We read, or heard read, this morning,
the first part of the story of Deborah, the judge.
We’ve moved on in our story of God’s people—
led out of Egypt, led through the wilderness
and into the promised land—
now established in the land.
Not a kingdom, but a people led by judges,
raised up in times of need.
In our text today, as the story is told, God gave Israel,
having sinned against God,
over to the Canaanite king Jabin and his general, Sisera.
He had nine hundred chariots of iron, we read,
and had oppressed the Israelites for twenty years.
“He had nine hundred chariots of iron
and had oppressed the Israelites.”
Was it Sisera or Jabin? Doesn’t really matter.
The immediate commander or the supreme commander.
Could be either. It was both, truly, right?
And Deborah, a prophetess she’s named,
who was judging Israel at that time,
was sitting under the tree named after her.
See, now here’s where it gets really interesting!
In previous instances, Israel cried out,
and God raised up a judge (Judges 3:9, 15).
Here though, Israel cried out,
and Deborah was already judging, we read.
The tree was already named after her.
This story is not why about she was known back then.
This story is because she was already known back then.
Perhaps because she was a prophetess—
because she saw truth—
both the truth of Israel and the truth of God.
She saw—she recognized the problem,
she addressed the problem.
In this case, faced with military oppression,
she sent and summoned Barak, a military commander, a general.
Again, this bears repeating,
this is not because Israel was aware of what it needed and called for a judge.
This is Deborah, prophetess and judge,
aware of what Israel needed,
calling on God.
When General Barak reported,
Deborah said, “God commands you.”
And then she proceeded to tell him
not just what to do (you’re going to take the fight to Sisera
who outnumbers you and all that),
but exactly how to do it too.
Now I don’t know too many generals who respond well to that.
I don’t actually know that many generals at all.
I don’t know that I know any generals.
But it would seem to me that generals (like some sergeants I do know),
by the nature of their business,
tend to rely on their resources more than on God—
at least when it comes to their business.
But she did make strategic sense.
“You’ll be up on the mountain with your troops,
with the strategic upper hand—the higher position,
and I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army,
to meet you by the Wadi Kishon—below you down in the valley by the river
with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.”
“I will draw out Sisera …. I will give him into your hand.”
Well, it’s Deborah talking, right?
But it’s God she means.
But notice what Barak says, “I’ll only go if you go with me.”
Who’s the “you”?
“I want you with me. I want you sure enough
of what you’re saying to put your life on the line.”
“Well, sure,” she tells him, “absolutely.”
Then we have our mysterious parable from Matthew,
which, frankly, seems way too much
like the ways of the world to me.
Those with the most make the most.
Those with some make some.
Those with the least have what they have taken from them—
the ways of the world. Thanks be to the world.
With a little of the good old Protestant work ethic
or Aesop thrown in for good measure—to justify it all:
those who take initiative and responsibility—
those who work with what they have,
they will be rewarded.
And we don’t have to take initiative or responsibility
for those for whom the system does not work.
How would this not have given Jesus the heebie jeebies?
Jesus who was so much more about the ones
who have so little and will yet receive so much more,
and, at the less comfortable level for us,
who was about those who have much,
and either that’s it for them,
you got a lot? well enjoy it that’s it,
or it will be taken from them.
So first, we should probably point out,
this is not a parable about economics.
This is not investments 101.
This story, and a host of others,
are all set within Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem—
are all warnings of vigilance and consequence.
They’re kingdom parables.
“But John,” you might protest,
“a few weeks ago, we were thinking about another parable
the one about the workers all paid the same at the end of the day,
and you said, John, I quote, as I remember:
‘We can’t just ignore the economic context in which the story is told.'”
Oh. You remember that?
Except, that one flew in the face of conventional wisdom.
Everyone paid the same? That’s ridiculous!
Whereas this apparently conforms to conventional wisdom.
That one contradicted the ways of the world;
this one conforms to and undergirds the ways of the world.
So are you saying that conventional wisdom is always wrong, John?—
that it’s the means by which to interpret Scripture?
But it is pretty conventional,
and Jesus is pretty unconventional!
And we’re once again talking ridiculous amounts of money.
Ten talents represent 150 years of work for the average worker.
So even the one talent, “about fifteen years’ wages”
(Thomas G. Long, Matthew
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997] 281).
That other parable was about earning one day’s wage—
not almost 20,000 days’ worth of wages.
And it’s precisely the unlikely amount of the money
(along with the whole conventional unconventional thing)
that got me to thinking this can’t be about the money!
And isn’t money too small a context for our parable?
Isn’t this about our unique gifts and talents?
Our unique God-given gifts and talents?
About how we’re supposed to use them all for Jesus?
And, in fact, our word “talent,” etymologically,
goes back to this parable!
Did you know that?
or not only.
I mean sure. Use your gifts and talents for God.
How could that be wrong?
But just because it’s not wrong
doesn’t make of it what this parable’s all about.
Three slaves are given an incredible amount of money—
of responsibility, right?
Entrusted with the hopes and expectations of their master.
Two take risks with what was given them.
They put their money to work. They pass it on.
That’s what an investment is.
The third slave buries what was given to him.
now “[r]abbinic law says that whoever immediately buries property
entrusted to him is no longer liable
because he has taken the safest course conceivable …”
(Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew
[Atlanta: John Knox, 1977] 471).
