The prophet Zephaniah is one of the twelve minor prophets in Hebrew scripture (minor in terms of length not in terms of importance). The prophet purports to be writing during the reign of king Josiah, a king of Judah who reigned at the end of the seventh century B.C.E, a few decades before Babylonian captivity.
The prophet Zephaniah warns the Judeans of a coming ‘day of the Lord.’ The three chapter prophet refers to this coming day of judgment nineteen times. The ‘day of the Lord’ is not a happy occasion, but rather a day of wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, devastation, darkness, gloom, and clouds (1:15). The prophet declares that on the ‘day of the Lord’ such distress will befall the people that they will “walk around like the blind”, and their “blood shall be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung” (1:17).
The reason for the coming ‘day of the Lord’ is that the people have sinned (1:17). The people have become complacent in their wealth and have said in their hearts, “The lord will not do good, nor will he do harm” (1:12). However, at the time of the ‘day of the Lord’ “neither their silver not their gold will be able to save them” (1:18).
Zephaniah believes that this ‘day of the Lord’ is imminent. Indeed, God has already gone through the necessary preparations of “preparing a sacrifice, and consecrating his guests” (1:7). God is so near as the catalyst of the day of the Lord that Zephaniah instructs the Judeans to “be silent before the Lord God!” (1:7). Zephaniah’s prophecy (whether written as warning prior to the Babylonian exile, or written after the exile to offer commentary on exilic events) is spot on. The Babylonians were God’s vessel in bringing about the imminent ‘day of the Lord’ spoken of so often by Zephaniah.
Later interpreters saw in the prophecies of the imminent ‘day of the Lord’ a second future fulfillment. By the time of the New Testament the ‘day of the Lord’ was eschatalogical in nature (dealing with God’s final end). Jesus believed that the final coming of the kingdom would be preceded by a day of judgment. Paul will speak of the need to be prepared in light of the coming ‘day of the Lord.’ The early church was an expectant eschatalogical community. Like Judah and the early church we are instructed by the Bible’s witness to the ‘day of the Lord’ not to become complacent, but to be ready and waiting.
God is immortal and eternal: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (2). Humans are not: “For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh” (9). When God looks back over a millennium it is like looking back over the events of a single yesterday. In contrast humans are limited to seeing seventy years (eighty if we are particularly strong) and “soon are gone, and fly away” (10).
The psalmist does nothing to deny the finitude of humanity, or to pray for an immortal/eternal existence. Instead, embracing the human condition, the psalmist asks for three things: (1) that the Lord will teach humans to count their days so they may gain a wise heart; (2) that the Lord will give humans as many glad days as afflicted days, as many glad years as evil years; and (3) that the Lord will prosper the work of the psalmist’s hands.
In our epistle letion Paul instructs the Thessalonians on matters concerning the ‘day of the Lord.’ The Hebrew prophets described the ‘day of the Lord’ as a day of imminent judgment. As the tradition developed the ‘day of the Lord’ came to refer to a day when God would set the world to rights and establish an eternal kingdom (see the above commentary on Zephaniah). Jesus taught in light of these prophetic traditions and proclaimed the coming kingdom of heaven/God. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Paul contrasts those who experience the coming of the ‘day of the Lord’ like a thief in the night, with those that will be prepared for the Lord’s reign. The former become comfortable and secure and forget that there will be a day of reckoning. The latter are diligent, awake, and sober. They give full attention to the coming ‘day of the Lord’ and they encourage one another to be ready.
The parable of the talents immediately follows the parable of the ten bridesmaids in which half the bridesmaids are wise in preparing for the coming groom and half the bridesmaids are foolish in not preparing. Both stories are part of Jesus’ so called ‘eschatalogical’ discourse (24:1-25:46–‘eschatalogical’ refers to teachings concerning God’s final end). The parable of the bridesmaids ends with this warning: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Immediately Matthew moves to the parable of the Talents which opens: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” The ‘it’ referred to in 25:14 is the ‘kingdom of God’ mentioned in 25:1. The parable of the talents, like the parable of the ten bridesmaids before it, offers commentary on the unpredictable coming of that kingdom. The parable is given to instruct the disciples on what real faithfulness looks like in their time of waiting, and to warn them that at any time God can come to take an accounting of their commitments.
As the story goes three slaves are entrusted with three different sums of money by their Lord. The amount of money given each is based on his or her ability. To one is given five talents, to another is given two, and to another is given one. We sometimes feel badly for the one given just one talent. However, the talent was worth six thousand denarii. If a denarii was a day’s wage for a laborer then a talent was worth about twenty years of wages. We are reminded that even the least of us is entrusted with a sizable share of the master’s possessions.
The treasure we are given is not intended to be put upon a shelf for display, or to be stowed away for safe keeping. Instead we are to stand in the place of our Lord, and act on our master’s behalf. In this way we are co-builders of the kingdom. The first and the second slave understand this. They each take risks and double their money. In contrast the third slave has warped ideas about the master, and thus is afraid to take risks, and instead buries the talent entrusted to him. Upon return the master commends the first two slaves and banishes the third.
The parable of the talents reminds us that the kingdom of God has an ethical component. The kingdom is good action in the world. Our time of waiting should be spent increasing the kingdom’s presence in the world by the daring use of all that God has entrusted us.