Lectionary Commentaries for November 13, 2011
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30

Carla Works

The parable of the talents is among the most abused texts in the New Testament.

Contrary to what might be modeled by some best-selling televangelists, the parable does not justify a gospel of economic prosperity. Instead, it challenges believers to emulate their Master by using all that God has given them for the sake of the kingdom.

The parable is located in Jesus’ eschatological discourse (24:1-25:46) where he instructs his disciples to endure through difficult times and to live in anticipation of the Lord’s return. Like all the parables in this section, it exemplifies the certainty of the Lord’s coming and how the disciples are to live in the meantime.

The teaching of the talents recalls the parable of the faithful and wise slave who continues to do the work of the master until the master comes (24:45-51). Although the master is delayed, he arrives to find the wise slave doing the tasks that have been appointed to him in the master’s absence.

The foolish slave, however, has neglected his work and abused his power. He receives severe punishment. Likewise, in the parable of the talents, the master entrusts his servants with his property, and punishment awaits those who have failed to carry on the master’s work (24:49-51).

Like the parable of the ten maidens before it, the parable of the talents portrays the kingdom of God (25:14). The kingdom is not simply likened to a man on a journey, but to the story that follows — a story that illustrates how the disciples are to wait until the Lord comes.

In this story a wealthy man prepares for a journey by entrusting his estate to his servants.  In the Lukan version of this parable (Luke 19:12-27), ten slaves receive one pound a piece to do the master’s business. In the Matthean version, however, there are only three servants, and they receive shares according to their ability (25:15).

Although the first receives five times as much as the last, each receives a significant sum of money. A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money. 

Like the preceding two parables (24:45-51; 25:1-13), the return of the master is certain, but the timing is unknown. After a long absence, he discovers what each servant has done with his property. The first two slaves do business with the master’s talents and double his money. Although the first slave earned more than the second, each has done remarkably well with what he has been given. They have performed according to their potential, and they have been faithful to do what the master has required of them. The master’s response to each is the same. He commends the slaves for being good and faithful, entrusts them with more authority, and invites them to enter his “joy.”

The third servant is not so fortunate. In the response of this slave, however, the audience learns even more about the master. He is a man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he has not scattered seed. He aggressively seeks to expand his estate and takes whatever he can wherever he can to make a profit. He even reprimands the servant for failing to invest the money with the bankers so that he might have gained interest — a practice forbidden in scripture (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-38).

The master’s willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any allegorical interpretation of the parable that would directly correlate him with Jesus, who never acts in a manner to seek personal gain. That a wealthy landowner would behave in this manner, however, makes the story all the more compelling. 

The third slave admits that he was afraid to lose the master’s money. To protect himself, he buried the talent in the ground. Although this may seem odd to audiences today, burying treasure was quite common at this time (13:44).

The master is furious. He had entrusted this servant with a portion of his property in order that the slave would use his abilities — abilities that had helped the master in the past — in order to turn a profit for his lord. This slave, however, was too afraid to take a risk — even though risky behavior was part of the master’s business. Instead, he attempted to secure his own well-being. In the end his unfaithfulness to carry on the master’s work cost him severely (25:30).

The master expected the servants to continue his business, to take risks to make a profit, and to emulate his behavior. Two servants were found faithful, and they are rewarded. Their faithfulness had increased the master’s wealth and expanded his estate.

In its literary setting, Jesus tells this story to his disciples (24:3) to prepare them for the days ahead when their faith will be tested. This parable depicts how the disciples are to demonstrate their faithfulness as they anticipate the return of the Lord.

What does faithfulness look like in a time of waiting? In Matthew’s Gospel faithfulness is emulating the ministry of Jesus. Jesus has announced the arrival of God’s kingdom by feeding the hungry, curing the sick, blessing the meek, and serving the least.

All who would follow Jesus are to preach the good news of the kingdom to the whole world (24:14) by going about the work that the master has called them to do (24:24-51). This work includes visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry (25:31-46). Those who are found faithful may hear their Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Mark S. Gignilliat

My wife and I attended a Scottish Episcopal church in St. Andrews, Scotland.

New to liturgical worship from our free-church background, we fell in love with the church’s liturgy during our time there. As one of my colleagues likes to say to liturgical detractors, “Which part don’t you like? The prayers part or the Scripture part?”

On one Sunday morning, the lectionary reading was a gospel reading where Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of vipers or some such stinging comment. It was a hard passage (as many in the Bible are) and left us again with the distinct impression that Jesus is not a tame lion. Then came the awkward liturgical moment after the reading. The lector said, “This is the word of the Lord.” And we responded nervously with, “Thanks be to God”…we think?

