Sometimes, for fun, I’ll do a little quick romp through the lectionary texts, teasing folks with “I thought on Monday I’d talk with you about text #1… but by Tuesday I was pondering text #2…” (with little hints, a few details from each one as I go), “but then I settled on text #3.” This week is perfect for this – and the very method draws people’s attention to the variety and wonder of Scripture, and that Christians do what you’re doing in front of them, pondering, digging around for something.
Judges 4:1-7 is the kind of text that could well induce people to read more Bible – although how would you squeeze a sermon out of it. Jabin rules in Hazor (which is a fabulous archaeological site!), illustrating that Israel clearly had not conquered all of the land. Back in the Bronze Age, Palestine was segmented, not a nation at all, with tribal chieftains defending and occasionally expanding their turf.
The mighty Deborah – how we wish we knew more about her! Antiquity features the occasional woman of valor and fame – although each is the exception that proves the rule we still live with in much of the world. What a lovely detail: “She used to sit under ‘the palm of Deborah’ to judge.” This must have been a memorable visitable tree long after Deborah was no more.
Here’s the vivid, movie-worthy moment: in v. 7 she says “I will draw out Sisera and give him into your hand.” In short order, he was not only drawn out, but wound up with a tent peg hammered into the temple of his head – only slightly less graphic than in the previous chapter when Ehud, pretending to bear a secret message, plunges a sword into the obese King Eglon’s belly – and the sword disappeared into the folds of flesh.
Such stories might help people understand how the Bible isn’t a collection of sweet spiritual platitudes, but exposes real life at its most grim – and that somehow God is there too.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 is similarly titillating, so I’ll touch quickly on the bizarre simile that the Lord will come “like a thief.” But not only are you not ready (unless you have some guns? - who would dare to preach "If you're armed to protect your home, you might kill Jesus coming to visit"?), but the thief comes to rip you off. “Keep awake, don’t get drowsy” is fair counsel to your people while you’re preaching (I love the old joke about the preacher who dreamed he was preaching, and when he woke up, he was). Paul speaks of a couple of armor items here, clearly not as fully developed as Ephesians 6. “Encourage one another” truly could stand as a 3 word sermon. I’ll tease them and say “I thought I’d preach this 3 word sermon and just sit down, for this could keep y’all busy all this week and the rest of your life.”
Matthew 25:14-30. However, we will delve a bit more fully into the Gospel reading, so vapidly treated in so many sermons. I’m groaning or snoring already, hearing the grinning preacher ask “What talents has God given you? Use them for the Lord, don’t hide ‘this little light of mine’ but ‘let it shine.’” Gerhard Lohfink quite rightly points out that shortly after these words, they arrested Jesus and crucified him: “Nobody is executed for teaching nothing more than bourgeois morality.” I’d add that, while we think the kingdom will dawn if we get out people to fill out spiritual gifts inventories, those religious strengths-finders, the larger truth is that in Scripture God doesn’t seem to use people’s abilities so much as their frailties, their brokenness, their avail-ability. Moses can’t speak, Jeremiah is too young, Isaiah isn’t holy, Jonah bolts in the opposite direction, Gideon has too many soldiers. What are your weaknesses? Where are you broken? That’s where the Spirit will use you.
Lohfink notices something I’d not noticed: the businessman is not just wealthy, but a “boaster.” To him, these huge sums are “a few things, or “a little.” His business practices are exploitative: “I reap where I did not sow.” Slaves 1 and 2 are worthy of him, matching his finagling, lightning-fast action, risk taking strategies. Lohfink muses: “What a bold move, to make a statement about the reign of God in terms of immoral material.”
Here’s the other thing about these “talents.” The Greek talanta isn’t an ability. We should translate talanta as “a huge bucket full of solid gold” or “a bank CEO megabonus” or “winning the Ohio lottery.” Only the muscular could even pick up a talanton, as one might weigh fifty or seventy five pounds. Each would be worth around 6,000 denarii, which today (by some scholars’ reckoning) would be much more than I have earned in my twenty five years in the ministry, or twenty of those flasks of pure nard Mary wasted on the feet of Jesus that so mortified the disciples. Jesus’ stories always do this: outlandish hyperbole, mind-boggling, absurd in scope, to make his point about the unfathomable marvel of the kingdom. The kingdom is that valuable.
Imagine the listeners, poor laborers: no one listening would have the slightest clue about how to invest a single talanton, much less 5, any more than you or I would know what to do with $74 million. You just let your jaw drop, lost in wonder, love and praise. What a far cry from the little The Kingdom Assignment book churches were snapping up a few years back. Pastor Denny Bellesi doled out $10,000 in $100 increments to church members, declaring that 1. The $100 belongs to God, 2. You must invest it in God’s work, and 3. Report your results in 90 days. Those reports were startling: people made money hand over fist to contribute to the Church, creative ministries were hatched, lives were transformed, people wept for joy – all covered by NBC’s Dateline. So American. Why on earth would I give somebody $100 and say “This belongs to God,” implying that the other half million in his investment portfolio is his? Or to suggest God is the best “deal” ever?
What about the dumb, wicked servant? In Jesus’ day, burying money was regarded as prudent, and he no doubt expects to be commended. But he gets a verbal thrashing from the master. If this parable is Jesus’ intimation that an astonishingly ravishing gift has been unloaded upon an unsuspecting Church that has not the faintest notion how to handle, then might it be that the parable solicits from us not the offering up of our individual abilities, but rather the frank, embarrassing admission of our corporate inability? We populate Church committees with the best people for the task at hand, and in meetings they confidently offer insights from their education and professional experience.
But maybe what God needs is people who will huddle up, shake their heads and confess, “We just have no idea; the Treasure is too big, too heavy.” Maybe then, and only then, we can dare something for God. God gives the Gospel not to me so my ability can be put to good use, but to us so our inability might be exposed, and God thereby glorified.
If it’s stewardship season, you have to ask if this thinking would ruin or prosper your campaign. But is your current campaign approach fruitful, or just numbingly dull and ineffective. I wheedle and cajole, we print and mail catchy material, I plead from the pulpit. How pathetic. Isn’t that the equivalent of the burial of the one talanton, and isn’t it the harbinger of the burial of the Church? The Gospel isn’t being unleashed if some percentage of Church members start to think of an extra $100 or so as belonging to God, or even if the most clever stewardship campaign in history magically seduced a majority of mainline Protestants into actually tithing. The Gospel is too big for such trifles. Surely it is only to the dumbfounded, to the clueless, to the overwhelmed, to those who are under no illusion they have ever known quite what to do because of Jesus and don’t pretend it could ever be otherwise – to those alone this crafter of Trojan horses says “Well-done, good and faithful servant.”
The Mystery of Being Born (in the Pastoring for Life series) is out - and as we're heading toward Advent, my book on carols and their theology might be of use in preaching or in groups: Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections.