Proper 27 (November 6-12)
Texts: Matthew 25:1-13;
“THE URGENCY OF CONVERSION —
TO A NEW WAY OF BEING HUMAN, NOT TO A NEW RELIGION”
Yesterday, on a beautiful Autumn Day, Ellen and I enjoyed a real treat. I had finished up as Bridge Pastor at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in September, and as a sort-of going-away gift they treated Ellen and I to tickets at the Fireside Dinner Theater in Fort Atkinson. So we found ourselves driving across the countryside on a day with the remnant of Fall colors against the backdrop of a bright, cloudless blue sky. After a wonderful meal, we watched one of my all-time favorite stories, Scrooge: The Musical, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that timeless story of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Much of the dialogue was straight from Dickens’ book, but I found that the songs added another dimension. After the Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge, for example, he begins to wonder whether these ghostly visions are about giving him a chance at a better life. He sings,
Do I just ignore it
Do I break the spell
Or do I take another look
Open up a brand new book
Try to find a better life
A bigger, brighter, better life
And could I somehow learn to live it well
Only time will tell
Can I find a better life
And learn to live it well
Only time will tell. He finds out that he could run out of time as the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come confronts him with his own gravestone and people celebrating his death. Throughout his life Scrooge had feared the kind of poverty which is the absence of money and material wealth. Now, he begins to fear another kind of poverty, a poverty of soul, a poverty of not having shared the love of life with others. Early in the play, he snidely responds to his nephew that one can never have enough money — without realizing that he is trapped in a worldview of scarcity in which he can never truly be happy because, trapped in scarcity-thinking, he can never have enough. As his heart begins to fill with love, he realizes he can have another kind of life, a better life. And he sings of making a commitment to do nothing less than begin his life again:
And I’ll give it all
That I have left to give
I will live my days
For my fellow men
And I’ll live in praise
Of that moment when
I was able to begin again
In the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids this morning, time runs out, and it has consequences. Five of the bridesmaids find themselves out in the dark, wishing they could begin again. Certainly, an important theme of the parable is that time is not unlimited. Midnight comes, the bridegroom arrives. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Like with Ebenezer Scrooge, there are moments of decision which are crucial for our redemption, our salvation. Obviously, we need to say more about what this redemption is about, but let me hold off on that until we attend to another matter for a few minutes, namely, the element of surprise in Matthew’s Gospel — not as shocking as being visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve, but surprising nonetheless.
We’re almost to the end of our year of reading Matthew’s Gospel, and we’ve been dealing with his parables for four months now. I’ve recently begun to write a book on how, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ parables can be much more surprising than in either Mark’s or Luke’s Gospels. In fact, Matthew’s Jesus uses a word at the beginning of today’s Gospel Reading which he uses much more than in the other Gospels. The word is compare. “Then,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven will be compared to.” And he proceeds to tell the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. What happens in the parable, in other words, is being compared to the kingdom of heaven. Often, when we compare two things we begin by looking for similarities. So we might be assuming, in this instance for example, that the Bridegroom represents the arrival of Jesus the Messiah, and thus the arrival of the kingdom of heaven.
But in the book I’m writing I argue that when Matthew says he’s comparing something to the kingdom of heaven, he is more often looking for the differences, not the similarities. One of the main things Matthew’s Jesus is trying to teach us is how different — how very, very different — the kingdom of heaven is from human kingdoms. We see this right from the beginning with the story of Jesus’ birth. Gentiles from the East — three magi, three ‘wisemen’ — learn of the birth of a new king in Judea. They follow the star to Bethlehem. Along the way they encounter the current king of Judea, King Herod. And what is his response to the new king? King Herod kills all the male babies in Bethlehem! What brutality! Several weeks ago we heard in Matthew 22 a parable about a king who holds a banquet for his son’s wedding, and when his invited guests turn him down, he sends his army to not only kill all those guests but to also burn down and destroy their entire city. Brutal! If we think in terms of similarities, we might be tempted to think that the king in that parable represents God and God’s kingdom. But No! For heaven’s sake, no! Certainly with such brutality he represents ruthless kings like Herod and the brutality of so many human kingdoms.
