When I read these passages, I saw immediately a specific theme that ties our three passages together, a particularly Anabaptist-friendly theme. In Judges 4, Barak is meant to show his faith by doing what God tells him to do. In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul encourages followers of Jesus to show their “faith, love, and hope” in the way that they live. In Matthew 25, Jesus identifies using what God gives us as the critical piece in our response to God. We show our faith by the way that we live. Paul calls this “the obedience of faith”, and as Mennonites we rejoice! God wants us to do what is right, not just say what is right – orthopraxy, not just orthodoxy!
Then I went through the passages more carefully. This basic point still held as I read more carefully, but I realized that there are perhaps some surprises in the texts. Join me in a brief examination, followed by an application to our lives today.
Judges is a hard book for us to read, given our own history in Canada with First Nations. We are those who have dispossessed them, and we should feel discomfort with narratives of possession and dispossession. I will not wrestle with that question today, but note it in order to bracket it.
Chapters 1 to 3 of Judges set a pattern that holds throughout the book: Israel “followed other Gods”, so God gave them over to the consequences of their actions [cf Romans 1] – a pattern of disobedience > punishment > repentance > grace [REPEAT] – that applies to the book of Judges as a whole. This pattern actually begins with the first chapters of Genesis and describes the relationship between God and humankind from Genesis to Revelation. It is in fact the basic structure of the whole of Scripture.
Chapter 4 shows this same pattern.
Verse 1: Rebellion. Verse 2: Punishment. Verse 3: Repentance.
Verses 4-7: Grace.
In the following verses, Barak is judged for obeying hesitantly. Deborah says that he needed to obey confidently. An old illustration of the way that faith requires obedience is the story of the French acrobat, Charles Blondin, walking a tightrope across the Niagara Falls. According to the story (which I cannot verify), he pushed a wheelbarrow across the tightrope above the Falls. Then he asked the crowd if they believed he could push a person across the rope. They said yes, but when he asked for a volunteer, no one would get in the wheelbarrow.
The point is simple: Real belief issues in concrete action. If I refuse to sit on a chair that might break beneath me, you can be forgiven for not believing me when I say that I think the chair would hold me. Looking at what we actually do tells people what we really believe. So God wants in us “the obedience of faith” – a life given wholly to God, lived on the basis of that total commitment.
1 Thessalonians 5
Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians around 50 AD, that is, about 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the questions that the letter deals with is the timing of what we call “the second coming”. Most of the first Christians expected Jesus to return in their own lifetimes, and when the return was delayed, they began to wonder what was wrong.
In the verses before our passage, Paul reassures them. Some were afraid that those who died might not see the return of the Messiah, so Paul tells them “the dead in Christ will rise first, and then those who are still alive will join them in the air with the Lord.” Paul says: “Encourage each other with the hope of Christ’s Return and of our reunion with him and with those who have died.”
Paul knew that the Thessalonians’ thoughts would immediately turn to working out when the End would come, so he begins our passage with that question.
Verse 1: Don’t worry about the “times and seasons”. His caution reminds one of the disciples in Acts 1, who ask Jesus if his promise of the Holy Spirit means that this is the End of time. You remember Jesus’ response: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons that the Father has set in his own authority.” Rather they are to seek God’s Spirit, and then to witness to the reality of life in Christ in the power of God’s Spirit. Paul has the same concern here. [Think also of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36, “No one knows the hour …”]
Verse 2: It remains true that Jesus will return, and that his return will be unexpected.
Verse 4: So we live constantly expecting the unexpected – the return of Christ.
Verses 5-6: The children of the light [that is, Christians] are watching for Jesus.
Verse 7: Those who are asleep [that is, non-believers] are not watching.
Verses 8-10: Our light (since we are “children of light”) is “faith, love, and hope”, which is our salvation through Jesus and his death.
Verses 10-11: So we live with Christ and build each other up.
One can hear Paul saying: “You keep asking when Jesus will return. You need to live on the basis of his return – and living rightly is more important than working out when the return will be.”
So we come to the “parable of the talents”. A quick definition: A talent is a unit of money – a very large unit of money. One commentator suggests that a talent was about 15 to 20 years’ worth of wages for the average worker – somewhere between half a million and a million dollars today. Five talents then might be about $3 million dollars, and two talents about $1 million. Even the single talent given to the third servant is a significant amount.
We often have heard this parable as a call to use our own abilities (talents, in another sense of the word) faithfully for God’s benefit. That reading is not wrong, but also is not the central point of the parable. Note the response to the two types of servants. The first and second servants, who use their “talents” to increase the master’s wealth, receive this blessing: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” The third servant is judged: “throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The parable before this one in Matthew 25 deals with the return of Christ, and the parable after it deals with the judgment at the end of time. This parable, therefore, points towards the end of time. The parable of the Ten Maidens (verses 1-13) has the basic point that we are to be ready at all times for Christ to come. Our parable this morning parable says that, when Christ comes, he should find us at work doing what he has called us to do. The parable of the Sheep and the Goats (verses 31-46) tells us that the content of what our work is to care for people around us. [I have oversimplified, and I know that “the least of these, my brothers” refers to the disciples; but I think the point holds.]
