Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness. (Matt 25:23)
On Friday I paid a short visit to the church of Christ the King, Gordon Square, in London – and if you ever find yourselves at loose ends in Bloomsbury, I encourage you to do the same as it is a masterpiece of English gothic revival. This church was built by the Catholic Apostolic Church, which was a Victorian religious group (with very little to do with the Church of England, or with Roman Catholicism) that emphasised the second coming of Jesus – in fact members of this church, genuinely expected Christ to come in glory at any moment and they forecasted it to happen in their lifetime. Rumours even have it that in the vestry of this church the best set of vestments was always laid out on the vestment press, ready for the Lord to wear them at his coming. We may find this custom amusing, or even outlandish, but perhaps it should prompt us to reflect on how we relate to Christian belief in the second coming of Christ as sovereign Lord and judge of all creation. Faith in the second coming is often misrepresented by both Christians and non-believers alike, and it may even seem out of place when we think that scientists can now calculate the life expectancy of stars. Yet, the Creed we say together affirms that Jesus ‘will come again to judge both the living and the dead’.
The theme of Jesus’ return is embedded in today’s parable of the talents – indeed, it is the dominant feature of Matthew 24 and 25. And here we read that, at his coming, the Lord will reward those who to have faithfully invested their talents, whilst he will reject from his presence those whom failed his trust. Then, our faith in the Lord’s return should lead us to see ourselves as the characters of the parable, as the servants whom the Master entrusts with a lavish array of talents from his own fullness. In Jesus’ time a talent was an enormous sum of money; it corresponded to the wage for over eight years of work – if not more. But in the parable, talents represent more than just money; they are a symbol of the extraordinary number of flairs and abilities God freely bestows on each one of us. And regardless of whether we see ourselves in the servant with five talents, or in the servant entrusted with one, all we need to recognise is that God has, in fact, given us much… No-one among us here – in fact, I go as far as saying no human being – is deprived of at least a special quality, a something, they can invest to the glory of God – we just need to be able to recognise what has been given to us, and put it to its best possible use.
But what could our talents be? Do you have free time? Offer it to the Church, or spend it in prayer for others. Do you have a lively faith, or delight in learning about God? Encourage those whose faith is weak. Are you an artist? Say something about God with your art. Do you have administrative skills? There are plenty of churches who need your help. Do you have money or wealth? Give what you can. Do you have musical skills? Join the choir. Do you have a vocation to ministry? Devote your life to it. Are you outgoing and cheerful? Befriend the lovely. These are just examples, but they give us an idea that almost everything can be used to glory of God, and that we are charged with this task.
So, what impact should the parable of the talents and our belief in the second coming have on the way we live? And what should we do so that the Lord may say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? The answer is rather simple; whilst people outside these walls would use everything in their power to advance their position in society or to gain fame and wealth, we, as Christian, should use everything we have received from God so as to further his glory. Only then we can hope to enter the master’s joy, the joy of heaven, and be admitted into the Lord’s presence.
Once saw a fridge magnet at a friend’s vicarage that read, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” And I guess there is a little bit of truth in this. Our faith teaches us that Jesus will indeed come again. But, even though Christians have often tried to forecast his appearing, today’s parable remind us that the point of our faith is neither to determine an Estimated Time of Arrival for Jesus nor to pretend to be busy; rather faith should make us faithful and diligent in working for him.
Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Matt 22:21)
The age-old saying ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ plays a key role in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisees and the Herodians were two rival factions at the time of Jesus; the first a group of fierce religious nationalists who hated the Romans and their ways, the second a group of collaborators who thrived under the Roman occupation of Palestine, and had embraced many of the non-Jewish customs imported by the Empire. Yet, these two bitterly divided groups found a point of unity in persecuting Jesus and – as Mark’s gospel tells us – in plotting to kill him (cf. Mark 6:3).
