At its heart, Jewish Passover celebrates a successful slave revolt in ancient Egypt. An insurgency. A rebellion. The enslaved people, the Hebrews, executed a divinely- designed plan, forty-hundred years in the making, by which they walked out of the country, led by the Pharaoh’s own adopted son. The entire Egyptian army failed to capture them.
Matthew re-creates the image in Matthew 21. In Jesus’ time, every spring at Passover time, the Roman governor of Judea, a man named ___?___ (Pontius Pilate) left his palace at Caesarea and traveled east to his palace in Jerusalem, escorted by a cavalry regiment of Roman soldiers – a show of force in a time of potential trouble. Their mission was peacekeeping. Peacekeeping, sigh. Empire gas-lighting language. Order that has nothing in common with peace, known for enslaving half the people therein and ruling the rest with an iron fist.
In that particular year, 29 CE give or take, as Pontius Pilate made his journey from the west, a Galilean rabbi set out from the east, an unarmed man accompanied by a parade of palm-waving peasants. He will not fight, we say, but neither will he dodge. Nor negotiate. Who will bend the knee? Who will have the throne?
Let’s pray: Peace. We wish, O God, hardly knowing what we wish for. Not to be afraid. Not to feel ashamed about the suffering caused by the very systems that render us so privileged. We mostly know peace enforced by soldiers, armed to their teeth and toenails against people who hate us, who would kill us if they could. We pray to know the peace you died to give us, armed with nothing but your creative, loving grace. Loving grace that breaks fear and hate and selfishness. Loving grace that calls forth laughter, faith, and courage, the very currency of peace, O God, unlimited and free. Amen.
The city was in turmoil, Matthew says. It’s Jerusalem after all. Then Jesus went to the Temple. We know the point of the gospel, that Jesus picked a fight with the ruler of darkness over who would bend the knee. And he won. Death lost. Death bends the knee to life forevermore. But the point doesn’t make the telling unimportant. So, as for the telling, why do all four gospel writers include Jesus’ Temple tantrum and why do the synoptics all link it with his final entry to Jerusalem?
If Jesus’ fight is with the rulers of this world – to be specific, with Rome – why does he visit the Temple before he visits Pilate? Why does he fire his first round, if you will, at religion, instead of empire? Could be he’s cleaning up his own backyard first? Judaism was his own religion, after all. But then again, religion itself was his own, I suppose. And instead of the backyard, he tidied the front porch, the courtyard of the Temple, where even Gentiles and women were allowed to walk around. He shows up and announces in verse 13, my Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.
The layers and layers of imagery in that sentence! He’s quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. The Temple was the spot on the earth that marked where Eden was planted. The spot on the earth that remembered where Abraham took Isaac for sacrifice. The meeting place of heaven and earth in Jacob’s dream. A house of prayer, given into the care of men who have, Jesus said, made it into a den of thieves.
You know who lives in dens? Foxes, in the woods behind my house. They keep their babies, their kits, in their dens. And you know what else? The chickens they steal from my henhouse, when I accidently leave the door open – which is okay, because they are foxes. Stealing chickens is what they are born and bred to do. You know who doesn’t live in dens? Leaders of institutional religion. They live in nice houses. They work in fancy buildings, with steeples and stained glass with Bible verses. Their job – our job – is to pray, to teach, and to serve. Yet, Jesus says, in the Temple in Jerusalem at Passover, Is not the fox loose in the henhouse?
But this is the chicks walking into the foxes’ den, voluntarily. Jews came from everywhere and stayed a few days. They had Temple offerings and sacrifices to make. Animals purchased from vendors vetted by the Temple. No doubt farmers paid for that privilege, farmers who bought booth space in the Temple courtyard which, naturally, could only be purchased with Temple coin. So they had first to go to the moneychangers, who had also bought vendor space, which they recouped in exchange fees. Temple coin wasn’t good anywhere else, naturally, so it had either to be left as offering or changed back – again at a fee, no doubt.
Rome may well be who Jesus was after, but Religion was his first stop. And that feels really, really important to me. The Temple is first. Religion is first. The clergy are first. Prayer is first. The people at the top of the prayer pyramid, the ones most accountable for praying – weren’t. And would have been better off, had they only been not praying. But they were being worse than not praying. They were robbing the very people they were supposed to comfort and to lead. Worse than an Empire that enslaves is a religion that robs the poor souls they might have blessed. Sit with that. Sit with that a long time.
