Once again we come to the end of the church year, marked by the feast of Christ the King. It was instituted quite late, only in 1925, in response to what was happening in Europe with the rise of non-Christian dictatorships, which devalued the worth of an individual life and scorned any sense of God’s sovereignty over the world. Since then, we have seen the aftermath of WWII, the demise of the fascist powers, the collapse of the Soviet Union. We are starting to forget their horrors, but we still live in the world that is characterized by the loss of perspective regarding the rule of God in it.
The three Sundays leading up to Advent are characterized by the apocalyptic tone of the readings. Most of us find them unsettling. In general, we tend to look for a special significance in the words or wishes uttered by a dying person. Well, these parables we’ve been reading lately are among Jesus’ last words to his disciples and ourselves: the parables of the bridesmaids’ oil, the talents, and the sheep and goats. These share the theme of pointing to God as the supreme judge of all people (which is, in fact, the theme of Advent itself).
What is unsettling to us is that all three passages end with a condemnation. The unprepared bridesmaids who scrambled to get some more oil came to the door too late, only to hear, “I don’t know you”. The overly cautious servant who decided to hide the master’s money, rather than investing it, heard, “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”. A little harsh for the bridesmaids who did try to fix their mistake, and for a servant who didn’t even spend the money but was merely careful with it... And today we hear, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. Whenever I read such passages to the congregation, I am always tempted to conclude with the words, “Is the Gospel of Christ?”
For isn’t the Good News in redemption, second chances, celebration of the prodigal’s return, rejoicing over the long-lost coin, the birth of the Prince of Peace… in “seeking the lost, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured, and strengthening the weak”? It appears to be missing in these parables -- but it is there in today’s words from Ezekiel, and of course, in many other passages that speak to the desire of God that none should perish; as it is also in the overarching story of salvation told to us by the entirety of the Scriptures. From these, I derive my deepest hope that at the end of all time, there will be no more sheep or goats, no weeping and gnashing of teeth, but only a communion of ALL saints, who will have been reconciled with God either in this life, or upon beholding him face to face in the life to come.
But, just as we cannot lose sight of such scriptures that speak to the power of God’s unlimited grace, we also cannot ignore the verses warning us that today, we must still do everything in our power to live up to the standard set by nothing less than Christ’s sacrifice of suffering and self-giving. And that the power to cast us into the utter darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth rests within the desire to say, at the end of our lives, “I did it my way”, as the song goes (a common yet horrible choice for the funeral recessional, if you ask me!).
But what is a parable? It is a story that has more than one meaning; a story that seems simple, but isn’t. So, my interpretation is that in each of these parables there is, in fact, only one bridesmaid, one servant, and one flock of the great shepherd. In fact, Ezekiel also writes, "I will judge between sheep and sheep" – that is, each one of us, at various times in our lives, has been foolish and wise, cautious and extravagant, generous and selfish. How many times has each one of us run out of oil: the oil of our love for God and the neighbor, the oil of hope and faith. Such is our human nature; however, have you noticed how much denser and more menacing the darkness around us begins to seem when that happens, and how much more apprehensive we get about that knock on the door with which God re-invites us to a renewed life (or even more so, about that final knock, when we will be summoned to the last banquet)? How many of us have been cautious with the gifts we have been given; surely, not wasting them, but not building upon them either? But have you noticed that whenever you do risk a life of generosity, you begin to feel that the returns on your investments are so much greater: in relationships, time, quality of character?
As for the last set of symbols, the sheep and the goats, Jesus used them deliberately with the people who knew a lot more about herding flocks than we do, and who would know that the sheep and goats can be remarkably similar in appearance and needs, but differ in one key behaviour: the goats seem more independent and better survivors, but they will eat and destroy everything, until nothing is left to sustain them. The sheep, on the other hand, cannot survive by themselves, but they will trust their shepherd to ensure both their survival AND the availability of the grass for the future.
Isn’t this an illustration of the impulses we all encounter in our own hearts? Some of our ideas of what it means to be successful look good at first, by they are selfish, and they turn out to destroy both us and those around us in the long run; while choosing to follow Christ, even if it seems less assertive or costly to us in the moment, will bring true, sustained fulfilment. So, let us now ask the Lord to help us discern; to sort these impulses within our hearts like a shepherd sorts his flocks.
When life is good, and you are content, then look out for some of “the least” of those around us to help for Christ’s sake. When life gets chaotic and confusing, and you suffer or don’t know which path to take, when you’re running out of oil and feel like you can’t spare any for those around you - pause and listen. In both instances, consider, what scriptures come to mind? Has God helped you with something similar in the past? We might resist an answer because we might have to change, or because we have the wrong image of God as the one imposing his will, directing our every step, or never wanting us to complain.
But in telling these parables, Jesus was not trying to scare his followers into following him out of fear of eternal punishment, or imply that works bring salvation. He was simply trying to wake people up to the reality that life is short and death is certain, and that what one does in the here and now does have the potential to reflect and extend God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven – not out of fear or obligation, but out of recognition of his rule over the entire world as its Creator. Amen.