We hear Jesus call us, then, not just to do what God calls us to do, but to do so in light of the end of all things. We are to live, remembering that each day may be our end. Do you remember an old gospel hymn from 50 years ago?
Jesus may come today, Glad day, glad day!
And I would see my Friend; Dangers and troubles would end if Jesus should come today.
Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?
I’ll live for today, nor anxious be; Jesus, my Lord I soon shall see;
Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?
I may go home today, Glad day, glad day! Seemeth I hear their song, Hail to the radiant throng, If I should go home today. Refrain
Why should I anxious be? Glad day, glad day! Lights appear on the shore, Storms will affright nevermore, For He is “at hand” today. Refrain
Faithful I’ll be today, Glad day, glad day! And I will freely tell Why I should love Him so well, For He is my all today. Refrain
This is not great poetry or hymnody, but it gets the point. I will live today the way God wants me to live, knowing that today may be “the crowning day”.
What do we do with this idea? I suggest two basic thoughts.
1. The first is the obvious one with which we began. Belief is only worthwhile when it shows itself in action. Some Christians say they believe in God and testify to the new birth, but they do not show this new life in their actions. Our passages make it clear that such an approach is unacceptable. Jesus’ words (throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth) make us profoundly uncomfortable.
We want Jesus to be “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Instead, we have Jesus who can say to the goats in the parable that follows, “Depart from me, you who are cursed!” As C.S. Lewis says of Aslan in the Narnia series, “He’s not a tame lion.” Those who say, “I believe”, but live badly, are playing with fire. As Mennonites, we have lived by this understanding: True evangelical faith shows itself by doing what Jesus says, not just by affirming it. (Cf Menno Simons’ hymn, “True Evangelical Faith.”)
2. The second thought is perhaps a surprise, but it is clear enough in our texts. It also reinforces our understanding of how we are to live. Paul’s letter and Matthew’s parable both point us beyond simple obedience and remind us that we are to live in light of the End of all things.
We have a natural tendency to want to live in the present, to be relevant to our day and age. In one way this is good. We are careful to analyze our context and make sure that we speak to the needs of the day. Darrell Whiteman, my advisor at Asbury, used to say, “We must exegete our context as well as Scripture.” But there is also a bad way to use our context. Sometimes we let the society around us set our agenda. Two simple examples: War, and Individualism.
For the first, when our country goes to war, everyone starts working out how we can legitimate violence against others. Soon we find ourselves thinking that it’s really okay to fight against the enemy – whether the enemy is the Germans in World War Two or the Viet Cong in Vietnam. We persuade ourselves that faithful Christian living includes killing people. That is wrong. We are to live as followers of the Prince of Peace, even when our country is at war.
For the second, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it clear that the individual is the basic building block of Canadian society. So Article 15 begins: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law …” Several of the articles begin by stressing “each individual”. The Liberal party of Canada makes this priority even more explicit on its web page: “The Liberal Party of Canada is committed to the view that the dignity of each individual man and woman is the cardinal principle of democratic society and the primary purpose of all political organization and activity in such a society.” In saying this, they are not different than the conservatives or socialists. They are simply Canadian.
It all sounds so good. Would any one of us want to live somewhere that did not respect individual rights like this? Probably not; I know I wouldn’t. And yet I wonder – I wonder how this emphasis on the individual lines up with the Christian’s first commitment to God, expressed in an equal commitment to others. “Love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself.”
Hear me clearly. I am not speaking for or against the Charter. I am not speaking for or against society. I am asking us to be careful about who and what we live for. We do not live for Canada. We do not live for the Charter. We live for God – first and last and only.
Think of it this way. Any good business decides what it lives for, and then evaluates its processes according to whether or not they help the business move towards that mission. The passages in Thessalonians and Matthew remind us of our “goal”, or “mission”, or “vision”, or “end”. We are to be people who use our abilities to prepare for the return of Christ by living like Christ.
I ran across an example recently. Alan Barnhart is a businessman from Tennessee, who has used his ability to make money in the service of God’s reign. (See addendum below for the full story.)
Although our passages don’t quote the Sermon on the Mount, we can hear the echoes of Jesus’ words. We are people who replace a strict justice with all-encompassing love for God and for others. We are people who die ourselves in order to live for Christ, because we know that Jesus is coming back – and we are ready for him! “I’ll live for today, nor anxious be; Jesus, my Lord I soon shall see; Glad day, glad day! Is it the crowning day?”
