? Surely it should at least include Mt 25:21. Otherwise the caption refers to nothing in the text. Hopefully the long form will be used lest the reading lose its whole point. [Note: the short form in the Second Typical Edition of the Lectionary ends with verse 21.]

As with the parable of the ten virgins, we may distinguish three stages in the history of the tradition:

1. At the Jesus level it was a story told from life. The owner of an estate had to go on a long journey, so he left his money to three servants in trust, lest it remain idle during his absence. Two of them put it to wise use, made capital gains, and were commended by the master on his return. But a third servant carefully hoarded it and, on the master’s return, gave him back the exact sum he had been entrusted with. Instead of commending the third servant for his caution, the master rebuked him and handed the money over to the most enterprising of the three servants.

When Jesus first told this story, he must have applied it to something quite concrete in his ministry. Perhaps he was condemning the Jewish religious authorities. They were like the third servant, so carefully bent on preserving in its purity the tradition with which they had been entrusted that they lost their openness for new things and refused to accept Jesus’ message.

2. In the early community the parable was moralized by the addition of the maxim “For to all those who have, more be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” In addition, the parable was allegorized. The master was equated with Christ, his departure with the ascension, and his delayed return with the delay of the parousia. The words “enter into the joy of your master” are inserted so that the reward becomes participation in the messianic banquet.

3. Matthew places the parable in his sequence of parables following the Synoptic apocalypse that culminates with the Son of Man coming to judge the church. The faithful servant now stands for those Christians who hear the teaching of Christ and follow it; the unprofitable servant represents those who do not keep the new law enunciated by Jesus for the church.

Reginald H. Fuller
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