Jesus had been a strong critic of sectarian groups such as these, and he had lashed out against their interpretation of religion many times before. Now it was the time for Pharisees and Herodians to hit back. And today’s question about taxation finds its origin in their unlikely alliance. In the minds of both groups, their clever question would have been a catch 22 for Jesus; if the Lord answered that Roman taxation was wrong, he could have been accused before the authorities and put to death; while if Jesus endorsed paying tributes to the foreign super-power of his day, he would have lost the support of many of his followers who were, after all, mostly Jewish. But, as we read, Jesus is not fooled by clever arguments; not then, not now, not ever. And I guess many people still struggle with his response to this day.
Even among us there are those who would find it rather satisfying if Jesus had launched himself into a long discourse about unjust taxes, or if he had laid the foundations of modern democracy saying things like “no taxation without representation”. But he didn’t. Likewise, other people would be rather pleased if Jesus had used this occasion to endorse, one and for all, a specific way of government or another, or if he had laid out some clear guidelines for political leaders. But he didn’t. In fact, Jesus only said then, and says to us now, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
But what does it even mean? Is this some clever trick Jesus used to get out of a tight spot? Are these are the words of someone who wishes to sit on the fence in order not to lose followers? One could definitely interpret the story in this way, but it would not quite fit within the Christian narrative.
Here Jesus is giving us a simple moral commandment. He is establishing some ground rules for the ways in which Christians are to behave in in the world. On one hand, Caesar represents the state, and for Jesus giving back to Caesar means paying the taxes we owe and striving to be upstanding members of society. From the gospels it is clear that Jesus does not endorse the brutalities committed by the Roman Empire, or by any other political system for that matter, but he commands his followers to be good citizens of whatever nation they find themselves living in. This idea of good citizenship is also picked up in the writing of St Paul where he says, ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’ (1Tim 2:1-2).
On the other hand, giving to God that which rightfully belongs to him may not seems so clear-cut, so well defined, as filling out an HMRC form or respecting the rules of society. But in Jesus we see that giving to God means paying to him our homage of worship in a way that encompasses everything we do; being constant in prayer, faithful in worshipping together, confident in the faith, generous towards those in need and towards the Church, and pursuing (campaigning for) justice and peace for this world.
In short, today’s gospel recognises that Christians – all of us – are caught up between two competing worlds; between God and Caesar, between the demands of religion and demands of the society we live in; and with his words Jesus strikes some sort of truce between these two worlds. He invites us to play our part in society as good citizens, as long as our duties towards God have the absolute priority, because – as St Paul wrote to the Philippians – at the end of the day ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20).
The king said to his servants, “The wedding is ready;
…go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone.” (Matt 22:8-9)
If you have ever been invited to a wedding you would know how important etiquette and preparation are. Invitations must be sent out well in advance with a clear indication of timings; menu choices and dietary requirements must be returned; suitable gifts and clothing have to be purchased… It wasn’t like this at the time of Jesus. Invitations to important weddings were more like announcements that the marriage would take place at some point in the future; neither the date nor the time were clearly specified for very practical reasons. Only once the bridal party had gathered all the food, wine, musicians, and everything else that was needed, only then the wedding celebrations could go ahead. Only once everything was ready the household servants would go out to round up the guests. And if you had been put on the spot by the sudden call to attend the party, you didn’t have to worry; even suitable wedding garments would have been provided. So if you had been invited, all you had to do was turn up. A bit haphazard, you might think, but in the days before clocks and professional wedding organisers, this worked pretty well, even when the wedding was not an ordinary one. This is a marriage celebration organised by the king; a party that would have lasted at least a week. The closest thing we could compare it to nowadays would be being invited to Buckingham Palace for a week-long lively programme of state dinners with food, entertainment, clothes, and accommodation all provided. Imagine that.
And it is in this cultural context that Jesus places today’s parable. A story in which the King is God the Father, his Son is Jesus himself, and the servants are the prophets of old – some of whom had been maltreated and even killed. The original guests – the ones, who though invited, backed away from God’s invitation to be his holy nation – are an illustration of Israel’s religious elite. To them Jesus contrasts the new guests, gathered from the most unlikely of places; from crossroads. These are the gentiles, the non-Jewish people, us; the ones to whom God willingly extends his call to become his holy people. The wedding garments, which are so crucial in order to be admitted to the feast, are a representation of the habits faith and love we must practice. And finally, the celebration itself is an image both of the eternal life which we hope to enjoy, and of holiness we are called to live in the present.
