Last revised: November 25, 2017
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PROPER 28 (November 13-19) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 33
RCL: Judges 4:1-7 or Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; I Thess. 5:1-11; Matt. 25:14-30
RoCa: Prov. 31:10-13,19-20,… I Thess. 5:1-6; Matt. 25:14-30
This is another of the parables that can yield very different interpretative results — conceivably because Jesus himself used parables multiple times in differing contexts (as witnessed to by Luke’s quite different context for this parable).
1. In the context of Matthew’s telling of the Gospel of Jesus, an important interpretative key is that Matthew is contrasting God’s coming reign in Jesus with violent human reigns. We see this right from the beginning with Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth, contrasted with Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. And the key verse has been Matthew 11:12, where Jesus straightforwardly tells us that the kingdom of heaven is revealed in choosing to suffer violence, while human regimes are only happy to take it by force. In the parables of judgment, then, we have noticed two things:
- The lords and kings in these parables are emphasized as men, not stand-ins for God. Even if they have positive characteristics or do some positive things, they are still human beings with flaws, not representatives of God’s reign of perfect love that reaches out to even enemies. We have noted in four previous parables that Matthew uses a strange double designation, such “a man, a king” to make sure we know this is just a man (Proper 19A, 20A, 22A, and 23A). In this parable Matthew foregoes the double designation at the outset and simply begins, “a man,” telling readers in the subsequent verses that he is also a master of slaves. So even though we may glean some positive aspects from this master, we also need to be wary of his faults as a typical oppressive human lord over others.
- The “Christ-figure” in these parables, then, is typically someone suffering the violence. In this parable that may be the third servant more than the others.
For this way of reading the parable, I highly recommend Sarah Dylan Breuer‘s reading (see her page for Proper 28A). It follows the hermeneutic we have used for Matthew’s parables of judgment, which resists seeing the masters as a stand-in for God and instead sees them as illustrations of earthly kings and emperors, contrasting their kingdoms with the kingdom of heaven — the latter choosing to suffer the violence of the former. Breuer writes,
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God’s people? Heck no! If you’ve got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn’t a parable) of the sheep and the goats [Christ the King A], which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a “sinner’s prayer,” but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. [In short,] …its message is much closer to “care for those whom the world would leave destitute.” Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn’t be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away.
2. A second important interpretative key for Matthew’s Gospel, given the contrast between divine and human reigns, is to keep in mind a possible structure of “if you think this aspect of human reigns is good, then imagine what it looks like in God’s reign of perfect love.” For this parable, we might see how the first two servants had their creativity unleashed by their seeing positive aspects in their master. That’s good. Imagine how much better it can be when our master is actually the true God whose love is the very engine of creativity.
This is what I see James Alison doing in his remarkable essay “Unbinding the Gay Conscience” (available at his website and as chapter 7 in On Being Liked). There is a brilliant analysis of how one’s conscience is bound or unbound in light of Mimetic Theory, and this parable provides a climactic illustration:
The key feature of this parable is that it is the imagination of the servants as to what their master is like which is the determining factor of their conscience and thus the wellspring of their activity. (OBL, 109)
For a gay person, the church’s teaching has meant a binding of conscience by a false god who says, “I want to love you, but I can’t love you as you are, because you are sinful and objectively disordered.” But the Unconditionally Loving God of Jesus properly begins to unbind the conscience: “Because I love you you are relaxing into my love and you will find yourself becoming loveable, indeed becoming someone that you will scarcely recognize.” Similarly in the parable, the third servant imagines a master who does not like him and so imagines a double bind, while the first two servants,
perceived their master’s regard for them as one of liking them enough to be daring them and encouraging them to be adventurous, and so, imagining and trusting that abundance would multiply, they indeed multiplied abundance.
In 2017 my sermon used more of this interpretative strategy in introducing the congregation (I was “supply preaching”) to a theme of the New Reformation: that God is completely nonviolent. If we focus on the element of how the first two servants see their master, then a contrasting extension of this parable is to imagine a God who is loving instead of harsh.
3. In summarizing strategies for interpreting the parables in Matthew’s Gospel, we might add that a third interpretative key is Immanuel, “God with us”: that Jesus himself came to be the only true stand-in for God’s perfect reign of love. So if we want to see a proper ending to any of these parables, we need to look outside the parable and watch what Jesus does, how he lives. Often this includes disciples still buying into the forceful ways of human violence and not entering into the kingdom of heaven until the resurrected Jesus forgives them, so God’s healing forgiveness also becomes part of the story as lived in history.
