Homily notes: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ 12 November 2023

Today's readings basically continue the overall theme from those of last week: productive use of the time before the coming of the Lord.

First reading:
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 127(128):1-5
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6
Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
Link to readings

Today's readings basically continue the overall theme from those of last week: productive use of the time before the coming of the Lord.

The First Reading, the Praise of the Good Wife in Proverbs 31 (vv. 10-13, 19-20, 30-31), may illustrate this in its depiction of the energy and industry of the woman. Nonetheless, it will need careful handling. While admirable in several respects, the commendation hardly escapes the prevailing Old Testament sense of a wife as basically the possession of her husband, whose honour is at stake in all that she says and does. The stress on industry and competence, the negative remarks about charm and beauty, show up the absence of any positive evaluation of sexuality in a way that a sacramental sense of marriage could build on. Some parish communities balance the reading of this text with a parallel one on 'the good husband' composed by women. At best, perhaps, the text can be a launching pad-to some extent providing a basis, to some extent a contra-indication-for a wider reflection upon relations between the genders within the context of faith.

The Gospel, Matthew 24:14-30, features the second of the series of three parables dealing with time of waiting that began last week. Whatever might have been its setting on the lips of Jesus, the Parable of the Talents in the form we have it in Matthew (cf. Luke's Parable of the Pounds, 19:12-27), clearly relates to the issue of how to live appropriately in the period before the coming of the Lord. The first generation of believers expected the Lord to return soon. Matthew's treatment reflects a time when the intensity of that expectation has waned and been replaced by a sense of the stringency of the account each believer will have to give concerning the use they have made of all the gifts and graces received from the Lord.

The parable is unashamedly 'capitalist'  – though this doesn't mean that Jesus endorses the economic system it presupposes. As in other parables – some of which feature rogueish activity (see Luke 16:1-8) – he simply points to familiar ways people behave in ordinary everyday life to illustrate how people should behave in view of the Kingdom. The master about to go abroad is a businessman who doesn't want his wealth to lie unproductively idle while he is away. So he entrusts its management to three servants, apportioning it in line with his estimation of each one's business acumen: five talents, two talents, one talent respectively. Even one talent denotes a large sum of money. (Originally the word "talent" designated a weight; its later usage in English with reference to a person's innate qualities or skills is an extended sense derived precisely from this parable.)

With the master away for a long period, a high rate of interest enables the enterprising first two servants to realise a 100% increase on the amount entrusted to them. Their reward is to be welcomed "into the joy" of their master-that is, in Matthew's allegorical development of the original parable, welcomed into the final banquet of the Kingdom. 

The failure of the third servant, the one who simply went and hid his single talent in the ground, is that he didn't do what his master expected: trade with the money so that it would increase. He didn't even put the sum in the bank, where it would have at least accrued a measure of interest. Seeing his master simply in terms of strict justice and paralysed by fear, he thought he would be secure if only he could give back the exact sum with which he had been entrusted. Though he has not been in any way dishonest, he incurs a severe penalty because he has been concerned simply with his own security rather than with what is really required of him.

Homilists should be wary of the allegorical impulse to identify the master in the parable too strictly with God. At the same time, the parable challenges a particular type of religiosity that, flowing from a fearful image of God, is concerned simply with not doing anything wrong in order that God will not find anything to punish. Such an attitude neglects to ask what God really wants of believers in the present time, which is an enterprising, even risk-taking, practice of the "weightier matters of the law": "justice, mercy and faith" [23:23]). The gifts God has entrusted to us, like our minds and limbs, need active exercise, if they are not to atrophy and wither.

The Second Reading, from 1 Thess 5:1-6, coheres with this in its sense that, with the "day" of salvation having "dawned" in Christ's resurrection, believers as "people of the day", should be up and about, watchful and active, rather than "asleep", as in the night.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for 40 years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media