Lectionary Commentaries for November 19, 2023
Twenty-fifth 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.¹

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.”


  1. Originally published on this site on November 13, 2011.

First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Kristin J. Wendland

The verses included in this pericope center around the Day of the LORD and its arrival. That the day would bring devastation is clear. When seen within the chapter as a whole, however, the verses take on a more nuanced meaning.

The bulk of the chapter, verses 4-16, are words of judgment and destruction against Judah. The reason given is religious syncretism and participation in religious rites that are no part of the worship of the LORD (verses 4-6). This, having kindled the wrath of the LORD, brings the day when the LORD will act against such apostasy. What is lost without the broader context is Judah’s relationship with the rest of creation. Zephaniah 1 begins with a divine undoing of creation, from humans to birds of the air to the fish of the sea. After narrowing in on Judah in verses 7-16, the last two verses of the chapter once more pan out beyond Judah. The whole earth is consumed, leading to the end of all the inhabitants of the earth (verses 17-18).

Worship of the LORD, in this view, is not simply an individual action or proof of one people’s loyalty but rather as a part of the created order. Put simply, without worship of the LORD, the earth itself suffers.

The LORD has prepared a sacrifice

It is appropriate to gasp when reading verse 7. “The LORD has prepared a sacrifice,” because the sacrifice is the people of Jerusalem. As noted above, this verse makes more sense within the context of the whole chapter. Zephaniah has spent verses 4-6 outlining idolatrous actions like acknowledging the priests of Baal (verse 4), bowing down to the host of heavens, likely a reference to Assyrian traditions (verse 5), swearing by the Ammonite deity Milcom (verse 5), and a general ignoring the worship of the LORD (verse 6). Within this context, the LORD preparing a sacrifice is parallel imagery. Instead of making sacrifices, Judah becomes the sacrifice.

This remains a challenging image, to be sure. The idea that sin often meets itself, though, is present throughout the Hebrew Bible. It happens often that the consequences of sin are directly related to the sin itself, almost as if once out in the world sin is not containable or directable but free to wreak havoc, often returning to its origin. This is not to let the LORD off the hook. Zephaniah 1 is a judgment text, and the LORD is the judge. The judgment, though, is not arbitrary or even tit for tat but more of a case of the LORD re-working Judah’s own idolatry. 

The great day of the LORD is near

Although some scholars take “the Day of the LORD” to mean a particular historical event, such as the advancement of the Assyrian army, most understand the Day of the LORD to reference a future day and eschatological event when the LORD would victoriously set Israel/Judah over enemies, many of whom would be destroyed. Like the northern prophet Amos did for the Israelites, Zephaniah turns the Day of the LORD tradition against Judah itself. Neither Jerusalem nor the broader region of Judah would escape, for if the Day of the LORD was an attempt to root out wickedness and that which stood against the LORD, there was plenty to root out within Judah.

The day of the LORD is rarely if ever without language of battle and war, and this passage is no exception. In these verses, the LORD searches out Jerusalem to find the complacent, warning that their homes and their vineyards will cease to exist (verses 12-13). Verses 15 and 16 describe devastation and the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, that serves as a call to battle.

Military imagery, sometimes disliked by readers desiring less physical and violent means of divine approach, would have been familiar and unsurprising to the people of Jerusalem. War was such a real threat for the small nation of Judah that it served as a ready metaphor and experience. Furthermore, the idea that sin disappears gently or easily is thoroughly unbiblical. Rooting out sin and evil is a messy and often violent business. 

All the inhabitants of the Earth

The idolatry of which the inhabitants of Judah are guilty affects the world beyond their borders. This is not a case of individual retribution, where faithful worshipers of the LORD sit in safety as those guilty of idolatry face the consequence, nor do disinterested parties escape. Created beings turning against the creator has a broader impact.  

In a more individualized culture where worship and faith are often understood as a personal choice, the idea that one’s worship is part of the workings of the world will sound odd. We might do better to consider the idea of a basic posture before God rather than ritual or prayer. It is more about knowing one’s place within the workings of the world and trusting God to fulfill God’s role within that same world than about specific actions. 

Luther’s explanation of the first commandment in his Small Catechism is a place to begin, “We should fear, love, and trust God above all things.” Anything else is idolatry. Within the context of Zephaniah 1, to do otherwise risks divine anger, not as an individual punishment but as a result of being out of place. Removing God from God’s rightful place and placing trust in one’s self or in other things actually sets more than one’s own relationship with God akilter. It spins out to affect one’s neighbors and even the very workings of creation. 

Zephaniah 1 ends here with a full and terrible end for all the inhabitants of earth. The book of Zephaniah itself moves toward joy and salvation. It is worthwhile to consider carefully the interconnectedness of our planet and the ways in which the things we do and the things we leave undone—as well as the places where we place our trust—affect the whole as we move toward the salvation God has prepared.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Judges 4:1-7

Lisa Wolfe

It is mind-boggling but true: this is the only passage from the book of Judges that appears in the Revised Common Lectionary. May it serve as our invitation to delve more deeply into this rich and fascinating book! 

Judges plays a crucial role in the Hebrew Bible. It preserves stories of local God-led heroes, as well as self-critical tales of struggle to live in community amid the peoples who had long inhabited the so-called “promised land.” The book of Judges provides some balance to Joshua, which tells about conquering the land practically in one fell swoop. Judges depicts a scenario more of settlement than Joshua’s descriptions of conquest. 

Judges 4:1-3 exemplifies the theologically informative editorial framework that repeats throughout the book: The people disobey God, God punishes the people, they call on God for help, and finally they welcome a God-sent Judge to rescue them. This cycle serves as the mortar for the mosaic of colorful characters in this book, all the while giving credit to God for both victories and defeats. 

In this episode we meet Deborah, a prophetess, judge, and military leader. While all English translations call her “wife of Lappidoth,” that Hebrew phrase could also be translated “woman of fire,” which aligns with her actions in this passage. The Fiery Warrior Deborah has an assistant named Barak, reluctant despite his name, which means “lightning.” Their foe, the Canaanite General Sisera, ultimately meets his end through the gasp-provoking actions of Israel’s enemy-turned-ally Jael. We only get the tiniest portion of this story in 4:1-7. Let that introduction summon us into the fuller narrative because this is one of the most gripping, shocking, eyebrow-raising stories in the Bible! It would be a huge betrayal of a scriptural faith to deprive a congregation of this entire tale. 

This fast-paced, grisly tale of underdog heroism, worthy of the Marvel Universe, must have been popular in the imaginations of ancient Israel because our ancestors in faith preserved the whole story arc twice in a row. It appears first in narrative form (chapter 4), and then again as a poem or song (chapter 5). Some scholars argue that stories in poem or song form would have been some of the earliest literature written. If so, then Judges 5—along with Exodus 15:21—provide glimpses of the oldest stories in the Bible. Even if these stories in verse were not the oldest parts of the Bible, they are nonetheless significant for providing the same content in narrative and then poetic form consecutively (Judges 4, 5; Exodus 14, 15:1-21). Notably, these are both stories about women. 

Neither Barak nor the narrator report being surprised that the prophetess, judge, and military leader Deborah is a woman. Are we? As a prophetess, Deborah spoke on behalf of God. As a community leader, she mediated and settled disputes. As a military commander, she provided divinely guided confidence and leadership. An intriguing comment about her in 5:7 suggests that her governance ensured care for the poor of the community. These traits and tales about Deborah (not to mention Jael) should powerfully inform the assumptions many of us hold about biblical women. This passage may demand that we re-think those stereotypes! 

Indeed, Barak’s reply to Deborah, when she asks him to help with this battle, indicates that he has much more confidence in her than in himself: “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” (4:8) We may detect both defensiveness and bravado from Deborah in her foreshadowing reply to Barak that “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (4:9). Adding to the intrigue, the woman who will take down Sisera is not even Deborah, but Jael.

Finally, near the end of chapter 4 we meet Jael, a woefully under-appreciated biblical character. A non-Israelite, Jael’s household had once been associated with the enemy, but after the defeat of Jabin’s army she apparently switched sides, slyly taking out the defeated commander by hammering a tent peg through his temple. In so doing, she protected both herself as well as the people of Israel (4:17-22; 5:24-27). General Sisera had fled to Jael’s tent, perhaps expecting refuge since her husband Heber the Kenite had been on friendly terms with Sisera’s King. Curiously, we lack much information about this scenario. Why did Jael behave as she did? Why offer milk when he asked for water? To make him sleepy? Why kill him? Was she demonstrating her allegiance to the victor through a murderous act of loyalty? Was she protecting herself from becoming a “spoil of war,” since she was home alone and facing a newly defeated general? A kidnapping like that would have been expected after a battle, as exhibited in Judges 5:30. Or was she just another femme fatale—popular in the male imagination from ancient times to today? (See Hilary Lipka “Femmes Fatales in the Bible.” Additionally, Jennifer Koosed provides additional contextual and background information in her article “Deborah” on BibleOdyssey.org.) 

We find echoes of this astonishing story in modern tales like the films “Thelma and Louise” (1991, MGM) and “Extremities” (1986, Paramount) in which efforts at self-defense tempt—or accomplish—murder. The plots in these stories, as is more vaguely the case for Jael, raise pressing questions for all readers about the larger issues of Judges. Is God behind every instance of punishment posed as suffering? Does God respond to the cries of the vulnerable by sending a powerful rescuer? While God was said to have raised up Deborah and Barak to protect the Israelites from their chariot-rich aggressors, where was protection to have come from for Jael? Or did Jael work for God too?

These questions and characters deserve a role in our faith storytelling. May this be an opportunity to teach with, learn from, and dialogue together about Deborah, Barak, Sisera and Jael, and the ways in which such figures reappear even today.


