Today in the Spirit: Proper 28A

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We now move to the second of three weeks in a pre-Advent period at the end of the Pentecost season, Year A. The Gospel reading assigned in Matthew 25:14-30 is our Lord’s telling of The Parable of the Talents (also found in Luke 19:12-27, but in a distinct form and different time of Jesus’ ministry). Matthew’s version gives equal weight (perhaps more; see my commentary below) to the reward of the good and faithful servants who put their entrusted gifts from the master to good use and to the wicked and slothful servant who does not. Where last week’s parable highlighted the contrast between being prepared and unprepared spiritually, this parable compares the consequences of being willing and unwilling to place ourselves at God’s service.

The assigned OT reading out of Zephaniah 1:7,12-18 is another depiction of the day of the LORD (remember the Amos passage from last week). The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there (14). We would do well to recall the excruciating detail of judgment in this passage when we hear Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel reading: And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30). The appointed Psalm 90 gives us words both to ponder the lesson of Jesus’ parable about being good stewards of our resources in the world and to call on the Lord for mercy in the knowledge that we do not: So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Turn again, O LORD, and tarry not; be gracious unto your servants (12-13, BCP Coverdale). 

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It has now become obvious that the sequential readings in 1 Thessalonians at this point in the lectionary were chosen to connect with the themes of judgment and the return of the Lord. In this last reading from that letter, Paul uses the OT language the day of the Lord to describe Jesus’ second coming, urging the saints to live wisely in the light what we know and what has been revealed to us in Christ: But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (8). Our Collect, picking up on the theme of recompense when Jesus comes again, prays, “they may be abundantly rewarded when our Savior Jesus Christ comes to restore all things.”    

The Collect

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that bringing forth in abundance the fruit of good works, they may be abundantly rewarded when our Savior Jesus Christ comes to restore all things; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Be Silent before the Lord God! (Zephaniah 1:7,12-18)

Be silent before the Lord God!
    For the day of the Lord is near;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice
    and consecrated his guests. (7)

Nowhere in the NT, not even in Revelation, do we find this level of descriptive language about the severity of God’s final day of judgment. Through the prophet, YHWH himself describes the clamor of idolatry and pagan sacrifices happening throughout the city of Jerusalem (see verses 8-11). Be silent before the LORD God comes the heavenly command, that all who are wayward would stop at once and hear the news of imminent judgment. The punishment of God will be overwhelmingly swift and hard. Judah and Jerusalem herself, along with all the nations, will now become the Almighty’s own sacrifice to consecrate the day of judgment. Commentator Victor Reid writes: “Zephaniah did not yet see the NT revelation of a new relationship between God and His people by which He will eradicate any incursion detrimental to the relationship.”    

So, as Christian worshipers living in the age of grace through Christ and power through the Holy Spirit, what shall we do with this kind of passage about “incursion”? There is mercy through Christ, but let not the cross become for us an enchanted potion to forget judgment altogether and erase it from our minds, presuming God’s grace for an easy ride. No, let the truth of Christ be for us instead a soothing anointment, a balm in Gilead (Jeremiah 8:22) to, as the song says, “make the wounded whole and heal the sin-sick soul.” We are those who, by mercy, invest our talents according to the grace given us, but not without pain in the joints and a knowledge of what we have averted only because the cross of Christ stands in the way of our own horrid judgment.

Today, Holy Spirit, I will allow Zephaniah’s depiction of the day of the LORD to thrust myself ever harder on the cross of Christ for deliverance and be thankful.     

For All Our Days Pass Away (Psalm 90:1-12(13-17))

So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom. 
Return, O Lord! How long?
    Have pity on your servants! 
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and for as many years as we have seen evil. 
Let your work be shown to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children. 
Let the favor[d] of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands upon us;
    yes, establish the work of our hands! (12-17)

We learn to measure the vast difference between God and ourselves in many ways. It could be by moral uprightness: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord (Isaiah 55:8); it could be by knowledge: You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it (Psalm 139:5-6). In this psalm, it is by time: For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. At first, it appears “Moses’” contemplation of the coexistence of finite humanity and the infinite LORD can only lead to dismay and a moan. But see how the knowledge of God’s steadfast love, established by covenant, eventually overwhelms despair. Up rises the prayer, make us glad, and establish the work of your hands!

