Lectionary Commentaries for November 19, 2017
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30

David Schnasa Jacobsen

The end is near! The year of Matthew is drawing to a close.

Now we preachers find ourselves mired in eschatological parables. We are likely uncomfortable with Matthew’s apocalyptic language this season: the days are getting shorter and his lections are getting darker. Yet we need to remember Matthew’s own eschatological agenda.

The Matthean Jesus named Immanuel, God with us, in Matthew 1 is the same Christ who meets us in troubling texts “until the end of the age.” The same Jesus who embraces the Father’s prevenient grace in the lilies of the field holds tightly to an exceeding righteousness in the works of his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. The end is near in eschatological parables, but it is the same confounding Matthean Parabler who narrates them.

Therefore, preachers need to recognize that the Matthew’s gospel is not Mark, or Luke, or even Paul’s. Part of our discomfort with Matthew’s eschatological parables is not just with the sulfuric whiff of apocalyptic that accompanies them, but the troubling theology of the Matthean gospel itself. More than the other synoptics, I would argue, Matthew holds that judgment and ultimate exclusion are (after)living options for those who fail to translate words into deeds.

Here in the eschatological parables, and in other Matthean lections, we run into judgment in the form of weeping and gnashing of teeth and exclusion from wedding feasts. This pronounced theological horizon of judgment seems far from our world these days and does not comport well with the cozy glow of churchy stained glass windows and padded pews. Part of the problem of Matthew’s eschatological parables is the Gospel’s willingness to give judgment its due as an ultimate goad for good works.

With these theological tensions in mind — both Matthew’s own and ours — we turn to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Because I am a person who tends to score a “G” on the Grace/Judgment scale, I am inclined to focus on the front half of the parable. The master gives talents. I am tempted as a person with some degree of power and privilege to foreground those talents theologically and downplay the rest of the text: God, the master, gives gifts; we steward them. The strange thing is that the text seems to move toward the end rhetorically.

The master does indeed give talents, but the text presupposes an economic system of slavery and a master who uses slaves in his absence as means of turning a profit on the great wealth he already owns. The rhetorical accent of the text is not so much on the first two slaves who are successful and get to enter the master’s joy. In fact, about the only difference between them is the number of talents they receive: 10 and 5, respectively. A close reading of the first two slaves shows a repetition, nearly word for word, about what they do and what happens to them.

The variant, the third slave in the sequence, receives quite a bit of discussion for someone who buries the single talent in the ground — literally, making a deposit. While the first two slaves are dispatched by Matthew 25:23, everything after verse 24 concerns itself with the third slave and the dialogue between him and the master. Rhetorically, the text wants us to dwell on the third slave, his conversation with the master, and his fate in ultimate judgment. Matthew focuses on the back half of the parable: useless slave, outer darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

One could, of course, resist Matthew’s theology and back loaded rhetoric. The idea of identifying God as a slave master is plenty problematic. The apocalyptic overlay of Parousia and judgment offers its own problems, too, and demythologizing with Bultmann only gets you so far. It might just be tempting to walk away — just preach “against the text” or don’t preach it at all.

But Matthew wants to give us something to reflect on. We may not need to accept Matthew’s answer, but perhaps we can benefit from working through Matthew’s way of portraying the problem. I mentioned above that Matthew has his own unique eschatological vision. He doesn’t follow apocalyptic slavishly — apocalyptic language lurks here mostly on the edges. Ultimate judgment is barely evoked, not graphically depicted as in your run-of-the-mill apocalypses like Enoch and Revelation. Matthew is much more interested in using ultimate judgment as a future/present, as a way of encouraging an engagement with rather than a burying of talents. One other apocalyptic feature is the premise underlying the parable: the returning master.

The metaphor is inadequate, but does capture in part the experience of absence of the early Church. What the church does in this crucial time between resurrection and Parousia is key. Theologian Sallie McFague argues that metaphors have an is/is not quality.1 The “is” of this metaphor is the absence of the master who nonetheless has “entrusted his property to them” (Matthew 25:14) and intends to return to settle accounts. And yet, this parable is narrated by the Parabler, Jesus Messiah himself, the one who since Matthew 1:1 is both “Son of Abraham” and “Son of David”; the one through whom God’s broadest and most royal promises have even now under the crucifying Empire are coming to fulfillment.

