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Spiritual Sloth vs the Wife of Proverbs 31

by Brant Pitre February 26, 2021 0 Comments

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Dr. Pitre discusses the contrasts spiritual sloth and the wife of Proverbs 31 when discussing the parable of the talents during the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year A. Subscribers to the Mass Readings Explained can access the full video here:


with these words, he is really harsh: “You wicked and slothful ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” 

So pause here and notice that key word slothful.  What is the main sin of the third servant?  It's that he's spiritually slothful.  He's lazy, in other words.  He has the gift, he has the talent, he has the money and he just doesn't do anything with it.  He's afraid and he is lazy.  Notice then what is not said about the servant.  It doesn't say you adulterer.  He doesn’t say you thief.  He doesn't say you murderer.  This is not a sin of commission.  This is what theologians call a sin of omission.  It's not what he did, it's what he failed to do with the gift that God had given him, with the talent the master had given him.  So the master says “take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents.”  Now this is again strange.  You are going to take the $1 million away from this guy and give it to the guy who already has 5 million?  That doesn't make any sense.  But Jesus explains it to us at the end here.  Obviously he is not talking about actual money, he is talking about spiritual gifts.  And so at the end of the parable Jesus gives us what I've referred to before as the nimshal.  The nimshal is either a short or a long explanation of the Jewish parable that kind of drives home the main point of the parable.  So what's the main point here?  “To every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”  And then he says “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”  That last line is your cue, that's the kind of key to unlocking the fact that this isn’t about finances.  The outer darkness in all of Jesus’ parables is always a figure for Hell.  It's a figure for being separated from God for all eternity.  Jesus always uses the image of weeping and gnashing of teeth as a way of describing the agony, the pain and the suffering of being separated from God for all eternity.  So what is being described here, essentially the nimshal, the main point of this parable, is that sins of omission have consequences.  Spiritual sloth, in other words, failing to take the gifts that God has given you, and to actually utilize them, to invest them, to bear fruit, to multiply them, is itself a sin.  It's a sin of spiritual sloth.

We know this as Catholics because our spiritual tradition talks about the seven deadly sins.  Most of us are familiar with the sin of lust, or even maybe the sin of greed, or pride, or anger; but one of the sins that is very pervasive in our culture and in our time, but which we often overlook and don't think about as much, is the seventh deadly sin, the sin of sloth.  The sin of laziness, of failing to act when we should act.  And of spiritual laziness in particular, which would be failing to utilize the spiritual gifts that God has given us and to put them into practice so that they might bear fruit, to invest them so to speak.  That's a really serious omission, that is a serious sin, and Jesus here is using this parable to exhort his followers, to exhort his disciples to be diligent.  What is the opposite virtue?  The vice is sloth.  What's the virtue?  Diligence.  Hard work, not just in the earthly realm but in the spiritual realm.  Doing the hard work of bearing fruit with the gifts that God has given us, investing them.  And I think, although I can't be sure, I think that emphasis on the virtue of diligence is the link between the New Testament reading for today and the Old Testament reading.

If you go back, the Old Testament reading for today is from the book of Proverbs 31.  This is a very famous passage.  You may have seen books on the Proverbs 31 woman.  It's a long description at the end of the book of Proverbs of a virtuous wife.  And in this case, when I was preparing for the video I was like what exactly is the link between the Old and New Testament?  It's really hard to see.  This one is not as obvious as a lot of the other Old Testament passages we've been looking at.  But as far as I can tell, the one connection I can see is this virtue of diligence, because in Proverbs 31 there is this description of a virtuous wife, and one of her characteristics is that she's hard-working, is that she's diligent.  So let me read this very famous description and we will look at the virtuous wife.  In this instance, I just want to make a note that the chapter of Proverbs 31 is a lot longer than the lectionary reading.  The lectionary reading is a sample, it just chooses a few verses.  I encourage you to go back and read the whole thing, but I am just going to focus on the verses that the lectionary gives us.  This is what Proverbs 31 says:

A good wife who can find?

She is far more precious than jewels.

