Today Jesus invites into a vision of God’s kingdom that directly follows last week’s parable of the talents. Matthew 25: 31-46 is a call to look for the face of Jesus, even in the most unlikely of places and people.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Last week our SS kids & several parents toured our local food pantry as they delivered 300 pounds of food we gathered as a church & over $2,000 to purchase more. I love this act of service each year, making real our commitment to being the hands and feet of Christ in this world. As long as humans have existed, so has hunger. And it’s the first person Jesus mentions in his teaching. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food.” He also finds himself relating to those who lack clothes, those who are forgotten, imprisoned. In short, Jesus is on the side of those for whom life has not been kind. He invites us to see him in their faces too. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We often speak about showing Christ’s love by serving those around us in need. This is good and rewarding work. But how often does it cross your mind that the very people you are serving might actually be as close to Jesus as one can get? We believe that Jesus is present among us, even within us in some spiritual way, yes. But do we believe Jesus is within the person who is homeless, panhandling for money on a street corner? Just this weekend, driving through Sioux Falls, I noticed several men on the street corners, one with a walker. Another with a forlorn look on his face. All asking to be seen, to be noticed. And if I’m honest, that is NOT the first place I look for Christ in this world. But what if I did? What might change in all of our hearts if we truly begin to see the face of Christ as the face of someone who is hurting, smelling, angry, even mentally ill? Can we? Are we even capable?
Just last night AJ mentioned a statistic I find disturbing. For the past several years in America, it is estimated that we incarcerate more people than there are people who farm. It’s a complex issue, but suffice to say that if Jesus literally says, “I was in prison and you did not visit me,” we Christians ought to direct our attention that way. As Christians AND US Citizens, we will be wise to consider the wellbeing of both the incarcerated and an entire society that could benefit from less folks in prison and more more folks working to produce food for the hungry, maybe even themselves.
So why do the numbers keep climbing- those in prison, those hungry, those who are sick, isolated, and thirsty? Could it be that the body of Christ spends more time fracturing itself over minor differences than making any serious attempts to heed this direct word from Jesus?
When I hear it like this, I think- well, no wonder Jesus chooses some harsh language to describe the outcome of avoiding the most vulnerable among us…eternal punishment. The thing is, eternity begins today! We are meant to act NOW toward serving Christ by building up those around us, rather than tearing anyone down with false judgment or avoidance.
It’s not only other humans we are helping. It’s honoring the image of Christ in another. That’s our WHY, which permeates every single decision we make about WHO God has called us to be. We are people who SEE THE IMAGE OF GOD in another. And it sure makes avoiding another person in need more difficult, if we begin to catch a glimpse of God’s glory within them.
Leave it to Jesus to find the most unassuming places to show up. In the face of a hungry stranger. In the eyes of a weary traveler. In the feet of a homeless person. In the shackled heart of a prisoner. When we neglect to see Christ in our neighbors in need, we neglect the truth that they too belong to Christ— members of his family—just as we belong to Christ.
The parables of Jesus, as mysterious as they seem, are an invitation to see ourselves differently. To find a new perspective on the Kingdom of God. To experience Christ's presence in a new way. This week I challenge you to look a little more intently for the face of Jesus around you.
And I’ll share with you a bit of great advice I received over 20 years ago when my church youth group took a trip to Atlanta and stayed in a homeless mission for a week. It’s served me well in many an awkward situation passing alongside a homeless person or engaging with someone who is incarcerated.
Here it is: Look them in the eyes and smile. That’s it! I’m sure I don’t do it all the time, but I make an attempt each time I remember…to truly let that person know I see them. And I appreciate that we share this beautiful image of God inside us. That’s why I smile.
And it inspires to continue paving the road to the Kingdom of God wherever I find myself, even in uncomfortable situations, trusting in Jesus' words to those who dare to help the unseen people around them: Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. What a tremendous honor and challenge it is to serve the face of Christ in this world. Let us continue to stir one another toward service to all those who bear the image of Christ in the midst of their needs and pain. Amen!
It makes sense for us to see something of ourselves in the actions of each character in this story. Doing so allows us some honest self-assessment, and leaves ultimate judgment in the hands of God.
[Jesus said:] "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
"Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
Once more this week, we prayerfully wonder together: Who are you, God? The kingdom of heaven is like a man who entrusts all his possessions to his servants. L. Susan Bond notes, "The word used for 'possessions' here in the Greek (hyparxonta) includes not only material goods but one's entire substance and life." So already we begin to see this story is about God and God’s intention for us: live our lives to the fullest! We receive all we have from divine love that exists within us, and are asked to think about what we do with it- cultivating and nurturing our spirits in a world that so desperately needs us to be centered and alive.
