Lectionary Commentaries for November 16, 2014
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30

Greg Carey

There’s a lot at stake in the interpretation of this parable. 

Does the parable of the talents admonish disciples that they’d better get useful or they might face judgment? Or does the parable subvert traditional images of an authoritarian and threatening Jesus? Like the parable of the virgins, the parable of the talents will raise questions among our hearers. Courageous preachers will address those questions head-on.

According to the traditional reading the parable encourages disciples to use their resources effectively for the gospel’s sake — and it warns us that we’d better get on with it. So prevalent is this interpretation that many have applied the term “talents” (Greek: talanton) to, well, talents like singing, entrepreneurship, carpentry, or public speaking. In this model a faithful response to this parable involves the creative, daring, and successful use of our talents for the kingdom’s sake. But elements of this parable will trouble some of us. What if the parable is less straightforward and its message more subversive?

The traditional interpretation stands upon a fairly reasonable assumption: the “man” we encounter in 25:14 signifies Jesus. Like the parables that surround it, the parable of the talents possesses a certain allegorical quality. Matthew 25:18 identifies the man as the “lord” (kyrios), a term that, ordinarily, simply means “master.” Matthew is particularly fond of assigning kyrios to Jesus as well as to God (in the immediate context, see 25:11).The man’s journey, then, evokes the delay of Jesus’ return, the notorious delay of the parousia.

The parable immediately before the talents, the parable of the virgins (25:1-13), deals precisely with being “ready” for Jesus’ return, a motif Matthew emphasizes (24:42; 25:13). More than other Gospels, Matthew shows interest in a final judgment, where the condemned experience “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This parable includes that language as well (25:30). For these reasons the prevailing reading makes lots of sense: it participates in larger Matthean themes. But what if the “man” does not provide a direct stand-in for an absent but returning Jesus? What if the “man” is a scoundrel?

Commentators routinely remind us that Matthew’s parable involves talents as opposed to Luke’s pounds. We’re talking about an absurd amount of wealth in Matthew’s case. Matthew is surely capable of pressing financial imagery to its limits: we recall the merchant who sells everything he owns for a single pearl (13:45-46). But then what does he do now that he owns the pearl but has no means with which to feed himself?

Matthew does enjoy big numbers, but we might recall another dimension of Matthew’s “financial” parables: Matthew is capable of portraying scoundrels. Here we recall another parable from the cluster in Matthew 13, the parable of the treasure hidden in a field (13:44). The parable of the talents describes the man as a “rough” man (25:24). The man neither confirms nor denies this judgment, as he does in Luke (19:22), but he does acknowledge that he benefits from labor he has not performed himself (25:26).

Not long ago we treated such parables as “hyperbolic”: the stunning amounts involved simply amplified the parable’s message. More recently, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, daring preachers might reflect upon the mathematics of fabulous wealth. More than ever we are aware that a very few people routinely deal in sums that are unimaginable to most of us — and that they sometimes (often?) deal with these resources irresponsibly or even unethically. What if Matthew is showing us what can happen when a fabulously wealthy man toys around with his wealth, and with his slaves?

In significant ways Matthew’s version of the parable diverges from Luke’s (19:12-27). Among them, (1) while Matthew places this parable among others in Jesus’ final eschatological discourse in Jerusalem, Luke puts Jesus “near” Jerusalem and explains that “they” expected the kingdom of God to come immediately. Both authors link the parable to the delay of Jesus’ return. (2) Matthew assigns different amounts to each slave, each according to his ability, but Luke assigns one “pound” to each slave. In Matthew, then, the slaves differ not only in terms of their profit but in terms of their starting point, including their capacity to generate revenue.

Remarkably, both Matthew and Luke include the saying that “to all those who have, more will be given” followed by “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (NRSV). (3) Luke’s “man” is a nobleman who rules over a country. His departure creates an attempted coup, and he rewards his faithful slaves with authority over cities. Matthew restricts the parable to money and to “being in charge of many things.” (4) Both parables include violence. In Luke the nobleman orders the slaughter of those who conspire against him, but in Matthew the violence is restricted to the slave who produces no profit. (5) Where Luke’s nobleman acknowledges that he is “hard” or difficult, Matthew eliminates that part of his confession. (6) Matthew mentions talents, far greater wealth than Luke’s pounds.

