No Good Nor Harm: Ord. 33A/Proper 28

Scripture Readings: Matthew 25:14-30, Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
This past week, we had a date which generated much excitement, 11-11-11. It was one of those numerical synchronicities we find handy for commemorating the momentous. Among our church community, we had a wedding that day, at 11:00 am no less (say Congratulations to Mike and Carla when you have a chance).

It was also Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Armistice Day was specifically set aside to honor veterans of World War I, thought to be “the war to end all wars.” Of course, tragically, our wars have continued, and after World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day became Veteran’s Day, a day we now honor all of America’s Veterans for their service to our nation and their willingness to sacrifice for the common good. It is a celebration worthy of the festivities, parades and speeches. Yet it might do us good to reclaim the solemnity of the original occasion. A quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions made the rounds on social media this past week. It depicts the original practice of pausing in silence to remember an especially significant minute in history.

Vonnegut writes, “…When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. “It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”

“Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is at hand…” These forceful words from the prophet Zephaniah command us to seek again that sudden silence. Whatever the historic importance of 11/11/11, the truly momentous day is still to come: the Great Day of the Lord.
Zephaniah sees this day coming, like prophets throughout Scripture, and he describes it in language Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “vigorous, hyperbolic (?), searing rhetoric.” Brueggemann continues, “This rhetoric is not prediction. It is rather an extremity of emotive speech designed to penetrate denial with the hope of evoking response that takes seriously the non-negotiable holy purposes of God.”

Brueggmann’s comments can help us get a handle on this scripture, which most mild-mannered mainliners usually wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole! The Harold Campings of religion have often read scripture as fact, attaching all manner of time-tables and speculation to the coming of the Lord’s Day. But this text does not offer fact. Rather, it offers the “truth beyond fact” in extravagant poetry, daring to articulate the danger of the people’s collective sin.

Now, certainly, Zephaniah does aim to frighten. He sees a real trouble in the complacency of Jerusalem’s people. Zephaniah imagines God carrying a lamp, searching out and bringing to light those whose self-indulgent, self-preserving lifestyle have made them like the sedimented “dregs” at the bottom of a wine bottle, those who say to themselves, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.” These folks have become “functional atheists.” They still show up to church on Sunday, but their everyday actions reveal that they no longer recognize God’s power or purpose in the world. Thinking of themselves as highly religious even as they say, “God helps those who help themselves,” in truth, they have forgotten the law, disregarding God’s will as they neglect their neighbors. They go along keeping their heads down, assuring themselves that everything will always be as it is right now.

But Zephaniah wants to break through such feeble assurances. Zephaniah is telling them there will surely be a day, God’s day, when life will, as Brueggemann puts it, “burst out beyond our control and our management in ways that threaten and undo us.” Zephaniah wants to scare these people out of their denial of God. compelling them people to stop stark still and turn anew to God.

It strikes me that the people Zephaniah addresses are not unlike that third slave Jesus describes in today’s parable from Matthew, the one who digs a hole and hides his master’s money in the ground. Now, this guy has gotten quite a bad rap. From our modern-day capitalist perspective, we have too easily concurred with the judgment of the master in this story, calling him silly or lazy for burying “his talent” rather than investing it.

But the ancient listeners to this parable would not have thought the one-talent slave foolish. They would have thought him prudent and virtuous. First of all, they would have known what the word translated “talent” means to describe—not a special ability or knack we have for doing something, A talanta—even just one—was an enormous sum of money; some suggest it was worth fifteen years’ of labor.

The first shock in the story is that the master was willing to entrust his slaves with such enormous funds. You don’t want to mess around with that kind of money, however it falls into your lap. Much like we might set up special funds with large bequests, carefully maintaining them, the one-talent slave is trying to be careful and conservative.

Tom Boomershine points out, “In the ancient world the one way that you could protect yourself from being sued for losing money that had been entrusted to you was to bury it in the ground. There were treasures buried all over the ancient near east because that was how people protected their money. The banks were unreliable so people buried money in the ground. This is in contrast to the modern capitalist norm that the best thing to do with money is to invest it.”

