“Take the talent from him, and give it to the one with ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The last time that I had heard this passage read was a little over a year ago. I was working as a summer camp for the Diocese of Dallas out in Gilmer, Texas. There was a youth in my cabin by the name of Brian. Brian was thirteen years old and stood six-foot-four. One of his favorite pastimes was walking up to me and staring down at the top of my head, usually when I was trying to get the cabin quiet for lights out. He could be a little intimidating. On Wednesday of that summer camp, we were having Communion at the camp chapel, which was a cement slab with brick supports for a roof, so you could get a nice cross breeze through for when it was nearly one hundred degrees out.
At that Communion service we read Matthew 25:14-29, just like we did here today, and as we got to those lines about taking away from the poor and giving it to the wealthy, Brian stood up. Brian stood up, in the middle of worship, in the back of that cement chapel, towering over his teenage colleagues. Brian said, “You know, that doesn’t sound very Christian.”
“Not very Christian? Of course it’s Christian! Deacon Pam read it right out of the Bible! How much more Christian do you get than the Bible?” Brian’s speaking out like that started a conversation between the campers and the priests and as they started to discuss Brian’s take on this reading, and I started to wonder, “Is this really the saying of the same Jesus that tells us, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34)?’ and ‘Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you (Matthew 5)?’” Something just doesn’t seem right here.
But, I don’t think that in our passage today Jesus is giving us a mission statement for outreach ministry. “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” This isn’t an instruction on how to run the soup kitchen or how to help with Interfaith Ministries of Hope. So just what is Jesus trying to get at here? Well, if we take the shock of the end of the passage and look over the beginning, we can start to see where this is coming from. This parable is about a master giving “talents” to his slaves while the master is away on a journey. And some of the slaves engaged in profitable work with. And for them, when the Master returned, he commanded them: “Enter into the joy.” But there was that one slave who did no work. When the Master returned, the slave was judged, and was found empty-handed, and had even the little he had taken from him. What’s worse is the verse that comes at the very end of this section, which was left out of today’s reading, verse 30: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus’ teaching seems clear: God, our Master, gives us talents so that we can carry out God’s will, we can further the Master’s work, the kingdom of God. When the Master returns, our works will be judged and we will be rewarded and punished based on how we live up to the Master’s expectations.
The return of the Master is the same issue that Zephaniah wrote about, six hundred years before Jesus taught about it. Zephaniah, remember him? We don’t hear a whole lot from Zephaniah, but his book is only three chapters long, so we can get a good grip on his message within just this sermon without taking all day.
Let’s look back at the beginning of his prophecy from today’s reading. He begins, “Be silent before the Lord God!” The Hebrew word for “be silent” is Has it sounds a lot like “hush,” so we might read this verse as “Hussh! The day of the Lord is at hand!” “Ssh! Pay attention! Something important is about to happen!” And what happens? Going on to verse 12, Zephaniah writes, with a lot of poetic and metaphorical language: “At that time I will search our Jerusalem with lamps,” but not just Jerusalem, the city between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, but Jerusalem, the whole collection of all God’s people, you and me, as a group and as individuals. On the Lord’s day, God will search us with lamps. And not just “lamps,” like a sixty watt bulb on the end-table, but like the lamp described in Psalm 119:105: “Thy Word is like a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path.” On that day, God will examine Jerusalem, that is, you and me, with lamps, that is according to God’s Word.
But Zephaniah has more to say. Like Jesus told us in the Gospel reading, the Master punished the servant who did nothing with the Master’s gifts. Zephaniah has the same assessment: God “will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” For those who knew God, but would not act on it, God will give punishment—Just like the “lazy slave” in Matthew. I think this goes for us too. Jesus and Zephaniah tell us that there is much danger in knowing the good news of God’s action in the world, which we hear in the Bible lessons every Sunday, participate in by taking Communion, and share in the miracles of daily life, and not showing forth any change in ourselves or in the world, among our neighbors. Zephaniah is condemning a “functional atheism,” where someone complacently acknowledges the existence of God, but does not act as though they really believe in that God. Our faith has strong implications on our relationships with those around us, and there is danger in not following through on those implications.
And that danger is a very real and very vivid one to Zephaniah. The rest of our reading from him tells us all about the destruction that is to come on the Lord’s Day. “The fire of God’s passion” he says will consume “the whole earth” in an event so dramatic Hollywood producers have struggled to come up with something more spectacular. One this day, “a full, a terrible end God will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” In his book titled Long Ago God Spoke, William Holladay points out that this very passage has inspired a few hymns in the history of the Christianity. One of them is a medieval Roman Catholic hymn called Dies irae, and its words are this:
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
O what fear man’s bosom rendeth
When from heav’n the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth!
