Last week’s Gospel reading and this week’s share a common theme: what followers of Jesus are to do while they await the Day of Judgment. Last week’s reading focused on the need to be vigilant and prepared. This week’s reading has a different focus: making a profit for the Kingdom of Heaven.
To start off, I would like to offer my retelling of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. One problem with Jesus’ version is that we have all heard it so many times that it doesn’t have the impact that it would have had on its original audience. Another problem is that the world has changed quite a bit in 2000 years, and our perspective is very different. We hear this story from the perspective of a capitalist society, where the wealthy are admired. In Jesus’ day, at least among the peasants that came to hear Jesus preach, wealth was looked on as something inherently disreputable. And the rich were typically viewed as greedy and rapacious. Now, the man in Jesus’ parable was very wealthy indeed. You should know that 8 talents of silver would be worth about $5.6 million today! So, with all this in mind, let me offer my version of the parable:
All Saints’ Day is a “principal feast” in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. It is one of the seven feast days when I bring out the incense—much to the dismay of a couple of you! Rightly, it should be celebrated on November 1st. But the prayer book allows churches that cannot adequately keep the feast on November 1st to celebrate it on the following Sunday. And so, here we are, gathered together to remember all God’s holy people: the official saints found in the volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts and the unofficial parish saints for whom we have prayed during the last 12 months.
Now, some parishes prefer to remember the unofficial saints on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, in a “separate but equal” celebration. But I am firmly against making any such distinction. Pastorally, it may make sense, but theologically, not so much! So on this day, we celebrate the blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, and St. Paul, as well as our own St. David A., St. Barbara J., and St. Margaret W.
In today’s Gospel reading, we get two snippets from a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. The first snippet is about which commandment in the Law of Moses is the greatest. The second snippet is about the identity of the Messiah. Let me deal with snippet #2 first.
Jesus wants to silence the Pharisees who have been plaguing him with questions. So he asks them a riddle about the identity of the Messiah. He quotes the first verse of Psalm 110, written by King David about the crowning of a future Messiah. In that verse, David refers to the Messiah as “my Lord.” Now, biblical prophecy foretold that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. Why, then, would David refer to his own descendant as “my Lord”? For in a patriarchal culture such as ancient Israel, the ancestor is usually given higher rank than the descendant. So we have a mystery: The Messiah will be a descendant of King David, but he will outrank his ancestor. How can this be? Well, the Pharisees can’t solve this riddle, and they wisely stop pestering Jesus. We, on the other hand, know the answer. As the foster son of Joseph, Jesus the Messiah is the descendant of King David by adoption and can legitimately be called a Son of David. But as the only Son of God, Jesus outranks any earthly king, including his royal ancestor.
Now, let’s turn to the first snippet from the debate. What is the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses? Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But that commandment alone is not sufficient to summarize the purpose of the entire Law of Moses, so Jesus adds a second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He tells them that these commandments are the two hinges that hold up the door of Holy Scripture. Now, Jesus is not saying that the other biblical commandments count for nothing. Far from it! But he is saying that these two commandments give us the lens by which to view all of Scripture, keeping us focused on what really matters.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a banquet. And who doesn’t like a banquet? This theme of a divine feast is a common thread tying together the reading from Isaiah, Psalm 23, and Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Feast.
Isaiah assures the people of Israel that something good lies ahead. God has something marvelous in store for them. But how can he possibly describe it? Well, it is like a great victory feast. But unlike a normal victory feast, to which only the victors are invited, everyone is invited to this feast! “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food.” And let’s not forget the exceptional wine! Now, what is the great victory that is being celebrated? Just this: God has swallowed up death forever.
Psalm 23 reprises the metaphor of a banquet. Again the banquet is a victory feast. (But here, it seems that the losers are not invited.) God prepares a banquet table for us in the presence of our persecutors and tormentors. And there is so much wine being poured that the cups overflow onto the table. One thing is clear: we will never again be hungry or thirsty.
Again, in the Gospel reading from Matthew, we get the image of a banquet. Jesus, while arguing with the chief priests and Pharisees of Jerusalem, attempts to describe the Kingdom of Heaven by using an allegory about a royal wedding banquet. The key to understanding any allegory is to know what each person, place, and thing in the story represents. In a sense, allegories are written in code. This particular allegory is quite complicated. So, let me try to decode it for you.
