Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18Well, quite the gloom and doom. We have been getting a lot of apocalyptic literature in the last couple weeks, so, why not some good old fashion Old Testament. This is a "lesser" prophet, writing sometime around the 7th century BC. Things were not that great and prophets were trying to figure out what they did wrong and go searching with lamps to find them. I don't see any amazing predictions here; certainly nothing that could be called a prophecy. A rather run of the mill warning that God is coming and you better get it together.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11We get another end of times refrain this week with "the Lord will come like a thief in the night." This is secretive language. It is a necessary element in the myth of a sacrifice of a god. The act of sacrifice needs to be done by the unrighteous, and if they knew it was god they were sacrificing, they wouldn't do it, because the whole point of the sacrifice is for the followers of the god to get salvation from those very forces of evil that will perform the sacrifice. If you are one of the sober and awake ones you know this. If you think you are secure, but you who are asleep or drunk, destruction will come upon you.
Matthew 25:14-30On a personal note, this is the parable that made me realize there were interpretations out there that were perfectly valid, with plenty of support from modern historical scholars and theologians and that were not being preached from even the most liberal and modern of pulpits. I heard the standard message of how we must use our gifts to serve the Lord at a church retreat, and argued (unsuccessfully) with the pastor that something just didn't sound right about that. When I got home, a few hours on google led me to Gustav Gutierrez, Liberation Theology, and eventually to Herzog's Parables as Subversive Speech.
If I had the time and energy, I would love to trace the history of this parable and try to find its original intent. This would be no layman's task. Fortunately, people like Herzog have done some of that work for me. In his book, Parables as Subversive Speech, he traces early versions and interpretations. It seems even the Nazaraeans were confused by the servant who does little but gets the punishment. The interpretations that attempt to explain this say it's "punishment for neglected opportunity" or for being so afraid of failure as to not try at all. Others say it is a parable of God, as taught after the exile, who was stern and harsh, as in verse 24, and wanted Jews to protect the Torah.
On a simple read through, the parable leaves us with a choice, to believe the third servant that this is a harsh man whose orders are not to be followed, or to see the master as analogous to God and accept his words that the third servant is wicked and lazy. My analysis here is probably more than you wish to know, and it wouldn't be valuable for me to try to add much more discussion, given the number of scholars who have attempted this. I'll just say that I come down on the side of those who see the world differently than I do, people who have lived below the poverty line their entire lives. For them, such as the peasants in Solentiname, Nicaragua, it is obvious that the master is an evil capitalist.
The house as depicted and the hierarchy of the servants would have been normal for the time, as well as the business ventures described. And as one of the peasants at Solentiname saw, the master was looking for servants who would exploit peasants as well. The parable doesn't need to fill in details of their business dealings because those hearing it would know the type of work well. They would have been the victims of it. The praise for accumulating wealth is equally recognizable.
Even if we had not seen all of that coming, the harsh words from the master when the third servant returns his talent should be evidence enough. For what has the servant done? He did not steal or waste the money, he protected it. He also did not engage in business which almost certainly means someone's labor was used and under compensated. And how does the master defend the accusation? He recommends breaking the Old Testament codes for usury, just put the money in the bank and collect interest. Leviticus 25:35-38
In this part of the gospel, where we are hearing about end times, we want to hear of people being praised for making the right choices. The reality is, when you call out corruption of the elite, and you are not the elite, you get banished to the outer darkness without adequate shelter where your teeth will be chattering in the cold. This is not a story of how to get to heaven, but a warning about what it's going to be like when God isn't hanging around with you and you have to choose to continue the fight or give in to the system.
Perhaps more unfortunate than missing this interpretation of the parable is missing the questions it raises. The third servant was making his way in the world of exploiters and corruption, but decided at this point to speak his mind and accept the consequences. We have no happy ending of him being welcomed back into the underclass, of bringing lessons learned, or of being cared for like someone who had never been more than a day laborer. It ends with him having no community at all.