Zephaniah’s text is much like the judgment language we hear from Jesus in the gospels. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” “Be quiet,” says Zephaniah, “before the Lord God!” Why? “For the day of the Lord is at hand” (Zephaniah 1:17). Sermons that begin with “Be quiet!” tend to be remembered. This is how Zephaniah’s oracles in 1:7-18 begin. Zephaniah tells the people of God to be quiet, to hush (has). “Hush up, you’re in the presence of the Lord.” Thanks be to God?

The occasion is solemn and awe-inspiring. The image of the day of the Lord in Zephaniah is meant to strike fear in the hearts of God’s people. What may have been thought as a distant event in God’s eschatological plan is now about to break forth. It is imminent. Everything is ready. The sacrifice is prepared; the guests are ready. “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast” (1:14).

The appearing of the day of the Lord is accompanied with battle cries. “A warrior cries aloud there.” Who is this warrior crying out? It is Yahweh himself, charging into battle. Yahweh returns to Zion with wrath in his hands. The words of the prophet create a great sense of terror in the listeners. The sky may be calm, but the raging storms are brewing. When Yahweh returns to Zion, he will return as a judge. Psalm 98:9 says, “For he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the people with equity.” When Yahweh returns to Zion with his chariot kicking up sand in the eastern desert, he will do so as a judge making right the wrongs of his people and the nations.

The scene is apocalyptic. Distress, anguish, ruin, devastation, darkness, gloom: all of these are predicated on this day. The prophet’s arsenal of imagery is maxed out. The scene could not be worse. “Their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung” (1:17).
Why is the case? Nestled in verse seventeen is a causal clause revealing the reason for the coming onslaught. “Because they have sinned against the Lord.” In the Hebrew text, these six English words are half the size. It is a very small phrase. But its implications are enough to shake the very foundations of the world. “The whole earth shall be consumed” (1:18).

There are latent Marcionite tendencies in the church to this day. “I like Jesus but the God of the Old Testament is a crank!” This is certainly understandable from certain vantage points. But when Jesus shows up on the scene announcing the kingdom of God is at hand, the force of the statement is Zephaniah like. Karl Barth paints the scene well.1 Jesus arrives on the scene as a judge. He is Yahweh returning to Zion to bring judgment on his people and the nations: to make crooked valleys straight and rough places smooth. He enters the temple and cleanses it in a redemptive action that identifies him with God’s very self. He is the judge.

The surprising aspect of the gospel is what comes next. In a glorious moment of redemptive reversal, Jesus, who embodies Yahweh’s return to Zion and accompanying judgment, moves into the week of his passion. In an act of immeasurable grace, he then takes the judgment promised by Zephaniah onto himself. He becomes the Judge judged in our place on that Good Friday day of the Lord. When he does so, it shakes the earth to its very foundation.

Who is in this kingdom of Christ’s? The people Jesus identifies in his Sermon on the Mount as poor in spirit. Zephaniah says something similar: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands” (2:3). We have nothing to offer the coming Judge except for a relinquishing of our self-sufficiency and autonomy. The poor in spirit, the humble, see themselves as the thief at Christ’s cross who says in desperation, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Members of Christ kingdom recognize the significance of their faith is located in faith’s object, not its quality. Members of Christ kingdom can say in honesty, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to your cross I cling.”

The day of the Lord announced in Zephaniah is frightful news. In Christ, however, it becomes good news for Christ’s church and the world.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

1Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1 (trans. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 224-228.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Judges 4:1-7

James Limburg

Women’s Work

Judges 4:1-7 introduces two biblical chapters which focus on Deborah, in the form of a story (4) and a song (5). These materials are interesting for a number of reasons.

First, this is the only text from the Book of Judges to be listed in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Second, Deborah is the only one of the “judges” who is a woman (though she apparently multi-tasks; she is also identified as a “prophetess” and a wife, 4:4). Third, the “Song of Deborah” in chapter 5 has long been recognized as one of the oldest poems in the entire Bible. Finally, while other judges have their failures as well as successes (Gideon tended toward idolatry, 8:27, Samson was a womanizer), the biblical judgment on Deborah is uniformly positive, identifying there as a “mother in Israel” (5:7).

