Parts and Pieces in Context- Nov 25, 2017

Jesus demands social justice for the least of these.

We just moved- most of you know that.. I am not new to this- I have done it many times and I have learned more than a few tricks to make it easier. And still it happens- someone takes apart an item in our house, doesn’t write down the steps or take pictures, doesn’t put the parts in a bag or doesn’t label the bag and then, of course, the bag may not even be taped to the item- getting dumped either in the garbage or into a pile of chaos that we have to sort out on the other end.

Inevitably, I find myself with parts and no idea how they function or what they even go to. My mind ends up with all kinds of possibilities as I set it aside until we end up needing the missing piece when voila- it suddenly makes sense. The intent becomes clear with the need to understand and the right context. I spoke last week about the importance of context- well Matthew sure drives this lesson home for us once again.

This year I have felt pretty beaten up by the Matthew gospel. I don’t know if it is me, current events application or just that Matthew really likes to use the threat of punishment as motivation.  Regardless, as we stand here on this final Sunday of the Church year, imagining what it will be like with Christ as King, I am really just hoping Matthew got it all wrong- because I don’t want a King who threatens me to make me behave. I keep hoping, like with my furniture, that a little context and instruction might help me with how this scripture reveals God.

Yet it seems, for too long of a time, Christianity has taught and relied upon that angry God- one very different than the one Jesus speaks of. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but the Angry God smites them. Jesus tells us to forgive our enemies seventy time seven, but the Angry God smashes them. Jesus speaks of a loving father, but the Angry God throws people into a burning pit for eternity for failing to care for one homeless person.

This angry God seems to have become the one most of us were exposed to and raised to believe in; To our own spiritual detriment. It isn’t anything new of course, Martin Luther was taught the Angry God mythology, too and yet even after the Reformation, the myth remains, larger than life- in fact, seeming to rule our lives. We hear of the new generations of “nones” those who fill in the religion blank with the response, “none.” and wonder what happened- but we seem unwilling to recognize that this may be a huge culprit. It is unthinkable to imagine wanting to spend eternity with a big mean jerk who is vindictive and cruel. Why would you want to spend even an hour in silence, solitude, or intimacy with such a god, let alone eternity?

We’ve developed an unworkable and toxic image of God that a healthy person would never trust and faith and toxicity are bad dance partners. Faith is a mystical unexplainable dance and the mystical, transformative journey cannot take place until that image of an angry God is dismantled.

It is easy to see how this passage from Matthew immediately feels like a bludgeon wielded by this angry God. The historical idea and use places a higher value on Christian performance over attitude or faith. And this passage becomes the goad once again to keep us in line. But what good is a Reformation anniversary if it doesn’t cause us to examine our roots?   As Lutherans this angry God doesn’t fit when we read this and there is no room for faith in the passage. Since we rarely question scripture and whether it is missing something important, it leaves us questioning ourselves. Well folks, if we just read this passage, then yes, something is missing something. The rest of the book has to be read in context with this passage. The parable discourse of Matthew closes out the book of Matthew and scholars argue the parables of Matthew are Jesus’ verbal punishment of Israel for their rejection. He tried to share the truth gently and they ignored him. It feels harsh and it is. But it does not represent Christ or God alone anymore than a mother’s scolding an errant child in the grocery store is representative of how she always interacts with her child.

And just like needing a label for the random parts of my household, we need clarity at times from Christ. He has spent several years sharing stories of God and trying to let people see the truth gently but so many ignore him or only take him in as a spectacle. Finally, fed up, Jesus is making his points absolutely clear in the parables- stories that will illustrate how serious this is.  He breaks it down and labels it all using the language of the people and streets in stories that they can relate to. It is very harsh, but if he didn’t make it absolutely clear, someone would inevitably come along argue that he wasn’t clear about the rules of the game and would avoid the reality. He is really bringing home the whole point of his life and death for them before he goes. Jesus is making powerful contrasting statements when he describes the separation of sheep and goats, but he does explain them with compassion when he reminds them “whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.”