Jesus comes to save the world, and in his triage, the ones who most need saving are the ones who think they’re saved already, neck deep with the empire in the abuse and exploitation of people entrusted to their care, using God as their explanation. But Jesus wasn’t having it. His Temple “tantrum,” if you will, is not a fit of anger. He hasn’t lost control. Nor has he discovered something other people don’t know. Everyone knows. Just like everyone knows – in every age knows – that power and money drive everything, including the meaning of words like peace. Oppression and injustice count as peace, to the ones who make the rules. Jesus discovers nothing new, only points to what everyone can see already and says: Not. In. My. House.
For their part, Temple keepers are so offended to be called out as corrupt, they join forces with Pilate. Not because they are Jewish, either, friends; please don’t hear me say that. Because they are people with some power in a land where most people have none. They do exactly what people like them always do – religious people who will suck the hind tit of the empire, no matter how much it costs us in holiness, decency, or faith. We’ll trade most anything for power, then find a way to make ourselves look righteous. Jesus sought no endorsements from anyone, certainly not politicians or priests – people useless to him in this fight.
Think of it: in his fight against evil and corruption, religion is against him. Do you understand what I'm trying to say, my friends, as I'm not sure that I do? Maybe that winter is coming in ways we don’t yet understand. In this looming showdown as to who shall have the throne – Pilate or Jesus – we know we’re only pretending not to know, going through the motions of treating Jesus like an underdog. But we know he wins, and next week will be Easter! Have we yet taken seriously that it is us whom Jesus visits first, on his way to save the world? Us – whose lost-ness seems to have upset him most? Or, at least, first?
Apart from our long-awaited TV shows, we have trouble with the whole idea of kings. And thrones. And bending the knee. Which leaves us easily passing off these priests and scribes as folks who should have known better, missing what Matthew means the church to see and hear. We are temple now. We are the house of prayer. And if we’ve come to know the meaning of his passion – this world’s need of grace – none need it, none need Him, more than us. We who think we know it all. Who’ve written stories to justify everything we do. If he’s talking to the people of his religion, then he must be talking to us, to me.
Every one of us worships something. Thrones and bended knees or not, we are subject all the same. May we be subject to the God of grace, come to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dr. Kate Edgerton-Tarpley is an alumna of IU and UBC, now a university professor in California. Chinese history is her specialty, and she also teaches world history. She once had a student who attended the first day of the semester and the final, which he failed. He then came to her office hours and begged her to give him a D-. She refused. He continued begging, until eventually his wife called, harassing Kate for a D. Kate did not budge, saying, “I do not hand out grades willy-nilly. My students earn their D’s fair and square!” At the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, “The Sheep and Goats” is Jesus’ last lecture – the one in which the professor answers the inevitable question, “Will this be on the final?”
Let me tell you how that works, Jesus says. The Son of Man will gather together panta ta ethne, “all the nations” – All the Gentiles, The whole world, All the nations – and sort them out like a shepherd sorting sheep from goats. Not a hard job, really; they don’t look that much alike. Which is interesting to think about. The nations who do God’s will look nothing like those who don’t . . . to the Son of Man. I wonder if goats and sheep look different to one another? If they are surprised to find out they’re different?
We moderates get all itchy about this passage. We love social justice texts and hate hellfire eschatology, so Judgment texts like this put us in a bind. We like long essay tests with which to show off our exegesis and preen our mastery of nuance. But that is not this test. For this test, we show up ready to present ourselves, only to be handed our grade. We’ve already passed or failed, and there is nothing else to do. Nothing to do but receive our inheritance, that which has been ours from the beginning of the story.
Let’s pray. Good God, we pray to live as people who have read your word, heard your voice, and know your will. Amen.
Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited is theological and exegetical analysis of being black and Christian in 1930’s America. Specifically – how to live alongside the white Christians who mistreated them and still BE Christian. A glance at the book suggests that the disinherited are black people – those disenfranchised socially, economically, and politically. Such an assumption, however, requires ignorance of Dr. Thurman’s primary text, which is the gospel of Jesus. Because in the gospel of Jesus, Matthew 25:31-46, the disinherited are not the victims of disenfranchisement but, rather, the enforcers of that disenfranchisement. Not the have-nots, but the haves. Not the weak, but the strong. And not ALL of the strong. Some of the strong.
Are half the nations sheep? Two-thirds? Three-fourths? Like so much in this passage, we are not given to know. It is an after-the-fact passage, like after the professor’s grades are turned in. They are what they are. “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” Actually, you CAN throw a fit if you want, but it’s not going to change anything now. It’s the hardest part of preaching this text – not preaching what isn’t here. Not preaching the argument Jesus won’t have on Judgment Day. I’ve written and thrown away pages and pages of that argument. I have so many questions, so many points I want to make. About social justice. About what sheep do right and goats do wrong.