The Book of Judges and the Deuteronomic Historical Work

The Book of Judges is a collection of stories about heroes from the early days of Israel’s history, between about 1200 and 1050 BCE. These tales were told in families and clans, in the villages and in the towns, at rest areas on the trails (Judges 5:10-11). Finally the stories were incorporated into a long historical work (the Deuteronomic Historical Work) running from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings (except for Ruth), during the time of the exile in Babylon. The purpose of the Deuteronomic Historical Work was to address the questions of the exiles who asked, “Has God forsaken and forgotten us?” (see Isaiah 40:27; 4:14; Psalm 137). 

The stories of the Judges are fitted into a four-part pattern; the Othniel material provides an example: 1. The people forsake their God ( Judges 3:7);  2. The Lord allows enemies to attack them (3:8); 3.The people cry to the Lord for help (3:9); 3. The Lord sends a judge to deliver them and things get back to a normal peaceful situation (3:9-10).

We could imagine the situation for these stories about the Judges in the Deuteronomic Historical Work work. The people are in exile and need to understand that God has not forsaken them, but they have forsaken God. They also needed to hear a message of God’s continuing love. These stories tell the exiles to pray, and their loving God will hear their prayers and send another deliverer. God has done it before (see each of the stories of the Judges) and God will do it again! Such was the message of the Deuteronomic history work, of which the book of Judges is a part. 

The Text in its Context: Judges 4-5

Judges 4:1-7 should be understood in the context of the material about Deborah in Judges 4-5.  The geographical setting for the story is easily located:  Hazor is city to the north of the Sea of Chinnereth (“Sea of Galilee” in the New Testament). The location of Harosheth ha-goiim has not been identified. Bethel, where Deborah lived, is about 20 miles north of Jerusalem “in the hill country of Ephraim” (4:5). Mount Tabor is just to the southwest of the Sea of Chinnereth.

The editor who put the Deborah material together begins by fitting the story into the four-part framework of the DH as described above: 1. After the death of Ehud, the Israelites once again do what was evil in God’s sight (4:1). 2. The Lord responds by giving them over to slavery under in King Jabin of the Canaanite city of Hazor (4:2). 3. The Israelites cry to the Lord for help (4:3). 4. The Lord responds to this cry by sending a deliverer, a judge named Deborah (4:4-24, prose account; 5:1-31 song) and there is a time of peace (5:31).

The Story in 4:1-7

We first meet Deborah as she is seated in the shade of a palm tree in the hill country, going about her work as a “judge” settling disputes among her people. But the story picks up as Deborah puts on her prophet’s hat and brings a word from the Lord. She summons a certain Barak, from the territory of Naphtali to the north, and tells him that the Lord wants him to call out some 10,000 troops from Napthtali and Zebulun and bring them to Mount Tabor. There the Israelites will battle the Canaanites under Commander Sisera and will defeat them. Here our pericope ends.

But the story is just getting started. Barak says he’ll carry out this order from the Lord, but only if Deborah will go with him. She agrees to go but says ominously that the Canaanite commander Sisera will be humiliated in this battle. Not only will he be the loser, but he will die at the hand of a woman! (4:6-10). The remainder of Chapter 4 reports his death and Chapter 5 tells the same story, with a few variations, in the form of a song.

4:1-7 in Preaching and Teaching

While a number of themes suggest themselves as one reflects on this story, an interesting and appropriate one for our time the role of women in the story and the song.  It is a great misunderstanding of the biblical tradition to think that women were totally subservient to men and had no voice or role in public affairs. Deborah was a married woman. She worked as both a judge and a prophet, roles most often associated with men.

Another woman in the story is Jael, an Israelite sympathizer who took out the Canaanite commander under the subterfuge of typical mid-eastern hospitality (4:17-22; 5:24-27). And on a sad note, we see a picture that would resonate with many a mother whose son was off in battle somewhere. The mother of Commander Sisera worries, “Why is he so late in coming home?” (5:28-31)

One of the slogans floating about our churches these days is “God’s work, our hands.”
These stories remind us that those hands carrying out the work of a mighty and merciful God are women’s hands, too.


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

Rolf Jacobson

This week’s psalm selection is the opening section of one of the great lyrics of the Bible — Psalm 90.

It is the only poem in the Psalter that is associated with Moses; the Hebrew in the superscription literally reads “a prayer to Moses, man of God,” and likely does not refer to Moses as the author of the poem. Most likely the connection with Moses was made because of a connection between the psalm’s theme of asking for wisdom in light of human finitude and the story of Moses, who was not allowed to enter into the promised land.

In the same way that one can tune into the first few innings of a ballgame or drop in for the opening movements of a symphony and still enjoy the performance, it is indeed right and salutary that the preacher or worship planner opt to stick with the lectionary and use only the opening verses of the psalm. Better, however, would be to include all seventeen verses of this poem.