In the end we are left with a parable that for all the world seems to promote effort and risk in serving the kingdom until Jesus’ return, but a parable that worries us at many levels. The slave characterizes the Jesus figure as a “harsh” man, and he is correct. Not only does the man own slaves (though doulos does not necessarily indicate a slave), he distributes his fabulous wealth to each slave “according to his ability” (25:15), then condemns the one slave even though that slave never possessed the ability to do better.

Outdoor darkness, where people weep and gnash their teeth, awaits this man. Like the parable of the ten virgins, this parable challenges us with an apparently arbitrary, at least intimidating, standard of living and with the prospect of Jesus as a harsh judge. Is it possible that Matthew is out to subvert that model of judgment by exposing its ridiculous nature? Most of the evidence suggests otherwise, but this reader wants to know.


First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Eric Mathis

Helen Keller was once quoted as saying, “Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all — the apathy of human beings.”

And, the great Jewish political activist Elie Wiesel said something similar, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Though perhaps not as well remembered, the prophet Zephaniah suggested God just might say the same thing.

Zephaniah 1:7 begins the second of a series of nine oracles in the book of Zephaniah. This passage introduces the day of the Lord as a day of sacrifice. Here, Zephaniah portrays God as the priest who will offer the sacrifice, and this is accompanied by two important implications: that Judah is the sacrifice and the guests are armies of destruction (verse 7).1 The sole rubric for this ritual is named at the beginning of the oracle: to be silent in the presence of God.

The implications present in verse seven are more pronounced as chapter one progresses, particularly in verses 12-18. These verses, poetic in nature, emphasize emphatically that God cares about justice. God cares about justice so much that God is willing to search out Jerusalem with lamps for those complacent, indifferent city dwellers who view God as the same (verse 12).

In a near crass metaphor, the writer compares the complacent to spoiled wine dregs. Dregs, the sediments of the grapes, were used in wine making to provide body and color. But, when wine sits too long in dregs, it becomes spoiled, thick, and syrupy — as do those who are unwilling to work for justice (verse 12b). The punishment? Denial. The complacent are denied the fruits of their labor. Though they may work to accumulate wealth and physical possessions, they will not be permitted to enjoy them (verse 13).

After the initial warning against complacency and indifference, Zephaniah repeats once again that the day of the Lord is at hand. This day is coming quickly, and it is not to be a pretty sight, so to speak. Bennett points out that the language identifies God with “the avenging warrior, specifically causing thunderous noise and blood-curdling shrieks of warfare” (verse 14).2 Subsequent verses align the voice of God with the Psalmist’s portrayal of power and majesty, and they heighten the nature of the day as one of ruin, devastation, darkness, and gloom. Indeed, it is no surprise that these verses are often associated with the Dies irae, the medieval Latin hymn which foreshadows the terror of the final judgment (verses 15-16).3

On the day of the Lord, nothing will be able to save the people. Blood will turn to dust and flesh will turn to nothing other than dung. No material possession will be able to save the people, for the Lord will rule and the Lord will see to it that God’s ways are asserted on earth (verses 17-18).

The most immediate application of this passage for preaching might be found in this oft-quoted and nearly clichéd phrase: the opposite of love is nothate, but indifference. Throughout this oracle, Zephaniah the prophet emphasizes emphatically that the day of the Lord is a day for taking a stand.

The day of the Lord is all about calling upon those who are full of indifference and complacency, and determine that God operates in the same way. God’s words, spoken through Zephaniah, indicate the exact opposite. God is not indifferent. God is not complacent. God is actively working to ensure that there will be an ongoing relationship between God and God’s people, and this is the heart of this particular oracle. God is not indifferent, and neither are we as God’s people to be indifferent about our relationship with God, about politics, about the social well-being of all, or about anything else that God cares about.

While the clarion call against indifference might be most readily apparent, it must not go unnoticed that as the liturgical year comes to an end this passage — like many others now — points to “the end.” However, to stop at the end is to read the passage at a surface-level. It is critical for readers and preachers to understand that the end to which Zephaniah points is not a fateful day of doom and gloom. Rather, “the end” is the day of the Lord, and the day of the Lord is that day when God’s rule will be extended over the nations such as Judah and Israel.

The day of the Lord is the day when indifference will no longer be tolerated. The day of the Lord is the day when, out of blood and ashes and flesh and dung, will, in fact, come something good: the promise of a future where God reigns over all people and all things. At the end of the liturgical year, it is important to sound this clarion call: “to know God as God is, one must experience the future revolution.”4 The day of the Lord brings not wrath and judgment, but a future in which all things are made new by the God who cares about the good of all things and all people.