Thursday night, the deacons’ meeting helped me get over it – Deacon Jodi’s devotions, actually. About a mystic who prayed for fifteen years to know what God was trying to tell her. Love, God finally said, if you really want to know. Did God finally say it or did she finally hear it, I wondered. The difference doesn’t matter. Faith takes however long it takes. We can fight this text till Judgment Day, but on that day we won’t fight it any more. We will understand that we’ve no more sway over God than do these sheep and goats – animals beside whom we think ourselves so much smarter.
This text is the same text today that it will be on Judgment Day – however long it takes us to come around. But we will come around. And by us, I do mean panta ta ethne, all of us. We cannot count ourselves among those who did not know. We’ve known since the first day of class what would be on this test. Remember? The Beatitudes? Jesus ends where he began, with kindness toward the weaker ones: the hungry, thirsty, needy, sick, the refugee, and the prisoner.
You may be surprised the test is already over, but you cannot possibly be surprised to discover what material would be covered. So please don’t pretend you are. Don’t pretend you are by pretending the story is about something that it isn’t. Live the life that Jesus is going to know that you lived or not. Be kind. Be decently kind. Be dignifyingly kind. Be seriously, intentionally, actively, wildly, materially, hugely kind. Be riskily kind. Be boldly kind. Be bravely kind. Be crazy kind.
Because, in the end, the inheritance that all of us believe we’re after anyway goes to those who understood that kindness was all that very really mattered to God in the first place. Within the veil and the transaction of kindness is where God is always found.
Would you pray with me?
The trouble with myths, according to G. K. Chesterton, is the temptation to confuse them with the reality to which they are trying to point. A portrait of Queen Anne is one of his examples. It is not her, he wrote, no matter how perfectly it captures her posture and expression. It can never be her – which is useful for thinking about parables too. Especially the ones we hate, like this week’s and last.
The kingdom of God is among you, Jesus said, and yet kingdom of heaven is as far removed from our lives and Jesus’ first hearers as Queen Anne was from Chesterton’s. It can be tempting to imagine that she really looked like the portrait. Or that Bible times really looked like coloring book pages. Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this, Jesus said – but ought not be confused with this, I wish he’d also said – and is definitely NOT to be confused with what you know of the world already.
Let’s pray: Could it really be, O God, that you’d have us think of ourselves as married to you? Asked to trust your promises to have and hold us forever? In sickness and in health? For richer and for poorer? If so, then we are going to need your help, O God, in not confusing what we’ve known so far with what you are asking now. Our vision is poor and we are foolish. We pray for faith to stay faithful, to want what you want us to have. Amen.
Matthew 25 opens with Jesus commuting between Bethany and Jerusalem every day (rather like being back and forth between Unionville and Bloomington), within a few weeks of Passover and the palm branch parade, Jesus preaching his heart out to anyone willing to listen. Wooing them, seducing them, tempting them to give themselves entirely to him. Entrust themselves to him, body and soul. Their past, their present, their future. Entrust themselves to his promise that he already loved them – they didn’t have to earn it; that he’d already saved them – they had nothing to fear. Trust and trust and trust alone. They had to learn to trust him. Trust the promise. Body and soul. Awake and asleep. Every moment. Every day. Forever.
How to live now, in this world, as we will live then and there in the kingdom of heaven – with parables Jesus explained what this life looks like. Like a wedding, for example, a wedding to which the groom was really, really, really late. In those days, the wedding guests gathered at the bride’s family’s house and waited for the groom to come and fetch her. Then they all processed to his house for the wed- ding celebration, the feast, which lasted for many days. Our traditional wedding ceremonies are reduced versions of this ancient practice.
The Greek says “he was delayed” or “he tarried.” Night came. The guests went to sleep. They slept for hours. He finally showed up in the middle of the night. And then, rather than wait until daylight, he wants the wedding to go on immediately, have all his guests travel in the dark. None of which makes any sense at all, mind you. But it is not the groom who is foolish, of course. No, it’s the women, the bridesmaids, the five who realize their lamps have burned out. No more oil. They try to borrow some from the five wise girls who tell them, “Sorry. You’ll have to find a dealer if you want to buy more.” They are fools, remember, so they go.
The groom, THE REASON for being together, THE ONE they have all gathered to meet, FOR WHOM they have all waited all along, finally arrives. And the first thing these five do is panic. The second is ask for help from people with no help to give. The third is run away from the groom. What is the big thing Jesus wants people to hear? to do? Give me your whole self. Give me your whole life. Give me your future. Trust every moment, every event, every sorrow, every joy, every fear, every problem, entirely to me. Trust me to deal with it lovingly, trust me to know and to do what is best for you, no matter what.
