Proper 28(A): Life is Beyond Our Control!
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Matthew 25:14-30
The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly
It may be that the most important and consequential question ever uttered in the history of humanity was Pilate’s three-word question, asked of Jesus: “What is truth?”
In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell coined the term, “doublethink” to describe the phenomenon of rejecting things we know to be true or accepting things we know to be false in order to fit in with our peers or party or affinity groups. And while Orwell was writing fiction, he was revealing a truth that hits close to home: all of us, from time to time, tell ourselves things that we know aren’t true.
Of course, most of the time, these little fictions we pass off as truth don’t come from a place of malice; quite the opposite! We tell ourselves stories about why one grocery store is better than another, or why this brand of car is superior to that brand of car, or why our basketball team is the bestteam in the league. And to some degree, that’s simply a part of who we are. We tellourselves these things in order to build a sense of identity and character.
But these aren’t the only tall tales we try and trick ourselves into believing.
“One more credit card won’t bankrupt me.”
“One innocent little office flirtation won’t hurt my marriage.”
“God doesn’t really love me.”
Then, before we know it, the very things of which we’ve convinced ourselves turn out to be the lies that destroy us.
The same phenomenon was underway in the days of the Prophet Zephaniah. The people of Israel had gotten into the habit of convincing themselves that their perceptions were true, and that facts were false.
“God doesn’t care about us,” they said. “God is off doing other things. What business is it of God’s how I conduct myself? What God doesn’t know won’t hurt me.”
“We can’t trust God to protect us,” they lamented, “We’ve got to take charge and protect ourselves.”
“God won’t make us happy,” they scoffed, “Our mansions and our wealth and our power over other people! That will make us happy!”
The people of Zephaniah’s day thought that God was an irrelevant relic of a bygone era, whose supremacy has once-and-for-all been eclipsed by the attainment of the pinnacle of human knowledge. Those who lived in Zephaniah’s day considered themselves free to do and act as they pleased, looking out chiefly for themselves, and then—and only then—maybe, if they got around to it, they might consider doing something magnanimous for someone else because it makes them feel good.
Zephaniah, of course, takes exception to this blasphemy and proclaims a fiery word to the people. It is a word so shockingly clear that it all-but-slaps us in the face: life is beyond our control! And the more we try and control it, the more uncontrollable it becomes.
An oil refinery explodes halfway around the world? We read about the environmental costs and the billions of dollars paid in reparations, but we don’t know anybody who knows anybody who works for them, so it’s not our problem, right? We’ve got everything sorted out in our well-managed, tightly-controlled lives, right?
But then we realize that the fish we’re feeding our families comes from that region. Oil and toxins seep into the bedrock and pollute streams and rivers and growing fields hundreds of miles away, where the produce that stocks our refrigerators is grown. The retirement plan we enrolled in, trying to secure our future, is heavily invested in BP, Shell, and Exxon Mobil.
The United Kingdom votes to withdraw from the European Union—Brexit, we called it. Okay, that’s their choice; that’s how democracy works, but how does it affect us?
The Eurozone is the second largest buyer of US Treasury bonds, not to mention a huge importer of US manufacturing goods. What affects their economy today will affect ours tomorrow.
The more we try and anesthetize ourselves into believing that we’ve got it all figured out, the deeper the truth cuts when the facts are laid bare.
But wait just a second.
All of this comes from a tiny, three-chapter minor prophet, wedged in near the end of the Hebrew Bible? In the entire three-year lectionary cycle, we hear from Zephaniah all of three times, and I’m willing to bet that most preachers have preached on it even fewer times than that. (Until now, no one has ever written about it on this blog!) So can it really be all that important?
Well, as it turns out, Jesus was a preacher after Zephaniah’s own heart. He tells a parable about slaves who are given gifts in different amounts. And although we are quick to equate these so-called talents with money, the parable could just as easily have spoken of kindness or creativity or generosity.
The slaves who take their gifts and use them to offer other creative, elaborate, and much-needed blessings in the world around them are rewarded when the Master returns. But the one who takes what has been given to him and hoards it up only for himself is condemned.
If we can find a way to sort through all of the advertising and the marketing and the perception, we arrive at the truth that both Zephaniah and Jesus are desperately trying to tell: Our vocation is not to try and be in control in the universe; no, our vocation as followers of the God we meet in Jesus is to share the abundance of grace and mercy and love that has been entrusted to us.
We are commanded to plant seeds of generosity, knowing full well that we may never see a return on our investment. We are commanded to show kindness to people who don’t deserve it. We are commanded to love those who try their hardest to be unlovable and to forgive those who have gone out of their way to be unforgivable.
The Day of the Lord that Zephaniah and Jesus proclaim does not have to be a doom-and gloom, end-of-the-world scenario. For those who receive their God-given gifts with humility and then go and share them with the world, the Day of the Lord is a day of rejoicing; a day when our world that has long been turned upside down by greed and oppression and hate will be set right by peace and justice and love.
The question is: what will we do with all that has been given to us? Will we keep it locked up and hidden away under the bed? Or will we take a risk and open our hearts to share it openly and freely and radically with the world?
The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He completed his undergraduate work in American studies at Transylvania University, and his master’s and doctoral work at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is the curator of ModernMetanoia.org.