Monday, October 1, 2018

26. Waiting, Watching and Working.

"According to Matthew”

We move tonight to chapter 25. This is the last chapter before we reach the final act of Matthew's gospel; Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. In chapter 24 we heard Jesus casting visions of what the future may hold. There is talk of persecution and of folk falling away from belief alongside encouragement to hold fast to the faith, even when it looked like everything was falling apart.

In Matthew's gospel, chapter 25 is the conclusion of Jesus teaching. Chapter 26 begins the passion narrative. We have moved from His background and birth, in chapter one, through His teaching in the sermon on the mount, witnessed His miracles and healing, (the love of God that seemed to 'ooze' out of Him; something we defined by the Greek Word 'exousia'.) We have seen how Matthew pictures a clash of Kingdoms. Eventually the Kingdom of God will prevail, but through parables and pictures  we are taught that the Kingdom is growing in unexpected ways, often imperceptibly, among the kingdoms of this world.

There appears to have been a common belief in the earliest church that a second coming of Jesus was immanent. The problem Matthew had to address (something he began addressing in our last chapter) was that Jesus hadn't returned and delivered the Kingdom in a blaze of glory. In fact exactly when and how such a thing could take place was questionable. The only thing we can really know, Jesus suggests, is that the future was a mystery in His Father's hands. Neither He nor any angel could offer a timetable! Matthew cautions against speculating regrading dates and times. Instead he encourages readiness and faithfulness.  

We finished chapter 24 with a story about an 'Undercover Boss' who unexpectedly arrives to review the work of their employees.... and finds some are working hard, others are abusing the trust placed in them. We begin chapter 25 with a wedding story.

Wedding customs at the time were not the same as those we observe in the USA in the twenty-first century. Weddings could be a week long affair. On the actual wedding day the bride would be adorned like a queen, whilst the bridegroom would take on the garb of a King. The bride would be surrounded by her 'companions' to dress her and accompany her throughout the proceedings. These would be the 'ten virgins' referred to in the parable we are about to read.

An important part of the celebrations was the procession, usually late in the day, from the brides house (where she would be gathered with her attendants) to the couples new home. The attendants were expected to carry oil lamps to light the processions progress. Jesus tells us a story that focuses on a groom who arrived very late in the day, and a bridal party... some of whom were ready for the procession, others who are found lacking. Read 1 – 13.

 "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.  The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.  The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.  "At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' "Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'  "'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'  "But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.  "Later the others also came. 'Lord, Lord,' they said, 'open the door for us!'  "But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I don't know you.'  "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

In many ways the message of this parable reinforces that of the previous one about the 'Undercover Boss' who is in the midst of the workers and evaluates their faithfulness. Some are found to be worthy of praise, others are not living up to expectations. It also touches upon the perceived delay in the coming of the kingdom. The bridegroom does not arrive till the very final moment of the day – midnight. In the light of the delay, how were followers of Jesus expected to act? As with the previous parable the message is "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.'

The parable specifically uses the image of oil, used elsewhere in Scripture as a sign of the Holy Spirit. Kings and prophets were anointed with oil as they commenced their ministry. In the early church prayers for healing and wholeness were often conducted both with a laying on of hands and the application of anointing oil to signify the Holy Spirit's presence. 

Maybe you are familiar with the youth song I remember from my earliest church days of going to camp 'Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, give me oil in my lamp I pray, give me oil in my lamp keep me burning, keep me burning till the break of day'. Having been a song leader at camp on numerous occasions, I am delighted to know it is still doing the rounds... though now augmented with verses such as 'Give me wax for my board, keep me surfing for the Lord' and 'Give me gas for my Ford, keep me trucking for the Lord'. Although I did miss my favorite derivation 'Give me unction in my gumption help me function' … good solid theological musings right there!

Interestingly in the parable the comparison is not made between those who sleep and those who stay awake, all ten of them rest whilst awaiting the bridegrooms arrival. But is only those who have prepared their lamps who are ready to greet him and accompany him on his arrival. Those who are prepared can rest easy, those who are unprepared have not done their homework!

The implication for ourselves is that the present time is the hour for nurturing our relationship with God. 'This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad in it.' We stock our spiritual lamps with 'oil' through being faithful in the simple rhythms of worship and service. We nurture our spiritual selves through our relationship with God, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us, heal us and inspire us. That's what keeps us 'burning till the light of day'.

When using the imagery of the Good Shepherd Jesus talks about His sheep as the ones who recognize His voice. How do the sheep recognize His voice? Through regular listening and open communication. God calls us to tune our lives into the call of His love.

