“Of those who have received much, much is expected” – that was one of my mother’s favorite mantras. It was a guiding force in our family - our gifts are to be shared, to help bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth. Matthew’s series of parables of the kingdom these past few weeks urge us to prepare, to be wise, and in today’s parable, not to hoard.
There are different interpretations of this parable of the “talents.” In one it is a mandate for all of us to develop our unique talents. I grew up with that version.
In another interpretation the master is not God and the first two servants simply trade money in unspecified deals to make their master richer and richer. Barbara Reid* suggests that a first century audience would have seen the last servant, the one who hid the talent, as the hero - one who refused to participate in a system that glorifies making money over all else. So I must ask, “Did someone lose out in the deals the first two servants made?” Our gifts are not to be used to take advantage of others. And why does this master have to be so rich? Does the last servant’s punishment warn us it is risky to stand for a more human centered system in which money and work produce the essentials - food, shelter, clothing, art without hoarding? This interpretation paints a picture of what we need to do to be fully present in the Kingdom of God and to avoid the devastating effects of rigid capitalism in which accumulating money is the goal versus productive capitalism with the goal of creating life-giving products and services. This interpretation carries a most essential message for us today.
But I need to go back to my earliest memories of this parable. The first time I would have heard it was November 1970. It, and our first reading from Proverbs 31, were part of the new Year A lectionary. As a college senior I was struggling with what to do with my life; I heard the word “talents” and my mother’s mantra came to mind. (I now know “talents” was a quantity of money in the first century – I did not know that back in 1970.) It was comforting to know that my mission was straightforward – find and use my talents. It didn’t overwhelm me as much as always being kind and generous – it seemed more doable to find a talent and use it. The parable drew me in and kept me searching. Later my mandate expanded to appreciating the gifts of others and helping children develop theirs.
Which takes us to the Woman of Worth of Proverbs 31 - Our children need to know this Woman of Worth - Esheth Ayil [phonetic translation.] Most translations identify her as a “worthy wife” but the Hebrew is “woman” (there is no word for “wife” in Hebrew.) The Proverb is an acrostic with the first letter of each couplet a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Scholars speculate it was used to teach girls to read and that women gathered in circles to learn business would have listened to it while some others formed networks of weavers. We need to bring this Woman of Worth with all her talents and joys to our children today.
There is a chilling moment in a documentary on sex trafficking when a sheriff in Chicago asks a prolific trafficker, “How do you find the girls?” Surprisingly, he answers, “I go to the malls. When I see a girl alone, even just for a few minutes I go up and say, “You have beautiful eyes.” If she looks at me and says, “Thank you” I move on. If she looks down and is unsure I know I have a chance.” Our children need to know this Woman of Valor and Strength; to see her using her talents for good and to know they can do the same. We need to dig to find her talents - our lectionary omits 16 verses, burying praise for her capabilities, hard work, business acumen, generosity and love of God’s law of kindness.
In the missing verses we learn that she clothes her family in crimson so they “do not fear the cold”, she assesses her estate and buys choice land, she plants a vineyard and feeds her family; she spins wool and flax and makes sashes to sell in the market. She opens her mouth and the Torah, the law of kindness comes forth. Her children and her husband rise up to praise her. Some see the husband leaving all the work to his capable wife – but we can also see her commitment to use all of her gifts to care for her family, herself and her community. Reading the missing verses I found a sense of delight pouring off the pages as one gift after another emerged.
Her enterprises remind me of a number of NT women – Lydia of Philippi, the head of a cloth dying business and founder, with Paul of the Church at Philippi, Prisca who with her husband Aquila was a tent maker and founded several Christian communities; and the disciples from Galilee – Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Susanna - women of means who supported Jesus in his ministry. Perhaps these women heard and heeded the advice of their ancestor, this “Worthy Woman” of Proverbs 31.
We adults need to be this woman of worth and integrity more than ever today. Imagine if all our daughters and sons saw themselves in her and imagine if they received the “Torah of kindness” from our lips. She certainly used every one of her God given talents and more. It’s a shame so much is omitted.
To get to know the full Woman of Worth treat yourself to reading and sharing all of Proverbs 31 – now let us pray - “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.”
*Reid, Barbara E., Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year A. (Liturgical Press: MN, 2013) 120-121.
Proverbs 31:10-31 (Note verses 1-9 are a different poem so they are not included in description of the verses of Proverbs 31 that are and are not included in the lectionary.)
Proverbs 31: 10-31 (Lectionary includes only verses 10-13, 19-20, 30-31)
10 A capable wife [or Worthy Woman] who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. 12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
(Verses 14-18 are omitted from the lectionary) 14 She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. 15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. 17 She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. 18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
(Verses 19-20 are included in lectionary) 19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. 20 She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
(Verses 21-29 are omitted from lectionary) 21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. 22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. 25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. 26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching [Torah] of kindness is on her tongue. 27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: 29 ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’
(Verses 30-31 are included in lectionary) 30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (Verse 30 can also be translated as “Do not rely on the being seen with favor by others.” The current translation makes it seem that the woman is vain and her charms are deceitful.) 31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Rita L. Houlihan
Rita L. Houlihan is a Eucharistic minister, lector and catechist as well as a member of her parish’s Parish Council. She had a long career at IBM working in technical support, sales, and Organizational Change Strategy. Rita is a graduate of Newton College of the Sacred Heart and holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from NYU. She is a member of FutureChurch’s Women in Church Leadership Committee and joined the FutureChurch Board in 2008.
After retiring Rita explored the role of women in salvation history and committed to work on the restoration of our historical memory of early Christian women leaders with a focus on St. Mary of Magdala. Much is known of these women in academic circles however, relatively few Catholics (including clergy) even know their names (such as Phoebe of Cenchreae, Lydia of Philippi, Tabitha of Joppa, and the Women of Worth of Proverbs 31) or their significance. Most of these faithful women are omitted from our Sunday Lectionary.
Recognizing that the popular misconception of Mary of Magdala as “penitent sinner” is reinforced with negative images Rita commissioned the sculpted relief – “Mary of Magdala Proclaims the Resurrection” by Margaret Beaudette, SC. The art captures a determined Mary of Magdala first proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord” to a group of women and men disciples. The original relief is installed at the Church of the Ascension on West 107th Street in NY, NY. Copies are also installed at the Sisters of Charity house in Riverdale, NY and Blessed Trinity parish in Cleveland, Ohio.
Since 2009 Rita has sponsored
Boston College’s annual “St. Mary of Magdala Lecture” and sponsored Elizabeth
Johnson’s lecture on Mary of Magdala at Fordham University in 2015. Also in
2015, Rita led a small group in writing a letter to Pope Francis requesting
that the Vatican issue a corrective teaching on Mary of Magdala and elevate her
commemoration to a Solemnity. On June 3, 2016 the Vatican elevated Mary of
Magdala’s memorial to a full Feast with her own Preface. The decree presents her
as a true apostle and evangelizer. Mary of Magdala is the only woman saint
celebrated with the Feast designation. There is much more to be done to
overcome the negative images of Mary of Magdala and to restore her and many
other early women leaders to their rightful place in our liturgies and our
Links to videos of the lectures and the Vatican’s Decree: