Lectionary Commentaries for November 16, 2008
Twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30
Dirk G. Lange
Commentary on Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Carolyn J. Sharp
Zephaniah threatens that God will annihilate all living things due to human wickedness.
His words evoke the ancient Flood in the days of Noah: “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea” (1:2-3). Prophetic passages of doom such as this one have spurred not a few Christians to adopt an implicitly Marcionite stance toward the Old Testament. Our studied avoidance of difficult texts is unfortunate, but in truth, it is not easy to read prophecies of destruction and recognize the God of grace whom we know in Jesus Christ. Yet this grim passage promises spiritual treasure to those who probe its deeper significance as rhetoric of persuasion.
The prophet exhorts his audience to “be silent before the LORD” (1:7). This is a silence of sheer terror, for God has “prepared a sacrifice” that ironically turns out to be the invited guests themselves. Other prophets foretell God’s eschatological feasting on enemies (see Isaiah 34:5-7 against Edom and Ezekiel 39:17-20 against the “princes of the earth”). But here, Zephaniah roars that God’s own people cannot escape punishment.
The prophet names kinds of sinners who will be punished by God. It might seem at first that some who are not guilty of those specific infractions could escape. Not all are royal officials who seek alliances with other nations (political pragmatism is condemned by several prophets as a failure to trust in God; see Isaiah 30:1-5 and Hosea 7:11-13). Not all “leap over the threshold,” this usually interpreted on the basis of 1 Samuel 5:5 to mean engaging in syncretistic or superstitious rituals. Not all are guilty of “violence and fraud” (1:9). So Zephaniah’s audience may be breathing a sigh of relief after his catalogue of sins. But they are brought up short at 1:18: “in the fire of His passion the whole earth shall be consumed.” Everyone is doomed!
Now the prophet’s command that we “be silent before the LORD” takes on a new urgency. For the faithful, there can be no room for the complacency that Zephaniah deplores (1:12). Zephaniah intends to shock us–not just egregious sinners, but all of us–out of our spiritual smugness.
His message that silver and gold cannot save (1:18) may be unwelcome to those who enjoy significant wealth and influence. Money is power, so it would seem, in the unjust political and social systems of this world. But the sacred is more powerful still. All who fetishize money need to hear this prophetic word: not only the rich, but also those who think that winning the lottery or running just one more business scam will change their lives.
We worship a passionate God who insists on faithfulness and moral integrity, and our God is capable of obliterating the earth. This truth is grounded not only in the Old Testament but also in the new revelation we have in Jesus Christ. Mark assures us that God can inflict worldwide desolation (Mark 13:14-20). The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews thunders that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), for “our God is a consuming fire” (12:29). Believers should not be manipulated spiritually by fear. But we do need to hear about the zeal and power of God, if we are to resist the ennui and cynicism of our increasingly secular world.
Zephaniah suggests that by God’s mercy, we might still live. We hear this sung at the end of Zephaniah (3:14-20) but also whispered early on in 1:12. God will “search Jerusalem with lamps” to find and punish “those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will He do harm.'” God is incarnationally engaged in our lives and our communities. This is good news, however muted, for God’s searching suggests that some may yet be found faithful. We rejoice to realize that there is still time to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
If we can move beyond our initial anxiety at Zephaniah’s rhetoric of judgment, this passage offers marvelous opportunities for pedagogical, liturgical, and pastoral engagement. Here are three ways you might use Zephaniah 1 to preach good news, from the pulpit and in your ongoing “exegesis” of the life of your congregation.
First, your homiletical teaching and adult education can explore theologies that emphasize the ineffable power of God. Zephaniah insists that we cannot domesticate the holy, whether by dismissing God as irrelevant (1:12) or by subordinating God to our own imagined autonomy (1:18). Preach key ideas from apophatic theology, paired with some evening sessions on The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross. Explore the mystery of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Construct a sermon series as a lively dialogue with contemporary agnosticism and atheism.
Second, find creative liturgical ways for your congregation to acknowledge their spiritual challenges. All our living is laid bare before the God who has formed each one of us and knows us intimately (Psalms 139:1-6). Invite your parishioners to imagine the radiance of the Holy One’s lamp approaching their hiding places. What will God find when God encounters them? Have parishioners name their struggles on slips of paper and add them to the collection plate as a sign of their commitment to stay engaged with God. Offer prayers that take skepticism, anxiety, and alienation seriously as spiritual issues. Many in your congregation will be gratified to hear these issues addressed.
Third, reflect pastorally on the need for believers to perform a searching moral and spiritual inventory. We cannot improve ourselves without God’s grace, but this does not absolve us from the responsibility to face our sins. Spiritual honesty is essential for transformation. Recovering alcoholics and addicts in your congregation will appreciate this, for an unflinching moral inventory is central to twelve-step programs that seek to break through the pathology of denial. Preach about the healing power of the confession of sin in Christian tradition. If the sacrament of reconciliation is important in your tradition, promote it and attend pastorally to those who seek concrete reconciliation in their relationships.
Zephaniah’s witness is a potent challenge to believers today. But it is also a gift, for those who have ears to hear. When we approach God humbly, taking refuge not in our own strength but in the name of the LORD (3:12), then no one shall make us afraid.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on Judges 4:1-7
Ralph W. Klein
Deborah is among the most prestigious female leaders in the Old Testament and her exemplary leadership may provide encouragement to lay and ordained female leaders in the church today.
It is unclear whether Deborah was the wife of a man named Lappidoth, of whom nothing is known, or if the etymology of the Hebrew words behind “wife of Lappidoth,” actually describes her personality–she was a fiery woman! She is also called a prophetess, just like Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14//2 Chronicles 34:22), and the wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3). The office of prophet in the Old Testament was by no means restricted to men. Prophets in the Old Testament bring oracles of Yahweh to individuals or groups, as Deborah does in vv. 6-7. Holy Wars in the Old Testament were not fought until Yahweh authorized them in various ways, and in this story, by divine oracles that came through a woman. Deborah also held the office of judge. That office had two aspects, and Deborah fits the criteria for both. First, people came to her to solve legal disputes although we are not told whether her ability to solve legal squabbles called primarily on her judicial wisdom, or whether, since she was a prophet, she also could seek a direct decision from Yahweh to deal with difficult cases. Secondly, “judges” in this book are military heroes through whom Yahweh delivered his people, just like Ehud, Gideon, and Samson. Deborah is the only judge who is evaluated positively in an unequivocal way– per contra Gideon, who became a source of idolatry (Judges 8:27) and Samson, who was a notorious womanizer. Deborah was also serving as a judicial officer before she was called to serve in a military capacity whereas other judges arise out of “nowhere” to lead the people to victory.
There are two accounts of Deborah’s battle, in chapter 4 and in chapter 5. The latter is written in archaic poetry that is probably one of the oldest documents in the Old Testament. There are several differences between the accounts, and they were clearly written by two different people. Did Jael drive a tent peg through the skull of Sisera (Judges 4:21) or did she hit him with the old “one-two,” first with a tent peg and then with a workman’s mallet (Judges 5:26)? According to Judges 5:1, Deborah and Barak sang the song that makes up this chapter, although most scholars would agree with the implications of Judges 5:12 that Deborah alone was the singer. In the poem, Deborah is identified as a “mother” in Israel (5:7). The exact significance of this title is unknown, but there are multiple references to the title “father” in the Old Testament (see Genesis 45:8; Judges 17:10; 1 Samuel 10:12). The analogous title “father” is also used of male prophets (2 Kings 2:12; 6:21; 13:14), and the disciples of prophets were often called their sons.
The story in chapter 4 follows an outline that is characteristic of many of the stories of the judges. Israel sinned or did evil, and consequently, Yahweh sold them into the hands of a foreign king, in this case Jabin, king of Hazor (see chapter 11). When Israel cried to Yahweh, either in desperation, in a spirit of repentance, or both, Yahweh sent deliverance. Here such deliverance is promised in a divine oracle (vv. 6-7) with the details given in both chapters 4 and 5. In the midst of the battle, Deborah receives another divine oracle that tells Barak when to engage Sisera in an attack (Judges 4:14). One very interesting detail in v. 9, unfortunately not included in the lectionary, comes through Deborah’s enigmatic statement to her general Barak that the battle would not lead to his glory since Yahweh would sell the Canaanite general Sisera into the hand of a woman. At this stage of the story, one would assume that woman would be Deborah, but it turns out to be Jael (Judges 4:17-22; 5:24-27). Jael becomes a second role model of a strong and courageous woman. In any case, God’s initiative uses a variety of human helpers. God promises to give Sisera into the hand of Barak, but Barak’s request for Deborah to accompany him seems to lead to a change in God’s plans. The book of Judges offers a wide range of female experiences, some negative and some positive. On the positive side is the strong faith displayed by Samson’s nameless mother in chapter 13.
Two incidental details help us to see that this battle was not of epic proportions. Jabin had only 900 chariots–not thousands of them–but they were made of iron. It is now thought that the Philistines brought the technology of smelting iron to Palestine. Secondly, only the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were involved in the battle. Chapter 5 has a somewhat different account of which tribes participated (vv. 14-18), but even there the tribe of Judah is notably absent.
