Lectionary Commentaries for November 15, 2020
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30

Dirk G. Lange

“Enter the joy of your master.”1

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 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.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on Nov. 16, 2008.

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.1

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.2 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.3 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.4

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.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 19, 2017.
  2. 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.
  3. Floyd, 198.
  4. 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

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.1

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 Judges 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.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 16, 2014.

Psalm

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 90.1

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.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 13, 2011.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Holly Hearon

These words from 1 Thessalonians anticipate the season of Advent, which begins in two weeks.

How we mark time says a lot about how we assign meaning to our existence. Paul reminds us that beyond cradle-to-grave moments accompanied by seasons of aging, our lives are embraced by a larger time frame—one described by the incarnation of Christ and the coming of Christ again in the fullness of time.

The coming of Christ

The concept of the “coming of Christ” (“day of the Lord”) has been the cause of some mischief. In some cases, it has been used to scare people into a misguided sense of obedience. In other instances, it has led to a self-serving faith rooted in cheap grace.

In the case of the tiny community addressed by Paul in Thessalonica, the coming of Christ led some Jesus followers to become idle (1 Thessalonians 4:10; 5:14). If Christ was coming again soon, what need was there to work? Viewed in a more positive light, perhaps some sought to live in a state of constant prayer so that they would be ready when the moment arrived. A more recent version of this “idleness” is exhibited by those who see no need to address social issues because the soon-to-take-place appearance of Christ will take care of it. 

Paul views the coming of Christ as a source of hope, because at that moment, we will be raised with Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). He also looks to the coming of Christ as a moment of accountability (4:1), for at that moment, we must face God and ourselves honestly. For both of these reasons, he urges us to live joyfully anticipating the coming of Christ. It does not matter whether you view the coming of Christ as a temporal moment or as a metaphor; the significance holds.

Living in expectation

To encourage the Thessalonian Jesus followers, Paul uses a familiar rhetorical device, setting up a contrast between “them” and “us”:

  • We are children of the day; they are children of the night.
  • We maintain sobriety; they dull their senses with drunkenness.
  • We remain alert; they fall asleep.

It is tempting to focus attention on “them” and their shortcomings. But Paul’s purpose is to focus attention on us and who we claim to be. If we are children of the day, then we remain alert, keeping our wits about us, because we know that Christ is near at hand.

Paul reminds them that “you yourselves know” (often an indirect way of suggesting “just in case you forgot”) that the day of Christ will come “like a thief in the night” (5:2). He continues in verse 3: “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman.” The phrase “peace and security” was a slogan on Roman coins to remind people of the source of their peace and security. The allusion would not be missed in Thessalonica, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia that participated in the cult of the emperor.

It is worth pausing on the illustration of the pregnant woman. While the thief in the night is unexpected, the birth pains experienced by the woman have been anticipated for many months. She knows that there is no way to avoid them in order to give birth. While Paul’s focus is on the inevitability of the pain, there is more here: the pain gives way to new life, which is perhaps suggestive of the “obtaining of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:9).

Accountability

We are well practiced at skirting responsibility. That is one of the first things children learn to do (“It wasn’t me!”). As adults, we rationalize with phrases like “I didn’t mean to,” “I was just trying to protect you,” “the ends justify the means,” or “it doesn’t count unless you are caught.”

The anticipated “coming of Christ” places before us a temporal limit: a moment when we come face-to-face with Christ. There are, of course, other ways that we come face-to-face with Christ: when we encounter the stranger, for example, or when we prayerfully reflect on our lives in confession. But the coming of Christ holds us to a time that cannot be put off, when we will be called to accountability, when the labor pains come upon us, when it is revealed where we have sought peace and security.

Hope

Hope is linked explicitly to the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13), with whom we too will be raised (4:15-17). It is also linked to faith and love (1:3; 5:8): that is, to our trust in God and to our service to one another (4:9-10). It is not really possible, Paul seems to say, to speak of one without the others.

Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). Likening faith, love, and hope to the protective armor worn by Roman soldiers underscores their power. It does more, however. The protective armor signals to others, like a sports jersey, whom the person serves. In the case of a Roman soldier, it is the emperor. In the case of a Jesus follower in Thessalonica, faith, love, and hope identify them as serving the God of Jesus Christ.

Faith, love, and hope do not protect these Jesus followers from harassment (1 Thessalonians 1:6), but they do, says Paul, protect them from fear of the wrath to come (5:9). Wrath is not a word that we often associate with God, or the New Testament, but here it is. We can ignore it. Or, we can ask “what would so stir God’s indignation that it would reach the level of wrath?” It is a question worth asking, remembering always that our answer may not be the same as God’s—particularly if our answer makes us feel good.