Preparing for God's Judgment

Preparing for God's Judgment

Homily for the Twentyfourth Sunday of Pentecost

November 12, 2023

Preparing for God's Judgment

Homily for Sunday, November 12, 2023
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 25:1-13

There is something about Matthew’s Gospel I find unattractive, which is: Matthew loves judgment – he loves it! Take for example the phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” doesn’t appear at all in Mark.  Luke uses it once (13:28).  But Matthew uses it six times!  Here, some are “thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42,50). There, others are “cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12, 22:13,25:30).  And as if Matthew’s love of judgment weren’t unattractive enough, Matthew especially loves surprise judgment in which people didn’t see the judgment coming.  And so Matthew,in the parable of the wedding banquet (in chapter 22), when the king asks,“’Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’   And [the man] was speechless,” completely surprised.  “Then the king said, ‘Bind him hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (22:12-13). Or again, in the parable of the sheep and the goats in chapter 25,“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger of naked or sick or in prison and did take care of you?... And these will go away into eternal punishment” (25:44,46).  They didn’t see judgment coming at all; their judgment is a complete surprise.  

Matthew loves judgment so much that in his eschatological discourse he inserts four uniquely Matthean stories about…judgment.  And not merely judgment, but surprise judgment in which people didn’t see it coming.  

This morning I want to speak to why Matthew might write about judgment as he does, and then I want to speak more specifically to this morning’s parable.  

As I’ve mentioned before, from what scholars can deduce, it seems that Matthew’s synagogue of those who believed in Jesus had a painful falling out with neighboring synagogues who did not believe in Jesus, a falling out so bitter that it “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and… one’s foes [were] members of one’s household” (10:35-36).  Part of what we witness in Matthew is a family feud in which emotions are high and the gloves are off.  Perhaps one of the ways Matthew’s community sought refuge from persecution was in the “high ground;” that is, “You just wait – in the end, we are the ones who are going to be invited into the wedding banquet, and you will be left outside in the dark.”  Or, “You just wait – in the end, we are the ones who will be invited into‘the kingdom that has been prepared for [us] since the foundation of the world’(25:34), and you are the ones who will “go away into eternal punishment” (25:46). And – perhaps because it’s human nature to like to rub it in – Matthew adds an element of surprise in which they didn’t see the judgment coming,like:  “Ha!  Those who worked all day in the vineyard,they thought they were going to be paid more than those who had only worked an hour.”  Or, “Ha, those bridesmaids who went to buy more oil, they thought that the bridegroom would let them in…”  Maybe Matthew writes about judgment as he does because his community is being persecuted and he is seeking refuge in a“high ground” that will be rewarded in a final judgment.  And maybe the judgment stories in Matthew often have an element of surprise because it’s human nature to like to “rub it in.”

Now I want to speak more specifically to this morning’s parable, which is the second of these four Matthean stories about judgment that Matthew inserts into his eschatological discourse.  In this morning’s text, five bridesmaids are called “wise” and five “foolish.”  All ten had arrived on-time.  All ten wait. All ten fall asleep.  The only difference between the five deemed “wise” and the five deemed “foolish” is that the “wise” brought extra oil; the “wise” were prepared.  It may seem a rather harsh consequence that the “foolish,” simply because they didn’t bring extra oil, were shut out of the wedding banquet.  But the point Matthew seems to be trying to make is what Jesus said as a preface to these four stories:  “Keep awake, therefore,” Jesus said, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42).  

Christian “alertness” and“preparedness” for Jesus’ second coming is very different from a secular carpe diem, or “seize the day.”  Christian preparedness for our Lord’s second coming has to do with living life to the fullest not because life is fleeting,but because we Christians believe in a God who is good, who loves us, and who offers us eternal life with him.  Christian alertness and preparedness is not a nervous “fear of missing out” but rather is steady and sure, the result of choices we make and habits we form in the belief that at our death “life is changed, not ended,” “and when our mortal body lies in death there is prepared for us a place eternal in the heavens.”  Christian preparedness is not something we do alone and is the result of our own striving, but is marked by a trust that God with God’s grace will help us whenever we turn to ask.  Like the bridesmaids let into the wedding feast, Christian preparedness is indeed “wise,” “wise” in the sense that we are living the best lives now.  Not because we are nervous or afraid or striving after some secular ideal, but because we believe we live in a world made by a God who is good, who loves us and is merciful and just and who will someday come again to gather the faithful, so that where he is, we may be also(John 14:3).  

St. Benedict in his Rule speaks of this “wisdom” for living, not according to a secular “seize the day,”but with Christian alertness and preparedness. I will leave us with a few lines from the Prologue to his Rule:

If we wish to dwell in the tent of this kingdom, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds…. The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action… his holy teaching…. Brothers, now that we have asked the Lord who will dwell in his tent, we have heard the instructions for dwelling in it… We must,then, prepare our hearts…. If we wish to reach eternal life… then – while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish these things by the light of life – we must run now and do what will profit us forever…. Do not be daunted… by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation.  It is bound to be narrow at the outset.  But as we progress in this way of life and faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.  

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