Every week, the readings from Scripture that we hear at Mass have been carefully chosen so that there is always a unifying theme between at the very least the first reading and the Gospel. But sometimes it can be more difficult than other times to identify that theme. When I first read today’s readings, for example, I have to admit that I did not see the connection between the first reading – which gives a portrait of the ideal wife – and the Gospel, which is the Parable of the Talents. However, upon some reflection (and consulting some commentaries on the readings), a unifying theme did emerge.
So, to look at these two readings in particular: the first reading from Proverbs, as I said, paints a picture of the ideal wife. You’ll notice that it really has nothing to do with her physical appearance; in fact, it says, “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting.” Instead, the author says that what makes the ideal wife is how she lives her life, and the inner qualities that help her to do good. We probably can’t relate to all of the examples given: I don’t know how many women these days go around obtaining wool and flax, and I don’t know what a distaff and a spindle are, although my guess is that it has something to do with making clothes.
So is Scripture telling us that the ideal wife is one who makes clothes? That’s it? Well, we have to look at the bigger meaning behind these words. First, the first part of Proverbs deals with Wisdom, and the book concludes with a depiction of a person who is the embodiment of wisdom. Rather than choosing for example a king, a warrior, a farmer, or even a priest, the author of Proverbs chooses a married woman as the embodiment of wisdom. And the ideal of wisdom presented here is a woman who faithfully fulfills the duties and the work of her state in life – often quietly, without recognition, outside of the public eye. And of course it uses examples that would be meaningful to people from the culture and the society in which it was written. This is so contrary to our age in which for something to seemingly have value, it has to be something really extraordinary and everybody has to know about it. The thing is, the example given here does not apply just to married women in particular or women in general, but rather to everyone: men, women, children. Whoever we are and whatever our state in life, we all have certain duties and responsibilities to fulfill, and we also have a specific mission from the Lord for carrying on His work in the world. The ideal of wisdom – truly living a good and righteous life – is found in fulfilling our responsibilities, carrying out the work that God has given to us, and serving Him quietly, steadily, without being concerned for the recognition of others.
And here is the connection with our Gospel reading of the Parable of the Talents: three men were given money or talents to invest in the parable. As we heard, two of them did the right thing: the one who received five talents earned another five; the one who received two talents earned another two. But the man who only received one talent did not do what he was asked to do: When he received the talent in the first place, he was suspicious of his master – he did not trust him. And he did not do what he was asked to do; instead, he buried the talent. And when he returned it, he was deceptive to his master and in a way tried to cast the blame on his master by saying that he was a demanding person. The first two are of course praised for wisely investing their talents and having earned more. But the third one was reprimanded for failing to do what he was asked.
So here’s the connection between our first reading and the Gospel: both involve people who fulfill certain responsibilities. Those who do so are praised for their work and are rewarded accordingly. As the first reading says, “Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.” And in the Gospel: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.”
Our readings at Mass in November are intended to direct our minds to the last things, to the next life, to eternity. That’s because we are approaching the end of this liturgical year, which culminates in the Feast of Christ the King in a couple weeks before Advent begins. Our readings today seek to direct our minds to the eternal reward that awaits us if we do the work that God has given us to do. And as our readings suggest, this work is often very ordinary and mundane. It’s not going to attract any attention or social media likes. But those things aren’t important anyway. What matters is whether what we do is pleasing to God. It doesn’t matter if it’s ordinary or simple work. Whatever we do, no matter how small or simple or ordinary, we can do it out of love for the Lord. Mother Teresa used to say, “We can do small things with great love.”
So whoever you are and whatever you do, you can do everything with love. Whether you are caring for your baby, helping your children with their homework, studying for an exam, working at a mundane job, talking to a neighbor or relative, you can do it as an act of love and make of it an offering to God. God knows what we are doing; he pays attention when no one else does. And He promises to reward us for our faithful service.