Judges 4:1-7+Psalm 123+1 Thessalonians 5:1-11+Matthew 25:14-30
There’s a bit of a disconnect between our walk through the Hebrew scriptures that we have been on since early summer and today. Suddenly, we are in the era of the Judges, those wise leaders in Israel before there were kings. After Joshua and his generation died out, the people forgot who they were according to the second chapter of this book called Judges. So God raised up leaders who urged the people back to faithfulness. But then they would die, and the people would go right back to following other gods and rebelling against the God of Moses. Over and over again this happens.
Some of the Judges are familiar, or should be, like Gideon and Jephthah and Samson. But there was none greater than the one we meet this morning, Deborah. But we don’t even get her full story! So here’s the short version for you:
Deborah was both a prophetess and judge. Her name means “honey bee,” and she was also the wife of a man named Lappidoth. Deborah was the only female judge.
After the death of Ehud, the Israelites “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (Judges 4:1), so God handed them over to Jabin, king of Canaan. With his commander Sisera and an army of chariots, he oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, and they finally cried to the Lord for help.
Deborah was leading the Israelites, and she summoned Barak son of Abinoam to command the Israelite army, telling him God would give Sisera and his army into his hand. Barak said he would only go if Deborah went with him, and Deborah prophesied:
“Certainly I will go with you . . . But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” — Judges 4:9
Barak took 10,000 soldiers and slaughtered Sisera’s entire army, but Sisera fled and hid in the tent of a woman named Jael. While Sisera was hiding under a blanket, Jael drove a tent peg through his head, fulfilling Deborah’s prophecy.
The Israelites eventually defeated King Jabin, and there was another forty years of peace.
After the victory, Deborah wrote a song celebrating what God had done and honoring the Israelites who played a role in defeating the Canaanites. Known as “The Song of Deborah,” Judges 5 is believed to be one of the oldest biblical passages. Analyzing Deborah’s word choice and the way she describes Israel (she only mentions 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel, for example), scholars believe it could date back to the ninth or tenth century BC.
And that is really all there is to say about Deborah – she’s a great character, one of the few women given any substance at this time, but beyond that, our reading from Matthew is the heart of what I want to talk about today!
In these last chapters of Matthew before the arrest and crucifixion, Jesus is hammering away at the need for faithfulness, for watchfulness, encouraging his followers to be strong and to be prepared. Of course, when Matthew was writing this, the end times were thought to be imminent. The temple had been destroyed and conflict with the religious authorities was at fever pitch. It was imperative that the people knew what awaited and what was expected of them.
This parable of the talents is often read as Jesus warning us that we’d better use what we have wisely or it’s going to be taken away from us and we’ll be thrown into the outer darkness. That outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth is a favorite image for Matthew. I think for a lot of Christians, those who believe that God is an angry God who is looking for an excuse to punish some of us while rewarding the rest, this parable confirms what they believe – they have to watch themselves or angry God will get them. I think it also drives a lot of fear about what happens after death – if we haven’t been perfect Christians then we suffer hellfire and damnation.
I don’t believe this is quite the right reading of this. This man going away on a journey gave an obscene amount of money to his servants with the idea that they would do with it what the man would if he were around. Invest it. Spend it wisely. If you step back and imagine that this is God who created all the universe and then placed it in our care, I think we can see that the expectation is that we would cultivate and nurture and tend so that God’s creation grows in abundance. If we do nothing to care for it, we’ve squandered the gift.
Remember back in Matthew 5 during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to the disciples that you don’t hide your lamp under a bushel but put it on the lampstand where everyone can see it. This is like burying the gifts we’ve been given in the ground. That does no good for anyone.
And the judgment against this servant is not that he gets cast out into the darkness. He’s already there. He lives in fear. He won’t venture out or take a risk. He’s going to protect what he has no matter what. And therefore he gains nothing, not for himself and not for anyone else.
Our God is generous and loving and forgiving God. If we believe that all that we have comes from God’s hand, why do we hold onto everything so tightly? It’s really a great message for this day when we dedicate and bless our pledges for the coming year. But it is so much more than that.
God desires nothing more than for us to enter into the joy of relationship, with God and with our neighbor. How we use the gifts that are ours – money, time, and talent – determine the joy that is ours. If we live in fear of losing, if we live in fear that God will judge us harshly, if we live in fear, it is impossible to feel joy. And that’s on us, not on God.
You don’t have to be a great prophet and warrior for God like Deborah. In that story from Judges, the general Barak seems afraid of going against the armies arrayed against them unless Deborah is with them. She warns him that she will come, but that a woman – not Barak – will receive the glory. And that’s exactly what happens.
We’re not looking for glory here, but we are living in an age of fear with the pandemic and uncertainty on the political landscape. As followers of Jesus, we are called to something different, to a way of living with joy and faith and trust so that maybe we, too, will hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into my joy.”