Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"The economics of salvation": Readings for the Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

"Your reward shall be great in heaven."

That saying of Jesus, which appears in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 5:12), isn't actually found in the lectionary readings this Sunday. Nonetheless, that message does sum up their message quite well. 

Specifically, the readings teach us about what we might call "the economics of salvation". Let's dive into the readings and unpack that idea a bit. 

Before I go any further, however, I must mention the important work of Nathan Eubank on this topic (here is his blog). I will be drawing from his ground-breaking monograph on Matthew. Eubank builds on the work of Old Testament scholar, Gary Anderson (University of Notre Dame), offering (in my opinion) some crucial insights into Matthew's theology.

(In fact, his book will be the subject of a panel review at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature at the end of the month [S22-332 - Saturday at 4pm]. John P. Meier, Donald Senior, and A.J. Levine will be reviewing the book.)

As always, we encourage you to post your comments below. 

FIRST READING: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31 
When one finds a worthy wife,
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life.
She obtains wool and flax
and works with loving hands.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her fingers ply the spindle.
She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy.
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;
the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her a reward for her labors,
and let her works praise her at the city gates.
The words of Lemuel's mother. Specifically, the passage is taken from Proverbs 31, the contents of which are actually ultimately attributed to a woman: “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, which his mother taught him” (Prov 31:1). 

The identity of Lemuel is unclear. It seems as though he is an Arabian king. That his words are attributed to his mother is, of course, noteworthy; there aren't too many passages in Scripture explicitly identified with women. 

She might have been a "queen mother". In the ancient world, the mother of the king was often given the rank of queenship. This was the case in the Davidic kingdom in the Old Testament (cf., e.g., 1 Kgs. 2:19-20; 15:13; Jer. 13:18; 29:2). However, since we have no information about Lemuel, this must remain speculation.  

The description of the "good wife". Since I want to focus on the overarching themes of the lectionary reading, I won't offer a point-by-point commentary on the good wife described here in Proverbs. (For a spiritually edifying treatment written at the popular level, I'd recommend Kimberly Hahn's book on the topic.)

Obviously, the major point here is that true beauty goes beyond superficialities: Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting. Moreover, the good wife thinks not primarily of herself but about serving others. 

In particular, note that the good wife cares for the poor: She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy. 

This emphasis on the poor is not at all coincidental. In fact, it is closely linked to the following line: Give her a reward for her labors. . . 

Literally, the language is: give her the fruit of her hand. 

In other words, the good wife deserves to receive a proper reward for her work, which, in context, is specifically linked to her care for the poor. 

A similar idea occurs earlier in the book of Proverbs: "“He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Prov 19:17).

At this point, I'd like to introduce the idea of the "economics of salvation".

Good deeds and "reward". As anyone familiar with the Lord's Prayer know, in ancient Judaism "sins" were described as a "debt": “And forgive (aphes) us our debts (ta opheilēmata hēmōn) as we also have forgiven (aphēkamen) our debtors (tois opheiletais hēmōn)” (Matt 6:12).

This kind of imagery is not only ubiquitous in Jewish texts[1], but is also present in numerous places in the New Testament. For example, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35), Jesus clearly once again picks up the tradition of viewing sins as debts. Likewise, Colossians 2:14 speaks of the way Christ cancelled our indebtedness by the cross. 

But there is a corollary to the idea of sin as "debt"; good deeds were seen as a kind of "credit". The passage from Proverbs 19:17 points in this direction. 

Numerous later texts are even more explicit. In particular, one good deed in particular is singled out: almsgiving. 
. . . if you do what is true, your ways will prosper through your deeds. 7 Give alms from your possessions to all who live uprightly, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. 8 If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. 9 So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. 10 For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness; 11 and for all who practice it charity is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High (Tob 4:5–11)

Help a poor man for the commandment’s sake, and because of his need do not send him away empty. 10 Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost. 11 Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. 12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction; 13 more than a mighty shield and more than a heavy spear, it will fight on your behalf against your enemy (Sir 29:9–13).
Yet almsgiving is not the only kind of good deed spoken of in connection with this idea. Sirach, for example, links the idea of gaining a heavenly reward with honoring one's parents:
Whoever honors his father atones for sins, 4 and whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure. . . 14 For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and against your sins it will be credited to you; 15 in the day of your affliction it will be remembered in your favor; as frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away. (Sir 3:3–4, 14–15)
As Nathan Eubank has demonstrated, that Jesus' teaching in Matthew is informed by such traditions is indisputable. Jesus, for example, tells the rich man: “. . . sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. . .” (Matt 19:21).