Don’t have time for those extra five verses? Here’s an idea — skip one announcement so as to make time for the word of God.

God, Humanity, and Time (verses 1-11)
Speaking of time, the prayer is an eloquent meditation on God, humanity, and time. It builds a tableau that explores the relationship between God and human beings — using the hands of time to plumb the depths of the human condition and then to point mortals back to eternal God.

According to the psalm’s use of this motif, the Lord is the one who is…

*  “Our dwelling place in all generations”
*  The creator since “before the mountains were brought forth”
*  Who has been God “from everlasting to everlasting”
*  And for whom “a thousand years are … like yesterday … or like a watch in the night”

Human beings, on the other hand, are those who…

*  “turn back to dust” at a single word from God
*  “Are like a dream” in the night
*  Perk up like grass fed by morning dew, but who fade and wither before evening
*  And have a lifespan that is “seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong” (I still cotton to the old King James’ Version: “threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore”)

And, not to put too fine of a point on it, the psalm arrives at the conclusion (judgment?) that all of human life passes under God’s judgment — “we are consumed by your anger … our years come to an end like a sigh.”

Half of the battle in preaching a poem as elegant as Psalm 90 is simply to get out of the way of the beautiful poetry, to hit the notes clearly so that they can ring vibrantly in the imaginations and hearts of hearers. (Little surprise, then, that Abraham Lincoln began his most soaring speech — a speech dedicating a graveyard of strong, young men whose flames had snuffed out even before their allotted fourscore years had been counted — with a self-conscious allusion to Psalm 90: “Fourscore and seven years ago…”)

Wise Hearts and Prospered Hands (verses 12-17)
The other half of the battle in preaching such a poem is finding a way to proclaim the psalm’s desperate plea as a message of hope and good news, for the psalm is a prayer. And as such, it is a theological plea written in the key of hope. Making its plea to God, the psalm hopes for what it does not see. Indeed, it hopes for what could not be seen when it was first prayed.

The witness of the psalm — a witness made to God, perhaps even made against God — is that for mortal to find true hope for today and true strength for tomorrow, they can only turn to the eternal Lord.

This is no carpe diem argument — Seize the Day! — as one may find in such secular lyrics as venerable and humorous as Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (“Had we but world enough and time…”) or as fresh and naïve as Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” (“Life is a road that you travel on, there’s one day here and the next you’re gone…”). In these songs, the lyricist urges mortals to seize what joy they can, before they die (“The grave’s a fine and pleasant place, But none I think do there embrace”).

Such thinly veiled attempts to deny mortality are precisely the sort of foolishness that the psalm prays against when it begs in verse 12, “Teach us to count our days that we may game a wise heart.” What is a wise heart? One that turns away from human attempts at self-deception and self-justification. One that paradoxically implores the very God who says to us, “turn back, you mortals!” (verse 3) to, in turn, “Turn…. Have compassion on your servants!” (verse 13).

The psalm then returns to the theme of time and pleads with God, if not to wind back the hands of time, then at least to reverse some of the more deflating and discouraging effects of human mortality: the burdensome sense that a mortal life is without purpose; the debilitating sense that nothing we do matters, because death comes for all; the horrible fear that there is nothing that can satisfy or give joy.

Thus, weaving back in to the poem the earlier temporal terms such as morning, days, and years, the psalm prays for God to “satisfy us in the morning with you steadfast love” and “make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us and as many years as we have seen evil.” The witness here is that joy, satisfaction, and gladness are not marketable or manufacturable goods that can be seized by the mortal from a creation that would without them. But that they are gifts made freely available, proffered without condition by the creator and redeemer of all.

In this light, even the psalm’s doubly repeated closing plea to “prosper for us the work of our hands — O prosper the work of our hands” is not just a plea, but a promise. The promise that the work done by mortal hands here on earth can make a lasting difference, when the eternal one in heaven blesses it.

That isn’t a bad prayer with which to start every day. Or a bad message on which to center a sermon.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

C. Clifton Black

Mr. Harold Camping, president of California’s Family Radio, predicted that three million people would be saved, the rest perish, on May 21, 2011.

When that did not happen (though a “spiritual salvation” was subsequently alleged on that date), the End of the World was recalculated for October 21, 2011.

A website, judgementday2011.com, offers the “Top 10 Reasons You Won’t Be Saved in the Rapture,” which includes “stealing candy from the store.” The website’s advice for being “Rapture-Ready” is predictably sparse, since for most of us it’s already too late: “God needs a full commitment, much like that needy prom date from way back in your high school days.”

