Pentecost XXVI - Proper 27A
November 9, 2009 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
I don’t know about you, but sometimes, when I read Matthew’s perspective on Jesus, I have to scratch my head and said, “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew! That’s not the Jesus I know.”
Sometimes I have to work very, very hard to hear the mission and ministry of Jesus through Matthew’s obvious 'agenda.”
So, let’s start with the setting of this gospel passage. What I know about weddings in ancient Israel is that the process was a long and involved one.
It began with a proposal, which was really more like a business deal. You know – the party of the first part (that would be the father) would arrange with the party of the second part (that would be the prospective groom) for an appropriate exchange of some sort of currency (money, goats, etc.) for the property (that would be the woman, the bride-to-be).
The woman, once married, was expected to move into the home of her husband, and they often lived with his parents. After the proposal was made and a deal struck between the two men, a date would be set and the prospective groom would come to fetch his bride-to-be so that they might “know” one another. That meant, of course, that they would have “carnal knowledge” of each other.
Once evidence was given that the woman had been, in fact, a virgin (usually by hanging the bed clothing out the window), the party of the third part (that would be The Party) could ensue and the marriage could take place – perhaps within the next day or so – including the signing of the Ketuba, or marriage contract. I know. How romantic.
What we are witnessing, in this passage, is the point at which the groom is coming to fetch his bride. She has asked 10 of her friends to assist her (I can only imagine how much anxiety there was in all of this. I’d need all my girlfriends around, too).
Five of them have prepared for the night by getting extra oil. Five have not. Matthew reports that Jesus says that those who were not ready were not allowed into the party, and so it will be for anyone who is not ready when Jesus comes again.
Okay, okay. I get the point. We all need to be ready for the second coming of Jesus. What I don’t get is that if we’re not, we won’t get into heaven.
That is decidedly not the message of Jesus heretofore.
It is, I have no doubt, the message Matthew wants to communicate to the original audience of this gospel – all those slackers who were not following the People of The Way – in exactly the right way.
My friend Dylan Breuer calls this image of Matthew’s Jesus as “Christ-inator,” after the robot assassin Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the first Terminator movie – an unstoppable force, absolutely determined to kill-kill-kill, and empty of any human feeling, let alone compassion, for its victims.
Matthew’s “Christ-inator” ‘vill be baaak’ – and it won’t be pretty. Not ready? Too bad for you. You won’t get into the Eternal Banquet that is already taking place in the Realm of God. Pity.
This is me, still scratching my head, still saying to myself, “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew! That’s not the Jesus I know.”
It is, however, the Jesus that many fundamentalist Christians believe in – and want you to believe in as well. Haven’t crossed all your ‘t’s’ and dotted all your ‘i’s’ in this life?
Their ‘Christ-inator’ will banish you to the far reaches of the seventh rung of hell. Haven’t crawled on your knees for a hundred miles or fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to repent of your poor, miserable, wretched life of sin? Their ‘Christ-inator’ will feed what is left of your mangled body to the dogs of hell, after he has dragged you to the four corners of the earth and back from of his heavenly chariot of fire.
Umm . . . No, I don’t think so. I’m not buying it. There is nothing in scripture that supports that image of Jesus who said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy burdened and I will refresh you. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mat 11:30)
Please note: That was the 11th chapter of Matthew's gospel. We're now in the 25th chapter. I'm thinking something must have happened along the way.
Jesus also said, “And when I am lifted up, I will bring all to myself.” (Jn. 12:32) All. Not some. All. I could go on, but I'll stop there.
You see, you have to read through Matthew’s agenda to hear the mission and ministry of Jesus. You have to get through the message he was trying to give to his original audience in order to get the original point of Jesus.
And that is this: The party has already started. Jesus, the groom, has already consummated his relationship with his bride, the church. The Eternal Banquet has begun and we are all invited. And, we have to get ready for the Realm of God, which is at hand.
How to get ready? Well, we only have to look to our baptismal covenant for a few hints about what is expected of us. There’s something about faithfulness: continuing in the apostle’s teaching, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.
And, obedience: Persevering in resisting evil, and when we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
And, evangelism: Proclaiming by word and example the Good news of God in Christ Jesus.
And ministry: Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
And mission: Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.
That’s a pretty big “honey-do” list from Jesus, the groom, to his bride, the church: faithfulness, obedience, evangelism, ministry and mission.
But, here’s the thing – the really, really important thing, which you’ll discover if you pay at least as much attention to the verbs as you do to the nouns: It’s all about continuing, and persevering, and proclaiming and seeking and striving.
God knows we are human. God understands the human enterprise, for it was God who created us and established us in community. Jesus understands, too, because he once shared out human condition and lived among us.
Which is why I believe he will not come again as the ‘Christ-inator’. Rather, when Jesus comes again, he will come among us as he did the first time – as something that surpasses our expectation and brings surprise that will delight and confound us.
The people of ancient Israel expected their Christ to come as a King, to liberate them from injustice. He came, instead, as a babe to teach them how to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.
They wanted a Strong Defender who would fight off their adversaries He came, instead, as one who was as defenseless as a newborn to teach them (in the words of Alice Walker) that our enemies are only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise.
Jesus continues to teach us these things, to surprise us, if we have eyes to see and ears to listen to the world around us. The Realm of God comes closer to us every time we engage more fully in our Baptismal Covenant – every time we seek to be faithful and obedient and strive to do the work of evangelism and mission and ministry.
We are more prepared to enter the Realm of God we listen – really listen – to the anxiety or fear in others in these times of economic uncertainty and try to find some concrete way to alleviate it.
We are more prepared for the Eternal Banquet when we do a random act of kindness for a neighbor who has fallen on hard times.
We are more prepared to take our place at the Lord’s Heavenly Table when we hold our tongue and respect a political difference – deflecting our anger at one person’s celebration, or curbing our enthusiasm in the presence of another’s sense of defeat.
St Luke reports that Jesus once said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” (Lk 17:21) People, get ready. There’s a wedding party already going on in your soul. The invitation was in the mail the day you were baptized.
I do believe, when we get there - when we ALL get to heaven - St. Matthew himself will be among those who meet us at the Heavenly Gate saying, “Are you ready to dance?"
Jesus said, “For you know neither the day nor the hour” when He will come.
Are you ready? Amen.