Likewise, Jesus teaches, "For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done" (Matt 16:27).

Reward as "repayment". The terms that appears in Greek are the noun misthos (translated, "a reward") and the verb apodidōmi (translated, "to reward").

Eubank has highlighted the way most English translations obscure the monetary implications of Jesus' teaching regarding the promise of "reward" for good deeds in Matthew. 

In today’s usage the English word “reward” is typically disconnected from employer/employee or creditor/debtor relationship. One gives a "reward" to someone for finding their lost cast or for going above and beyond one's duty. 

The English word "reward" is a misleading translation in this regard.[2]

The Greek word translated "reward", misthos, actually points to the idea of a "wage" or "payment". Interestingly, Eubank shows that in the period in which most standard translations originated, the different connotations of "wage" and "reward" did not exist. Thus, when the King James Version of the Bible was translated, the English term “reward” was synonymous with “wage,” i.e., the financial remuneration of a worker.[3] 

In fact, that misthos means "wage" is abundantly clear elsewhere in Matthew: in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20, the laborers are given their “wages” (Matt 20:8). The parable clearly teaches that, in some way, salvation, will be given as a kind of "repayment". 

This obviously raises some important theological questions: Is grace needed to be saved? Can one be saved without the cross? 

We will revisit these below. Here, however, I just wanted to briefly look at how the language of Proverbs 31 fits into this overall tradition.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps. 1:1-2, 3, 4-5
R/ (cf. 1a) Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Blessed are you who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
R/ Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
in the recesses of your home;
Your children like olive plants
around your table.
R/ Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Behold, thus is the man 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/ Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
The focus of much of the psalm--the blessed man is the one who has a happy family life--obviously ties in nicely with the focus on the traits of the good wife in the First Reading. Moreover, note here once again how the one who fears the Lord is, in a sense, rewarded. 

In sum, holiness leads to happiness. And, chief among the blessings of living a life of righteousness, is a happy home life. 

Of course, the converse is also implied; sinfulness can destroy a family. 

One more observation before moving on: children are seen as a blessing. This concept is counter-cultural in our own day. Yet, in Scripture, while raising children is certainly seen as a solemn responsibility, is not portrayed as merely a "burden". In the western culture today the prospect of children is typically first and foremost associated with "cost". 

How tragic! 

My wife and I have four children, ages 6, 5, 3, 1. Oftentimes that fact is greeted with groans and / or thinly-veiled criticisms: "You must have your hands full". (I hate that comment; we get it all the time.)  The reactions suggest that the primary reality of having children is negative. 

Actually, in this life there is probably nothing--nothing--more fulfilling than having children. By the way, I love this commercial.

I'm sure playing Major League Baseball is challenging. It surely involves a great amount of practice, self-discipline, and unappealing travel. But I suspect that the most common reaction to hearing that someone plays at that level is one of sheer delight: "Wow!"

Do children bring less delight than the fame and wealth associated with being a professional athlete?  

I frequently say two things about having a number of small children. First, I suspect that when people are on their death-beds and they are taking stock of their life, they don't look around at those who surround them and wish they had fewer children; in fact, I suspect just the opposite is the case. I suspect most people secretly would be pleased if they were surrounded by more familiar faces. 

Second, I think openness to life is the highest compliment one can pay to one's spouse. As Kimberly Hahn says, what you're essentially saying is, "I love you so much, I think there should be more of you."

