1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
There is an old Jewish story about two rabbis endlessly arguing over a passage in the Torah. “It must surely be interpreted to mean this!” one rabbi argued, only for the other rabbi to counter with a different perspective. This went on for years, until one day, God left the heavens and filled the space where these two rabbis were meeting with blinding light, and thundered “listen you two, this is its true meaning!” Both rabbis turned to God and replied “who asked you? Go away and leave us to it!”
I cannot help but feel that is the best way to approach today’s parable from Matthew 25. I’ll offer three readings, but there is a fourth possibility that I heard Greg Jenks once say: “what if that part of the Bible is just wrong?”
The first interpretation is from my childhood. I grew up in in an upper middle class evangelical church where and parable has been used to promote empire ad infinitum. Those who succeed professionally in life deserve their success and those who struggle have sowed their own seeds of failure through their lack of venture, unwilling to take risks and back themselves. God is a harsh judge, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter (I use the male pronoun intentionally here).
We become so conditioned to interpret all we hear through the lens of the traditions we are raised in that we conclude meaning. The concrete sets around our knowing and we rely on old certitudes to comfort us in our ignorance. These conclusions allow all manner of injustices to continue in society. In that way, the church has no power to challenge society, it merely propagates society’s evils by chastising those who are suffering (the others) and entitling those who are powerful (us).
All of this ignores the fact that this man is a master of slaves and one who demands usury, both forbidden in the Torah. Immediately following this parable, Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats, prefacing it with the unambiguous “when the human one comes” as a designation for himself, or for what the Apostle Paul calls the new human. In the story of the sheep and the goats, the Christ figure is the one thrown into outer darkness.
When we read “the Kingdom of Heaven is like….” We easily assume the protagonist is God. This then requires us to split the character of God up into a Jekyll and Hyde personality: grace now, wrath then. God is giving us all time until he decides he’s had enough (this grace is merely a form of temporary tolerance), then does a dummy spit and exacts justice as the “harsh man” of this parable, calling those who did not earn a return on investment as wicked, lazy and worthless, and throws them into outer darkness, merely because they were fearful of this judge.
Another story might help: A Sunday school teacher asks the children gathered “I’m thinking of an animal that can go for days in the desert without drinking much, can carry people and their belongings, and has a hump on its back.” A child puts up their hand and says “it sounds awfully like a camel, but I know the answer must be Jesus.”
So the second reading turns the first on its head. Earlier In Matthew’s Gospel (11:12), the writer of Matthew’s gospel records Jesus saying that God’s Commonwealth is willing to suffer violence to bring change, but the world’s empires are ruled by the violent who cause suffering in order to prevent this. The more acquainted with suffering I become through my life, the more I find this parable speaks about the way the world treats those without equity, whether socially, financially, relationally, psychologically, mentally or physically.
But there’s a third reading and this is where the rabbinic tradition kicks in and certainty leaves stage left. If the third slave is the one we should be siding with, we can fall prey to the institutionalised, patronising welfare mentality that dishonours its recipients as much as it does those who seek to colonise with handouts, failing to empower anyone. This is why I believe the recent referendum was such a failed opportunity, because it was designed to give a voice to those that empire has silenced. This work must continue. Stan Grant wrote that endless conversations by white people about the plight of Indigenous Australia dishonours the intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness of Indigenous Australians. It’s convenient to see them as the third slave, but that is a gross distortion of the truth and such racism damns them.
Perhaps it is not only the slave owner who is not representative of God’s commonwealth. The servant who does nothing with what he has, but lives in fear and isolation, depriving everyone including himself of what he was given, is also not part of God’s economy. The Girardian theologian James Allison offers that the attitude of the third slave is entirely shaped by his imagination of his master 1 . He mimics his perception of the master’s meanness with his own judgments of his master. Perhaps this is key to the whole parable.
Perhaps the slave owner is the unconscious beliefs we carry about God and reality. Frederick Buechner offers that the crime is laziness; “sloth is getting through life on autopilot.. not really being alive… to bury your life, your pain, your joy.” 2
For 15 years I have had the honour of inviting hundreds of men through a Men’s Rites of Passage. In these rites, we ask men to journey with five hard truths, and the first is: Life Is Hard. From this, we can readily assume the God is indeed the harsh slave owner of this parable. Or, in the cross, we can see a God who is willing to embrace this hardship with courage, determined to reframe suffering in the shape of loving action, suffering with us as we engage ever more fully in what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life.” 3 In another of her poems, When Death Comes, she concludes:
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. 4
1 Alison, J.: Raising Abel (1996)
2 Buechner, F:. A Crazy, Holy Grace (2017)
3 Oliver, M.: New and Selected Poems (1992)
4 Oliver, M.: ibid.