If it is just so with the OT psalmist, how much more with us on the other side of the cross of Christ? Jesus is the answer to every heart cry to an infinite God for pity on those whose life is nothing but a sigh. The saving ministry of Jesus from incarnation to second coming is the work of the Father shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. In his classic little book “On the Incarnation,” Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373 AD) uses the language of the “bodily acts” of Christ as “works of God” as in the psalm: “All these things the Savior thought fit to do, so that, recognizing His bodily acts as works of God, men who were blind to His presence in creation might regain the knowledge of the Father.” The psalmist sees in the various encounters of YHWH with his people what we see even more plainly in the face of Jesus Christ.

Today, Holy Spirit, from the words of this psalm, let me grasp the vast measure of difference between myself and you, and also the love of the Father reaching out to me by the Son to span the expanse between my limits and your unlimitedness.

Encourage One Another (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (9-11)

I highly recommend adding verse 11 to this reading. There is no reason—grammatical or contextual—for giving it a pass. And I would argue this final exhortation of the apostle to the church to encourage one another and build one another up is an essential addition for the application of his teaching about living in view of the end times. Even as he writes the letter, Paul is surely picturing the saints of Thessalonica together, hearing its contents. He is imagining some group conversation afterward, and he desires it. To address matters of the Lord coming like a thief in the night and living like children of the day will require mutual understanding and encouragement.

Beloved friends, we are receiving the word of God too much as individual units. Even when we are together, it feels like remote learning, each individual taking in truth and following up only insofar as self-reflection and personal application will allow. It is now like we are on a Zoom call even when we are in the same room (so is it any wonder why so many just prefer computer church “live”?). We are taking the one another part of the commands which our Lord and the apostles meant for us to apply in the body and transforming it into something else. So, Love one another, rather than being an injunction for the church, has become either an abstract philosophy, “Love the world,” or a domestic reduction, “Love the family.” 

Today, in the Spirit, adding this verse to the reading, let us add mutual encouragement in the church to the application of biblical teaching in our lives.

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant (Matthew 25:14-30)

“And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” (20-23)

It is impossible to know with what tone of voice Jesus tells this parable to his disciples. However, it seems, even by its appearance in print, that the master is far happier to congratulate and reward the faithful servants than he is to rebuke and punish the unfaithful one. The fact that there are two of the good sort and one of the bad suggests to the reader that the situation of the former represents the more desirable outcome. The master does what he is bound to do in each case, but in the twice-used phrase, Well done, good and faithful servant, we imagine abounding delight, not as if the master is surprised at such a result, but as if he is satisfied that what he has expected from his servants has come to pass.

For us devotionally, observing this dynamic in the text helps us along the way to correcting in our minds an image of a stern God who is looking to judge us more than to see us succeed. We often project our own guilty conscience over past mistakes, especially the ones we make repeatedly, onto God. We can only imagine Jesus feels as badly as we do about ourselves. The weight of the parable on the delight of God over the first two servants points to what many Puritan writers distinguish between the “natural” and “strange” works of God. I

n his book Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund quotes the Puritan Thomas Goodwin, who writes (in summary): “In these acts of justice, there is a satisfaction to an attribute, in that he meets and is even with sinners. Yet there is a kind of violence done to himself in it… But when he comes to show mercy, to manifest that it is his nature and disposition, it is said that he does it with his whole heart.” A verse many of these divines use to support God’s favorable disposition toward mercy is from Ezekiel 18:23: Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? Perhaps the apostle Peter remembers that verse when he himself writes, The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9). 

Today, Holy Spirit, receiving from you, and from the Scriptures, the disposition of the Father and the Son toward mercy over punishment and success for me and my friends who trust in the Lord, I embrace even now for myself the glad verdict, Well done good and faithful servant!   

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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