Yet, the foolish girls in his story did what? They turned away. They turned to the dealers of the world to provide what they really didn’t need anyway, if following the groom was their goal. Weren’t there plenty of other people on the same journey carrying light? More importantly, wasn’t the groom himself there to show them the way? Why didn’t they stay?
The church reading and hearing this gospel for the first time was about thirty years old, filled with disciples who had been led to believe by Paul and the other apostles that Jesus would be back really soon to take the church to heaven with him. Thirty years was long enough for the old ones to start dying, to “fall asleep” as the New Testament often calls dying. They were tired of waiting – and worried. Their understanding of the gospel, of discipleship, didn’t accommodate such long delays. Into their waiting, Matthew resurrects this wedding parable.
Have you ever waited so long for an inevitable bad thing to happen that, when it finally did, it felt kind of good just to have it over with? I’ve a friend who hated being pregnant so much she thought childbirth felt wonderful. Have you ever waited so long for some inevitable good thing to happen that, when it finally happened, it felt bad? Or disappointing? I’ll let you think about it for a minute.
Even in his presence, in the midst of a celebration funded by the groom, to which they were all invited and welcome and wanted, five girls believe they need to DO SOMETHING else to be included. They didn’t trust the groom. They didn’t trust the groom’s plan. They DID ask their friends to share. But think about it. Do the math. There still wouldn’t have been any additional light, right?
Why was the groom so late? Only the groom knows. Therein, friends, is the essence of trust, isn’t it? Of faith? Of discipleship? Basing our words, our decisions, our attitudes and our expectations on promises, without the benefit of complete information. We simply don’t get to know all we want to know, like the time and date God is going to show up and fix this or that situation. Jesus said to everyone who would – and WILL – listen, “Trust me. With all that you are and all that you have. Forever.” And either we do or we don’t.
And the ones who do, the disciples, the ones who do show up, even we get sleepy and tired, and grumpy and doubtful. And we fail. Repeatedly. Everyone. Positively everyone screws up eventually. He loses his keys. She misses a meeting. She forgets to make an important call. He says hurtful things. She mooches off other people’s time and stuff. They fail to prepare. They oversleep. Even the wise girls slept. Suggesting that, as much as I wish otherwise, wisdom is not, in fact, the same as punctuality and preparedness. If the wise girls had been really wise wouldn’t they have anticipated the needs of others? Wouldn’t they have wanted to do whatever they could to make sure everyone was included?
The thing is, friends, I’m just not sure how to preach about Jesus’ second coming. I believe in it. I expect it. But it’s not on my mind all the time. I don’t wake up hoping it’s today – or dreading it either. But what do I know, friends, is that every person is waiting for something, waiting for God to show up, or do something, or stop doing something, to accomplish something or end something. And some people have waited a long time. Others have waited a long, long, long, long time. And some have waited longer than they ever imagined a person might ever have to wait, longer than seems compassionate or decent, if God is good and loving.
And while it’s tempting to equate wisdom with being organized and prepared, maybe – honestly – it’s more about trust. Trust that takes the shape of being patient and present. Trust that understands the real reward of being patient is greater patience, the capacity to wait even longer – in confidence that what is promised IS what will be, and will be in God’s time, for God’s reasons. Trust that does not give up on God and turn to the world for what the world MAY promise, but will never deliver.
The foolish girls finally arrived at the wedding, only to discover they’d missed it. Now they were the ones who were too late. “I never knew you,” the groom said to them – which sounds horrible, but to whom? Not to the ones who had stayed close to him. They were on the dance floor, or in the buffet line. Does he mean, “I’ve never seen you before. You were always somewhere else, doing something else, trying to make something else work because you thought I wasn’t coming”?
Maybe the only ones to whom it sounds so terrible are the ones who didn’t trust him, who turned away to look for light someplace else, who waited as long as they could stand to wait and then, for whatever reason, decided not to wait any longer. Maybe they came to believe the darkness was simply too dark, that he’d never find them in such darkness, so they had to help him find them, help him find his way to them. Maybe they were thinking “Better to be busy at something than faithful at nothing.”
And maybe that’s what made them most foolish of all, because maybe the very heart and soul of faith is doing nothing when there is nothing to do but wait and trust, to be patient and present, for as long as it takes for God to keep God’s promises, confident that no time is too long, nor any darkness too dark, for God to find us, and love us, and carry us home.
Would you pray with me?