This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 15.34-16.13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17, Mark 4.26-34). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including handsomeness, green thumbs, passages for pastors, election and rejection, enthusiasm for the future, idolatry, confidence, human points of view, parable prejudices, and impossible possibilities. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Know How The Story Ends
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
To what may we compare the scriptures?
Or, perhaps more plainly, what’s the Bible like?
Well, the strange new world of the Bible is like a giant house that is full of locked rooms. And on the floor in front of every door there is a key. But there’s a catch: the key doesn’t fit the lock on the particular door.
The challenge, then, is to gather up every single key and begin trying them out on each and every door until the proper key is found that will unlock each room.
So it is with the scriptures.
They are so obscure that the only way to understand them is by means of coming into contact with other passages containing different explanation that are dispersed throughout.
This is a parable about parables.
Consider – the Bible is full of just about every literary form.
Genealogy. Poetry. Prose. Drama. Instruction. Reflection. And, of course, parables.
Take it up and read – you’re just as likely to find something familiar as you are to find something bizarre.
This is the challenge of this thing that we come back to over and over again, like fools wandering around through a house with a pocketful of keys having no idea where any of them go.
So it is that we wander through the Bible while using the Bible to make sense of the Bible.
And, stretching the parable out a little more, we might hope and suppose that if any of the rooms in the house were already unlocked and opened, they would be Jesus’ parables.
That we would so hope is due to the fact that parables are usually use to clarify something about something – they are stories that reveal truths that we would otherwise miss.
And yet, at least with Jesus, the opposite seems to be true.
We don’t walk away from the parables with exclamations of, “Oh that’s what he meant!”
Instead we often walk away only to say, “What in the world was that all about?”
The late great Robert Farrar Capon put it this way: The device of parabolic utterance is used NOT to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings… Jesus’ parables are intentionally designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of those who receive them.
Consider, briefly, the parable of the Lost Sheep.
Jesus tells his disciples that God is like a shepherd who, if one sheep among one hundred goes missing, will leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one who went astray. And, if he finds it, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.
Okay. A lot of us love this parable. We’ve heard it since we were kids in Vacation Bible School and the idea that God will never leave us lost is, truly, a comforting thought.
But, here’s the problem: The only thing guaranteed about going after one lost sheep is that the ninety-nine will go missing too. Going off after one is straight up bad advice because it puts all the other sheep at risk. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found!
The parable of the lost sheep is, like all of Jesus’ parables, confounding and head-scratching Good News. It is a stark declaration that God saves losers and only losers. God finds the lost and only the lost. God raises the dead and only the dead.
The parables of Jesus, from the Lost Sheep, to the Prodigal Son, to the Good Samaritan, though they vary greatly in form and even function, they all point again and again to the fact that God is the one who acts first and God acts definitely without conditions.
Well, there might be one little condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit that we are lost and without a hope in the world unless a crazy shepherd is willing to risk it all on us.
But to the passage at hand – Jesus, resting in the vibes of his favorite playlist, the Psalms, chooses to speak in parables and only in parables in order to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
This is the exclamation mark on a string of stories that include the sower who scatters seed indiscriminately, the weeds among the wheat (which must be left to grow together until the harvest), and the mustard seed.
All three of these brief parables point to the circuit-breaking nature of Jesus’ ministry and kingdom.
The Sower refuses to sow only where the seeds will bear fruit and is determined to rain down grace upon every type of soil.
No good gardener lets the weeds grow among the wheat, but in the Kingdom of God there is room for all to grow and flourish.
And the mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil, not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in a tomb, was raised three days later.
But then Jesus decides to tie up all of these crazy stories with the parable of the leaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.
In one sentence Jesus has fulfilled the promise and proclamation of the psalm: He has drawn the people in to hear the words from his mouth – he speaks a parable, utter dark sayings from old. They will not be hidden from children, and this story will be told to every coming generation describing the wonders that God has done.
But what’s so wonderful about a woman mixing yeast with flour?
Better yet, what in the world does that have to do with the kingdom of God?
For a moment, let us rest in the great and sadly controversial fact that the surrogate for God in this story is, in fact, a woman. Contrary to how it has been spread throughout the history of the church, all that patriarchal nonsense doesn’t have any foundation to rest on. In other places Jesus specifically compares himself to a mother hen, women are the only disciples who don’t abandon Jesus at the end, and without women preachers none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection from the dead!
The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like yeast that a woman took and kneaded it together with three measures of flower.
God, as the female baker, takes the yeast that is the kingdom of God, and mixes it thoroughly with the flour that is the world.
Now, think about this for a moment, the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus notes that she took three measures (SATA in Greek) of flour which is a bushel.
That’s 128 cups of flour!
When you’re done putting in the 42 cups of water necessary to get the bread going you’re left with over 100 pounds of dough.
But Jesus keeps going! That crazy 100 pound mass of dough is thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened.
The great, and at times terrible, part about baking bread is that once the yeast has been introduced it cannot be removed. It becomes hidden, it loses itself in order to become something else. It is a mysteriously wonderful thing to watch the yeast disappear into the mixture knowing that it will make something marvelous of something otherwise useless.
Which, parabolically, means that the kingdom of God, like leavened bread, has been with us from the very beginning and will always be with us. It is hidden in and among us doing it’s job and there’s nothing we can do to get rid to it.
No amount of badness, or even goodness, can do anything to the yeast that is already mixed with the flour and the water.
The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of the messy dough. The yeast works intimately and immediately and nothing can stop it.
But we, as usual, scratch our heads like the disciples and all who have received the parables. We keep wandering around the house with many rooms, struggling to hold all of the keys, without having any idea about which door to try next.
We wonder what, in the world, this parable has to do with us.
Well, perhaps this parable, this dark saying from of old, reminds us that the only thing we can do, other than admitting our need of Jesus, is wait for him to do his job.
Ask any baker, one of the worst things to do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And good bread, really good bread, is made when the yeast has the time to do what it needs to do without our mucking it up.
And, AND, when baking, the only way the yeast makes something of nothing is by, of all things, dying. When the yeast has finally mixed into the dough, and it is placed in the oven, it dies – and by dying it creates thousands of little pockets of air – it’s those pockets of air that makes the dough expand as its cooked.
Frankly, all of baking is a miracle.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure, and the patience, to bake bread it’s nothing short of incredible.
And here’s the real kicker – the air created by the death of yeast, warm carbon dioxide, is the same thing we create every time we breathe.
The whole of the Kingdom, Jesus seems to say, operates similarly by warm breath.
Remember: Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made, from the beginning of creation. God speaks creation into existence. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same Spirit, Ruah, breath, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.
Remember: Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his ragtag group of would be followers hiding in the Upper Room. Jesus speaks all of his parables only by use of a breath that was there before the foundation of the world.
Remember: The Spirit is blown on the day of Pentecost filling the newborn church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world. That same Spirit compels us, as the Psalm says, to tell the stories to the coming generations and declare the mighty works of our God.
Even me standing here and proclaiming the Word is only possible because of the warm breath that comes forth from my mouth. And, best of all, God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak.
In the end, it’s all about warm air. Whether it’s in the bread backing in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what all of us are doing right not simply to live.
Consider, for a moment, your own breath. From the time I started this sermon we’ve all, on average, breathed 150 times and we didn’t have to think about it at all for it to happen.
