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11/11/1999
WORD OF FAITH
Work while waiting
REV. ROGER KARBAN


In last week’s column, we saw that Jesus’ delayed Parousia had a deep effect on how people theologized about life after death. This week, the Sunday readings center on this life, and Jesus’ delayed Second coming again plays a key role.

Writing to the Thessalonian community around 50, Paul deals with the question on everyone’s mind: When’s Jesus coming back? Early Christians, geared to expected His immediate arrival, are beginning to speculate on the "times and seasons" which will have to take place before He comes (I Thes 5:1-6).

Paul composes his passage against a background of Parousia hysteria. His goal: to change the community’s focus. Instead of zeroing in on the next life, he concentrates on this life.

Surprise return

He begins by reminding his people that Jesus’ Second Coming isn’t an event on which one can speculate. "The day of the Lord," he writes, "will comes 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."

Like people sleeping, those who concentrate solely on the next life miss what’s happening in this life. "We are not of the night or of darkness," Paul reminds the Thessalonians. "Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober."

Since the concept of an afterlife, as we know it, entered Jewish thought only about a hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Paul could use the vast majority of the Hebrew Scriptures to develop his argument on the importance of this life. We hear, for instance, in the first reading (Prov 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31), that the wife most praised is the wife who makes the most out of her everyday situation.

"She obtains wool and flax,....puts her hand to the distaff,....reaches out her hands to the poor.....Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates." A wife’s value is measured in what she accomplishes right here and now.

Jesus’ well-known parable about the talents seems to agree with this opinion (Mt 25:14-30). Matthew deliberately places the story after the wise virgins/foolish virgins parable, and immediately before his final judgment narrative. The context helps us understand its meaning.

The first story warns us to be prepared for Jesus’ arrival; the last gives the subject matter for His final exam. This middle passage tells us to throw caution to the wind in carrying out whatever Jesus wants us to do in this life. (We’ll have to wait till next week to find out what that is!)

Fulfillment

There’s no doubt who the "man going on a journey" is. Matthew’s community knows of only one person who has left and promised to return, one person who gave them everything they needed to be fulfilled in this life. The problem is that real fulfillment comes only when they use what Jesus gave.

Only the first two take what they’ve been given, trade with them and double their holdings. The eventual reward for being adventurous with the man-on -the-journey’s money is immense: "Well done, my good and faithful servants. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy."

The servant who plays it safe and returns only what was given doesn’t fare as well. "Take the talent and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given; but from the one who has not, even that will be taken away."

Matthew’s parable zeroes in on those members of his community who are going through life just treading water, looking to the sky for Jesus’ return, but never going out of themselves to risk building relations with others (as we’ll see next week). One day, they’ll have nothing. Those who risk themselves by entering such relations will discover they have more than they could ever have imagined — more than the risk ever entailed.

(11-11-99)













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