You can’t make this stuff up. No, strike that. Somebody already has.

May we now pause for a word from Christian Scripture? Here, if I read them alright, here are Paul’s ten counsels in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11 about the return of Jesus Christ.

1.  Concerning those who have died before Christ’s return, “you [are] not to grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13). “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (4:18). This reaches into the lectionary for a previous Sunday, but it’s important to get properly oriented. To paraphrase: Calm down. Be of good cheer. The God who raised Jesus from death is in charge, and “God will bring with him those who have died” (4:14).

2.  “Concerning the times and the seasons … you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (5:1-2; cf. Matt 24:42-44). The thief has not given advance notice to Mr. Camping, to Mr. Black, or to anyone who may be reading this. Not even the Son knows, or the angels in heaven (Mark 13:32).

3.  When God decides to shut everything down, or reboot it, it will come like a pregnant woman’s labor pains (1 Thessalonians 5:3b). It will be abrupt, impossible to clock, and inexorable.

4.  “Sudden destruction” will likely fall on complacent assurance of “peace and security” (verse 3a), perhaps an allusion to imperial Rome’s motto, pax et securitas (see Psalms of Solomon 18:8 and Josephus). The Almighty has a way of unsettling this world’s cocksure governments, which invest trust in their own power instead of God’s.

5.  Christ’s siblings are “sons of light and sons of the day” (1 Thessalonians 5:5): an image that blends biblical association of light with God (Job 29:3, Psalm 18:28; Isaiah 60:19-20), “the Day of the LORD” (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Amos 5:18, 20), and the contrast of “staying awake/falling asleep” (1 Thessalonians 5:6a). With respect to Jesus’ return, Christians are not in the dark.

6.  Neither should the church lull itself into religious complacency: “keep awake and be sober” (verse 6b). Nighttime reveals who is alert, who is asleep, and who’s drunk (verse 7). Christians do not wear their responsibilities lightly; they conduct themselves sensibly and with restraint (see also Mark 13:33-37; 1 Peter 5:6-9). 

7.  “Soldiers of Christ, arise and put your armor on” (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:8). Please cut Paul and Charles Wesley some slack: they are not advocating a Christian crusade. The metaphor intends to take seriously the genuine struggles that Christians face to remain faithful; the emphasis is on defensive armor — the breastplate and the helmet (cf. Ephesians 6:10-17).  Paul expressly refers to our protection by faith (or “trust”), love, and hope (verse 8): the same triad that opened this letter (1:3) and whose elements recur throughout (e.g., 2:19; 3:2-112).

8.  Guarding the heart as a breastplate, faith and love are vitally connected (3:6; 1 Corinthians 13:2; Galatians 5:6; Philemon 5). The emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 5:8b-9 lies on the Christian’s hope: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 9). Once again: God is the train’s engineer; our final stop is salvation — restoration, healing, wholeness — through the benefit of our conductor, the Lord Jesus.

9.  Christ died for us that we may be made whole and may live with him (5:10; cf. 1:9-10; 4:16-17; Romans 5:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 2:20). This is true of Christians still alive and alert as “children of the day” (1 Thessalonians 5:5-6); it is true also of those who have fallen asleep in death (4:13, 15). Because the apostle does not speculate on postmortem life until redemption, neither need the preacher. Let us concentrate on what concerns Paul: assurance of a future salvation that now brings to the surface, like a poultice, the believer’s faith, love, and hope.

10.  Finally, from heart to heart: “Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing” (5:11). In times of anxiety and strife Christians cannot go it alone, nor should they try. We are responsible to one another for encouragement and bolstering in faith, love, and hope. Others need our support in being Christian, and we need theirs.

The preacher who opts for 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 as this Sunday’s text can adopt the very strategy of the preacher who wrote it. Paul was confronted by Thessalonian despair:  believers grieved by the death of sisters and brothers in Christ who died before his return (4:13). Were they forever lost? No. Christ will never forsake any of those who belong to him (4:14-18).

Paul’s reply is an excellent specimen of pastoral theology: Take the problem — in this case, apocalyptic anxiety — reframe it, and help the church see the picture more fully and with sharper clarity. Whether it’s last October’s Judgment Day that never came, or last Tuesday’s funeral, or next month’s observance of Advent, Christians need help in thinking straight about eschatology. This Sunday Paul offers splendid resources to help Mr. Camping, his listeners, yourself, and those seated in a pew near you.