You are sitting in your car at what you know is a long traffic light. Consider two scenarios.
(1) “This is down time,” you say to yourself, “I might as well make the best of it.” And so you pick up your phone and check out email, the news, or replies to your latest social media post.
(2) You say to yourself: “I want to look at my phone. That’s a harmless enough diversion. But I’ll not do so, and instead offer up that small sacrifice to God.” It’s not that you use the time to say a prayer, which would be even better; it’s just that you deny yourself some small thing that you want.
The main difference is that in the first scenario, the driver really does improve himself, albeit slightly. He doesn’t “waste time” but “improves the marginal value” of his time. In the second, he deliberately gives up a small thing for God.
On which scenario did the driver “redeem the time”?
In the same class with the first scenario are things like “multitasking.” In the same class with the second are “mortifications” in general.
You might insist that, in the first, clearly, he “redeems his time,” to some extent at least, since the second has nothing to do with redeeming time. In saying this, however (and my goal here is to convince you), you would show yourself in the grips of a Protestantizing interpretation of the phrase.
“Redeeming the time” is a strange phrase, which St. Paul actually uses twice. In Ephesians 5, he begins by recounting the sexual immorality of the world, exhorting Christians to live chastely. Beware of false teachers who try to rationalize or minimize these sins, he warns! Conduct yourself wisely, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Ep. 5:16.) The other place is Colossians 4:5, again in the context of instruction on chastity, and again he tells Christians to conduct themselves wisely towards “those on the outside,” “redeeming the time.”
Just from looking at these contexts, we should be very doubtful that “redeem the time” means “don’t waste time.” And yet why has that interpretation become so widespread? What is its source? Mainly, I think, from Protestant sermons on misleading translations.
A paradigm of such sermonizing would be Jonathan Edwards’ remarkable “The Preciousness of Time and the Importance of Redeeming It .” Now, do not get me wrong. Time is indeed a treasure . Edwards is completely correct in insisting that time on earth is scarce in relation to the eternity in which we reap its benefits or not; that because of original sin, we are always in danger of “losing” time; and that, once lost, time can never be recovered. Therefore, any time remaining needs to be “saved” by diligence and industry in doing good.
Edwards argues all of these things very well. And yet any thoughtful person is well aware of all these things, which is why we all easily and naturally assign to St. Paul’s idiom the sense “don’t waste time.” That is a secularizing interpretation, however, as today’s “multitasking” shows.
The other reason for the prevalence of this interpretation is misleading translation. The Biblical term for time as “stuff,” in which events and actions occur in a series, is chronos. The Messiah was born of a woman in “the fullness of” such time (chronos, Galatians 4:4), St. Paul says. We are liable to waste time, indeed, in this sense of chronos, the way we waste water or electricity.
But the word he uses for “redeeming the time” is the very different term, kairos. It’s a subtle word, but you can’t go far wrong by thinking of it as “opportunity.” Kairos, let us say, is time as presenting an opportunity.
Likewise, our word, “redeem,” after the rise of commercial society, has simply tended to mean a purchasing back. It can even be used for both sides of a transaction: one party redeems his certificates from an original issuer who thereby redeems them.
But in St. Paul’s day to redeem meant to make a small sacrifice pleasing to God, especially, to gain something back as our own, on which God had a prior claim, as in the Jewish practice of redeeming a first-born son (Leviticus 12, Exodus 13:12–15). The main point is that we give up something which is “licitly” ours in order to be in right relation to God.
Very different from Edwards is Aquinas, in his commentary . He first paraphrases St. Paul’s exhortation: “Beware of men who thwart chastity. . . .The whole of time is now a time of deception, hence you should be redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
Aquinas next explains why redeeming the time is necessary: “At the time Adam sinned, and from then on, snares have always been set to thrust men into sin. It was not that way in the state of innocence when it was unnecessary for a man to abstain from anything which was licit, since there was nothing in his will driving him to sin. But now. . .we must avoid the depravity of the days. . .we must renounce even certain things which are lawful. This is the way in which a person is said to redeem a grievance he caused since he permits something that is rightfully his to be forfeited.”
On Aquinas’s interpretation, then, to live with the necessary circumspection in a fallen world requires regular small mortifications, and, one might add (bringing out the aspect of kairos), only through such mortifications will a window be opened for the grace and insight for finding opportunities for spreading the Good News.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives this usage from 1962: “On the train to London, he monopolizes the lavatory for hours, redeeming the time by ripping and flushing away names and addresses of people in London who could be of use to him.”
Well, that’s how “those on the outside” do it. We Christians redeem the time differently.
*Image: Saint Paul Preaching at Ephesus  by Eustache Le Sueur, 1649 [National Gallery, London]
You may also enjoy:
Prof. Pakaluk’s My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation 
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s A Design of Eternal Salvation