So what should I do? Both of these readings from Matthew and Zephaniah tell us that the Lord will return someday, and I might be found wanting! Well, I told you that since Zephaniah is only three chapters long, that I would take you through the rest of the book. So, let’s move on to chapter two. Most of the chapter Zephaniah spends condemning every place and people nearby: the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Assyrians, everyone is a sinner deserving God’s wrath, but I want to take a look at verse 3:
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commandments;
Seek righteousness, see humility;
Perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath;
So it seems that there’s a way out of the destruction prophesied on the Lord’s day. What can we do? We can seek. We can seek righteousness and humility. Seek righteousness, to be in a right relationship with God, to be in good standing. Seek humility, to know who you are before God, as a creature standing before the almighty Creator. Go. Seek.
This is just like the beginning of John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. In his story, the main character, named Christian, has left his family and home back in a city named Destruction. He tries to escape from Destruction, his native home, and Christian meets a man named Evangelist. Christian tells Evangelist that he has been reading a book that tells him to “Fly from the wrath to come,” and Christian wants to know where he should fly to. So, he asks Evangelist, “Whither must I fly?” Evangelist, always being the type to give Good directions, points across a very long distance and says, “Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?” Christian squints and strains to see, but says “No, I can’t see it.” Well, Evangelist, still trying to help, asks, “Do you see yonder shining light?” Ah, Christian can see a light in the distance. Christian’s goal, as Evangelist tells him, is to follow the light and to arrive at the gate. And that’s Zephaniah’s message here, too. God will search us out with lamps, the light of God’s Word. And we know God’s Word and, if we seek, as Christian sought, by following the light, we will certainly “be hidden on the Lord’s day” and arrive safely at the gates of Heaven.
So, let us seek God. Let us seek humility and righteousness. Let us realize the terrible reality of the day of the Master’s return, and hope that our works will merit reward, and let us hope that God will say to us “Enter into the joy of your master,” and hope that God will not find our work like that of the lazy slave and say to us “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Amen.
Now wait a minute. “You know, that doesn’t sound very Christian!”
That’s right. This doesn’t seem Christian at all! In fact, it’s not Jewish either! God doesn’t want us to live in terror and horror for the day of the Master’s return! We aren’t supposed to hope and hope that we’ve done enough to work our way into heaven, so that “perhaps you may be hidden on day of the Lord’s wrath.” That doesn’t sound like Gospel. That doesn’t sound like “good news” at all. In fact, this idea of ‘earning’ our way to heaven is called “justification by works,” or “Pelagianism,” or, simply, heresy.
OK. So I promised you that I would show you all of the book of Zephaniah but we’ve only seen two of the three chapters. What’s left that I’ve been hiding from you?
Chapter 3 verse 8 says:
“Therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness.”
Hm.. I thought God was going to arise as our judge, but here, God’s plan is not to take the judge’s seat, but the witness stand. And, God says:
“My decision is to gather the nations, to assemble the kingdoms”
Hm. All of the nations. To the mind of the Old Testament writer, the nations, in Hebrew the goyim, means everyone who isn’t Jewish—everyone who is not part of “God’s chosen people.” The whole world—everyone—will be gathered on the day of the Lord, and what will happen?
Going on to verse nine, “at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them (the whole world) may call on the name of the Lord and serve God with one accord.” God changes us. Going on, “from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering.” Beyond the rivers of Ethiopia? Again, for someone living at the same time as Zephaniah, Ethiopia is about as far as you can get geographically from Jerusalem, as far away from God’s presence on earth. There’s Jerusalem, Sinai, Egypt, and then Ethiopia. It’s a long, long way for the ancient world. But, all the world, even those who are far as you can think of from God, can come to God and can be changed by God. But this isn’t a work, this isn’t a thing we can do. This is a thing that God does for us. God gathers us together. God changes us. It’s not our own effort.
So, let’s finish up the book of Zephaniah, moving on to chapter three, verse 11: “On that day [that is, the day of the Lord] you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me.” And then verse 13, God changes the people: “they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will make pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.” And “the Lord has taken away the judgments against you. You shall fear disaster no more.” No matter what, no matter if we are close to God in Jerusalem or in a far off land, God promises that judgment against us will be taken away. The whole rest of the book, just a few more verses, has to do with destruction being taken from us, with forgiveness for the wrong which we have done and the right which we have not done. No matter what, no matter how far off we are from God or how far off we feel we are from God, God will draw us in. Away from shame and into forgiveness. Away from judgment, and into praise. That sounds like Good News. That sounds like Gospel. That sounds very Christian.
Let’s finish Zephaniah’s short book. The last verse, chapter 3, verse 20, God says: “At that time, I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.” Draw near. Draw near to God. Draw near to the altar. Draw near to home. “For,” as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians, “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we can live with God on that day when our Master comes again. So what should we do until then? Draw near in faith, and take the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper. Take it as Eucharist. What I mean is, take it as thanksgiving (in Greek eucharisia) for the gifts God has given us in the cross. Let us remember and give thanks for it.