|Christ Pantocrator mosaic
Daphni, Greece (ca. 1080-1100)
OLD TESTAMENT: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
|Christ Pantocrator mosaic
Daphni, Greece (ca. 1080-1100)
OLD TESTAMENT: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
The Book of Judges portrays a major transition in the Biblical history of Israel. Prior to this, Israel was under the leadership of Moses in the wilderness and then Joshua in the conquest of the land in Canaan. After the Book of Judges, Israel was ruled by kings, beginning with Saul, David, and Solomon. This is the time in between, a time of twelve warrior rulers, called judges, who led Israel for brief periods in times of military emergency. Most scholars think that many of these passages do not represent true accounts but have rather been reshaped and edited (redacted) and so cannot be necessarily reconstructed into a succinct historical account.
This passage begins with the first phase of the story of the beginning of the decline of Israel and the decline in the effectiveness of the individual rulers. The repeating pattern throughout judges is present here: (1) The Israelites do evil, (2) The Lord turns them over to their enemy, (3) Israel cries out to the Lord, and (4) The Lord raises up a new judge who delivers them (for a period of time). We are not really clear here who the actual judge is. The three characters here are Deborah, who is a female prophetess who acts as a sort of arbitrating judge, Barak, a military general, and Jael, a non-Israelite woman who kills the enemy Canaanite general Sisera when he comes to her tent for refuge. The Jewish legends depict Sisera as a giant of a man who could destroy the walls of an enemy’s city with a single shout. In some ways, it is another “David and Goliath” story. Enter Deborah…sitting under her palm tree proclaiming words of wisdom, she calls Barak, an experienced military general (but probably nothing like the great Sisera!). And she calls him to go against this great army.
Interestingly enough, the Book of Judges contains the largest number of female characters of any book in the Bible—nineteen in all. But Deborah is probably looked upon as at least one of the most influential female leaders in the Old Testament if not in the whole Bible. It is actually a little unclear whether the “wife of Lappidoth” reference was referring to the name of her husband or if it means that she was “fiery” or “spirited”. It could be either. Regardless, though, nothing is said about her husband if there was one. So Deborah is depicted as strong and level-headed, a true leader who advised generals and led troops into battle. In a day when woman were considered property or chattle, when women did not speak and it was assumed they had nothing to say, when women were only there to produce children and heirs, Deborah stepped forward and led.
Deborah is often depicted as sitting under a palm—just sitting. Perhaps that is as powerful a statement as the fact that she advised generals and led troops into battle. Maybe that was her way of centering, of filling her life with much-needed peace. Maybe sitting was the way she gained inner strength to do what needed to be done. Maybe she was in prayer. It doesn’t really say. She just sat.
I don’t think that this story is meant to compel us to focus on one hero. After all, Deborah called Barak to lead and he led armies defending Israel against Sisera’s troops. And Jael drove the peg into Sisera’s temple. They all worked together. This passage shows that God can work through even complex power systems with multiple leaders. God does not command one system or structure. God’s grace is always at work. So, if you’re looking for a hero, maybe God is the one.
We don’t read it as part of this lection, but Judges 5 includes what we call the “Song of Deborah”. It is a song of remembrance of what God had done through these rather unlikely people, a reminder that things don’t always go as expected, and a reminder that violence is never the ending. Violence is still part of us today. Surely God does not call us to violence. Is there a way to use it for good?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
The Thessalonian letters are witnesses to the church’s struggle with the sufferings of its members, due to separation from leaders, alienation from friends and family, and threats of persecution and even death. The passage that we read speaks, obviously, of the coming “Day of the Lord”. Here, Paul claims that on this Day of the Lord, God will separate the believers from the unbelievers and for this reason, the believers can celebrate even now. But Paul continues to claim that the full consummation of the new age has not occurred and that, for this reason, believers must continue to be vigilante in the faith.
I don’t think that this is as much a “hold on, Friday’s coming”, as it is a reminder to not let the mire of difficulties and defeat get in the way of one’s true calling—the pursuit of holiness. In fact, rather than letting them get you down, perhaps they are part of that journey itself. And on that journey, we are called to encourage each other and help each other. After all, we are “children of the light”.
Much of this same imagery has been used in songs (such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) and in a lot of slave songs, describing a future hope even in the face of darkness and persecution. The images here are apocalyptic. They are visions and revelations that remind us that our future is secure in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The future coming of the Lord is not something to be feared. It is now. Rather than living in fear of what is to come, we are called to live in hopeful expectation for the glorious Kingdom that is breaking into our lives even as we speak. The “Day of the Lord” is now. Paul is not holding out something in the future but is instead trying to depict what a life pursuing holiness really looks like.
In Feasting on the Word, John E. Cole says that Jurgen Moltmann “declares that the coming of God should make believers “impatient” with the way the world is today.” That’s probably what Paul was trying to depict. He was not trying to scare people into repentance (in spite of what some modern-day tele-evangelists declare!); rather, he was trying to get them to see a different way and want it so badly, hold to it so tightly in hopeful expectation, that they could do nothing else but live into it, that they could do nothing else but walk in holiness.
