Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 33 A
texts: Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Psalm 90 (all); Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“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.”
That’s the key to everything. “Master, I knew what you were really like, so I was afraid.” In our readings today it’s life or death to know the true nature of our Master. Is God as Zephaniah says? That’s horrifying and frightening to contemplate. There’s not a shred of mercy in the prophet’s words today.
Yet Paul says not to worry, God hasn’t “destined us for wrath.” We are meant to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, whether we are awake – the way Paul urges us to be – or asleep – the way the people of the world are. Either way, Paul comforts, trust in the death of Christ Jesus and in God’s love.
It’s a drastic difference. There are people of many different faiths who shout with Zephaniah: God is to be feared, punishment is severe. This parable’s end sounds like Jesus is saying that, too. That’s frightening; we thought Jesus loved us.
It feels a lot better to cling to Paul’s words as our lifeline; we’d sleep better at night. But if Paul’s wrong, if in spite of Christ Jesus and his death and resurrection we still need to fear the wrath Zephaniah proclaims and Jesus here seems to endorse, it would be better to face it now, and not trust a false hope.
“Master, I know the truth about you.” The third slave was sure he knew. How can we be sure?
First, remember we can’t take any Scripture out of context, without the rest.
The Bible has at least 66 different books, more with the Apocrypha; we claim them all as God’s Word. Zephaniah has to talk to Paul, who has to talk to Matthew. Matthew’s Gospel has to deal with Mark’s, and Luke’s, and John’s. We don’t ignore any of it, but try, with God’s help, to see God’s connecting Word throughout the entire Scriptures.
None of our voices today has the whole story of God, but together help us see the truth.
So Psalm 90 befriends us as we speak with Zephaniah today. Recognizing that all generations are in God’s hands, the psalmist admits great fear at considering the wrath of God, knows in God’s justifiable anger we cannot live. But the psalmist moves beyond the fear Zephaniah raises in us: “Return, O LORD, how long will you delay?” we sang. “Be gracious and come to us, give us your steadfast love.”
Unlike the third slave, the psalmist invites us to look deeper into God’s heart, past the wrath, and say, “Master, I know the truth about you, that you are good and gracious and loving. That’s what I will trust, instead of fearing your anger.” This end of Psalm 90 leads right into the heart of Paul’s proclamation, and Paul’s claim rests on the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s the real path to the truth. Because of the cross of Christ, we can’t ever read any judgment of God in Scripture the same.
Whatever Zephaniah meant in his time, he absolutely means something different now. On the cross the Son of God enters that judgment and suffering, enters our evil. Whatever God tells the prophets to warn, it becomes God who goes into the heart of that judgment in person.
Consider what it means in this parable that “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” is precisely where Jesus goes. That’s where we find him, at the end of the parable with the outcasts, sinners, wretches. With us, if we’re in that dark place of fear. We can’t forget the cross and panic whenever we hear verse 30.
The third slave also feared his master would take things that didn’t belong to him, things he didn’t earn. He was right, if we’re talking about Jesus. “Reaping where you did not sow, gathering where you did not scatter seed”? That is the truth of the cross. Everything Jesus “harvests” at the cross, pain, suffering, abandonment, torture, sorrow, death, all grow from seeds he didn’t put in the ground, from plants he didn’t nurture and water.
If there’s anyone in the darkness and weeping of judgment, they’ll see our Lord at their side, even if the rest of us run away.
You want to know the true nature of the Triune God? It couldn’t be clearer. We see it not in the judgment of Zephaniah or the end of Jesus’ parable, but in the cross on which the Son of God died for love of the world, love of us.
Even the Master in this parable shows God’s true nature.
We get so stuck on the parable’s end we miss that the third slave was actually wrong. Jesus tells a story of a generous, gracious and trusting Master, not the caricature the slave feared. He entrusts huge amounts of money – millions in our dollars – to three of his slaves. Whatever he wanted them to do with it, he gave them great wealth to care for in his absence. This isn’t a mean-spirited master, this is a generous man who trusts his slaves with all his wealth. Think of the relationship with them such trust implies. Now, slave number 3 expects the worst. But look at the other two. They take the huge amounts entrusted to them and do something with them. When the master returns, they joyfully give it all back. He’s thrilled with them, offers them greater responsibility, invites them into his joy. This is a relationship of love and trust.
The truth is, the third slave had long been living in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth already. He lived in fear, jealousy, bitterness, resentment. His problem is not the nature of his master; his problem is his own trapped nature. His friends had a very different life.
What if we just keep our eyes on the first two, then?
Why fret about number 3, unless we’re planning on copying him? Jesus will be with him and bring him out of the darkness, that’s what Jesus does.
But why choose to live our lives fearing God’s wrath, looking over our shoulder for a God who isn’t even wanting to harm us? Why choose to be bitter about God wanting us to use God’s wealth and gifts for God’s needs? Why choose to live our lives in darkness, ignoring the truth both about God’s gracious love and God’s incredible trust and generosity in giving us great wealth to share and care for? What do we gain by that path?
What would happen if we opened our eyes to the reality that, like these slaves, we have nothing except what God has entrusted to us – abilities and privilege, time and money – and all Jesus is interested in is that we use it to further God’s reign of justice and love? Living as the first two sounds like a path to life and joy.
“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing,” Paul says.
That’s great wisdom. Let’s help each other remember this truth. We know the true nature of the Triune God is generous, trusting, forgiving, gracious. Even if we bury our gifts, even if we live our lives in darkness and fear, in that dark weeping we find our crucified and risen Lord next to us. Because God’s love is so deep and so great God always comes into our darkest places to find us and bring us home.
But why bury the gifts? Why selfishly hoard them as if they are ours? What would be the point of that? This of course is related to what we share with each other for our ministry here, what many of us are pledging to do for next year. We make promises mostly to God, but also to each other, that we will seek to use God’s entrusted wealth wisely, as God would dream. But it actually is about the fullness of our lives: every action we do, every dollar we spend, every word we say shows our understanding of God’s nature, whether it’s a true understanding or a false fear.
We encourage and build up each other by reminding ourselves of the astonishing truth about the nature of God, who loves us so deeply and has entrusted us with so much. Together we can learn what it is to use as much of it as possible to share with the world and participate in the reign of God now, until the age to come.
In the name of Jesus. Amen