Notes:

1 Robert A. Bennett, “The Book of Zephaniah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume VII, ed. Leander E. Keck, Thomas G. Long, David L. Petersen, et al, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 677.

 2 Ibid., 682.

3 Ibid., 683.

4 Ibid., 684.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Judges 4:1-7

Sara Koenig

These seven verses are an introduction to the larger story of Deborah, Barak, and Sisera, and to the larger themes in the book of Judges. 

In particular, this text introduces the theme of how God responds to — and works through — humans. As an introduction, this lectionary selection leaves out quite a bit of the larger story, but the raw material is present.

The book of Judges can be characterized by a repeated cycle, as follows: the Israelites do evil and abandon God, so God delivers them into the hand of foreign leaders who oppress them. Then, the Israelites cry out to God, who hears their cry and raises up a judge to deliver them. The judge — also a military leader — is successful, and the Israelites enjoy peace, but when the judge dies the people forget about following God, and the cycle begins again. This cycle can also be traced as a downward spiral in the book, with the final chapters describing a situation of complete moral chaos and civil war.

Deborah’s story occurs toward the beginning of the book, when things are not yet so bad in Israel. We are told three things about Deborah in 4:4: first, she is a prophet, second, she is married, and third, she is a judge. The New Living Translation changes the order from the Hebrew so her married status is the first thing mentioned about her, maybe to highlight that as first in importance. But some have argued that she is not even married at all.

The Hebrew expression, “wife of Lappidoth” could also be “woman of Lappidoth,” referring to where she comes from. Or, that phrase could be a description of Deborah’s character; the word “lappidoth” means “torch,” or “lightning,” so Deborah could be a “fiery woman.” In contrast to the potential ambiguity about Deborah’s marital status, her roles as prophet and judge are clear. And while the judges were leaders, mostly in military battles, Deborah is also a judge in the sense of adjudicating disputes, according to 4:5.

In fact, exactly who is the judge in this story may be up for dispute. Though Deborah is described as “judge,” she seems to be functioning more in the legal world than the military one, and she is the first — and only — female judge in the book. Barak seems to be another possible contender for the role when his name is mentioned in 4:6 and Deborah tells him the command of the Lord, to go forth and fight.

Deborah clearly speaks for God, as is indicated by the direct quote in verses 6-7. The lectionary ends with the promise that God will give the Canaanite general, Sisera, into Barak’s hands. This selection, however, leaves out Barak’s response to Deborah in verse 8, saying, “If you go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Deborah answers in verse 9 by telling him that she will go, but Barak will not gain glory because God will have a woman defeat Sisera.

Some suggest that Barak so respects Deborah’s leadership that he is loath to venture forth without her at his side. Others believe that Barak is placing conditions on God’s call, or at least, indicating his fearfulness. Deborah’s response is then seen as a rebuke, and that God will “deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman” is seen as a punishment. Of course, that woman will not be Deborah, as would be natural to expect, but Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite, about whom little else is known.

Again, while the larger story obviously continues beyond where the lectionary selection ends, two things in these seven verses are noteworthy. First is how God responds to people’s actions. The first two verses in the chapter narrate it almost in a matter-of-fact way, “The Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s eyes … so the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin in Canaan … ” God does not ignore what God’s people do. And, God does not arbitrarily punish them. Their oppression by the Canaanite king is because they did evil, and God responded.

God also responds to the people’s cries in verse 3. At first, this may seem indirect, especially when contrasted with the people’s action in verse 1, and God’s response — when God is the subject — in verse 2. After the people cried out to the Lord, we have to wait through verses 4-5, with their descriptions of Deborah, before God again is the subject in verse 6, commanding through Deborah what Barak is to do. But this, too, is how God acts: in response to cries for help by speaking and working through other people. And again, in this story, God works not only through one person but three — Deborah, Barak, and Jael — to deliver God’s people.

The second noteworthy point in this lectionary selection is God’s use of a woman to lead the Israelites. Deborah is the only female judge, and she is also a prophet. She hears and speaks for God. The gospel lesson for today is the parable of the talents, in Matthew, where Jesus warns against burying a gift that God has given. Deborah is an example of someone who seems to put her gifts to work in surprising, creative, and inspiring ways. 


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

In ancient Israel, crisis brought a response of gathering at the holy place under the leadership of priests and other worship leaders.

There the community articulated the crisis in ardent prayer to God to seek God’s help and deliverance. Psalm 90 is such a lament from the community; most commentators place the crisis portrayed in this psalm in the post-exilic community.