GOSPEL: Matthew 25: 14-30
The passage that we read is the familiar “Parable of the Talents.” Here, though, a “talent” is a monetary unit. Yes, my friends, here Jesus is talking about money. Did you know that if we took all of Jesus’ teachings about money out of the Gospels, we would reduce them by more than one third? Did you know that sixteen of the thirty-eight parables attributed to Jesus are about money? Did you know that one of every seven verses in the first three Gospels in some way deals with money? In fact, Jesus spoke more often about money than about any other subject except the Kingdom of God itself? Now, my take on this is not that money is more important than other things. My take on it is that even in first-century society, money and people’s view of money was a problem—not because it’s bad or evil, but because it is so easy for we humans to fall into the trap of letting it reshape our lives into something that it’s not supposed to be, allowing it to rise to the top of our view, clouding our judgment, getting in the way of how we see each other, and somehow convincing ourselves that there is never enough to go around.
And in this parable, Jesus reminds us that, whether or not we receive equal shares of Creation’s bounty, God entrusts all of the resources that we have at our disposal to us. And, as stewards of these resources, we are called not to hoard them, not to let a fear of scarcity dig holes in our lives that we attempt to fill with material things, and not to let what we have deflect from the light we have been shown, pushing us out into the darkness. We are, rather, called to a life of abundance, recognizing that everything that we have comes from God and is given to us to use in the building of the Kingdom of God.
But if we don’t talk about money, how will we know that? Jesus knew this and he knew the difficulties that we have. He knew that money and, specifically, the lack thereof, scares us. But he also knew that if we lose perspective of our money as a God-given resource, as a God-shared part of Creation, as a God-entrusted tool that we are called to use to build the Kingdom brick by brick, talent by talent, and dollar by dollar, we would lose that image of the one that God is calling us to be.
How much more applicable could a passage be for us today? We live in a world riddled with misuse of resources, saturated with greed, and filled with fear of what our economic future holds. You don’t have to go any farther than the front page of the paper, your living room, or access to the internet to see how bad it is. Apparently, what we need is a hero, of sorts. (Where is that wise woman sitting under the palm tree when you need her?) The truth is that the world around us probably makes this parable even more uncomfortable for us. Well, it has often been said that if a parable does not make you a little uncomfortable, you have probably not gotten its point. Several years ago at the height of our country’s economic collapse, CNN’s Anderson Cooper did a breakdown of the “top ten culprits of the collapse”—according to him the blame went to Congress, the White House, the banks, Goldman Sachs, Wall Street…I don’t know, I don’t remember the order. The point is, it’s not important. Because, in case you missed it, the number one culprit in Anderson Cooper’s countdown was you; in other words, it was all of us. And that third servant in the parable? That’s the one that hits a little too close to home. Thinking our voices too weak and our offering too meager, we are often guilty of burying those things that God has provided us. We are guilty of being afraid to use what God has given us. We instead hold onto what we think is “ours” a little too tightly until we literally suck the life out of it.
We do forget that everything that we have was God’s first and will be God’s when it is all said and done. In that respect, we are middle managers, stewards of that which is God’s. And the question then becomes, how do we as good managers invest God’s resources? How do we use our time, our talents, and our money? What do we do with those things with which God has entrusted us to further God’s kingdom? That is the whole reason why we have been entrusted to be stewards of these things. God knows that we are capable of getting it right, even if we haven’t yet convinced ourselves. God has given us resources beyond what we can count; indeed we are dealing in what could be termed heroic measures and all we’ve been asked to do is to be who God calls us to be.
John Westerhoff defines stewardship as “nothing less than a complete life-style, a total accountability and responsibility before God. Stewardship [he says] is what we do after we say we believe, that is, after we give our love, loyalty, and trust to God, from whom each and every aspect of our lives comes as a gift. As members of God’s household, we are subject to God’s economy or stewardship, that is, God’s plan to reconcile the whole world and bring creation to its proper end.” (John H. Westerhoff, III, Building God’s People in a Materialistic Society (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), 23, (as quoted by Ronald E. Vallet, Stepping Stones of the Steward (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1989), 2)
So, being good managers of God’s economy means that all that God has given us is ours to use. It means that everything that we are should be used for God’s glory—our prayers, our presence, our monetary gifts, and our time and talents—all are used as witnesses to who God is and what God is doing in the world. Giving back of those resources, then, is something that we are indeed called to do. But it is more than that. It is an act of faith. It is the way that we prayerfully and faithfully offer ourselves to God. It is the way that we participate in the building of the Kingdom of God. So, what part of the Kingdom is ours to build? There…whatever you see is the part that is yours to build. Martin Luther said that “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all. But whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”
But, obviously, there is something more here than money, something more than gifts. The point is that everything is of God. We are of God. We are called to offer ourselves to God. Our lives are lives of holiness. What is God calling us to do? What is it that give you life?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Every noble life leaves its fiber interwoven forever in the work of the world. (John Ruskin)
Try, with God’s help, to perceive the connection—even physical and natural—which binds your labor with the building of the Kingdom of Heaven; try to realize that heaven itself smiles upon you and, through your works, draws you to itself; then, as you leave church for the noisy streets, you will remain with only one feeling, that of continuing to immerse yourself in God. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
If my hands are fully occupied in holding on to something, I can neither give nor receive. (Dorothee Soelle)
Behold a broken world, we pray, where want and war increase, and grant us, Lord, in this our day, the ancient dream of peace.
A dream of swords to sickles bent, of spears to scythe and space, the weapons of our warfare spent, a world of peace remade.
Bring, Lord, your better world to birth, your kingdom, love’s domain, where peace with God, and peace on earth, and peace eternal reign. Amen.
(Timothy Dudley-Smith, The United Methodist Hymnal, # 426)