In a matter of days, it will be 2023 and I have still not got used to writing “2022” on checks and papers. What has happened to the time? People talk about timesaving hacks and timesaving gadgets – we even have daylight savings time – but time cannot be saved. It can only be – must be – spent, either well or poorly. Each new year reminds us of the fact.
The New Year’s holiday offers us an opportunity to reflect on this. Am I spending time well? Are there things I could do differently that would make me more productive, bring lasting benefit to others, or increase my joy?
The biblical writers encourage such self-reflection. St. Paul, for example, instructed readers to “Be very careful, then, how you live.” A more literal translation is: “Look carefully at how you walk” – where “walk” serves as a metaphor for one’s journey through life. The apostle is urging people to take a close look at their lives.
This call to take a careful look at our lives is common in Scripture. We find frequent exhortations like this: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” St. Paul says, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” Jesus himself urged people to “consider carefully what you hear.” The Greek for this is striking: “See what you hear.” In other words, pay attention to how you pay attention.
The danger is that we will go through life mindlessly and thereby miss out on opportunities to become the strong, joyful people that God intends us to be. St. Paul continues his instruction this way: “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise.” He explains the difference between being wise and unwise in the next sentence. The unwise person has “become foolish” – the word means “unthinking” or “mindless” – while the wise person “understands what the will of the Lord is.”
The great saint knew that the temptation to mindlessness is strong. Humans are escapists by nature. Some of us have been trapped in boring routines while others are captive to non-stop stress. Many are locked into addictions that, ironically, began as escape attempts. Rather than facing our situation and acknowledging the pain it causes, we seek to “become unthinking.” Television shows, social media platforms, video games, sporting events, and even coffee klatch politicking owe their popularity to this desire.
St. Paul explains what it means to live wisely with the words, “making the most of every opportunity,” or, as the King James Version translated it, “redeeming the time.” Though time cannot be saved, it can, apparently, be redeemed – or “bought,” as the root word signifies. Buying up opportune moments is a pillar of the wise person’s investment strategy.
Why is it important to redeem the time? An illustration may help. In 1271 Niccolo and Matteo Polo (the father and uncle of Marco) were visiting the Kubla Khan, who was arguably the most powerful man in the world. He ruled all of China, all of India and most of the East.
And he was interested in Christianity. He told the Polo brothers: “Go to your high priest and tell him to send a hundred men skilled in the Christian faith to instruct us. When they come, I shall be baptized, and when I am baptized all my barons and great men will be baptized, and their subjects will receive baptism, too, and so there will be more Christians here than there are in your part of the world.”
But the Polo’s did not redeem the time. No one was sent for thirty years, and then only two or three missionaries went. Too few and too late. William Barclay has written: “It baffles the imagination to think what a difference to the world it would have made if in the thirteenth century China had become fully Christian, if in the thirteenth century India had become fully Christian, if in the thirteenth century the East had been given to Christ.”
The Polo’s did not buy up the opportune moment. We would be living in a different world today if they had. Perhaps mindlessness got the better of them. Will it get the better of us too?