After the deliverance in the wars in Judges, the heroic judge normally goes back to his or her previous occupation and the land is given rest for twenty, forty or even eighty years (Judges 5:31; cf. 3:30). And then the cycle starts all over again! This repeated willingness of Yahweh to respond to the cries of his sinful people exemplifies God’s gracious character. But we should note that in the Books of Kings, the repeated sins of the people finally lead to the destruction of the Northern and Southern kingdoms. God’s grace is not to be taken for granted.
Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
The twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost marks the last Sunday in five weeks of consecutive reading through Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.
In many respects, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 is one unit as Paul unpacks the life of the believer who has hope in the coming of Jesus Christ. There are several important connections between last week’s reading (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and this week’s reading from chapter five before Paul moves into his final exhortations, greetings, and benediction (5:12-28). Chapter five begins with a similar claim to what is known, much like Paul’s words in 4:13. It is not the case that the Thessalonians are in need of new information regarding their faith. Rather, Paul reminds them of what they already know. In doing so, Paul provides further encouragement and consolation in the fact that the Thessalonians can rely on their knowledge in the faith. This is a central theme of the letter, set out already in 1:1-10 and repeated throughout (cf., 2:1, 2, 5, 11; 3:3, 4; 4:2). Not only is knowledge that which ensures a secure faith, it is also that which unites Paul and his co-workers with the Thessalonian community (1:4-5). The image in this pericope builds on the coming of the Lord. While the day of the Lord is not known, the Thessalonians do know that it will come when least expected and vigilance is required.
This section of chapter five ends with three claims that tie the unit back to 4:13-18. First, Paul reasserts that the Lord Jesus Christ died for us (5:9-10). The restatement of the confessional claim stated in 4:14 adds the assurance “for us” (hyper hēmōn). Once again, Paul is able to communicate the union between the Lord, the Thessalonians (those who have died and those who remain), and himself with a direct claim about unity. As a result, the union between believers and Paul and the Lord is constantly present in the letter. Second, “we may live with him,” which closes 5:10, echoes 4:17, “together with them.” The ending of 5:10 is better translated “together with him we might live.” The grammatical construction is identical to 4:17 (hama syn) with the exception of the pronoun switch from “them” to “him.”
Finally, Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to encourage one another (parakaleite allēlous) just as he did in 4:18. The verb parakaleō is used eight times in the letter (2:12; 3:2, 7; 4:1, 10, 18, 5:11, 14) as the encouragement that Paul and Timothy offer to the Thessalonians and therefore and that the Thessalonians can give to one another. The links between last week’s text and this week’s pericope underscore the fact that the coming of the Lord is for all believers−for the ones who have died and the ones who remain. Those left behind await the parousia, however, not with fear and trepidation but with hope. While hope was identified in 4:13-18 as the union of those who have died with those who remain, here hope is spelled out in the assurance of being children of the light, hope is lived out in behavior that exemplifies belief, and hope is worked out in the promise of salvation and ongoing life with Christ, whether we are awake or asleep (5:10).
Like 4:13-18, the images Paul uses in 5:1-10 are apocalyptic, which begs that our task for interpreting them is not to decode their meaning but to reflect on how the visions affect, change, and influence the present situation. These are not future revelations but divine revelation that our future is secure because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The visions make the claim that the future coming of the Lord has impinged on our present and that we should live as if the eschaton has shattered time and space so Christ’s presence might be fully known now. The in-breaking of God’s future for us in the present, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, means that the life we live is not toward an anticipated reward but in response to an unanticipated gift. At the very least, this passage suggests that Christian ethics are not simply moral obligations, behavioral modifications, or a set of established values. Rather, the Christian lives as if Christ will be here any minute, not in fear, but in peace, security, and promise.
As Paul nears the end of the letter he returns to the triad with which he started — faith, love, and hope. The triad recast in the imagery of armor suggests that possessing faith, love, and hope is not without its challenges. Indeed, this is how they are introduced at the beginning of the letter — work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. Faith, love, and hope need to be lifted up and built up as marks of the community. As such, Paul’s exhortation to mutual encouragement, comfort, and consolation is not a command to new action. Remarkably, Paul encourages the encouragement they are already offering each other, “as indeed you are doing” (5:11). In other words, Paul not only recognizes that encouraging one another actually needs encouragement but also shows the Thessalonians what this looks like.