The sting in the tale comes as the five unprepared virgins arrive late to the wedding feast at the couples new home. They bang on the door. 'Let us in, my lord'. But it's too late. The groom simply doesn't recognize them. He has had no contact with them.  They are treated as unwelcome strangers.  'Truly I tell you, I don't know you.'

Failing to build a relationship with God in the present opens us up to the possibility that we may not get a chance to ever do so. William Barclay offers the following cautionary tale;

“There is a fable which tells of three apprentice devils who are coming to earth to finish their apprenticeship. They were talking to Satan, the chief of all devils, about their plans to tempt and ruin people. The first said, 'I will tell them here is no God'. Satan said, 'That will not delude many, for they know that there is a God'. The second said, 'I will tell them that there is no hell'. Satan answered, 'You will deceive no one that way, people understand that there is hell to pay when sin is given free reign'. The third said, “I will tell people that there in no hurry'. Satan smiled and said, 'Go! You will ruin them by the thousand.' The most dangerous of all delusions is that there is plenty of time. The most dangerous day in a person's life is when they learn that there is such a word as 'tomorrow'. There are things which must NOT be put off, for no man knows if for him tomorrow will ever come.

You may be familiar with the 17th century poet John Donne's famous quotation about the certainty of life coming to an end; 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . . .” What you may not be so familiar with is that the quotation comes from a larger poem that reflected upon the call of God to faithful discipleship through the church and our need to be concerned for our neighbor.

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions;all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and in-grafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me. All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so translated....

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...  Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . .
.” (from Meditation 17 by John Donne )

We only have so much time. There's no point in wasting it by worrying how much we have, or trying to figure out when the kingdom will be here in it's glory. As the wonderful catchphrase in Robin Williams movie 'Dead Poet's Society' bought to the popular culture, we have a responsibility to 'Seize the day” 'Carpe diem'.

But the question then, is how do we do that? Where do we find the resources for moving forward in faith? Jesus seems to offer something of an answer in our next parable, known popularly known as the 'Parable of the Talents'.  Read verses 14 – 30

"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them.  To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

  "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.' "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'  "The man with two bags of gold also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.' "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

  "Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'  "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?  Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. "'So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.  For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

I have been fortunate on a number of occasions to have had the opportunity to explore this parable in greater depth, on one occasion during a creative arts event, another over a youth weekend. The latter event we titled “USE IT OR LOSE IT”. The idea being that if we bury our talents, we lose them altogether. God calls us to use the resources that God gifts our lives with in the service of the Kingdom.

Whilst the story has a number of characters, the main focus of the parable appears to be upon the unfaithful servant. He's the one that draws our attention and invites our response. We don't want to end up in his situation. We would much rather hear, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master's happiness!' than 'Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

At first glance it may appear that the parable is about wise investing. The first and second servants  invest their wealth in such a way as to receive a 100% return on their investment. Maybe the significant phrase is that they 'put their money to work', implying that they were actively engaged in some significant endeavors that produced equitable results. I don't think they were simply on E-Trade trading stocks. For sure playing the Stock Market is a demanding activity, but such a market did not exist at the time! The implication is that both of these characters, though not equally equipped, took what they had and made the most of it.

Barclay comments: “It is not a mans talent which matters; what matters is how he uses it. God never demands from a man abilities which he has not got; but God does demand that a man should use to the full the abilities which he does posses. People may not be equal in talent; but they can be equal in effort. The parable tells us that whatever talent we have, little or great, we must lay it at the service of God.”

In that context maybe talent isn't the best term to use. I would prefer the word 'ability'. But the play on words is of course that a talent could be both a monetary amount as well as an aspect of a persons personality, so 'ability' doesn't work so well. My main reason for preferring the word 'ability' to 'talent', is that in our current culture the word 'talent' has come to signify people with particular gifts.

You do not find folk who can type at 70 words a minute auditioning for 'America's got Talent.' Typing at 70 words a minute is pretty darn impressive, particularly to myself who types with one finger and does that with difficulty! But I'm not sure the judges would be impressed enough to make it a Vegas show worth investing millions of dollars in. We may not all have what the world calls “Talents” … but we do all have many different abilities. There is stuff that we can do! And when we do that stuff... the best we can do it... then we are living faithfully before God.