SECOND READING: 2 Thessalonians 5:1-6
Concerning times and seasons, brothers and sisters,
you have no need for anything to be written to you.
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come
like a thief at night.
When people are saying, "Peace and security, "
then sudden disaster comes upon them,
like labor pains upon a pregnant woman,
and they will not escape. 
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness,
for that day to overtake you like a thief.
For all of you are children of the light
and children of the day.
We are not of the night or of darkness.
Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
but let us stay alert and sober.
Much could be said about this passage. Here let me simply focus on the larger theme of the lectionary readings, that is, God's recompense at the final judgment. Obviously, this reading has little to do with family life. Its primary concern is correcting ideas about the coming of the day of the Lord.

The terminology of "the day of the Lord" is found throughout the Old Testament. Of course, in those contexts the "Lord" is an allusion to the God of Israel. The day of the Lord is linked to the judgment of the enemies of God and his people (cf. Amos 5:18–20; Obad. 15; Joel 1:15; 2:1f.; Zeph. 1:14–16), and also with the deliverance the righteous (cf. Joel 2:31–32; Zech. 14:1–21).

Notably, in context--in fact, in the verses that immediately precede this passage--the terminology of "Lord" is applied to Jesus (cf. 1 Thess. 4:15-17). Here we see what appears to see Paul's divine Christology--the day of the Lord is the day of Jesus' coming (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18)!

Paul's use of the terminology seems to evoke the teachings of Jesus. Specifically, the description of the day of judgment coming "like a thief at night" reminds us of Jesus' teaching:
"But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect." (Matt. 24:43–44).
In sum, Paul teaches that divine recompense is coming--reward and deliverance for the righteous, judgment for the wicked. And it's coming at a time you do not expect.

One, therefore, should always live in such a way that they are prepared for the coming of the Lord.

And that brings us to the Gospel.

GOSPEL: Matthew 25:14-30
Jesus told his disciples this parable:"A man going on a journeycalled in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one--to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them,and made another five .Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master's money. 
After a long timethe master of those servants came backand settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forwardbringing the additional five. He said, 'Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master's joy.’ 
Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, 'Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.' His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master's joy.’  
Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, 'Master, I knew you were a demanding person,harvesting where you did not plantand gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.'  His master said to him in reply, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'"
Once again we return to the economics of salvation.

The parable here in Matthew also has a close parallel in Luke 19:11-27. The relationship of these two texts is difficult to determine and we cannot enter into an analysis here. Suffice it to say, there is clear conceptual overlap between the two stories.

Strikingly, even though it is one of the longer parables of Jesus, it is often simply neglected by books on the parables of Jesus. Some just frankly admit that they dislike it.[4]

It is not hard to see why? Among the many questions it raises is this: Why is the master--the figure who apparently represents God--said to be known for "harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter". Is God here described as an arbitrary thief?

Also troubling to some is the fact that the parable suggests human beings play a role as responsible agents in the question of salvation.

Let us go through the text here and look at it a bit more closely.

Talents given to the servants. The modern concept of human skill or ability as a "talent" is derived from this parable. Of course, here a "talent" has a clear monetary reference. A talent was a weight of 60-90 pounds and was understood as the equivalent of the wages for for 6,000 days of labor (about 20 years worth of work). With that in mind, that which is entrusted to each servant represents a considerable amount of money. Even the servant given only one has been entrusted with a sizable sum.

The parable is thus clearly providing a lesson about stewardship. 

Eschatology. Yet the lesson is not merely about stewardship. The parable clearly also relates stewardship to eschatology, i.e., to the coming of the day of judgment. The language of the man being thrown outside where there will wailing and gnashing of teeth obviously points to imagery of damnation (cf. Matt. 8:12).

Is God harsh? I'm not certain how this line is meant to be read. It seems unlikely that Jesus is describing God as a thief, i.e., as someone who gathers where he does not sow. It could very well be that this shows us that parables are not necessarily meant to be read as exact analogies. Perhaps not every element of the parable should be interpreted as an allegorical teaching about God.

