Proper 29 – Reign of Christ

– Those past Sundays, we have heard several of Jesus’s parables related to his teaching in Jerusalem, a few days before he was arrested and put to death.
Today, we have heard the last of those parables: The parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus’s ultimate teaching on earth. We know how last words are important – it is worth noticing that this parable is only found in Matthew’s – and for Matthew to insert this parable at the end of Jesus’s life is particularly significant.

For some reason those past weeks, as we were going through all of Jesus’s parables, I have been inspired to preach using blessings, and this very parable reminded me of a blessing I use sometimes. It goes like that:

To make a difference in someone’s life, you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect. You just have to care”.

In essence, I think this is what the parable is about. In the end for Jesus, and in the end for us, at the Last Judgment, what is going to make a difference is the way we have made a difference in people’s lives, and we do that by caring for them.

We know that people at Jesus’s time were waiting for a political Messiah, somebody who would be strong enough to overthrow the Roman Empire – and in some ways, Jesus was, since the Roman Empire didn’t resist forever the rising of Christianity. Yet of course, it’s about more than that. Something less visible and yet much more powerful.

To their surprise, to our surprise, Jesus, the Messiah wasn’t rich (He didn’t “have a stone to rest his head” Ch 8), and if we believe the book of Isaiah, the Messiah wasn’t either brilliant or beautiful (Isaiah 53: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”), and Jesus was certainly not perfect according to the moral standards of religious people at his time: he didn’t respect the Sabbath strictly, he enjoyed eating and drinking, he made friends with strangers and sinners, he touched the lepers who were impure, he talked back to religious authorities. Yet, Jesus showed us what is was to be pleasing in God’s sight and to lead a meaningful life: throughout the whole Gospel, Jesus showed that he cared for others.

It is interesting that Jesus (identified as the king in this parable we’ve just heard) recognizes his true disciples as those who have “seen” people. It reminded me of a former parishioner of mine who once told me something I found very accurate. She said: Jesus came among us and he saw people. Jesus noticed people, came close to people and responded to their deepest needs: need for food, for healing, but also, of course, their spiritual needs, or maybe just their need for friendship, their need for feeling that they mattered, their need for being seen. Whoever we are, we all need to be seen and to know that we matter. Jesus was not rich, brilliant, beautiful or perfect according to this world’s standards, but he was compassionate.

Last year, as we studied Luke’s Gospel, and I preached a lot about how Luke presented Jesus as somebody who had compassion on people. Yet, I think it’s important to understand what kind of compassion it is.

Sometimes we think that compassion is having pity on poor people. Well, I don’t know how it is for you, but I don’t really like people to have pity on me when I am going through a difficult time! Sometimes when people have pity on you, it makes you feel like you’re not able to cope, that you don’t have enough inner strength or resources to make it. It can make you feel very small, and so this kind of pity is a bit condescending. To me, Jesus was never condescending. He always uplifted people, made them see what they could accomplish. Have you ever noticed that he never said to people that his own holiness or special relationship with God had healed or saved them? No, he always told people “Your faith has made you well, healed you, saved you”. Jesus saw people and helped them see what was precious in them. So compassion is not pity.

But then, sometimes we may think that compassion is feeling bad for those who suffer. Well, it’s not completely wrong. It’s important to have some empathy and to realize that people are in difficult situations and let ourselves be touched by it. Yet having compassion does not mean sitting at home, watching the news and being horrified by what’s going on in people’s lives. It’s not helpful to anyone and it is not event helpful for us. It can lead us to be powerless and useless or even worse, depressed and desperate.

But in our parable today, Jesus shows us what compassion is really about, what it means to care: it means to do something about the suffering, it means to help those who are in need of help. And what’s interesting is that Jesus does not seem to ask us to do huge sacrifices, but just to be there for those who are around us and in need. Jesus does not ask us to save the world, he asks us to give something to drink or to eat to those who are hungry and thirsty, and to clothe those who have nothing. Jesus does not ask us to free the prisoners, or even, in this parable, to heal the sick, but he asks us to visit them. Compassion translates itself in small acts of kindness, not only to our own but to anyone around us. Not everybody, but this person standing next to us who is in need and whom we have the power to help.