So reading this parable, what does the call to holiness look like? First, we can say that God’s call is open to everyone. Even if so many people turn his offer down, God keeps inviting. Secondly, we can say that God’s call is a free gift. There is no charge, fee, or hoops that we have to jump through in order to be called to become saints. We do not need to be to prove ourselves worthy of it, because God’s invitation is, and always will be, there. And lastly, we can say that the call to holiness is essentially a call to joy; an invitation and a cause for celebration. For too long saints, holy people, and faithful Christians have been seen as killjoys, but the parable of the wedding feast essentially says, “God calls you to joy now, and to celebration in the life to come.” The only thing we have to do is to clothe ourselves in the wedding garments of faith and good deeds which God provides for us.
As unoriginal as it may sound to us now, the meaning of this parable was ground-breaking for Jesus’ original listeners; everyone is invited to the wedding feast – not just one nation or type of people; each one of us, as the parable says ‘bad and good alike’, is called to become a saint. And we should do well to rediscover this meaning.
The man went and said to the first son,
“My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” (Matthew 21:28)
As a curate, every time I went on holiday my training incumbent would perform his best impression of a martyr to parish life and say, “You have fun, I stay here working and treading grapes in the Lord’s vineyard”. And in many church contexts the Biblical expression of “working in the vineyard” is usually associated with spreading the faith, managing churches, and making disciples of Jesus, but this is not so much the case in today’s gospel reading. In the parable of the two sons we have just read the man is God the Father who extends to his children an invitation to work in his vineyard as an invitation to holiness, a call to enter the kingdom of heaven ever more deeply by leading a life pleasing to him. In the two siblings we see two examples of how a person might respond to the Father’s call; one who, though initially opposed, reconsiders the Father’s invitation and does his will, and another who, thinking either too lightly of his duties or too highly of his status as son, ends up disregarding the commitment he made, and disobeys the Father.
Jesus used this parable to criticise the Jewish religious elite of his time – we see he addresses the parable as a moral question to the chief priests and the elders of the people (cf. Matt 21:28); to those who failed to recognise God at work in the ministry of St John the Baptist and in his own ministry too; to those who paid lip-service to God, but thought too highly of themselves and did not see their need for repentance. They are represented by the son who said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go’ (Matt 21:30) and so let the Father down. To them Jesus presents the example of faith, trust in God, and openness to conversion given by those traditionally on the margins of the Jewish religious and social establishment, the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes’ and others sinners who were shunned by society. These are represented by the son who ‘answered, “I will not go” but afterwards thought better of it and’ (Matt 21) did the Father’s will.
But this is not just a story from the past. The Lord Jesus speaks these words to us today as well. We could transpose it to our own time by casting in the role of the first son all those whom the Church has cast to the margins, and as the second son all those baptised and confirmed people who have promised to serve the Lord, but whose actions never match their words. And so the implicit question, “Which one of the two sons am I?” is a simple one, but it should encourage us to reflect how we respond to God’s invitation to holiness and to the Christian life.
This is something of which I am personally (and painfully!) aware. In my journey towards priesthood I was very much the son ‘who answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it’ (Matt 21), and after having put off ordained ministry for over ten years, and even after changing Christian denomination, I relented and decided to do something about it. But the call to holiness is not a call to be a priest; it is an open invitation to all, and things don’t get much easier on this front just because you’re wearing a white shirt collar back-to-front. Even now, when the Father calls for deeper holiness, for closer union with him, and greater personal commitment, I am the one who gets side-tracked by other, less productive, activities, and then has to make amends.