The Master in the parable is usually interpreted as being God. To Jesus God has entrusted the work of the Kingdom. At His ascension Jesus commissioned His disciples to carry out His work through the strength of the Holy Spirit who came upon them at Pentecost. They are to use the gifts the Spirit gives them to bring others to know the Good News of the Kingdom.

We may notice that no particular instructions are given to the servants. Faithfulness is not simply obedience to directions. Each servant has to decide what is to be done with the money and how best to use their time until the master returns. For sure the master will be returning, but exactly when is never made the issue. All the servants know is that He has gone away and left them to take care of things.

As with the previous parable about the bridesmaids waiting for the groom, the emphasis is upon faithful service and doing the right thing, not on watching the clock to see if the time for the end had come. To Matthew's church community, some of whom had expected Christ's immanent return, this was an important emphasis.

Let us move on to consider the third servant. The poor fellow makes a number of miscalculations.
  • Firstly, he underestimates what he has been given.
  • Secondly, he underestimates his capacity to do anything with his abilities.
  • Thirdly, he underestimates the love of God
  • Fourthly, he underestimates the judgment of God.
Firstly, he underestimates what he has been given.
One can imagine him being a little envious of the servants who had been given five or two talents. According to one commentary a talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages! Another suggests it was only about $2000, but either way, the others received considerably more than he had. The tenth of the ten commandments suggests 'Thou shalt not covet' which, in this context, is a way of saying “Don't be so envious of what others have that it prevents you from fully enjoying the gifts you have'.

Focusing on what we don't have, rather than what we 'do' have can be a terribly paralyzing thing. We have all come across folk who tell us that they could have been this or that if only they'd had the breaks that some other person in life had been given. Well, guess what? Life's not fair. We are not all dealt the same hand. But we are all given cards to play with. We are not called to complain about what others have, but use to the best of our abilities what we have at our disposal.

Most telling are the words he uses at the end of the parable. “See,” he says to the master,  “Here is what belongs to you.” The Master had given that talent to him. The Master didn't need it and no longer owned it. It was the mans responsibility to make it his own. Instead of which he throws it back in the Master's face and says, “I couldn't do anything with this!”  This was highly disrespectful. He completely underestimates what he has been given.

Secondly, he underestimates his capacity to do anything with his abilities.
He's lazy. He doesn't want to do anything. Rather than 'own' his talent, he chooses to bury it, and actually expends the  little energy he has digging a hole and hiding his talent away. The one activity he involves himself in is a complete waste of time and effort.  When the Master returns he chastises him for not at least placing it in a bank where it could have gained interest (though one suspects that interest rates must have been a little better than they are at my local bank... or maybe not!).

The Master tells us that he's lazy, or as the older translations would have it 'slothful'. The implication is that he could have done something. But he deliberately chooses not to do so. Because he underestimates his capacity to do anything, he does nothing. We've probably come across folk who take that attitude. 'What's the point?” “What difference does my little make?” We easily forget that an ocean is made up of drops of water... and that every drop has significance.

Thirdly, he underestimates the love of God
This is his biggest failing. It can also be ours. We also can have a false image of God. The unfaithful servants words are...  'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid...” The master is pictured as over-demanding, judgmental and unforgiving. So it is some people have fixed in their minds that we have a God who always asks of us more than we can possibly give. The  response to such a view is one of paralyzing fear. If God is against us, how can anything possibly work out for the best? Such, of course, is not the God revealed to us through the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

I mentioned earlier that one of the events I'd looked at this parable with was a creative arts group. The format of the day was that different groups of folk split into groups and portrayed one of the characters or situations in the parable. One of the groups that turned up for the day were a rock and roll band. They provided a memorable picture of the unfaithful servant through a raucous song they titled “HE's a HARD man.... HE's Impossible to PLEASE”. I leave it to your imagination, but it surely did get the point across. A faulty conception of God leads nowhere!

I has been rightly pointed out that there are two traps we easily fall into. The first is to overestimate the judgment of God. The second is to overestimate the grace of God in such a way as to create a climate of 'anything goes'. The fourth and final characteristic of the unfaithful servant is;

Fourthly, he underestimates the judgment of God.
The man appears to be expecting that he Master will be pleased that he gets his bag of gold back. On the contrary the judgment of the Master is: 'You wicked, lazy servant!' The gift was given to the servant to be used. He doesn't use it, so he loses it. In fact he loses everything.