Just like the leavened bread, our breathing happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the bread of life we call Jesus, is mixed definitively into our lives, it unfailingly expands and makes something miraculous of us.
The job, strangely and mysteriously, is already done. Finished and baked before the foundation of the world. Completed by the great baker who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with some of his final breaths, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.
Which is all to say, whether or not we know what key matches with which door, we are as good and baked into salvation right here and right now. God, compelled by love, has kneaded us in with the holy baking trinity of flour, water, and yeast which will become something we never could on our own.
The only thing we have to do is listen to Jesus and trust that he has done and will forever do his yeasty work. And, in the end, when we start to small the fresh bread wafting in from the oven of the Kingdom, we will know that we are truly home, forever. Amen.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
The Lord Jesus Christ is Lord and King over all creation!
Easter and Christmas Eve are remarkable moments in the liturgical year, but there’s nothing quite like Christ the King Sunday.
Today, for Christians, is our New Year’s Eve, it’s time for champagne and fancy clothes and bad renditions of Auld Lang Syne.
It is our once-a-year opportunity to look both backward and forward. We look behind us to the story of Jesus as we followed his moves from a manger to meeting the disciples to ministering with the last, least, lost, little, and dead to table-turning to Holy Week to Easter to Pentecost and to the Ascension. And then, as the first Sunday of Advent comes a-knockin’, we look forward on this day to the second coming of the Lord, to the re-arrival of the once and future King.
In church lingo, we often refer to Jesus as the Lord, but we don’t live in a world of lords so to call Christ as such can feel a little empty handed. And yet, to confess Christ as Lord is to express faith in One who was, is, and will be the ruler of the cosmos.
But, when we talk of Jesus, we love to speak of him as a teacher, or a healer, or a rabbi, or a sage, or a spiritual guru, or the perfect moral exemplar. And all of that stuff is good and fine, but if that’s all he was, is, and will be, then he is only one of many and he isn’t really worth our time.
What makes Jesus Jesus is the fact that he is God in the flesh, dead on the cross, raised from the dead, master of all things.
He, to put it rather pointedly, is our King.
Our King, according to the strange new world of the Bible, was born as Jesus from Nazareth in the reaches of Galilee. He was poor and had no standing in the world whatsoever, but he went out talking about the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, befriending the friendless, and it attracted a whole lot of attention. And for good reason – he spoke to a people who, for centuries, lived through exile, defeat, abandonment, and foreign occupation all while waiting for the promised Messiah.
And so it came to pass that, after a flirting with popularity and controversy, the religious and secular authorities (church and state) finally got their acts together and put his little ministry to an end.
He was betrayed, beaten, abandoned to die alone on a cross, and buried in a tomb.
Later, his discredited would-be followers started moving from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean, and they delivered the news (we call it the Gospel) that this crucified man was the Lord and King of the universe; that even after his horrific and degrading death, even after being left dead behind the rock, he was resurrected and now rules at the right hand of God.
He’s the King.
And we pause on this proclamation for a moment because this runs counter to just about everything we think we know about power and glory and vindication.
It’s even more confounding that this One, this King, can speak to his followers as he does to us in our texttoday. These words comes to us from his final moment of teaching before his arrest, execution, and resurrection.
Listen – When the Son of man comes in his glory, he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gather all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Think about how strange this is! Jesus was born to nothing, he didn’t graduate at the top of his class, he didn’t have a full ride to Jerusalem University, he held no bank account, he had no job or mortgage or stock portfolio. And this man, who was about to be judged guilty under the guise of law and order, tells his followers that he is going to come again at the end of all things to determine the fate of every single human being who has ever lived.
Jesus is about to go on trial and he chooses this final teachable moment to tell those within earshot about the Great Trial, the one in which he will be the Judge.
Jesus will judge humanity, and its not just all of humanity that will be there – you and I are going to be there too.
Now, I know that sounds a little strange, but with talk of divine courtrooms and eternal Kings, it can can all feel a little above us. But this Jesus comes to us, to live among us, and, ultimately, to judge us.
Which leads us to the parable at hand, the parameters of separating the sheep from the goats.
These words are fairly well known among well-meaning Christian types – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… just as you did to the least of these you did to me.”
Generally, when we refer to this final teaching from the Lord, we (that is: the church) use it as a way to encourage more do-goodery from congregations. We hang it over the heads of those who follow Jesus in order to convince folk like you to serve at soup kitchens, donate gently used articles of clothing, and, at the very least, drop a few extra bills into the offering plate.
And yet, in looking over the parable, the response from those who are told they are about to inherit the kingdom is remarkable – they are amazed! They are amazed because they didn’t even know they had ministered to the hidden Christ among the least of these. That they are vindicated in their goodness is strange considering the fact they were not even aware they had done anything good at all!
On the other side, appropriately, the response of those on the King’s left are similarly surprised. They have no idea they had neglected to do the goodness so described by the Lord.
Surprises are in store for everyone, apparently.
If we are ever in the mood for self-congratulation, Jesus seems to say, the we are precisely those who have not done what we were called to do. The moment we think we’ve saved ourselves is the beginning of our end.
And if we think we can rely on explaining our lack of goodness away for lack of Jesus’ obviously identifiable presence, it becomes the end of our beginning.
There is therefore good reason to fear this parable – for it to leave us scratching our heads rather than comforted in the knowledge of our vindication.
Because, who among us can present a laundry list of more good deeds than bad deeds? If we take Jesus seriously, we need only think of adultery to have committed it, we need only think jealous thoughts to have stolen from our neighbors.
The end and beginning of discipleship is the recognition that, as Paul puts it, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understand; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
This, to put it bluntly, is a rather terrifying prospect. But that’s exactly what makes the parable so good.
For all of its terror, it is also the last laugh in Jesus’ ministry of salvation – it is the bestowal of the Kingdom of God on a bunch of dumb sheep who not only didn’t know they were doing good things for Jesus, but they also never knew they were faithful to him.
The language of separation remains, of course, but Jesus tells us the King will separate them one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and, lest we forget, Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
And the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but he also lays down his life for the goats as well because on the cross he draws all to himself, which is why all nations will be gathered in the end.
Remember – Jesus came to raise the dead, not to teach the teachable or fix the fixable.
What the Gospel stresses, what Jesus proclaims, what we are called to keep at the forefront of our minds, is the fact that Jesus is both Lord of the universe AND he identifies with the lowest and the least among humanity. And it is precisely the combination of both things that makes his final teaching ring clear. Otherwise it just descends into a Santa Clausian nightmare in which “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, Jesus Christ is coming to town!”
That’s not what Jesus is saying here! The division of the sheep and goats is not based on who is good and who is bad. If that were the case, then we’d all wind up among the goats.
It’s based, instead, on who the Shepherd is and what he’s been up to this whole time.
For, from the foundation of the cosmos, the triune God has been engaged and involved in the good work of drawing all into the salvific work of the cross and resurrection. The great story of God with God’s people has been one of rectification, not damnation.
The only thing we have to do, particularly since we don’t even know that we’re doing good things when we’re doing good things, is to take Jesus at his word and trust him.
Because, in the end, our King Jesus cares so much for the last, least, lost, little, and dead that he is willing to die for people like you and me who deserve not one parcel of his grace, replacing our unrighteousness with his righteousness, becoming the judged Judge standing in our place.
Our King, counter to every other king in the history of all things, looks upon our miserable estate, takes all of our sins, and nails them to the cross upon which we hung him.