Still, Thomas Aquinas has some interesting things to say about this passage in his commentary. I'll reproduce them here. Notably, he observes that while the master admits that he reaps where he does not sow, he does not affirm that he is a "hard man".
He says, therefore: Thou knewest that I reap where I sow not, and, nevertheless, you were not working, even though the passage may be cited: “The servant, who knows the will of his lord and does not do it, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Lk. 12:47). Likewise, he had said that He was a hard man and that He gathered where He had not sown. The Lord admits that He gathers where He has not sown, but He does not admit that He is a hard man, because in regard to the fact that He requires something of the man, He does not do this on account of hardness but on account of His mercy, such that His good may be multiplied. Thou oughtest therefore to have committed my money to the bankers. And He continues: ‘It is as you say, that I reap where I sow not, and I gather where I have not strewn. But because I do these things, all the more do I want that my money be multiplied.’ And He is speaking according to a comparison with those men who exchange money to multiply it. This money is God’s words: hence, in the Greek it is argyreon: for by argentum, which is the metal of sounds, is signified God’s word; “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried by the fire” (Ps. 11:7). Men can be called bankers in two ways on account of their twofold duties, namely, they have the responsibility to check whether the money is good: likewise, they are responsible that the money consigned to them yields a profit. In relation to the first duty, the bankers are hearers who ought to prove what they hear; “Doth not the ear discern words” (Job 12:11). Likewise, they who multiply money are the men, such as the Apostles, who gave the gifts of the Holy Ghost by ordaining bishops, etc., “For this cause I left thee in Crete: that thou shouldest ordain priests in every city,” etc., (Tit. 1:5).
Fruitfulness. Ultimately, the wicked servant is punished for being unproductive. In short, Jesus expects disciples to be "fruitful". Just like the good wife in Proverbs 31 who will receive "the fruit of her hand", Jesus expects his followers to bear good fruit until his coming. The parable affirms that  a day of judgment is coming. However, we must not rest on our laurels until then. We must cooperate with the grace given to us and bear fruit.

So salvation is not by grace? At this point, then, the question might arise, "Is salvation by works and not by grace?" Ultimately, the question bespeaks a false choice. God's grace is what makes us productive. Paul says, "work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you" (Phil 2:12-13). We can, in fact, do good works that have salvific value because they are the result of God working within us.

Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2011)
Above we mentioned Jesus' teaching to the rich young man that if he sold his possessions and gave the money to the poor he would have treasure in heaven.

We might also add what happened next. The disciples protest! They said, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt 19:25). To this, Jesus says, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).

Likewise, in the parable of the talents, the source of the wealth entrusted to the servants is God himself. 

All of this makes it clear that while we must bear fruit, we only do this by God's grace.

Let us ask him for the help we need to be productive so that we can be welcomed into his kingdom as his good and faithful servant.


[1] See Gary Anderson, Sin: A History (New Yaven / London: Yale University Press, 2009); idem, “Redeem Your Sins by the Giving of Alms: Sin, Debt, and the ‘Treasury of Merit’ in Early Jewish and Christian Tradition,” Letter & Spirit 3 (2007): 39–69; idem, “From Israel’s Burden to Israel’s Debt: Towards a Theology of Sin in Biblical and Early Second Temple Sources,” in Reworking the Bible: Apocryphal and Related Texts at Qumran (eds. E. G. Chazon, D. Dimant and R. Clements; Leiden: Brill, 2005), 1–30.

[2] Nathan Eubank, Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin: The Economy of Heaven in Matthew's Gospel (BZNW 196; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 68-71.

[3] See Eubank, Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin, 70. Eubank mentions that the Oxford English Dictionary cites Adam Smith’s 18th century work, Wealth of Nations: “A little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate, that even a common labourer may afford it” (II. v. i. 370).

[4] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 519.

[5] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 534.


Anonymous said...

It seems the good wife could be an analogy of sorts for the Church, the bride of Christ, whom He entrusts with His heart to carry out His mission on Earth to save souls.

Unknown said...

Dr. Barber,
In saying, "I reap what I do not sow" could Christ have been referring to taking our sins on Himself?

Mrs. Hahn's words of wisdom are a wonderful inclusion into your fantastic exegesis of Sunday's readings.

Thanks for all the teaching and hard work.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Barber said...


Actually, Thomas Aquinas suggests that in another passage that I didn't cite.

Michael Barber said...

I'm not sure though if that is right. It seems that the charge about the Master doing that is meant to portray him in an unfavorable light. Not sure such an idea works in context. It seems to be going a bit beyond the text.

Unknown said...