In addition to the life setting of crisis, it is important to consider the place of the text in the book of Psalms. It is the only psalm tied to Moses in its superscription and falls at a pivot point in the movement of the whole book. The tie to Moses and texts associated with him recall an earlier time in ancient Israel’s history and this formative character in the community’s story. The psalm begins Book IV of the Hebrew Psalter (Psalms 90-106). Prayers lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem are evident in Book III (Psalms 73-89), and Psalm 89 concludes that section with a powerful plea in the face of God’s rejection of the Davidic covenant and Jerusalem as its seat.

The superscription to Psalm 90 takes readers back to a time before the Davidic monarchy and before the temple to the time of Moses when there was no monarchy or temple and the people were not even in the land promised to them. Still, it was possible in that time to relate to God in prayer. In its literary setting in the book of Psalms, then, Psalm 90 is a kind of response to the problem of exile articulated at the end of Psalm 89.

The lectionary text is the first part of the psalm (verses 1-12) that contrasts God’s permanence with the brevity of human life. The section moves toward lament, giving way to petition in the remainder of the psalm (verses 13-17). We will consider the lectionary text in two parts.

The psalm begins by addressing God and praising God as the community’s dwelling place for generations. “Dwelling place” here carries the sense of a place where one can hide and find help or refuge. Such a home is a divine gift. The creator — the one who was before there was a creation — has given the community refuge throughout the generations. That stability contrasts with the brevity of human life. The poetic imagery is powerful.

God has been present with the faith community and has served as a reliable and strong protector. God’s perspective is the long view of the creator in which a thousand years are like one day or one night. Humans, in contrast, are only like a dream or like grass the morning dew renews only to fade and droop in the evening and so only last a day. Time and its passage are important in these first verses of the psalm. In comparison to the view of the creator, time connotes human frailty and the quick passing of human life. Humans come from dust and return to dust. The contrast between divine permanence and human frailty is central to these opening verses.

The remaining verses in the lectionary text move toward lament. In the context of the precarious human life portrayed in the beginning of the psalm, the community now complains that they have been overpowered by God’s wrath. God sees the people’s sin and the community encounters the oppression of God’s downcast countenance. With verse 9, the theme of the passage of time returns. Human life passes under the cloud of God’s wrath and so the years feel like but a moan or sigh.

Verse ten measures the length of human life as seventy or eighty years at most, and those years are full of trouble and woe. They are gone in the blink of an eye. This moving portrayal of human life in its brevity leads to a plea for wisdom to be able to reflect on life even in its brevity and live it fully. The heart is the seat of wisdom or the will. A wise heart would bring discernment in dealing with the frailty of life confronting persons and communities.

The wisdom here is not so much technique or skill or even information or control. It is rather the ability to acknowledge the creator’s decisive impact on life and so to relinquish life to the creator. It is not unusual for lament psalms to include wisdom teaching as general reflections on life. In Psalm 90, the reflection is on the persistent troubles of life and the plea is for discernment in how to deal with life’s brevity and frailty. Ancient Israel’s experience of exile brought a focus on this dimension of life. The final section of Psalm 90 pleads with God for compassion in the face of such distress.

Psalm 90 takes a full view of life including human frailty and divine wrath and a plea for divine grace. It seems to relate to the specifics of ancient Israel’s experience of exile and the broader human travail. Its hope is to discern the significance of the days humans receive and for divine benevolence in the midst of those days. God is eternal and human life is short.

The center of the psalm is the prayer that God will not overlook such human experience but bring mercy to the congregation consisting of short-lived people. YHWH, our creator and redeemer, is the one who can provide the hope for renewal in life characterized by distress.

Isaac Watts’ 1719 hymn paraphrases Psalm 90:

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast
and our eternal home.
Be thou our guard while life shall last,
and our eternal home.
Here is a more contemporary prayer:
You are the memory of where we have been
and the anticipation of where we are going.
Though we are not yet in possession of all we have been promised,
here and there along the way we catch glimpses of our eternal home.
O Lord, you are our home along the way and at the end of the journey.
For traveling with us,
for rescuing us when we are lost,
and for calling us into your holy place,
thanks be to you, O God, our eternal home.1


Notes:

1 Sharlande Sledge, Prayers & Litanies for the Christian Seasons (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1999) 31.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Amy L.B. Peeler

When Paul speaks about eschatology — how everything will happen at the end of time — he does so in order to bring comfort to his congregations.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:18 and 5:1, at the bookends of this passage, he says so explicitly: comfort one another with these words. These teachings are meant to be a comfort and an encouragement for believers who are already doing the right thing, eagerly waiting for Jesus’ return (1:10).