Let’s look at how the servants respond to the gifts they are given. Each receives an enormous amount of their Master’s money. How much? ONE talent is equal to the wages of a day laborer for 15 years! So 10, 5 or even 1 talent is a weighty amount to be responsible for! It seems the first two knew exactly what to do- they invested it, they put it to use, they made something of it. The third servant, however, hid it away. He let the resource become stagnant and unused.
So let me ask you, in this parable today, is it saving or investing that becomes the virtue of a trustworthy servant? Investing, right? The way we use the resources at our disposal is a reflection of how we think about God. There's something unique about the third servant in this parable. He began justifying hiding the money by blaming his Master's personality. He says, "I knew that you were a harsh man." The other two servants said nothing at all like this. How we think about God affects how generous we become. If I believe that God is harsh and exacting and cautious- then I might, like the third servant, be harsh and exacting and cautious with the resources God has given me. But if I believe that God is wise and trusting and generous, then I might too become wise and trusting and generous with my resources. I might also be willing to take risks.
The first two servants saw their Master as someone who invited risk for the sake of a fuller life. They would not have invested that much money without faith that no matter what happened, their efforts would be accepted. You know as well as I do, that investing in something is a risk-taking venture. Being generous—with our time, our finances, ourselves—can be risky. We don’t always know the outcome. We don’t have the assurance of what’s to come before we take the leap of faith.
But we take that leap anyway- hoping and trusting and believing that generosity is worth it. Of all weeks, I’m reminded deeply that life is unpredictable. We can take no breath for granted. And Jesus, who lived a full life for a mere 33 years on earth, calls us to double-down on what actually matters- like faith, family, and community. Expanding love as best we are able.
John A. Shedd, 20th century "A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.". Generosity requires an investment of faith, risk and all. This is the difference between saving our faith and investing in faith. One will get us nowhere fast, and the other will bring us into a generous--even if unknown-- future.
You know there’s risk, right? We might give our heart to another, only to be denied love. We might pour countless hours and energy into a program only to watch it die for lack of interest. We might give financial gifts to an organization only to hear of embezzlement and fraud. We might lend public support to people who are marginalized only to be marginalized by our friends. One of the riskiest parts of our investment into God’s Kingdom is this- we may not see the fruits of our labor in this lifetime.
So what do we do? We invest anyway, trusting that Jesus will be true to his word. “Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Master.” There’s one final promise in this story I'd like to share: living generously is a gift to God and to others, of course, but it’s also a gift to ourselves. The more loosely my heart holds onto my material possessions, the more risk I accept in generosity, the more freedom of spirit I have. It’s the life-giving power of letting go of control, trusting that God is at work in the release.
Erma Bombeck, author of a humorous newspaper column for over three decades said, "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me." May we all enter into the joy of our Master as we learn to invest our whole selves in generosity and faith!
This Monday Sandra and I hashed out some semblance of meaning from this strange parable of Jesus’- but we definitely left with more questions than answers. I think you’ll see what I mean. Again this week, a parable describing God’s kingdom.
22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Today I’m gonna take us behind the scenes of a biblical text, I’ll be a student today right alongside you. In seminary, a few of my professors reminded us often: read any given scripture in light of what the rest of scripture tells you about God. Today, we read this uncomfortable text in light of knowing that God is loving and just. We also know that Jesus’ invitation on our lives expects us to be willing to change. These truths can be found all throughout the bible, so we start there. God is loving, just and desires real change in our lives.
Okay, the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast, and those who are too busy to attend are truly missing out. If we are too busy with “important” things- like work and what else- interfering in someone else’s business- maybe even hurting others, this simply means we are refusing the spirit’s invitation to the feast of Christ. The Kings says, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.’ It can also mean we are saying one of two things: 1. Either Spirit isn’t worthy of our time or we aren’t worthy of being spiritual. Neither is true. This first half of the parable resonates with me. I can wrap my head around a kingdom in which simply saying YES gets anyone and everyone into the party; and being too important or busy to acknowledge God’s son means are missing out on the best part of life.
What gets really tricky, is that one guest who gets thrown out because of not wearing the wedding robe. Here’s where I’ll be a student with you, because honestly I don’t know anything about 1st Century customs at the time of Matthew’s writing. I do know people dedicate their lives to this study, so let’s listen in to professor Kimberly Wagner’s take:
“First, the harshness of this parable may be off-putting to the present-day faithful who appreciate their Jesus gentle, meek, and mild. However, there is something about the violence and intensity of this parable that shakes us up and may remind us that we are participating in not just our personal or even communal stories, but also in God’s eschatological story. What we do as people of faith matters. It is so easy these days to compartmentalize all the pieces of our life, particularly our faith life. We check “going to church” off the to-do list and may view our faith as one small aspect among many. The intensity of this parable and harsh consequences of refused invitations reminds us that living out our faith is a matter of urgency and importance.
