2008-11-12 by Stephen Schuette
While the images in this week’s parable are clearly economic it could be that this parable has as little do with our own economic circumstances as the mustard seed has to do with what we plant in our gardens. On some level there may be a connection, but I don’t believe it’s the obvious one and it probably takes the message off-course to even try to go there.
One resource suggested that a talent would be earned over 15 years of service. We are dealing with large amounts over a “long time” (vs. 19). So the two things the slaves are given are talents and time. And it’s clear the master knows his slaves’ aptitudes since he gives the least amount to the slave who performs most poorly (vs. 15).
In the flow of Matthew this parable is offered after leaving the temple (24:1), while Jesus is seated looking over the City on the Mount of Olives (24:3) with the disciples. Just before in the discourse are the apocryphal warnings (24:29ff). And it’s interesting to note that the entire discourse is framed by the word paradidomi (handed-over) (24:9, 26:2).
Thanks to Tom for drawing attention to this rich word! While my memory is faulty and my language skills are full of holes, I do recall my NT teacher many years ago pointing out that when this word is used in reference to Jesus the form is passive (was handed over). It richly begs the question of who is actually doing the handing over, who is in command of this plot, what authority (a typical Matthean concern) Jesus is actually under. I believe there’s a connection here with the apocryphal clarity that reveals that God is in control, and has been all along.
Within the parable the last slave is in the grip of his fear. That’s what has authority over him. And the irony is that he finds what he’s looking for….a judgmental master.
It’s clearly a mistake to make this parable into an allegory with the master representing God. On the Mount of Olives with the City in the background it makes much more sense for this parable to be a larger reflection about the hopes and fears that lead to living abundantly or hoardingly. Does Jesus see a rich heritage of God’s investment in a beloved people being buried, a light hid under a bushel, a spiritual constriction that lacks faithfulness and trust?
Just a few verses later it’s obvious the disciples did not get the message. They would count the cost rather than abundantly celebrate the blessing of Jesus (26:6-13). So what do we believe? Is faith and grace and love so scarce that it must be hoarded? Just try burying them. You’ll find that even what you buried turns to nothing. Maybe the point is community that's rich in exchange. That’s where the “value” is realized.
Deborah, Barak, and Finding Fidelity
2008-11-12 by Marcia Mount Shoop
The lectionary gives us Judges 4:1-7 this week.
In the face of extreme military might and cruelty Deborah, a judge and a prophetess, summoned Barak, a military officer, to trust God and to go after the leader of the Canaanite army. She calls in Barak to rally the troops against Sisera in a story of Israel's triumph before decline.
Yes, it is weird that this name, Barak, appears on the scene this week so soon after a new president-elect with a very similar name is chosen in our country…
But for all who want to read something into it, I tried and I really don’t think we can! Afterall, God doesn’t speak to us in code language (I would argue that to be true even in John’s Revelation). Barak (in Hebrew it means “lightning”), a military officer, understandably has trouble trusting Deborah’s instincts given the twenty years of persecution they had endured and some possible tribal disunity (that plays out later in Judges). The fact that he wants the prophetess to go with him (v. 8) isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness or cowardice; it could be more about how much he wants some divine assurance that this is really going to go down the way Deborah says it will. But all that conjecture is outside of the bounds of the passage the lectionary invites us to use in our preaching this week. And, even if it wasn’t, I do not think the discussion gets us where this passage is inviting us to go.
The perennial transitions of the people of God often give birth to strong leaders—and sometimes those leaders come through, other times they disappoint. Here there are an array of unlikely movers and shakers that do their part to cooperate with God’s attempts to help Israel get out from under Canaanite oppression.
Keep reading in Judges and you’ll wonder sometimes whether Israel did much better with the land entrusted to them than their oppressors did, but for now, in this passage, we are called to focus on just how attuned we might need to be to God’s unlikely hopes for us. Here a strong woman calls out the underdog military strength of her people to trust God’s promise to provide. Our own hesitancy to trust that promise today won’t necessarily thwart what God envisions for us. But our halting efforts to listen and act on God’s call may mean we miss the forest for the trees and the journey becomes more circuitous than it needs to be.
