Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Inherit the Kingdom

This morning I want to take a step back from the particulars of the Gospel lesson, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and observe what I take to be the narrative arc of the set of parables in Matthew 25 that conclude Jesus’ public teaching before his arrest and execution.  Recall that with these parables, Jesus is describing what the kingdom of heaven will be like, and the signs of its appearing. 

Parables take ordinary experiences – wedding parties, investment practices, the work of farm hands – and weave from them stories with a surprising twist.  These stories blow our minds, stretch our imaginations, and inspire a new vision of the world.   They are meant to be provocative and challenging, so if we find the parables a little bit offensive then they are doing their job!

These parables in Matthew’s Gospel operate in the future tense:  “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this . . . When the Son of Man comes in his glory.”  I wonder if these visions of the future are not meant to serve as a mirror in which we can seem more clearly where we are here and now.

Their purpose, then, is not to predict the future, but rather to illuminate the present.  The parables are not predictions of an unchangeable fate.  They offer the gift of awareness that allows us to make choices about our lives, and to judge how well they conform to the vision of the kingdom of heaven. 

The parables serve as a warning and an invitation to move more deeply into that vision.  Taken together, they seem to me to evoke a three-step movement of awakening, resistance, and renewal.  The parable of the bridesmaids is about waking-up and recognizing that there is a party going on to which we are invited – it is time to wake-up and get our joy on – we don’t want to miss out on the party!  The kingdom of heaven is like a joyful wedding banquet and the bridegroom is coming to bring us to the party.

The parable of the talents (or bars of gold) is about recognizing that the joy of the kingdom of heaven is not the same as the master’s joy.  When we wake-up to the reality of the kingdom of heaven, we begin to recognize that the cultural script we’ve internalized and the joy it promises are false.  It is a story of resistance, refusing to be complicit with a culture in which “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” 

This second step can be painful.  It isn’t easy to acknowledge the dynamics of privilege and exploitation in the world.  It isn’t easy to allow our glimpse of the kingdom of heaven to bring human and earth suffering into even bolder relief.  How do we respond to this dual awareness?  Do we ignore one or the other, refuse to acknowledge suffering or else become immobilized by it?  If we refuse the part we’ve been assigned in the cultural script, what does resistance look like? 

This brings us to the parable of the sheep and the goats that we heard today.  I read this parable as a story of renewal.  For me, the key line is:  “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”[1]  Do you remember who the “blessed” are in Matthew’s Gospel:  the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those willing to suffer in the struggle for justice.[2]  Theirs is the kingdom. 

This is not your grandparent’s judgment scene.  It doesn’t follow the cultural script.  Those who inherit the joy that God has intended for the whole creation are not the usual suspects.  They aren’t successful by the standards of our culture.  They do not exercise coercive power, or accumulate great wealth, or bask in the adulation of the famous.  Such joy as is derived from these things is fleeting.  It doesn’t last. 

True joy comes from participation in the renewal of the world: brining the creation to its fulfillment as intended by God since the beginning.  It comes from feeding the hungry; making clean water available to those who thirst; welcoming strangers rather than deporting them; clothing the naked rather than exploiting their vulnerability; caring for the sick rather than turning health into a commodity; forming relationships with prisoners rather than treating them as pariahs. 

This is not an exhaustive list.  It is not a series of boxes to check off so that you, too, can enter the kingdom of heaven.   There is nothing transactional about the relationships or the work of renewal about which Jesus speaks.  It isn’t a means to an end.  It is the kingdom of heaven.  The joy of the kingdom is its enactment in our everyday life, in the common life we share.  It is found here and now in the common good and in our common wealth.  

Notice that the crucial work of renewal hinges on our collective response to the victims of our cultural script.  We resist that script through solidarity with victims, refusing to render them invisible, and we renew the world through compassionate service.   The response to Jesus isn’t “when did I see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison,” but rather “when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison.”[3]  World renewal is the work of a movement that Jesus inaugurated and continues to energize through his life-giving Spirit. 

What is striking to me is that the blessed don’t even realize that they are serving Christ as they engage in the work of renewal.   Again, they aren’t trying to achieve some spiritual reward; trying to assuage some hard-to-please deity.  They have simply woken-up, resisted the culture of death, and discovered the joy of the work of renewal.   It only occurs to them later, “Oh, this is what Jesus meant!” 

As James Alison points out, “the judgment is defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma.  The judgment is presented in terms of the human relationships towards victims.  Those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned.  Those who have understood, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them.”[4]

At the same time, the parable of the goats and sheep subverts a too-easy assumption that our movement is the sheep, while those other guys are the goats.  As a parabolic mirror reflecting reality as-it-is-now to us, the story of the sheep and the goats has a disturbing realism about it.  If we look deeply into this mirror, we see that it reminds us that we quickly forget by whom we are judged.

