Matthew 25:14-30 & Zephaniah 1:7-18
The Cure for Apathy
Scott N. Callaham
The first passage in Matthew 25:14-30 is Jesus’ well-known story of the man who leaves on a journey and entrusts the disposition of some of his wealth to his slaves. He gives each of them an amount, verse 15 says, “according to his own ability.” As he does this, the master clearly expects more of some than others. After a long time passes and he returns, he finds that both the most trusted slave and the one with just an average amount of financial prowess had done their duty and produced a return on the master’s investment. On the other hand, the one with the lowest level of responsibility failed for lack of trying. The master’s response was not a pat on the head and an assurance that the slave could do better next time. In verse 30 he says, “Throw out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now this would probably be a far less disturbing story if it did not end with the bit about “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Yet this is not just any story or illustration. Jesus claims in the beginning of chapter 25 that he is describing what the kingdom of heaven is like. God’s kingdom demands responsible action from its citizens, and according to Jesus, inaction results in exclusion.
We all know the escape clause that we invent to accompany Jesus’ story. It goes something like this: “I see that the master punished the slave for whom he had the lowest expectations, probably based on past performance. I’m not that guy. I do things for God . . . occasionally. So the bad ending of this story doesn’t apply to me.” Unfortunately our familiarity with this passage of Scripture can lead to missing some aspects of its powerful message. So to help us hear God speaking more clearly through this familiar and challenging text, I ask that you turn with me now to what is most likely an unfamiliar and challenging text: Zephaniah 1:7-18.
Zephaniah spoke to God’s people during the early part of the reign of young King Josiah of Judah. Fifty-seven years of rule by Josiah’s grandfather and father had drained devotion to the LORD from the people. They had grown accustomed to desperately wicked acts as a part of everyday life, such as child sacrifice and worship of the native gods of the land in the LORD’s Temple.
In our imaginations we can picture thousands of Middle Eastern people going about their business in Jerusalem, the capital city. One man is selling wool, another some produce from his farm outside the city walls. Children dash along the streets in the narrow spaces between busy adults. The streets are alive with commerce and chatter. Then piercing through the din of the crowd is a man’s abrupt and impassioned shout, “Silence!”
7 “Be silent at the presence of the Lord Yahweh, for the day of Yahweh is at hand. For Yahweh has prepared a sacrifice. He has consecrated his guests.”
“What is this? Someone is speaking for the LORD, the God of Israel and Judah, again!”
8 “It will happen in the day of Yahweh’s sacrifice, that I will punish the princes, the king’s sons, and all those who are clothed with foreign clothing.”
“Well, there’s one thing we can say for this guy, he has guts. He’s taking on the leaders and their whole social class. I don’t think that Josiah even has kids yet, and he’s saying that they’re doomed already. I know what he means when he talks about people who dress like foreigners. I’ve always thought it’s suspicious when our own people start acting like those nations who want to kill us.”
9 “In that day, I will punish all those who leap over the threshold, who fill their master’s house with violence and deceit.”
“Yeah, I’ve always thought those religious guys were corrupt. I’m starting to like what I’m hearing.”
10 “In that day, says Yahweh, there will be the noise of a cry from the fish gate, a wailing from the second quarter, and a great crashing from the hills.”
“Hmmm. That doesn’t sound too good. I live close to the Fish Gate. I guess every prophet has to throw in some of that ‘death and destruction’ stuff, though.”
11 “Wail, you inhabitants of Maktesh, for all the people of Canaan are undone! All those who were loaded with silver are cut off.”
“What, no traders? How will I be able to buy a new coat if no one will take my money?”
12 “It will happen at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are settled on their dregs, who say in their heart, ‘Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil.'”
“Hey, wait a minute. That’s what I was just thinking this morning! We haven’t heard from the LORD in a long time, and we have lots of problems. The LORD’s obviously not going to ride into Jerusalem like the Messiah or something. He’s too busy doing . . . nothing.”
13 “Their wealth will become a spoil, and their houses a desolation. Yes, they will build houses, but won’t inhabit them. They will plant vineyards, but won’t drink their wine. 14 The great day of Yahweh is near. It is near, and hurries greatly.”
Zephaniah has the audacity and the courage to call out the obvious sins of the prominent people of his day. In verse 8 the prophet addresses the ruling class. Some of them had become so comfortable in the ways of the enemies of God’s people that they even dressed like them. Quite literally, they wore the uniform of the enemy.
Next, Zephaniah turns to the religious functionaries of the day. Apparently taking their cue from the traditions or superstitions of pagan religions, some of them apparently avoided stepping on the threshold of the Temple doors when entering to perform their service. There is a story about this in 1 Samuel 5:5. Zephaniah casts the offensiveness of these priestly actions in dramatic terms. Their compromised religion constituted an act of violence in God’s house, even an outright fraud.
