Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, November 8, 2020
About 100 years before Jesus, for Jews living among hostile pagans, a sage wrote a book praising the wisdom of their faithful ancestors. In this passage he personifies that wisdom as someone whom they would find very attractive.
For several years, the earliest Christians expected Jesus soon to return in glory and bring history to its climax. When some Christian friends died before Jesus came back, they wondered how it would all work out. Saint Paul gives his answer in this, from the earliest of his letters.
Saint Matthew's community lived in a time of uncertainty and turmoil. Everything seemed possible. They remembered a saying of Jesus and applied it to the need to be prepared.
Our Liturgical Setting: Our year-long trek through Matthew's gospel nears its end. Today's gospel passage is from the section where Jesus talks in parables about his coming again, and bringing human history to its climax. It's almost the end of the liturgical year. The wise are prepared. Interestingly, Jesus' parable has five well-prepared, wise women, and the first reading personifies wisdom as a woman.
The Historical Situation: In many of our readings, we hear from prophets and historians addressing Jews concentrated in their rather exclusive homeland. The Book of Wisdom was written in a different situation. Its audience was the dispersed Jews living in the cosmopolitan city Alexandria, in Egypt, around 100 B.C.E. (For more on Alexandria and its Jewish residents, click here.) The author wanted his fellow Jews to embrace wisdom, by which he meant faithful adherence to their ancestral religion in their somewhat hostile environment.
The "Psychological" Situation: You know how much a man enjoys the attentions of an attractive woman. If you're a man, you enjoy such attention or you would if it were offered. If you're a woman, you've made wry observations* about men who seek it, subtly or not. The author of Wisdom is wise about this aspect of human nature. To "sell" his notion of wisdom, he personifies it as a woman "resplendent and unfading," eager "to make herself known in anticipation of [her suitors'] desire," who "graciously appears to them" everywhere. Who wouldn't relish the company of such a woman?
Proclaiming It: Before preparing your oral interpretation, read the passage to yourself again with the above interpretation in mind. Take a moment to appreciate the brilliance of the author's tactic. Then resolve to proclaim it in a way that makes your listeners want wisdom as much as man has always wanted woman.
Note that the word "wisdom" appears only two times in the text. So listeners who let their minds wander even a moment, then come back to attention, will be puzzled by the pronouns in your proclamation. "Who is this 'she' the lector talking about?" they'll ask themselves. "Mary? Joan of Arc? The Little Flower? I'm missing something here." Well, give them a hint by emphasizing the word "wisdom" at both opportunities.
The Historical Situation: First Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul's letters that we still have. When he wrote it, the contemporary Christians, including Paul, expected Jesus to come again in glory quite soon, certainly within their own lifetimes. These paragraphs address a troublesome point: will the few Christians who die in this short period somehow miss out on the benefits of Jesus' return. Paul says no (although he doesn't say it simply), because what God has wrought in the death and resurrection of Jesus is powerful enough to save even those already "fallen asleep."
Proclaiming It: Be sure to read with plenty of contrasting tones of voice, to help the listeners distinguish what Paul promises to those already dead and what lies in store for those still living. Remember that your listeners probably don't know what you just read; even though they sing every Sunday, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again," that hope is unlikely to inform their hearing of the reading. So give them a little help.
For more on how the Thessalonians prepared for Jesus' early return, see the passage next Sunday, the last before the feast of Christ the King. Today's passage, by the way, is the source of the teaching about "the Rapture," so popular in some Christian circles and the premise of the "Left Behind" novels. The Greek expression translated "[we] will be caught up" is, in the Latin Vulgate, "rapiemur." That verb's past participle is "raptus." Of course, Rapture-theory proponents overlook the fact that Paul eventually stopped hoping for Jesus' quick return. By the time the Apostle wrote Romans, he believed the world's Jews would become Christians before the Lord would return.
Chez Mondrian, Paris photo, 1926, by André Kertész (1894-1985). The photographer worked in Paris and, later, New York. This photo is of the studio of the Dutch-born artist Piet Mondrian. Click here for a short, smart exposition of the artistic relationship between Mondrian and Kertész. And see here a small sample of other photos by Kertész (for sale).
*Albert Einstein is said to have said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour. That's relativity.”
This page updated October 2, 2020