How do we manage get there? Well, I think the parable responds to this question as well. If we want to move from pity / from feeling sorry for others or feeling bad for people to have this empathy, generosity and willingness to act Jesus had, we have to learn how to see others. To notice them, but also to see who they are in God’s eyes. Isn’t it significant that, as today we celebrate Christ the king, that Jesus tells us he is present in all those who need help? It means not only that Jesus is with them, loves them with a special love, but it also means that they share in his kingship, they are kings and queens. Does it often occur to us that the man on the street or the woman in jail are royalty? And yet, this is what Jesus is telling us. You see, we often say that Jesus came to save sinners, and indeed that’s what he did, but he saved them by seeing their majesty, by seeing them as children of God, he didn’t see them as total wretches (even if it is what we sing in one of our most famous hymns!). Jesus had hope in them and for them.

So to me, this is what Jesus is asking us today – not to do everything, but to do our best where we are and to whomever he sends us. We know that Jesus didn’t say: You have to love the whole world. But he said: You have to love your neighbor. And you neighbor isn’t necessarily your friend. The neighbor is the one who shows up in your life needing help, and you way of loving isn’t only by showing affectionate feelings, it is by helping them. To Jesus, this is what faith is all about.

Isn’t it interesting that in this parable, Jesus does not mention any religious rite? Jesus does not tell us that to be his sheep we have to go to church, to confess our sins, to take communion or to read the Bible – Jesus tells us that belief in him is believing he is present in each person and the way to honor him is to honor each one of these persons. It does not mean that “doing good” is the way we’re going to redeem ourselves – only Jesus can redeem us – but “doing good” is our way to be in relationship with God, whether we know it intellectually or not (The sheep and the goats didn’t realize what they were doing, the difference is that the sheep lived in love and the goats didn’t).

These past weeks, we have been doing a lot of thinking and talking about Jesus’s parables, but today, now all is said and done, Jesus is inviting us to action. Where is your heart leading you today? What could you do concretely for somebody? As for me, I know that this quarantine has made me more aware of what it is to be isolated and lonely. For several months, I just kept remembering those incarcerated, for whom it’s even more difficult. But you know, as I was studying this parable, I realized that Jesus didn’t want me to just feel sorry for them. This kind of compassion isn’t helping. Jesus doesn’t say: “I was a prisoner and you felt bad for me”. Jesus says: “I was a prisoner and you visited me” so I have decided to become a pen pal for someone in prison. It is not much, I have to write a letter once a month (much less than writing a sermon every week!) but maybe this is the one little thing that I can do to respond to our Gospel today. I have put more details in the bulletin if you are interested in joining this program which I think is something easy we can do now, as most of us are stuck at home. But let me know what this parable inspires you to do in the weeks to come, not to save the world but just to help somebody / this one person in need. Not because Jesus expects us to do “good deeds”, not because we’re going to save the world, he saved the world and he saved us, but because, as Jesus came to be among us showing what love means, we also decide to love as he did, and in this we show and experience that we belong to him.

Proper 28

– Today, we’ve heard the second to last parable Jesus told in Matthew’s Gospel before he was arrested and put to death.

Last week, we’ve heard the “Parable of the ten bridesmaids”
This week: The famous parable of the Talents
Next week: The sheep and the goats.

As I have already mentioned, they are known as “Parables of Judgment” – Judgment because they talk about the end of times but also just because indeed they sound to our ears judgmental and scary – we don’t know really what to make of such a God presented by the last slave as a: “Harsh man, reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed”(= demanding and maybe a little bit unfair).

I am wondering if this parable isn’t especially difficult to hear in our culture where there is a lot of pressure to succeed, to make something of ourselves, to not be idle, where there is this widespread idea that if we don’t “make it” it is somewhat our fault. It would add a lot to the pain of being poor, having a difficult life where we struggle with many things, to think it’s our fault and even worse – that it means that we have been reject by God. And we know that at Jesus’s time, there was this idea that the successful where blessed and the poor / sick were cursed.

Yet it would be difficult to use this angle to understand the parable, if we remember that in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said exactly the opposite: that the poor were actually the ones being blessed (Sermon on the Mount). I am also glad that we can read the Gospel in the light of Paul’s writings today where Paul reminds us that “Our Lord has not destined us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ”!