And he leaves those sins there forever.
No one can earn or deserve salvation. No one can even know that he or she is saved. We can only believe it. We can only trust it.
You know, for all of the talk in the church of doing this, that, and the other, for all our talk of who is in and who is out, for all our talk about what is good and what is bad, this final teaching from Jesus offers a different understanding of the way things were, are, and shall be forevermore – we, even the brightest and most faithful among us, we don’t know what we don’t know, we are incapable of doing what we’ve convinced ourselves we have to do, we are, to put it simply, sinners in need of grace.
And even if we can’t rest in the trust that Jesus is good to his Word (for he is the Word), it’s all still Good News because Jesus is in the raising-of-the-dead business and he is very very good at his job. Jesus is the Love that refuses to let us go, he is the fatted-calf slaughtered on our behalf, he is the Divine Father rushing out to meet us in the street before we can even open our mouths to apologize.
And he also happens to be our King. Amen.
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the one talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
A businessman decides it’s high time for a vacation so goes down to the bank, takes out all his assets and calls three of his employees to a meeting.
“Look,” he says, “I’m getting out of town for a bit. Hawaii should be nice this time of year. And while I’m gone, I’m entrusting all that I have to the three of you.”
He drops a overstuffed duffel bag in the lap of employee number one and says, “There should be roughly five million dollars in there.” He tosses a briefcase to employee number two while saying, “two million.” And to employee number three, he slides a manilla envelope across the table and says, “one million.”
Before walking out the door with his Hawaiian shirt tucked under his arm and thoughts of strawberry daiquiris dancing in his head he says, “Now remember, that’s all that I have. See you when I get back.”
Immediately employees one and two start wheeling and dealing. They’re sending email after email, scanning through the Wall Street Journal, and can barely keep track of who they’re on the phone with.
Employee number three, however, does the prudent thing, the smart thing. He gets into his car, checks his rearview mirror constantly, and heads for the woods. He pulls off on the side of the road, noting a particularly funky looking tree that will help him find the spot in the future, trudges off into the woods, digs a big hole, and buries the envelope.
Eventually the businessman returns home with a nice tan and a few extra pounds around his waistline. He calls the employees to a meeting.
Employee number one arrives with a few extra duffle bags, employee number two has upgraded from a briefcase to a duffel bag, and employee number three shows up covered in mud, with a shovel over his shoulder, and the same (albeit dirty) manilla envelope.
The boss kicks his flip flopped covered feet up onto the conference table and opens his hands as if to say, “So how’d it go?”
Employee number one steps forward and says, “Boss, I took the five million you gave me, I invested some of it in highly volatile markets, purchased some real estate, started a few local business, and today I am proud to say that I was able to double what you gave me into ten million dollars.”
“Hot tamales!” the boss exclaims. “Well done! Well done! You’ve been very faithful, so I’m giving you a promotion and the fancy office at the end of the hallway! And tonight, we’re going out to celebrate!”
Employee number two steps forward. “Boss, I took the two million you gave me and I called up my bookie and made some bets. At first, things didn’t look so good, I had a great feeling about this one horse race and nearly lost it all. But then I wisened up, made some smaller bets on some different races and sure enough I was able to double what you gave me, so here’s four million dollars.”
“Yahtzee!” the boss bellows. “Awesome sauce! You’ve been faithful like you’re co-worker, so I’m giving you a promotion as well. You’re now the head of your department, and you can take my old office. Oh, and you can join us tonight for some celebratory drinks. And, if we’re having a particularly good time, maybe you can call up your bookie and we can make some bets together.”
And then employee number three steps up. “Hey boss,” he says sheepishly, “Here you go. I kept your one million safe – so safe that I buried it in a field and it never saw the light of day. To be clear – I did this because I know you. I’ve been working here for twenty years and I know that you can be one tough cookie. I know that you take over departments that are underperforming and you box out other local businesses. So I thought it would be wise to play it safe. Because if you’re the kind of boss that I know you to be, then I knew you would go one quite a tare if I lost what belongs to you. And so, dear boss, I am returning what you gave to me just as you gave it to me.”
And he drops the dirty envelope on the table.
“No,” the boss begins, “No, no, no, no, no. You just ruined the buzz of my vacation! If you knew I was supposedly so though, that I take what doesn’t belong to me, that I expect a lot from those who have received a lot, why didn’t you at least put the money in a Savings Account? A measly 4% interest is still better than 0%! Now you’ve got me all fired up. But do you know what really grinds my gears? I invited you into a relationship with me, a relationship you didn’t deserve one bit. A million dollars is a lot of money! But I trusted you with it. It was one remarkable gift. But what did you do with my gift? You decided to be more afraid of me than the risks. You played it safe because of some imaginary fear. And now, instead of being entrusted with more responsibilities around here, you’re stuck with what you started with.”
The boss stands up and starts pacing around the room.
It’s silent for the briefest of moments as the employees’ eyes follow their boss back and forth.
Then he says, “Because I am crazy with grace, with trust, I’m taking the one million away from you and giving it to the guy you made ten million. I’m doing this to remind you, and everyone else who works here, that it was never about the results. Don’t you see? It was all about the gift. All that matters was that you use it, not that you use it well or poorly. You could’ve made another million with what I gave you, or even two cents. Hell, you could’ve blown all of it on one stupid bet for all I care; at least that way you would’ve been a gambler after my own heart. But you just came in here, telling me that I couldn’t be trusted with whatever you came up with, and now you have to deal with the consequences. If you can’t live with my generosity then you can get out of here. Pack up your office, because you’re fired.”
This is a story for the end of the Christian year.
We rebel against the trends of the world and the supposed signs of the times, because God has remade time in his Son, Jesus Christ. We’re not quite to Advent, but the scripture readings from All Saints until Christ the King start to really hit home a message that, if we’re honest, we’re not quite sure how to feel about. There is a sense of urgency with the 5 bridesmaids stuck outside the wedding feast (last week) to the one talented man kicked out into the outer darkness (today).
It takes a certain amount of Christian fortitude to face the revealed Word in the Strange New World of the Bible, because we’re all ready to sing about the most wonderful time of the year, but what’s so wonderful about the parable of the talents?
We don’t like this parable. That we don’t like it is indicative of the fact that we, mostly, identify with the third servant (or employee in my version).
He’s the little guy. He’s practical and prudent. He’s smart to take care of the enormity of what was handed to him.
And for all of that, he gets thrown into the outer darkness.
This, then, is not a beloved parable.
In other places, Jesus told much nicer stories.
You know, like the one about the father who rushes out into the street to welcome home his wayward son, of the one where a poor little widow is praise more than all the rich people in worship, or even the one where, in order to pay some taxes, Jesus tells the disciples that they can find a coin in a fish’s mouth.
We like those stories because the last, least, and lost become first, best, and found.
But we certainly don’t like this one with the man trembling in fear with his one talent in his hand only to have the master take it from him and kick him out the door.
So, what do we think of this master?
After all, that’s the question that lingers upon completing the story. Sure, we might wonder about what happens to the servant stuck in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth, but it certainly isn’t going to be Good News. But what about the master? Who is he to make such crazy decisions?
Is the master a hard-hearted miserable old miser who truly reaps where he doesn’t sow?
Or, is he an extravagant, albeit reckless, boss whose faith in his servants is exceeded only by his ridiculous generosity?
