Monday, November 24, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9 – The Work of God's Hands, Longing to Be Reshaped...

Lesson Focus:
In our brokenness we long for our king to come to reshape our world and us, too. 

Catch up on the story:
For some time, Israel has been under great political and social distress.  This passage in Isaiah probably occurs between 538 and 515 B.C.E.[1] There is some evidence to support the fact that this passage occurs sometime during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, which places it squarely toward the end of Israel's exile.  Accordingly, the capital city of Jerusalem is in shambles, as is the Temple and any semblance of ordered worship. 

The writings that make up Isaiah are varied in time period, form and style.  Isaiah 64:1-9 finds itself in the middle of a communal lament, which begins in 63:7.  The lament begins with a priestly/prophetic figure recounting the glorious deeds of God, but quickly turns toward the stiff-necked rebellion of God's children.  Yet, even in the midst of the people's rebellion, God is merciful and continues to lead them.  63:15 marks a turn in the lament toward a request for God to intervene in more concrete ways in Israel's distress, which will pick up steam as our passage begins in chapter 64. 

It should be noted, at this point, that there is a chorus of voices represented in this scene.  Represented are those who are concerned for all people now living in Israel, those who are concerned for the salvation of all of the twelve tribes of Israel, those who are concerned with just the Temple and its state of disrepair, those who believe they are the true and only descendants of Abraham and are thus the special recipients of God's favor, and finally, those who are specifically concerned with Israel's political and military future and standing.  At the end, however, Isaiah's concern will be that God act for all of God's people.[2]

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 
3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

The Text:
Chapter 64 opens with Isaiah’s calling for God to definitively act within Israel’s desperate situation.  Whereas verse 15 of chapter 63 calls God to only look on Israel’s situation, they now long for God to tear open the heavens and descend to be in their midst.  The language of the opening verse highlights the sense of hopeful yet angst-ridden longing that fills the hearts of the people.  Life is rough and now they hope that God will act. 

The imagery is meant to remind us of the previous ways in which God has broken into human existence and worked for its good and its direction, as when God appeared to Israel at Mt. Sinai.  God’s manifestation to his people in these theophanies is often dangerous to those involved and has seismic repercussions.  The hope is that God will once again make himself known, not just to Israel, but to Israel’s adversaries, too.   

You will notice the proliferation of the second person singular, “you.”  This “you” is none other than God himself.  As the passage moves forward the emphasis placed on God’s action becomes very apparent.  What is needed is God to break through, like God has done in the past, doing deeds of might and power that Israel did not expect (verse 3).  It is only God who can save.  It will only be through the mighty acts of God that Israel will have space to live.  Israel longs for God to do what God has done in the past.    

Verse 5 marks a transition in the passage from a cry for help to a confession of sin.  The confession begins by stating the obvious: God’s presence is available for those who remember God’s ways and do right.  But, Israel confesses, they have sinned and have not had the privilege of God’s constant companionship.  The NRSV translates the second half of verse 5 as, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”  It might seem, at first glance, that Israel’s confession is backhanded, blaming God for her sins.  This is not the case.  Israel, at this point, on the other side of exile, is fully aware of its infidelities.  The prophet is confessing the sin of the people, and as the people sinned, God withdrew his presence.  In the absence of God’s loving presence the people sinned even more, relying on anything other than God for help.  The prophet speaks of the truth that we often experience: we sin and then our relationship with God begins to fade.  The more our closeness to God fades, the more we sin.  It can be a vicious cycle.   

The NRSV, however, leaves off what the RSV translates, “in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?”  This question seems to be the center of the passage.  It is a question of hope and hopelessness, of confession and longing for redemption.  Not only has Israel sinned, causing a great rift between God and people, but also they have been at it for a long time!  They are thoroughly and completely steeped in their own filth.  In verse 6 the confession continues with the plural language.  Israel is unclean.  Israel is unclean because of her failure to set right the injustices in their land.  They are unclean because they have not cared for the orphan, the widow, the poor, the outcast and the stranger in their lands.  They are unclean because they have trusted in everyone and everything other than God!  Their uncleanliness makes all of their righteous deeds, the good things they were supposed to do, like filthy cloths.  Literally, “filthy cloth” is a cloth used by women during menstruation.  Any discharge of blood would have made the Israelites ceremonially unclean.[3] Without demeaning the normal physical cycles of women, this type of uncleanliness, for Israel, was some of the worst sort.  What is not to be missed is the seriousness with which Israel views her uncleanliness.  This is serious stuff, and Israel feels as if she has nowhere to go. 

