We needn’t worry about our place in God’s love; however, Jesus, before his death and resurrection, grounded in that love for us, seems to have deep concerns about our awareness of our calling as children of God and our willingness to live in that calling and serve.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32 A
texts: Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We know preparation is key to a good party.
If you’re having guests to your house, there are things that need doing. The house needs to be deep-cleaned, clutter put away. Food needs to be purchased and prepared. Tables need setting, dishes need polishing. Candles might be needed. The guest list needs to be checked so no one is left out, invitations need to be issued. Parties don’t create themselves.
Why then are we so skittish about this parable? We shudder at the “I don’t know you” from the bridegroom. We don’t like the judgment on the careless ones. We, who claim the unlimited grace of God in Christ Jesus, hear this parable and cry out, or mutter, or think to ourselves, “This sounds pretty legalistic!”
Maybe we’re using that word to avoid the heart of what it means to be a disciple. If every time Jesus says something that remotely sounds like he’s asking us to do something we throw up the “legalism” defense, it’s worth asking what that says about us. If we believe salvation in Christ is only about our being loved by God, that the Son of God can have no expectations on us, that as long as we worship and hear that we are forgiven, we can do what we want with our lives, well. Can I introduce you to the prophet Amos? He had something to say about that.
We’re entering a challenging stretch these next three weeks. If we’re squeamish about Jesus calling us to tasks, our struggle only begins today. Just wait until we hear the next two parables and the prophetic words chosen to accompany them.
There are two typical ways Christians in this country seem to face these challenges. Today Jesus invites us to consider a third way, his way.
Our usual way is the approach of the grace people.
We believe we cannot earn God’s love, it’s ours already. We declare we have been claimed by God in baptism, made clean in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, and have life with God now and forever. We read the Scriptures with this truth as our lens, our way of interpreting.
But sometimes when we grace people hear a parable like today’s we don’t like it. So we run away from it in fear, hoping we didn’t really hear it, or we happily ignore it. With the latter, sometimes people will even say Jesus likely didn’t tell this parable, it’s probably Matthew’s creation. Doesn’t sound like Jesus, we might say, so we’re free to dismiss it. If we live the fear option, we push this parable aside so we don’t have to consider it, hoping if we simply say it’s legalistic we can get to grace and not be troubled any more.
There are other Christians who take the approach of the judgment people.
The lens they use for Scripture is the lens of our sin. We’re awful people, they say, and Jesus has called us to straighten up and fly right. If we don’t do that, we’re in trouble. These Christians are seemingly happy to declare lots of people heading to hell for their sins, and grace, while proclaimed, seems to be only possible for those who never make mistakes.
When judgment people hear a parable like today’s it’s manna from heaven. Be prepared or you’ll be left out, they say. Sure, God forgives, but not if you’re not ready. Be wise and be ready and enjoy heaven, or be foolish and regret it in hell for eternity.
This begs the question: why don’t we want Jesus’ approach?
We who focus on grace want to say, “Why can’t we just know we’re loved by the Master and leave it at that?” Those who focus on judgment say, “Jesus is clear here: we’ve got things we have to do, job requirements.”
But our Master, if we look at everything he taught and did, including his death and resurrection, says this: “Why can’t I have both? I love you wholly and fully, with an eternal love. I set aside all my divine power and glory and went to the cross to open your hearts to my love. Risen from the dead, I forgive you of all things and welcome you to God’s party that will last forever.”
But then he says in this parable, “Can’t I also, grounded in that love, ask you to do your work and get ready for the party, ready for my rule, ready for my life in the world?”
This isn’t judgment, and it isn’t conditional. The love of God in Christ Jesus cannot be taken from us. But this parable points out a deeper reason for Jesus’ coming as one of us.
Jesus comes to invite us to new life for the sake of the world.
The forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus isn’t tied to our doing our work, our being prepared. God’s forgiveness assumes we will sin, otherwise it’s not needed.