He gave them all he had.
Is it really so strange that he expected them to be just as reckless with his money as he was?
Notably, the master of the servants/slaves/employees praises the first two precisely for their faith and the doubling of their talents seems to have more to do with the talents themselves than with the efforts of the two who put them to use.
I embellished in my own retelling of the story, but in the strange new world of the Bible all we learn is that they “went off and traded.”
Without having received all that money in the first place, they wouldn’t have been able to do much of anything.
And then the master has the gall to say it would’ve been better for the talent in the ground to have been put in a savings account to make a fraction of a percent.
Which, taking the parable seriously, implies that the master, our Lord, isn’t some bookkeeper looking for the most productive results, but rather he rejoices in the giving of the gifts.
As has been said many times, the parables are less about us and more about the one telling the parables in the first place.
And this parable tells us that, in Jesus Christ, grace will always do its job so long as we trust it.
But the one with the talent in the ground doesn’t trust himself, and he certainly doesn’t trust the master.
He, to put it pointedly, has no faith at all.
On the other side, the master is foolishly full with faith – giving all his money away for nothing just for the sheer joy of giving it away.
And, in the end, that’s what all the parables are all about – the reckless and wondrous gift of God in Christ Jesus.
It’s the party that’s always waiting to pop off, the one to which we’ve been invited for no good reason.
It’s the fatted calf out on the grill waiting to be consumed by the prodigal who did nothing but come home in faith.
It’s the champagne and the caviar for wedding guests who did nothing but put on the robes handed to them by their host.
It’s the full pay for next to no work at all to tomato pickers who just said yes to a ridiculous promise.
It’s the lost sheep found at the edge of a cliff who was found in its lastness, leastness, lostness, and nearly deadness.
But this is a parable of judgment. However, the only reason that judgment comes at all is the sad fact that there will always be fools who refuse to trust a good thing even when it is handed to them on a silver platter.
The final servant, covered in dirt from digging up the buried talent is afraid of his master. But we need’t fear God – In Christ Jesus we discover that there are no lengths to which God won’t go to prove to us that there are no restrictions on the joy he wants to share with us.
There’s no reason to fear God, unless we’re afraid of having a good time.
Jesus had some strange ideas about how to run things. He delighted in stories of employers who gave unfair wages, farmers who scattered seeds indiscriminately and all over the place, and parents who forgave their undeserving children.
And in this parable, the master delights in giving it all away just to see what the servants come up with through a ridiculous gift.
In the end, the master is the God we worship.
This is who God is.
How odd. Amen.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was s shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Advent traditionally starts the Sunday after Christ the King Sunday.
Which is basically the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
And, as God’s people in the world, who live and speak his praise, we know well enough to keep holidays, holy days, in their place.
It’s why we sigh and lament when we see Halloween decorations in the store in the middle of the summer, and Christmas decorations adorning homes before Thanksgiving.
And yet, as Christians, we’re always living in Advent. That is, the time in between the first arrival of Christ and his second coming.
There’s never really been a time for the church that wasn’t Advent – and Advent is its best when we see it as the season of waiting.
So today, despite the power of proper liturgical location, we’re going to have a little Advent. Because if Jesus’ parable is about anything, it’s about waiting.
Listen – Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…
The biggest wedding in a century is about to take place, and the whole community has been abuzz. Did you see her dress? Can you believe all the imported decorations? Is that a real band we hear warming up for the reception?
Ten bridesmaids are waiting from the groom, because what good is a wedding feast if one of the wedding partners is missing?
The wedding is scheduled at 2pm, but the bridesmaids have arrived with plenty of time and with all of their lamps. You see, it was a tradition in this town to welcome the groom with a festival of lights upon his arrival but, seeing as how the wedding was supposed to start in the middle of the afternoon, just as the sun prepares to set, they only brought what they thought they needed.
At least, that’s what half of the bridesmaids did.
The other half, inexplicably, showed up with a couple barrels of kerosene to keep those lamps going even though they wouldn’t need it.
But, unexpectedly, the groom is behind schedule. Hours pass and the bridesmaids can scarcely keep their eyes open when finally, at midnight and with trumpet sound, someone declares, “Behold! The groom is here! The time has come to light the lamps!”
The half with the kerosene barrels are dancing and giggling with excited expectation while the other half start bargaining for more oil.
But there’s not enough to go around.
Therefore, the reasonably unprepared crew sets off for the nearest 7-11 in hopes of procuring the necessary flammable liquids.
By the time they return, however, the doors to the reception have been closed, and despite the girls’ best puppy dog eyes and earnest pleadings, the doors remain closed and they hear the groom’s voice from the other side, “Truly I do not know you.”
Therefore stay awake, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
So much for Jesus being a kind and fair Lord, right?
So much for open hearts, open minds, and open doors, right?
So much for a crowded kingdom of heaven, right?
If we’re honest, this parable rubs us the wrong way. We’re fine with a little nudge toward Good-Samaritan-like behavior, we can even handle the subtle hints about the need for forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal family, but who does Jesus think he is telling us that some don’t get in to the wedding banquet?
Notably, the central figure in this confounding little parable is absent. There’s no miraculous gift of talents, or the prophecy of a coin in a fishes mouth, or even the chopping down of a fig tree – The bridegroom is missing and the bridesmaids are waiting.
It’s an Advent story.
But notice, dear friends, before Jesus reigns down judgement upon the foolish and sleepy bridesmaids, the total inclusion of the wedding feast prior to the party’s beginning.
All ten are part of the wedding party waiting for the party from the very start.
They’ve done nothing to earn their invitation, we learn nothing of their miraculous morality or their gobs of good works, we don’t even know if they were kind to the bride, they’re simply the people for whom an invitation arrived in the mail.
Contrary to how we so love to talk about it in church, good behavior doesn’t save or damn anyone, God has thrown out the ledger book forever, the invitation have been sent out indiscriminately.
What we do with those invitations, however, is something different.
Because, in this parable, there is condemnation. But the condemnation only comes for those who trusted in themselves and in the world more than the Lord.
And, though this certainly ruffles feathers, it’s sound theology.
After all, when salvation by faith alone is proclaimed (when we say things like we don’t have to do anything because Jesus has done everything) it feels like salvation has been made too easy. It means that anybody could get in for nothing.
Faith, then, is belittled to mere mental assent, and we can’t help ourselves from wondering, “If the real work is already done, if we’re already saved, then why should we try to be good, or kind, or loving?” And “If the world is saved in its sin, then why shouldn’t we keep on sinning?”
But, faith isn’t just some decision we make in our brains. Faith is all the intricacies within a trust-relationship with a person – Jesus. And being in relationship means we will always be doing something, not just thinking some things.
Therefore, the question would be better positioned like this: “Since Jesus, through his life-death-resurrection, has already invited me to the Supper of the Lamb, why shouldn’t I live as if I’m already at the party?”
We don’t have to do anything to get in, that’s Jesus department. But as invited members to the wedding feast, it’s good and right for us to live into that joyous celebration now in anticipation of then.
As to the question of continuing in sin, part of the problem is, no matter what, we’re going to keep on sinning. Sin is not really something we have any choice about. Sin is very much who we are.
Sure, we might be able to kick some of our bad habits, but we won’t be able to ditch the root of the problem. No matter how good or bad we are, all of us choose to do things we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
The expression “nobody’s perfect” is meant to comfort us when we mess up. But it’s also just true – nobody’s perfect.