Christ in Matthew’s gospel is showing how Love is the answer and sometimes love means confrontation. In this harsh parable, Jesus is demanding social justice in the most traditional of ways, steeped in Jewish law of economic justice that favors the poor and needy. He is reminding us that God’s preference is and always has been for the needy and poor. We need that confrontation- that reminder that the love of God happens beyond our reach and even beyond our labels and it is more expansive than we can ever imagine, including the ones we often even fail to see. We need reminded that we do not have favor and a free pass just because we know Christ, rather, we are instead called to more because of it. When you come to my home as a guest, you are welcomed and I have few expectations of you. But when you are part of the family, close friends who are chosen family of the heart, there are additional expectations- as part of the family you help clear the table and wash dishes, you may even take out the trash or vacuum up. We are the children of God through Christ now. We are no longer the guests, instead we are the family and we are called to the deep love of Christ our King here and now- to participate relationally with God’s creation, as children of that King- heirs of the throne and thus responsible for the care and nurture of the kingdom alongside our Savior.

He is reminding us there is no wealth or religious preference. We all participate and we all stand equal at the judgment . And we also stand equally loved. That can be easy to miss. Love can get buried in fear if we let it. The good news is that Matthew’s reading isn’t actually about fear and punishment, it clearly points back to a loving Christ who is saying as plainly as possible that the pain of being judged and separated like goats is not necessary- that Love can heal; and love can provide; and love can save. Only Love matters- and faith exists because of that love- Christ’s great love. Matthew is declaring for us that Love is never anonymous- it is always wrapped up in the participation of Christ’s love for the world- whether we call it that or not. Every time a hungry mouth is fed, every time a shivering or sunburnt body is covered, we are participating in Christ’s love and in turn, his kingdom.

Our God could be that angry God. Yes. But I don’t think so. This parable is not one of fear- but of desperate, deep, and abiding love. Christ has come and given us the instruction manual and reminded us that our God is a God of love- who desperately wants us and wants to be in deep and intimate relationship with us- risking everything to achieve that. Only in desperation will there be the end with separation- and Christ has clearly shown us that this is not necessary. It is hard to care for the other- the unknown is always hard. But our faith that is fed in relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit gives us strength and even the desire to do the things that seem scary and against the pull of the world. And we do not do it alone. Christ remains with us, prodding and loving, a good king, a kind king, a forgiving king, already involved in the kingdom to come by already coming to us here and now.

 

 

Flipping the Parable

Read Matthew 25:14-30 FIRST.

For years women have been denied their place where I stand now. For years they have been forced to bury their gifts and calling. The passage from Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12 has been used to keep women silent in public and became like a plague throughout European Colonized areas, strongest during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In that era, a virtuous woman was chaste, silent, and obedient. Can you imagine a world without the voices of women? Can you imagine half a choir silenced? Half your speakers in your car working? Half of God’s very intentional creation muted by misunderstood and misplaced law?   And yet that is exactly what happened. After centuries of being forced into the role of the 3rd slave in our readings, they revolted. Even women had a reformation. And they took this parable and flipped it.   Finding ways to subvert the system completely, they refused to participate in the system of oppression anymore. They wrote and learned and shared and grew and passed it on to new generations secretly until women could find the time to stand against the system and refuse to participate in the patriarchy anymore. And they paid for it with their lives. Burned at the stake as witches, divorced and left to prostitution and poverty, beheaded for their opinions and faith.

 

Sally Jennings knew what it was to enter into the joy of her master. She lived a life that increased the wealth of her owner. She bore his children, giving him more slaves to own, slaves who would work for free and increase his wealth. She loved those children. They were hers, too. So yes, she entered into the joy of her master. But she never got the chance to enter into her own joy. The joy of her creator. For centuries, people with brown skin have entered into the joy of their white masters- even after slavery ended. In fact, they are still forced into the role of the 3rd slave, to bury their given role to keep it intact rather than risk losing what little they have. But there is a rising change happening and they too are beginning to refuse to participate in the system of oppression our nation was built on. And they are paying with their lives.

 

This parable has historically been understood as one about burying our gifts from God- that we should not do it and that if we want to please God we will do as the first two slaves and multiply what God has given us. Except that doesn’t work. We simply cannot rely on the history of ideas. We have to explore the social and cultural context of our texts.