But Jesus came not only to forgive, he came to teach us how to live God’s true, abundant life. To show us how God will heal this world and bring the party of God’s new creation: by using the very people who made the mess to get the place cleaned up.
This is the heart of his teaching. Look at all the parables he tells of servants being awake and prepared at all times for their master’s return. They’re supposed to be about their jobs as they wait, keeping all things ready, so when the master comes back, he’ll find a clean house, clean sheets, full cupboards, and a fire in the fireplace.
Or as he says in this parable: God’s planning a party of life and restoration for this whole world. The Bridegroom, the Son of God, is the center of the party. Everyone’s invited, wise and foolish. But a good party needs preparation. Oil for the lamps, so the world in darkness is lighted up, so we can see each other’s faces in joy, so the procession can be festive and bright. The house of this world needs to be cleaned, food prepared enough for all, not just those who have it, and the guest list filled up to include every child of God on this planet. This is a huge party, this justice and peace of God. It’s going to take some doing.
It’s immature of us to run away from this work by falsely tying our eternal salvation to it. That’s what children do, blaming their parents for asking them to work in the life of the home, thinking that means their parents only love them when they do right.
God’s truth is, Jesus both loves us fully and unconditionally and at the same time asks us to be about our work to get ready for God’s great feast of hope and renewal. We know we are growing into maturity in Christ when we can hold both those truths together and rejoice in our Christly life.
Why the warnings, then? Why would Jesus tell parables with scary endings that imply if we fail we’re left out?
Jesus knew his prophets, knew Amos. Amos tells the people God hates all their worship, festivals, rituals, sacrifices. Amos shocks them into hearing God’s cry for justice by telling them God hates that they’re doing the very things God commanded them to do. They trusted in their worship, doing as told, but ignored the other commands. They neglected the starving poor, participated in crushing those who struggled under their rich lifestyle. They needed to wake up.
Jesus does the same as Amos. These parables from Matthew 24 and 25 are told privately to the disciples. They are insider warnings, intended to shake them from their comfort zone, wake them up, get them alert. They’re jolting because they’re supposed to be. Jesus knows human nature, and it’s as if he anticipated we’d ignore his call to preparedness and servanthood, simply resting in our forgiveness and doing nothing.
So he shakes us up a little, because of his central purpose: he repeatedly says he came to seek and to save the lost. He constantly ran into people who were lost but claimed they weren’t. So he’s waking his disciples up, shocking them to take his call seriously.
The minute they, or we, say, “Oh no, I’ve not been working for the kingdom, I’m probably not prepared, I’ve only taken care of myself, I’m in trouble,” at that moment we discover God’s grace. Then we learn firsthand Christ Jesus came to seek and to save us. When we know we have messed up, we need never worry that he’ll say “I don’t know you.” Because he’s looking for the lost, to bring them home. All we need to do is recognize we’re lost, we’re broken, we’re dead, and he’ll make us new, even in this life.
As long as we think we’ve got it all figured out, we need this parable to wake us up. So we can hear the good news that we are loved and get back to work getting ready for the party.
This parable is full of God’s grace: we, and all God’s children, are invited to the party God is making in this world and the next. That’s secure.
Now all that needs doing is to prepare for this party. So let’s be about it. We don’t know when the Bridegroom, our Lord, will return, so we’ll just keep the house clean, feed people, take care of things. We’ll make sure the invitation gets out to as many people as we can reach in our lifetime, and make sure no one thinks they’re not good enough for the guest list. We’ll take care of our little part of this world, and work toward God’s justice and peace, because it’s our job. And because we know we are loved by God eternally in Christ.
The wonder of God’s plan is that through such work of all God’s people, the justice and peace the Scriptures envision and promise will come to pass. That’s God’s great miracle, God’s delightful twist: as we prepare, do our jobs, the party comes into focus, even now, and continues forever.
And let me tell you, this party is going to be spectacular.
In the name of Jesus. Amen