It is Jesus the Victim who is our judge, the victim raised up by God; but God vindicates Jesus as the Forgiving Victim.  His resurrection always takes the form of forgiveness.  It is the end of victimization, whereas the Judge as King of the parable re-inscribes victimization on a cosmic and eternal level.  There is a terrible irony in our celebration of Christ as King – if by Kingship we mean one whose presence with us takes the form of condemnation.   As soon as we forget by whom we are judged, we become goats ourselves and perpetuate the cycle of violent exclusion, reenacting the cultural script we claim to resist.

Each time we make a new scapegoat, a new victim to condemn and cast out – we reveal the extent to which we are not sheep at all.  The true sheep at the cosmic judgment will plead mercy for the goats – all of them.  And so it must be for us in the judgment that shapes our daily lives.  Only in this way, it seems to me, can the work of renewal really be about the whole world.  No goat gets left behind! 

And yet, the here and now quality of the parable suggests that in each moment we are choosing eternal death or eternal life.  Our decisions have consequences, so Wake-up!  Resist!  Find your joy in the work of renewal!  Not as one more damn thing to have to do, but as the point of doing anything at all!  Enter fully and freely into the dynamic of offering and receiving the compassionate care we all need if life is to flourish; sometimes, we are the ones who are hungry, or sick, or a stranger.  

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  Do it now.

[1] Matthew 25:34.
[2] Matthew 5:1-12.
[3] Matthew 25:37-39.
[4] James Alison, Knowing Jesus, pp. 42-43. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Parable of the Whistle Blower

Our opening collect today admonishes us to “inwardly digest” the scriptures.  Trying to digest this parable can give you heartburn!  The “Parable of the Talents,” as it is popularly known, is difficult to digest and easy to misunderstand.   A venerable tradition of interpretation encourages us to see the “talents” as faith, gifts of the Holy Spirit, or our God-given natural abilities.  Every one has a particular gift to offer for the benefit of the world.  On this reading, the parable is a cautionary tale about the failure to actively use our gifts, thereby bringing judgment on our selves.   The moral is that blessings multiply when we are willing to make good use of the gifts God has given us.   Don’t bury your talents, put them to work!

This reading plays into many of our cultural memes:  “God helps those who help themselves,” “be the best you can be,” and “reward follows risk.”  In an age that venerates the entrepreneur and equates success with the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption, this parable seems the perfect capitalist apologetic.  It is the gospel of Ayn Rand in miniature:  blessed are the job creators, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   And everybody else can literally go to hell.

Even most liberal interpretations are captive to the idea that God is the master in this parable, and that some measure of success – even if spiritual, rather than economic – is the criteria for divine favor.  Fail to measure up, and you’ll be weeping and gnashing your teeth in outer darkness with the “wicked and lazy” slave, who merely held on to what he was given rather than increasing it.  Whether in terms of spiritual gifts or material goods, if you aren’t moving forward, you are going backwards.   Increase or die. If you are losing ground, it is your own fault. Is this the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus speaks?
It seems a little at odds with the Jesus who challenged a rich young man to sell everything and give it to the poor; who said, “You can not serve God and wealth.”  Remember that parables are stories that take familiar, ordinary experiences and give them a surprising twist.  They begin with something easily relatable, and then turn it into something quite disorienting to our normal understanding so that a deeper insight into the truth can emerge.  

Our challenge is to enter into the world of the parable’s first hearers to imagine what was familiar and what was surprising to them about this story, and then to explore how it might help us to discover how God is at work in surprising ways in our own ordinary experience.  

A few words about translation may help to clarify what is going on in this story.  The word translated as “talents” here originally meant “scale” or “weight.”  It referred to the large measure of weight of gold or silver that came in bars, and it was the largest monetary unit in the time of Jesus.  One “talent” was equivalent to 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was the standard day’s wage for a common laborer.   A better translation for “talent” would probably be “bar of gold.”  Jesus isn’t talking about skills.  He is talking about money.

This is underscored by the fact that the slaves are each given a number of bars of gold according to their dynamis.   Our translation of this word is “ability,” but a more literal rendering is “power.”  What is notable about these slaves is not their spiritual gifts or natural abilities, but the power or authority they are given to act on behalf of their master.  Note the correlation between wealth and power in the parable.  This is not accidental.

So, we have three slaves, who each have a certain amount of power to manage their master’s wealth while the master is away.  Two of them leverage that power and wealth to double the master’s money.  They realize a 100% return on investment.   None of this would have surprised Jesus’ first hearers. 