Fidelity allows for God’s relationship with humanity to deepen. Consistent contact and communication makes the scope of God’s creative hand in our lives more broadly effective. Our salvation history invites us to see that this kind of consistency has been a problem for us. Staying close to God and letting God stay close to us on an every day, every way basis brings with it the promise of not just endurance in adversity, but a better way to live out who God made us to be. The story here is, once again, about dependence on God. Israel is having trouble with covenantal consistency. This theme plays out again and again in scripture. True to form, fidelity gets you somewhere in this chapter of the salvation story.
Let's Start with Psalm 123
2008-11-12 by Marcia Mount Shoop
Calvin liked using the Psalms in worship; he preached on them and they were regularly sung. People were steeped in their rhythms and language, as well as in the range of human experience and emotion that they embody. So, before we get to the parable I’d love to spend some time in the Hebrew Scriptures. We’ll start with Psalm 123.
This is a psalm of people on the move—those engaged in transition, pilgrimage, going home, or maybe just going somewhere that promised some sort of satisfaction (whether it be spiritual, material, emotional, etc.). It expresses a collective experience. The psalm moves from the “I” to the “us” in its expression of our absolute dependence on God and in its plea for mercy. We are waiting, Lord! We’ve had enough, Lord! We have had more than our fill, Lord!
If scholarly hunches are correct and this Psalm is post-exilic, then we have a telling moment of human experience on our hands—one that can speak volumes to us in our current American context. Coming home doesn’t solve all of our problems. Arriving at our destination doesn’t solve all of our problems. In exile or post-exile, we need God’s mercy and God’s help to live differently than we have been able to in the past.
No more contempt, no more scorn, no more hardness of heart from those who seem to have it all—that’s what the psalmist seems to want, and that’s not too far off the message the American people just shouted out in our country’s election. The moment of truth comes when spaces are opened for changes to occur. Will we continue to ask God to guide us, help us, and stretch us into new ways of being together? Or will new people in power succumb to passivity, stubbornness, or arrogance? Staying in contact with our dependence on God even when exile appears to be over is an urgent, if not subtle, need.
“So our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us.” And when there are moments of mercy, let our dependence elicit thanksgiving; and when scorn and contempt recycle themselves in our common life, let humility and our dependence on God diminish any harm they might inflict.
2008-11-11 by Tom Steagald
I have one more thing to say. The word for "entrust" is the Greek word paradidomi, sometimes translated "give over" or "hand "over," which is the same word used for what Judas did to Jesus in "handing him over" to those who arrested him.
Now, whether or not that sheds light of Judas and his motivations (for my part I think it surely does; see Klassen), it may give an interesting slant on the story. We consistently translate paradidomi "betray" when we reference Judas' action, but "entrust" otherwise (the LXX says Joseph's brothers paradidomi-ed Joseph to those who took him to Egypt). I am wondering if part of the complexity, the thickness, of this parable relates to the story of the son mistreated and killed by the wicked tenants. This landowner entrusts his "property" to the three, which word connotes the attributes of God, or may. But entrusted with the property of the journeying man, they put that property in the ground (kill and bury?).
Just a thought. Also, while the judgment is stern and the reward great, the generosity at the beginning is the same. In fact the generosity of the man creates the crisis even before the stewards do a thing.
All I have to say...
2008-11-11 by Tom Steagald
is that right now, today, the guy who puts his money in the ground looks like the wise steward! Those that went out and traded with them lost their shirts when the Dow-Jones tanked.
I wonder if this current financial crisis helps us see this parable in a way that keeps it from turning into, as it often gets preached, a moralizing stewardship sermon.
Do we bury our faith in the ground right now for fear of losing what we have? Or do we keep trading with them in this greatest gift entrusted to us?
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