A Reflection on Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; 25:14-30 by: The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
When I went to my oldest son’s high school 9th grade orientation, the teacher leading the session said, “The clock is ticking!” The message was shape up! Study hard! Your future starts now! Fail now, you’ll never catch up!
The way the church has structured these last weeks of the church year is like that. Certainly last week’s lesson of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is marked by urgency, and the remaining lessons in the 25th chapter of Matthew push that boundary. Urgent, yes, and the standards are high: God is expecting a lot from us.
But the 25th chapter of Matthew is about more than that – about more than a liturgical device to get us ready for Advent, the season which defines getting ready.
Recently, I have come across the scholarship of Linda McKinnish Bridges, through her article, “Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel in Ordinary Time: The Extraordinary Tales of God’s World.” (Review & Expositor, 2007.) She reminded me of the strange and destabilizing effect of parables, and this 25th chapter of Matthew has three of the strangest and most destabilizing. The English word “parable,” she reminds us, comes from the Greek “para,” meaning alongside, and “bole” meaning hurl or throw, and so at its very root a parable is more than a sweet story, an allegory whose meaning is to be teased out and neatly fit into a liturgical lesson. In college, I took a class on James Joyce, and every page of Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake had to be read with a glossary in hand, to decipher each symbol and sign. Linda McKinnish Bridges reminds us that we can’t quite do that with parables, which are really too weird and curious. The parable is a metaphor which defies easy explanation, whose purpose is indeed to make us stop and think. The parables are full of everyday images from first century Palestine, and yet they are not historical snapshots. The illustrations come from the commonplace but Jesus puts them together in a way that disturbed his hearers – and those same images come hurling toward us as well, causing us each time we read them to scratch our heads and wonder, what is this about, really?
For the past several years, I have noticed that biblical scholarship has tugged us in new ways. I keep remembering what I heard John Dominic Crossan say in a lecture around the time his book Paul and Empire came out. The Roman Empire is not in the background, but in the foreground of all the gospels, he said. It is not just how we decorate the slide shows of Jesus’ spiritual teachings, but the context which shaped the lives of the followers of Jesus who wrote down his life story in the gospels. The structural oppression of Empire was in the very air they breathed. The Gospel of Matthew, then, is not just the story of Jewish-Christian disciples trying to figure out how to preach to the Gentiles. It is a story of resistance, a “left-handed power” of non-violence – the only way to resist an Empire of power and violence, the only kind of power, Linda McKinnish Bridges says, that evil cannot touch. The gospels themselves are parables, hurled at us over time and space, destabilizing our understanding of religious faith as something that keeps us happy, allows us to accommodate, to be nice, to refrain from controversy. The gospels subvert the power structures of the world, showing us that love and sacrifice and compassion and mercy rule. They use the words of this world – words about economics and power – to undo the conventional wisdom of what the world means by them.
This week we read the middle parable of the three in the 25th chapter of Matthew. The master is not interested in conventional wisdom, in the safe bet, the “prudent man” rule. The master demands that his servants be venture capitalists, taking what he gave them and giving him back more. If last week’s parable shocked us into vigilant preparation – get that oil ahead of time! -- this week’s shocks us into taking risks. We’ll have to wait until next week for Jesus to tell us just what it is we have been given, and what Jesus expects us to produce in abundance.