The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28 - 13 November 2011
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
St. Matthew 25:14-30
Talents were a unit of measure in the ancient world. The Greek word “talanton” meant “scale” or “balance”, and thus give us an insight into all they ways in which the word was used. It was a measure of mass either of precious metal, or of liquids as well. We know of the talent in Egypt, Babylon, Rome, Israel, and other countries in the Levant. The poet Homer speaks of talents given as a prize to Antilochus, and we hear of it as a unit of pay to mercenaries, or the crew of a trireme. Jesus, in his parable in the Gospel for today mentions talents as well. An Attic talent of silver was worth the value of 9 years of labor, so we can get an approximation of the value that is given by the master to the servants to invest.
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, `Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'"
This reading does little else than to introduce us to an on-going theme in Judges, and in the later prophets as well, and to Deborah a Prophetess. First, the “sin theme” should be explored. Judges 2:18-19 give us an idea of this pattern which is used not only in Judges but by other of the prophets as well:
“When the LORD raised up judges for them, he would be with the judge and save them from the power of their enemies as long as the judge lived. The LORD would change his mind when they groaned in their affliction under their oppressors. But when the judge died, they would again do worse than their ancestors, following other gods, serving and bowing down to them, relinquishing none of their evil practices or stubborn ways.”
It is a divine/human back and forth of recognition and worship, then forgetfulness, and apostasy. This pattern introduces us to the story of the prophetess Deborah, who is more like Samuel, than any of the military judges. She uttered her determinations under a palm tree some five miles north of Jerusalem, where people would come to find out YHWH’s intents for them. The story of Deborah’s role in the battle with Sisera extends far beyond the scope of today’s reading.
Breaking open Judges:
- Do you have a pattern in your life of falling away from God, and then returning again?
- What causes you to notice the change?
- What do you do upon your return to God?
Psalm 123 Ad te levavi oculos meos
To you I lift up my eyes, *
to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, *
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the LORD our God, *
until he show us his mercy.
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.
This psalm of supplication begins with a image that bespeaks such an attitude, “To you I lift up my eyes.” Although the psalm begins as a singular supplication, it soon is cast as a collective supplication, moving to the plural. Verse 2 gives us an excellent example of the type of parallelism that is used in the psalms, where the “hand of their masters” is matched in the second half of the verse with “the hand of her mistress”. The intent of the psalm is to raise up God as the point of prayer and supplication. The people who are causing harm are left as a generality: “the indolent rich”, or “the proud”.
Breaking open Psalm 123
- How have you depended on others?
- How have you depended upon God?
- How have others or God helped?
Be silent before the Lord GOD!
For the day of the LORD is at hand;
the LORD has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
"The LORD will not do good,
nor will he do harm."
Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them.
The great day of the LORD is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.
That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.
I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the LORD,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the LORD's wrath;
in the fire of his passion
the whole earth shall be consumed;
for a full, a terrible end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
This reading from the prophet Zephaniah (ca. 640-609 BCE) takes place during the reign of the King Josiah, the king that attempted to reform Jewish religious life in Judea, and perhaps under whose patronage or rule a number of the “Mosaic” books were redacted and published again. The theme that the prophet introduces here is “The Dread Day of the Lord”. The opening verse (7) “Be silent,” recalls the preparations that are made before the giving of the Law at Sinai. Here, however, the offering is Israel itself, victim to its sins and forgetfulness of God. These are troubling times for Judah, wavering between the imperial ambitions of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. The prophet takes these difficulties as a reason to announce God’s intentions to punish, “I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs.” No one will be left hiding and all will be searched out for this “great day of the Lord”. Other writers will expand on this theme, including St. John the Divine in the Apocalypse. This reading is consistent with the darkening themes of the Sundays at the end of the liturgical year.
Breaking open Zephaniah:
1. Do you think that God has punished anyone that you know?
2. Has God, at least called them to some kind of reckoning?
3. How about you?
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), Domine, refugium
Lord, you have been our refuge *
from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God.
You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.
You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.
In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.
For we consume away in your displeasure; *
we are afraid because of your wrathful indignation.
Our iniquities you have set before you, *
and our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
When you are angry, all our days are gone; *
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The span of our life is seventy years,
perhaps in strength even eighty; *
yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass away quickly and we are gone.
Who regards the power of your wrath? *
who rightly fears your indignation?]
So teach us to number our days *
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
The superscription is important here: “A prayer of Moses, man of God.” To be remembered is Moses’ fate as he guides Israel into the promised land. The prophet Moses has God’s ear, but the man Moses must still reckon with his faults. He will die before entry into the land of milk and honey. Although this is ostensibly Moses’ private prayer, the psalm soon evolves into a corporate supplication, a meditation (and here the psalm takes on an almost “Wisdom” characteristic of God’s relationship with humankind. The psalmist has Moses and the reader recognize the difficult nature of their relationship with God – the inability to meet God’s stated standards. As a result, time melts away, and God is constant in God’s wrath and determination to mark sin, and to call for repentance. The final stanzas (not included in this reading) ask for a measure of joy and sweetness.
Breaking open Psalm 90
- What have been the great goals of your life?
- How have you fallen from them, what have you not accomplished?
- What is your conversation with God about these goals?
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Fresh on the heels of the prophesies of Zephaniah regarding the Great Day of the Lord, comes St. Paul’s meditation on the Parousia (Second Coming) of Jesus. It is in readings such as this that we see the shadow of a much longer Advent before it was reduced to the four weeks we know now. The over-arching question is “When?” Paul’s answer is succinct – “you do not need to have anything (about this time) written to you.” What is important for Paul is the attitude of the people of Thessalonika. He provides a list of virtues for those of us who watch for Christ: wakefulness, sobriety, armed, and encouraging. It is interesting that these are not values for the individual, but rather for the whole community, as each member holds the others up in their watchfulness.
Breaking open I Thessalonians:
- How does Jesus come to you now?
- Do you expect him to come again?
- What will be the results of his coming?
Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, `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.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, `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.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' "
This reading is a part of Matthew’s Great Eschatological Sermon, which lasts from 24:1-25:46. This collection of sayings is found in Mark as well, although Matthew expands upon them. The Parable of the Talents is unique to Luke and Matthew, who received it from a common source. Matthew uses other parables to comment on the value of passionately seeking out the Kingdom of Heaven. In this parable it is a collection of slaves who are bidden to make a prophet for their master. We need to set aside the ethics of the situation, and look instead at what the parable is teaching us about the Second Coming of Jesus – there is an accounting to be made. Did the disciple meet the master’s goals or no? There is a modern proverb that is useful here – “Use it our lose it.” Jesus preaches to the disciples the necessity of passionately pursuing the kingdom, and using all means to usher in its coming. Indecision will be of little value and of no excuse.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What do you think that God expects of you?
- What various means have used to accomplish these expectations?
- Have you buried any talents?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.