This eager anticipation translates into another reason that calls forth Paul’s praise: the Thessalonians correctly discern the times and seasons. They know that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, as other early believers did (2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:32). They had not forgotten Jesus’ instructions preserved in both Matthew 24 and Luke 12.

Although Paul does not explicitly reproduce the material in the gospels frequently, this section of Thessalonians provides clear indication that Jesus’ teaching was part of Paul’s own. Labor pains, being surprised, destruction following pronouncements of peace and safety, and the charge to stay alert all figure in Jesus’ Olivet discourse. The Thessalonians knew what to look for because they knew what Jesus and then Paul had said about the end.

Consequently, for them, Jesus’ coming wouldn’t be like the surprise attack of a thief in the night at all. Because for them it is not night; it is day. Even more powerfully, Paul says that they are children of the light and of the day. They aren’t just walking around in the daylight; it is part of their identity. They are light people and day people free from the fear, uncertainty, and insecurity of night and darkness.

So Paul, as he so often does in his ethical sections, encourages them to “be who they are.” Since they are children of the daylight, it only makes sense that they would not sleep. He has been discussing those who had “fallen asleep” in their community (4:13–17), as a euphemism for death, but now he employs a different word that carries the connotations of moral dullness. Instead of this kind of sleepiness they should be alert and sober.

Sobriety is exactly what Paul is aiming at because in the next verse, he makes a connection between sleeping at night and getting drunk at night. In the first century world, many of the religious options of the day included nocturnal celebrations that included alcohol and sexual promiscuity.

Dionysus, the god of wine, was worshipped in Thessalonica, and his nighttime celebrations had the reputation of being frenzied, ecstatic, orgiastic events. The Thessalonians, being called from the worship of dead idols to serve the living God (1:9), no longer should participate in such events. Instead of being unclothed they are to put on the specific clothing readying them for battle.

The juxtaposed images of revelers verses soldiers provide a stark contrast. Paul urges his congregation to gird their chests and heads for battle, a reminder that he considers their spiritual lives with utmost intensity. With the vital organs protected, the Thessalonians could live with emotions protected by faith and love, and thoughts shielded by the hope of salvation. Again, Paul is only encouraging them to continue practicing what they are already doing, as he has expressed prayerful thanksgiving for their faith, love, and hope (1:3).

Paul could have chosen only these two pieces of armor, unlike the full collection described in Ephesians 6:10–18, as an echo of the description of God’s armor as the divine warrior in Isa 59:17. The likelihood of this allusion increases with the next verse that makes a distinction between God appointing some for wrath and some for the obtaining of salvation. In Isaiah 59, God dons his armor to defend his people and bring them justice (See also Wisdom 5, where God does the same). Having left the lifestyle of idolatry, the members of this congregation no longer stand under God’s wrath, but only look forward to salvation.

Paul comes full circle with the last two verses, drawing to a close his entire eschatological discussion that began in 4:13. Jesus is the one who has died, Paul says, on our behalf. Because he experienced death, the Thessalonians can be confident that they will experience life. Whether they are awake or whether they are asleep, as members of Christ, their eternal life is already guaranteed. Paul has at least three connotations for sleeping here. As in chapter 4, if someone dies, they will still get to meet Christ upon his return.

If they are physically sleeping when he returns, that won’t disqualify them. And, finally, because he uses the same word for sleeping that he used in verse 6, it seems that even if they, on rare occasion, fall into the sins of the night, even then, their life with Christ will remain. That is not to say that a constant lifestyle of sin wouldn’t be a cause for grave concern and doubt about the validity of one’s faith (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Galatians 5:19-21), but Paul’s encouragement is that Christ’s death has vanquished the night and all its fears and dangers.

Christ’s guaranteed return and their status as people of the day should serve as words of encouragement for them. They have nothing to fear when the master returns to the house but should use the promise of his return to excel still more. Paul says they are already encouraging one another with this hope.

Either that is a piece of exhortative rhetoric or the reality on the ground, but either way, it is instructive to see how Paul uses eschatology. For those who are already on the winning team, Jesus’ second coming is a cause for celebration not dismay. Light comprehends the light in a way that darkness does not (John 1:5), so the day of the Lord for those of the day is only the culmination of the life they are already living.