Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30.
People of faith live in times of Waiting – in oppression, in repentance, in newly awakened hope, in responsibility for time and talent.
As the season of Advent begins to enter our awareness, we hear messages about waiting for the coming work of the Lord. Such Waiting is both a burden and a creative challenge.
This reading from the Former Prophets appears in the Lectionary as a continuation of selections from the Hebrew Scriptures. We have heard a couple of readings from the book of Joshua, and now we get one (and only one) from the book of Judges.
This reading is a kind of précis of the whole book; it states succinctly the whole cycle of apostasy-oppression-lament-deliverance that structures the book of Judges.
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…
So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan…
Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help…
At that time Deborah, a prophetess… was judging Israel…
And then, if we read on, we get the fascinating story of how Deborah and Barak defeated the chariot army of the Canaanites, and how its commander was killed in his sleep by an Israelite heroine.
It is said that the Canaanite king Jabin “oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years” (verse 3, NRSV). For half a generation the Israelites lived as an oppressed people. In the up-and-down cycles of the book of Judges this may not seem long, but in terms of living through it, twenty years is heavy.
As it wore on, the burden of waiting — waiting for some movement in their history to bring relief — was the challenge and task of their time. Since our reading stops short with the promise of deliverance (verse 7), its emphasis is on the period of suffering because of unfaithfulness, upon enduring until a good time might come again to a repentant people.
While thus waiting, the people needed the words of a community lament.
What the Israelites said as they waited in their misery under King Jabin might have been Psalm 123. (This is not a statement about the date of the psalm.) It is a community litany, and we may suppose that the speech of the leader was backed by the crescendo of the urgently involved worshippers:
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,
(softly "How long?")
as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
(louder "How long?")
so our eyes look to the Lord our God
UNTIL HE HAS MERCY UPON US! (verse 2, NRSV)
In more resigned pleading, the people declare,
Our soul has had more than its fill
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud. (verse 4).
The weariness and burden of waiting drags on.
I Thessalonians 5:1-11.
The Epistle reading is also about waiting, waiting for the Final day that will be deliverance for the faithful and judgment for the godless. Paul indicates (verse 1) that his hearers already know a lot about that Day, presumably because it was often talked of in the original evangelization that formed the church.
Israel’s prophetic tradition had spoken of the Day of the Lord as a day of darkness (for example in Zephaniah 1, an alternate reading for this Sunday). Paul here expands on that theme. “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” (verses 4-5, NRSV).
Night time is when people pay no attention — when they are asleep — or when wicked things go on. That is when thieves are about. That is when people get drunk. The new believers are called to a life of daylight virtue: stay awake, stay sober, and put on armor for defense against the coming wrath.
The armor is a breastplate with two sides (right and left), faith and love. These protect one’s body. On one’s head is the helmet. That is hope — the hope of salvation (all this armor in verse 8).
The prophets had spoken of the day of wrath. The believers know that it is near at hand. Paul brings them good news: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” — a salvation available “whether we are awake or asleep” (verses 9-10).
The great Waiting that challenged the early Christians was that time between the first and the second comings of the Son of Man.
The first coming of the Son of Man was related by Matthew in chapters 1-23 and 26-28. It resulted in his rejection as the Messiah by the leaders of the Jewish people and led to the crucifixion. The resurrection, on the other hand, vindicated Jesus’ identify as Messiah and started the clock ticking until he would return in power to judge the quick and the dead.
This second coming of the Son of Man is the subject of Matthew 24-25. The main events are repeated from Mark’s Gospel (Matthew 24:1-36 = Mark 13), but Matthew’s community dwells much more on the period of waiting that precedes the Second Coming. (The longer the Jesus communities survived, the more they got used to living in the world.) Thus Matthew adds (from the Q source, found also in Luke) the warning examples of the careless people of Noah’s time (24:37-39 // Luke 17:26-27) and the household slaves who are either Faithful or Unfaithful while the master is away (24:45-51 // Luke 12:42-46).
Faithfulness while the Master is away — that is what the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (25:1-13, last Sunday’s Gospel reading) and the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30) are about. The Bridesmaids is about wise use of resources at home; the Talents is about wise use of resources in worldly transactions. We should be clear: the message of these parables is aimed at the Waiting Church in Matthew’s second-generation community.
The Parable of the Talents is not primarily about the money!
In Western languages the word “talent” came to mean skills and abilities, because of this parable. What started as a term for weight (50 to 70 pounds) and money (about $600,000 per gold talent in our labor market), became “talent” in our sense of gifted people. (Luke’s alternate version of this parable uses “pounds” instead of “talents,” a dramatically lower monetary value, showing that the money is not the essence of the parable, Luke 19:12-27.)
The parable makes clear that people are of unequal talent — some have five, some two, some one of whatever you are measuring. The parable also makes clear that the unqualified expectation of the Lord is that everyone will INCREASE the talents they started with.
The terms of the Parable refer to increasing resources by commercial activities. Five talents could be used to pay for some large caravans of goods moving between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean, or between Mesopotamia and Greece or Rome. Successful caravans could easily double one’s investment. Failure was also possible — through raids on the caravans or shipwrecks. Financial investment (putting out money to “bankers,” i.e., money changers) as opposed to commercial investment comes into play in this parable only in the case of the one-talent slave. Putting out money to bankers was only a little better than doing nothing at all with it (verse 27).
These commercial matters, however, are only the terms of the parable. The meaning for the Church was not commercial; the increase in goods in the parable stands for something else in the life of the Church. What?
Probably an increase in baptized believers. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20). This was the final word of the Gospel to Matthew’s community.
The Increase that mattered to God and the Son of Man, who would judge these very nations (next Sunday’s reading), was the winning of souls, not (weighed out) talents!