Indeed, the prophet goes on to wallow in Israel’s worthlessness a little longer.  They are like leaves, which are blown away by the wind of their sin and iniquity.  Here the very real consequences of Israel’s unfaithfulness come to the forefront.  They have no one else to blame but their own sinfulness.  At the same time, however, they acknowledge that their sinfulness has caused God to hide his face from them.  God has given them over to their sins and iniquities and therefore they have no strength or even right to call on the name of God.  Without some intervention by the hand of God, Israel’s existence will be in the hands of the political powers of the day, powers who care nothing for her or her place as God’s chosen people. 

The deep longing and sorrow of verses 1-7 are not the end of the story.  The “yet” of verse 8 proves to be a turning point toward a great hope that God will act on Israel’s behalf as he has done before.  “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father…” The emphasis on the divine action located in the divine “you” of verses 1-5 are met with the communal confessions located in the human “we” of the second half of verse 5-7 are combined.  Israel confesses and seeks to remind God that he is their Father.  The powerful “you,” God, is the one who created and has sustained the “we.”  Indeed, there cannot be a “we” without the divine “you.” 

This sentiment is carried through the next few verses.  Israel confesses that it is like clay, needing to be shaped, (or rather, reshaped!), into something useful.  The only one that can do the shaping is the potter.  The cry is issued for God to remember that it was he who crafted Israel into the people of God, the work of his good and strong hands.  Israel, in her conflicted and multi-vocal state, reminds God that all of us are the work of God’s hands. 

So What?
Our journey toward Advent has led us to an encounter with several passages from Matthew’s Gospel that have called us to be prepared for the coming of Jesus.  The focus of those passages have been eschatological, or having to do with Jesus’ second coming.  As we enter into Advent we are called again, in a new way, to ensure that we are prepared for Christ’s coming.  Only, during this time of the year, we focus not only on Jesus’ second coming, but on his first coming.  It seems that the need for being properly prepared for Jesus’ first coming is about as important as the need to be prepared for Jesus’ second coming. 

This passage from Isaiah 64 can be read both ways, one with an eye toward Christ’s birth at Christmas, and one with an eye toward Jesus’ second coming.  What I think this passage highlights is a pattern that we often experience personally, during times of failure and unfaithfulness, and communally, during times of crisis or disaster. 

Personally, when we have sinned or been unfaithful in our relationship with God and others, we experience this profound sense of hopelessness and loneliness.  We begin to experience the crushing natural consequences of our sin and iniquity and it leads us to despair.  Then, the Holy Spirit reminds us of who we are and how we should be.  We engage in lament, calling on God to act definitively in our broken situation.  Even though our situation is of our own making, we desire to see God break forth in our lives in such a way that would dispel the darkness and throwback our adversaries.  We remember God’s mighty deeds in the past and ask that he would work so again.  In the end, we remember that our only chance for survival is God’s action, even though we have been in our sin a long time.  We question if even we can be saved.  Then, we are urged to remind God that we would not exist if not for his creative hand. We do this not so much because God needs to be reminded, but because this is the pattern for Israel’s (and ours!) movement toward confession and restoration.  Finally, we must wait, wait for God to act. 

Communally, we move through the same pattern when we are confronted with some great tragedy or corporate sin.  Our brokenness leads us to despair and long for God to intervene in a powerful way.  We confess our sin.  We recognize the transient nature of life, how we fade like grass and leaves.  But then we remember, and remind God that he has called us to be the people of God, the church, his hands and feet.  We remind God that he has brought us together for a purpose, to do his will and work in our very broken world.  Finally, we must wait, wait for God to act. 

God is calling us to be prepared for his coming, both now at Christmas and in the future when he comes again.  Our preparedness, however, cannot be full and final unless we remember that we need to be made whole again.  So, as we begin this journey toward Christmas, let us, as a community, lament our brokenness, confess how are sinfulness jeopardizes our very existence and then call on our Father in heaven to remember us, the people he has shaped with his own hand. 

For, at the end of the day, our preparedness depends on God’s divine hand shaping and reshaping us into his image.  At times it feels as if we have been in our sins a long time, neither hearing God’s voice nor seeing God work in our lives or the lives of those around us.  Isaiah reminds us that God will not leave us in our brokenness and sin, but will come, and come again so that we might once again be the people God has called us to be.  May we allow God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to shape and reshape us so that we are fully prepared for our coming king.            