And yet, in spite of our imperfection, God sees fit to hand us a new creation gratis and invites us to live as if we trust that gift.
That trust is what we, in the church, call faith. And faith is a gift – there’s no easy answer as to why some of us trust the Lord better than, or more than, others. Except, perhaps, by what Jesus offers us in the parable in question. But faith is a gift, offered freely to all. God, however, will not force us to accept this gift.
And its here, in recognition of the gift of God, that we start to squirm in our seats. Because, apparently, in spite of God’s total desire for salvation for the cosmos, there is a moment when the present will come into contact with God’s divine reality and the party will begin.
But there is no space at the party for party poopers.
All of the parables point to God’s graceful and grace-filled actions in the world. And here, in a parable of judgment, God will triumph in bringing the party to fruition while also separating those who rejoice in the mystery from those who are hellbent on keeping things the same.
Which leads us back to the parable.
Ten girls are on their way to a party, tickled to death for having been invited in the first place.
Five of them are wise, five of them are foolish.
Pause – let us consider, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.”
Okay, the foolish bridesmaids are those who are wise according to the ways of the world. And the wise bridesmaids represent the wisdom of faith which means trusting in the foolishness of the cross.
But for now, they all have what they need – an invitation.
The foolish, though, took lamps with them but no oil. They are those who live according to the logic of the world and what should happen. They are a bunch of happy winners, rejoicing in their win streak, who believe that their good fortune will always hold out because it always has.
These five foolish bridesmaids, knowing its a daytime wedding, reasonably assume they have no need of extra oil – they are rather sensible in their preparation.
The the other five, the so-called wise bridesmaids, insist on lugging around a bunch of kerosene, just in case – nothing could be more dumb. They have complicated their lives by preparing for nothing. They’ve packed their parka for a trip to the beach, and a bathing suit for their trip to the arctic.
And this is when the parable becomes a parable – something goes wrong.
The bridegroom is late, so late that the bridesmaids fall asleep.
BOOM the clock strikes 12, and Behold, the Bridegroom, finally, arrives!
The unexpected happens, just like it does in life and in the strange new world of the Bible.
The bridesmaids, even in their dozing off, have done what all Christians do – they wait.
For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people – We wait, in faith, and it is in our waiting that all the good work of the kingdom comes to fruition.
Because waiting is all we have to do – whether we’re like Peter or Judas, if God really does take away the sins of the world, then all we need is faith to accept the invitation of waiting for the party.
The bridesmaids wake up, and they get to work. However, half of them discover they don’t have enough oil for their lamps. They don’t have enough because they never believed they would need it.
In the end, it comes down to trusting in something that is foolish to the world and wise in the Kingdom of God.
The foolish girls run off to buy more oil, at midnight no less, but it is too late. When they return, the door to the party is closed.
The shut door is an image that us well-meaning Christians don’t particularly enjoy, but it is God’s answer to the foolish wisdom of the world. For, in the death of Jesus, God closed forever the ways of winning and rightness.
But the wise bridesmaids, those who are foolish in the eyes of the world, who were willing to trust God more than themselves, were found in their lastness, leastness, lostness, and even deadness to rejoice and celebrate at the party.
And all of the do-gooders who were so sure they could save themselves when it really came down to it, they’re stuck out in the dark with an unusable invitation.
God is a God of judgment, but it is not a judgment based on the political meritocracy that we find in the world, it’s not a judgment of who is good enough, it is a judgment of trust.
Are we willing to rejoice in the knowledge that we get invited even though we don’t deserve it?
Or, do we want to believe that we can make the case for our own deserving even though we deserve nothing?
“Keep alert,” Jesus says at the end, “Because you don’t know when the waiting will end.”
This parable can frighten, and it can confound, but when we come to the conclusion the most appropriate response is, strangely, to laugh (if we can).
We laugh because the thing we’re waiting for is a party!
And that party is not some exclusive club in the hippest part of town with a giant bouncer holding a tiny list of VIPs. The party is already here in Christ who delights in bringing the party to us rather than waiting for us to earn our way in.
I then end with these all too important words from Robert Farrar Capon, “God is not our mother-in-law coming to see if her wedding-present china has been used, or if it has been chipped. God is our funny old uncle who shows up with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”
Jesus is the life of the party and he wants a big crowd – the only thing we need to do is trust in him, nothing more, less, or else. Amen.
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
What do you all think?
There’s this guy with two kids and there’s yard work to be done. So he wrangles them out of bed and says to the first, “Hey, grab a rake and start working on the leaves.” The kid pulls the covers over his head and says, “No way Dad.” But later he changes his mind, and goes outside to rake up the leaves.
The father also tells his second kid to get out on the lawn and the kid responded with a, “Yessir” but as soon as he got outside, he got on his bike and spent the day riding through the neighborhood.
So, which of the kids did what the father wanted?
The first who, though the call of the bed seemed so strong, actually went and raked leaves?
Or the second who, though he said he would do it, actually spent the day doing whatever he wanted?
Truly I tell you, the people begging on street corners, the economy stealing stockbrokers, the pregnant teenagers, and the squanderers of inheritance are all going into the kingdom God ahead of you.
Ahead of us.
What must we do to be saved?
It’s an interesting question, particularly for those of us habituated in a world of meritocracy.
Do we have to be baptized?
Is there a certain percentage of Sundays that we have to be engaged in worship?
What amount of money demonstrates a salvific commitment to Kingdom of God?
How many wrongs do we have to right to wind up in the right place, in the end?
That question, for some, lingers above most of what we do whether its a truly theological reflection, or we’re merely thinking about how good we have to be in any given moment.
And, in some places/churches, the question is answered with a list of things to do and a list of things to avoid.
Preachers may or may not speak about it explicitly, but it definitely shows up in preaching and teaching and also on our individual Facebook statuses and our trite little tweets – we implicitly affirm a whole host of expectations.
I’ve said it before, but the church has become a version of the next best self-help program where people like me say to people like you, “Hey, the mystery of the Kingdom isn’t nearly as mysterious as we make it out to be, and if you want to be part of it, there’s some things you all need to start working on.
“Now, you might want to write all this down, because it’s important: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, and STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”
And, at first glance, this brief little parable about who actually does the work of the father seems to support a view in which we have work to do.
God in Christ has given us commandments and, well, we better follow them accordingly.
Doing, then, is the end all and be all of a life lived in Christ.
But, what if that’s actually wrong?
And by wrong, I mean dead wrong.
Notice – Jesus tells his story, dangling it out for the scribes and Pharisees and us, and then he ends with a reference to the salvation of tax collectors and prostitutes. And, by doing so, Jesus seems to be saying that salvation comes not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding and even good, but simply because they believe.
Salvation, according to Jesus here in his little aside, comes only by belief, by faith, by trusting in someone else to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own.
But, that’s exactly the problem because it all sounds too easy – it sounds too simple.
Is Jesus telling us that anyone can just stroll through the pearly gates just for having a little faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed? They don’t have to do anything else? They don’t have to right all the wrongs and only make good choices and be perfect all the time?
That sounds a little unfair doesn’t it? I mean, what about all of us who have worked so hard, and done all the right things, and followed all of the important rules?
Everybody getting in gratis feels so wrong – it runs counter to everything the world runs on.
Which, in the end, is exactly what makes it right.