So we have to dig a little deeper to understand that this Parable is not about God asking us to make money or to be successful, otherwise we’ll be doomed to Hell.

– How can we read this parable?

As I noticed last week with the parable of the ten bridesmaids, a lot of commentaries have tried to figure out what the oil in the lamp stands for, when actually the most important was to understand what the oil does (= It brings light, and that’s what the disciples are called to do). In the same way, it can be tempting to get ourselves caught with the symbolism of the Talents / trying to hard to figure what the Talents stand for but it won’t get us very far: We would have to interpret the story as God wanting us to be rich / wanting us to be successful. As I have just said, it does not seem to be the specific message of the Beatitudes (we heard them recently on All Saints’ Day) or, for that matter, the overall message of the Gospel!!

If we do a little exploring though, we realize that a Talent was not any kind of money. It was a huge, huge sum of money. One talent represented 15 years of an average salary. So when the Master gives to his salves five talents, two talents and one talent, he basically give them money to cover the expenses of a life time: 75 years, 30 years, 15 years.

Having that in mind is very important if you think that it means that the Master gives them enough to “cover their debts” because we know this is what Jesus dying on the cross does for us: He covers our sins / our debts for a lifetime. The Master is getting ready to go on a journey, and it’s probably that Jesus was thinking about his own journey trough death to resurrection. The gift Jesus gives us / the Master leaves to his slaves is Redemption. Now this may seem a bit abstract, but think about it only as life. Jesus gives us Life (John: I came so that they might have life) – and the question is: What do we do with it? What do we do with this incredible gift?

– Well, the first answer given by the parable is that what we do with our lives varies according to individuals, but I would say it even varies based on times of our lives, or even based on whether we have a good day or a bad day. As I read this parable at least, I had a sense that some days I am the first slave – I get a lot done and I am very excited about it, other days I may feel like the second slave – I just do what I have to do and I feel contented, but some days I also feel like the third slave, I just want to hide and don’t feel like doing anything / don’t feel like it’s worth doing anything – Feelings a lot of us can relate to I guess in the midst of this pandemic! Now as you can imagine, as you probably know from your own experience, the days we want to hide, to bury our Talents in the ground aren’t the days we feel the best about ourselves, about the world and about God. And I am wondering if this isn’t a key to understand our parable.

– My question is the following: Do you think the third slave feels good about himself? Not in the end of the parable but even at the beginning? One thing is sure: he does not feel good about his Master. As mentioned earlier, although the Master made him a huge gift, he is suspicious of it, he thinks there is a trick and that he will probably end up being punished. If he feels that way, it’s probably because he does not feel good about himself to start with, guilty or maybe ashamed. He does not trust his Master, does not trust himself, and certainly does not trust the process (of investing) which I take for meaning he does not trust life.

– Those feelings happen to all of us, I guess – especially when we struggle with depression or other health challenges, family issues or financial insecurity. But I don’t think this is the kind of distrust that Jesus is addressing. Remember that these are the last parables Jesus teaches and he teaches the parables in Jerusalem, he is specifically addressing the religious leaders, people who – because deep down in their hearts they don’t really love God, trust life and don’t accept who they truly are – are so afraid of doing anything wrong they end up doing nothing at all. They want so bad to be good that they end up paralyzed, trapped into their law and their moral code, and even deeper, trapped into shame, guilt and fear – defiance towards God and really – towards anyone. They can’t recognize God in Jesus because they don’t believe that God is loving, acceptant and forgiving. They believe God is like “Harsh man, reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed”. Their religion is not an expression of love towards God, but of distrust! They want to have al their bases covered because they think God is unmerciful!

I think that Jesus is really mad that God gave all these goods things to his people – especially religious people as God gave them the Temple, and the Torah and the assurance of God’s blessing throughout History– and these people they just bury it in the ground!

As a side note, it’s very interesting to realize that this parable does not praise morality as these religious people understood it. God as the Master and the good disciples as the two first slaves don’t appear like good religious people, they actually do something that was forbidden in the Law: Invest money with the bankers! I think Jesus uses use this message to tell them there is something more important beyond their rites and their laws, and it is to trust God enough to dare live this life!

