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November 28, 2004

"Jesus Is No Ruthless Master" - November 28, 2004

The Good News of Advent: Jesus is no Ruthless Master
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
November 28, 2004; First Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Matthew 24:37-44

There's a Costco warehouse shop right on my way home from work, and I stop by there frequently to pick up something for dinner. Those vast warehouses can be a little overwhelming any time of year, but it's even more overwhelming at the moment, because several aisles form a gauntlet of Christmas things -- fiber-optic laser displays that flash "SANTA STOP HERE," mechanical snowmen who wave at you with a smile that looks a little too much to me like a maniacal leer, and all kinds of gadgets squawking electronic tidings ahead of the season.

But they’re jumping the gun—it isn't Christmastime yet. We're in the season of Advent, a time of prayerful reflection and keen watching for Christ's coming.

This coming of Christ that we’re waiting for is not the second coming of Christ. We call that one "Easter." It's not the third coming we're looking for either. Wherever two or three have gathered in Jesus' name since Easter, Jesus has come among them, so we must be on about the ummpteen kajillionth coming. The particular coming, or "advent," we look forward to in this season is, in a sense, as mundane and as special as all of those other "advents" have been. It's all of those other "advents," all comings of Christ from the Incarnation up to this Sunday morning, that informs us about what the final Advent, the coming of Christ we look forward to during this liturgical season, really means.

So the first thing to know about the final Advent of Christ is that the person we are expecting in it is JESUS. That's the Good News of Advent. We've met and we know the person who is God's appointed judge for the nations, and it's Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter, the healer and teacher, founder of the Eucharistic feast and friend to tax collectors and sinners.

What we expect in Advent is the completion of the work of Creation, when God made the world and us and said, "It is good," and of the work of the Incarnation, when God lived as a human being among us and showed us in one package what real humanity and real divinity look like. And in the end, that real humanity and real divinity looks like it did in the beginning and in the middle. It's Jesus, the Word of God from the beginning. It's the Jesus we've known since he was first revealed to us, and he is concerned in the end with the same things he was concerned with before his crucifixion.

A look at this Sunday's reading in its immediate context in Matthew makes that clear. Our gospel for this Sunday begins a series of parables with the theme, "be ready for Jesus' coming." I think that Matthew paired the last two parables in that series deliberately in a way that makes clear just why Jesus' coming is Good News and what it is that we do to be ready for it.

The first of these "twins" is a story, found in Matthew 25, verses 14 through 30. If you’ve got a bible with you or you’re sitting in front of a pew bible, I encourage you to open it to Matthew 25:14, which is on page ___ in the pew bibles. This story is often called “The Parable of the Talents,” but I think a better title for it would be the "Story of the Ruthless Master." This is the story of a man described in verse 24 as “a harsh man, reaping where [he does] not sow.” This master profits through the work of his slaves, commanding them to increase his wealth by any means necessary – even lending money at interest, a practice condemned clearly and repeatedly in both Old and New Testaments. Two of the three slaves follow the master’s orders and double the master’s money, but the one who was given least of the three is punished for his refusal to break God’s laws by being stripped of what little he has and thrown out in the darkness to suffer. The “moral,” if we can call it that, in the amoral world of this story’s Ruthless Master, is “to all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” – in other words, “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and those who follow God’s law will get nothing for it but punishment.”

You may have noticed in verse 14 that the story does NOT start with Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like this,” and that’s because the kingdom of heaven is NOTHING like this! It’s like this story has taken everything that’s wrong in the world – all of the abuses of power and runaway greed in our culture – and has boiled down and distilled them into this horrible slaveowner and the amoral reasoning he gives for his conduct. Is that really what we think is true about the world – that the only way to avoid being left out in the cold is to get everything we can grab? Do we really think it’s true that powerful people can do whatever they want for as long as they want? Do we really think that the Ruthless Masters of this world are the ones who know what’s really important? And the most important question – do we actually think on some level that God is like this Ruthless Master? Do we think that when the time comes for us to meet God’s appointed judge, the question we’ll be asked is, “So, what have you done for me lately? And it better be impressive!”

If that were what God was like, if that were where the world is headed, then the climax of history and the coming of the Son of Man that we anticipate in this Advent season would really be Bad News – something to whisper about fearfully, not proclaim joyfully.

But that isn’t what God is like. That’s not where the world is headed. Matthew follows up the story of the Ruthless Master – his story of what happens when powerful people rule unchecked out of fear and greed – with the “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,” a description of what it will look like when Jesus' work among us is completed. That’s the story I preached about on St. Martin’s Day, and there couldn’t be more of a difference between that story and the story of the Ruthless Master. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him” (Matthew 25:31), the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats says, he will separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The hungry and those who fed them, those without clean water to drink and those who gave them water to drink, the strangers and those who welcomed them, those without clothes and those who clothed them, and convicts in prison and those who visited them, are gathered in to the center, to enjoy God's kingdom.

In other words, the Jesus who is coming to judge the living and the dead is the same Jesus whose whole life – his teaching, his healing, his breaking bread with anyone who would eat with him, and most of all his willingness to die rather than retaliate against those who sought to kill him – speaks of his limitless mercy.

So what we’ll confess in a minute or two – that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord, that he’s coming to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end – is truly Good News.

But who do we really say is Lord? Is it the Ruthless Master? If that were so, if the "way of the world" these masters set up were really the way things are always going to be, then the most sensible course of action for us would probably be to do what the others who served the Ruthless Master did: Keep your head down. Work hard. Line the master's pockets, and maybe there will be something in it for you too.

But this Sunday's gospel and this season of Advent proclaim Good News to God's people. The Ruthless Masters do NOT have the last word. Jesus does. The completion of Jesus' vision for the world, in which "the least of these" and those who worked for justice for them are finally vindicated, is coming! The signs are all around us, though some people don't recognize them any more than the kings of the earth recognized the only true Lord when he was a baby, or a homeless man, or a convict on a cross.

But Jesus is Lord nonetheless – Lord of the world and Lord of history itself, its beginning and its end. Is that just something we mumble in the creed, or is it something we testify to with our lives? Do our lives say that life and light belong to those with wealth and power and the might to take it away from others if necessary? Is that where we believe our salvation lies? Or do we live what we confess in the creed: that the judge of the world, the light of the world, the LIFE of the world, is Jesus. Jesus, whose coming was proclaimed in Mary’s song, that “the mighty are cast down, and the lowly raised up.” Jesus, who taught us that the world belongs to the poor and the meek rather than the rich and the powerful. Jesus, the king we serve not just by saying what he said, but by doing what he did.

The world has it half right – in the end, it really is who you know. And the more fully our lives here on earth say that we know Jesus, the more we can say of the present moment that the world tastes of heaven.

Thanks be to God!

November 28, 2004 in Advent, Matthew | Permalink


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