Critical Discussion Questions:
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God, in this text, is absent.  Because of the sins of the people God has withdrawn his presence from Israel.  God is absent because the people have chosen repeatedly to trust in anything other than God.  There comes a point when God gives us over to what we want, even when what we want is not him.
b.     Israel, for her part, believes that the character of God is such that God will not totally leave Israel to fend for herself.  This leads to a latent hope that God will break forth into Israel’s desperate situation.  God will work, but first we must wait.

2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Our salvation and our being made holy are contingent on our recognition that we have been in our sin a long time and that we have no ability to remove our selves from it.  Any movement toward Christ-likeness begins with us realizing that we are not God, and as such, cannot save ourselves.
b.     We also must wait with hope and longing to be shaped and reshaped by the hand of God.  This is not a passive waiting.  It is an active waiting in which we seek to attend to the means of grace.  We worship and serve together.  We fellowship together.  We receive the Lord’s Supper together.  Through these things we begin to prepare our hearts for the Spirit’s transforming work in us. 

3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     As we approach Christmas we are called to examine our own place in relation to our coming king.  We are called to confess that unless God breaks forth into our reality, we cannot live.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Recount a time when it felt as if God was very far away.  What were your thoughts and feelings as you longed for God to make himself known in that situation? 
2.     In the context of our community of faith, what might it look like for God to “tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence?” (Verse 1)
3.     As a group, spend some time recounting the awesome deeds that God has done.  How, specifically, has God worked in our community of faith in the past? 
4.     From what kind of situations have you wondered if you could be saved?
5.     Verse 8 declares that God is our Father, the potter who has shaped us.  What are some of the concrete ways in which God has shaped us as a community of faith?
6.     What does it mean to be the work of God’s hands here in our local community?
7.     How does this passage help us be prepared for Christ’s coming at Christmas?

[1] Elizabeth Rice Achtemeier, The Community and Message of Isaiah 56-66: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1982), 16.
[2] John D. W. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 25, Isaiah 34-66 (watts), 420pp (Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 308.
[3] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Matthew 25:31-46 – The Final Judgment

Lesson Focus:
Those who will find themselves invited into God's eternal kingdom are those who have properly expressed their love for God through their love and care for their neighbor, especially “the least of these.”

Catch up on the story:
Over the last few weeks we have been heading toward some kind of statement from Jesus concerning final things.  The coming of ‘The Son of Man’ has been highlighted in the previous three parables.  The theme that runs through each of these preceding parables is preparedness for when the Messiah fully and finally comes.  Each parable highlighted, in a different way, what it means for those who belong to the Kingdom to be ready for the return of the master. 

This week’s passage forms the end of Jesus’ sermon on preparedness for the end of the world.  With this passage we also move away from parables as the dominant literary form.  While this week’s passage has often been referred to as a parable, it is not.  What we have is a depiction of the last judgment taught by and featuring none other than Jesus himself. 

The Text:
Notice the beginning of the passage.  It starts not with a formulaic saying about comparing the kingdom of heaven to this or to that, but with a solid and referential, “when.”  This “when” also serves to connect today’s passage with the preceding three parables about preparedness.  When the master arrives from being away (25:45-51), the groom arrives at the wedding (25:1-13), and when the master comes to check on what we have done with the money we have been given to invest (25:14-30), that will be the time when the Son of Man will come in glory to sit on his throne of glory. 

Throughout Matthew, Jesus has referred to himself as “The Son of Man.”  In fact, Jesus words in 25:31 are almost verbatim of 16:27.  The role of the Son of Man in this passage as well as that of the king (v. 34) and Lord (v. 37) is played by Jesus himself.  The Father will gather all nations to Jesus for the final judgment.  At this point we cannot forget that Jesus and the Father are one.  The glory that Jesus displays is the glory of the Father.  The judgment that Jesus issues is the judgment of the Father.  Jesus will continue to exercise his role as servant even while the Father is glorifying him for his obedience (see, Phil. 2:6-1).  

All nations will be gathered together on this last day of judgment.  The resurrection of the dead will not just include those who have believed, but will include those who, by word or deed done or undone, have rejected Christ.  Absolutely everyone will be there, an image that defies our imagination as we attempt to visualize all those who have lived, past and present, standing before Jesus on his throne. 

