Updated: Jul 18, 2021
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God. Amen.
The narrative of the prophet Deborah in the reading from Judges is the very beginning of one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Sadly, we don’t get to hear part two, but I’ll give you some spoilers… Deborah relays her prophecy to Barak, and he replies, “I will go, but only with you by my side.” Deborah agrees, but she makes it clear that Sisera will die at the hand of a woman.
Deborah appears only in chapters four and five of Judges. We know very little about her—just that she is a judge and a prophet, wife to Lappidoth, and that she sits under a palm tree. What an extravagant life she must lead!
I imagine her palm tree at the edge of a desert oasis, where she sits on a plush settee… surrounded by a crew of hunky men and demure handmaids—her servants who fan her with palm branches, feed her dates, and refill her wine as she commands them. Throughout the day, people from the nearby villages flock to her to settle disputes over property boundaries or stolen sheep. Occasionally, she encounters someone who asks whether they should take a leap of faith and risk something big in their lives… The people obviously trusted her.
Being a prophet was not always an easy or comfortable life. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Moses led the Israelites through the desert for forty years. Elijah had to persuade the Canaanites to worship God and not Baal. Herod Antipas beheaded John the Baptist. No, a prophet’s life was not easy at all.
There is risk—and some glory—found in the brief appearance of Deborah in the book of Judges. Deborah’s prophecy to Barak leads the men of Naphtali and Zebulun into battle against the Canaanite army. The two armies rendezvous at Mount Tabor, where the lands of Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali meet.
The Canaanite army is defeated and scatters, and Sisera, their commander, escapes on foot. Sisera eventually ends up at the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She offers him succor and milk, only to drive a tent peg through his temple. With the Canaanite army defeated and Sisera dead, the Israelites enjoy peace in the lands for forty years.
Barak makes a considerable risk by trusting Deborah and leading the Israelites into battle—leading thousands of men into a battle they could easily lose. And Deborah risks a lot, too… If Barak’s army had failed, surely Sisera would have traced the assault back to Deborah and slaughtered her under her palm tree. I imagine Deborah realized this risk but she made her decision to go forward in faith, love, and hope. If she had played it safe and did not encourage Barak’s assault, she could suffer a harsher punishment—whether from the Canaanites or from God, for whom she spoke.
The Gospel reading from Matthew also presents us with a story about risk. The wealthy man—who I imagine to be the biblical equivalent of Jeff Bezos—entrusts portions of his treasury to his servants while he makes a long journey. Perhaps he travels to Iran or India, securing some years-long trade route. Fearing losing his wealth while he’s gone, he divides it up between his three slaves. To one, he gives a large portion, to another, a medium portion, and to a third, a “small” portion.
Matthew describes these portions of his wealth as a “talent”—τάλαντον in biblical Greek. This singular τάλαντον was a unit of weight, measuring approximately 80 pounds. When we hear it used to describe money, we need to imagine 80 pounds of silver. About 6,000 denarii. This would be fifteen or sixteen years of work for a day-laborer. In our 2020 economy, adjusted to the federal minimum wage at $7.25/hour, this would be close to $250,000. In the Bay Area, a single talent could be worth $500,000—a small, nearly-inconsequential fortune for Jeff Bezos.
So, he gives his best slave over $1mil of silver for safekeeping. And the slave gambles with it in the marketplaces, invests it in a small business, and purchases endless herds of sheep. The next slave takes his two talents, and he does likewise. The third slave stashes his share in a hole in the ground. He does not believe in taking risks.
I know that it’s stewardship season, and perhaps I’m supposed to turn this into a sermon on tithing or charitable giving, but I don’t see this as a parable about money and wealth or earthly things. I hear Jesus asking us to risk our faith… To risk more of our lives for God so that we might have an abundance of blessings showered upon us.
When we don’t take risks, we miss out on some monumental things in life. When we bury our talent, we put our lamp under a bushel basket! The earliest Christians took Jesus’ suggestion very seriously—many of them got rid of everything they had and went to live in the desert. I don’t know that we need to be quite that radical. Still, Jesus’ message to us in this gospel passage calls us to do something countercultural: to take significant risks, vast leaps of faith… to walk across that rickety suspension bridge made of fraying rope and gnarly wood and not worry about the ugly, slimy who-knows-what beneath.
We are called to model ourselves after so many prophets throughout the ages. Prophecy comes in different shapes and sizes. Maybe some among us are prophets, even in our own small ways. When I think of prophets, I imagine Mary, the mother of Jesus; liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez; Martin Luther… But also, Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-Day Saints movement, and Ida B Wells, an early Civil Rights leader. Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela.
These are all people who laid their lives on the line to fight for something that they believed could—and would—change the world. Some prophets literally died for their cause. They risked the entirety of their convictions and values to affect some kind of change in the world—some way of building up God’s Beloved Community. Prophets in any age, even our own, guide us toward risks or making big decisions in our lives… To stand up against injustice, or fear, or prejudice. To speak out—to share our voice with those who need to hear what we have to say. This is the important work that we are all called to do.
We have to remember that prophets are not some relic of the past. There are a lot of prophets in the world in 2020, a time when we really need to be challenged to take risks. I see the image of the prophet in Michael Curry… Greta Thunberg… Richard Rohr… Their voices should inspire us to better care for God’s creation—in ourselves, in others, and the world around us. Sadly, there are even false prophets who seek to divide us, to cast us into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth… to separate us even further from God’s desires for us.
In this era of uncertainty, we get so caught up in worry, doubt, and fear… We sometimes lose our grip on faith, hope, and love. We retreat into our caves and ignore the difficult parts of life. We bury and hide our talents.
And still, Jesus calls us to give a little to get a little. To take risks. To stand up for something we believe in. To be a prophet.
As we sit under our own palm trees this week, I invite us to consider what words of truth Jesus needs us to speak into the world around us. Consider how you might share a message of faith, hope, or love to someone who really needs to hear it right now.
And give a little, just to see what you’ll get back.