The third slave plays it safe.
When the time comes for an accounting,
the first two slaves report they’ve doubled what they were given.
And the master says to each of them exactly the same thing:
“Well done, good and trustworthy slave;
you have been trustworthy in a few things,
I will put you in charge of many things;
enter into the joy of your master.”
Notice a few things! You have been trustworthy in “a few things.”
75 years worth of wages—a few things?!
So what would constitute many things?
Surely not just double a few things!
Enter into my joy.
The Aramaic word translated into the Greek as “joy”
can also mean “feast”
(Ben Witherington III, Matthew
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2007] 463).
Join me at the table. Sit down with me. Dig in.
The third slave though, when held accountable, said:
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man,
reaping where you did not sow,
and gathering where you did not scatter seed;
so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.
Here you have what is yours.”
Remember the rabbinic law.
This was the fiscally conservative route.
He cannot be held liable.
But this isn’t about money.
And so the key line: I was afraid.
Out of fear, I did nothing.
It even sounds like “This servant may, in effect,
be blaming the Lord for his own actions!”
(Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28
[Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1990] 559).
“Boy if you weren’t so harsh ….”
And, as is often the case,
the shifting of the conversation into blame
is just a way of not talking about
what is most true, which is, in this case.
out of fear,
he did nothing.
I’m afraid to risk this.
I’m afraid to do anything with it.
I’m afraid of what I might lose.
Now as we’re thinking through this story,
the question we face is this:
what do we believe about this master?
Because the story kind of leaves that open.
Giving his slaves that many resources—
that much responsibility—
that could come across as amazingly generous and trusting.
And then rewarding them as he did.
But then you have this third slave’s fear.
What do we believe about this master?
And take that line about the master reaping where he did not sow,
and gathering where he did not scatter seed.
Is that ruthless exploitation?
Or is that someone trusting a bigger process?
The writer of the gospel of John writes about some
that sow and others that reap (John 4:37).
And Paul writes about some that plant and some that water (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).
The parable’s portrayal of the master leads in different directions
and “creates a dilemma
rather than resolving one”
(M. Eugene Boring, Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 453).
Is this master gracious and generous,
or harsh and cruel?
And the master replied to the third slave,
“You wicked and lazy slave!
You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow,
and gather where I did not scatter?
Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers,
and on my return I would have received
what was my own with interest.”
Based on your own fearful understanding of me,
you should have acted differently.
And now all you have is your understanding of me—
your fear-filled understanding of me.
If your experience of me—
if your experience of my generosity—
if your experience of my grace—
if your experience of my trust—
is not enough to overcome your fear,
you’re doomed to live into that fear.
Not because you’re right to fear me,
but because it doesn’t matter that you’re wrong.
All you’ll hear is the harshly unfair: “Take that talent from him,
and give it to the one with the 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.
As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
It’s not that you get what you expect.
It’s that it’s so very hard to get what you don’t expect.
We live in a world in which there are a lot of people who preach a God of fear.
We live in a world in which many live with a God of fear.
I don’t know that God.
In this worship series we conclude today,
we’ve been combining Old Testament and gospel stories
to see how they comment on each other—
how they offer insights on each other.
In our Old Testament text, Deborah was utterly transparent to God.
For her to say “I” was to mean God!
“I will draw out the enemy …. I will give him into your hand.”
You see, Barak’s ultimatum is a good one—a legitimate one.
“If you will go with me, I will go;
but if you will not go with me, I will not go.
I’ll go if I see that you believe enough in what you’re saying
to put your life on the line.”
That’s the master’s expectation too, isn’t it?
That we will take what God has given us—
that we will take who we are,
that we will take the circumstances of our living—
take the love and grace we’ve experienced—
take the presence of God with us,
and live into the story of God—
Do you risk that?
It is a risk—
in our world—in our culture.
But if you do, others will go with you.
And not because they’re scared into it either.
But if all we do is bury ourselves—
bury ourselves in busyness—
bury ourselves in the world’s priorities—
if all we do is bury ourselves,
well, dead is not the story I want to be a part of.
Fear is not the story I want to be a part of.
Do you hear the world telling us
if you’re not sold on this—
if you don’t trust this,
why on earth should anyone else?
Are our talents part of that?
Are our resources (including monetary) part of that.
But the question is not about talent or money,
but whether we with all our gifts—
whether we with all our money—
are transparent to God.
Are you a thin place in the world
through which God is made more visible?
Or do we obstruct the manifestation of God in the world—
in our fear?
Is my life a response to love
or a response in fear?
We are called to live fully into our faith
which is love.
In another week of stress and fear and the way things are,
how can we do otherwise?
In a week that has seen another journalist horribly and tragically killed
in the so-called name of God,
how can we do otherwise?
In a week in which loved ones have received hard diagnoses,
and yet, live into hope—into love and into grace,
how can we do otherwise?
In a week in which we grieve those we have long known and loved,
how can we do otherwise?
In a week in which we set aside two to live grace and service,
how can we do otherwise?
Here’s what I’d love to hear:
we are not afraid to risk this.
We are not afraid to do something with it.
We are afraid of what we might lose—
if we don’t.
So this church—this people—
is the sound of one voice—
a song for every single one of us,
until by the grace of God—
as with Deborah,
to see and hear us,
is to see and hear grace and service and giving and love—
and this is the sound of God.