Do the Right Thing -- A Lectionary Reflection
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Do the Right Thing
“Do the right thing.” That’s the title of a Spike Lee movie I’ve never seen, but the phrase should resonate with people of faith. Rooted in most faith traditions, including my own, is an ethical/moral dimension. The prophetic witness from Moses to Jesus continually calls for the people of God to live lives of righteousness or justice. As the prophet Micah puts it: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). To “do the right thing” is to love God and love one’s neighbor. To “do the right thing” is to pursue the common good, and do what is right for the “least of these.” Jesus understood this premise well, for it is the basis of the theology of the cross. He could have walked away from the encounters that led to the cross, but he didn’t. The prophets could have walked away from the confrontations they faced as well, but they didn’t.
As we near the end of the liturgical calendar the texts are taking on a more “judgmental” tone, or at least they mention judgment as a possibility for our consideration. These are not always comfortable texts, especially when the finger begins to point back at us. It’s okay, it seems, when the finger points elsewhere, but we’d rather it not point at us.
Before us are three texts that speak of doing the right thing. In Judges 4 we see a word of judgment on Israel, which “did evil in the Lord’s sight.” But all is not lost, for despite the challenges of the enemy who has acted as an arm of divine judgment, there is one who rises to the occasion – Deborah – who will deliver the people. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, we hear a call to live soberly in anticipation of the Day of Judgment, while Jesus tells a parable about making good use of the gifts of God – in anticipation of the Day of Judgment. In each case there is an invitation to look at one’s life and discern whether one is doing the right thing.
The lectionary has taken us from the Genesis stories of the patriarchs to the story of Moses and the Exodus and then on to the entrance into the Promised Land under Joshua. Now, we come to the time of inhabitation. They people now have their homeland, but here in the fourth chapter of Judges we hear a word of judgment on the people: “Again Israel did evil in the Lord’s sight.” This will be a constant refrain in the ongoing story of Israel. The times in which they do right alternate with the days in which they do evil in the Lord’s sight. In the days of the monarchy, so the story goes, there will be the Hezekiahs and the Josiahs, but there will also be the Ahabs and the Manasseh’s. Even David, who starts off as one close to God, ends up living a rather indecent life. Too often they don’t do the right thing, which is a good reminder that when left to our own devices we often choose unwisely.
In Judges 4, with this indictment that the people did evil comes a sentence of judgment. In this case, Israel is “sold” into the hands of the Canaanite King Jabin, whose army is led by Sisera. For twenty years the Israelites are subjected to their cruel rule, enforced by Sisera’s nine hundred iron chariots. It’s a bit like saying, the modern equivalent of 900 armored up, M-1 Abrams tanks. This is a pretty invincible force. There is little hope of deliverance. The Promised Land has begun to look a lot less promising. But all is not lost, for there are those who do what is right, and one of those figures is, Deborah, a prophet and judge over Israel. She would sit under a palm tree in the hills between Ramah and Bethel, and the people would come seeking her wisdom. In this position of leader of the remnant of Israel, she calls for Barak of Kadesh, and empowers him to call up an army of 10,000 soldiers from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun and take up a position on Mount Tabor. From there, she promises that Sisera and his chariot led army will be drawn into battle at Wadi Kishon, and there Yahweh will deliver the enemy into Barak’s hands. Reading forward, you see that Barak did as he was commanded, and the enemy was defeated – though it would take another woman of strength and courage to end the life of Sisera. What is interesting here, as we read on past the demarcation of the lectionary passage, it is Yahweh who defeats the enemy. God is on their side. What do we take from this? For those of us who seek to avoid violence, this passage can be difficult to deal with. On the other hand, it lifts up a woman of great strength, reminding us that while the ancient world was patriarchal in orientation, there are these important reminders that women played important roles. They could take leadership, and thus in our own more “enlightened age” we should be willing to recognize their gifts more fully. There is also a contrast here between those who did evil and those who, like Deborah, remain faithful, and do the right thing.
