A “May Day” Reading of Matthew 25

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May 2, 2014 by Ron Madson

A “May Day” Reading of Matthew 25

“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of

these ye have done it unto me..” –Matthew 25:40

My father would totally immerse himself in the scriptures, and I love the way he read them. At the twilight of his life he increasingly became a mystic. He asked me if I noticed how the meaning of the text would change as we changed. Remarkably, he actually suggested that the very printed words on the page would change Liahona style. He would also say “I believe we do not read sacred texts, but rather they read us.”   In the end, all he could see was love and mercy. I cannot nor do I want to erase from my mind the last few days of his life when he asked me if I could hear a choir singing “I love you” over and over again.

Today I am sharing with family and friends a very personal reading of Matthew 25. I recognize that many have a vastly different interpretation of the parables of the Ten Virgins and the Talents then that which I am going to share, but to each his own “Liahona” to “Iron Rod” interpretation. I accept that whatever framework each of us choses to define our relationships with friends, family and the world is inescapably to a large degree subjective even if we claim that our reading is superior by virtue of our use of academic language or citing some authority.

Today is also May Day. May Day aka the “International Worker’s Day” is an annual celebration of laborers and the working classes. It is a day set aside to consider the progress that has been made and still needs to be made for those that struggle every day to find sufficient income and working conditions conducive to a wholesome and dignified life.

         The phrase “May Day” repeated three times has also become the internationally recognized distress signal for all vessels (planes, ships, etc.) that are in peril.   The “May Day” phrase originated from the French phrase “venez m’aider”—meaning “come help me”— for it is to be used only in the most dire of circumstances, and for those at the margins of our society the signal should be voiced by all of us.

In honor of May Day I am sending a “distress signal” for those on the margins of my faith and world community who have been “shut out” or “stripped of what little that have” by sharing how I chose to interpret the message I believe Jesus of Nazareth is inviting me to hear and see in His Sermon found in Matthew 25. Matthew 25 consists of the parable of the Ten Virgins and the Talents both ending in a dark ambiguity until Jesus comes in “his glory” and resolves the ambiguity as He teaches us how to distinguish between “sheep” and “goats.”

“The Door was Shut”

“I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long,

I will stay with you. There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love.

I will protect you until you die, and after your death

I will still protect you.

—Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat, pray, love”

I would hope that none of my children would treat others, much less their sibling/family, as the five “wise” virgins treated the “foolish” virgins.

I can’t even imagine being in a situation where someone I cared about forgot or failed to bring something to a social event and I refused to share what I had or just go to the event without them.

“Oh, so you forgot your wallet or you forgot to dress formally for this event?”

            “That is really too bad because I am not about to give you any of “my” oil in case I will not have enough for myself and you are on your own.”

Can you even imagine telling a sibling, child or parent to go get a job and pay for their own admission to anything if they discovered they did not have the funds to pay because you are not going to risk sharing lest you would not have enough for yourself? Or tell a sister/brother that their failure to have enough money for a social event, or worse a medical procedure is their own fault and you cannot provide for them because you may not have enough for your future needs/retirement?   I think not.

The unwillingness to share and/or not leaving with one’s friends and family when they are deemed not “worthy” to attend is telling enough as to the values and character of the five virgins, but what about the Lord of the house that invited the virgins to his social gathering?   Here I find even more inhospitable and unmerciful behavior.

I can’t even imagine shutting the door to any friends, brother/sister, child or parent because they do not measure up to my requirements/expectations.

Think about it in real terms for just a moment. What possibly could any of your children, parents, sibling or friend do that would cause you to say “I know you not” and exclude them from your company and the embrace of your sociality?   Would you shut the door and cut off any child that failed to dress appropriately? Would a non-white shirt, double earring, or even a tattoo be enough to even make your own child feel less loved and welcomed in your home?   But what if they did not have a “testimony” of what you believed? Or thought differently in any way? Would that be enough?   And what if they had “sinned” in any way? What sin or error would be enough for you to shut the door and cut them off from your presence?

