Amazed to be a Christian

At the end of Year A, I’m always a little amazed I’m still a Christian. I find Jesus becomes less and less comprehensible (and likable) as the gospel nears its end, and by that I mean the parts that lead up to the Last Supper. Once you reach that point, it’s got its eccentricities (spirits rising from tombs, earthquakes and so forth), but it’s basically similar to the others in its account of the end.

Pretty Jesus. I met him in Sunday School.

No, the difference is how Jesus goes on speaking in riddles. Think about Luke’s Jesus. He gives us stories that make sense (the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan) and a Jesus who cries in the Garden and who assures the thief on the cross that today they are going to be in paradise together. Or Mark’s Jesus, bemused, mostly, by the predicament in which he finds himself, giving it one last blast about the Temple being taken down and leaving us with arcane arguments about the “desolating sacrilege,” but I feel he’s sympathetic at the end.

[John’s Jesus, of course, is (a) already God and (b) not spread out over an entire lectionary cycle, but that’s another story.]

But Matthew gives us tough material, these hard-to-parse parables that come at the end: the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the three servants with their talents and finally the separating of the sheep and the goats. We don’t like them. They make God sound mean, and wasn’t the whole point of Jesus for God to sound less mean? More forgiving? More gracious?

Why end on a note of three stories in a row where people are being shut out of the banquet, thrown into the outer darkness, left to weep and wail and gnash their teeth?

Rob, who built Hoagie’s ramp,
 loves Buddy Jesus.

I’m reading interpretations (by smart people, scholars, even my friends) who want to say that God is not the master of the servants given the talents, God is not the bridegroom turning away the bridesmaids who forgot to bring extra oil which doesn’t seem fair since the bridegroom was late in coming, but how many of us would try to say that God is NOT the King sitting on the throne and judging between the nations as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats?

Yeah, that.

I know what I want the kingdom of heaven to be like. I don’t know what it’s really like, but I know what I want it to be like, and I’m basing it on the words of scripture that stand out for me as most loving and challenging, not most threatening.

About to tell a scary one. See Matthew 21:33ff.

And this Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, sounds a little threatening.

So it’s not surprising that every three years I have a little crisis of faith.

I can’t explain the wise and foolish virgin bridesmaid girlies and the mean old bridegroom who keeps everyone waiting and then shuts the door. I can’t explain the guy who *killed* the people who didn’t come to the wedding banquet.

I just don’t feel like these stories are from or about Jesus. But there they are, in the red letters in some editions. I’m forced to confront them and reconsider him every Year A.

And then I read the sheep and the goats again, and I’m back on track. *That’s* the point, you see, and the message may be lost to us in the other stories because we don’t understand first century customs or we’re missing some significant current event that would shed light on the matter or the author of Matthew had his own axe to grind with someone who will remain nameless because we just don’t know who it was.

The sheep and the goats remind us that the thing we need to do most is not judge or show up at parties but to love. Love God, love each other (including those not like us) the way we love ourselves (and those most like us), and especially love the people who are in trouble of all kinds.

It’s hard to be so far away from the time and place in which the stories were written down. We know that even before they were recorded, they were told over and over and reinterpreted to suit the context and reorganized to make a point and added to from sources we suspect exist but cannot produce and given a gloss of theological flavor by each of the gospel writers.

Pretty soon we’re starting Year B. That’s my favorite. That Jesus feels less, well, varnished.

He’s Original Jesus.

(The real) Episode 1 Jesus.

I’m looking forward to visiting with him again.

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4 thoughts on “Amazed to be a Christian

  1. My favourite Gospel is Luke, although over the years I have developed more of a taste for John…ANd the MAtthew 25 for this week is one of my favoured passages, even with the judgement. Partly because at least we are reminded that we have to be held accountable for our choices.However I do remember my seminary prof commenting more than once thta Matthew seems to have a violent judgement streak in his version of the story

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  2. Matthew is my very favorite gospel, and now that I've preached through it almost three times, I'm loving it even more–yes it definitely has its hard passages, but it is still the one that resonates most with me.I'll be looking to you Mark fans for some inspiration in the coming weeks!

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  3. oh you don't know how badly i needed to read this! as i sit today trying to formulate a sermon… while dogs wrestle, and i fight off a head cold, and all the details of this season make my bones ache. give me hope… that there's hope in there after all. i'll keep typing…

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