The Lectionary This Week – More and More, Less and Less

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 33, 16 November 2014 (Year A)

  • Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
  • Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Matthew 25:14-30

Sigh. What a dismal set of readings this week, full of violence and destruction and the consigning of worthless slaves to outer darkness. Not even the psalm is much relief from the general tone of doom, judgment, and wrath. Might be a good Sunday to take off and go golfing.

But, of course, that just makes it interesting. So, I’m going to dive right into the gospel reading, the last parable Jesus tells in Matthew before he gives his account of the final judgment:

14 “For it [most likely the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more. ’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. ’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more. ’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. ’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours. ’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30 ESV)

Not much of what we understand as grace — God’s unearned mercy and love — in this. “I knew you to be a hard man … so I was afraid.” If the master is God, or Jesus returning to claim his disciples and followers (since the signs of the “close of the age” are what Jesus is telling his disciples about here in Matthew 24 and 25, it is a pretty good guess that the master is a stand-in for Jesus, just as the bridegroom was in the previous passage), there’s no grace here. This is about a trust, being given something, and then using it to some effect, to multiply what one has been given, return it to the master, and “enter into the joy” of the master. (Shades of the parable of the tenants from Matthew 21:33-46, where the crime of the tenants wasn’t so much the killing of the servants—or even the son—but rather the desire to keep all of the produce of the vineyard to themselves, and to refuse to give back to the landlord what belonged to the landlord. And note, the story of the coin and taxes to Caesar comes soon afterwards, noting that things are owed to God.)

The master has trusted his servants with something, and has some expectations of them—to produce a “return” on that trust.

The key phrase here is, I think, the very final verses of the parable:

For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 

This phrasing appears once previously in Matthew, in chapter 13 with the long presentation and explanation of the parable of the sower, which goes like this:

1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:1-9 ESV)

The disciples then ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, and he tells them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the great crowds, I think] it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:12-13 ESV)

For Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is a place of increasing marginal returns, where the more one has, the more one gets. Whether one is good soil, or rocky soil, or is eaten by birds, seems entirely random. But the focus isn’t at all on those that don’t hear, or don’t bear fruit, but rather on those that do. These parables are for them, and the seed that fell on good soil “is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Note here how 30 and 60 and 100 are the same. Because the issue is bearing fruit itself, not how much fruit is yielded. In the parable of the talents, the master is deeply unequal in what he trusts his slaves with. One gets five, another two, another a single talent. The servants who double their yield receive the same reward, regardless of what they started with. “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Now enter the joy of your master.” So, there is little doubt the servant with the one talent would have received the same reward had he had not put what he was entrusted with to work in the world so he could return it with more to the master.

“I was afraid,” the servant says. And that fear paralyzed him into inaction. And he was not wrong to be afraid. The master does reap where he does not sow, and gathers what he does not scatter (again, Matthew 13 and the parable of the weeds; the man sows some, an enemy sows some, but the man who planted the good seed reaps all of it.)

The servant lets fear paralyze him. So much so he buries the money, the thing that has been entrusted to him, as if he is afraid of it. Afraid not just of his master, but what his master has entrusted to him. And given all that Jesus has been telling his disciples about what is coming—the judgement of Jerusalem—and what Zephaniah describes as coming, it’s easy to be afraid. To hunker down and hope the storm will pass over, that the judgment will come and go and if we stay very still and act like we are not here, maybe it will miss us completely.

But we are not called to live in that fear, to hide our light underneath bushel bushel baskets or bury it in the backyard (where someone could have stolen it!). Think of these talents, again, the way I thought about the oil last week—as the things Jesus has commanded us to do as we live as his followers, his called-out people, in the world. To live as Jesus tells his disciples at the end of this chapter, when the king tells those at his right hand:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. ’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? ’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-40 ESV)

This is what the master has entrusted to us—a life of self-giving love. And it bears fruit—a hundred, sixty, even thirty—when this trust is taken out into the world and spent and traded scattered far and wide! It is in this doing of righteous good deeds (to borrow a Qur’anic phrase) that we live and make the kingdom, that we prepare and wait for his coming.

* * *

As for Zephaniah, well, I won’t say much, except that this is a very blunt and even brutal account from God of what God will do to rebellious Israel. God is the author of the coming judgment, in all of its destructive wonder. I won’t say much about the Zephaniah passage–it’s typical judgment stuff–but God is explicit in the passage that God, and God alone, is the cause of Israel’s distress. While this could be universal destruction, the word here for “earth” is הָאָֽרֶץ, and it also means “land.” So the fire may merely consume the whole of land.

17 I will bring distress on mankind,
so 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.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
shall be able to deliver them
on the day of the wrath of the Lord.
In the fire of his jealousy,
all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth
(Zephaniah 1:17-18 ESV)

(Me? I wrote a song based on 1 Thessalonians 4-5. I had some stuff around those who have getting more and those who don’t having even the little they have taken floating melodically through my head, but all in a minor key. And that really isn’t for kids. The 1 Thess song is almost bouncy…)