No matter how much we talk about grace in the church, and no matter how much we sing about it in our hymns, we don’t really like it. It’s too… free. It lets squandering sons and delinquent daughters get into the Kingdom for nothing, all while disregarding the good people.
You know, people like us. People who drove to a church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon.
So, we continue to offer words of encouragement about how much God loves everyone and forgives everyone, but then, for some reason, we make it good and clear that the aforementioned everyone have to clean up their act before God will do all the loving and forgiving.
We do this because we want to make it abundantly clear that church is for good people, and the world is for bad people.
Which only goes to show that we, sadly, have more in common with the Scribes and the Pharisees and than we do with those who are getting into the kingdom first.
We’ve confused the Good News of Jesus Christ for the bad news of works-righteousness.
We’ve failed to see the how offensive the Gospel is, because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing in ourselves rather than believing in Jesus.
The problem with grace is that it doesn’t sell – it doesn’t give us a list of things to do to fix all of the disappointments we feel here and now. It’s not a Peloton that promises to slim our waistline, it’s not a mindfulness technique that guarantees to lower our anxiety, it’s not a book that insures we will feel happier on the other side.
Grace works for losers and only losers, and no one wants to hang out with losers.
No one, that is, except for Jesus.
The world of winners, people like us, will invest in myriads of moral absolutes, and truck loads of self-improvement seminars, and heaping baskets of do-goodery.
But the world of winners, people like us, refuses to opt-in for free forgiveness because that threatens to bring in all of the disreputable types.
Thankfully, however, the Holy Spirit has a knack of reminding us, all of us, that we’re all unworthy, that we’re all up the creek without a paddle, that we’re all in need of some saving.
And we can’t save ourselves.
God’s plan of salvation is that we trust Jesus. That’s it. God has already forgiven us, God has already reconciled us, God has already raised us up with Jesus. And, to make it even better, God has thrown away the ledger against us forever.
Our sins were nailed to the cross and God left them there.
If we want to keep believing the kingdom works on works, that there’s something we have to do to get what God is offering, we can absolutely believe that. But that’s not the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection.
In the end, we are saved by grace for free. We do nothing and we deserve nothing. It is all one huge and hilarious gift. Thanks be to God.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Jesus loved to speak in parables.
Perhaps he enjoyed watching his disciples scratch their heads or maybe he knew that parabolic utterances have an uncanny way of allowing the truth to really break through.
Peter wants to know what the forgiveness business really looks like and Jesus basically responds by saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end to forgiveness. However, knowing that wouldn’t be enough, he decides to drop a parable on his dozing disciples to send home the message.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay back the king, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold into slavery.
Summary: Don’t break the rules.
But then the slave speaks. Having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.
So how does the king respond? Moments ago he ordered the man and his family to be sold into slavery, but now he, bizarrely, takes pity, releases the man, and forgives ALL his debts.
The parable goes on to describe how the now debt-free servant holds a small debt over the head of another servant and is then punished by torture, but I want to pause on the king.
Because this king is a fool.
He offers forgiveness without spending much time in contemplation – he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisers and he doesn’t even weigh out what the payment on the debt would mean for the kingdom.
Instead, the king chooses to throw away the entirety of the kingdom for one servant.
Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the parables – to forgive a debt as great as the servant’s is not merely a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving the ten thousand talents (read: ten million dollars), the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would thusly be destroyed.
The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift – it’s a radically changed life through death.
Jesus is setting Peter up with the story, and all of us who read it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world through his dying.
He will destroy death by dying on the cross, by giving up the kingdom for undeserving servants, by going after the one lost sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind.
He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.
Jesus delights in breaking the rules and expectations of the world by showing that things aren’t as they appear.
There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ Jesus. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true.
If there was a limit to forgiveness in the Kingdom, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.
Jesus uses this parable not as a way to explain everything to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous understandings.
Or, to put it another way: the world runs on debt and repayment (at interest), but the Kingdom of God runs on mercy and forgiveness.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We’ve come to the end.
Both the end of our series on the parables of the Kingdom and to Jesus’ proclamation, parabolically, about the end of all things.
The Kingdom is like a net that catches everything so that the angels can sort out the evil from the righteous.
This is a story about judgment.
And we don’t like judgement.
You know, judge not lest ye be judged and all that…
But I think it’s more that we like to talk about not being judgmental while actually being addicted to the judgments we make against ourselves and others.
Consider this: How many conversations have you had recently about people and their willingness or unwillingness to wear masks?
It’s notable that, having talked at length about the Kingdom, yeast and seeds and weeds, Jesus ends the entire sequence of these parables with a story about fishing.
It is an ending about the end.
Jesus has been laying it on thick for the crowds and for the disciples. But then we encounter, “So it will be at the end of the age” – the Eschaton, a final period on the whole kit and caboodle.
This is the moment in which all of the stories about the Kingdom are summed up by the Lord of lords.
Listen – The Kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea that catches everything. And, only when the net is full, is it brought ashore and the good are put into baskets while the bad are left on the sand. So it will be at the end of the age. My angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Sounds like a party, right?
The Kingdom is like a net. Strangely enough the net, SAGENE in Greek, is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that only appears once in the entirety of the New Testament.
It’s very very rare.
Nevertheless, the net here is one dragged through the water indiscriminately taking up everything in its path.
It is not the tiny net I carry on my fly fishing bag to help collect the one solitary fish I’ve been trying to reel in for fifteen minutes.
It’s more like a trawler that picks up everything.
And everything means everything. Not only fish but also seaweed, trash, and other oceanic items.
This, of course, runs counter to how we often imagine the fishing stories from Jesus and the way we portray them in Children’s Bibles.
Jesus says, “If I be lifted up I will draw all to myself!”
Which is all to say, just as the net fetches out everything it meets in the sea, so too the Kingdom fetches out everything in the world. When Jesus proclaims that a new heaven and a new earth are coming, they are not replacements for the old ones, we don’t get zapped from one to the other – they are transfigurations of them.
Jesus doesn’t abandon planet earth to go stake out a claim somewhere else, he raises creation and glorifies it.
The totality of the net might sound like an overstatement, but the word for fish doesn’t actually appear in the Greek – even though plenty of translators have opted to stick it in.
Its just says the the net was tossed into the sea and caught everything.
This means, parabolically speaking, that everything and everyone gets swept up into it, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the poor and the powerful.
There is a sorting to come, we cannot ignore that, but not before the net draws everything in. While the net is being dragged behind the boat, doing its work, judgment is nowhere to be found. Which is a reminder for those of us called the church that the kingdom, while still in this world, does nobody any good while remaining in the judgment business.
But judgement, of course, is what we do best!
It’s been one of the favorite pastimes of the church since the very beginning. The practice of tossing out the bad apples while the net is still int he ate drawing everything in has been everybody’s preferred method of “furthering the Kingdom.”
Everybody’s, that is, except Jesus.
Sometimes it takes weeks and weeks of sitting in the parables to realize how much of a miracle it is that the church has made it this far all the while confusing the words of the divine Word incarnate.
We have heaping examples how how judgmental the church has been, all while Jesus has been doing his best to drag the net of the kingdom across the ocean floor of our existence.
Consider how adulterers, murders, and philanderers have been paraded out of both pulpit and sanctuary. But its not even just the really bad sins we hold over the heads of others: we dismiss the liars and the cheats, the questionable and the bizarre.
