Among the biggest mysteries of daily life is the passage of time. What happens to it? Why are we so bound by it? Why does time pass so slowly when we are young and so rapidly when we are old? It seems that the opposite should be true. And above allâwhen loved ones leave us, when they die, where are they, if they are not in time? We all have asked similar questions.
Centuries ago the psalmist uttered with poignant accuracy,
â. . . our years come to an end like a sigh.â
We donât know this truth when we are young; we recognize it only when time has passed, and, looking back over the years and the decades, we wonder, Where did the time go? The believer hopes it is absorbed in the loving purpose of the Creatorâthat it is not wasted.
But even though we feel an instant recognition when we read the words of the psalmist, the question remainsâhow did the ancients view time? Their perception must have been different from ours. When the prophets say that the day of the Lord âis at hand,â do they mean that the end is immediate? Since we know that the end of time predicted by them has not yet arrived, we assume that they must have understood it with a much wider view than we possess. It is so easy to misread them and ascribe to them our own understanding of time.
Let us look at the young Christian church and try to discover why todayâs readings are so filled with longing and, in the case of the Gospel story, with warning. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament readings deal with various understandings of âthe last day,â or âthe day of the Lord,â when Time ends and we enter another realm, which we cannot comprehend.
The prophet Zephaniah warns those who think that God is indifferent to themâthose who confuse the One God and the worship of this Lord with the idolatrous practices of pagansâthat the day of the Lord for them will be full of darkness, not of light, and that time will have no mercy on their plans:
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine
There is no promise here, only a warning. For this prophet, the day of the Lord is at hand and the retribution of those who move away from the loving care of God âis near, near and hastening fast.â
When St. Paul writes to the young church in Thessalonica, he seems to have a similar conviction: that the day of the Lord is at hand; but for him this is a prospect filled with promiseâfor his beloved readers and for himself.
For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. (Here awake means alive and asleep means dead.)
A persecuted churchâand the church in the Province of Macedonia deserved this description from its inceptionâis a church that longs for the return of the Lord. We encounter this longing in times of war and despair. Early in his preaching mission, Paul was convinced that the return of the glorified Christ was very near, that it would happen within his lifetime. The people of the church in Thessalonica, believing that the day of the Lord was approaching, were falling into doubt and despair because some from that small community were dying before the promised return of the Lord had occurred. So Paul, who has brought them the gospel of hope, is trying here to encourage them by reminding them that they are âchildren of light,â and for those who live in the light, even death is not to be feared. It is as if Time does not matterâwhether dead or alive, we are in Godâs hands, he assures them and us.
Because apocalyptic literature is not easily understood by people who live comfortable lives in the United States and in most of the developed world in the West, talk of the last day has more or less disappeared from our preaching and even our thinking. It comes back in times of trouble; since the great disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf occurred as a result of hurricanes, some wise words have been written about the meaning of great disasters, together with a great deal of nonsense. There is a tendency among fundamentalist Christians to dwell on a violent end for those who donât believe as they do, and for some kind of apocalyptic rapture for themselves. But what comes through with clarity and poignancy in Paulâs writing to the Thessalonians is a deep compassion for their doubts and fears and the reminder that no one knows the end of time, that it comes like a thief in the night, and that what we need is to be preparedâby living with awareness, with faith, and with love.
It is this quality of preparedness that we can also gather from the difficult parable of the talents; in this case the word talent can be both literal and metaphorical. The actual talent, probably when measuring its weight in gold, equaled what a laborer would earn in the span of 15 years in the first century, a huge amount for the severely underpaid people of those days; it was worth 3000 shekels in Palestine and 6000 drachmas in the Greek world. Because of its value and its possibilities, this same word, talent, has entered language to denote a natural gift of abilities and aptitudes. Some people are simply more talented than others, and this is a gift, not an achievement. Jesus seems to acknowledge in this parable that not all of us are born equal when it comes to gifts and talents.
If we happen to be among the talented, the question of importance to consider is what we do with these gifts. Do we spend them for the good of others? Do we try to correct systemic wrongs by putting these gifts to work so that they multiply and double in value? Or do we hide our talents, resentful towards the Creator who blessed others more than ourselves, and offer nothing to those who surround us?
A more pointed question is this: What do we do with our time? If we accept it as a talent which, by being invested wisely, produces more productive and meaningful time, then life becomes more fulfilling. If we waste it, so that it seems to just sit there gathering only disappointment and disillusionment, we reach the end of our time with bitterness.
What do we do with our wealth? Do we use it for the good of others so that it multiplies wonderfully, like the talents that were wisely invested in the parable? If we donât, we become like the people the prophet Zephaniah has in mind when he says:
Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lordâs wrath.
What do we do with our gifts for teaching, for ministering, for healing, for delighting others?
When this passage in the 25th chapter of Matthew is read not in isolation but in conjunction with the parable that follows it, that of the great judgment, we realize that doing good to those who are neglected by our society is what the wise use and multiplication of the talents means.
So in this reading of the parable, and in the Old Testament and Epistle, we may be permitted to look at the gift of time as a talent, and when we say with the psalmist that our years come to end like a sigh, let it be the sigh of satisfaction for a job well done.
Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Lord. AMEN