We are called to many worthy and worthwhile endeavors in our lives of faith for the sake of living out God’s love for us and for our neighbor. However, it is not often that we issue a call for encouragement and building each other up. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians suggests that as much as faith, love, and hope are observable characteristics of a Christian community, so is encouragement. The verb oikodomeō can also be translated “strengthen,” “edify,” “benefit,” “restore.” In what sense is the work of faith the strengthening of the faith of one another? In what sense is the labor of love to benefit those whom we love? In what sense is steadfastness of hope realized in restoration and edification?
“Enter the joy of your master.”
This phrase, I believe, more than any other verse serves as a leitmotiv for interpreting the parable of the talents. Other motifs are possible, of course, and have been amply used in the history of interpretation, especially for a rather simplistic justification of small venture capitalism! This parable has also been a favorite text for stewardship campaigns. However, when we use the parable of the talents in this one-sided way, we miss the profounder implications that it proposes for both grace and judgment.
Yes, as in the parable the lectionary presented last week (the ten young women), we again have a story that provides insights into the dynamics of grace and judgment in Christian life. And, as we saw last week with the parable of the ten young women, some are invited to a festival and others are apparently not. The great hymn writer, Philipp Nicholai, called this feast the “Abendmahl” or Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. The feast — the awaited parousia — is not some far-off event but the sharing of bread and wine at the Sunday table. Here, around the table, we enter the joy of our master.
Preachers are confronted by some serious questions when it comes to this parable. Many are disturbed by the harshness of the judgment against the third slave. Is this the type of God we worship — a God who rewards the rich and makes then richer and condemns the poor, only making them poorer?
In order to move beyond initial fears concerning the characterization of the master, it will be important to highlight certain unusual elements in the parable. What is initially striking in this parable is the superabundance of gifts. The table, so to speak, is overflowing. A talent is a vast sum of money and generously distributed to the servants though in different amounts. The master entrusts his wealth to his servants. Not only is he trusting them with his wealth, he does so over a long period of time. Our culture, which places so much value on things happening immediately, even instantaneously, has become unaccustomed to waiting. Yet here another gift is the gift of time, a “long time,” allowing the servants to live faithfully in this superabundance. The servants already participate, in a yet incomplete fashion, in the life of their master. If we, as preachers, place all the emphasis on the last scene and the judgment of the third servant, the parable becomes merely a story about judgment. If, however, we put more emphasis on the superabundant gifts as described at the beginning of the parable, we invite listeners into understanding a deeper reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This reality becomes even clearer when we focus on the character of the master. In many parables, an allegorical temptation is to equate the master with God. Here, an allegorical twist happens in that Matthew equated the master with Jesus. The master is the one who is present with the servants and then the one who departs only to come back again. When the community interprets the master as representing Jesus Christ, the dynamics of the parable change. Jesus Christ cannot be interpreted as a hard slave-master who demands unjust practices for profit from his servants. We are forced to think of the master as inviting his servants into a fullness, a superabundance of grace that is continually offered. Saint Isaac the Syrian put it this way: God can only give faithful love. There is a paradoxical restraint in this assertion that is grammatically limiting but obviously not existentially confining.
The master, already possessing the gift of the talents, is inviting his servants to share in his joy. When the first two are finally invited to “enter the joy of their master,” they are perhaps not entering a greater fullness than before but rather now are able to recognize the dynamics of joy that undergird the gift of faith. The joy of the master is the joy of the feast that is self-giving, sharing, being distributed into the world. In this sense the interest gained on the talents is like the hundred-fold that the disciple receives when he or she gives everything away to follow Jesus. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). The obedience of trust is not a burden or a fearful endeavor but is precisely the joy of discipleship in which everything is given (the gift and the interest!).
Hopefully it is now clear why this parable cannot or should not be used simply as an admonition for good financial practices or as a justification for a capitalist mentality. This would be seriously misusing a profound Gospel invitation into a realm where calculation is abolished. In fact, we discover in this realm the very opposite of a materialist’s approach to life: the interest happens in giving away. Rewritten sacramentally, we could say: we are invited to a meal where there is simple but good food and most importantly enough for everyone. Here, we participate in the joy of our master.
What then can be said about the third servant? The judgment still appears to be very harsh. However, if we consider the parable as a parable of invitation, perhaps his plight takes on a different perspective. If, as I have argued, the master is inviting, continually inviting into superabundance, grace, and joy (which is nothing other than inviting into discipleship) then the only conclusion that can be drawn is the third servant is not able to hear or accept the invitation. The third servant has not only hidden the talent, he has buried himself. The third servant is not so much condemned as he condemns himself to a place — a life — that knows not joy, that knows only darkness and wailing and grinding of teeth. This place, as such a life, is self-created.