Several months ago I saw a news story about young men that had been kicked out of their home of their childhood because they informed their parents that they had same sex attraction.  Seeing the squalor of the abandoned homes and outdoor makeshift shelters was bad enough but when I saw their young, scared faces as they now faced the world alone cut me to the quick. Consider for a moment the love and bond we have had with our children from their birth, taking them to school for the first time, holding their hands to cross the street, providing for all their needs to the point that they trusted us to always love and care for them, only to commit the ultimate betrayal to a child by telling them that they are so defective that we, and any decent religious folks, cannot even abide their very existence?  These children trusted us to “know” the truth of life and God. We teach them that are defective from the womb and as such are rejected from God, family, parent and society. They know that cannot escape the hell of their chemistry/attraction anymore than someone who is heterosexual. Is it any surprise that they find themselves without hope to the point of taking their own life to escape this hell.   How could we with even an ounce of love and mercy do this to any human being let alone our own flesh and blood?

What kind of religious belief would foster such judgment to the point of turning out and shutting off, even temporarily not to mention eternally, another human soul, that like each of us, craves and needs the embrace of family?   What kind of religion that takes upon itself the name of Jesus would exclude anyone because of what we perceive to be their “sins” or inadequacies?   Who would tell a daughter that wanted to come to work with you or join you in a sporting event that it was not something a girl should be doing and “shut the door” to her desire to be with you? Jesus’s entire life was an example of merciful inclusion of those that the religious leaders of his day sought to “shut the door” to their presence because of one defect or another —whether it be behaviorally, one’s DNA, or even gender.

Neither the five virgins who would not share nor the “Lord” of this wedding feast, who “shut the door” to those he judged unworthy for his presence, are a spiritual example that any of us would want to emulate in how we react to any of our own children, brother/sister or parent if they fell short of our expectations in any way. Conditional love is not the pure love of Christ.

So yes one may “liken” this first parable to the Kingdom but let’s withhold our verdict as to whether the choices of the five virgins and the “Lord” bridegroom stand approved of THE Lord until we read the entire sermon to the end.

“A Hard Man Reaping”

“Poverty is an anomaly to rich people, it is very difficult to make out

why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.”

—Walter Bagehot

The talents

In the parable of the talents we are introduced to a ‘man” who lives off the labor of others for he tells us that “I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed.”   We also discover that he demands, at a minimum, that his servants practice usury which was known to Jesus’ audience as not only contrary to the law of Moses but also something that created financial bondage. Jesus’ audience naturally comprised of tenement/ subsistence farmers and laborers would have known what it means to be under the thumb of the landlord or master who would have demanded a return on his investment.

Two of the “Lord of the Servants” play the economic game well and get a return on the capital. This lord gains a five and two fold increase from this capital investment and decides to invest even more capital with the profitable servants. However, the one servant who understandably lives in fear of this “hard man reaping” chooses to not even obtain a usury fee from the capital given to him.

In his work “Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed” William Herzog II provides a liberation theology reading of this parable that makes sense when considering all of the other messages given by Jesus in relationship to the oppressive economic order of the world where the “least” are rapaciously taken advantage of and dispossessed of their lands through usury and clever “investing.” (see also Richard Rohrbaugh’s “A Peasant’s Reading of the Talents/Pounds”).  Remember this is the Jesus that began His ministry by inviting all of Israel to participate in a Jubilee forgiving all debts and returning land to the dispossessed. Those He was addressing would have known that the third man who buried this treasure and refused to allow it to be used to take economic advantage of others as expected by his “hard master.”   This third servant gives voice of the oppressed he that tells the “lord” that he unjustly reaps where he does not sow and harvests from the labor of others and takes an umerited profit thereby.   Yet this servant stands alone in defying the game that is being played while his fellow servants are “playing ball” and do not come to his defense. He is predictably scapegoated/punished.

But while there is significant historical evidence in Herzog’s work as well as other academic works and ancient texts such as the Gospel of Nazorenes reported by Eusebius that support the servant that buried the talent as the hero of the parable, there is something far more obvious in the conclusion of the sermon that tells us both the “lord” bridegroom that ‘shut the door” and the “lord” that took away from the servant who then had nothing are both cautionary tales of how NOT to treat the ‘least.”