They lived in a world in which 2% of the population were large landowners who controlled the means of production, investment and banking, and consumed about 50% of agricultural produce.  These absentee landlords were served by a small retainer class, many of whom were slaves, who managed their wealth and acted as intermediaries between the owners and the 90% of the population who lived below or at subsistence levels of existence.   They invested in agricultural loans to the peasants at interest rates of 20% or more, and confiscated foreclosed properties when loans or taxes could not be paid. 

The system was exploitative and driven by greed, leaving an increasingly large class of peasants who had been dispossessed of their ancestral lands.  It was these same peasants who listened to Jesus’ parable.  Imagine their reaction when the master praises the first two slaves for being “trustworthy in a few things” – this “little” amount to the master being more money than these peasants could earn in a lifetime! 

The joy of the master promised to the faithful slaves comes at the expense of the landless poor.  When they hear Jesus repeating the words of the master, “For to all who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” they are nodding their heads thinking, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Well, what they don’t know about is this third slave, who buries his one bar of gold, having only what he was given to show when the master returns from his long journey.   This is totally unexpected behavior.  How is this slave going to skim a little off the top for himself if he isn’t playing the game?  What is truly surprising is the courage of this “wicked and lazy” slave.  He basically tells the master, “Look, I know you are greedy thief, living off the labor of others.  I know that God is just and has compassion for the poor.  My ultimate loyalty is to God.  Here, you can have your money back.  I’m keeping my integrity.” 

Say what? No he didn’t!  Yes, he did!

The slave told the boss man right to his face that he was no longer willing to participate in the exploitation of his fellow human beings.  The house slave wasn’t willing to live on the backs of the field slaves anymore.  Now, this would have been a very surprising twist to the story.   The master’s slave unmasked the lie that the injustice of everyday life is justified by God, is simply reality, the way things are.  He refused to enter into the master’s joy.  He found his joy somewhere else. I suspect that this “somewhere else” is where we find the kingdom of God in this parable: the parable of the whistle-blower.

The kingdom of God is like the slave who refused to enter into the master’s joy – even if it cost him his life.  Wow.  But I suspect the parable was even more challenging than this to its first hearers.  It presents a slave, part of the system of exploitation, as capable of conversion.  The kingdom of God comes when enemies undergo conversion.  There is a radical understanding of social change at work here.  It isn’t just about changing the polarities, such that those on “top” are now on the “bottom” and vice-versa.  It is about telling the truth in public so that everyone can be converted to the common good.

This “lazy and worthless” slave understood that true joy cannot be bought.  He realized that internalizing “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” vision of the world is an invitation to competition, anxiety, indifference, brutality, and finally – loneliness, utter loneliness.   This vision closes us off from our sisters and brothers and it leads us to greedily consume the very bases on which all life depends.   We can’t survive much more of the master’s joy.  The planet can’t survive much more of the master’s joy.  We’ve got to find our joy somewhere else.

The parable of the whistle blower is a challenge to wake-up to the reality of the exploitative and self-destructive culture we are living in and stop hiding the truth:  first and foremost, from ourselves.   It is also an invitation to imagine another way to live, one that opens us to the experience of true joy, one that really is worthy of our best efforts and priceless spiritual gifts. 

True joy, it seems to me, comes from the very act of imagining and living into the vision of a new world, what St. Paul called a new creation, what Jesus calls the kingdom of God.  It takes faith to live into such a vision, to even begin to trust that another kind of world is possible.   It requires hope to entrust ourselves to a process of transformation that began long before us and will come to its fulfillment long after we are gone.   And only love – genuine love, not sentimentality – can generate the compassion, courage, and community necessary to realize the vision. 

The vision isn’t new:  it is as old as the prophets of Israel, as old as Jesus.  One can even imagine that it is timeless: God’s eternal desire for the fulfillment of the creation.  It is the vision of the hungry being fed, the naked clothed, the stranger welcomed, the sick healed, and even the oceans and fields entering into the Sabbath rest of God; respecting the natural cycles of renewal that are the basis for social justice and peace on earth. 

How will we realize this vision in our time?  For many of us, it will mean renouncing the master’s joy for the joy of greater simplicity, deeper community, and more generous sharing of our resources.  We need to work less and consume less so that we can engage more with the common good and contribute more to the common wealth – those goods that are our shared birthright:  clean air, clean water, land to grow food, art, music, dance, ritual, healing and learning.  We need to take back our time and energy from the master so that we can devote them to the work of reconnecting with the wonder and mystery of God, rebuilding resilient, sustainable communities, and renewing the earth. 