Sorting and separating the resurrected will begin immediately.  Jesus, who is sitting on his glorious throne, will place the goats on his left hand side while the sheep he will place on his right side.  The phrase, “all nations” might lead us to believe that the separation that is taking place is between nations.  Certainly, for some in Israel, this might have been what was expected.  Rather, as the passage unfolds we will see that the separation is more likely individual in nature.

Jesus tells us that the resurrected will be separated as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  There are a few reasons why a shepherd might separate sheep and goats.  First, goats might have been separated from the flock at night because of their inability to handle colder temperatures.  Or, they might have been separated because of the different nature of hair and wool.  Goat hair can be used to make textiles in the same way as sheep wool can.  The story does not stand on the reason sheep and goats might be separated, only that they are. 

The sheep, Jesus tells us, will be placed on his right hand side.  The right hand was considered the hand of power and prestige.  To sit at one’s right side at a banquet was a place of honor.  Thus, the sheep are brought to Jesus’ right hand side as a way of indicating their place of honor and reward at the final judgment.  While normally, the left hand side was still a place of honor, as the story continues, it will become clear that the left hand side for the goats is worse than just second best.

As quickly as the imagery of the sheep and goats appears it is gone.  The Son of Man will no longer be shepherd but judge and king.  The king, in verse 34, is one and the same as Jesus.  He will now address those that he has separated starting with those on his right.  Jesus invites those who are on his right to come and inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world.   

Jesus begins by inviting those on his right to enter into the kingdom that has been prepared for them since the beginning of time.  Clearly, God has had a plan for his creation from the very beginning.  This is not predestination, as our Calvinist friends would understand it.  God's intention, even before the fall of humanity, was that his creation would live with him in unbroken, unmediated fellowship.  It has always been God's plan that all of us end up with God fully and finally.  Those on Jesus' right are invited into the kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, to take up residence because they have faithfully prepared themselves.  In short, they have responded rightly.  As the parable of the Wedding Guest (22:1-11) teaches us, we are all invited, but not all get to stay because of their lack of preparedness.

Jesus then begins to explain to the resurrected on his right why it is that they get to inherit the kingdom.  They inherit the kingdom because when Jesus was hungry they gave him food, when he was thirsty they gave him water, when he was a stranger in a strange place they offered him hospitality.  Additionally, they gave Jesus clothing when he was naked and visited him when he was sick and in prison. 

The righteous, as Jesus calls them, are flabbergasted at Jesus' words.  They wonder out loud when it was that they did those things for Jesus.  Jesus responds with a statement that should give us pause when we take time to consider it fully.  In doing these things for the least of Jesus' brothers or sisters, then those deeds were done for Jesus! 

The language, here in chapter 25, is similar to Jesus' discussion of the lost sheep in Matthew 18.  In the beginning of that chapter, Jesus is asked who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus responds by saying that unless you become like a child you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  We often assume that this means that we must have child-like faith.  That's not what Jesus is getting at here.  Rather, Jesus uses the image of a child to illustrate those who are lowly and least in society.  Indeed, children were not valued in the same way as we value children today.  They were little more than property.  True greatness, Jesus insists, belongs to the least of these in society.  It is the call of the shepherd to go after the least of those who wander off from the flock.  We often understand the parable of the lost sheep to be about salvation in a spiritual sense.  And while it should spur us on to evangelize those who need to hear the good new about Jesus, it has concrete physical forms of spreading God's good news in mind as well.

Jesus will not change his mind concerning greatness and the needs of the least of these in his kingdom between the events of Matthew 18 and the end of the world!  In fact, if we look at this week's passage in the light of the last few parables, our preparedness is measured by how well we looked after the least of these.  Jesus informs the righteous that as they have loved their neighbor, the least of these, they have loved God!     

The list itself is not comprehensive, but it is concrete and physical in nature.  All of the actions performed by the righteous deal with a person's sense of wholeness and well-being.  Food, clothing, water are essential to our survival as creatures.  So too is our need to be accepted and cared for within the context of community.  We cannot be fully human unless we participate in a community where there is love and acceptance.  It is because of this that Jesus highlights hospitality for those who are sick and in prison.  Sickness, as it does today, placed a person on the margins of society.  Those in prison also were often in need of physical assistance as well.  While the state provided the housing for its prisoners, it was up to the prisoner's family or friends to provide them with food and water.[1] Not only was isolation a problem for prisoners, so was starvation and death. 