– What does it mean for us? Well, there is a quotation I love that says that: “God created us because He thought we would enjoy it”, or if you prefer “God gave us life because He thought we would enjoy it” – and to me, this what the parable is all about. The two first slaves enjoy the gift, when the last one does not even open it. To me, God gave us life, not because God wants us to be wealthy or successful, but because God wants us to rejoice in it – and as I’ve noticed before, a prisoner in his own shame/guilt system, the third slave isn’t happy, he does not flourish and he does not contribute to anything in the world. More than being rejected by his Master, he condemns himself to his own hell by believing his Master is not a good Master, that he cannot trust the process and his own abilities.

More than anger, I think there is much sadness in God when we behave this way. I watched a movie this week, and it was the story of a woman who has a son dealing with addictions. Each day, she goes to his house, in fear of finding him passed out, and then she opens the windows, brings him food, tries to talk him into finding a job or just checking himself into a hospital, and each day he rejects her and tells her to go away. This is so heart breaking for this woman that all her friends tell her to give up, to leave him be, but of course each day she comes back because he is her son and she cannot give up on him. She gave him life so that he may enjoy it, she gave him life so that he may flourish – didn’t she?

I think this is the way God looks at all of us. God gave us life so that we may flourish and, as Paul reminds us, so that we may encourage and build up each other, “each according to our ability” as the parable mentions.

– I would like to finish with a prayer from Teresa of Avila I often use for blessing at the end of the service, because to me it could really be a way to decipher the parable. The prayer goes like that:

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received,
and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing that you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones,
and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.

The last slave isn’t at peace and certainly does not believe he is where he is meant to be, he forgot the infinite possibilities that are born of faith, didn’t use the gifts he has received or pass on the love that has been given to him. As for us, let us be content knowing that we belong to God and that God loves us, trusting this deep down in our bones and letting this belief set us free to do whatever we want to do to praise our Maker and our Redeemer whether to sing, dance or just live this life in love.

Proper 27

As we’re heading towards the end of the liturgical year, we’re wrapping up with Matthew’s Gospel and as of this week, we find ourselves in Chapter 25, the last discourse Jesus gave to his disciples – before he was arrested and put to death. This passage of the Matthew’s Gospel is also known as the “Olivet Discourse” (because Jesus gave it on the Mount of Olives) and it contains three parables about the end of times:

– The parable of the ten bridesmaids we have heard today
– The parable of the talents we will hear next week
– The parable of the sheep and goats we will hear the last Sunday of Pentecost.

All these stories have a common theme: They are often referred to as “Parables of judgment” because they give us a picture of what will happen when the bridegroom (in this parable) / The Master (Parable of the talents) / The Lord (Parable of the sheep and goat) – all Christ figures – will come back to judge the earth.

Most scholars believe that those stories have been developed and integrated in the Gospels as the first Christians were starting to long for Christ’s return. Mostly, these parables want to teach us how to be prepared until this day: by bearing the light (The parable of the bridesmaids), by putting our skills to work (Parable of the talents), by sharing what we have (Parable of the sheep and goats).

After the week we have had, I would like to say that those parables want to teach us how to wait – yet this wait has not much in common with the waiting we’ve been doing in the past days. It’s not an anxious waiting – fearsome for some of us – a waiting made of uncertainties and worry for the future, rather, it’s a waiting of spiritual growth, it’s about how to prepare our hearts and souls to receive Christ at the end of times – which, as Paul underlines in our 2nd reading, could mean the end of this world or the time of our death. As I see it, it can also points to those moments in our lives, when for some reason, Christ makes himself closer to us, asks us for a specific work or vocation, or draw us closer to reach out to one of our neighbors. We have to get ready to meet Christ in many ways and circumstances.

To tell you the truth, those stories about being prepared are often hard for me to hear because most of the times in my daily life I feel like I am not ready for whatever is coming up. I am this type of person who can pack endlessly for a two days trip, checking the forecast several times, always wondering if I should bring an extra sweater or another pair of shoes, and no matter how much time I spend packing I always, always leave home with the feeling I have forgotten something important.

And so my question is this: If I can’t manage to be prepared for a weekend out of town, how can I say I would ever be prepared for the Day of The Lord?!

And yet. Yet one of the things I’ve learned with all the trips I took in my life is that, whether I feel ready or not, is that the trip happens anyway and in the end, even I always forget something useful and always bring a lot of useless things, one thing is sure: the only thing I really needed was my passport or my ID.

