Commentary for Pentecost XXIV 15 November 2020

Texts for this week are Judges 4.1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, and Matthew 25.14-30

By Father Doug Woods

Hi! It’s good to see you. It’s always good to be together with people who are interested in scripture. How are you? How are your family and friends? All surviving COVID-19?

 

We’ve been having record-breaking warm weather here where I live. It feels more like early Fall than late Fall. They say it’s going to get cooler again in a couple of days—more seasonable weather.

 

Judges 4.1-7 You might know about the Goths, the Vandals, and the Burgundians—no, not the ones who wear all black clothes. I’m talking about the ancient East Germanic peoples (they originated around the Baltic Sea), who are described by Roman historians. They were farmers and traders, but when they felt threatened, they would go to war, and you wanted them on your side, not the opposing side.

 

Some of the Goths are last recorded in Spain. For all their battle prowess, they could be quite gentle and domestic. Ultimately, they were absorbed by the local people of Spain, never to heard from again, and that links us into today’s reading from Judges.

 

Last week, we heard a passage from the Book of Joshua. The Israelites felt directed to clear out all of the indigenous people of the Holy Land (read the whole Book of Joshua for description of that) so that they’d remain a pure race, God’s special people. Despite their intentions, the Israelites never did complete that. And that’s where there’s a similarity with the Goths, Vandals, and Burgundians. The Israelites were absorbed in part by the surrounding Canaanites.

 

The Book of Judges is about the historical period after Joshua and before the Monarchy, which begins with King Saul (ca. 1000 BC). We’ve talked about judges before. They were governors, first and foremost, but when the occasion demanded it, they were military leaders and even judges in the judicial sense. Today’s passage talks about Deborah, one of the six major judges and the only female. To get the whole story of Deborah, you need to read all of Chapters 4 and 5 in Judges. It’s only three or four pages. The story is quite alarming. Ultimately, Sisera, the Canaanite general is killed by Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; she drives a tent peg through his head while he’s sleeping!

 

Our passage for today is a good example of a pattern that occurs repeatedly in Judges: the people fail to take God seriously—they fail to execute the clearance of the Holy Land—and they end up getting swallowed up by the Canaanites. Ultimately, the Israelites realize what they’ve done wrong and they cry to Yahweh for help. God sends them help in the form of a judge—this time, Deborah—who liberates them, and they have peace for a number of years. However, the point is that the people didn’t take God seriously in the first place. They judged God to be unworthy of their loyalty.

 

Psalm 123 Some people do take God seriously—in this case the psalmist. In a time of urgency and need, the psalmist cries out to God for help. Does this sound like the repeated situation in Israel during the period of the Judges? The psalmist is as devoted to God as a servant is to her/his master/mistress, and s/he calls to God for compassion/mercy. People are treating Israel with contempt—because of their relationship with Yahweh? The psalmist knows that Yahweh’s mercy overrides contempt.

 

1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 We’ve already spoken of the Thessalonians’ preoccupation with the Day of the Lord, the Parousia. Paul reminds them that’s there’s no discernable timetable for it; it will come like a thief in the night, i.e., completely unexpectedly, so it pays to be vigilant, to be ready. How will we be ready? I'll leave that for you to work out.

 

Matthew 25.14-30 There are some problems about this passage. It’s not about finances (though we do hear a lot about Time, Talent, and Treasure from financial officers of the church); we need to get some perspective about this parable by looking at history and culture.

 

First of all, this parable is really an extension of the preceding one: the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. It begins with “For …” i.e., ‘Because …”, but let’s get into the cultural expectations of the audience for the story.

 

The hearers of the story were, more than likely, peasants, so they were very poor. At the time, people believed that everything had already been created, and there was only so much to go around. To be fair, each person should get an equal share of it, but that was far from the case. The rich had more, and the poor had less. In terms of honour and shame, taking more than your share was shameful, and yet the rich did it. They could, of course, redeem themselves by sharing what they had with those who were less fortunate. That would be honourable.

 

A talent is a unit of weight, not a special ability, like singing or playing the trombone. It was commonly used for measuring out metals like gold, silver, or copper—hence, a talent is commonly associated with money. The talents referred to in today’s parable must have been silver or gold. In this sense, a talent was one thousand denarii. A denarius was a day’s wages for a common day labourer. So the third slave receives an amount equal to a thousand days’ wages, a very considerable amount!

 

A slave is not the same in the ancient world as a slave is in our time, e.g., not like slaves picking cotton on a plantation in the American south or a slave cutting cane in a plantation in the Caribbean. Slaves were simply not free people—but many of them held very responsible positions and were well educated. We might call them servants instead.

 

So in the parable for today, the master goes on a trip, but before he goes, he gives each of three slaves some of his fortune to use—to play with, to grow—each of them according to his ability. Please note, the talent(s) are a gift, and each slave receives according to his ability to handle it.

 

Then the master goes away for an unspecified period of time. The first two slaves get right to it. It must have made them uneasy; they’ve gone from poor to rich overnight, so they might feel ashamed to have more than their share of wealth, but in light of the situation, what could they do? The master had, in effect, commanded them to do this by giving them the money. So they both got to it right away, looking for ways to grow the money.

 

The third servant is cautious. He’s afraid of the master, so he hedges his bets, taking the safe option. He reckons he’d do best to take care of the talent and give it back, unharmed, when the master returns, so he buries it in a secret place.

 

At an unexpected time, the master returns and demands a reckoning: “So, what have you done with my money?” The first two slaves come to the master enthusiastically, each of them pleased with what they’ve been able to do. (Note that each one doubles the amount he was given, all based on each one’s expected ability. None of us are created equal.) The master is pleased too: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” In other words, “I’m pleased with what you’ve done. Now I’m going to reward you by giving you even bigger responsibilities.” No taking a holiday here! But isn’t that the way we hope it will go with our job? If we do well, we’ll be rewarded by getting a promotion?

 

Now the third slave. Ah, poor guy. He’s done nothing, and the master is displeased: “You wicked and lazy slave!” and then comes the list of things he’s done wrong.

 

What’s the difference between the first two slaves and the third? The first two took the master seriously and threw themselves into the work. The third completely misjudged the master and tried to stay safe. Any kind of accomplishment involves risk, and he didn’t judge the master to be worth it. That judgment is met with condemnation by the master. He’s angry.

 

So, here’s a SECOND parable about taking the job seriously—and taking the gift seriously. God gives us gifts, but they’re not just to be possessed; they’re to be used for good purposes. They’re meant to be grown. They’re meant to bear fruit. God gives us gifts by grace, but how we use the gift is a matter of judgment, of evaluation of how we did with it. Please notice: how we evaluate the gift and the giver is also a judgment—OUR judgment. Is the gift/giver worthy of our taking it seriously? Do we treasure it? How we react, based on that judgment, is also met with a judgment. The question is, “Have you loved me?” Please notice that this applies as much to the church as it does to individuals.

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