Reading Ramblings – November 19, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 19, 2017

Texts: Zephaniah 1:7-16; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Context: The second to last Sunday of the Church year, and the readings continue to focus us on our hope in Christ’s return. As with last week the readings challenge God’s people to take seriously their relationship with him, particularly in light of the promised coming of his Son. This impending reality should infuse each of our moments, transforming who we are and what we do as we focus our eyes in anticipation rather than focusing them on the comforts and pursuits that the world promotes. This theme is capped with one of the most challenging of Jesus’ parables regarding the use we make of what God gives us.

Zephaniah 1:7-16 – We know no more about Zephaniah than what the beginning of his book tells us. He prophesied at the close of the seventh century, somewhere between 640 and 609 BC (the reign of Josiah). The unusually lengthy genealogy is also curious, and may indicate that Zephaniah is a descendant of king Hezekiah. If so, Zephaniah was likely rather young when he began his prophetic ministry. Scholars believe his name means something along the lines of YHWH is Zaphon. Zaphon was a Caananite deity, so that the name would mean something to the effect of YHWH is what Zaphon claims to be. Zephaniah is a short book (three chapters), divided into three major sections – judgment against God’s people Judea, judgment against the foreign nations, and a promise of restoration to a remnant of God’s people. Today’s excerpt once again focuses on the Day of the Lord as a day of reckoning and judgment that even those who consider themselves God’s people may be less than happy to experience.

Psalm 90:1-12 – If Zephaniah calls out the people of God for their following of false gods and reliance on unethical business practices for their sustenance, the psalmist recalls that once upon a time, God’s people knew that God was their original protection and provider. More than this, God is the one who determines times and seasons, and what seems like ages in our terms is practically nothing to God. We make much of the decades of our life, when to God a thousand years are like the passing of a single night! How necessary it is then, that we should have a heart of wisdom! And where else can such a heart be formed and shaped than in the study and discipleship of God? Surely if God is our teacher we will learn not to see things the way the world leads us to see them. We will learn to value things that the world frequently abandons in search of other riches. And in doing so, we may be preserved from the judgment reserved for those who abandon God and God’s ways to create their own values and ways.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – We in Christ do not need to fear the Day of the Lord, however! Why? Because we are to be taught and to have learned in wisdom the words of Jesus regarding that day, how it will come unexpectedly, and therefore how we are to spend each day in preparation and readiness. We are to know better than to live in a false sense of ‘security’, presuming that the Day of the Lord won’t come in our lifetime. We know better. And as such, we are to live out that hope and knowledge. Paul speaks of this mainly in a protective or defensive way. Against the constant onslaught of the world’s ideas and values,we are to protect ourselves – both heart and head. Compare to Ephesians 6 and the emphasis on protecting ourselves from our spiritual enemies. Our greatest concern is not to be whether we are alive or dead when Christ returns, but whether or not we have remained steadfast in our faith despite the temptations and attacks of a world and spiritual forces intent on separating us from the love of Christ.

Matthew 25:14-30 – Last week’s parable dealt with wisdom in the role of a follower of Christ. This week’s reading deals solely with faithfulness. This parable – as the two before it – is given after the disciples inquire about the end times. Jesus, speaking to his disciples (rather than to his detractors or enemies) sketches in parable form the reality they will soon encounter – their master will depart, having entrusted to them various levels of gifts. How will they use these gifts in his absence? Towards what end are these gifts given?

The talents represent gifts. We can think of them as spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit but I think it not unreasonable to include also the natural gifts with which we are blessed by God the Father who created us. Our giftings are not identical. Some seem quite gifted and others seem not so gifted (though this is often only the case when trying to compare a single mutual gift rather than examining the broad canvas of gifts each person may have). These gifts are not truly our own, not to those who proclaim faith in a Creator God. They are just that, gifts. We possess them for some period of time which is not determined by us but by the God who created us. At issue is what we do with the gifts in the time we have.

It is expected that the gifts will be utilized proportionally. She with more produces more than she with less. But all are expected to produce something. What is it that they are producing? Jesus isn’t teaching on church finances! Rather, towards what end do we employ the good gifts of God? In fulfillment of the two great commands – to love God and to love our neighbor. We can’t truly love God if we don’t love our neighbor, and it is towards this end that our gifts are to be used. Likewise, we can’t properly love our neighbor unless we love God and receive his wisdom and insight into what love of neighbor properly looks like. What God gives me, I am to use to his glory as I serve my neighbor. That might be parents, classmates, siblings, spouse, children, grandchildren, neighbors, employers, employees – all of these are my neighbor!

As I engage the gifts of God towards love and service to my neighbor, the Holy Spirit is at work in and through me. I don’t control the outcome, I merely apply my gifts to the best of my abilities. It is the Holy Spirit that produces the return. We might think of this in terms of another person coming to faith in Christ, and certainly that is a fine return on our gifts! But it could easily also mean the lessening of another’s burden or suffering, or modeling for another how best to use their own gifts. I suspect any interpretation of the text that wants to directly and solely focus on leading others to Christ has fallen prey to the idolatry of evangelism as the highest and most enviable of spiritual gifts. The point is that our time is short and unknown – how will we best serve our God by loving our fellow-creations?

Note that the first servant gets to work immediately. He doesn’t assume that he has lots of time to apply his gifts. He begins immediately. The one who received two talents does likewise. They don’t presume on the master’s timing. The third servant operates out of fear but also disinterest. When confronted he will attempt to defend himself by telling lies about his master – how he’s hard and unyielding when in fact the master has demonstrated quite another character by entrusting his possessions to his servants!

Good servants share the heart and mind of their master. What benefits the master benefits them. But the third servant does not see things this way. He has no interest in what the master has entrusted to him or how best to use it. He does not want to be bothered. He has other things he would rather attend to. He has no time to apply his master’s money in even the most rudimentary of ways. His punishment is appropriate – he has demonstrated he has no desire to truly be his master’s servant, and so his wish is granted and he is removed from the household.

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