THE “SON OF MAN” COMETH:

We have seen the judgment exercised by two “lords” —one “shut the door” to those that he deemed unworthy to enter his social embrace because they did not have sufficient oil and the other “lord” stripped a man who then was left destitute because he did not succeed in obtaining a profit for his business enterprise.   These parables end in dark ambiguity.

But as is predictably the case with Jesus’ teaching style, He uses these first two parables as a foil to drive home the take away lesson where there is no ambiguity:

For now not a “lord” of this world but the very “Son of Man” arrives in his glory signaling that this is the REAL Lord who is not only accompanied by angels but he sits upon the “throne of glory” signifying righteous judgment:

“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory..” Matthew 25:31

Now the “Son of Man” exercises from His judgment seat as he gathers before Him “all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.” Those that inherit HIS Kingdom and not the ‘kingdom’ of these lords of the world we just witnessed did what to inherit HIS Kingdom?

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:    

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

         40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Does not the Son of Man’s final judgment undermine any consideration that the judgment of the bridegroom who shut out the five virgins and the ‘lord’ with the talents to invest acted virtuously to those that were the “least’ in those parables?   Who was the “least” in the parable of the ten virgins? Of course, those that had no oil and yet came back and pled to be received. Who was the “least” in the parable of the talents? Of course, the man who had but one talent and who would not engage in his ‘hard man’s” business of reaping where one does not sow to the detriment of others.

The teachings of Jesus were unmistakably subversive to the wisdom of the world in His generation—as it is in every generation—as He turned the world upside down by exalting the “least’, the poor, the sinner, the dispossessed as He was their advocate against those that sought to “shut the door” to their inclusion both socially and economically. This “shutting the door” to His Kingdom were poignantly applicable to spiritual salvationas well as He declared to the church leaders of his day that the sinners, the outcast/least that they had “shut out” would enter His Kingdom before they would:   “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men.” (Matthew 23:13).

All of the words and acts of Jesus in his mortal ministry stand in stark condemnation of the acts of the bridegroom and the five “wise” (according to the world) virgins as well as the “lord’ of talents/money.   If we read only the parables of the Ten Virgins and the Talents in isolation and fail to read the master teacher’s summation at the end of Matthew 25 then we miss the whole point and stand in jeopardy of perverting the message that Jesus was trying to convey

So “Who” Do you Shut Out?

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

—Mother Theresa

As I enter the autumn of my life I know I have changed. There was a time not long ago that I shut out in various ways those that I considered not “worthy.”   My father was right. The scriptures do change as we change. I believe that if we make an effort to see the world filtered through the words and example of the words and life of Jesus we begin to have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” that which was always there but we chose to shut out.

So I now ask myself who was it that Jesus refused to include in his social circle and who did he seek to dispossess?   I can’t think of anyone—even enemies. He came declaring spiritual and temporal Jubilee:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”   (Luke 4: 18,19).

And what is the “acceptable year of the Lord”?   It is when the poor are exalted and the rich made low. It is when the lands of all those dispossessed is returned and ALL debts forgiven. It is returning to the servant his one talent that was stripped from him and even more in abundance. It is when we are made equal in all things even temporally that we might enjoy the heavenly gifts as promised in the Doctrine and Covenants. It is when there is not one child among us that suffers from malnutrition or when one person does not have access to the basic essentials both temporally and spiritually to sustain life and spirit. It is when we no longer imagine in our hearts that the Lord Jesus wants us to use Korihor type doctrines such as “self reliance” or other worldly “wise” teachings to excuse our finding ways to make sure there is no longer any poor among us. It is when we do not rest until that occurs.

Jesus went beyond just declaring economic justice and mercy. His life was a relentless example of inclusion.   There was no sin or defect that any other human being could have —even that of an enemy—that would deter him from embracing them with pure love. So how could we, who chose to take upon ourselves His name, exclude or condemn anyone? Who act or behavior could cause you or I do “shut the door” to any of our children? Our brother/sister? Parent? Neighbor?