Like in the parable, every day the Father renews his invitation to you and me, and to every Christian to work in his vineyard, his call to change our lives and, slowly but surely, to become the person he wants us to be. The way in which we answer the Father’s invitation will determine the way in which we actually live our faith... we could be the ones who go to church, pay lip-service to God, and hide behind our religious paraphernalia fooling ourselves that we are the ones doing the Father’s will, but this is what the second son did. Or we could be the ones who do go to church, who are repentant when we fail, and also aim to live out our faith in a way that matches our words; in a way that what we say to God may be supported or even exceeded by our good deeds.
The passage of Matthew’s gospel we have just read is a continuation, the third episode if you will, in the parables of the Kingdom series. Earlier we looked how following Jesus has the potential to completely transform the world and the society we live in, as Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast used to leaven the dough. Today Jesus teaches us on how the same Kingdom should also completely transform each one of us as he compares his followers to both a man and a merchant who drastically change their lives after discovering something amazing.
The parables of the treasure and of the pearl seem to mirror one another but their small differences gives us complementary views of what the Kingdom of Heaven should mean for every Christian. On one hand the treasure represents the sum of the many, abundant blessings and graces the Lord bestows on us through faith; the treasure also speaks to us of the joy of knowing Christ as we read that, once the man discovers the treasure he ‘goes off happy’ (Matt 13:44). On the other hand, the pearl represents the incomparable beauty of following the Lord through a life of faith, something that, once experienced, exceeds everything else. Both the treasure and the pearl show their splendour freely and openly to the characters in the parables, and in the same way the gospel and Christian teachings can be looked up openly and freely by anyone, but just looking at them is not enough. Much like the Hunchback of Notre Dame says in the story ‘Life is not a spectator sport’, so to look at the treasure that is the knowledge of Christ and to behold the beauty of the pearl that is following him is not what the Lord intends for us. We are not meant to be spectators, and after discovering the treasure and the pearl we must do our best to acquire them for ourselves, to lay hold on of the blessings and beauty of the Christian life, and to get involved in it.
But how do we do acquire the treasure and the pearl? The parables say that both characters invest all their fortunes to make their purchases. Then, in the same way, each one of us should sell everything he or she owns and buy the treasure…
Later on in Matthew’s gospel Jesus instructs a prospective disciple saying,
‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ (Matt 19:21).
And in another place he also says,
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven’ (Matt 6:19).
So we could take the teaching of these parables as a commandment and strive to follow it face value. By dispossessing ourselves for the sake of the following Jesus and out of compassion for others we would certainly trade in our riches for blessings, and acquire treasures in heaven, taking hold on the pearl of great beauty that is the Christian life.
But there is another way of interpreting the parables. Selling everything we own, should first of all represent emotional detachment from the things of this world and its affairs. Actually giving away all that is superfluous is incredibly generous and highly honourable, but it would do us little spiritual good if then we found ourselves immersed in resentment and ungratefulness… So when the parable says that the men sold everything, this should speak to us about freeing ourselves of those emotions, things, and bad habits that distract us from God or actively lead us away from him.
The blessedness, beauty, and unquenchable joy of following Jesus stands before us each day as the most valuable treasure or the rarest of pearl. Let us then each day make an effort to rid ourselves of anger, envy, self-centredness, and spiritual apathy so that by trading in joy, gratitude, selflessness, and devotion from the Lord we may have enough to purchase for ourselves the treasures of the Christian life, and in the world to come, the life of heaven. Amen.
Today’s gospel is a suitable sequel to last week’s Parable of the Sower with the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat which provides us with a detailed illustration of God’s Kingdom as a fertile wheat field. Among the many teachings one could draw from this parable, I would like to focus on the warning Jesus gives us about the dangers of judging and alienating one another when difficulties arise within the Church.
We read that ‘When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well;’ and the owner of the crop ‘said to the servants “...when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest”’.
Here Matthew uses a Greek word, zizanion, for the weeds that is not found anywhere else in the New Testament and scholars still argue about the true nature of this invasive plant that plagues the crop. But however this may be the darnel is for Matthew like “bad wheat” that closely resembles the good one, but stunts its growth and produces useless grains. Likewise, within the Church we have good and bad wheat that closely resemble each other. Here too, there often seems to be a little apparent difference between committed Christians and those who, though part of the same field, do very little apart from stunting the growth of the Church and producing useless fruits.