Throughout the centuries we have picked our particular flavors of allowable and unallowable all under the auspices of keeping the good in and the bad out.
And what do we have to show for it?
Now, if we talk about sin in church at all, we do so in a way that denies our sinfulness while highlighting the sins of others. We’ve taken down the mirror of the Gospel, the law that accuses us dead in our sins, and instead we wag our fingers at those who don’t align with what we think is good and right and true.
And, I must confess, I’m guilty of this just as much as anyone else. I mean: Do you know how much fun it is to belittle and bemoan televangelists for the wildly inappropriate theology they drop on their dozing congregations? Do you know why it’s so fun? Because it makes me feel better about myself!
We love to point out the sins in others all the while ignoring our own.
But Jesus? Jesus didn’t shy away from sinners. So why should we?
Of course, we might think that the church welcomes sinners. But we don’t. At least, not really. We’re only inclined to welcome the sinful so long as their sins aren’t of much consequence and their willing to repent and never fall back into their sinfulness.
Should we let people get away with their sins? Is that what Jesus wants? A church full of worthless sinners failing in their inability to be good?
Yeah, kind of.
It’s not so much about letting people get away with it, but recognizing the real condition of our condition such that we see salvation isn’t possible on our own. We don’t have the capacity, on our own, to turn it all around. It’s only ever possible because of the Spirit working in us and through us.
Consider Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians: If there had been a law, a rule, that could have saved us then it should have already happened.
We can change, we can get better. But it’s God who does that work and, like the Kingdom, it’s rather mysterious. There’s no good answer to why one person is better at dropping a bad habit than someone else. There’s no good answer to why someone gets through grief faster than someone else.
God works and we know not how. It is, to make the point even finer, a mystery.
The church, at her best, is merely a sacrament of God’s Kingdom, an outward sign of the mystery in the world. It is like a version of the net, doing its best to sweep through the dark waters of life, collecting anything and everything.
What happens next is entirely up to God.
And thats when the real judgement begins…
The plunder is brought to shore to sort out, in Jesus’ words, the good from the bad. What makes the good good and the bad bad? Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with here, but its entirely in the eyes of the one who tossed out the net in the first place. That is: Jesus is the one who decides what goes in the basket and what get left on the sand.
Notice, again, that the separation only occurs after the net has already done its job, only after the mystery of the Kingdom has come to fruition, only after the power of Jesus’ reconciling work.
Everyone who comes before the divine sorting, if we want to call it that, has already been judged by the Judge who came to be judged in our place.
The whole world, the all the Jesus draws into himself, is accepted in the Beloved.
The forgiveness of wrongs, the rectification of sins, pronounced from the cross and the empty tomb is for all.
What we choose to do with that forgiveness is tricky business.
Think about the older bother from the parable of the prodigal. His Father, rather recklessly, forgives the younger son from his squandering ways, throws him a party and then insists that the older son comes into the cut up the rug. But we never find out whether or not the older brother joins the party.
Does he enter the room, grab a drink, and head for the dance floor?
Or does he stay in the outer darkness while weeping and gnashing his teeth?
In the end, God is throwing a party, the Supper of the Lamb, and we’re all invited, no matter what.
The question isn’t what constitutes a life worthy of the Kingdom, but instead, what are we going to do with out invitation?
Notice: nobody goes to hell because they made too many bad choices in this life anymore than someone goes to heaven because they made enough right choices. Everyone meets Jesus in the mystery of his death and resurrection, they are swept up in the great net whether we think they deserve it or not.
Counter to many of our church ramblings throughout the centuries, and even today, we are not judged by the Lord in the light of our previous proclivities. If we were, none of us would go anywhere but hell.
Instead we are judged by what Jesus does for us on the cross. He announces a forever and all encompassing forgiveness that transfigures us into his kingdom in ways that are hidden and right here among us.
Let me put it this way: Everybody, even the worst of the worst, is someone for whom Christ died. Whenever the church goes around kicking people out for missed and poor choices, we fail to live into the netted-ness of Christ’s salvific work.
Sinners are the church’s business for God’s sake, literally.
We worship a Lord who came not to condemn the world but to save it. Until the end of the age, the only thing we can do is rest is the Good News that Jesus delights in catching us and everybody else.
But back to the judgment reserved for the Lord.
So it will be at the end of the age, Jesus says, my angels will come and separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous.
How did the righteous ones get to be righteous? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus makes us righteous and we can’t do it on our own.
To whom is the gift of Jesus’ righteousness offered? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus came for the whole world, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.
But then how can some of them be judged as evil?
And that, dear friends, is the question of all questions.
Is it because not one of us is righteous, no not one (to steal an expression from Paul)?
Is it because, even though Jesus told us not to judge, it’s still our favorite thing to do?
Is it because we’re all dead in our sins and in desperate need of a Savior who can save us from ourselves?
The angels of the Lord will separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous. This is God’s good work, for there will be no evil in the end of the age – there will be no death, no mourning, and no crying, for God will make all things new.
Do you see? Even at the end, God in Christ is hellbent on getting every single one of us into his Kingdom, even if it means separating the evil out of us so that we can feast at the Supper of the Lamb forever and ever.
There is to be joy in heaven! Not just over one found by the Lord but over the ninety nine as well.
There is to be joy over a whole New Jerusalem populated entire by forgiven sinners whose citizenship is based on nothing but their forgiveness. Not their good works of perfect report cards. Only by the forgiving and reconciling work of God. So be it. Amen.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel, ain’t the afterlife grand?
And then I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town
Then as God as my witness, I’m gettin’ back in show business
I’m gonna open a nightclub and call it “The Tree of Forgiveness”
And forgive everybody ever done me any harm
Well, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics
Buy ‘em a pint of Smithwick’s and smother ‘em with my charm
Yeah when I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm
What are you gonna do with time after you’ve bought the farm?
Those are some of the lyrics from John Prime’s last recorded song before his recent death. And, I haven’t been able to get them out of my head. For one, the chorus is pretty catchy and I feel just the right amount of naughty for singing about drinking Moscow Mules and smoking cigarettes. But mostly because of the bit about watches in heaven.
I mean, what good is knowing what time it is when you’ve already bought the farm?
Buying the farm, incidentally, is an expression that came into existence around the time of World War II during which the insurance payout on a soldier’s death often afforded the opportunity for a surviving widow to pay out the mortgage on the homestead – ie. Buying the farm.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which a man found and then subsequently hid again. Jesus, in all of his parabolically paradoxical wonder, does some of his best work in hiddenness, in the not-yet-to-be-understood.
It’s why the parables leaves us scratching our heads instead of really understanding the subject at hand.
Even the earliest disciples struggled with the stories. After Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection for the third time, not the second nor the first, scripture tells us that the disciples did not understand any of these things, and they did not know what Jesus was talking about.
The mystery of the kingdom, even when its most literal details are all spelled out remains inaccessible to their understanding.
Which means we’re in good company with the disciples.
God is God and we are not.
Or, as the psalmist puts it, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
But Jesus is hellbent on bringing us closer to the hidden mystery, even if it means we’re none the wiser on the other side.
Ultimately, Jesus says, the mystery of the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field; it is something worth selling anything we must in order to enjoy having it at all.
Most of the time when we read these two brief parables in tandem with one another, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, we think of them as proxies for our individual responses to Jesus’ kingdom. That is, each of us have the ability and the responsibility to go out seeking the kingdom and must be willing to pay whatever price for it.
