First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 21

William Loader

Pentecost 21: 6 November Matthew 25:1-13

If you are choosing to use the 'All Saints' reading from Matthew 5:1-12, please see the comments for Epiphany 4.
Epiphany 4: Matthew 5:1-12. For the Epistle reading see the thoughts offered in Easter 3:  1 John 3:1-7

Matthew 24 has Matthew's version of Jesus' prediction of the devastation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It draws upon and expands Mark 13. The transition from the charges in Matthew 23 to the prediction of judgement in Matthew 24, heightened by the omission of Mark's passage just before Mark 13 of the widow's gift, is a telling sequence. Judgement will fall on Jerusalem and its people for its rejection of Christ and the gospel. But, as we saw last week, Matthew will not countenance smugness and elitism. Matthew 24 ends with warnings to church leaders to be faithful servants (24:45-51) or to find they suffer the same fate as 'the hypocrites' (24:51).

Matthew 25 continues the challenge to Christians. The image of the wedding recalls the parable of the wedding feast. This is the imagery of celebration, an expression of the joy of the kingdom to come. This remains the focus. The girls have a role to play in greeting the bridegroom when he comes. They need to stock up on supplies and be ready to have their lamps burning brightly on the occasion. The familiar cultural image becomes in Matthew a kind of nightmare. The details should not be pressed - a bit mean of the girls who had supplies not sharing?

The point is readiness. This is not about 2000 years of trying to whip up expectations that Jesus just might come very soon. It is about sustaining the life of faith. It is another version of Matthew's theme of elitism. Having had lamps in hand which burned well once is no guarantee they will burn in future. Having the status of being Christian, even being a light bearer, means nothing if it is not a continuing part of our being. Many who were first will be last (20:1-16). Matthew is interested in enabling people to live in a relationship with God which has continuing significance and continuing life.

The image of the closed door is harsh. It recalls similar imagery in the sermon on the mount and doubtless its use there informs its use here (7:21-23). Those who are disowned at the door there are none other than Christians who claim so much in the Lord's name, including miracles. Matthew bursts the balloons of religious enthusiasm and waffle. Not in touch with love? Then not in touch with love! Much that masqueraded in all sincerity as Christian faith then as now is what Paul would call just a clanging noise, even it had chalked up spiritual successes (see 1 Corinthians 13). In their different ways both Matthew and Paul put the emphasis on love as the fruit which matters.

The traditional association of oil with anointing and thus with the Spirit allows us to use the language of walking in the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit, and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. It is appropriate where such Spirit language is in vogue to note that it is precisely in such areas that Matthew's issue arises. The language and wonders of the Spirit can lead people to be carried away into forms of religion which are full of effervescence but have little to do with the gospel. Paul addresses these dangers in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Matthew addresses them here and in 7:15-23. In Mark a similar slant away from such preoccupations is evident in the way he emphasises the pathway of lowliness and suffering rather than that of wonders and success. John's gospel has Jesus make the same point over against those who followed him primarily because of his wonders (2:23-25). Nicodemus is their spokesperson. They need to be born again to be able to see what Jesus is really about (3:1-3). Religion is frequently a distraction if not an escape from reality. Matthew keeps bringing us down to earth and will continue to do so in the passages which follow.

Epistle: Pentecost 21: 6 November  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

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