So why doesn’t the owner want to get rid of the weeds here and now when they cause so much trouble? To put it plainly, because if we took matters in our own hands we would not be capable of judging without making a great, big mess of it. The good and the bad wheat are so similar that we would end up uprooting both of them. We cannot judge properly, it is not our duty and – as the gospel tells us – we would not be able to do so. We may be surrounded by pseudo-Christians; we may live in a nation that claims to be Christian, but fails miserably to act as such. But as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to bear with the present obstacles, the present situation without judging one another or acting holier-than-thou.
To be the good wheat is truly and essentially our Christian vocation, the call to which we responded in baptism. Each of us should only strive to produce as many good fruits of prayer, love, and justice as one can whilst refrain from judging or alienating others, leaving judgment to the one who knows better than ourselves. The owner of the crop
‘said to the servants “...when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest”’.
There is only one person who can judge between the good and the bad grains and he is Our Lord Jesus Christ, and no-one else. He is the owner of the crop who will instruct the angels to separate the good wheat from the bad at the end of time. He is the one to whom judgment and power belong. And so, when he we come to harvest his crop, may he find us joyful in hope, patient through difficulties, generous to others, and persevering in prayer. Amen.
Jesus said, ‘Imagine a sower going out to sow…
some seeds fell on rich soil and produced their crop,
some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.’
The place where I grew up, much like Houghton Regis, used to depend heavily on agriculture (and then also factories) for its economic wellbeing. Late in autumn farmers went out to sow the seeds for the next year’s crops of wheat and corn in straight, well-spaced rows that covered every fertile bit of ground. But at no point in time I saw any farmer going out to scatter seeds in the haphazard way described by in today’s gospel. Who in their right mind would sow seed on the edge of a path, or among thorns, or on rocky soil? And why would anyone waste precious seed on four types of soil, when only one of them will produce sure returns, sure crops?
But the parable is not there to be taken literally. It is here to illustrate God’s generosity beyond measure and his abundant love for us, and to make us reflect on how we respond to this love. As we have read, the farmer sows his seed far and wide regardless of his returns, so God sows his word among us, regardless of how we are going to commit to him. With God there is no strategic deployment of resources only for those who might go on to be saints; everyone is invited to receive the message of gospel, and then to freely commit to Christ according to their means and desires.
Then the parable illustrates through its use of language borrowed from agriculture, a language that was once common to most people, how most people fall in four categories when it comes to living the Christian life. And through this explanation Jesus invites each one of us to ask ourselves: how do I receive the Word of God?
As we read, there are people who don’t understand the word of the Kingdom of God, those who do not get the point of religion, and so evil steals away what was sown in their hearts. We can hope we are not in this group, but we might be, especially when we are prevented to commit to faith because of the evil circumstances that we sometimes witness; “How can God allow that?” or “Why has this happened to me?” we might ask, and in doing so we put up obstacles for God to reach us; and, as it were, we make the soil of our hearts hard and inhospitable. The second group are those who hear the word and receive it immediately with joy but when difficulties come, these people immediately fall away. Hopefully we are not like that either. Then there are people who hear the word but then anxieties of daily life take up all the room leaving no space for God and the lure of a comfortable life choke the word so that it ends up bearing no fruit. We might be like that but we can hope not. We want to be like the last group of people mentioned by Jesus: the people who hear the word, understand it in their hearts, and committing to religion, bears fruit!
However, the reality is that probably we belong to each of those various groups at various times. Jesus is not telling us a parable to condemn us or to shame us but to invite us to change our ways of living so that we can be more consistently in that last group.
Wherever each of us finds themselves right now, Jesus is gently inviting us to do better, to improve the soil of our hearts – for want of better words – to deepen our commitment to him, and so going on to produce a plentiful harvest of good works.