The prophet Zephaniah sounds like a real bundle of fun. Even the start of his prophecy is stark – “will you just shut up and listen to God for once” he begins, but frankly you can see why people might not want to.
We don’t know much about him, but he was probably writing in the couple of decades before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, and you didn’t have to be a prophet to see that the storm-clouds were on the horizon. Like anyone of his time, he assumed that if disaster fell on a nation it was probably that nation’s fault, and he didn’t have any problem with the idea that it was God’s punishment on them. Most people now would take a very different view of God, and would be horrified at the suggestion that he would deliberately inflict the kind of misery that Zephaniah describes.
Despite that, though, his words can still have something to say to us. He rails against people who say that “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm”. Not only are they blind to the other people around them, they are blind to God too. They bury their heads in the sand, unwilling to accept that anything will disrupt the flow of their lives. They live in a bubble, entirely self-contained, sure that it can be “business as usual” for them. It’s an attitude we can just as easily find today. Climate change? What climate change? It is depressing to see people still trying to insist, in the face of all the scientific evidence, that it’s not happening, when communities in the poorest parts of the world are already being affected by it. We can fail to see the link between cause and effect in other ways too. If we allow inequality to increase, eventually it will come back and bite us, in the shape of social strife and the hollowing out of communities that we all, in the end, depend on. The Ebola crisis could have been averted if money had been ploughed into research to develop vaccines and treatment a generation ago, when it first emerged, but it wasn’t, because there wasn’t enough money in it. Now we see the result, and see that we are all threatened. We tend to assume that if we’re ok, that’s all that matters, but sooner or later the chickens come home to roost. And when calamity falls, it affects everyone, whether they were actually to blame or not.
Zephaniah saw people behaving with no concern for justice, or for anyone except themselves. He could see that this would weaken the whole nation and make it all the more vulnerable to attack, and less able to cope with the aftermath of conquest. In the end, this would affect everyone. Maybe it wasn’t the “full and terrible end …of all the inhabitants of the earth”, but it would feel like it. We don’t have to see this as punishment inflicted by God to see the truth in what he says. Actions have consequences. What we do matters, and often in ways that we hadn’t imagined.
Why do we behave like this, when we know deep down it will end in tears? There’s perhaps a clue in our Gospel reading. Jesus tells the story of a man who goes on a journey, leaving three of his servants in charge of varying amounts of his money. Two of them get to work, investing it, taking risks – and when the master comes back they have doubled his investment. They couldn’t guarantee that this would happen, and maybe some of their investments didn’t work out – perhaps they’d hoped to treble the money. But at least they did something.
The third one, though, just buries his money in a hole in the ground, and when the master comes back, brushes off the mud and gives it back. The master is furious. The money could have made him new friends. It could have helped others, built up a bank of social good, strengthening his community, which would have benefitted everyone in the end. But all the servant wanted to do was live a quiet life. “I knew that you were a harsh man” says the servant, as if that were likely to endear him to his master.
Jesus is telling us that we need to take our responsibilities seriously as members of the human race, children of God, his servants. What we do matters.
God isn’t the harsh master of the parable – parables are stories to help us explore faith, not neat allegories where x means this, and y means the other. God certainly isn’t the avenging despot of Zephaniah’s vision, but the point both of them makes is true. We are each given a precious gift, the gift of life, and we are called to use it in a way which brings love and justice, not simply for our own purposes, but for the good of all, because we are all in it together in the end. If we can do that, when the days of reckoning come, as they always do sooner or later, we will be ready to meet them.
In the silence tonight let’s take ourselves seriously, as God does, as people who make a difference, whether we mean to or not.