Well done good servant
Sermon preached at Enmore, Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 19th. November 2017
Readings: Judges 4.1–10; Matthew 25:14–30
The book of Judges doesn’t get many appearances in our lectionary readings and that may be the case because the narrative is riddled with violent episodes some of which involve violence against women. Judges covers the period of Israel’s history between the death of Joshua and the rise of the prophet Samuel, (roughly 1220–1050 B.C.). The book features the stories of twelve judges and the exploits of six of them are described in some detail. God raises these warrior judges to rescue a loose coalition of Israelite tribes from a series of oppressive enemies. The events in each judges story follow a predictable cyclical pattern: Israel turns from the worship of YHWH and worships foreign gods; God is angry and allows enemies to invade the land; the Israelites suffer at the hands of their oppressors and God has pity on them; God raises up a warrior judge who defeats the enemy and restores the worship of YHWH; the judge dies, the Israelites return to their old ways and the cycle begins all over again.
Judges chapter 4 opens with the death of Ehud one of Israel’s judges and the Israelites again getting into trouble, this time the Canaanite General Sisera is the powerful invader who has an new weapon, namely hundreds of chariots of iron. But the narrative introduces an interesting variation on the typical pattern of the judges story, for the hero of the story is a woman, Deborah who is described as a prophetess, and a judge and who gives orders to Israel’s General, Barak, telling him how to rout the enemy. Deborah and her general defeat the army of Sisera who manages to escape only to fall into the hands of another resourceful woman named Jael who kills him in a rather dramatic fashion but you will have to go home and read the rest of the chapter to find out how!
The story reminds us that human history has often been marked by violence and war and that conflict has been part of the human condition from earliest times. Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness God does not abandon his people but fights for them against the oppressor. God finds someone who is faithful and brings deliverance through that person. In today’s narrative it is Deborah who acts as God’s servant and the leader of the army, Barak, recognises that her authority comes from God. That is why he will not go into battle without her. The story concludes with Deborah’s song of triumph which many scholars believe is one of the earliest texts in our Old Testament. In that song Deborah acknowledges that the victory against the army of Sisera was God’s doing and that he alone is worthy of praise.
So we move from this ancient text to Matthew’s parable of the talents. The Gospel reading this morning follows immediately after the parable of the wise and foolish virgins that we read last week. Again we have a parable about waiting for the Master’s return. I have to confess that this has always been one of my least favourite parables. This may partly be the fault of my late mother. Many years ago when growing up, the Pastor of the church we attended, inspired by this parable, had the bright idea of giving every adult in the congregation a ten shilling note. They were then encouraged to see if they could come back next week having made a profit from the money. He suggested that the women could buy the ingredients for cake making and then sell cakes at a cake stall. What the men were supposed to do I can’t remember but what I can remember is my mother’s outrage at the proposal. She was the Sunday School Kindergarten teacher and my Dad was the Church Secretary so she felt the Pastor’s idea was just another duty to be added to their already heavy commitments. It was a pretty crazy idea but in my view the well-meaning pastor was also guilty of completely misinterpreting this parable.
The most common way to read this parable is to suggest that Jesus is preparing his followers for a long period during which he will not be present and that he gives them all various tasks to get on with while he is away, depending on their differing gifts and abilities. When he returns his followers will be judged on how well they have done their work. Such an interpretation easily leads to the view that we are saved by our good deeds and so we live in fear of the Master’s return lest we fail the test and are found wanting. To read the parable that way is to make it at odds with so much of what Jesus taught about God’s grace and mercy shown to the undeserving. So how should we understand it? The first thing to notice is that a talent was a unit of money, worth roughly what a labourer could earn in 15 years. The Master is therefore distributing to his three servants, a vast sum of money, in our currency several million dollars. He is being extraordinarily generous but also taking a huge risk entrusting this much money to his servants.
So what do these talents represent? Contrary to what has often been taught I don’t believe the talents represent our natural abilities and skills. We do of course use our talents in the Service of God but applying this to the parable gives us a picture of a God who is like a School Principal giving rewards to the gifted and talented but scolding the low achievers. This is a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven, not about the way things operate in the kingdom of the world. The talents represent the good news that God has entrusted to each of us. We are all the recipients of God’s mercy and forgiveness. We have received the good news of sins forgiven and the privilege of knowing that we are loved and cherished by God despite our failures and weaknesses. We have been called to be his followers, his representatives. But to whom much if given much is expected. If we have received so many blessings from God then he expects us to share them with others. To fail to do so is to be like the servant who was given a generous gift and then buried in a field where it was of no use to anyone. He did that because of his flawed view of his master. He could not believe that his master could be so generous with his money-he thought that must be some catch, some hidden agenda.
Let me conclude by quoting the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, “the parable teaches us how to wait patiently as those who have received the gift of being called to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples are not called to do great things although great things may happen. Rather, Jesus’ disciples are called to do the work Jesus has given us to do – work as simple and hard as learning to tell the truth and to love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our master invites us to share.”