Year A, Proper 28
November 16, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The church year ends next week as we celebrate the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King in slightly more patriarchal terms. And the end of the church year always ends on a scriptural low note. The Gospel readings last week, this week and next are pretty, shall we say direct. Last week we heard about the bridesmaids trimming their lamps, remember? The foolish ones, the ones who had not prepared by filling their flasks with oil when they had time, they ran out to buy oil once the bridegroom was announced and when they returned, the door was locked. “’Lord, Lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’” And right before that, in the 24th Chapter, we hear of the unfaithful slave who was given charge of the food stuffs while the master was away. When the master is delayed, he begins beating his fellow slaves and cavorting with drunkards. In that story, the master will “cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where (again) there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And next week, Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday, we hear of the righteous going into eternal life, and the wicked… according to the text, they are headed somewhere a bit warmer.
This is St. Matthew’s eschatological discourse. Eschatological means ___ the theology of death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul and all of humanity, you know, the little things. And it makes perfect sense; Jesus offers these teachings while sitting on the Mount of Olives just two days before his crucifixion. He knows that He is going away and He is giving instructions, His final, private instructions to His disciples. What is he saying? Be alert, for you do not know when I am coming back. Conduct yourself as expected, because I might show up any time. Be ready! Have those oil flasks filled before the bell tolls at My return.
And it is these instructions, and ideas like it, the whole notion of the Parousia, the waiting for Christ’s immanent return that allowed the church to survive the desolating sacrilege that was about to befall them. This notion of the desolating sacrilege is two-tiered. In the historical context in which St. Matthew was writing, the “desolating sacrilege” was the destruction of the Temple by the Roman Legions in the Jewish Wars that ended in 70. (This gospel was written somewhere between 80 and 90). In the destruction of the Temple, the religious, political and economic heart of Israel was ripped out by the Empire. It was devastating, a “desolating sacrilege,” which changed the face of our spiritual ancestors forever. That is the broader historical context, Matthew’s society had collapsed by the time of his writing.
The second tier of desolating sacrilege is right here in the narrative trajectory of the Gospel: Christ’s death on the cross. His arrest, torture, crucifixion, the scattering of the 12… The failure of the movement… that was what was happening in Matthew’s story. That is certainly how it looked from their perspective, the end of the world was nigh. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” For both the larval Christian community and the entire Hebrew people, these were dark days and everyone held on for some glimmer of hope, something had to give. All this suffering couldn’t be for naught, right? So here were these stories… He was coming back, so be diligent, do what you know you are supposed to do because He is returning, “…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is how the Gospel ends.
So for most of Chapter 24 and the first part of Chapter 25, I am right there with Jesus. Be alert. Be prepared. Like the homeowner who stays awake so that the thief cannot break in. Don’t fall into a “cat’s away the mice will play” kind of habit. Do what you know needs doing: fill those oil flasks now, live like you are supposed to live now, and not just to save yourself as He rounds the bend. I get it. I hear it.
But, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the immanent return of Christ. The eschaton, the final days, the rapture-like theologies that have captured so much of American religious imagination the past 20 years doesn’t capture my imagination. Those things don’t motivate my behavior, nor does it motivate most of you all as far as I gather, but the lessons Jesus is teaching here are just good, best practices of the religious life. Be prepared. Keep awake. Pay attention for we have no idea or control over what is to come. Absolutely. Then we come to our reading for today…
“You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter?… For to all those who have, more will be given… 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.”
So what do you make of this? And discount the fact that anyone who is doubling money in the market in such a short time must be taking advantage of someone, evil must be happening, but we’ll put any form of justice hermeneutic aside for a moment… Seriously, what do you think is going on here, maybe not even what does it mean, but what does a text like this make you feel? ___
Scripture is supposed to make us uncomfortable at times, to spur us into action, to deflate our endemic hubrus. “Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable,” is an old pastoral adage that Scripture certainly models. The Collect of the Day for today, Proper 28 points to this importance. Regarding the gift of scripture, the collect petitions, “Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ…”
There are parts of scripture that delight. Parts that comfort, hold us in desolating times. Parts that spur us to action, that fill us with a feeling of deep closeness to God and the world and those we share it with. There are parts that invoke a tingle of mystery, of approaching something majestic and eternal in nature, something that calls us to our knees in all sorts of ways. Beauty. Awe. Power and Glory. In scripture we are linked to generations and generations of others who have read and prayed upon these very same verses for so many of the very same reasons and in many of the same ways.
Then there are other parts. Some parts that are just hard to understand. You ever find those? Ones you just can’t make hide nor hare of? Not knowing the context, not knowing the how and why of why a text came to be; that doesn’t help. Or parts that just don’t make sense; results of poor translation, editing and redaction over nearly 3000 years of being passed down from generation to generation. Many of these problems can be overcome by study, by learning more about this holy library we have inherited. The longer I sit with scripture the more alive one of my professor’s metaphors of scholarship becomes. She describes such learning of scrubbing a dirty window over and over again, trying to get a glimpse inside. Over and over again, slowly, slowly you can see in just a little bit more, overtime it becomes a little less blurry, a little more clear.
And there are yet other parts. The violent fantasies in the psalms. The Levitcal death sentences for all sorts of things. The endemic patriarchy of the whole affair. Our Gospel reading for this morning. The God I know doesn’t take from those with noting and give to those with everything. The God I know doesn’t declare anyone worthless let alone cast anyone into the outer darkness. This has nothing to do with my experience of God, albeit my experience of life is that of nearly epic privilege, as an American man who is white, educated, wealthy enough, straight, healthy and the rest of it. This text doesn’t seem true to the God I know, and yet… here it is, staring us in the face, requiring us to deal with it. Well, to at least listen to it proclaimed in the ritual way we proclaim things such as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of the things I longed for in my time as a Unitarian seminarian was a lectionary, was this very moment, something to hold us to account, to make us think about things, pray on things, preach on things that we would just as well gloss over if not straight out ignore if left to our own devices. I longed for the humility of encountering things I don’t understand, can’t understand, doubt we were meant to understand. And here we are.
I don’t know what this passage means, not in my heart. It troubles me. I doubt the picture of God I have in my head when I read it. It angers me, makes me uncomfortable, makes me question what I think I know about the Bible, about the nature of the world and about Jesus Christ. Does this passage tell us we have each been given great talents (literally) and we best not squander them? Is it saying that we must not live in fear of God, in fear of the consequences of taking risks with the gifts we have been given? Is it an object lesson in taking responsibility? Is it a cautionary tale from the class war that masters always reap where they does not sow, gather where they did not scatter so get used to it? Maybe? Yes? And more so…
Encountering passages like this is a great hubris check for me. It knocks me down a notch or two from my systematic theological perch where everything has its place and everything cross references to everything else. Our God is not that neat. Our God is not that containable, explainable. No God worth worshiping or dedicating a life to fits into an understandable box. This is one of the deep gifts of scripture, and it is a gift that comes with a lot of responsibility and all it takes is opening up that book sitting there at your bedside. “Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest…” The truth you discover will set you free. AMEN