Another important aspect needs to be kept in mind.  Jesus' social world was built around a system of reciprocity, honor and shame.  One might hold a banquet and invite the important persons of the town to be a guest in hopes, not only that they would attend, but also that the invitation might be reciprocated at a later date.  It was an honor to be invited as a guest to someone's house.  In the same way, it would have brought shame on a house for an invitation to be rejected.  To do something for someone who could not possibly return the favor was unheard of.  Jesus, by highlighting the service done to the least of these is highlighting the righteous’ disregard for the system of reciprocity.  Furthermore, they are shocked when they receive a reward, an invitation to the kingdom, for the care they have shown for the least of these.  In other words, the value of the righteous' service did not depend on the value of the ones who were served.

Jesus then turns from his right to his left.  While he had gracious words to speak to the righteous resurrected on his right, he has only words of condemnation for those on his left.  Those on the left, as with those on the right, wonder why it is that they are being told to depart into eternal punishment.  While the righteous resurrected ones did not realize that their actions had been an expression of their love for God, the ones on the left have failed to realize that they have not properly shown love for God.  They have failed to care for the least of these, which is also a failure to care for and love Jesus himself.  In the context of the current discourse in Mathew we are left to wonder if the ones on left are the religious leaders in Israel.  They had placed their faith in keeping the exact letter of the law all the while neglecting those who matter most to God. See Matthew 23:23-24.    Either way, it is not just those who are in religious leadership who fall into the trap of religious legalism while neglecting the least of these. 

The judgment that Jesus pronounces on both groups is final.  The reward will be eternal citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.  The punishment will be eternal as well.  Those who have not exercised their love for God through love for neighbor will be given eternal citizenship in the place that had been prepared for the devil and his angels.
So What?
It might be easy, from this passage and the passages that go before it, to see an emphasis placed on care for the poor over against strict adherence to Christian belief or morality.  Indeed, some have, in the history of Christianity, overemphasized care for the poor at the expense of morality and faith.  At the same time, however, there have been those who have emphasized morality or even faith at the expense of concrete care for the poor. While Jesus is making a profound case for what it means to be prepared for the coming of the kingdom of heaven, Matthew's Jesus is not abandoning morality or belief. 

Where we get into trouble is when we swing too far one way.  The religious leaders in Israel had swung toward strict adherence to the law and so neglected expressing their love for God through their love for neighbor.  Jesus is quite clear that those who do not express their love for God through their love for their neighbor, especially their unimportant and helpless neighbor, will not find a place in God's eternal kingdom, regardless of how pure a life they lived.

Of course, the converse is true as well.  We cannot only exercise care for the least of these at the expense of acting morally or believing rightly.  In fact, as we live ethically and morally upright lives, as we affirm proper beliefs, as Jesus and the Apostle Paul will urge us to do, we are actually being shaped and formed (hopefully!) into people who will more readily express our love for God through our love and care for our neighbor. 

At the end of the day, we, like Jesus’ original hearers, like the community that Matthew has written his gospel for, we are waiting for Christ to return to finally and fully usher in God's kingdom.  The questions that lingered for those communities linger for us: will we be prepared for his coming? and what does it look like to be prepared for his coming?  Matthew has given us solid answers to those questions.  We will be prepared for the coming of Christ and his kingdom if we have used well the gifts God has entrusted us with and if we have expressed our love for God through our love and care for our neighbor, especially our vulnerable and unimportant neighbors.                 

This is the final Sunday before Advent.  In Advent we anticipate and wait for God's coming in the birth of Jesus.  It is, at the same time, a time of anticipating the coming of God's kingdom in its fullness.  We not only anticipate the beginning of God's kingdom, but the consummation of it as well.  May the lessons we have learned from our study of Matthew help prepare us as we anticipate the coming of our King. 

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?   
a.     God obviously identifies with those who are the vulnerable and unimportant people of society. We see this in the incarnation: God, who was rich, became poor.  He identifies with them so much that our care for the poor and powerless is really care for Jesus himself.  Ultimate salvation comes for those who have expressed their love for God in the proper kinds of ways.
b.     This care for the least of these also causes God to act in judgment.  We must never forget that the God who has been so faithful and so steadfastly loving toward us desires for us to act in the same way towards our brothers and sisters. 

