This week’s readings again speak of waiting and accountability and the end or return of Jesus. The parable of the talents comes at the end of Matthew and is part of Jesus final days and preparation of his apostles. Three servants are entrusted with either 5, 2 and 1 talents. A talent was a very large sum, an amount far surpassing a lifetime of wages for a typical Jew. The most interesting and at the same time, puzzling thing, was the reaction of the Master to the servant who had 1 talent and was afraid to act and use it for fear of his Master. The first two acted correctly and made a nice return on what was given them. Now this parable was meant for the apostles and the early church which was waiting for Christ’s imminent return. So we might ask, what is it Christ could have given to the early church that they could fail him in an accounting on his return. In fact, what today also? That one thing has to be love and sharing the faith, the foundation of church and community. All his followers are called to love and spread and teach the faith and spread Christ’s love to the world. So what our parable tells us, is that if we in some way bury or stifle our love we are not using our talent. Love is a thing that must be worked at to grow and spread. Growth and change are important parts of loving, as people in a loving relationship will tell you. When stagnation sets in, growth can stop and in Christ’s church the result can be harmful to it mission. The Holy Spirit is alive in the church to keep it active in its growth to bring all into a loving community. The church is a people, a community, not an institution or buildings. Change has always been in the church, yet never without many different voices challenging one another that lead to the many splits in the body of Christ through the centuries.
As individuals, we have been given our faith and are called to love as best we can. Surely the questions of the larger community is beyond us in a sense, but nothing prevents us from loving and sharing person to person on a daily basis as we go about our daily business. Nothing prevents us from be that loving person we are all called to be.
33rd Sunday Ordinary time 11-19-17
Proverbs 31:10-13; 19-20, 30-31, Ps: 128:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6;
We begin our Gospel reading with the verse immediately after where we left off last week after the parable about the ten young women waiting for a bridegroom. 5 women ran out of oil for their lamps. While they were away buying oil, the bridegroom came and locked them out of the wedding celebration. They failed to be prepared.
As Fr. Joe told us, this parable was not about weddings, but about the last days, the end times, the 2nd coming of Jesus. And the lamps are not about oil or energizer bunny batteries, but about being prepared for the inevitable judgment that is part of the end times. We’re more apt to say something like, “Get your lights on”, meaning to understand what needs to be done, and to make sure our faith and our behavior line up. We are talking about being tuned into God (prayer), staying tight with our faith (worship), and using the life teaching app Jesus left us (the Bible).
So we must again look at today’s Gospel and interpret it through the lens of last days and end times. This is again not about money, or interest rates. The Greek talanton was a huge monetary unit of silver coinage worth about the same as the lifetime earnings of a Palestinian laborer. Parables often use exaggeration to make the lesson more obvious, but the fact that the first servant was given 5 talantons should tip you off right away that whatever we are talking about is of great value, perhaps even something that cannot be bought or sold. Also notice the master is entrusting his property to the servants, very valuable property. The master is taking great risk and his high expectations are clear.
The other important piece is the setting of this parable. This takes place after Palm Sunday. It is two days before Passover. Judas is about to begin his negotiations with the Chief priests to betray Jesus. This is Jesus’ last major teaching to his followers. He has already told them that he will be crucified. He, like the master in the parable, is going away, for a long time. What valuable property is Jesus entrusting to his disciples? He’s given them the message of the kingdom. What a privilege it must have been to hear it from Jesus, yet it also was a great responsibility. Those who hear it are accountable for continuing to share the message as Jesus gave it to them. It is a message that makes any amount of money seem insignificant, and the expectation is enormous.
So what does Jesus give each one of us? Breath, life itself, forgiveness, love, mercy, grace, unselfish love; companionship, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, free will, birds, flowers, our food growing in the fields, and the riches of the earth! We could continue to add to the list all day. And what does he ask us, his servants, to do? Well, we are to be responsible for the church, for living and sharing the Good News we have heard. We are to join together in community, encouraging one another and embracing the needy, the hopeless, the sick, and those imprisoned in bad choices. We are to “handle these accounts” for him until he returns. It is a huge responsibility, even more than those large sums of money. The servants who doubled the master’s money were praised. The master says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come share your master’s joy.”
What will earn us praise? What is it like to be responsible for the church? Jesus is not suggesting the church should remain as it was. Pope John XXIII said: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” The apostles knew that the church was not to be buried in a “safe” place.
That sounds like what the 3rd servant did, who just kept the money he was given safe. It did not grow. He did it alone, without going to any bankers or fellow servants to guide him. He just, well, did nothing; life as usual. But his response to the master gives him away. He says he knew his master’s expectations and he was afraid. Given the master’s reaction to the other 2 servants, I have to question if he really knew his master at all.
He reminds me of people I meet. They say they know what Jesus taught, that they understand the expectations of love and generosity, yet somehow they remain unmotivated to be productive or get help changing their life, and they continue on, disobeying the master, somehow thinking that handing back the money would be enough. Did your math teacher give you a passing grade when you had not learned anything? Does the mortgage get paid when you have not earned anything? No; and there are consequences. The 3rd servant found this out. He lost his job and his home, and suffered in remorse. He was bound by fear of loss, and loss was the result.
