19th November 2017 - Hugh Perry
Judges 4: 1-7
Coming into the land of promise is all very well but this episode reminds us of the other people living in the land and the tension that creates. Significant in this passage is the leadership of a woman, a judge and a prophetess. Maurice Andrew notes that it is significant that it is Deborah who summons Barak and not the spirit of Yahweh although Deborah summons him on behalf of Yahweh. 
In the Exodus saga we were presented a vision of one people being led by Moses and later Joshua.
But now we can discern a confederation of tribes interacting with other peoples and therefore vulnerable to conquest by tribes united under a king. Notice that Deborah has to negotiate to get the fighting force needed.
Matthew 25: 14-30
Warren Carter has difficulty with this parable noting that it follows the ways of the world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer therefore it is difficult to identify Jesus as the returning master. Carter’s conclusion is that the gospel has co-opted the world’s ways to focus on being ready for Christ’s return.
We need to see the parable in the context of Jesus’ teaching so the doubling seems to have more to do with the talents themselves than the efforts of the servants. This indicates that grace and acceptance does its own work and God is not a bookkeeper looking for productive results.
This is again a difficult parable that seems to belong more to a financial planner than Jesus.
It is not hard to find people in our society who would be absolutely gleeful at the idea of the servant who made no effort to increase the wealth he was entrusted with being thrown into outer darkness where there is, not only gnashing of teeth but, the place is filled up with dole bludgers and solo mothers. However, this parable comes from Matthew’s Gospel and makes no reference to cats so obviously doesn’t come from the gospel of Gareth Morgan. Furthermore, the Jesus Seminar rates the parable as likely to be close to the words of Jesus.
Therefore, we must see it as a parable rather than a financial plan and remember the money or talents are metaphorical rather that real.
However, in our use of language the word talent is no longer a unit of currency but a word that means a special natural ability or aptitude. Therefore, we can draw out a meaning that sees people growing their God given talents by sharing those talents with others.
The person who fails to develop even a minute talent will eventually lose that talent and is quite likely to spend their life resenting that loss. That may well feel like outer darkness to such people but, in reality, is an overwhelming inner black emptiness.
Although we can develop a talent and learn to use our talents what that talent is depends on things like our genetics, our upbringing and above all the Grace of God.
In fact, Robert Capon suggests this parable of the talents refers to divine grace that increases the more we accept that grace. That fits the protestant mission motivation that we are called to respond with grace to others in thankfulness for the grace we have received from God.
Taking that one step further suggests that our very life is a gift from God and perhaps we are called to make the best of that life. That is not always as easy as it sounds as we found out when our beautiful Christchurch was smashed by severe earthquakes and just last week the first anniversary of the Kaikoura earthquakes was commemorated.
One hundred and eighty-five people died as a direct result of the Christchurch earthquakes and two people were killed in the Kaikoura earthquakes. But last week the death toll in the Iran-Iraq earthquake had reached five hundred and still counting. As people who now well and truly understand the trauma of earthquakes it is hard to watch the news of frightened men, women and children huddled round camp fires trying to stay warm. I also struggle to understand why the superpower that twice brought war to Iraq faster than the speed of sound seems impotent to bring aid at even a fraction of the cost of those wars.
Friends and colleagues of mine who retired to Eastbourne have pointed out that, following recent storm damage around the coast of Wellington Harbour, insurance premiums of beach properties are rising sharply as insurance companies see climate change as a reality. Our world is a dangerous place and for those of us born into it there must be a tremendous temptation to curl up and avoid as much reality as possible.
But, regardless of the risks and the hardships, life still gives the most benefits to those who chose to live life to the full. Furthermore, what this parable tells us is that living for others gives an even greater return.
Two of the slaves worked to increase the talents the master had given them, and we could draw a number of meanings from that.
The most obvious conclusion is that the master is God and we understand that we serve God by serving others. The Jaycee Creed that I used to recite regularly as a young adult maintained that ‘Service to others is the best work of life.’ Furthermore, at a Community Board organised seminar I attended last week one of the keynote speakers, Lyn Campbell, who among other things served for a time as the adviser to the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services, stressed that the best leadership is servant leadership. So, we can see the master in this parable as God or the life God gives us and we understand that life needs to be lived for others in order to live at all.