In human kingdoms, when we perceive enemies we must strike out against them with equal force. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Hamas strikes Israel, then Israel must strike back. Al-Qaeda strikes us, we must strike back. President Biden, in the wake of the Hamas terrorist strike, has also been advocating with our Israeli allies to learn lessons from our mistakes in striking back to Al-Qaeda — about how overly brutal we became in our pursuit of an eye for an eye so that too many innocent people were killed.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he begins to teach us how very different the kingdom of heaven is from our typical human kingdoms. In human kingdoms it’s an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. In the kingdom of heave, Jesus tells us that if someone strikes us on the right cheek, turn for them the other cheek, too. Human kingdoms: we are to love our neighbors and fellow citizens and to hate our enemies. The kingdom of heaven: we are to love our enemies. That’s how very different the kingdom of heaven is from typical human kingdoms!
I believe that the most stark teaching about this comes in Matthew 11, where Jesus tells the disciples of John the Baptist, “From the days of John the Baptist to this moment, the kingdom of heaven is choosing to suffer the violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12; my translation). Ultimately, Jesus himself will exemplify the kingdom of heaven come down to earth by choosing to suffer our violence on the cross. And when he is raised from the dead on Easter morning, does he return with ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ on his mind? No! He returns in the spirit of loving forgiveness.
He comes as the “Son of Man,” to use Jesus’s own term for himself. In other words, he comes as the next generation of being human. If we are to survive, if God is to save us through the coming of the Messiah, it will ultimately be by becoming human in a new and more faithful way. It will be like Scrooge sings in the musical, “To find a better life . . . and learn to live it well.” In some ways it will mean a dramatic reversal like Scrooge when he decides to basically start over, to begin his life again. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man in order to signal to us that we need, in many ways, to start over in this business of being human. Compare the brutality of our human kingdoms with the loving forgiveness of the kingdom of heaven. Don’t we need a start-over? A Human Being 2.0? A next generation of being human? Don’t we need a whole bunch of us to make the decision like Scrooge to start over in some of the very basic ways to think? Turn the other cheek? Love our enemies? What would that mean? Would it look something like Mahatma Gandhi and his movement of nonviolent engagement with evil? Would it mean something like Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rest of the Civil Rights Movement leaders, in combating the structures of racism?
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, do you see how big this is? Huge! We’re talking mass movements of people making the decision like Scrooge to start thinking and living into a new, more faithful way of being human. Like beginning again. Because that’s how very different the kingdom of heaven is from the human kingdoms in which we’ve been raised. In fact, that’s been the biggest change for me in my own preaching. I was raised to preach that conversion to the Christian religion is what mattered most. But in recent years I’ve come to read the Bible as not about conversion to any certain religion. Look again at the war in Israel right now. Religion is part of the problem, right? No, Jesus came to offer us conversion to a new way of being human!
On the whole, I think Matthew’s Gospel especially features the new way as humans that we need to respond to violence. But that’s a huge topic that’s best to cover in smaller pieces over time. Let’s end instead with the contrast I think we see in this morning’s Gospel — and in the story of Scrooge. Scrooge had come to see the world in terms of scarcity. Before being visited by the ghosts, Scrooge tells his nephew that one can never have enough money, enough material wealth. When his heart begins filling with love, he’s able to see the world in terms of abundance, not scarcity. There is enough.
I think that’s also the contrast we see in this morning’s parable, especially if we focus on the five supposedly wise bridesmaids when they respond to the so-called foolish maids request for them to share their oil and their light. These supposedly wise bridesmaids have the typical human wisdom that sees the world in terms of scarcity, don’t they? For they refuse to share their oil or light, and instead send the other five out into the dark night to get their own. Scarcity is the human wisdom of our economics to this various day. Isn’t capitalism, for example, founded on the principle of fair distribution of scarce resources? Are our economics based on scarcity or abundance? Think about it. What would it be like to form an economics on abundance? Like Scrooge’s life after being visited by four spirits? Or if the five supposedly wise bridesmaids had instead replied, “Hey, we have enough oil and therefore enough light. Stay with us and help us to greet the bridegroom.”
Matthew 25 closes with the Son of Man judging the nations according to abundance-thinking vs. scarcity-thinking: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you clothed me.” He’s not judging just individuals, mind you. It’s very clear in the text that he’s judging the nations. And the criterion of that judgment concerns how their economics respond to the least in Jesus’ human family. Do you see how big this might be? Could we as a nation choose a better way to live? To, in some ways, start over? Not change just as individuals but also as a community, a nation, of individuals under one Constitution? What if we dared compare our kingdom, our nation, to the kingdom of heaven? What if we prayed things like, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven,” and really tried to live into it? To be continued next week. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, November 12, 2023