What if you lived your life as if you trusted that you were absolutely, indisputably, unquestionably safe in the love of the Triune God, now and forever, no matter what?
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 32 A
Texts: Matthew 25:1-13; Amos 5:18-24
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Are people of faith at their core really just living a rewards game?
There are plenty of people today who don’t believe in a god of any kind who say that those of us who do are solely motivated by the reward of heaven or fear of hell. These critics will often say, “I don’t need a fear of some god to motivate me to do good to my neighbor, to be decent. It’s just the right way to be. You all seem to be in a faith only for the reward.”
And if you look at most of Christian proclamation over the past centuries, these critics have a point. We’ve been selling this rewards game for a long time.
Even we Lutherans. We’re supposed to believe we’re saved by God’s grace alone. But when we read parables like today’s, our grace theology collapses like a cheap card table, and we get right to moralizing, threatening punishment.
But what if you trusted that you were absolutely, indisputably, unquestionably safe in the love of the Triune God now and forever, no matter what? What would you do with your life, then?
These parables are hard, no question.
Chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew are filled with threatening stories about the end of time, with some welcomed into a new reality and others shut out. They all seem to motivate by threats and fear.
In the Gospels, Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign is much more heavily about the here and now, the life we live in this world, than the end times. But these parables, which Matthew places during Holy Week, are pretty clearly in the context of those end times.
So why you shouldn’t be afraid? Why shouldn’t you hear today’s parable and all its friends as they seem to be saying: straighten up and fly right or the door is slammed in your face and God will say, “I don’t even know you.”
You can fairly ask, “why would I trust that I am absolutely, indisputably, unquestionably safe in the love of the Triune God now and forever, no matter what?
But hear these parables as if you’re part of the group of original disciples.
By now over 100 people, women and men, were disciples of Jesus, and Jesus spoke these parables to them, the ones already part of Jesus’ community. If you hear today’s parable as they did, for the first time, one thing is clear. This really is a minor failing. The “foolish” didn’t expect to need extra oil, and they get shut out from the celebration at the end of time? That seems an overreaction.
And if these parables were told in the few days before Good Friday, what these disciples did next makes forgetting a little oil seem even more silly to worry about. Most of them fell apart. Ran away in terror and abandoned Jesus. Denied Jesus with curses. Betrayed Jesus to his enemies. Except for the women disciples and John, most failed Jesus miserably.
So meeting the risen Christ while remembering these parables, must have been terrifying. This is when the door gets slammed in our face, they must have thought. This is when Jesus says, “I don’t even know you.” This is when he rejects all his unfaithful disciples, keeps the women and John, and goes out looking for better disciples.
But that didn’t happen.
There was no door slam or exclusion. They locked themselves behind a door, but the risen Jesus came right through it. And said, “Oh, there you all are. Be at peace. I’m sending you out with the Spirit of God in you, to share my love.”
And Christ didn’t say to any of them, “I don’t know you.” He knew them deeply and well. What they did that weekend wasn’t a surprise. Christ knew their flaws and weaknesses and failings, and loved them. And Christ knew their value, too. Christ knew he needed Peter, warts and all. Knew that all of them were necessary for God’s grace and love to get to the whole world.
No one got thrown aside or shut out. Instead, they all heard, “do you love me? Then feed my lambs.”
So again, what if you trusted that you were absolutely, indisputably, unquestionably safe in the love of the Triune God now and forever, no matter what?
How would you live your life? What would motivate you? If your place in the reign of God after death is safe, what does this story tell you about living here?
Surely there’s only one possibility that blesses everyone: share the oil. If all ten run out, who cares? They all fell asleep anyway, and had to be wakened for the party. What if they trusted the love of the bride and bridegroom and everyone laughed – the late bridegroom apologizing for tardiness, the shadowy bridesmaids apologizing for unlit lamps – and all went into the party?
I’m often foolish, by the standards of this parable. Plenty of times I didn’t anticipate something would be needed for me to do. Sometimes I prepare ahead, I’m “wise,” according to this. But I’ve got enough blind spots to feel more solidly in the foolish camp. And I want to be in the party of God’s reign that’s happening here. Doesn’t everyone?
Wouldn’t this have been a better wedding if the oil was shared and people trusted in each other’s love?
You can live in fear of the slammed door, of not being recognized, if you want.
Amos gives you plenty to be afraid of – the end times come, and it’s like being bitten by a snake or eaten by a bear. But fear and threats can’t change your heart. They won’t help you do justice, or show mercy, or love God and love your neighbor.
And you don’t need to be afraid. The actions of Christ after Easter tell you all you need to know to live in God’s reign right now, in joy and hope. Why tremble at the door waiting for it to slam when God’s already propped it open? Why worry about being excluded when the Risen Christ says, “I know you, I love you, and I need you?
What if your motivation to bring enough oil and to help others who forget to bring enough is so all can be at the party, right now? A party that includes all God’s children, with abundant food, good shelter, clothing, well-being, life and hope: this is the reign of God Christ Jesus wants so much to see here.
So what if you lived your whole life as if you trusted that you were absolutely, indisputably, unquestionably safe in the love of the Triune God now and forever, no matter what?
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen