Engaging the Word: Readings for 11/16/14 (23rd Sunday after Pentecost)

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By Barbara Klugh

Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30. Go to www.lectionarypage.net for the weekly lectionary text.This week we are introduced to the wise judge Deborah, Paul tells us that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” and Jesus tells the parable of the talents.

Judges: The Book of Judges tells the story of the Israelites from the death of Joshua to the rise prophet Samuel (c.1200 – 1050 BC). In the Book of Joshua, we read about Israel’s many conquests in Canaan, but there were still many people living there—people who worshipped different gods.

Statue of Deborah, photographed by Georges Seguin. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Statue of Deborah, photographed by Georges Seguin. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Book of Judges is about the cycles of unfaithfulness to God, who then allows the tribes of Israel to be punished by enemies, their repentance and pleas for help from God, God’s deliverance in the form of a judge who leads the people to military victory, and a period of stability. Then the Israelites relapse and the cycle begins again. The judges were local tribal leaders—military leaders, warriors, prophets and priests.

The three-year Sunday Lectionary has just one passage from Judges, which is this week’s reading. The book as a whole is disturbing because it’s hard to think of our loving God somehow being involved in the terrible violence and atrocities committed by God’s chosen people. We don’t want to hear about that in church.

The commentaries I found helpful stress that the Book of Judges is part of the continuing story of God’s chosen people—the story that begins in Genesis and won’t be over until God’s people have become a light to the nations, and that Judges shows Israel at an early stage of their search for self-identity under God. The Bible for Everyday Life comments, “Judges’ picture of life in Israel is not glorious, but it encourages us not to write off any situation as being beyond God’s help, or anyone, including ourselves, as being too cowardly or too stupid or too lacking in faith to be of use to God.”

There is much more to think about, but I can see that despite the human bent toward sin and depravity, God never abandons us. In fact, He sent His Son to free us from our enslavement to sin. That’s Good News.

In this week’s reading, we are introduced to the fourth judge, the prophet Deborah, who was a wise charismatic leader. She acted as God’s spokesperson in matters of national importance and social disputes.

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” and because of their sin, King Jabin of Canaan oppresses them for 20 years. The Israelites cried out to the Lord for help. They came to the Deborah. Speaking for God, Deborah summoned Barak to raise an army of 10,000 men to fight the enemy. She tells him that the Lord will give him victory over Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army. The lectionary stops there, but Barak refuses to go unless Deborah accompanies the army. She complies and the Israelites destroy Sisera’s army. The victory is celebrated in the Song of Deborah (5:1-31), which could well be the earliest example of Hebrew poetry.

Psalm: this week’s psalm is one of the 15 Songs of Ascents. A community lament petitions God for divine mercy. As servants look to their masters and mistresses, Israel looks to God for mercy. Their oppressors have treated them with contempt and scorn for a long time and it’s just too much to bear any longer.

Fresco of Apostle Paul in the church in Zemen monastery, Bulgaria, photographed by Vassia Atanassova . Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Fresco of Apostle Paul, photographed by Vassia Atanassova . Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Thessalonians: In last week’s reading, Paul encouraged the Thessalonians that at the end of the age, the faithful who have already died and those who are still alive will both ascend to heaven to be with God forever.

In this week’s reading, Paul tells the Thessalonians that they “know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Some of the Thessalonians are worried that they won’t be saved. But Paul reminds them that they are children of the light and children of the day, so they need not fear. They should keep awake and be sober. They should “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” Since we live with Christ already, whether we’re alive or dead when he comes again we will live with him forever. In the meantime, follow the advice of the bumper sticker: “Christ is coming; keep busy.”

Matthew: In this week’s reading, Jesus tells the parable of the talents. It has a similar theme as last week’s parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids—we should be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. Last week’s reading was about being prepared for the bridegroom’s return. This week’s parable is about how to behave during the period when the Master is absent.

In brief, a man was going on a journey and he entrusted his property to his slaves. “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” When he returned after a long time, he came and settled accounts with them. The first two slaves doubled their talents; they were praised and rewarded.

Parable of the Talents (c. 1400 - 1500). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Parable of the Talents (c. 1400 – 1500). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

“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.” The third had been afraid and hid his talent in the ground. He was chastised, and the master said, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”

It’s interesting that the man gave talents to each slave “according to his ability.” The master knew his slaves and had expectations based of their individual ability. And so it is with God. God has entrusted us with the Kingdom. God expects us to develop and grow the gifts for the sake of others. In Partnering with the King, John Hiigel writes:

“The master is angry with his servant for doing nothing at all. The servant’s heart is bitter toward his master. Inaction and loathing feed each other….those who serve God little begin to resent God for expecting them to serve. The very activity that could bring joy becomes something to detest. If we are feeling disgruntled toward God, often the solution is to activate our discipleship, taking up the spiritual disciplines and doing service with fellow disciples….The characteristic of the kingdom is that people who are gaining in the life with God continue to gain more and those who are slipping away risk losing everything.”

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