But we just talked about St. Paul’s 2nd missionary journey; that demonstrated that Paul was often not safe, worked hard sometimes for little gain, but always rebounded to move on and share the Good News of Jesus and the resurrection. He taught the scriptures unceasingly, he created faith communities all over Asia Minor, and his letters created a network of Christians. He took enormous risks, with no regrets. He wrote, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for at the proper time, we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9)
Are you willing to take risks for the Gospel, or are you paralyzed by fear? If you were a leader in the Church, what kind of risks would you take to insure growth of the faithful? Let those questions perk in your mind, for we will come back to them another day. The intent of this parable is to urge us to be faithful in our obedience to the Gospel until Jesus returns. The idea of stewardship derives its importance from the importance of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom. The parable’s harsh ending of judgment and punishment is not necessarily a realistic description of divine judgment, but it serves to warn us and shock us into thoughtfully considering how we invest ourselves in the growth of the Kingdom.
Stay tuned: next week will be the last Sunday of the church year, and Jesus will finish his “last days” homily, which includes more specifics of his expectations and how to meet them.
32nd Sun Ordinary time, 11-12-17 Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm: 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Once again our Lectionary is playing a trick on us. What does it do? Well, it leaves out the first word of our Gospel! What is that word? The word is, “Then”. Why does it matter? For two reasons: first, it lets us know that this part of Matthew’s Gospel is a series of teachings and parables about the end times. This parable is not free-standing and disconnected. Second, it tells us that Jesus is teaching about things in the future. In fact, all of verse one is important. Jesus says, “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to (or “will be like”) ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” This lets us know we need to read it like a parable, which is a lesson which uses a story to explain some important point. The story isn’t the point, and the characters and setting aren’t the point – but the story is a way to make a point. The kingdom of heaven is “like” the whole story, not just parts of it or people in it.
One of the common problems with this parable is that people get hung up on the unimportant setting of the story. We don’t know a lot about the historical wedding traditions of Jesus’ day, and what we do know indicates that many areas had a variety of traditions.* Where the bridegroom was coming from or going to is not part of the story. This is not about the church, or the maidens, or lamp oil. When we focus on these things, we miss the point of the story. Let’s talk instead about what the parable teaches.
This is a parable that was in part clarified by the Dead Sea Scrolls, found only some 50 or so years ago (the writings of the Christian community at Qumran). The document 4Q434a* describes messianic times when evil ends, the earth is filled with God’s glory, and sins are reconciled. “(The Messiah) will console them in Jerusalem…like a bridegroom with his bride he will live for ever…his throne is for ever and ever…” This fits with Matt 9:15 (Cana wedding), Mark 2:19-20 (When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast), and Luke 5: 34-35 (also in response to questions about fasting); these are all scriptures where Jesus used the term “bridegroom” for himself. So, the coming of the “bridegroom” in our Gospel refers to the second coming of Jesus.*
Matthew also uses the idea of “I do not know you” in Matthew 7:23 when Jesus tells his followers, “No every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, those who do not do God’s will be told, “I never knew you; depart from me.” Scholars suggest that this was a common expression of the day for a teacher whose followers failed to follow through with what they had been taught*. This expression reminds us that there will be a final judgment – those who have done the will of God will be separated from those who chose their own beliefs and agenda. There are consequences for filling our days with goals that do not match God’s will, and leaving love and wisdom until “later.”
This parable was told to Jesus’ followers. But it also was a warning for all who heard him, Jew, Pharisee, or Gentile, us, then or now – to be prepared for Jesus’ return. The surrounding teachings in Matthew chapters 24 and 25 all stress the need for being ready for the end times – whether it should come earlier than expected or later than expected.
Indeed, the parable just before our reading is the parable about the servant who is drunk and abusive to the other servants because the master is away, and is not expected for some time. The master arrives sooner than expected and the servant is punished and thrown out. The servant was not ready. Now we read about women who are not ready when the bridegroom was delayed. In this instance, the parable is based on this delay. The delay* is the factor which reveals which women were prepared and which were not.
Some people have suggested that Matthew conceived this parable to assure Christians who feared that Jesus would not return. But there is no evidence of that here. Rather, we are reading about wisdom and foolishness in regard to being prepared. Jesus uses “Wisdom” and “readiness” as synonyms.* Matthew, Mark, and Luke all emphasized Jesus’ statement, “heaven and earth will pass away…but of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father alone… therefore, be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”
So, we are to be alert. We are not to sit on the sidelines, with a ready supply of beer and pretzels, and watch life go past us. Our call to readiness and preparedness is to faithfully fulfill our Christian calling. When we care for our neighbors, near and far, we actively display our faith for all to see. We are like lights in the darkness of selfishness and greed. We display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22) In one of the great paradoxes of life, we find that by choosing a path which may appear difficult and burdensome, we find joy and peace.
We proclaim victory over death. We pray God’s Kingdom will come. We work so evil will come to an end. This is a way to live – each day and in every circumstance, a frame for how we approach life; the basis for every decision we make. Wisdom, Solomon wrote, “is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her. (Wisdom) hastens to make herself known, anticipating (our need for her)”; Wisdom will not disappoint us. And Jesus, upon his return, will find us ready.
*From Klyne R. Snodgrass’ book, “Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the parables of Jesus.” William B. Eerdmans Publisher, 2008, Pages 509-518.
As we approach the end of the year, both liturgically and really, the readings seem to get ominous and in a sense scary as they talk about the end of the world. None of us likes to think of our own mortality or the world around us falling apart or ending. Realistically, thinking of our death or the end of the world, isn’t really a wise thing to do or a wise way to start a day or to plan ahead. What is really wise is not to plan our departure but rather plan the present moment, the waiting as well. As Christians, we know that with Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension, and his sending of his Spirit, that God’s kingdom is now. We are called to be present to others, to be Christians, to give, to share, to care. These are the things that last and benefit the kingdom. God’s kingdom is now, in our own lifetime. What we see and share and believe is only a preparation for what will be in another time and place. God’s presence is now and always. Many speak of wasting time as they rush through their daily schedule. Perhaps the rushing is the waste if we neglect interaction and caring along the way. How many people, friend or not do we rush by? How often do we step aside to pray? Or to just appreciate God’s gift of the world around us, a scenic place, or a sunset or sunrise? Or to embrace and appreciate the family and friends we have?
All the above is important because death or the end of the world is not an end for us or God’s kingdom. Life will not end but change. That change is told to us by God but what it entails we don’t know. We do know that all who have died will rise and God will embrace all who are to be in his kingdom. But we as Christians are already in his kingdom if we are living as Christ asked us to do our passage should be a reunion of all those we have known and those we will come to know.
Lamentations 3: 17-18, 21-26; Psalm 103: 8, 10, 13-17; 1 Corinthians 1: 51-57; Matthew 11: 28-20
We come together today to remember friends, family, husbands and wives, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and all that we held dear and all who left their mark on our lives, for the good or not so good. We mourn them all. Many of us still have paper address books, where it is not so easy to delete names. Some of us even leave those who have passed on in our electronic contact lists. It is not because we deny that gap in our lives and in our hearts, but because we know instinctively that even when a living beings stops breathing, a heart stops beating, that life is not simply deleted from the universe.
Pollsters have numbers for us about who says they believe in God or believe in heaven, or believe in life after earthly death. They tell us that such beliefs are trending down. I suspect that people’s lives are often filled with stress and over-filled schedules, and there is little time to consider such issues.
Yet I will tell you that I spend little time wondering if I believe in God or heaven or eternal life – and that is because I have confidence in all of them. I have spent enough time with people, time with the dying, time in the scriptures, time in prayer to know I believe. I don’t pretend to know the how or where or when or why or who. I don’t need to know the answers to those questions – because I trust what I have seen and heard and read and felt. It is not a belief based on emotions, but rather a kind of knowing at an entirely different level.
I have lots of good company with my beliefs. There are four sets of readings designated especially for this day, with the option of many more which are listed in the Order of Christian Funerals. That book offers 7 Old Testament readings, 19 New Testament readings, 10 Psalms and 19 Gospel readings. This is belaboring the point, I’m sure, but I took this great math class, learning about combinations and permutations, so we have 25,270 different combinations of lectionary readings for today. I’d say that means lots of other folks through the years would testify on my behalf if my beliefs were questioned.
All that, however, is really only evidence. None of that really dulls the pain when we lose someone we hold dear. One priest friend told me to think of old coal burning train (just for a moment we will set aside the environmental concerns). The engine, you know, the locomotive, moves the train. What comes directly behind the engine? The coal car, of course. The engine cannot move without fuel. What comes behind the coal car? Well, the freight cars. The freight cars are where we would put our emotions, our feelings. Emotions are important, just as freight is important. But the coal car is our faith, and that’s what fuels us. That is what makes us know that we can move through this life, despite the hard times and the big losses.
Even more than “get us through,” faith presents an entirely different scenario to consider. What do our readings suggest? The first reading, paraphrased, says, yes, life can knock the stuffing out of us. But the Lord is still there, the creator and shepherd of us all. The Lord brings a new day every morning, a new start, and new hope. Healing can be slow, but God is with us through it.
Our Psalm says, yes, life seems all too short and far too fragile. But God is love and love is eternal. Love does not seek to punish, but to reward, love seeks us out. Love will hold each of us close forever.
St. Paul in our 2nd reading tells us we have immortality in our future. Things will not always be as they appear to us now. Things can and will change. Death is not the winner. Love and life are, in the end, victorious. God has created us to be part of that victory.
Finally, in our Gospel, Jesus assures us of his presence and his help in the times when the burden seems to be just too much.
Many saints, as death drew near, have written that they looked forward to what came next – not in despair or in a maudlin or selfish way, but in anticipation of great joy. Part of a Christian funeral is the concept of celebrating the life that is to come. So we stand in the great flow of life. Behind us, we miss those who are gone, but rejoice that they are safe with God. Ahead of us, we wonder about the future, but look forward with confidence that we will join them when God “wipes away every tear, when there will be no more death, no more mourning, nor crying, nor pain.” For all those things will have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)