For all the difficulties of this parable, its vision of Parousia helps figure Jesus’ absence and promised return. To that limited extent, its metaphor helps as a goad for faithfulness in the present. And we all know how Matthew feels about words and faithful deeds — they’re ultimately inseparable.

So the last remaining issue for preachers is theological. What are we to do with judgment as Matthew’s ultimate goad to faithful action? Biblical scholar and Lutheran bishop Krister Stendahl reminds us in a brilliant essay that God’s judgment is deeply related to divine justice and mercy. We with varying degrees of privilege binary such things at our peril and fail to discern the full mystery of the gospel.2

Indeed, Luther himself acknowledges how both difficult and important it is to discern gospel aright.3 Perhaps, then, this Sunday is a great day to take up the unfinished task of theology in preaching in “differentiated proximity” to Matthew: to speak of judgment, faithful action, and yes, grace in light of our own local struggles and yet in the very presence of the confounding Parabler whom Matthew also calls Immanuel, God with us, even to the end of the age.


1. Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

2. Krister Stendahl, “Judgment and Mercy,” in God among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 97-108.

3. Luther says in the Table Talk that only God in the Holy Spirit truly knows how to distinguish law and gospel, Luther’s Works vol. 54, 127.

First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Margaret Odell

In Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, the audience is jarred out of its familiar ritual commemoration of the Day of the Lord to find itself in the far more destabilizing reality of God’s actual presence.

As in the announcement of the Day of the Lord in Amos 5:18-20, human expectations are overturned: this will not be a day of rejoicing (Zephaniah 1:8-11), but a day of deep anguish (1:14). We might concede that this is no capricious outburst of divine anger but a response to human sin (1:17). Even so, as enlightened moderns schooled to expect divine mercy and at least some measure of proportionality, we find ourselves asking what kind of sin could have led to so great a judgment.

Perhaps the problem begins in the very act of commemorating the saving work of God in human ritual. Ancient Israelite worship presupposed a correspondence between the microcosm of the Temple as a symbolic representation of creation and the great cosmic reality of creation itself.1 Within the microcosm of the Temple, ritual actualized God’s mighty acts of past salvation for the present participants. In effect, God became present through the ritual itself.

Herein lies the problem: Just how do human beings celebrate, in ritual, the sovereign freedom and majesty of a God who creates and delivers, judges and destroys? More specifically, how do the participants really know where they stand with God? This text addresses that question by interweaving traditional ritual elements with an announcement of judgment. The adaptation of these ritual elements in Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 has the effect of moving the readers back and forth between the relatively safe space of the microcosm and the larger cosmos, where human failure to live out their ritual affirmations is exposed to the harsh light of divine judgment.

Two ritual elements evoke the microcosm of ritual space. First, the unit opens with an onomatopoetic interjection comparable to the English “Hush!” (Zephaniah 1:7; New Revised Standard Version “silence!”). In other texts associated with the temple, this command to silence functions as a ritual summons, and it is often accompanied by the declaration that God is present for the proceedings (see also Habakkuk 2:20; Zechariah 2:13; Amos 8:3). The second ritual element is the stately, almost hymnic description of the Day of the Lord in Zephaniah 1:14-16. The unit’s repetition of the word “day,” along with its relatively generic description of warriors and battlements, suggests that this was a set piece designed to commemorate God’s archetypal victory against his enemies.

The ritual begins with the call to silence and the announcement of the coming Day of the Lord. Very quickly, however, it becomes evident that the ritual is no longer under the control of human functionaries. The Lord is not only present in his temple, he has also prepared the sacrifice and sanctified the invited guests. Just as suddenly, it becomes clear that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are not the invited guests but the enemies God sets out to destroy (see also Zephaniah 1:8-11).

In Zephaniah 1:12, God breaks out of the ritually enclosed expectations of salvation. Taking up a lamp, YHWH searches Jerusalem, seeking out all those who “thicken on their dregs,” and who declare that God will do neither good nor evil. The New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the verb qapha?, “thicken,” as “rest complacently,” implies that the people are in a kind of drunken stupor, lingering over the “dregs” of their wine. But in the metaphor, the people are the wine, and the verb refers to the wine’s maturation and eventual deterioration.2 J. J. M. Roberts conveys this meaning, characterizing the people as those who, “like well aged wine, long undisturbed in their tranquility,” give no thought to how they had acquired their wealth, or to God’s role in their well-being.3

More likely, the “wine” has already gone bad. In the same way that God the vinedresser had expected good grapes for all his efforts in Isaiah 5:1-5, God the vintner now searches in the dark corners of the stores to determine how well the wine is “thickening” or maturing. But, in the same way that Amos’s basket of summer fruit (qayitz), has already reached its “end,” (qetz, Amos 8:1-2), the intended greatness of the inhabitants of Jerusalem has already turned sour.