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Reflections and Questions
1. Zephaniah states himself (1:1) to have prophesied during the reign of Josiah. Most scholars agree with this placement, though generally putting him near the beginning of Josiah’s reign (640-609 B.C.E.), sounding a note of judgment prior to Josiah’s great reform. This passage is almost the epitome of an apocalyptic view of the Day of the Lord, extremely harsh and dark. Yet the theme of vengeance is not quite typical. There is not a clear-cut distinction between insiders and outsiders, between those who are saved and those enemies whom God will destroy. No, this is primarily a word of judgment on God’s own people spoken to the inhabitants of Judah. It is untypically harsh on the ‘insiders.’ Yet the second chapter opens the door for avoiding the Lord’s day of wrath; the prophecy of judgment is a call for repentance that a remnant might survive.
2. In light of James Alison‘s thesis (see last week on 1 Thess), how do we evaluate such a text? Alison maps out a development from the pagan notion of an eternal return, to a linear notion of judgment and the Day of the Lord with the Hebrew prophets, to the Christian notion of the Day of the Lord which is purged of the theme of vengeance, and in which God’s wrath becomes a letting us suffer the consequences of our own violence rather than an active destruction on God’s part. Where does this passage of Zephaniah belong on that continuum? Clearly, it has not yet made it to the Christian notion of the Day of the Lord nor of God’s wrath. But it does bear some resemblance to Paul’s movement in Romans 1-3 in terms of a bottom line of ‘we all have sinned and fallen short.’ Zephaniah wants to mark out a faithful remnant, but his initial words of judgment would seem to include everyone.
I Thess. 5:1-11
Reflections and Questions
1. See last week’s discussion on 1 Thessalonians as, in some respects, expressing a less mature Christian view of eschatology (per James Alison in Raising Abel). Yet the theme of its coming “like a thief in the night” probably goes back to Jesus himself. Part of the Christian transformation of the apocalyptic into the eschatological is to see the ‘first’ Day of the Lord as coming with the cross. The cross is an act of judgment in which the judgers bring judgment on themselves precisely by virtue of their judging the Son of Man. This Day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night; it comes totally unexpectedly. And the results are also unexpected: the Risen Lord comes not to seek vengeance but to forgive. Thus, Alison’s image of a resurrected Abel coming like a thief in the night to his brother Cain, only to forgive him rather than kill him. One can imply this gracious coming from the contrast of this lesson to the first lesson: they both concern the Day of the Lord, but one depicts it as darkness and the other as light. The difference, we might suggest, is the forgiveness that comes in place of the expected vengeance.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 64ff. The section entitled “Doubling of Sin and Hell” (excerpt), pp. 63-69. The idea of an intensification of sin is frequently found in the synoptic Gospels. First example: the unclean spirit which is driven out only to have seven more take its place (Mt. 12:45). Another example of the doubling theme would be Jesus’ summary at the end of this parable: “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” (Matthew 25:29).
I gave a lengthy explication of Schwager’s ideas in the Proper 19A lectionary notes several weeks ago in connection with the parable of the unforgiving servant. The Parable of the Talents is mentioned several times there.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 153-154. Alison suggests that the judgment in these parables happens according the imagination of the person judged. He says:
Exactly the same thing happens in the parable of the talents, where Matthew and Luke coincide more exactly. The problem of the servant who received one talent and went and buried it is not its lack of yield, but how he imagined that his master would treat him: ‘Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strewed: and I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo there thou hast that is thine.’ In this case it is Luke who makes the situation more explicit; this, I think, because the manoeuver is less common in his Gospel, while for Matthew it is typical of his way of speaking. In Luke the master says: ‘ Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant…’ And that is exactly what happens. Once again it is the subject’s imagination of his master that is absolutely determinant of his behavior. One who imagines his master as free, audacious, generous, and so on, takes risks, and himself enters into a fruitfulness that is ever richer and more effervescently creative; while one whose imagination is bound by the supposed hardness of the master lives in function of that binding of the imagination, and remains tied, hand and foot, in a continuous, and may be even an eternal, frustration.
4. Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear then the Parable, ch. 9, pp. 219ff. This is not a Girardian approach, but he often yields interesting results in his analyses of the parables. For the parable of the Talents he offers two interesting points, I think. (1) It’s most likely that Jesus’ original audience would have initially identified most strongly with the third servant. The average peasant did not look kindly on wealthy people who multiplied their wealth ‘without sowing,’ i.e., without honest labor. The prudent and just thing to do with one’s wealth was precisely to bury it. Jesus’ audience would have favored the actions of the third servant. Thus, Jesus’ conclusion to this story would have been a shocker. (2) So the original point of Jesus’ parable may have been to shock the audience into questioning the nature of the master:
A hearer is asked to choose between two competing images of the master: the explicit image put forward in the aphorism by the third servant, and the image implied in the actions of the first two servants. Is the master the hardhearted man of the third servants attack, or is he gracious and generous, as he was toward the first two servants? (p. 234)
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 17, 2002 (Woodside Village Church); sermon from November 13, 2005, and sermon from November 16, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2014, titled “Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven“; a sermon in 2017, “The One Given the Least.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2011 a number of things came together for a new insight on these parables of Matthew 25 — namely, that they are about having a sense of urgency before the consequences of evil come home to roost. The Girardian insight is that it is always about human violence, not divine violence. The sense of urgency is not to make a decision for Christ to avoid divine punishment in hell. The sense of urgency is to follow in Christ’s way of peace to strive for avoiding the next hell-on-earth round of human violence.
One of the elements that contributed to the new angle was the demise of Joe Paterno in the Penn State child sex scandal. For more than ten years none of the leaders at Penn State had any urgency to stand against the evil of Jerry Sandusky. There were hellish consequences that came home to roost — with Joe Paterno’s consequences nothing compared to what dozens more boys suffered.
It was also a week that we lost a dear friend, Art Hoekstra, to cancer. Art was truly a disciple of Jesus who worked daily with a sense of urgency to fight evils such as poverty and racism. He also did so with a sense of grace, daily doing what he could with the talents given him, and leaving the rest to God.
A last element was attending a viewing of the video documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, a documentary film produced by Katrina Browne for the PBS series Point of View. It tells the story of slave trade out of Rhode Island in the 18th and 19th centuries. DeWolf family descendants (Katrina Browne a DeWolf Herself) traveled the triangle route of their ancestors Rhode Island – West Africa – Cuba. A poignant moment is standing in the dungeon of a slave fortress in West Africa, and one of the DeWolf ancestors commenting about his own forebears, “It was an evil thing and they knew it was an evil thing and they did it anyway.”
The resulting sermon is one that’s very important to me: “A Grace-Filled Sense of Urgency.”
2. From a Girardian perspective, I think that Scott’s focus on the master yields a preachable theme: which of two competing views of God do we choose: the fearsome God of the Sacred, or the gracious, forgiving God of the cross? Link here for a sermon entitled “The Economics of Faith.”
3. This coincides with Alison’s reading of this parable, I think, in that the parable means to transform our imagination about who God is. If we remain trapped in imagining God as a fearsome God of vengeance, then we end up judged according to our own imaginations. But if we can imagine a gracious God, as the first two servants do, then both our actions and the consequences of our actions yield gracious results.
4. In 2002 the parish I was serving, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, was facing challenging times from being a white congregation in the midst of the so-called ‘changing neighborhood.’ In preaching the previous week’s Gospel (Proper 27A sermon) I had interpreted the parable in terms of seeing the bridegroom of the church as a gracious, welcoming person who would include the bridesmaids who ran out of oil, if they had simply come with the bridesmaids who still had oil. Instead, they showed their mistrust in him by foolishly running off in the middle of the night to find oil, returning in the dark and finding themselves shut out. In the situation of facing the continuing racism of our society, we still need to show trust in the one whose Good News of God’s reign seeks to embrace all peoples. This parable builds on the previous week by encouraging the risk-taking of growing in faith to meet the challenges of life in the church today. Link to the sermon “Doubling Up: Faith to Take the Risks of Faith.”
5. On Friday before preaching this text in 2005, I came across different readings that changed my mind (repentance) about my previous readings of this parable. Actually, it’s part of a journey that began with the struggle in interpreting the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding, Matt. 22:1-14 (Proper 23A). Marty Aiken‘s reading of that parable in a 2003 essay (“The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet”) refrains from reading the king as God. Matthew’s parables do not render for us the Kingdom of God but the “kingdom of heaven” — and the crucial verse in Matthew, in my opinion, is Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” In the Matthew 22:1-14, Aiken argues, and I agree, that the kingdom of heaven is represented by the man without his wedding garment who is thrown into the outer darkness at the end. Is it the same for this parable? Should we refrain from reading the master as Christ or God? Should we view the third servant who suffers the violence of his master as representing the kingdom of heaven? If I am to be consistent in my reading of Matthew’s Gospel, then I would argue “yes.”