In that understanding the third slave who buried his talent, who buried his life had nothing left but outer darkness and if he still had teeth to gnash he was probably lucky.
Living for others certainly fits with the concept of the kingdom of God or the divine realm. A change in the way people govern themselves that we bring into reality by living as if we are already part of such a realm. When Jesus talked about the divine realm he was talking in the context of the Roman Empire which could not be voted out or conquered but Jesus’ message was about living for each other no matter what circumstances people lived in. For Jesus it was not about each person having enough to eat but each person being sure their neighbour had enough to eat. Jesus’ kingdom of God recognises that humans are a communal species who can achieve far more through cooperation than by acting as individuals.
Our reading from Judges seems far away from Jesus’ parable of the talents but Deborah obviously had leadership talents and was able to get enough tribes to cooperate and defeat a common enemy.
The reading began by telling us that ‘The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of LORD’. (Judges 4:1)
The text was not specific about what God might consider evil but in presenting the story of God’s chosen people the author had to produce a reason for them being dominated by the Canaanites for twenty years. But if we read on we find that part of the problem was getting the separate tribes to unite against the common foe. Deborah seemed to have the mana to achieve the cooperation to defeat a common foe. It is interesting that in this world of independent but related patriarchal tribes it is a woman who has the power to bring tribes together. Furthermore, the escaping enemy general is killed by a wily wife of a man from another tribe who was supposedly at peace with the Canaanites.
Reading through the book of Judges we can see the ongoing struggle of independent tribes seeking security from the threat of better organised neighbours. By the time we get to the books of Samuel a king becomes inevitable.
Without doubt humanity is a cooperative species but having formed a cooperative group people also have a habit of dehumanising other groups. Families become big enough to form tribes but even related tribes, easily become ‘other.’ Most of us have come across people who say they don’t have much to do with ‘that’ side of the family. Furthermore, the marriages and sexual liaisons people make both unite and fragment families.
On last week’s television series DNA Detectives comedian Jonny Brugh discovered he is related to both Dutch slave owners in South America and their slaves. Discovering that his ancestors kept slaves appeared distressing to Brugh but he found some redemption in the fact that his ancestor had a child by a slave woman. To be related to both oppressor and oppressed appeared to offer deliverance from the guilt his ancestry evoked. He also discovered that the woman had been freed by her master and her child was born free suggesting that love may well have overcome fear, oppression and hate. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that the progeny of such a liaison would seek a new land of promise in New Zealand. A journey that not only gave the future a talented comedian but also reinforces the reality of the family of all humanity.
Our reading from the beginning of the book of Judges finds the liberated slaves once more oppressed and, like Jonny Brugh’s brief genealogical history, their story has a woman at its centre. In fact, two women are key to the people’s liberation, Deborah who has gained leadership status through her ability to resolve disputes and Jael who uses murderous wiles to dispatch the oppressor’s general. We are told the enemy had power over the Israelites because they did evil in the sight of the LORD and as followers of Jesus we can speculate that their evil was a failure to cooperate. The tribes did not love their neighbouring tribes as themselves. By failing to make use of the God given gift of relationship they threw themselves into the darkness of oppression for twenty years. Remembering the cruelty of slavery explained to Jonny Brugh, being oppressed by force would indeed be an outer darkness complete with gnashing of teeth. Gnashing of teeth is also appropriate for those sections of the church that still deny leadership positions to women and they should remember that it is women who save the people in today’s episode from the book of Judges.
Drawing all these images together in a Christian context we, the followers of Jesus both women and men, are called by Christ’s Spirit according to the talents we are given. Talents as the special ability we are born with, and talents as a measure of wealth or opportunity we are gifted. Both churches and individuals with many talents can be expected to contribute significantly to the transformation of their world. By contrast those churches who focus on their own survival and keep things the way they have always been are likely to wither and fade. In his presentation at the Community Board seminar Denis Pyatt suggested that ‘we must challenge the status quo when the quo has long lost its status’. Indeed, there is nothing like preserving the status quo to send people and churches into outer darkness.
Returning a dividend on the grace we have received is living our life to the full regardless of the risks.
Both today’s readings focus on talented leadership and call us to show gratitude for the gifts we are gracefully given by multiplying our gifts through empowering others to accept their gifts.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.194.
 Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.488, 489.
 Robert Farrar Capon Kingdom Grace Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002) pp. 502,503