 

In this Matthew text, the historical idea has the master as God and the talents or gold as our blessings. It is used for stewardship and a goad for good works. But it really feels like a threat and I have to say in my experience, if something feels like a threat, it generally is in some way. But this parable is only good news for the wealthy, the white, the man, the owner. For the poor, the woman, the brown skinned, the slave, it is threat, extortion, expulsion and death. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor or worse, have what little they have taken away. Worse, for the Christian, it assumes that Christ, eternal salvation, God’s pleasure, and God’s blessing are something we can earn or increase. But the historical idea never once implies freedom. It never once implies personal joy. It never once implies love and value of each human created in God’s image.

When we open up the proper social and cultural context though, this parable becomes a can of worms to a stewardship sermon. Historically speaking, this parable is spoken in ancient Palestine and the people understood the wealth of the world to be limited and already distributed. They believed in a finite economy. That meant that if one person became more wealthy, someone else become poor.   For them, the Master was a thief- not unlike the owners of the payday loan shops of today. This master exploits the system and worse, he acknowledges that he does. When he hands his money to the slaves and the first two increase it, they not only participated in a system of corruption, but they helped their master become even more wealthy and encouraged that system to thrive. But they never actually gained by it personally. Hmm… Sally Jennings, anyone?
Further, the master labels the slave who refuses to participate in a corrupt system as wicked. Why? Because he dared to challenge the system and thwart the greed of his master. Now you ask, but wasn’t the master fair in saying the money at least could have been in the banks? Well again, proper context teaches us that no, that also was a sin. The interest earned was from usary-the practice of unfair lending- that was a second hand thievery. Not unlike the folks who manage today’s payday loan stores or run them as a franchise.

When placed correctly, suddenly the 3rd slave is the righteous one. He is the one the rabbi’s honored. The one the people understood. He was the one who refused to participate in a system of oppression and corruption. He was a lone voice of non-violent protest and he paid for it with his life.

So let me ask you this. If we keep the historical idea of this parable, and God is no better than this master, we no better than these slaves, who needs God and doesn’t Jesus just become God’s hit-man? This is not the Jesus I know and certainly not the God I know. Jesus sided with non-elites and challenged the oppressive economic and social status quo everywhere he went. He was reviled by the elite for this. God is not the kind of Master who limits us and holds us captive to increase God’s own kingdom. In fact, God sets us free, again and again and again- in fact, to God’s own devastation through the Son dying for our freedom.

This Parable is not prescriptive of how to live- how to use our blessings as much as it is descriptive of a deeply flawed world and system, and of the cost to refusing to play along. In fact, the more we examine it, the 3rd slave could very well be Jesus. The one who refused to play along with the corruption of the time and called out the system, paying for it with his life. There are some that argue this was Christ using prophesy once more for us. In fact, in an interesting literary lens, we find that the end of Matthew 24 points right back to the beginning where it says, “then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.”

Here is the point. Christ is not an economy. Faith and blessings are not an economy. We don’t exchange and gain. We don’t exchange and lose. There is no exchange except for the one Christ made for us- his death for our sin. But we offer nothing up in exchange, in fact, we have nothing to bring and unlike the third slave what little we have will not be taken from us- we will not be shunned by God for being poor of spirit or talent or gift. We will be welcomed and loved, forgiven and set free. Christ is not an economy. Christ is pure gift.

Then what are we to do with this parable now that we have flipped it? Well, our Thessalonians text reminds us today, there are many Kairos moments (thin places) of decision in our daily living. Will you participate in the system of oppression? Or will you take a risk and subvert the system here and now, participating in God’s kingdom come to us in every moment of our lives? Even at the cost of death? Because let me share this last thought with you- that 3rd slave did not die. That 3rd slave came into eternal life. That slave was freed from oppression, the system of corruption and the limitations of slavery and human sin. That slave was freed into the promise of Christ and the kingdom of God where we are valued, precious, created, and chosen people. A system of love, worth, redemption, and joy. We have choices to make. As Mary Oliver once pondered, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”

 

*credits:  mark davis @ politicaltheologytoday.com, bruce epperly @ processandfaith.org, the social justice lectionary, and carol thysell at journal of feminist studies in religion for your thought provoking papers and blogs that stood out among many as I sought to understand why this parable HURT so much as a historical idea.