  1. What does holiness look like in this text?
a.     Holiness looks like caring for the poor and powerless in tangible and concrete ways.  It looks like expressing our love for God through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty and visiting the sick and those in prison.  It may also look like thinking about and finding ways to address cycles of injustice and oppression that cause these problems.It also looks like finding ways to change the structures in our society, which cause all of these problems.  In short, it is a call to work for justice and equity in addition to showing mercy and compassion. 
b.     It also looks like doing these types of things without a thought to any reward we might receive now or in the hereafter.  In the passage, those who were ushered into the kingdom were surprised by their invitation.    

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     This passage should shape how we think about the Christian life and it's ultimate aim.  The ultimate aim of the Christian life is to love God.  We love God when we express our love for him through our love for the least of our neighbors.  The programs and ministries of our church will be thoroughly Christian when they help us to accomplish that goal, either by helping to shape and form our thoughts and actions (prayer, worship, study of the scriptures) or by actually providing us with practical exercises in caring for our neighbor. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
1.     The last three parables in Matthew have been preparing us for his final scene in Jesus' teaching.  Go back and review Matthew 24:45 through 25:30.  What are the common themes that run through these parables?  How is it that Jesus might be preparing us for this final judgment scene?
2.     Who is the one doing the sorting in this passage?  What might this say about Jesus' status and authority in heaven and earth?
3.     Why do you think the righteous are surprised when Jesus tells them that they have provided him with food, water and clothing when they had done those things for the least of these?  How does Jesus' list of activities help us see what is important to Jesus?
4.     In the list of the ‘least of these,’ which category of people is most neglected in our society? Is there another category that you would add to the list of the ‘least of these?’
5.     Jesus seems to be saying that we most fully express our love for him through our love for the least of our neighbors.  This is something that our church equips us to do. Here are some ministries that are intended to care for the least of these:
a.     The Mercy Fund: a special fund intended to assist people who are in need of groceries, utility assistance, bus passes, gas, etc.
b.     The Closet
c.     The Laundry Ministry
d.     Monthly Meals at the Motels
e.     Safe Families for Children
f.      Prayer Shawl Ministry
      Discuss these among your group and other possible ways to care for the least of these.

[1] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Bletchley: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 1030.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Matthew 25:14-30 – Parable of the Talents

Lesson Focus:
Much is required of those who have been given things of great value. 

Catch up on the story:
After Jesus pronounces woes and judgment on the Jewish religious leadership, the disciples ask him what the sign will be that will indicate his return and the coming of the end of the age.  Jesus responds with a series of warnings and parables about what it means for those who believe to be prepared for Christ’s second coming.  The first parable was about a faithful slave, who worked hard to prepare for his master’s return, even when he did not return immediately.  The other slave failed to continue to look after the house’s affairs when it became apparent that the master would not soon return.  The unfaithful slave will be tossed out when the master returns.

The second parable depicted ten bridesmaids who were waiting to usher the bridegroom into the wedding banquet.  Five of the bridesmaids were thoughtless and did not bring enough oil to ensure that their torches would burn brightly.  The other five were thoughtful and had enough oil.  They were prepared when the bride eventually returned.  The first five were excluded from entering into the joyful wedding banquet.  

The themes running through these first two parables are present in the third parable.  There is an important person, a master and the groom, for whom the parties in the parables are anxiously waiting.  Those who acted properly in the absence of the important person are rewarded with being able to continue in the presence of that important person.  These themes will also be present in this week’s passage. 

Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 
  2. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

The Text:
Jesus begins this parable with a “For it is as if…” (NRSV) or “Again, it will be like…”  (NIV), and this connects this parable with the preceding one.  Matthew’s Jesus wants to connect this story with the one that went before in a specific way.  In other words, the parable of the bridesmaids and this parable about investment are very similar.  They both deal with discussing what it looks like to be prepared for Christ’s return. 

The main character in this parable is a master who owns land, has a good amount of liquid capital and has a fair amount of people who work as stewards of what he owns.  The master calls his slaves, literally, his own slaves.  For us the word “slaves” carries with it distinct imagery that is derived from America’s cultural history.  It’s important to remember that slaves could refer to a wide range of workers involved in the daily operations of a wealthy household.  While the life of a slave was not always easy, slaves could work up the household ladder and gain positions of power and responsibility.  That a master would have given some of his assets into the hands of slaves so that they might be invested in the master’s absences would not have been uncommon.  Jesus is, however, highlighting the fact that these slaves belong to him.  Stressing the fact that the slaves belong to the master also indicates that the parable is dealing with those who are already a part of God’s family.  For Jesus’ original hearers, especially in the immediate context, this points to Israel and her leadership.  For us, who hear this story today, the slaves are those who confess to be followers of Jesus Christ. 

