One is amazed by the results of an Internet search for the phrase “use it or lose it.” The listing is easily a seven-figure number. A good portion of this listing deals with issues like free speech, brain function and muscle tone, to name but a few. These are excellent examples, for it is easy to see in such matters that if you don’t use it, you certainly will lose it.
Today’s Gospel offers us another example. A man went on a journey and entrusted his servants with his money. Upon his return, he required an accounting of them. A talent was about 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was equivalent to a day’s wage. Therefore, even the servant who received only one talent was entrusted with a sizable amount of money. Some readers have been troubled by the harshness of the master’s treatment of the third man. After all, he did not direct the servants to invest the money. Why should one be penalized for not having done so? We can only conclude that investment was presumed. They had been told, in effect, “Use it or lose it.”
The readings of these last Sundays of the liturgical year prompt us to look at different aspects of the endtime. Last week we were exhorted to await that time of fulfillment in constant readiness. Today we are told that we cannot simply sit back and wait for that time to dawn. We have responsibilities; we must be industrious while we wait.
The man who buried the money in the ground condemned himself with his own words, for he knew that he would be held accountable: “I knew that you were a demanding person.” Thus he is punished not because he is a poor manager of funds, but because he did not take his responsibilities seriously enough.
The sketch of the woman in the first reading depicts the complete opposite of this irresponsible man. She not only fulfills her responsibilities; she does so in an exceptional way. This picture of an industrious wife troubles some women, who see it as merely a re-enforcement of a patriarchal stereotype. But it should be noted that in Israel’s wisdom tradition, the wise person is held up as a model to be emulated. And here the ideal wise person is a woman. The character of her responsibilities is not the issue. Rather, it is her faithfulness in carrying them out. They were what her circumstances expected of her, and she was faithful.
The reading from Thessalonians underscores the unexpectedness of the return of the Lord. Paul insists that this event will come “like a thief in the night.” He employs two other endtime themes: “day of the Lord” and “birth pangs of the messiah.” “Day of the Lord” is found in the prophetic writings. It seems that the Israelites looked forward to this day as a time of punishment for their enemies but of good fortune for themselves. Amos shocks them by directing the pronouncement of punishment toward the people of both the northern and the southern kingdoms (Amos 5:18-20). Paul uses this well-known theme to assure the Thessalonians that the suffering they will inevitably endure is really endtime suffering.
In early Jewish tradition, this suffering was referred to as the “birth pangs of the messiah” (Is 26:17; Mt 24:9; Jn 16:21; Rv 12:2). It characterized the pain one would have to endure as the new age of fulfillment was being born. Paul is here encouraging his suffering Christian converts, assuring them that their affliction is not a punishment; it is actually part of the birthing of this new age.
To what do these readings call us today? First, it is important to note that we are accountable to God, not so much for obedience to rules and regulations, but for the responsibilities of our life situation. Parents must devote themselves wholeheartedly to parenting, teachers to teaching, politicians to lawmaking and so on. The way we fulfill these responsibilities may be influenced by the cultural circumstances of our day, but fulfill them we must. There is no life-calling that is devoid of obligations, and usually they somehow include service to others. It is in faithful accomplishment of the tasks of life that we make present the reign of God among us, that we bring to birth the age of fulfillment.
Second, fidelity to these obligations may well result in hardship. But if we treat this hardship as the birth pangs that accompany the endtime, our suffering will help bring forth a new age.
Finally, though the reading from Paul and the Gospel seem to be talking about the end of all time, the final coming of Jesus at the end of time, they are meant to summon us to endtime living. Such living will show that Jesus has indeed already come. In this way, every day becomes an endtime day for us.