The heart of her husband trusts in her,

and he will have no lack of gain.

She does him good, and not harm,

all the days of her life.

She seeks wool and flax,

and works with willing hands.


She puts her hands to the distaff,

and her hands hold the spindle.

She opens her hand to the poor,

and reaches out her hands to the needy.


Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,

but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Give her of the fruit of her hands,

and let her works praise her in the gates.

That is a beautiful passage.  What is being described here?  If you look at the text it kind of highlights several different virtues and you can single them out by looking at the various images used to describe the Proverbs 31 woman or the words involved.  So the first word, the kind of lead term here is the Hebrew word hayil.  Hayil means strong or capable.  The Revised Standard Version translates this, it is a little misleading, when it says “a good wife who can find?”  The normal Hebrew word for good is tov, but that is not the word being used here.  Hayil is different, it means a capable wife, a strong wife.  The word can can even be used in the context of valiant in certain cases here.  So she's strong, she's capable.  That is the first virtue.  The second virtue described is that she is faithful to her husband.  Notice what it says, “the heart of her husband trusts in her.”  So she is faithful to him and he can put her trust in her, and in her strength.  Third, she is a loving wife.  Notice what it says, “she does her husband good and not harm all the days of her life.”  So by definition, to love someone is to will the good of another person, well the Proverbs 31 wife is a loving wife.  She doesn't will harm to her husband, she wills him good, and she does it over and over and over again all the days of his life.

The next characteristic is really important, it's the one that links with the parable, that she is diligent.  In other words, she's hard-working.  That's really what you're getting in the description of her when it says that she “seeks wool and flax”, she “works with willing hands”, she “puts her hand to the distaff”, in other words she's not idle.  And this is a very important point.  In ancient Israel, women worked very, very hard.  They worked primarily in the domestic sphere, but that didn't mean that they didn't have an important economic role.  You can actually see this here that she seeks wool and flax, so what is she doing?  She's sewing, she's making clothing, she's making garments, she's putting her hand to the spindle, and she is working in the home diligently.  She's not idle.  So that is a very important virtue that you see being described here in the Proverbs 31 woman, diligence, she is hard-working.

Another virtue, the fifth one here, is generosity.  So notice, not only does the wife here make money for the home, but she also takes those earnings and she opens her hands to the poor.  She's generous with the wealth that she has acquired.  And then finally, but by no means least important, she has the virtue of interior beauty.  This is really important.  The text ends by saying charm is deceitful and beauty is vain.  In other words, exterior charm, exterior beauty, those are good things but they're passing, right.  That is what the word vain means.  They are ephemeral, they are fleeting, they don't last forever.  No matter how beautiful you are, eventually age will take that outward beauty away.  But the Proverbs 31 woman is inwardly beautiful because she fears the Lord, that's where true beauty is.  It's in her piety, it's in her obedience to God, and in that beauty age doesn't take it away, it actually should increase that.  She should become more beautiful as she grows in virtue, as she grows in wisdom and knowledge and in fear of the Lord, and for this we see something very interesting, it ends by saying “let her works praise her in the city gates.”

What does that mean?  Well on the one hand it means that she has a reputation for virtue, that her virtue isn’t private.  It isn't hidden virtue.  It's something that's known by the public, it is known by the people, the image here is of the city gates.  But I think there is something even more specific here, because earlier in the passage -- this isn’t in the lectionary but it is in Proverbs 31 -- it says “her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land”, because the elders of the people in ancient Judaism would gather at the city gates to deliberate, to make decisions for the people, for the town.  So when it says “her works praise her in the city gates,” some people have suggested what that means is that her husband praises her in the city gates.  In other words, he speaks well of his wife in public.  I think that's a really important piece of wisdom from the Old Testament.  Within a marriage, not only should the wife love her husband and do good to her husband all the days of her life, the husband should always speak well of his wife in public.  He should never denigrate her or speak badly about her in front of other people.  He should always find her virtues and praise her virtues in the city gates.  This is a beautiful image for this loving relationship between the husband and the valiant wife, the capable wife, the one who is far more precious than jewels.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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