St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Well Done

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.”

 

Philip Brad­ford