Today there are those that speak of “conditional love” and acceptance of children and our “duty” to exclude certain individuals from such things as significant as a wedding ceremony because of our perceived lack of their worthiness.   Today we hear of children being cast out of homes because of what some consider a personal defect/sin.   Today we see those clothed in priesthoods shut the door to daughters/wives/mothers that seek inclusion.   Today we are told that if someone cannot pay what is expected that they have failed the test and will be stripped of spiritual privileges. Today we hear sermons about those that fail to meet certain standards (dietary, grooming, etc.) are subject to being cut off spiritually because of disobedience.   I can no longer find justification for those that call for exclusion and judgment and “shutting the door” to those that they find defective on the pages of our printed sacred texts? It is as if those words have disappeared to me.

Maybe my father was right that there is some deeper magic to new words appearing and others disappearing in our sacred texts as we change. More and more I only see the words of mercy and inclusion and less and less that of judgment and exclusion in our scriptures.

I hear His voice calling “May Day” for all those that are distressed, broken-hearted, cut off, lonely, suffering poverty in all forms both temporally and spiritually. I take Him at his word that if I want to be part of His Kingdom and His Sheep then I must like him find ways to exalt and include the “least” among us.   May we each respond to the “May Day” distress calls of those around us without judgment and with mercy.

“Brightly Beams our Father’s Mercy from the lighthouse evermore, but to us He gives His keeping of the lights upon the shore.”

Ron Madson (May 1, 2014)

 

 

 

16 thoughts on “A “May Day” Reading of Matthew 25

  1. Beautiful essay, Ron. Thanks for your insights. The story about your Dad is very touching.

    • Ron Madson says:

      thanks for stopping by Warner. Your life’s work epitomizes what it means to serve the least

  2. christopherpdavey says:

    The duality (at least) of meaning has always blessed my life; this is a compelling read! The challenge is for us to keep the door open. For me especially for me this falls to loving and serving those in our faith who espouse more single dimension readings and often lack moral imagination, and are prone to exclude, consciously or not, the least among us. “Getting to heaven” ever increasingly becomes a communal project.

    • Ron Madson says:

      Amen! Well said. Wouldn’t be nice to have in our church instruction alternative readings of the same scriptures in our manuals if for no other reason then to invite us to use our imagination?

  3. Mark Evans says:

    Ron,

    Thanks for sharing this important message of love and mercy. Like you, the older I get, the more I see in the scriptures the injunction that charity truly does trump all else. All of Christ’s teachings and examples, in the Old World and the New World, are glowing testaments to this.

    I have felt prompted for some time to write an article on the dangers of riches and inequality. I finally put aside all excuses preventing me from doing so, and have just recently finished.

    Based on your post here and other posts and comments of yours in the past, I think you might appreciate this article. The links to the entire article can be found at the following:

    http://www.bringagainzion.blogspot.com/p/dangers-of-riches-and-inequality.html

    I apologize for posting this information here. I would have sent this to you in an email if I had one for you.

    Anyway, thank you again for the truths that you share.

  4. Jamie says:

    Wow! Perception must be our only reality. Your Dad seems to have been
    quite the philosopher in his old age. Until you brought this new reading of
    Matthew 25 to my attention, it was almost as if Matthew 25:31-46 was never
    even there. I am sure it was – it had to be. But, I can’t remember in any
    Sunday School class, or Sacrament talk, or Stake Conference, or any meeting,
    where these parables were not being discussed in isolation of the rest of
    the Chapter. Yet, here they fly out to me in your Mormon Worker article at
    a time when I need to see it. Thanks Ron.

  5. Kim says:

    Thanks very much for sharing these thoughts – just what I needed to follow up on some of my teenagers concerns about inclusion and wealth.

  6. Forest Simmons says:

    Ron,

    well said, and from the heart.

    As Isaiah and Paul repeatedly emphasized, the wisdom of God seems like foolishness to men, while the wisdom of supposedly prudent men is definitely foolishness to God.

    If we had the full account, we would probably hear Jesus introducing the first two parables with the words, “You have heard from men of old …” and then before the third parable, “… but I say unto you ….”

    Forest

  7. Jim Payne says:

    Thanks for your great words Ron and sharing your thoughts about your Dad! You made me think of my Dad when you wrote, “The teachings of Jesus were unmistakably subversive to the wisdom of the world in His generation—as it is in every generation—as He turned the world upside down by exalting the “least’, the poor, the sinner, the dispossessed as He was their advocate against those that sought to “shut the door” to their inclusion both socially and economically.”

