TWENTY THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18
1 Thessalonians 5:1–11
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The “Day of the Lord” appears as a constant refrain in the lessons for this week and last. That term, as I have pointed out, reoccurs throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The meaning given to that term depends largely on the context in which it is found. Some scholars locate the origin of this term in Israel’s worship traditions, particularly the annual New Year celebration where the enthronement of Yahweh as king was celebrated. See e.g., Mowinckel, Sigmund, He that Cometh, (c. 1956 by Abingdon Press). Others locate the origin of this phrase in Israel’s traditions of holy war. The Day of the Lord, they maintain, refers to Yahweh’s participation in the defeat of Israel’s enemies in battle. See, e.g. von Rad, Gerhard, The Message of the Prophets (c. 1962 by Oliver and Boyd Ltd; pub. by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.) pp. 95-99. Whatever the origin might have been, the prophets took up the phrase in order to express their conviction that the Lord was coming in judgment, turning the Day of the Lord into a threat rather than a promise. Last week’s reading from the book of Amos is a particularly good example of such prophetic use:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
The New Testament speaks of the Day of the Lord as the coming of Jesus in glory. As in the Hebrew Scriptures, so also in the New Testament this day has a double edge to it. It is the day upon which God’s enemies are finally defeated and the righteous vindicated. God’s justice is established throughout creation and God’s peace (“Shalom”) governs the relationship between God and creation as well as between each of God’s creatures. That’s good news right?
Not so fast. In order for God’s justice to be established, the unjust structures of power that concentrate the vast majority of the world’s wealth in the hands of a few while keeping as much as a third of the world’s people in poverty will have to be overturned. In order for God’s peace to prevail, our swords must be beaten into plowshares. I don’t expect that the Pentagon, the NRA, the World Bank or any of us who live comfortably in the industrialized nations of the world relish the thought of such a leveling. We who have lived long with the idea in our heads that what is in our hands belongs to us are going to have a hard time letting go. While the hungry of the world might rejoice at the prospect of finally being assured their daily bread, those of us aspiring upwardly mobile middle class Americans might balk at having to make do with only that. For those of us who have gotten used to finding happiness through greater and greater consumption, a life of gentle simplicity where joy is found in our covenant relationships rather than accumulated wealth could seem like a bitter pill to swallow. I am not so sure I am on God’s side here!
The truth is, we are not all ready for the Day of the Lord. We need to be transformed into the kind of people that can live joyfully, thankfully and obediently under God’s just and peaceful reign. That is the whole point of the church. That is where we learn that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, legal nor illegal, straight nor gay, but that all are together the resurrected Body of Christ. In the church we gather at one table and partake of one loaf, one cup. There is one door into the church and that is baptism into Christ Jesus. In this community called church, we learn that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We practice the discipline of intentional and proportional giving in order to cultivate generous hearts.
As everyone who loves and is part of the church knows, our life together is a far cry from the reign of God we proclaim. But we remain in the church nonetheless because we trust that the Spirit of Jesus is at work there softening our hard hearts, breaking our addiction to consumption, overcoming our prejudices, reconciling our divisions and making us ready so that when the Day of the Lord comes, it will be light for us rather than darkness.
Zephaniah is one of the twelve “minor” prophets, so called not because they constitute a minor prophetic league, but because their books are far smaller than those of the “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel). According to the first verse of his collected writings, Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. This king, who ruled from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E., was credited in the book of II Kings for instituting in the latter part of his reign sweeping religious reforms and ridding the kingdom of idolatry. II Kings 23:1-25. The prophet’s sustained criticism of Judah’s religious infidelity suggests that he ministered in the earlier part of Josiah’s reign before the passage of his reforms. Zephaniah’s lineage is traced back to one called “Hezekiah,” but it is not known whether this Hezekiah is the Judean King by that name who ruled between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E. during the ministries of the prophets Isaiah and Micah. Zephaniah’s oracles begin with the prophet’s warning of a catastrophic judgment of cosmic proportions that will sweep away not only Judah, but all of humankind. For more general information on the Book of Zephaniah, see Summary Article by Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.
In this Sunday’s reading, Zephaniah delivers a scorching rebuke to his nation. Like Amos in last week’s reading, Zephaniah warns that the “Day of the Lord,” a common term for God’s hoped for salvation, would be nothing of the sort for the sinful nation of Judah. Significantly, in the omitted verses 8-11, the prophet directs withering criticism toward “the king’s sons” and “those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud,” but not the king himself. Josiah was only eight years old when he assumed the throne of Judah. II Kings 22:1. It is unlikely that he would have exercised any true political authority at this point (much less had any sons!). Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the “sons” of whom Zephaniah speaks are Josiah’s brothers, the sons of the former king, Amon. Like his father, Manasseh, Amon practiced idolatry and it seems that his sons continued in that vein. Zephaniah’s reluctance to criticize the king directly might well have been due to his reasonable fear of the consequences. It might also have stemmed from his hope that the boy king Josiah might yet prove himself made of better stuff than his father when he finally grew into the crown. The practice of “leaping over the threshold” mentioned in verse 9 appears to have been a pagan ritual upon entering a shrine. See I Samuel 5:5.