Feature from Spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy magazine
By Liz Essley Whyte
In 1986, Alan Barnhart was 25 and planning to go into business with his brother. An evangelical Christian, he wondered what Scripture had to say about the profits he hoped to make. So he combed the Bible for whatever advice it had to offer about money. That’s when he came across verses like this:
“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…”
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…”
“It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven…”
No matter where he turned, it seemed to him that Scripture was sending a very clear warning: Money can be dangerous. “I read all these verses, and I thought: ‘I want to be good in business, and I’m competitive,’” Barnhart says. “But I didn’t want to make a lot of money if doing so would damage my life. And I could see where it really could.”
So Alan and his brother Eric decided to do something unusual: They vowed to cap their income, earning no more than the middle-class members of their Memphis, Tennessee, Sunday school class did, and give much of their company’s profits to charity. In their first year of business, they gave away $50,000—more than Alan’s salary.
Now, nearly 30 years later, the results are even more tremendous: The Barnharts oversee a $250 million crane and rigging company, and they’ve donated nearly $100 million of its profits to charity. Moreover, in 2007 they decided to go even further. They gave the entire company away. Though they still run its daily operations, the National Christian Foundation (NCF) now owns Barnhart Crane & Rigging. The brothers will never reap its accrued value; they kept none of it. “That’s one of the things that make Alan and Eric so rare: they decided to give it all away,” says NCF president David Wills. “That was their wealth. They didn’t have three other companies. That was it.”
Alan Barnhart is a modest man, with a soft Tennessee drawl. He wears jeans and cotton oxfords to work. He started giving interviews about his philanthropy only after others convinced him to do so.
“‘Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ For the first 15 years that was our thinking,” Barnhart says. But “people challenged us, [saying] what’s happened to your company is pretty unusual…. God has done amazing things through your company, and you need to tell people all that you’ve done with what God’s done.” He is quick to emphasize that his salary cap was not a vow of poverty. “We have vehicles and air conditioning. It was not a Mother Teresa lifestyle.”
To make sure they stuck to their limit, the Barnharts told their associates at the company about their income pledge, enlisting others to hold them to their promise. He and his brother allowed themselves cost-of-living adjustments, and salary increases when children were born. Alan has six children; Eric has five. Alan and his wife Katherine are the Barnhart family spokespeople, while Eric is the brainy, quiet engineer, friends say.
One of the best things about their lifestyle choice, Alan says, is that his children did not grow up wealthy. “There’s great benefits to a kid to hear the word ‘no,’ and the theology of the Rolling Stones: ‘You don’t always get what you want,’” he says. The Barnhart kids didn’t get trips to Disney World, or even treats at the grocery store. Instead their parents took them to developing countries to see the wells, churches, and farms their gifts had enabled. “It wasn’t about things. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about wanting. I taught them the joy of giving early. I taught them the joy of contentment,” Katherine says.
And the Barnharts taught their children about God. They speak of Him often. “It is God who has led us in this, and it is He who multiplied us,” states Katherine. Though donors of many religious—and non-religious—backgrounds give generously, and interpretations of Scripture’s teaching on wealth differ, the Barnharts stand out in their willingness to act on what they believe God has called them to.
Profit with a purpose
Using business skills to serve God through “constructive work” and “ministry funding” is at the heart of the purpose statement posted on the Barnharts’ company website. The brothers’ attempt to directly harness capitalist plentitude to do spiritual work is further explained in one of the company’s “core values,” which proclaims: “Profit with a Purpose—We will attempt to make a profit and will invest the profit to expand the company and to meet the needs of people (physically, mentally, spiritually).”
In practice, about 50 percent of all company earnings are donated immediately to charity. The other 50 percent are used to grow the business. The firm has been run that way since the beginning.
And the Barnharts don’t even allow themselves the luxury of choosing where their company’s gifts should go. A group of 55 employees and spouses decides where to distribute half of the money made every year by Barnhart Crane & Rigging. Each employee in the group—which is dubbed GROVE, God’s Resources Operating Very Effectively—develops a relationship with one or two grant recipients, researching their effectiveness and vetting their requests. Under NCF ownership the group will continue to give away company earnings.
Katherine says the group actively searches for the best people addressing a problem, rather than giving money only to groups with powerful fundraising arms. GROVE volunteers take small grant requests to a six-member committee for approval; requests for more than $100,000 go before a 12-member board that meets quarterly. Most of the donations boost international development and Christian ministry in Africa, the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia, where the group sees needs larger than those at home. “That’s where God is really working,” says Joye Allen, GROVE administrator. The group focuses its giving on five causes: Christian evangelism, church planting, Christian discipleship, leadership training, and ministering to the poor.
GROVE’s biggest grants—millions of dollars’ worth—have gone to Hope International, which provides microfinance in the developing world; the Seed Company, a Bible translation group; and Strategic Resources Group, an umbrella organization for Christian ministries in the Middle East. Though the bulk of its giving is overseas, the group has also given domestically, to places like Repairing the Breach, which works with youth in rundown Memphis neighborhoods, and Citizens for Community Values, which helps women escape the sex trade.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
19 November 2017Texts: Judges 4:1-7, 1 Th 5: 1-11; Mt 25:14-30