Dr. Barber,
When I reread it, I can see why you said that reading doesn't work in context.
The talents are 'faith', which comes by Grace (the Master gives what is His). We are charged with increasing our faith (works). The 'lazy' servant didn't even go to church on sundays (the minimum asked of us)- where the 'banker' (priest/preacher- who's job it is to help us find ways to increase our faith) would've at least helped him increase his faith in some small measure.
The reaping what "I do not sow" then may refer to the Lord 'harvesting' both the wheat (which He sowed) and the 'tares' (which he did not sow).
The 'hard' reputation must be Divine Justice, which comes at a time when we least expect it, and asks an account of us- whether good or bad.
In so much as this is described as 'hard' - I think it refers to 'faithful', 'uncompromising', 'unfailing'.
I can also see a clear condemnation of Quietism in this reading!

Your insights always shine a good light on texts that at once appear so dark and mysterious to me.

I appreciate it so very much. Keep up the good work. Great commercial, btw.

And sorry for that duplicate response yesterday- ipad challenges....


Unknown said...

Perhaps the third servant perceived the Master as cruel, regardless of the Master's actual personality. Like a good employee or student has a good relationship with the manager or teacher, but the bad/lazy employee or student has an antognistic relationship. Then, to use the interpretation of Lapide, 'The Lord throws back the charge of avarice, with which the slothful servant accused him. It is as if he said, “Thou seest, O thou slothful servant, that I do not covetously seek this gain for myself, but for my servants. When I take back the talent which I gave to thee, I do not put it away in a chest for myself. I bestow it upon him who used his five talents so well, that he gained five other talents with them. He therefore deserves this talent of yours, or rather mine, as a recompense of his labour and merit.”' The failing student blames and hates the teacher. The achieving student earns privileges, even with a good and fair teacher.

Fr. Todd Scull, O.S.B. said...

I was reading a commentary on this passage from an Orthodox scholar and saint (the Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid). This is his interpretation of the "hard master" portion:

"For he calls his master 'hard', as many today call their teachers 'hard' or 'exacting'. It is indeed exacting to look for obedience from men, for God did not create obedience within man, nor did He sow in him an obedient disposition, [but instead gave man free will]. This is what the unprofitable servant means when he says, 'You reap where you have not sown', that is, You require an obedient disposition from men, although You have implanted in no man an obedient disposition."

Unknown said...

Fr. Scull,

Thanks for posting Theophylact's reading. Very insightful.
Have you read that the passage from Proverbs can be given a Marian interpretation?

If that jives, then perhaps one can look to Proverbs 31 in light of Mary being the perfect steward of what she was given when they mediate on this parable.

Anonymous said...

The same word for “hard”, (Greek transliteration “skleros”) also shows up in John 6:60, Acts 9:5 and 26:14, James 3:4, Jude 1:15. In school it has been reinforced that in order to study a word we also have to look at what it means elsewhere in the Bible.

Unknown said...

I don't think the meaning of the word skleros is in question. I think the difficulty is that the word contains a negative connotation, so how it could be applied to Our Lord -who is perfectly good- is the problem. Steve Kelly (above) submitted Lapide's take on it, which seems correct. The 'hard' -ness of the Master is the perception of the lazy slothful servant rather than a real objective characteristic of the Master. The Master doesn't verbally confirm that accusation. He does, however, confirm that the servant knew he "reaped where he did not sow". This inclines me to Lapide's perspective.
Here's the logos word study on 'hard':
σκληρός sklēros hard; harsh; difficult
BDAG hard; rough,; hard, harsh, unpleasant,; hard,; hard, strict, harsh, cruel, merciless; stubbornness
LSJ hard
DBL Greek violent; strong; harsh; demanding
TLNT hard-heartedness; hard, dry, stiff, inflexible, rigid; hardness; stiff-necked; to harden
LEH LXX Lexicon hard; hard, difficult; hard to accept; stiff; harsh; sharp
LXGRCANLEX hard; rough; rough; hard; hard; demanding
Building Your New Testament Greek Vocabulary 3rd Edition hard, difficult
The Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Septuagint hard; harsh; difficult; קָשֶׁה; hard; stiff; קשׁה; harden; רעע