Homily: November 9, 2014
PROPER 27, Year A, 9 November 2014, Rev. Theo Park You can always tell when we’re heading into the home stretch
of the Sundays after Pentecost, because the lectionary starts hinting at Advent.
Meaning we start hearing stories that talk about the end times and the second coming
and what it means to be found ready when that day arrives.
Today’s reading is one of those stories, part of a long teaching found only in Matthew,
who in chapters 24 and 25 has Jesus describe for his chosen few
what the end of times will be like.
This is what today’s parable refers to when it says
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared…”
In other words, at the end of the age, this is what will happen.
If we don’t listen carefully, we might think the message every week
was like that old bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming back. Look busy!”
But that’s really not it at all.
As did most Jews of his day, Jesus fully expected
that the history of the world as we know it (well, as he knew it)
was going to come to a screeching halt,
that God was soon going to intervene in the affairs of this world
and overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment.
Being a compassionate and just Judge, one concerned with justice and righteousness,
God was going to turn the social, political, and religious order upside down
and create a new rule: the kingdom of heaven.
God's judgment of people would not demand perfection, but good works;
good fruit from the tree, as Matthew often puts it,
revealing the integrity, consistency, and authenticity of a person.
If you asked a first century Jew about how God’s reign would come on earth
you were would get a variety of answers.
Some believed that the kingdom would come through armed rebellion against Rome.
Others rejected this approach, preferring instead to wait for God’s dramatic intervention.
In many of the Jewish kingdom scenarios,
God would act through a human being who would execute divine justice
and restore divine rule over Israel.
This was “the anointed one” (in Hebrew, mashiach or “messiah;” “christos” in Greek).
I give you all this background to explain that Jesus proclaimed the reign of God
to a people who fervently hoped and prayed for its coming.
And that over time his followers associated him with the promised messiah of old.
But there were two major problems.
First, Jesus did not affirm common Jewish expectations for how the kingdom would come.
He didn’t raise up an army to wage war against Rome.
And he didn’t promise that God would fight this battle in some imminent Armageddon.
In fact, as presented in the gospels, Jesus’ answer to the question
“How will the kingdom come?”
was quite novel, elusive, and frustrating.
That’s the first problem. More about that in a moment.
The second problem is that the kingdom didn’t come at all,
at least not by the expectations of the early Christians.
And so by the time of the writing of Matthew, some two generations after Jesus,
the Church’s questions about the coming of the messiah were changing.
Now the author has to address not “What will happen when he comes?” but
“When is he coming…if he ever does, and what are we supposed to do in the meantime?”
To answer that question, to give direction to a community
perplexed about the delay of Jesus’ return,
the evangelist takes what may have originally been a parable
and allegorizes it to fit the situation.
It helps to know the context: as I said, this story is actually part of a longer section,
itself part of the last of the five great discourses the author creates for Jesus
as the framework of his memoir.
The basic teachings of this last discourse are structured like this:
- the disciples are to stay alert and equip themselves for the long haul,
because they don't know exactly when the Lord will return at the end of time;
- they are to be prepared for their master's return by being on guard and on the job;
- they are to be performers rather than idlers: watching means seizing the day,
loving God and loving neighbors in each moment,
it is not a passive or speculative stance that soon despairs of a delayed return;
- in the judgment that brings this age to a close, those who have
performed according to God’s will receive their reward,
and those who have failed to do so suffer punishment.
Very Matthew! A nice, logical, somewhat legalistic,
"here's-what-ya-gotta-do" interpretation of Jesus' teachings.
But also very Matthew in its insistence that we are to take the reality of God so seriously
that we can come to terms with its sudden appearance at any moment within our lives. Here all our faith and trust and commitment are on the line.
Key to all of this is the Matthean writer’s vision of the kingdom.
The in-breaking of the kingdom of God that has come in Jesus
is radically different from the way you and I naturally think and act
and different from the way we structure human society.
It is unexpected, shocking, and topsy-turvy to human sensibilities.
This is why Jesus spends so much time trying to explain
what this kingdom from heaven is like (and why people so seldom understand).
The Beatitudes we heard last week give us an image of the blessed ones
that is just the opposite of what we would naturally value—
they are the poor in spirit, the persecuted, the mourning, the meek.
The parables of the kingdom paint for us pictures where debtors are freely forgiven, where the smallest seed produces the largest tree,
and where the last-come workers receive the same reward.
Jesus’ model of life shows open-armed compassion for the downtrodden,
the touching of the leper, the exalting of the lowly child, the welcoming of the Gentile,
and the listening ear for blind outcast beggars.
We learn that the one who wants to be first should not
exercise an overbearing leadership style, but should be the slave of all.
The one who is blessed by God with material wealth should set it aside to follow Christ. The one who desires to hold on to her way life must in fact be willing to see it die.
Over and over Jesus redefines the role of the messiah in radically new ways.
He ushers in the kingdom of God, to be sure,
but only through serving and the example of self-giving agape love.
This is how the kingdom will come.
Here is the answer to problem one.
And the answer to problem two?
The author of Luke has Jesus put it this way:
“No hesitation. No backward looks. You can’t put God's kingdom off till tomorrow.
Seize the day.”
In other words, live each day as if it were to be your last.
Which is not to say life it selfishly, but live it in such a way as to give glory to God,
meaning in loving appreciation of life and in loving service to others.
The gospels have Jesus warn us over and over about presuming upon tomorrow.
I’m not guaranteed a tomorrow, and neither are you.
The truth is that none of us know when our time is up,
as I experienced two weeks ago when our car was rammed.
One foot further forward in where we were struck could have made all the difference.
You or I could die today, tomorrow, next week or next year.
We are called to consciously choose to live our lives
as if every day is our last day on this earth.
We must take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way
and fulfill our purpose in life.
God does not want us to waste our lives away.
God wants us to seize the day!
Live every day of our lives on purpose and with passion.
God has given us a reason for living—to be like Jesus.
The kingdom of heaven is here and now,
but remains hidden until our lives make it a reality. It’s not going to happen yesterday, so we must forget the past. We can’t put it off until tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes. It has to happen right now, today. Let us seize the day and make it our own!
May God’s kingdom come on earth.