This is the last Sunday in the church year. I like that the church year does not follow the calendar year. It goes in its own direction; it sets its own pace.
For most people, the church year is a three-year cycle. Each year focuses on one of the most similar (or 'synoptic') gospel accounts. This past year was Matthew; this next year will be Mark.
I brought this name up several months ago, that of Papias, an early follower of Christ--can you believe it that this guy actually knew the apostle John?! Papias refers to the writings of both Matthew and Mark in his 'fragments'. I would imagine that some people are complaining that he does not mention the writings of Luke or John and how they came about, but I think both of those writers are very clear within their works of both their purposes and intent (Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30-31). The only basic unanswered questions have to deal with Matthew and Mark.
If you will allow me to translate with a certain amount of freedom--especially allowing me to give more than one word for a certain word in the original language, I would like to offer this translation of what Papias says of Matthew:
'Therefore, Matthew, on the one hand, in a Hebrew dialect, arranged the speeches [of Jesus] in an organized manner, and, on the other hand, each one interpreted them as each was able (3:16).'
Every translation falls short in some way. There is the saying that 'a translator is a traitor'! Some important things are left out, and some unimportant things are added. But, before we leave Matthew for a couple years, I would like to make one more appeal to look at the five discourses (or sermons) of Jesus and to see a Hebrew style or structure to them. (I realize this means that you have to look at both the Old Testament and the New to see what is really going on, but it ultimately the whole thing is by one author anyway. How can you NOT benefit by looking at it some more?)
And the direction of Matthew is in sharp contrast to the structure of the Gospel according to Mark. And just a little bit of what Papias says about him is instructive--and I will hope you will allow the same freedom as above.
'Mark ... wrote with a strict conformity to a standard or norm, with focus on careful attention, though not in a fixed succession, of the things of Christ either said or done (3:15).'
There is another 'standard' with Mark, another order that we can see within the text. It is certainly not one of Jesus as a talker. He basically saves his one sermon until the very end, almost right before the Last Supper. At that point he is dealing with the end of the world.
No matter how much these first two gospel accounts are opposites, they still work together to provide a picture of a caring, versatile, energetic, large-scale Savior from sin. And that is needed as we admit that we are in the last days....
I recently talked with the ladies of the LWML about the book of Esther. I began my talk with the following quote by Pascal, and I have still been thinking about it.
‘God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true; and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive (Blaise Pascal, Fundamentals of the Christian Religion, Part 8, section 585).’
The above is an excellent quote to use when discussing a book of the bible that does not mention God. And it is also an excellent quote to use when discussing the so-called ‘Parable of the Talents’, when it says that the master of the house ‘went away (Matthew 25:15)’.
Whether you say God ‘went away’ or you say that he is ‘hidden’, there is the issue of why that is.
God certainly could make himself more obvious. And when Jesus was here on earth, sometimes that aspect of being the Son of God was more obvious. But it was hidden for most of the time so that the love could come through more predominantly. You see that especially on the cross.
The servant who hides his one talent uses the excuse that he was afraid. Now the master of the house does not deny that he is strict. But he points out to the servant the option he had of giving the talent to the bank and getting some interest at the end—which I am sure would not be very much at all. But that was still an option, and it was much better than putting the talent into the ground.
The master was strict, but that is not the only thing he was. Those who had a few talents and made some more, there were no details given how that happened. But in the end they were given more, much more! The master talks about his joy with them. Those are the ones for which the master’s love predominates. Whether he is hidden or went away, for those servants, the issue of love was important.
This week's gospel text is from the first few verses of Matthew 25. We are getting closer to the end, and the theme turns toward the end times.
The theme for the world today seems to be one of diversity. In sharp contrast to that is God's theme of eternal life. The basic idea of the Didache, an early Christian writing, is that there are only two ways: A way of life and a way of death. That certainly helps to simplify things.
Some would point out that it seems the Didache is teaching that when a person follows the commands, that is the way of life. So does Jesus become secondary then?
It is important to read this text in context with the other writings. I like the way the author references what we usually call 'Matthew'. When the Didache mentions the Lord's Prayer, it is described in this way: '... pray as our Lord commanded in his Gospel....'
First of all, the writer does not treat the Lord's Prayer as a suggestion. The need for help is a basic thing for the Christian. He also does not say 'Matthew' as the source of the reference. He does not even say, 'The Gospel of Matthew' or EVEN 'The Gospel according to Matthew'--its proper name. With all the options except the last one, there can be multiple gospels. But that is not the way the gospel (in the singular) is described. I also like the fact that the writer says that the Gospel according to Matthew is our LORD'S Gospel.
It is also important to remember that these commands could be understood in a Jewish way, that the commands are done as a 'way of life'. But they are certainly not the most important thing of life--Jesus showed what that was when he said that he himself was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. With that Truth, hopefully Jesus will never become a secondary thing.
In the text for this week, five of the virgins/maidens are foolish and five are wise. In the previous parable there were the wise and wicked servants/stewards. Whatever the role, there is a great simplicity in that some are going into eternal life, and some, into eternal punishment.
The idea of heading to a wedding is a beautiful picture. And the setting of the other people being involved with that is a beautiful one as well. It was a Jewish custom for the groom to dress in wedding clothes and go with friends to the house of the bride. There is a wonderful sense of anticipation when you know something good is about to happen.
I thought I would end with a stark contrast in the following verses. I recently noticed the similarities (and differences) with the following theme that is running through this gospel account. I am sure there are others. (All are in the ESV translation.)
Matthew 8:12 ... the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 13:41-42 ... [the angels] will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 13:49-50 The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them [i.e., the evil] into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 22:13 '... Bind him [i.e., the one without a wedding garment] hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
Matthew 24:50-51 ...the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 25:30 '... And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
That sounds like a very bad place with all those things going on. I am glad that all of this is happening in only ONE place. And, thankfully, there is also another, MUCH better place.
I remember reading about the high level of interest in the Sermon on the Mount. And the Beatitudes at the start of that sermon are also quite well known.
Each of the beatitudes start with a blessing. And that is probably the most fascinating aspect of it all.
In the beatitudes there are certain groups of people who are picked out by the Lord. Then he redefines them ('theirs is the kingdom of heaven'). Or he predicts that something will happen to them ('they shall inherit the earth').
That all comes from the word 'blessing'. The verb 'to bless' is connected to power. And you see that in the creation account.
God creates a group, and then he blesses that group and says, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.' Then that group receives the power to fill the earth and multiply.
But that is not the end of the story. The creation account moves to an even higher point on the seventh day. God ends up blessing that day.
How can someone bless a day? Does it glow on the calendar? Do you automatically feel special on that day? Obviously not.
The progression within the beatitudes also moves to a higher point near the end. The final two (if you count the last 'blessed' that is directly spoken to those who are listening: 'Blessed are YOU....'), these beatitudes are for those who are persecuted. The contrast within the very last one is stirring: When people insult you, persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you, what are you to do? Rejoice and be glad.
That's what the bible says. More exactly, that is what Jesus says.
He is the true source of the blessing. The tough thing is to stay with him all the way through. There is a lot of power being pushed around. Sometimes some of that is even being done by Jesus. There is a certain amount of blessing that comes with power, but it does not last.
Jesus on the cross is not a picture of power. That is a picture of love. That is a true picture of blessing. He did not glow; he probably did not feel very special. But that is true blessing being given out. Because he says so.