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

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

In ancient Israel, crisis brought a response of gathering at the holy place under the leadership of priests and other worship leaders.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Watts’ 1719 hymn paraphrases Psalm 90:

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast
and our eternal home.
Be thou our guard while life shall last,
and our eternal home.
Here is a more contemporary prayer:
You are the memory of where we have been
and the anticipation of where we are going.
Though we are not yet in possession of all we have been promised,
here and there along the way we catch glimpses of our eternal home.
O Lord, you are our home along the way and at the end of the journey.
For traveling with us,
for rescuing us when we are lost,
and for calling us into your holy place,
thanks be to you, O God, our eternal home.2


  1. Originally published on this site on November 16, 2014.
  2. Sharlande Sledge, Prayers & Litanies for the Christian Seasons (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1999) 31.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Kristofer Phan Coffman

There’s an important detail about 1 Thessalonians that every reader should keep in mind and it’s so important that I will repeat it at the beginning of each of my commentaries: 1st Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. It is the first of the letters of Paul, written before any of his other letters and even before the Gospels. This letter gives us a glimpse into the concerns of one of the first communities outside of Syria-Palestine to receive the good news of Jesus Christ. It is an under-appreciated treasure.

This week’s pericope begins with Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy negotiating another cultural difference between themselves and the Thessalonians. In chapter four, the issue at hand was the nature of death. Here in chapter five, the trio find themselves in dialogue with the Greek propensity for marking certain times and seasons as auspicious. This observation of times and seasons is an issue throughout the letters of Paul, especially as it pertains to the observance of religious festivals (Galatians 4:10). At issue in these observations is the nature of time. 

For many Greeks, time had two particular properties. On the one hand, it was eternal; just like death, time went on forever. On the other hand, it was also cyclical. The cyclical nature of time operated on different scales, ranging from the annual repetition of festivals all the way to repetition on the historical scale. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy propose a new way to think about time. Rather than the cyclical repetition envisioned by times and seasons, the trio urge the Thessalonians to consider time in a linear fashion. Time, in their thinking, is hurtling towards one event: the day when Jesus will come again in glory, the “Day of the Lord” (5:2).

The Day of the Lord comes with a catch, however. Even though its arrival is inevitable, it comes at an unknown hour. To make this point, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy echo a saying from the Gospels that compares the day to the arrival of a thief in the night (5:2, see also Mark 13:32). Just as with the parable of the strong man who breaks into a house, the Gospels and Paul employ the surprising imagery of thievery for God’s actions. 

The sense of surprising imagery continues as they switch metaphors from the arrival of a thief to the arrival of labor pains (5:3). On a personal note, having just welcomed my first son into the world, I now realize how fitting the imagery of labor is. Though we knew that my wife would eventually go into labor, the last days of her pregnancy were full of waiting and watching. At any moment, we knew our lives would change forever, but we could not predict it and we could not escape it. With their down to earth, familial image, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy capture the paradox of inevitability and uncertainty that mark the coming of the Day of the Lord. 

Switching metaphors again, the trio play with light and darkness imagery (5:4-5). While the use of light/dark imagery may make some modern westerners uncomfortable, it is important to contextualize this metaphor within its cultural space. Night in the ancient world was categorically different than for modern westerners because it was truly dark. We have polluted the darkness with our electric lights and so can no longer understand the sharpness of the distinction between the day and the night and the fear that total darkness brings. Understanding the fear of darkness in antiquity helps to illuminate the courage required to stay awake and keep watch during the night. When the trio urge the Thessalonians to stay awake and watch for their master’s return, they are calling upon them to show the same faith and courage that Jesus urged upon the first disciples (Mark 13:35).

The imagery of watchfulness and wakefulness transitions smoothly into the metaphorical armor that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy encourage the Thessalonians to put on (5:8). By piling up all of these metaphors, the trio weave a rich tapestry that can strike the imagination of the Thessalonians in multiple ways. The tapestry of metaphors serves as a reminder that the letters of Paul are not primarily intended as cut-and-dried theological discourse. Rather, they are sent to address real communities in difficult moments of faith.

Difficult moments of faith call for discussion of difficult topics and that brings Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the language of predestination and election. The language of election here is not meant for condemnation, but for comfort. This is a point that Martin Luther picked up on during the Reformation. Luther maintained that the reason to preach about election is to assure the people of God that they can have faith in God’s promise of salvation. In the face of doubts about one’s standing before God, the believer must cling to assurance that God has not destined us for wrath (5:9).

The assurance that Christ has died for us brings Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy back to the metaphor of sleeping and wakefulness. They return to the worries of the Thessalonians from chapter four, and promise that even the “sleeping,” in other words, the dead will wake to Christ. Once again they assure the Thessalonians that Christ’s promises apply to both the living and the dead, even if their cultural presuppositions would put the dead beyond his reach. 

Once again the artistry of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy stands out. With one metaphor (waking and sleeping), they bring together both the need for vigilance in waiting for Jesus’ return and the power of Jesus to overcome the believer’s lack of vigilance. Who, after all, could be more asleep and less vigilant than someone who has died? By tying these concepts together in one metaphor, they put each concern in its proper place. The Christian life should be marked by wakefulness, but in the end, faith in Jesus Christ rescues even those who have fallen asleep.