But, it’s more than that.
Because the two who are so willing to go and sell everything for the mystery is just as much about the whole church as it is about the individuals within in.
It’s about the church’s relationship to the world in which it finds itself, and how in the world they relate to one another.
Right now, in the midst of a pandemic that is keeping us from gathering in-person with one another, the lines have become more blurred than ever about where the world ends and where the church begins.
And this is Good News.
What makes the advent of our current time such Good News for the church is the reminder that the church is not a club of insiders who happen to have a monopoly on the mystery that is the kingdom made incarnate in Jesus Christ. The church is not about our respective identities, or good behavior, or particular income brackets.
The church is a sign to the world of the mystery by which the light of the world has already shined upon all of creation.
Let me put it another way: For far too long the church has operated as if it’s this specific enclave that has access to salvation that the world does not, that people outside the church have to come inside and be just like us in order to have access to the one we call the Lord.
And there’s some truth to it – “there is no salvation outside the church” is a prevailing theological understanding across the church. But that language implies that everything is already perfect inside these walls and everything is damned outside. It leads churches to believing we are the paragons of virtue, the arbiters of everything that is good and right and true. And therefore we believe that evangelism, whatever it is, is all about making outsiders look like insiders – its all about getting people out there, in here, so that they can look, act, and speak like us.
What that ignores is the fact that the church isn’t full of perfect people – its full of sinners!
But that’s not how we act.
Instead we put up signs about how welcoming we are, and we’re only really welcoming so long as people start assimilating the moment they join the club we happen to call church.
Or we take the latest buzzwords and create slogans for our websites about tolerance, but we don’t tolerate anything outside what we consider worthy.
Or we invite people to church implicitly assuming that it’s our job to fix our friends/neighbors/co-workers so they can have perfect lives just like us!
All of that is false advertising.
It’s like putting a cake in the window of a running store – it only confuses people about what our business really does.
Similarly, whenever we market the church as a bunch of perfect people only getting more perfect, we deceive people as to what we are all about.
Notice – the discoverer of the treasure in the field goes and buys the whole thing. He doesn’t bury the treasure off in the best corner of the lot only to purchase that small portion. He buys the whole thing!
The church doesn’t exist as an a priori negation of the world, nor does it stand off as an exclusive country club for only the best of the best – the church is filled with the world whether we like it or not.
And the sooner we start liking it the better off we’ll be, because without it none of us would cut it.
The church is not perfection here on earth because its filled with a random sampling of all the broken people the world has to offer, the very people for whom Christ died, people wading through the waters of baptism to live in the light of the resurrection recognizing that we deserve not a single beam of it.
Rather than only procuring the best part of the field, the man buys the whole thing complete with sink holes, poison ivy, weeds, and thorny bushes.
The same then holds true for the church – if we can’t bring ourselves to buy, that is: bring in, every different condition of our condition, the smart and the stupid, the good and the bad, the holy and the unholy, then we can’t even pretend we’re the church at all.
But why all this insistence of the all-ness of the mystery of the kingdom? Why isn’t it just for the choice and select few who maintain moral purity at all times?
Well, in addition to the totality of the field purchased by the parabolic figure, and the willingness of the merchant to sell all he had to buy the pearl, the power of the mystery is hidden in the most universal of all things: death.
Now, bear with me for a moment: I know we don’t want to have to think about death any more than we already do. Though, I will note that just about every single product in the world is designed and advertised to make us think we can live forever.
But Jesus does his work, his best work, in the mystery of his own death, its in the darkness of a seed buried in the ground or treasure in a field or a man in the tomb, that the world is forever turned upside down.
And, for what its worth, though Matthew tells us that man bought a field, there’s no reason to think the field wasn’t a farm. And, in the end, we all buy the farm.
Some of us get stupidly rich, some of us get horribly sick, some of us lose people we love, some of us write book, some of us teach others how to read or write books, some of us lose ourselves, and some of us throw it all away because of one foolish mistake, but every last one of us dies in the end.
Every single person, whether Christian or not, whether good or bad, will someday come into possession of the field of death in which Jesus has hidden the treasure of his salvific work.
As has been said from this pulpit on a number of occasions, the kingdom of Heaven will only and forever be populated by forgiven sinners. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who want no part of forgiveness.
The entire world will buy the farm.
And the best news, the Good News, is that we are saved by meeting the Lord in his death.
Some of us participate in Jesus’ death here and now in the deadening of ourselves in the waters of baptism, whereas others experience it only at the end of their days, but Jesus comes to raise the dead. That’s his mysterious work. And there’s nothing on this earth that can stop him from doing it.
But, that’s not how we often talk, as the church, as Jesus’ body, in the world right now. Instead, we take this profoundly powerful and mysterious Kingdom and make it out as if there are only two types of people in the world – the completely right and the dead wrong.
And, again, the purchaser doesn’t buy only the best looking parts of the field. He procures the whole thing!
Which leads us to the parable of the pearl of great price.
The merchant is looking for something and he knows not quite what he is looking for until he finds it.
Or, perhaps, it finds him.
All of us, in different ways, are merchants of our own desires – shopping day and night for that which we don’t quite know or even understand.
We adopt the latest culturally relevant habit because we believe it will make us whole.
We go and buy the latest Apple product because we convince ourselves it will finally bring order to the chaos of our lives.
We look for the greener grass over the next hill because surely life must be better than whatever this is.
And then, if the miracle of miracles occurs and people stumble into the church (or online during a streamed service) looking for something, what does the church offer in turn?
Hey, um, here’s the mystery of Jesus Christ all wrapped up nice and neat for you, the in-dwelling or his kingdom, but… if you want any part of it, you’re gonna need to shape up. So, uh, write this down, you need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.
If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher ethical stands, they might be converted from something, but not to the Gospel.
I mean, who the hell would sell everything to buy all of that?
That whole list is undoubtedly filled with good things, things that we should probably all work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations. He says, “Come to me all of you with heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”
The work of Christ, the hidden mystery of the kingdom, frees us from the sins that shackle us to a world in which we will never really feel home in.
Our home, instead, is in the kingdom. It is the kingdom – a kingdom built on love, freely offered and given to each and every single person past, present, and future, and the only thing anyone ever has to do to have it is buy the farm.
Because purchasing gladly at whatever cost is the heart of these two brief parables.
It is an utterly precious and priceless mystery – something to be enjoyed.
At the very least, there should be smiles in the church, not grimaces. We should be hearing Good News, not bad news. We should relish in our freedom, not in our burdens.
For, Jesus as the mysterious kingdom is already buried and hidden in the world. The church just as the good fortune of sharing that Good News with anyone and everyone whenever we can. Church, at its best, is nothing less that joyful discovering the truth that’s always been there, the truth that meets us where we are, that Jesus has already done for us far more than we could ever do for ourselves.
In the end we don’t have to sell everything we have for the field or for the pearl because, as the old hymn goes, Jesus paid it all.
Therefore, the grace of Jesus Christ is actually free. It’s not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.
And that’s exactly what makes the Good News so good. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 28.10-19a, Psalm 139.1-12, 23-24, Romans 8.12-25, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Zoom meetings on the Peloton, dreaming dreams, timelessness, (un)holy spaces, God’s choices, birth pangs, losing control, doom-scrolling, parable preaching, and making the world a better place. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Knows Your Internet Search History