In the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah, God had expected his vineyard to yield the fruits of justice and righteousness, and commentators often suggest that a similar expectation is expressed here in Zephaniah. Because of the people’s arrogance in their self-made wealth, all of it will be stripped away (1:13, 17-18). But Zephaniah identifies a more fundamental sin, since the people are not explicitly condemned for unjust economic practices but for what they believe to be true about God: “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” (Zephaniah 1:12b). Such a statement flies in the face of what is true about their own identities as the good wine of this vintner; worse, it sharply contradicts what they affirm in worship about the power and sovereignty of God. The punishment is therefore utterly proportional.

Denying that their strength comes from God, their strength is the first to go (Zephaniah 1:13; contrast New Revised Standard Version: “their treasure). Failing to see the work of God in their lives, they are struck with blindness (1:17). Choosing their own reality over the reality they profess in worship, they find themselves utterly cut off from the very ground of their existence, and are ground back into the dust from which they were created.


1. For this understanding of the relationship between the microcosm of ritual and cosmic reality, see Michael Floyd, Minor Prophets, Part 2 (FOTL XXII; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 170.

2. Floyd, 198.

3. J. M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 180-181.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Judges 4:1-7

Dennis Olson

The book of Judges features the stories of six major military leaders in Israel called “judges.”

Before the rise of kings in Israel, God raised up these temporary warriors to rescue a loose coalition of Israelite tribes from a series of oppressive enemies. The events in each judges story follow a similar cyclical pattern outlined in Judges 2:11-19:

  • Israel sins and worships other gods while living in Canaan.
  • God becomes angry and allows enemies to attack Israel.
  • The Israelites cry out in pain because of the attack, and God has pity on them. No repentance here, just pain.
  • God raises up a judge who delivers Israel and returns the people to proper worship of Israel’s God for a time.
  • When the judge dies, the Israelites return to their old ways. The cycle begins all over again.

Judges 4: Will the real judge please stand up?

Judges 4 presents an interesting variation on the typical pattern of the judges story. Four main characters appear:

  • an Israelite woman prophet and “judge” (in the judicial sense of an arbitrator of disputes) named Deborah,
  • an Israelite military general named Barak,
  • a non-Israelite woman named Jael (a Kenite — non-Israelite), and
  • a Canaanite military general named Sisera, head of the enemy army.

Much of the drama and interest in the story is trying to decide who the real “judge” is that God has sent to deliver the Israelites. Is it the prophet Deborah who is the first major character in the story? Or is it Barak, a male military leader like the previous judges in chapter 3? Or is it Jael, a non-Israelite woman, who delivers the decisive hammer blow to the Canaanite enemy general named Sisera? And what might all this mean theologically for preaching this text?

The narrative begins with the death of Israel’s previous judge (Ehud) which then leads to the first stage of the judges cycle: “the Israelites again did what was evil” (Judges 4:1). As a consequence, the LORD allowed the Canaanites led by a Canaanite general named Sisera to oppress the Israelites. What was unique about Sisera’s army is its overwhelming technological superiority: “He had nine hundred chariots of iron” (4:3). Against this powerful enemy, Israel cried out to Israel for help (4:2-3).

Deborah, the “Judge”?

Given the elements in the typical Judges cycle, we would expect Israel’s cry for help to be be followed immediately by God raising up a “judge.” The narrative introduces us first to Deborah — a woman, a prophet, and a respected judge who arbitrates disputes (Judges 4:4-5). In Hebrew, the word “judge” can refer either to a judicial arbitrator or a military leader. So is Deborah also a “judge” in this latter sense?

Barak, the “Judge”?

Deborah is an arbitrator but also the Bible’s first woman prophet, a mouthpiece for the word of God in ancient Israel. Deborah summons a military leader named Barak from the tribe of Naphtali. As a prophet, she conveyed to general Barak a divine command (gather troops against Sisera and his Canaanite army) and a divine promise (“I will give him into your hand” — Judges 4:7).

