Many years ago there was a church in a small town in the Midwest, surrounded by farms. The congregation, of course, was populated primarily by farm families. These were traditional farms that raised some livestock and grew vegetables. However grain was their principal cash crop.
Each year after the harvest at about this time, every church member was asked to make a pledge to support their mission and ministry. Most people responded to the request, but it was never quite enough.
For the next twelve months the leaders of the church struggled to cover the expenses. It was hard duty and it’s no wonder that they struggled to get anyone to volunteer to be the treasurer. Though, every farmer was a business owner and quite capable of managing the church accounts.
When a treasurer was once again needed, the church leaders decided to ask a certain member who operated the grain elevator in town. They all knew the man well and regarded him as upstanding and trustworthy. After all, he bought their grain every year.
When they approached this man asking him to be the treasurer, he thought about it for a moment. Then he said, “I’ll be the treasurer of the church for one year. But only if you give me your complete trust and promise not to ask me any questions about how I do things. And also, I will not make any financial reports until the year is up.”
Were it not for the trust the farmers had in the man, they would have refused. But after some discussion everyone agreed to the terms. Besides, no one else was willing to do the job.
The new treasurer took office right away. During the course of the year, people made their offerings as usual. The treasurer recorded the offerings and paid the bills. Somehow each month there seemed to be sufficient funds for the church’s operations and mission work.
At the end of the year the treasurer prepared a report. The church leaders were astonished to find that all the bills were paid in full, there was money set aside for new ministry projects, and the minister had received a raise for the first time in years. Naturally, they asked the treasurer how he had managed to do the impossible.
The treasurer said, “You know that you all bring your grain to me at harvest time and I pay you a fair price for it. This year, when I settled accounts with each of you, I deducted ten percent from your account and paid you the rest. Remember the biblical tithe – the one-tenth offering of each year’s harvest that God asks of every faithful believer?
"One tenth is all that God asks of us, though everything we have is a gift from God. It’s such a small thing. You never even missed that money, did you? And see what we were able to do with faith and trust!”
The story is dated. Still, it’s a beautiful story of faithful stewardship, isn’t it? But as a model of proper fiduciary responsibility and oversight in a church, this is a terrible story. Besides, there’s the issue of personal freedom in choosing what to give to the church.
Can a dated or imperfect story still make a point we need to hear though? Let’s hold that thought and turn to the lessons for today. Each one bears a message of urgency. God is coming soon! The Day of the Lord is near! Be ready!
Zephaniah’s counsel for the coming catastrophe is, be silent before the Lord God. It’s as if the prophet is saying that on that Day of judgement, there will not be any plea agreements. God’s assessment is that people are resting in complacency because they do not believe God requires anything of them. The evidence is in; the prosecution rests.
Paul’s message to the Thessalonian Christians about the imminent return of Christ is serious, but upbeat. No one knows when it will be. But the community needs to be prepared. To live in the light with faith, love, and hope. Encouraging one another. Believing that because of the love of Jesus they can live with confidence into the end that God is bringing.
Matthew gives us yet another of Jesus’s parables; a parable of judgement. A man gave a generous sum of silver to three slaves to invest on his behalf. After a long time the owner of the slaves returned and had each slave account for their investment. Is it about giving all to God?
Another way to hear this parable is that the slaves were the man’s investment since by definition they belonged to the man. Two of the three slaves did well. They received praise and the promise of sharing their owner’s joy. One failed utterly, was branded “worthless” and suffered the consequences of punishment and banishment. Is this about failing to be ready for God?
These are dated and imperfect stories. Zephaniah’s conviction that God was bringing a fiery end to this world wasn’t validated. Even now, despite the threat of COVID-19, an unsettled election, and turbulence in economies here and around the world, the center of things still seems to be holding. Is anyone resting complacently? Is Paul right in saying that everything will be fine?
And what can the parable mean to us? It’s impossible to know if Jesus told this as a story about risking everything for God, or refusing to serve a harsh and unjust master and being cast out of a unrighteous community because of it. Why does Jesus, who forgave so much, tell a story of such uncompromising judgement? Who would be called worthless by God?
I began with a story about a treasurer who teaches a lesson about stewardship of God’s gifts. Trusting a church treasurer to work without oversight is a bad practice. But it does make the point about responding to God’s loving, generous gift of faith and life. We are rich in everything that really matters. So why not put our time, talent and treasure to God’s purposes?
The bible texts tell of God’s judgment in dated and imperfect images. But each of us will see our world end one day and see God face to face, whether sooner or later. Are we ready? Paul may give us the best answer. Confidence comes from living faithfully before God every day. How can we fail, if we have spent our lives fearlessly sharing all our gifts and treasures in Jesus’s name? Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.