These parables are full of surprises: grace to those who don’t deserve it, truth about where we find Christ in our lives, and, most of all, a King who becomes a servant to save the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Christ the King, Last Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 34 A
texts: Matthew 25:31-46 (referring to all of Matthew 25, plus some more)
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
Did you notice both groups of the King’s servants were surprised at the truth?
Both wanted to serve their King, care for him; neither knew how. The only difference is one group took care of people with needs, one did not. The last day brings a stunning surprise when they are called before their King, who tells them the truth. “We had no idea,” they all say.
This surprise is only one of a number of surprises these judgment parables we’ve heard lately spring, things that aren’t what they seem, situations that don’t turn out as we expect. If we’ve struggled with these stories, feared them, it’s because, like the servants of the King, we’re not in on the surprise.
We could be. Everything we need to understand the truth of these parables, of our relationship to our Lord, of life and death and eternal existence, is given us, if only we look.
So let’s look.
We start with this first surprise.
It’s remarkable: in the 25 years I’ve studied these parables, discussed them, taught them, heard others speak about them, most of the time people want to talk about the judgment, the sentencing. If the actions called for today are mentioned, it’s related to the threat. People say “do these or else, that’s what Jesus is saying,” or people won’t consider living in this way, frozen in their fear. Most reading these parables come away scared, worried, or self-righteous.
If you insist on focusing on the judgment, the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” fine. Then notice what Jesus has given us. In this insider parable, Jesus has told his disciples, his followers, the very people who, like the ones in the parable, want to serve their King, precisely what they need to do to do that, and avoid judgment.
I don’t believe Jesus is threatening us here. But if you insist on that, know this: you have the answers to the final exam. If there’s going to be a judgment such as this, none of us will be the second group. None of us. We’re not going to be surprised, that’s our surprise today.
We, unlike they, know exactly where our King is. In the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. So even if you fear this judgment, this fire, you’ve got all you need to avoid it: take care of the least of these.
But the next surprise is that the judgment itself is not to be feared.
A few chapters earlier Jesus tells this story of the kingdom: there was an owner who hired people to work in his vineyard. The first at 6 a.m. were promised a full day’s pay. During the day he hires more, because there’s more work. With less than an hour to sunset, he gets a few more. At the end of the day, everyone gets a full day’s pay, regardless of their work.
Do you see? Those who take care of the “least of these” for decades are no better off at the judgment than those who do it only a little. In other words, if we have the answers to the final, in Matthew 22 Jesus says he’s throwing out the final results, everyone’s getting an A. Everyone. Even those who sat around all day. That’s a shock.
Now, we don’t mind if we get slack from Jesus. But if (in our opinion) we are prepared bridesmaids, slaves faithful with our God-given gifts, folks who care for the least of these, we can be less than thrilled if someone who doesn’t do much also gets a free pass of grace in the end.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” the owner says in that parable. “Can’t I do with my wealth what I want?” That’s the point: God’s generosity is for all, even us. Because let’s be honest: none of us works a full day, we all fall short.
As Jesus dies on the cross he takes all of our tests, all of our work, all we have done, good and bad, and throws it out. He says, “I’ll take care of this. I’ll love you all.” We see it almost right away after the resurrection when he first re-claims all his faithless disciples and names them as his chief witnesses and leaders in bringing God’s grace to the world.
The cross also reveals we don’t need to fear the authority figure.
That’s a big problem we have here. The groom says “I don’t know you.” The master kicks out the third slave and gives his talent to the first, and slave-owner is hardly a nice model for God. The King says that because some of his followers didn’t know or do, well, they can go to you know where. None of these sounds like someone to be trusted, let alone loved.
If we look only at these three parables we miss the biggest surprise of the whole Gospel: Jesus, the Son of God, consistently flips our expectations about being our Lord upside down. When the disciples fight over which is greatest, Jesus reminds them, only a few chapters earlier, they are to serve each other, because that’s what he does. “The Son of Man,” he says, “came to serve, not to be served.”
Now do you see? The slaveowner of the second parable becomes a slave himself and dies in service. The bridegroom gives his life for his neglectful, unprepared friends. The king ascends his royal throne, only it’s a cross, and he is crowned by being tortured to death.
None of these parables make sense if we read them alone. They’re told to disciples, to us, and we only understand when we stay with the Storyteller through the cross and the empty tomb. So yes, in these stories we are called to serve others, use our gifts, be prepared. But only because our King, Master, and Groom is already on his knees doing it himself.
Have you had enough surprises? Here’s a big one. If we stop fearing the authority, and quit obsessing on the judgment, we actually find the point of these parables.
The largest amount of words in these parables, the bulk of what is said, is our Lord and King inviting us to join him in bringing life to the world. Asking us to prepare for his coming reign by making it happen in our lives. Asking us to use the gifts we’ve been given for the sake of the reign of God. Asking us to expect to see our Lord in the eyes of those in need, and to expect such relationships to bless us in return.
Now that we know we need not fear our Lord, we begin to see these stories for what they are: our Lord’s gracious call to be of service as his followers. What if we let go of our fear and anxiety and were just that?
The biggest surprise is that we’re surprised at all.
Everything we’ve ever seen in Jesus should have shown this path to us. None of these calls to action are surprises, given Jesus’ other teaching and life we’ve heard and known. Fear of the judgment should never have been our obsession, given Jesus’ death and resurrection. We live trusting in God’s free and undeserved grace given us through Christ Jesus, not in terror of God.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this, but that’s OK. The only question is, will we follow our King and Lord into this path of love and service for the sake of the world, trusting grace and forgiveness will be what he has said, trusting the path of sacrificial love will bless us as much as those we love, trusting we are in the hands of the Triune God who only hopes that we will join all God’s children in restoring this earth to what it was created to be.
The vision of what we could be, living as these parables invite, is thrilling to imagine. I can’t wait to see what happens next as we mature into this life.
It might actually surprise us how wonderful it is.
In the name of Jesus. Amen