The master calls three slaves before he sets off on his journey.  He takes and gives the first slaves five Talents.  A word about Talents is appropriate here.  A Talent was the largest denomination of money in Jesus’ day.  It would have been equivalent to a year’s wage for about 100 day laborers.  It was a substantial amount of money in the form of silver.[1] The Talents in the story do not refer to our “talents” as we commonly understand them. 

The master gives five Talents to the first slave, to the second slave he gives two Talents and the third slave he gives one Talent.  Jesus tells us that the master gave “each according to his ability,” literally, their own “power.”  Let’s be clear, the money that is given to the slaves is still the property of the master.  The master has judged his slaves and has entrusted his money to them in accordance with how he thinks they will respond to the responsibility. 

The master sets out on his journey, and immediately the slaves go out and begin to use the money they have been given to make more money.  Both the NRSV (went off at once and traded with them…) and the NIV (put his money to work…) translate verse 16 in a rather passive way.  The force of the Greek paints a bit of a different picture.  It could be translated like this, “The one who had received five talents went off immediately and began to work his money hard and it produced five more talents.”  Upon receiving the money the first servant actively and immediately went and worked hard so that the money he had been entrusted with worked hard as well.  We are told the second servant does the same thing.  Each of the first two servants doubled their money. 

The third servant, on the other hand, received his Talent, dug a hole in the ground and hid his money.  Digging a hole in the ground and hiding a treasure was a common way to safeguard things of value.  In fact, rabbinical teaching often suggested that this was the safest way of protecting your valuables.[2]

The master returns from his voyage and calls his servants together to get an account of how they have used the money he gave them.  The first servant comes forward and calls his master to look at what he has done.  The action, according to the Greek, could be considered to be quite formal in the context of a religious setting, as in one bringing a sacrifice before a deity.  The first and second slaves are bringing the fruits of their labor before their master in joy and reverence.  Both slaves offer the same words.  In joy they call upon their master to look at the fruit of their labor. 

The master responds to both slaves the same way.  Because of their faithfulness and hard work, the master is pleased with them.  Their hard work and responsibility will earn them greater responsibility.  Not only that, they are invited to “enter into the joy of your master.”  Being a slave could be a thankless job, even for slaves who were trusted with great responsibility.  Entering into the master’s joy may invite us to think back to the joy the bridesmaids’ experience at the coming of the groom.  Faithfulness is rewarded with inclusion in the celebration that comes with the return of the master. 

It’s interesting to note that the reward for being faithful and bearing fruit is more responsibility.  Often we have imagined the reward for a well-lived Christian life to be entering into the rest of heaven when we die.  And that is partially true.  But the reality is that the reward for the faithful and fruitful Christian life is more responsibility!  The more we work hard with the capital that God has entrusted to us, the more capital we will be given.       

The third slave, however, is an entirely different matter.  He has not acted with zeal and ambition; rather, he has acted safely.  The reason for his hiding the money in the ground becomes apparent as he addresses his master.  Missing in the slave’s address to the master is any sense of joy and religious devotion.  Rather, there is fear.  The third slaves tells his master that he was afraid to work with the money because in doing so he might lose it and incur his master’s wrath. 

The picture of the master that the third slave presents can be troublesome for us if we are to consider that the master represents God.  Is Jesus depicting God as a “harsh man,” one who reaps what he did not sow and gathers where he did not plant?  Some think that the slave is giving a backhanded compliment all the while placing the blame for his inaction on the master himself.[3] In the same vein, John Wesley believes that the slave blamed the master because the master would expect more from him than he alone could deliver.  Instead of trying, the slave merely rolls over and blames the master, as Wesley believes, “every obstinate sinner, in one kind or other, lay the blame of his own sins on God.”[4]

The master is none too pleased with this third slave.  In fact, where as the other slaves entered into the master’s joy, the final slave is called wicked and lazy!  At the very least, the master says, the slave could have invested his Talent with the banks so as to earn a little interest!  The result is that the third slave has the money for which he was responsible taken from him and given to the slave with 10 talents.  Not only that, but the third slave is tossed out into the outer darkness!