Second, this parable insists that our faith ought to make a difference in how we live our lives. At first read, the last part of the parable (found only in Matthew) doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. One of the last-minute invitees, recruited off the streets, shows up not wearing a wedding robe. The king notices this and inquires: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” When the mis-dressed guest is literally speechless in reply, the King commands that the attendant “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” How was the guest supposed to know he needed to pack a wedding robe? After all, he never got a “save the date!”
But, again, Matthew invites us to the world of allegory. [this is why we need biblical professors in our lives]. The “wedding garment” symbolizes the Christian life that we “put on.” This language is used in Galatians 3:27 where the community is told, “As many of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And this image is unpacked in Colossians 3:12: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” In other words, there is an expectation that being a Christian, a Jesus-follower, will make a difference and be obvious in the way we live our lives. This parable, through metaphors and life-and-death consequences, insists that we, like Matthew’s community, need to live lives that do not just prioritize our faith, but reflect our faith to those around us.
Finally, this parable reminds us of God’s broad, persistent, and generous invitation. In this parable, God/the king does not desire to party alone. Instead, he keeps extending invitations to everyone around so that the wedding feast will be a rich array of people from every corner of the city. Likewise, the invitation towards faith and faithful living is extended to us, insistently, persistently for us to accept and relay to others.”
That’s helpful, right? Thanks Profession Wagner! It brings us back to what we already know about God: God is loving, just, and wants us at the party! God wants us to take our faith seriously enough that we change toward God- becoming more loving and just. Welcome to the party, friends, let's wear the robe.
Fair warning before we hear Jesus’ teaching today: I’m not sure any of us will fully comprehend what he is saying this side of eternity. As you hear these words, pay attention if feelings of defensiveness arise in you.
[And Jesus said:] "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
You know that defensive feeling I spoke of? We’ve been taught a certain type of justice all our lives. The kind that involves working HARD and being rewarded for it. This type of justice leads us to compare ourselves with others. Our coworkers, our partners, siblings one from another, neighbors, siblings in Christ. We’re social creatures, we compare ourselves with others AND we want our hard work to be noticed. This all seems to matter to us a great deal! I can tell you, when I clean the house & coordinate ALL the children’s activities & buy groceries & lander the towels, you better believe I want my work recognized. Do you have a version of this too, this “justice is EARNED” mentality?
The problem with comparison, however, is in the way it steals our joy. See, the first workers in the vineyard that day, they seemed content to work for a fair day’s wage…until, that is, they started the comparison game. They made the choice to no longer be satisfied. As much as this parable is about God’s relationship with us, it’s also about our human response. See, we forget that we have a choice in how we respond to a given situation. The early workers CHOSE to grumble. They CHOSE to reframe a situation in which they were offered a fair wage into a competition- and by doing so, they make themselves into losers. Why is this faulty logic? Because God doesn’t operate in a competitive way- it’s not in God’s nature.
You know what God chooses? Grace rather than a merit-based competition. EVEN when we don’t deserve it God’s generosity IS the way divine justice is bestowed. Generosity-by virtue of its definition- is never earned, and therefore generosity is never fair. Generosity is generous.
God is a generous God, this much we can be sure. And so Jesus uses this story to remind us- that we must hold our earthly existence (and all the comparisons and spiritual judgments) carefully, with gratitude and humility, never assuming “our way” is the only way to live into Christ's generous grace.
Hear Jesus' words again: Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Yes, God- you are. It's your grace, yours alone.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not for us divvy out. It’s not for us to decide who’s earned it. Because, well, none of us do earn it. It's a gift, and the second we question the merits of that gift in someone else's life, I hear God’s voice whispering, “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
God's generosity transcends our human religion. These are my words, but I believe it's what Jesus is saying about the Kingdom of Heaven here. And this is truly good news, because it means that no matter what measures of worthiness (and unworthiness) we humans construct for ourselves, God finds a way to extend generosity that transcends our human expectations. Jesus finishes the story by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The last people we expect to be seated at the right hand of Jesus- will be there anyway, if God sees to it. That's how big our God is! I’d like to offer you the same invitation I heard from God this week because of this parable. What if you and I CHOSE to soften our competitive edges? How might we begin to reframe our experiences in life? Could it be the very idea of competition is preventing us from experiencing God’s grace in our lives?
God is generous to you and to me. Let us be generous with one another in response. Amen.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.