    My Dad, Reed Payne, taught psychology for 35 years at BYU and in his final convocation address said the following, “I would like to emphasize one important spiritual principle—that of the spiritual paradox or uncommon sense. This is best captured in the following scriptural quotes: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Do we really believe that? “Whosoever shall save his life shall lose it—and—Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.” “Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” “The weak shall be made strong and the wise and the learned and the rich that are puffed up shall be thrust down to hell.” “The meek shall inherit the earth and the poor in spirit the kingdom of God.” These paradoxes, this uncommon sense, is characteristic of Christ’s teachings. Spiritual paradoxes are seen not only in these hard to understand pearls of wisdom, but in the life of the Savior from birth to death. Though the creator of the world, there was no room for him at the Inn and his final resting place was a borrowed tomb—“The ultimate paradox,” as Kierkegaard put it. Thus the Savior demonstrated the truths of what he said. His priorities were not consistent with the wisdom of the world. Guided by love and faith in his Father, he did what no other could do. He put first things first. He wanted what his Father wanted.”

    I think you would have liked my Dad and thought you would appreciate his thoughts. Thanks again. Jim Payne

  8. Ron Madson says:

    Great to hear from you Jim. Fortunately, there were a few men like your father at BYU (like Nibley) that provided an alternative voice and a deeper theological education.

  9. Tiani says:

    Love this, Ron. I came to LOVE Matthew 25 a few years ago, when I realized for the 1st time that these weren’t separate parables, but had to all be read together. I’ve had a few experiences in reading it that makes clear to me that the whole thing is about CHARITY and how beautiful that is. (Ether cross reference helped me with that). It’s amazing. The typical interpretation really drives me crazy now. Nonetheless, I’ve still never read it quite like you lay out here. Even with my new found realization, I still didn’t “chastise” the wise virgins, nor the Bridegroom, nor did I honor the man who buried his talent. Even though I had a bit of a problem with “usury,” and the harshness towards the “goats” left me with an unanswered question. Your insight seems to help with that — unrighteous dominion and oppressing the oppressed. A neat read. Good fit with the concept of pure, unconditional love. Thank you.

  10. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    This is briliant, Ron–I think I know you from the past.

    • Ron Madson says:

      Mary, thanks for stopping by. I know you but I doubt we have met. I will be at Sunstone on a panel this year. Perhaps we will meet then

  11. Elijah says:

    Good flip perspective.
    Being that these two parables are symbolic, perhaps the traditional reading works better off we understand what the talents and oil actually are. Christ would not refuse a humble, repentsnt sinner to enter his kingdom, but perhaps an arrogant, blasphemous one.

  12. Forest says:

    Good Man!

  13. Daniel Clark says:

    Thanks for your comments. Good to hear another perspective. I am trying to see it your way, and I don’t know yet if I’m convinced that it’s an ok interpretation (doctrinally, I guess???) but certainly eye opening!

    Usury, as I understand, was only NOT ok if it was a “brother” which could be interpreted several ways, I suppose. Deut 23:20 “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.”

    I just don’t want you to condemn the first two talent-parable guys for earning money in a what you intimate is a bad way, when there is no reason to believe they were collecting interest from their brothers. [This is not meant to comment on the morality of the modern banking system in any way.]

    I’m just sitting here trying to suss out what is jarring to me about your comments. It sounds like you’re saying it’s ok to judge, but only based on one criterion: if you were accepting/forgiving of the least. But if you take that further, aren’t the goats the least?? I hate to go all “slippery slope” on you, but why is the goat thing ok, but not the oil or talent thing? “Let’s be tolerant of the goats too,” I feel like you should be saying, “They’re the ones that didn’t learn the lesson that it is better to give than receive, and thus they need our help” if you are saying the rest of it. What is the difference between the goat, the no-oiler, and the no-usurer? Are any of them left with excuse? If you are going to say, “Yes, but the goat brought this on himself.” Well so did the others. Who was it that Jesus refused to include in his social circle and who did he seek to dispossess? The goats!

    I’m not trying to take away this very personal reading of Matt 25. I just wanted to put to paper how it made me feel. So thank you!

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