But not only is the one-talent-slave being careful, he’s also being street-wise. His assessment of the master as “harsh” is the “conventional wisdom” of his time regarding Galilee’s wealthy landowners. Everybody knew they were corrupt. Jesus’ audiences of working folks could certainly identify with the idea that these rich men “reaped where they didn’t sow and gathered where they didn’t scatter seed.” Boomershine suggests that Jesus would have presented the one-talent-slave’s speech to the rich man with a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge:” essentially saying, “I buried the money because we all know how you guys operate.” “The servant’s expectation is that the master will smile and receive the money back with a pat on the servant’s back.”

The real shocker, therefore, is the master’s fierce hostility toward the one-talent slave. After all, while the slave has done no good with the money he was given, he has done no harm with it either. He has simply fulfilled basic expectations. No landowner in Jesus’ day would have cast such a slave into the outer darkness! That conclusion reminds us that we are in the world of the parable, which is not meant to convey factual historical experiences but to open a window into the spiritual, truth-beyond-fact of God’s Kingdom.

For you see, the day the Master comes back is the Day of the Lord. Zephaniah insists that on that day, all that has been hidden from the light will be searched out and accounted for. Jesus would have us bring to light not just the enormous God-given gifts we’ve buried underground, but the cynical, self-preserving, and ultimately faithless attitude which leads us to do so.

“God will not do good nor harm,” we say, excusing our passivity towards discerning and doing God’s will. “It doesn’t really matter what I do,” we shrug, excusing our self-indulgence while refusing to take responsibility for the needy other God has placed in our path. It’s a rough world out there, so why should we give of ourselves or take the risks of commitment, vulnerability, confrontation, and tenderness that love requires? It’s a hard crowd to play to, so why should we speak our sincere witness to the transforming power of God in Jesus Christ? It seems the safest, surest route is to bury our treasures.

But, it turns out that this logic is faulty. For to choose the safety of burial is to choose the finality of death. Clinging to what’s comfortable, hoarding and hiding what they have, the dreg-like Jerusalemites and the one-talent slave assume that there are only two possibilities: wealth or poverty, acclamation or shame, winning or losing. Author Jan Richardson notes, “They have forgotten the God who startles with stunning abundance in the midst of the starkest lack.” There is always another possibility in the presence of our Resurrection God.

The scriptures abound with stories: water provided to slaves in the wilderness; Jesus turning fish and a few loaves into a feast that fed thousands; or that woman who won a healing from Jesus when she observed that even the dogs ate the crumbs beneath the master’s table. “Ask, seek, knock,” says Jesus, calling us to persistently push up and outbeyond all seemingly limited options.

The parable gives us two slaves who take what they’ve been given and risk it all where the prospects are dicey. Doubling their money, they are rewarded with even greater responsibilities as they enter the joy of the master. But I believe, even if those slaves had risked and lost it all, the master would still have applauded their efforts.

For while Zephaniah wants to scare us into taking God seriously, this parable wants to scare the fear of God out of us. Yes, we are called to stop stark still and turn from our cynical self-preservation, but we are also called to go forth boldly, trusting in the God who makes a way where there is no way. It means walking and talking our faith where we will be vulnerable to the criticism and satire of others. It means investing our material resources in seemingly dicey propositions, which we’ll find out next week, turn out to be the priorities of God’s Kingdom: caring for the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick, welcoming the stranger, and visiting people in every kind of prison.

Even when our efforts fail, more possibility is always our reward. The biggest risk is taking no risk at all. God is not mocked, for there are consequences to our actions or lack thereof.
But the Master we serve created us to risk it all in love again and again, and empowers us from within to walk with courage into the light of every new day. The Master we serve is the One telling us this parable, the One who risked everything, traveling to the farthest outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, so that, even there, we might enter the ever-new possibility of life in God.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


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