In 1 Thessalonians, perhaps one of Paul’s earliest letters, Paul deals with questions of the “eschaton,” the future return of Christ and with this the Day of Judgment. You can see in this letter Paul’s readiness for this age to end, while trying to keep his churches focused on their place in this time and space. He doesn’t want them to rest on their laurels and cruise into the end of the season, because even if he believes that the end might come soon, he also knows that no one knows when the Day of the Lord will come. Indeed, the Lord might come as a “thief in the night.” That is, the Lord will likely come when we least expect it, so we need to be ready and alert. When things seem calm and secure, that is when the time of judgment likely will come. It’s a message that many have failed to heed down through the centuries. We can get complacent, and that’s not wise. But, as Paul tells the Thessalonians – you don’t live in the darkness of night, when the thief is prowling about. No, you live in the light of day. You are children of light and children of the day. As such, you should not be falling asleep, but instead, you ought to be awake and sober. Sleep and drunkenness, they are products of the night, but living in the day we should be sober. In support of this call to sober living, Paul brings into play what we often refer to as the “armor of God.” It’s not as expansive as in Ephesians, but it’s there – a breastplate of faith and love and a helmet of hope of salvation. There isn’t a sword as in Ephesians, but the defensive armor is seen here as a sign of protection as the Thessalonians seek to remain true to their faith. That’s because, Paul says, they’re not destined for wrath but salvation through Jesus Christ, who “died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live in him.” The point being? Perhaps this is a reminder that ultimately our faithfulness is rooted in God’s faithfulness. Even as God stands in the gap with Deborah, so God does the same now with the Thessalonians. Do the right thing, yes, but remember that you may do so because you stand in relationship with God. So encourage each other and build each other up with this word of assurance.
Finally we come to the Parable of the Talents, a parable that comes right before the famous Matthean judgment scene where God judges between sheep and goats. That theme of judgment is here also. It’s a well known parable and one that falls right in the middle of many a stewardship campaign (as is true for my congregation). We can and do speak of investment of money and time and ability. But, I stand somewhat “convicted,” but comments made by Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on Matthew. Hauerwas declares that too often we misuse this text – in part for stewardship sermons – because it’s used to justify economic principles foreign to the message and purpose of Jesus. He writes:
Jesus is not using this parable to recommend that we work hard, make all we can, to give all we can. Rather, the parable is a clear judgment on those who think they deserve what they have earned, as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been given. [Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) , p. 210].
What Hauerwas reminds us of is that the original talents (contextually a talent is worth about fifteen years of wages for the common worker) aren’t something we’ve earned or deserved. They are gifts – charisms or graces. We have responsibility for their usage, and in God’s wisdom, we’re given what we can handle.
The focus of the parable is on the decision of the third servant, who chose to bury the talent lest the master judge him harshly for losing it, because he embraces a principle of scarcity. He believes that life is a zero-sum game, where there’s only so much to go around. If one has honor then the other will be left with nothing. Since he didn’t have much to start with he’s not going to go to any trouble putting it to use. How often do we look at life in this way – if you have something then that must have been gained at my expense? If we live our lives by this principle, how will it affect the way we look at each other? Remember that immediately following this passage is the teaching on the Day of Judgment, where the king divides the sheep from the goats on the basis of how they treated the “least of these.” So, since we’ve been blessed with abundance, may we live out of that abundance. That would seem to be what it means to do the right thing.
So, especially in light of the judgment scene to follow, it would be wise for us not to take the sentence that suggests that “to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” in a way that would encourage the infamous 1% to pad their bank accounts at the expense of the bottom 50% of society. To do so would be to encourage them to embrace the principle of scarcity rather than abundance, and that is not in tune with ways of God’s realm.
So, if we take this parable together with Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5 about staying awake and being sober, might we understand this parable is offered in answer to the question: How do we live lives of justice and mercy and love in anticipation of the Day of Judgment? How might we risk that which has been given us by grace, so that good may come to our world? Yes, how shall we spend our time? Do we sit on the gifts of God because we don’t trust God to treat us fairly? Or do go out in into the world and let these gifts of God make an impact on the world that God loves? Is this what it means to do the right thing?