God's expectation of us is that we use the gifts and talents God has gifted us with for the promotion of the kingdom. When we fail to do so, we comfort ourselves with the thought that God is forgiving and gracious and won't hold us to account for what we have done with our lives. The final part of this parable reinforces what scripture elsewhere makes plain. That there will be a time when we have to account for what we have done with the wonderful gift of life that God has given us. Not a popular concept these days... but nevertheless, a very scriptural one. And indeed one that moves us to the next passage.

Before we read this passage, I'd like to point out that this is the last major teaching of Jesus that Matthew gives us. The chapters that follow are an account of His arrest, betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. We have a summary of what Matthew wants his community to believe is important in their mission and for true discipleship. Read Matthew 24:1-6;

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Matthew's gospel begins by picturing contrasting kingdoms. The gentle birth of King Jesus is contrasted with the megalomaniac actions of King Herod. The nature of earthly potentates who rule by force and domination are contrasted with the Servant/King Jesus whose manifesto is presented through the Sermon on the Mount that lifts up the work of peacemakers and stresses humility.

In the parables the growth of God's kingdom is pictured as being hidden among the kingdoms of the world, wheat and weeds grow side by side. The discovery of the Kingdom is pictured as being one of surprise, a man finds a hidden treasure, a crazy shepherd leaves ninety nine in a field and sets off on a mission to rescue a lost sheep.

Once discovered those who desire the Kingdom will give everything to be a part of it. A man sells everything he has to but the field. Jesus speaks of taking up a cross and leaving the things of this world, including it's kingdoms, behind. But in this final story, a time of game over and final judgment, any ambiguity is removed. To quote from the 'New Interpreters Bible Commentary';

There remains only these two kingdoms: the Son of Man with His angels, the blessed righteous, and the kingdom of God prepared from eternity stand on one side; the devil and his angels, the accursed, and the destiny prepared for the devil and his own stand on the other. The kingdom of God is disclosed as the only true kingdom.... ultimately only God is King

In this apocalyptic account of last judgment, a number of titles given to Jesus throughout the gospel are repeated and brought together. Jesus is the 'Son of Man' who has God for His 'Father'. He is called 'King' and 'Lord', reinforcing earlier images of Him as 'Messiah' and 'son of David'. He is the 'messianic shepherd ' who cares for His sheep, and the Judge who makes final separation between the sheep and the goats.

This is the only passage in the New Testament with any details that picture the nature of the last judgment. In our reformed  tradition we have become accustomed to picturing salvation as coming through our confession of Jesus Christ. We are fond of quoting Paul and emphasizing that any who calls upon the name of the Lord 'shall be saved' and  we make our bottom line confession “Jesus is Lord”. What is fascinating about Matthew's picture of the last judgment is that it has no confessional element, but is based upon 'works' rather than 'a statement of faith'.

This should not surprise us. Throughout his gospel Matthew has pictured the evidence of faith as being not rigid application of spiritual laws, something the Scribes and Pharisees were so very good at, but true religion, the true evidence of participating in the Kingdom of God, was shown through the actions of a person towards the 'little ones', those in society least able to help themselves.

Again to quote from the New Interpreters Bible Commentary:

To the readers surprise the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification or the forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds are not a matter of 'extra credit' but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment...   ...The fundamental thrust of this scene is that when people respond  to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding, or failing to respond, to Christ.

The true nature of the Kingdom is revealed to be love in action. Jesus throughout Matthew has taught that self-giving care for others is at the heart of God's requirements. He has demonstrated His love through His works of healing and deliverance. He has revealed Himself to be totally free to act in love, often powerfully and against the odds. Such miracles as 'Feeding the 5000' have reminded us of the 'exousia' (total freedom of action) that His life embodied. Jesus has pointed us to the importance of faith in order to achieve the aims of the Kingdom. Even a mustard seeds worth can move mountains and His Word is able to calm the storms.

Chapter 25 invites to take upon ourselves the disciplines of waiting, watching and working. We are encouraged to be patient. The Kingdom does not move forward according to our agenda. We are invited to watch. To always be on the lookout for signs of God's presence. We are told to work. God has gifted our lives with talents and gifts that God expects us to use for the Kingdom.

We move in the next chapters to consider the ultimate act of the loving service of Jesus as He surrenders His life for the world, going to the Cross for our redemption and being raised by God to show that even death could not defeat God's purposes.

But before that takes place, there is a last meal, there are accusations and denials, prayers and trials. Chapter 26 and 27 are long chapters, but as they are mostly narrative, they maybe need less explanation than other sections. Simply to hear the story is a testament all of it's own. Something I hope we see next time we meet together.

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