The agent of God’s judgment upon Judah will come from the north, entering by way of the Fish Gate at the northeastern wall. Vs. 10. It must be born in mind that this period of time was marked by geopolitical instability. The Assyrian Empire was fast disintegrating, leaving a power vacuum that King Josiah would later exploit to Judah’s temporary advantage. At this early point, however, the political future of the region was unclear. Restive nations now released from the yolk of Assyria were beginning to assert themselves. Like the disintegration of Yugoslavia into warring factions in the 1990s following the decline of Soviet rule, the near east was spinning into chaos as Assyria’s power faded. The feared invader from the north could therefore have been any number of potential foes. According to most scholars, the most likely suspects are the Scythian tribes. In any event, the immediate threat against which the prophet warned seems not to have materialized.
Neither military might nor wealth will be able to deliver Judah from the coming judgment. Vss. 17-18. Israel’s trust in these things is vain as their power is illusory. Yet there appear to be people in Judah whose trust is so anchored. They are, to use a contemporary term, “practical atheists.” “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” Vs. 12. The belief underlying this remark is that God does not get involved with human affairs. Other than worship, prayer or other religious activities, human conduct is of no concern to God. God is compartmentalized into the realm of the “spiritual” and has no place in the “real world.” Yet a God thoroughly removed from the economic, political and social realities in which human beings live might as well not exist. Belief in such a god is practically indistinguishable from belief in no god at all.
This reading does not portray our God as a kindly old over-indulgent grandfather. This is an angry God. In our modern 19th Century, rational, refined, ever white and ever polite protestant piety, a God of wrath and judgment is viewed as inconsistent with the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Lately, though, we are learning that the real world is a good deal messier than our quaint Enlightenment rationalism once led us to suppose. Anger and love are not as far apart as we imagine. Most acts of violence are domestic. The bloodiest conflicts often take place between religious, cultural and racial groups that are closely related. The people we love most are those with the greatest capacity to hurt us. A God incapable of anger would be a god that didn’t care. A god that that never gets in the way of what we want would not be a God of love, but one of benign indifference. It is precisely because God loves us so passionately that God is so deeply grieved and so thoroughly outraged by our self-centered and self-destructive behavior. God’s judgment, severe though it may be, is another manifestation of God’s love seeking to save us from ourselves. Even the bad news is really good news.
This psalm is in a class by itself, defying the categories of scholarly classification. Though it begins by praising God’s creative and eternal power, it is hardly a song of praise. Like a lament, this poem is decidedly dark, but the psalmist is not crying out for salvation from any threat of extraordinary danger or the prospect of a premature death. The psalmist is simply reflecting on the limitations of being a mortal creature in a perishable world. From dust we are made, to dust we return. Vss. 3-4. We are like the grass, flourishing in the morning and perishing before sunset. Vss. 5-6. But in one crucial respect we are not like the grass or any other non-human creature that is content to live its span and return to nourish the earth from which it came. We want more. Unlike Jesus and very much like Adam, we view godhood as “a thing to be grasped.” Philippians 2:5-6. Yet every time we reach out for the prize of god-like immortality, we run into our mortal limits. Each passing day reminds us that our bodies and minds are in decline.
The psalmist understands and accepts (as our own culture frequently does not!) that such is life as God’s creature. There is no escape from mortality. So the psalmist prays that s/he might live wisely and well within his/her creaturely limits. How very contrary that prayer is to our fixation on youthfulness, our preoccupation with covering up the evidence of aging, our promethean dreams of indefinitely extending the length of human life through medical and technological advances! Yet it should not seem at all radical or unusual to disciples of a man who was misunderstood all his life, died violently in his youth and was abandoned by his closest friends and supporters in the end. Life need not be eternal to be eternally significant. Nor does life need to be long in order to be full and complete. If you follow Jesus, you know that the criteria by which our world measures the value of a human life are false and distorted. Not surprisingly, they lead us to despair.
As dark as this psalm is, it does not despair of human existence. Rather, it seeks wisdom to live faithfully within our human creaturely limits. In the final verse of the psalm (not included in our reading), the psalmist prays that God would “establish the work of our hands.” Vs. 17. It is, after all, only God who can endow our lives with true value and significance. It is only by commending our works into God’s hands that we can hope they will find any degree of permanence beyond the measure of our days. That we have the work of this psalmist’s hands enshrined in our scriptures testifies to the truth of his/her words.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.
For my comments generally on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, see my post for October 19th. See also Summary Article by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.