The joy of this vision can only be realized through intentional multicultural and interfaith collaboration.   The Church can no longer position itself as the triumphant bearer of the vision, but rather must be its humble servant. The Source of the vision transcends the Church, and includes many other expressions of the human hope for the earth community.  We have much to learn from one another and much good work to do together.  It is creative work, it is holy work, it is joyful work. 

Our children will be blessed, if, like the whistle-blower in the parable, we can simply pass along intact to them what we have received – a planet upon which human life and human community is possible.  There is no “more” to be had.  Joy is not to be found racing toward some ever-receding horizon, just beyond our grasp.  It is right here and now.  When we realize this, the master’s joy loses its allure and we discover the courage to embrace the true joy that is the birthright of every creature that God has made.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Always a Bridesmaid

The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

Today and the next two Sundays, we will be wrestling with the final three parables of Matthew’s Gospel.  They are all douses:  today, the parable of the ten bridesmaids; next week, the parable of the talents; and then the parable of the final judgment – I’m sure you all can’t wait for that one!  In Matthew’s Gospel, these parables are Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question about the signs of the end of the age:  When will the kingdom of God come and what will it be like? 

Most scholars agree that these parables are independent teachings of Jesus that Matthew has brought together and arranged into an eschatological discourse or teaching about the end of the age.    This is the question that preoccupied Matthew’s community, but the parables in their original setting might have addressed other concerns.   Just as the early Christian community of Matthew, probably centered in the city of Antioch, exercised great freedom in its elaboration of the meaning of the parables, I would claim a similar freedom in our attempts to interpret the parables in light of our own questions and concerns. 

It seems to me that this is what Jesus wants us to do.  He chose to teach in parables precisely because they challenge us to wrestle with the meaning of our lives as it is found in our ordinary experience.  As C. H. Dodd states in his classic definition:  “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[1]  The parables are meant to challenge our way of seeing the world and provoke imagination.

In fact, Jesus’ parables are often shocking or even offensive.  They disturb us and expose the limitations of our understanding of reality.  They work by means of what Bishop Fred Borsch calls “reorientation by disorientation.”[2]  By dissolving our usual way of constructing the world, the parables open up the possibility of an alternative way of seeing, feeling, and acting.   The word “parable” literally means, “to throw or hurl alongside.”[3] Jesus comes alongside us and hurls these stories into our existence with tremendous power, where they in turn hurl us into a new awareness of reality.  In this movement of disorientation and reorientation we are given a new consciousness.  This is what repentance means:  to be given a new mind.

The parables work by means of conversion rather than coercion; not by the application of force, but rather by the invitation to see things differently.  This is the power of the parables, and they show us something of what God is like:  a mysterious, engaging, transformative power that subverts our way of being from the inside out.  God’s power is experienced in the way the parables mess with our minds.  As we are given a new mind, we become conscious of the kingdom of God.  Jesus didn’t start a movement waiting for God’s power to be revealed at the end of time.  His movement experienced God’s power in the present moment.  This is what the parables seek to open up for us.

Parables are like rivers: we never step into the same one twice.  Each time we come to them, they open up something new for us.  I don’t know what today’s parable will open up for you.   What I can do is make some observations about what I am noticing about today’s parable, the questions it is raising for me.  You will have to enter into the parable yourself or allow it to enter into you.  I can’t do that for you.

The first thing I notice about the parable is that it is about a wedding.   The characters are getting ready for a big party.  In fact, in Jewish practice the wedding festivities would last for seven days, a period which mirrors the seven days of creation.  One of the things that marriage symbolizes is our participation in God’s ongoing creation of the world.   We are part of the unfolding of God’s creative power manifest in our life.  This is cause for joy!  

The kingdom of heaven is like a party that goes on and on, and we are invited to get in on the party.  Is this how we see our life in the world?  Are we aware of the wonder and delight that surrounds us?  Or are we asleep, like the bridesmaids?  Too often, I find myself sleepwalking through my life, grinding it out, moving through my ordinary routines without really being present to my experience.  But every now and then I wake up! 

Just yesterday, I was walking along the beach near Fort Funston talking with my husband while looking out on the water.  It was a perfect day, with majestic waves throwing up spray and sunlight sparkling on the water.  A pod of porpoises were swimming near the shore, and I just happened to be looking when one of them leaped out of the water and dove back under, in a breath-taking display of grace and beauty.  In that moment, I glimpsed the kingdom of heaven.  I was awake and enjoying the party! 

