Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Psalm 8; Revelation 21:1-6a; Matthew 25:31-46
Happy New Year to all! Another Christmas has come and gone; and though we’re still in the season of Christmastide, on this first Sunday of the year, we’re now more focused on ushering in the new season of our lives. Do you have a traditional way to mark the start of the new year, or a new cycle of life? Some people like to look back to take stock; others prefer to look forward and make resolutions; and yet some of us prefer to ignore the “special date” hoping that this might somehow slow down the passing of time. Of course, just as our own personalities differ with regards to how we approach change to gain perceived control over it, so do those of the biblical authors.
Just look at todays’ selection of readings, and you will see quite a range of perspective: Ecclesiastes focuses on the inevitability of change and wrestles with whether or not this makes life more or less meaningful, while the gospel warns about the imminence of change, and firmly grounds the meaning of life in this perceived sense of urgency of responding to it. And Revelation is about what the new world might be like, when it is forever changed by God at the end of all time. Let’s look at each in a bit of detail.
First, let’s look at Ecclesiastes, which is the Greek word for the Hebrew title of the book Qoheleth – one of the wisdom texts of the Bible. The approximate meaning of Qoheleth is the "one who convenes or addresses an assembly". It’s been referred to as “the biography of a Teacher”; an auto-biography, perhaps, as this text is traditionally (though historically improbably) attributed to King Solomon. The bulk of the book consists of the Teacher’s reflections on the passing of time, and the temporal and material limits of human existence. He observes that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow” (1:18), grieving over, primarily, the fact he couldn’t take any of his manifold earthly into the afterlife. He is particularly resentful that all he worked so hard to achieve is to be handed over to a successor, who might be even less wise than he is (and in this, the history of subsequent kings of Israel has proved Solomon right). We might question whether such a pessimistic stance reflects the true, holy Wisdom of God, since all it does is result in the epicurean notion of eating, drinking, and being merry without regard, and more importantly, without hope, for what lies beyond this life. Indeed, in the final portion of the book, Qoheleth seems to realize it, too, as he arrives at the one true antidote to the perceived meaninglessness of life – the admonition to “remember your Creator” (12:1).
Two to four centuries later, another generation of qoheleths came to stand before the assemblies of Jewish men – Jesus and his contemporaries. As a rabbi, Jesus’ outlook on change was shaped partly by the teachings of the Apocalyptic Judaism of his milieu. Its proponents held the notion that very shortly, possibly within their lifetimes, the world as they knew it – that is, the one held firmly in the grip of systemic evil – would give way to the New Kingdom of God. Jesus’ ethics, which took the adherence to the Law from the realm of actions into that of thoughts, intentions, and moral impulses, served partly as a tool of making his followers fit for life in this New Kingdom. Not really to make the current world better (though it does help), and not necessarily to become worthy of life in the New Kingdom (though one does, thereby, get a bit closer to its standards), but so that the heart and mind begin to train, grow, and learn. He was certainly 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, contrary to the initially erroneous, pessimistic view of the Qoheleth of old (who did eventually see this, too).
But why did Jesus have to be so harsh in the analogies he used to wake people up so, as compared to the description of the new heaven and earth found in Revelation, where “every tear will be wiped away”? Today, we read about separating the sheep and the goats, to contrast the choices made in following Jesus’ ethics with those who did not. The gospels contain other unpleasant parables, such as the one about the ill-prepared bridesmaids who had run out of oil by the time the bridegroom knocked on their door, or the man who thought he did the right thing by burying the money entrusted to him safely underground, but instead met with a disproportionately harsh response of the investor. But I don’t think that these analogies were necessarily intended to scare us into adopting Jesus’ ethics. I don’t even think that the parables divided people into groups, as much as they contrasted the actions and inventions within each life. So, each of us has been a lazy bridesmaid, a conservative investor, and a goat. We ignore change that is looming over the horizon, and remain unprepared for the moments when we must act decisively because we simply run out of moral energy, like failing to store up the proverbial oil. We bury our talents and gifts instead of letting them blossom. We fail to separate the impulses within our hearts as the skilled shepherd would separate his animals according to their type. Very often, we forget that if Christ lives within us, he must live in others, too. And, we forget who is truly in control.
Yes, change is inevitable; there will always be some kind of a new season; and the Kingdom will arrive whether we want it or not. But, Jesus neither wants us to drift with the flow, nor does he ask us to make some grand resolutions. Not resolutions - only intentions. Intention is the only thing we can change or control, and yet remain true to self. Like in Gaughin’s painting, there are two births worthy of noting in ourselves and in the world: one birth has already happened, and the other – in progress. Like the passing of time, like all meaningful changes, each birth is irreversible and unstoppable. Each is also simultaneously unremarkable and divine. Indeed, babies are born all the time, in Galilee and Tahiti; but, the Word that once came into the world to dwell among us, is also the one that is continually being unveiled as Light, within each human heart - one action, thought, and intention at a time. Thanks be to God.