This example may sound silly but I think this was this serious question the first Christians were molding on over and over: How can we be ready? How can we ever be prepared the right way? How can we know what it is that I really need for the Christian journey towards the end, because we believe it will happen, in one way or another, and it’s impossible for us to anticipate when and how it will occur.

What is the one thing we’re supposed to bring along in our spiritual journey, what is the one thing we’re supposed to pack? What is the passport to the eternal banquet? What is the ID with which Christ will identify us as his own?

To this question, the three parables of the Olivet discourse give answers and today, the parable of the bridesmaids makes it pretty clear that what we need to bring along is the oil.

How can we understand that? Throughout centuries of commentaries of the Scriptures, theologians and scholars as well as priests and pastors have tried to understand what the oil stands for, and the oil has been seen either as the Holy Spirit (because of the anointing), as faith, as love, as charity – and of course all Christians need those things, but I must say I don’t feel it is very helpful because the list goes on and on and the suitcase for the Christian journey just seem heavier and heavier and harder to carry.

So instead of focusing on what the oil stands for, it could be all sort of things, maybe we should focus on what the oil does, and to this the answer is pretty obvious: the oil brings light, and the bridesmaids are the bearers of the light in the long night of waiting for the groom.

Well, as I see it, that’s really what we are called to do as Christians in this world even – and especially when – it gets darker. To be bearers of the light. Bearers of the light that keep us going in the darkness and that will enable us to identify Christ in the midst of all things unseen and unknown, and will give access, open the door to a new life in him. Christians are supposed to be bearers of the light, and it can happen in many, many different ways in our different walks of life, vocations and occupations. As we see in the parable, we cannot give this oil to others, because it’s not something we can decide for another Christian – we cannot tell them the way to witness Christ – each one of us has to figure out what they are called to do and shine their own light to the world as we wait for his return. And I think it’s not only true for Christians – all people are called to be a light in the world in their own way by witnessing to joy, hope and healing.

In these times were darkness seem to grow thicker – literally with the shortening of days and in many other ways too – I want to ask you this question today: How are you a bearer of the light? What is it that you do to enable this world to know Christ? You see the bridesmaids, they weren’t asked a lot – it wasn’t one of those crazy weddings where you have to do so many things you can’t reach the bottom of the list and end up completely stressed out – those bridesmaids, they had only one job: to light the path for the bridegroom – to make him seen and known – and so is our vocation as Christians (If you remember, it was also Isaiah’s and John the Baptist’s vocation, to prepare the way for the Lord). We will see in the weeks to come how the preparation is also about putting our skills to work (Parable of the talents) and sharing our goods / taking care of one another (Parable of the sheep and the goats) which are other ways of bearing the light / giving testimony.

This can be scary too, and also a bit overwhelming. Yet one of the things we can also remember from those parables Jesus told his disciples before he left this world, is maybe that the important thing is to have a willingness to be prepared, even if we don’t really know how to do this. If you pay attention to the reading we had from the book of Joshua, it’s quite surprising isn’t it, the way Joshua asks the tribes of Israel again and again if they are really willing to serve the Lord, if they are sure that’s something they really want to do? We wonder is Joshua is not trying to scare them off in some way! Well, to me I think Joshua asks these questions not in order to discourage the people, but to help them relinquish spiritual arrogance and get a sense that they maybe aren’t quite ready and that they will have to learn, and grow, and yes maybe suffer – not because the Lord wants to do them wrong – far from that – but because the Lord is holy and they will too have to grow in this holiness. To get prepared, we need first to realize that we are not ready.

In the end, I think this is really what makes the difference between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids. The wise aren’t that wise because they have it figured out all, but because they have the humility to try to prepare, to serve and to be helpful to the groom – mostly they want to see him, to recognize him in the dark – when the foolish bridesmaids don’t even question whether they will be ready or not for the party and don’t remember the one job they’ve been asked to do. In this sense, the story reminds us of this other parable about the party at the wedding where one of the guests does not even put on the white robe. I think what Jesus expects from his disciples is that they have to put in a little effort – not that we can save ourselves by these efforts but because it’s our way to respond in love to his invitation. To tell him, in a way or another, that we long for him and that in this wait we anticipate in joy the day of his coming.