Last week, the Gospel reading was about church discipline. Specifically, it dealt with how to handle someone who is causing trouble in the congregation. (Father Webber quite understandably opted to preach on the Epistle.) Today’s Gospel reading has to do with forgiving a fellow Christian who has sinned against you. In both cases, the common theme is how to get along with one another in a small, tight-knit community.
The Gospel reading starts out with Peter asking Jesus a question: How often do I have to forgive a fellow disciple who keeps on sinning against me? What a telling question! It tells me that things haven’t changed much in 2000 years. We still struggle to get along. We still struggle to forgive one another. If you have ever served on a parish committee, you know what kind of little sins can happen. Someone interrupts someone else, and the person who was interrupted feels that his or her opinion isn’t valued. Someone tends to talk a bit too long, and another church member makes a show of not listening. Someone is trying to get something done under a deadline, but someone else doesn’t want to rush into the wrong decision. In the course of community life, we inevitably hurt each other’s feelings. Now, these are all little slights, little sins. But they can disrupt the whole community!
Jesus’s answer to this problem is quite simple: forgiveness. Now, Peter imagines that he should forgive someone no more than seven times. That seems like a reasonable limit to him. But Jesus responds that we should forgive one another seventy-seven times. In other words, forgiveness has nothing to do at all with being reasonable.
Figuring that Peter won’t understand this teaching, Jesus tries to explain it with a parable, a short story about a rich king and his slaves. The king forgives a huge debt to a slave who cannot possibly repay what he owes. By rights, the king could sell the slave and all his family in order to recoup a tiny portion of the debt. But when the slave pleads for mercy, the king shows compassion and forgives the entire debt. Now, you have to realize just how large that debt was. Ten thousand talents is just under seven billion dollars! Unfortunately, the slave whose huge debt was erased does not himself learn forgiveness. He accosts a fellow slave who owes him around eleven thousand dollars and demands payment in full. When he doesn’t get it, he has that slave imprisoned!
There is a Chinese proverb: “It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than to be a human being in a period of chaos.” Well, folks, like it or not, we are human beings in a period of chaos. Two weeks ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a right-wing rally. American Nazis marched in the streets carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” These “very fine people,” as the President called them, wish to rid the country of anyone who is not a white heterosexual of pure European descent. As you know, a woman was murdered by one of those American Nazis, and many other innocent people were injured.
Based on the Bible readings we have heard recently, you might think we were in the season of Epiphany. Last Sunday, we had two accounts of divine epiphanies, one to Moses and one to Jesus’ inner circle. Today, we get another two epiphany stories, one to the prophet Elijah and one to a boatload of Jesus’ disciples.
Let me start out by setting the scene for the epiphany to Elijah. Elijah had bested the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al in a contest and ordered the losers in the contest to be executed. Queen Jezebel, in turn, ordered that Elijah be executed. He ran away to a cave on Mount Horeb to hide and to bemoan his fate.
There, in that cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord asking him what he is doing hiding in a cave. Elijah complains that he is the last faithful Israelite left in the land and is now under a sentence of death. The Lord then instructs Elijah to go out onto the mountain and await his appearance. Here is where things get really interesting! Instead of instantly obeying, Elijah waits in the cave for a sign. First, there is a great wind. Elijah stays put. Then, there is an earthquake. Elijah stays put. Then, there is a great fire. Elijah stays put. In each case, we are told, the Lord was not to be found in these terrifying phenomena. Last but not least, there is the faintest of whispers, the merest of murmurs. At long last, Elijah leaves the cave to meet with the Lord, rightly discerning that the Lord has finally arrived. We are told that he covers his eyes with his cloak, lest he be struck dead by the sight of the Lord’s face. Outside that cave on Mount Horeb, the Lord asks Elijah the very same question he had asked before. And again, Elijah gives the very same answer. It is as if he has learned nothing about the power of the Lord! He is still afraid. He is still discouraged. He is still bone-weary. At this point, the Lord shows him mercy, allowing him to retire after he has trained up a successor.