God’s coming judgment would affect more than just the upper crust of society. Just when they thought they were safe, verses 10 and 11 depict ordinary people suffering and economic activity shutting down. Yet if Zephaniah’s bold preaching and evocative imagery captivated his audience to this point, verse 12 made them gasp. God would embark upon a painstaking search of Jerusalem, street by street, as if shining a light into every dark corner toward which someone might scurry to hide from him. God’s punishment would not just fall upon flagrant sinners, but also upon people who had simply decided that “Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil.” God will do nothing. Zephaniah uses an image from winemaking to communicate that “believing in God” but not interacting with him in day-to-day life is as absurd as not straining out the yeast that ferments grape juice once it has died. Swallowing the sludge of sediment at the bottom of a glass of impure wine prompts the kind of stomach-turning revulsion that God has toward this very common lifestyle of apathy.
What kind of person was this practical atheist, or if you prefer, “apatheist?” According to verse 13, a prototypical ancient apatheist was a person who invested him- or herself in the accumulation of wealth for the construction of houses and vineyards. We could easily translate that into elements of the American dream. Now, the Bible doesn’t deride the wise use of money, or living in a house, or even owning a vineyard. However, in the midst of all this industrious activity, this apatheist could not care less about God. God will do nothing: no good, no harm. Whatever.
Yet look with me at the densely-packed words that Zephaniah piles upon the assertion of verse 14:
14 “The great day of Yahweh is near. It is near, and hurries greatly, the voice of the day of Yahweh. The mighty man cries there bitterly.”
God’s coming judgment would be a day of wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, devastation, darkness, gloom, clouds, thick darkness, trumpet blast, and battle cry. People’s shock will be so profound that they will wander around in a haze as if blind (verse 17).
Now why would God do this? What’s the big deal? What is prompting God to take such offense? Zephaniah’s original listeners may have asked these same questions. Let’s explore this issue by going back and translating Zephaniah’s pointed criticism into our present-day context. Zephaniah first attacks the leadership class of the people. Midshipmen, to a degree that is probably hard to comprehend fully right now, this is you. Your influence upon the lives of Sailors and Marines from your first day on the job as an officer far exceeds what is apparent from the single stripe you will wear on your sleeve or the gold bar on your collar. If your conduct as a leader courts the social patterns of non-Christian leaders, you may call yourself a Christian, but as far as your Christian witness goes, you are wearing the uniform of the enemy. Instead, remember Zephaniah’s teaching and the pleading of Romans 13:14 to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Next, Zephaniah assaulted the priests. They were incorporating superstition into their worship practices, doing violence to their calling. Now this teaching certainly applies to me as a Navy Chaplain whom God calls to a life of spiritual leadership with integrity, but it also applies to every follower of Jesus seated here today. After all, Exodus 19:6 designated God’s people as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Listen to the application of this principle to Christians in 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Can your imagination conjure up a scene like in Zephaniah 1:12? God is searching for us everywhere, shining his light into dark places so that he can call us out of that darkness and into his marvelous light. So why would we ever stoop to superstition or adhere to the teachings of other religions that contradict God’s word, like karma, reincarnation, or the concept that humanity is basically good? In the words of Romans 13:12, it is time to “throw off the works of darkness, and let’s put on the armor of light.”
The awful truth is that many of us also find ourselves in the third category of person whom God will judge. We care so much about the American dream, or a variation of it that we adopt as our personal dream, that we have become apathetic toward God. Zephaniah clearly reveals that our priorities are completely misaligned. What’s more, the truths contained in a very simple word strip away every layer of excuse that we would offer for our condition of material wealth seasoned with spiritual poverty. Verse 17 calls it sin, and verse 18 seals its judgment. Indeed, Romans 6:23 rings in our ears: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Even Zephaniah denies judgment and death the final word. Read with me Zephaniah 2:3: “Seek Yahweh, all you humble of the land, who have kept his ordinances. Seek righteousness. Seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of Yahweh’s anger.” The consistent message of the word of God is that the cure for both outrageous open sins and the hidden day-to-day sins like spiritual apathy is to seek God.
This seeking of God does not involve praying a magic prayer in a magic place to affect a magic result. That is superstition, and Zephaniah’s message condemns it. Seeking God is a wholehearted commitment of yourself, without condition, in an atmosphere of total trust. It is not safe. The slave who “played it safe” in Jesus’ story, you will remember, lost everything. It is good, and it is right to seek God. Those who do may indeed “be hidden on the day of the LORD’s wrath.”
As we close, we do well to add another note to this chord of hope. Assuming that we seek God, who will hide us on the day of his judgment? It’s comforting to know that the book of Zephaniah actually tells us, though in a subdued way. Zephaniah’s very name means “the LORD hides.” Thank you, LORD, for this truth from your word. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008, Scott N. Callaham. Used by permission.