PAUL’s teaching to the Thessalonians has striking parallels with Jesus’s discourse on the end times in Matthew 24 and 25. Both teach that the Lord will come again “like a thief” (cf. Matthew 24.43). And Jesus’s final parables summon the disciples to the sober and hopeful waiting that Paul describes in verse 8 of our epistle.
To be “awake” involves a refusal to be beguiled by the false promises of worldly power. In verse 3, Paul warns that “when they say ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them.”
As Douglas Farrow notes, that “peace and security were promised by the empire and its officials, and frequently said to have been delivered.” A peace that is founded on violence can be only “partial and transitory”; for it “contains the seeds of its own destruction”. It is when this world’s powers seem most secure that hubris leads to their demise (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 and 2 Thessalonians).
The prophecy of Zephaniah addresses a people who “rest complacently on their dregs” and do not believe that the Lord will come to judge them. On this “day of the Lord’s wrath”, they will discover that “neither their silver or gold will be able to save them.”
As Zephaniah makes clear in verses 4 and 5, the Israelites’ sins flow from a failure to have faith in the true God. Instead, they have given allegiance to false gods who sacralise wealth and might, unconstrained by justice and mercy. “Breach of covenant relationship on the part of human beings reaps repercussions that devastate not only humanity but also the natural world” (Carol Dempsey. New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Amos, Hosea. Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habbakuk).
Paul summons the Thessalonians to trust as well as vigilance, reminding them that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ.” The parable that Jesus tells in our Gospel reading is likewise a summons to trust — and describes the dangers of allowing our relationship with God to be distorted by fear and mistrust.
This parable presents us with two very different ways of responding to the call of the living God. The master shows a striking trust in all three slaves. Like the owner of the vineyard in an earlier parable, he goes on a long journey and entrusts his property to them (cf. 21.33-46). In the first two cases, this trust elicits a trusting response: they invest what they have been given, and double its value.
The master’s response to the first two slaves is identical. “The word-for-word equivalency of the verses is important, because it shows the master’s total disinterest in the actual amounts each of them produces.” In fact, as in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (20.1-16), the most fundamental reward of each faithful steward is the same.
Indeed, it has to be the same, because “the reward is not a material compensation for work well done.” The words “enter into the joy of your master” catapult us “from time into eternity, from symbol into reality, from the drama of the parable into the actual life of the Kingdom” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).
The error of the third slave echoes that of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Each of them accepts a lie about the nature of God. The serpent convinces Adam and Eve that God is a competitor for power (thus persuading them to eat from the forbidden tree). In a similar way, this slave believes his master to be “a harsh man, reaping where [you] did not sow”. Fearful that his master is a selfish miser, the slave acts in a way that embodies those very values.
Here (as in the Garden of Eden, and Zephaniah 1) we see how false beliefs are intertwined with sinful and destructive actions — either because we pledge allegiance to false gods, or because our relationship with the true God is distorted by mistrust and fear.
It is for this reason that Paul urges the Thessalonians to put on faith and hope as well as love. It is by embracing the glorious truth about the mercy of the God who died for us that we will “live with him” in time and for eternity.