At this point in the story, the reader may think that perhaps it’s not Deborah who is the “judge” (in the sense of military leader) after all. Perhaps Barak may better fit that label? The lectionary unit concludes at this point (verse 7), just when the story is getting interesting.

Find a way to tell the rest of the story.

For preachers of this text, I would strongly recommend that you extend the lectionary reading at least to verse 10 (if not to the end of the chapter in verse 24). In any case, you will want to find a way to get before your congregation the core elements of the whole story of Judges 4 through the liturgical reading or a retelling in the course of the sermon. Why? Because it is a skillfully told story that keeps you guessing until the end. Who is the judge in the story, the one who delivers Israel? Wrestling with the answer to that question will pay off in theological dividends.

Just when the reader is thinking that perhaps Barak is the hero and judge of the story, Barak insists that Deborah go with him to lead in the battle: “if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8). Deborah agrees to go but warns Barak that the battle will not lead to his glory for “the LORD will sell Sisera [the enemy Canaanite general] into the hand of a woman.” A woman? Aha! Perhaps Deborah is the “judge” after all?

Jael the “Judge”?

As you read the rest of the chapter, a new and unlikely candidate for hero and judge emerges. Her name is Jael, a non-Israelite, wife of Heber the “Kenite” (an ethnic designation as well as a word meaning “smith” or worker of iron – Judges 4:11). Jael is related to Hobab the Kenite, the father-in-law of Moses (Judges 1:16). Thus, the reader might initially assume Jael is Israel’s ally. As an iron smith, however, Jael’s husband apparently helped craft the hundreds of iron chariots for Sisera’s army. That connection may explain why Sisera went into Jael’s tent with such confidence seeking security as he fled from his defeated army (Judges 4:17). So whose side is Jael on — Israel or Canaan? The answer comes through a sharp tent peg and a pinging hammer blow to the head of Sisera!

Preaching this violent, edgy text

Several preaching possibilities present themselves.

  • Sadly, the human condition across history is often marked by violence and war. The Bible does not ignore or shrink from that tragic truth. The God of Scripture enters into even these messy and tragic conflicts and battles. As God fought for the Israelite slaves in Egypt, so God fights here on the side of the oppressed and less powerful who cry out to God. God fights against those who trust in and worship above all else their own idols of military might and humanly created technology (the Canaanites’ iron chariots; see Isaiah 31:1).
  • Human culture often worships singular human heroes. Judges 4 offers another way — interdependence and shared responsibility in reaching a common goal. God works by creating a network of different and often unlikely human agents in order to accomplish the purposes of God. Deborah, Barak, and Jael are brought together by the providence of God. Just as the reader of Judges 4 may in the end not be sure who the true “judge” is in the story, so we may not always be aware of the multiple and sometimes unknown ways in which God is guiding individuals or communities to God’s larger goals. See the apostle Paul’s image of God’s people as “one body” with “many members” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).
  • God often works through unlikely people (1 Corinthians 1:25-31). Jael, a non-Israelite and wife of a blue-color iron-worker, plays a vital role in the victory that God and Israel won against the enemy of God’s people Israel. Deborah — a woman, a prophet, an arbitrator, a military advisor and leader — may also surprise us. Her gender did not stand in the way of God using her in the exercise of power, leadership, and the proclamation of God’s word to her community, even in her ancient and often male-centered world.


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

James K. Mead

In the 1980s I attended a denominational conference at which one of the preachers roundly criticized the use of Psalm 90 for funeral services.

Although the psalm was included among possible readings in the Book of Common Worship at the time, he marshalled arguments based on the psalm’s overwhelming negativity. The issue of liturgical choices notwithstanding, one left that speech feeling as if the psalm was inappropriate for any service of Christian worship, perhaps even for Christian theology or reflection. It will be clear from what follows that I do not share that negative verdict on the status of Psalm 90.

As far as I can tell, this is Working Preacher’s third round of treating the lectionary psalm texts, with this portion of Psalm 90 already discussed by two eminent psalms scholars: Rolf Jacobson (2011) and Bill Bellinger (2014).1 It’s difficult to improve on their historical, literary, and thematic insights; so I commend their entries before you read my own, because my biblical and theological interpretations assume many of their conclusions about the use of the psalm in Israel’s life and worship. Both authors stress the psalm’s contrast between divine eternality and human temporality, and they explain its connections to Israel’s wisdom tradition. In particular, Bellinger helps us understand the significance of the psalm’s location at the beginning of Book IV of the Psalter; and Jacobson demonstrates the thematic notes of joy and promise in a poem that many dismiss as utterly pessimistic.