Three years ago I was not yet reading Matthew in this way. Much of what is offered below still abides by the previous strategy, a common one in girardian hermeneutics, namely, to read it as a story of self-judgment. The three servants get their due rewards according to how they view their master. The third servant sees his master harshly and so brings the judgment upon himself that accords his view. The reading of self-judgment is an important insight from mimetic theory, and so I leave it for the reader to consider.
But there is still the problem of reading the master as God or Christ: even if we say the third servant sees a harsh master and so gets what he expects, the master still plays along with it. He treats the servant harshly. Is this the God we see in Jesus Christ? Does God give us the treatment we expect and bring upon ourselves? Or do we find in Jesus Christ a more gracious God than that? In the fall of 2005, since Marty Aiken’s paper on the King’s Son’s Wedding in 2003, I have been refraining from reading any major characters as God in all of the parables of the latter half of Matthew. See Proper 20A, Proper 22A, and Proper 23A. To be consistent, we would also refrain from reading the master as God in this parable. I was glad to see that approach corroborated in my research this week. Fellow proponents of mimetic theory, Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, refrain from reading the master as God in their reading of this parable (not currently available).
But it is Sarah Dylan Breuer‘s reading (see her page for Proper 28A) that really convinced me, taking in more of the elements of the parable and the context. She points out that the master’s comment in vs. 29 might be better translated with something more like the common contemporary phrase: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” This may be how it is in the real world of human economics, but it cannot be something Jesus is commending in this parable. Breuer writes:
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God’s people? Heck no! If you’ve got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn’t a parable) of the sheep and the goats, which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a “sinner’s prayer,” but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. [In short,] …its message is much closer to “care for those whom the world would leave destitute.” Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn’t be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away.
The kingdom of heaven is suffering the kind of impoverishing violence which the master in this parable dishes out. But in suffering, the kingdom of heaven shows this world’s powers of violent domination to be impotent compared to the Creator God whose abundant power of life raises the Son of Man on Easter morning.
6. On Proper 28A Sunday in 2005, the parish I served was also holding its annual “Stewardship Sunday.” And the timing was providential that I went to a “Ministry of Money” retreat on Friday and Saturday (see ministryofmoney.org). The Parable of the Talents is yet another parable in which Jesus talks about money, and the basic “Ministry of Money” retreat simply models how important it is for Christians to be able to talk about money in the context of faith. The leader for the retreat was Christian musician and songwriter Bryan Sirchio (see http://www.sirchio.com/). He articulated a basic distinction that really resonates for me. It comes for Riverside Church (Manhattan) preacher Ernest Campbell, when he asks, “Are we following Jesus or believing in Christ?” Sirchio has written a song articulating this question, called “Follow Me,” which also became a theme for me in preaching this text. At one in the song he sings,
Yes, we need to know what we believe,
to follow the Jesus who’s real
God save us from the Christ’s we create in our image
(you know what I mean…)
The Jesus who’s as left wing or right wing as we
The one who baptizes our cherished ideologies
The one who always seems to favor our side
against some enemy.
This parable can provide a good example of “the Christ’s we create in our image.” No doubt, from many pulpits the congregation will hear of a Christ who supports the current economics of tax-cuts to the rich, getting the money into the hands of those who can produce more with it, like the first and second servants. A left-wing version might be interpreting the “talents” allegorically to be something like God’s gracious generosity which faithful servants of Christ multiply and share with others. This is actually closer to what I’ve done in the past (though I think my “economics of faith” approach below avoids some of the pitfalls).
But what if we don’t read Christ or God anywhere in this parable but simply as Jesus making a comment on standard human economics for which, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” (a defensible interpretation of the master’s comment in verse 29). And the kingdom of heaven will be found with those who suffer from such economics. If we “follow Jesus,” that’s where we will find him, namely, with those left out when the rich get richer. Jesus’ life began in a barn, grew up in the poverty of Nazareth, spent a ministry among the poor and outcast, and finally let himself be handed over into the hands of the richest and most powerful of his nation to be judged as one completely on the outside, a godforsaken, blaspheming criminal.
In 2005, then, I used this latter approach. I found myself beginning with the children’s sermon. I consulted numerous suggestions for children’s sermons, and every one of them used the allegorical approach of reading the “talents” as our standard meaning of talent instead of money. How could I start with an interpretation completely different from the one immediately following in the sermon to adults. So I began by laying out my basic interpretation in the simplest of terms for children first, and then elaborated for the adults. The results were a sermon titled “Following Jesus.”