Sunday’s reading is another one with a focus on “the day of the Lord.” As pointed out in my introductory remarks, this is a broad term that can be applied to any watershed time of salvation such as the Exodus from Egypt. But it is also used to denote the final triumph of God’s justice throughout creation. This latter sense is the one St. Paul intends in our lesson. One thing to keep in mind about the “Day of the Lord” is that it is about judgment as much as it is about salvation. You cannot have salvation of the righteous without judgment of the wicked. Finally, it must be said that we are never on shakier ground than when we presume we are wholly on one side of that divide and someone else is on the other. The line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every heart. Paul warns his church that the final judgment is already making itself felt in the present moment. Even now believers must shake themselves out of sleep (Vs. 6) and put on the armor of faith, love and hope. Vs. 8.
Though Paul reiterates what has been said in the gospels, that the Day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (Vs. 2), that should not be a cause for alarm. In contrast to the rest of the world, which assumes that the cosmos is on solid ground and will continue indefinitely along the lines established in the past, disciples of Jesus understand that the night will not go on indefinitely. The daylight is coming. Now is the time to begin practicing how to live and move in the light so that the Day of the Lord will come as a welcome and anticipated moment rather than as a blinding flash of light to eyes accustomed only to the darkness.
The Day of the Lord appears as a disruptive and disturbing event to a world alienated from its Maker. It is not the apex of gradual social evolution toward a better society. Neither is it the endpoint of a predetermined historical clock whose workings are buried in the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. The church is no more knowledgeable concerning God’s timing than is anyone else. But Jesus has delivered to his disciples God’s coming kingdom now. Church under the cross is the shape that kingdom takes in a world that is not yet ready for it.
Once again, the bottom line is comfort. Apocalyptic imagery used here by Paul and throughout the scriptures is not intended to scare the socks off people. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 9. Paul urges us “to encourage one another and build one another up” in this hope. Vs. 11.
This parable of the talents is also told in the Gospel of Luke, though with a few additional twists. Luke 19:12-27. As Professor Nolland observes, the master’s entrusting his slaves with money in this parable is unusual by 1st Century Palestinian standards. One would normally make investment arrangements over a long period of absence in other ways. The slaves are thus being treated with unusual distinction. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 1013-1014. Though some commentators suggest that the talents represent a “business loan” of some sort, nothing in the parable supports such an interpretation. The money is not given to be used for the benefit of the slaves. Nor is there any suggestion that they are to share in the profits. The money is given to the slaves to be invested solely for the benefit of the master and his estate. That, of course, fits with the biblical understanding that “the earth is the Lord’s” and its human inhabitants but stewards. Psalm 24:1.
The term “talent” originally referred to a measure of weight on a scale. It then came to mean anything weighed and later to a specific weight of about thirty kilograms. Over time, it came to be used of money indicating the value of that weight of gold, silver, copper or whatever other precious commodity might be involved. It is the general scholarly consensus that silver talents are intended by Matthew. Ibid, p. 756. One talent, then, would amount to about six thousand denarii (Ibid), one of which constitutes a day’s wage for an agricultural laborer. Matthew 20:1-16. Thus, even one single talent amounted to a considerable chunk of change.
Upon his return, the master settles accounts with his three slaves. The first two mange to double their investment and are given the promise that their faithfulness with the “little” placed in their hands will be rewarded with responsibility over “much.” Vss. 20-24. The third slave took a different approach. Rather than investing the one talent he had been given, he buried it in the ground in a napkin to ensure its safety. This action was not commercially unreasonable. It was apparently an accepted means of keeping valuables safe. See, e.g., Matthew 13:44. But preservation is clearly not what the master was looking for. Instead of a glowing commendation, this third slave received a withering rebuke. Apparently, it was not enough for him to show that he had not pilfered or squandered the master’s goods. He needed to show that he had put them to productive use.
At a gathering of fellow clergy some years ago, I remember somebody remarking how he wished that Jesus had told this parable differently. He wished that at least one of the two successful slaves had both failed to earn interest and lost his principle. The master would nevertheless commend the unsuccessful but gutsy slave on his entrepreneurial spirit. So my friend would have had the parable end. But that proposed telling misses the point in a most obvious way. The two slaves are not rewarded on the basis of their success or their risk tolerance, but on the basis of their faithfulness. The operative words are: “well done good and faithful slave.” Where one is faithful to Jesus, his/her work will bear fruit. When one does the work of the kingdom, one cannot but succeed. Of course, success on God’s terms and for God’s purposes might not meet with our expectations of what success should look like, but that is a discussion for another day.
The problem, then, with the third slave was his lack of faith. He did not really believe in the mission with which his master had entrusted him. He thought it wiser to conserve than to invest. As far as he could see, there was no future in venturing all that had been given into his care. He could not comprehend Jesus’ warning that all who seek to save their lives ultimately lose them or his promise that those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them. The third slave was too fearful of losing his master’s money to make any good use of it. He thought that the only way to keep himself out of trouble was to preserve until the end what had been given to him. But God seeks missionaries, not custodians. That is a timely message for churches obsessed with maintaining their buildings, preserving their endowments and hanging on to ways of being church that no longer answer the call to make disciples of all nations.