You know, we all sleepwalk through life from time to time:  whether we are wise or foolish or a mix of both.  And we all experience moments of waking-up: “The bridegroom is coming, the party is starting!”  I take some comfort in the fact that all ten of the bridesmaids in the parable fall asleep.  I don’t have to stay awake all the time, if that is even possible.  Autopilot will happen.   God will always find a way to wake me-up.  Life happens, the party happens too. 

So there is sleeping, and there is waking up for the party.  I also notice that the wedding party is happening at night.  It is hard to stay awake at night.  It is hard to see what is going on in the darkness.  I wonder if it isn’t precisely when it is dark, when we find it hard to see, that we most need to wake up for the party.  I’m glad to know that the party is going on all night long, day and night. 

It is in the darkest moments of my life, when I’m most aware of my own loss and the suffering of the world; that is when I most need to remember that the party is still going on.   In fact, the best part of the wedding celebration is often well after sundown – at least, that has been my experience!  I don’t even have to go looking for the party – it will find me.  One of the oddest aspects of this parable is the bridegroom who comes looking for the bridal procession.  He is supposed to be waiting at home for the procession to bring his bride to him.  That was the Jewish practice.  Why were these silly bridesmaids expecting him to come to them!   

And yet that is just what he does!  He can’t wait anymore!  The bridesmaids have what he needs – his bride!  The whole point of the party hinges on their bringing what is lacking to make the celebration complete.  We miss the scandal of the bridegroom’s going after his bride.  In that patriarchal culture, no man ran after a woman.  It would have been considered beneath him.  The bride is supposed to come to him.  I wonder if we would be shocked to know how much God desires us, how much God is yearning for our arrival at the party to bring creation to its fulfillment?

I wonder if what seems like a delayed bridegroom from the point of view of the bridesmaids, isn’t a delayed bridal procession from the point of view of the bridegroom.  Who is waiting on whom?  Are we waiting on God, or is God waiting on us?  That is one thing this parable has got me thinking about. 

Perhaps the most puzzling – even disturbing – part of the parable is the door closed in the face of the latecomers to the party.  When the bridegroom goes looking for the wedding procession, he only finds half of them waiting with their lamps lit.  The others didn’t bring enough oil, and so their light had gone out.  Although the woke-up and were excited for the party, they missed out on the arrival of the bridegroom because they were scrambling to buy some more oil for their lamps.  When they arrive late for the party, they find the door shut and the bridegroom claims that he doesn’t even know who they are.

Like Nikos Kazantzakis, I want to rewrite this part of the parable, or at least add an interpretive gloss.  In his script for The Last Temptation of Christ, Kazantzakis imagines a dialogue between Jesus and Nathaniel about this part of the parable.  Jesus asks, “What would you have done, Nathaniel?”  Nathaniel replies, “I would have opened the door.”  And Jesus replies:  “Congratulations, friend Nathaniel . . . this moment, though you are still alive, you enter paradise.  The bridegroom did exactly as you said:  he called to his servants to open the door . . . Open the door for the foolish virgins and wash and refresh their feet, for they have run much.”[4]

Well, yes, that is what I would have said, too.  But I wonder if that is really the point.  I think about these foolish bridesmaids, looking for the oil outside of themselves:  trying to borrow some from the wise bridesmaids and then buying some from a shopkeeper.  They are scrambling around looking for the oil – the oil of gladness, the oil the lights our way in the dark – but no one else can provide it for them.  It can’t be borrowed, bought or stolen.  It is simply given to us.  It is ours already.  If we think we’ve secured it on our own, in any other way, than we are knocking on the wrong door. 

Were I busy looking for the oil yesterday, rather than being awake and aware that I already was carrying it within me, I would have missed the dancing porpoise celebrating the party that is God’s ongoing creation.  The moment would have passed, the door closed, no matter how hard I was knocking. 

Is it too late for the foolish bridesmaids?  The parable doesn’t really say.  "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride," means that there is, alas, no limit to the number of times one can be a bridesmaid.  The door is closed for now.  But is the kingdom of heaven a one-time offer?   I could have missed the porpoise yesterday.  But there are miracles happening all around me right now.  The party is still going on for the whole seven days of creation, for as long as it takes.  I’m going to try to stay awake, keep my lamp trimmed, and trust that I’ve been given all the oil I need.  I’m counting on the door opening again, and the bridegroom finding me more than ready.  Maybe being always a bridesmaid isn't so bad after all.

[1] Linda McKinnish Bridges, “Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel in Ordinary Time: The Extraordinary Tales of God’s World,” Review and Expositor, 104, Spring 2007, pp. 331-332.
[2] Bridges, p. 332.
[3] Bridges, p. 329.
[4] Bridges, p. 355.