Their conclusions form the basis for sound Christian appropriation of Psalm 90 that relates to the Sunday’s other lectionary texts and to the larger canonical drama of the Triune God’s plan of creation and redemption through Jesus Christ. Thus, whether you choose to preach only from Psalm 90 or let several lectionary readings form a larger constellation of texts, you can help your congregation see that the theological underpinnings of Psalm 90 are not unique to it but are part of a much larger scriptural network. When seen in this biblical-theological perspective, the poem no longer appears to be a pessimistic or fatalistic cry of hopelessness. Quite to the contrary, we are surprised by its power to evoke in us a sense of stewardship, justice, and hope. Here are some possible thematic directions to consider:

Creational mandate for work

Though not included in this Sunday’s psalm selection, verses 13-17 become a prayer about human work that balances the opening reference to the work of God who “formed the earth and the world” (verse 2). This frame places the entire psalm within the scope of the Old Testament’s creation theology, wherein human beings are image bearers made for fellowship with the creator and one another (Genesis 1:26-28). The creation story of Genesis 2 adds another facet of our place in creation, caring for the world God has made (Genesis 2:15-17). Each of us, by virtue of our humanity, represents God on earth and therefore follows in the footsteps of the creator’s stewardship. The gospel lection from Matthew 25:14-30 also assumes the creator’s authority to expect results from using the gifts God has given us. It is not hard to imagine the early Christian community of which Matthew was a part — or our own latter-day communities — asking what believers should do with the time that has been given to them.

Prophetic message of justice

The alternative Old Testament lesson, from Zechariah 1:7, 12-18, presents a message based on a theology of justice that harmonizes very well with Psalm 90’s lament about the brevity and difficulty of life. However, Zechariah directs the language of God’s “wrath” and human “toil” at the complacent Israelites who turn a blind eye toward injustices. Whether or not they have worked for their wealth makes little difference: neither houses nor riches can save them from God’s judgment (Zechariah 1:13, 18). To be sure, Zechariah is aware of the basic human condition before God; but some of his contemporaries apparently assumed that human mortality effectively left God out of the equation — “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” (1:12) — thus missing Psalm 90’s sobering yet truthful claim that the Lord is God (Psalm 90:2). The fact that all people and all things belong to God joyfully frees us from the desperate attempt to accumulate resources at the expense of the most needy and vulnerable.

Apocalyptic motivation for hope

Psalm 90 and its companion readings seem especially appropriate for second to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, just prior to Christ the King/Reign of Christ. The spate of “end of the world” books and motion pictures testifies to our culture’s anxiety and lack of meaningful resources for understanding and responding to the end of life as well as human history. These are obviously not new concerns, as the topic of “the day of the Lord” from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 clearly testifies. Whereas Psalm 90 considers the brevity of human existence in terms of the wrath of God, Paul assures his readers that “God has destined us not for wrath but for attaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9).

Far from being an occasion for fear, knowledge of God’s judgment upon humankind is a source for encouragement and hope. Our union with Christ in his full humanity assures us that through the eternal Word we have experienced the powerful “dwelling place” of God’s refuge. Death could not hold him, and it shall not hold us. The Heidelberg Catechism famously answers the question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” by affirming in part, “That I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”2 That affirmation is possible because of the rich theological drama in which Psalm 90 plays a necessary and — in light of the entire Christian scripture — preparatory role.


  1. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1113; https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2199
  2. https://www.rca.org/resources/heidelbergcatechism Accessed 8-10-17.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Jane Lancaster Patterson

It is commonplace for biblical scholars and others to critique the apocalyptic worldview as dualistic, and it is certainly wise to be on guard against habits of thought that pit one group of people against another in a stereotypical fashion.

But in order to understand the apocalypticism that pervades the New Testament, including the preaching of Jesus, it is equally important to pay attention to the possible social context to which dualism was a response. Perhaps the problem Paul is addressing is a situation in which certain members of the Thessalonian assembly are failing to make distinctions between their ethical codes as people of God and the actions of the general society around them. They may not fully understand that the ekklesia is not just another social club, but a radically counter-cultural way of life, grounded in the cross of Christ.