John Wesley brings the uncomfortable point of the parable into focus,

Cast ye the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness—For what? what had he done? It is true he had not done good. But neither is he charged with doing any harm. Why, for this reason, for barely doing no harm, he is consigned to outer darkness. He is pronounced a wicked [servant], because he was a slothful [servant], an unprofitable servant. So mere harmlessness, on which many build their hope of salvation, was the cause of his damnation! There shall be the weeping—Of the careless thoughtless sinner; and the gnashing of teeth—Of the proud and stubborn.” [5]

The third servant is rejected from service and excluded from the joy of the master merely for being unfruitful!  Keep in mind that this parable is directed at those who profess to be followers of Jesus.  Some, it seems, are zealous for the work of the Lord, they have been given a thing of great value, God’s gospel of grace, peace, love, friendship, hospitality, justice, forgiveness and redemption, and they have taken those things and have invested them in the world around them and have been fruitful.  Others, on the other hand, are scared or lazy and have done nothing with the good news we have received.
So What?
What does it mean for us to be prepared when Jesus comes back?  As ones who have received the gift of Jesus’ love and grace we are to immediately go out and work those gifts to produce a return on Jesus’ investment.  I fear, however, that all too often we are like the third slave in this story.  We have received this great and valuable gift from God through Jesus and, for whatever reason, we fail to do anything worthwhile with it.  It is not that we are bad or immoral people.  We are not!  It is not even that we are lazy, for many of us work very hard.  Maybe its because we are apathetic.  Maybe we have been defeated by the magnitude of the work before us, as we survey the world and only see scenes of hurt and tragedy.  Maybe we believe that the gift God has given us to invest is only good for our own personal salvation.  Whatever the case is, we have not, as Wesley says, done harm, we just have not done the good we should do.

One commentator sums up the passage nicely,

“Thus to be ready for his coming is to be active on behalf of the kingdom of heaven and to have results to show for it.  It is to show initiative and to take risks in order to achieve something for God.  Those who had cause to fear his coming are those who have not made use of the opportunities and privileges entrusted to them, who have buried their money in the ground and so achieved nothing for the kingdom of heaven –or, to echo another parable, who have hidden their lamp under a meal-tub, with the result that no one has been able to see their light and so been drawn to give glory to their father in heaven (5:15-16).  For them there will be no ‘Well done!’”[6]
Critical Questions: 
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?   
a.     God desires accountability.  Like the slaves in the story, we have been given the Gospel, a thing of great value.  God expects that we take that Gospel and put it to work so that it might bear fruit.  God is not idle in his dealings with the world he created, and so it seems, God intends that we should not be either.
b.     I think this text also reveals to us how God would like us to present the fruits of our labor back to him.  I think God wants us to work so that we can say with joy and gladness, “Look!  With what you have given me I have produced so much more!”
  1. What does holiness look like in this text?
    1. Holiness looks like working hard with the gifts of love and grace that God has given us so that fruit might be produced in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  Holiness, as we Wesleyans are prone to describe it, is our growth in grace and in the likeness of Jesus Christ.  There is no idleness or contentedness with the status quo in holiness, only intentional forward movement in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. We must examine ourselves and determine if, as individuals and as a church, we are properly investing the resources God has given us.   

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     One Talent was equal to about a year’s wages for 100 day laborers.  Why does the master entrust his slaves with such a great deal of money?
2.     Jesus tells us that the first two slaves went off and worked their money hard so that it would bring a sizable return.  In the Christian life, what might it look like to work the gifts of salvation, love and grace that God has given us hard so that we might gain a sizable return?
3.     The first two slaves are not afraid that they have not done enough, rather they present their money to the master with joy and pride.  How could this be a model for what we do together as we work in and for our church?
4.     The third slave buried his money in the ground.  What do you think he was trying to accomplish? 
5.     Have you ever buried the gifts that God has given you in the ground?  What might that look like?
6.     The third slave has not really done anything wrong.  He has not wasted the money the master has given him, yet he is called wicked and lazy.  Why does the master call him that? 
7.     Are you content with just doing no harm, or are you seeking to do all the good you can as well?

[1] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Bletchley: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 1014.
[2] Ibid., 1015
[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 559.
[4] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 85.
[5] Ibid., 86.
[6] Longenecker, Richard. The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). 187-88