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.”
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?
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.”
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)