The contrasts are certainly sharply drawn in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: light vs. darkness, day vs. night, wakefulness vs. sleep, sobriety vs. drunkenness, urgency vs. a lack of urgency. Much of the vivid imagery in the passage (the thief in the night, the woman in labor, the armor of God) is drawn from the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel), and is echoed in other New Testament texts as well as documents from Qumran. Such prophetic speech was felt to have divine power to alter people’s interpretation of current events and their moral responses to it. It actually seeks to change what people see as they look around them, and how they respond to it.


The urgency of the “day of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:2; and suggested also by “the times and the seasons,” chronos and kairos, 5:1) is actually moral urgency expressed as chronological urgency. The entry of God (the day of the Lord, the parousia) is inevitable, like labor pains, but indefinite, like the arrival of a thief in the night. Thus, the people of God must be prepared at all times, like dutiful guards on watch.

The power of holiness

Many people in my congregation are leery of the image of God as judge that runs through this passage. And given the judgmentalism that can go with religious fervor, they are right to be wary. But passages like this one witness not to God’s specific decision to come in judgment, but to a deep-seated Jewish intuition of the awesome and terrifying power of sheer holiness.

For example, the reason for the elaborate description of the consecration of priests for the Temple (Leviticus 8) is to stress the means by which they were set apart and prepared to deal with holy things. On the negative side, the strange story of the death of Uzzah after he simply reaches out to steady the ark of the covenant when it is being carried in procession (2 Samuel 5:1-15) is another witness to the potentially destructive power of holiness when someone who is unprepared comes into contact with it.

The day of the Lord (or the parousia) will entail judgment not because God chooses to be judgmental, but simply because the full presence of absolute holiness is destructive to whoever or whatever is unprepared to be in its proximity. This is the theological rationale behind Paul’s concern for holiness of life among the communities he served. He is preparing his communities (sometimes actually likened to the Temple, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16) to be in the presence of pure holiness on the longed-for day, sure to come, when God is all in all.

Holiness at human scale

So what, then, are the characteristics of holiness at human scale? In this particular passage, they consist of the strangely vulnerable armor of God, community practices of encouragement, and the model of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us” (5:9-10).

Children of light

In his theological foundation, Paul has drawn a sharp distinction between “you” and “them,” between the “children of light” and those who are “of the night or of darkness.” Literally he says, “sons of light,” an image that depends for its force on the understanding that the role of sons in Greco-Roman families was to carry on the work of their fathers. Thus, the sons (and daughters) of light carry on the work of God, who is Light. And those who derive their life from darkness carry on the work of darkness.

Being a “son” of light is a reference to what one does, as an outward manifestation of who one is. But in spite of the stark distinctions Paul draws, the armor that the Thessalonians are advised to put on consists of the seemingly-fragile but actually powerful breastplate of faith and love and helmet of hope of salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8-9). There is a difference here between being discerning toward outsiders (which Paul advocates) and opposing them with force, which he clearly does not endorse.

Mutual encouragement

The action that Paul most explicitly commends is mutual encouragement (consolation), a repeated practical theme of 1 Thessalonians (2:12; 3:2,7; 4:1,10, 18; 5:11,14). What stands out forcibly is that the building-up of community in Christ is, for Paul, evidence of holiness of life. Holiness is not an individual endeavor, but a daily practice of building up the people around us.

Jesus as the moral pattern

Finally, as an image of holiness, Paul puts forward the model of Jesus “who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10). This is an astonishing statement for several reasons. One is the assertion that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Having drawn the distinctions so keenly between sleeping and waking, light and dark, Paul gathers up the whole community of the baptized in this assurance of their salvation.

The other interesting aspect of Paul’s mention of Christ is less explicit, but is a theme he returns to often in his teaching: the cross as a moral pattern (Philippians 2:1-13; and the stunning statement, “I die every day” of 1 Corinthians 15:31). A holy community is one in which the participants are giving themselves away in the small currency of everyday acts for the common good.

Like so much of the teaching of Paul, this final chapter of 1 Thessalonians appears on the surface to be almost incapable of having applicability to 21st century life. But upon closer examination, there are themes that offer both wisdom and appropriate — even urgent — challenge to present-day communities of faith:

  • the need for cultural discernment;
  • the unlikely power of faith, hope, and love;
  • and the importance of community for one’s personal holiness, evidenced in practices of mutual encouragement and care.