The month of November is a lectionary train wreck. The calendars of liturgical and secular feast days collide so that Halloween, All Saints’ Day, Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year, and lighting the first Advent candle all fall within 30 days.
This month we read the entirety of Matthew 25, but the crescendo of this “eschatological discourse”—which precedes the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection—is cut off abruptly by the start of Advent. Before we have faced Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, we are studying the signs that point us to his birth in Galilee. With no closure, we end our intense and bewildering grapple with the gospel of Matthew.
During a month in which there is an excess of consumption and charity but little focus on concrete social change, we hear a gospel reading about economic realities in first-century Palestine that is entirely relevant today: predatory investment, greed, and the accumulation of wealth. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29). Perhaps we can keep this verse and “those who have nothing” in our prayers and our actions.
Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. www.laureldykstra.com
Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
In Matthew 23:11, Jesus says to the crowd and to the disciples, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” The Greek word diakonos becomes the English word deacon. Early on, the word had special meaning in the church. Because deacons are church leaders, the word has less-than-humble connotations today, but in Greek it means servant, or waiter.
Although most North Americans do not have servants, personal secretaries, maids, housekeepers, cooks, nannies, or drivers, we are served in restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and care facilities. The buildings in which we work and shop are cleaned at night by hands we do not see and bodies pushing carts that we walk by without acknowledging.
Historically, this kind of work has been performed by slaves, poor whites, new immigrants—much of it by women. Today the service needs of North Americans are increasingly met by women from the global South, often at the expense of their own families.
Whether we serve or are served, we act like we don’t really believe what Jesus said—“that the greatest among you will be your servant.” We spiritualize and talk about the attitude of a servant, the humility and focus on others. We do not talk about backaches, chronic pain, and exposure to toxins, or two-tiered immigration programs. We do not honor those who serve by ensuring a living wage or safe working conditions. We do not believe Jesus.
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
This week’s gospel reading is a kingdom parable: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1). So what is the kingdom like? A banquet, a party that begins unexpectedly and requires the guests to be ready. The kingdom of God in the gospels, in spite of Matthew’s use of the word “heaven,” refers both to the present—the kingdom right now—and to the future. Matthew 25 is focused on end times, and unlike the kingdom parables of Matthew 13, which we read in July, this parable begins in the future tense: “the kingdom of heaven will be ….”
Another urgent call to be ready appears in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, next week’s epistle. “The day of the Lord” is described as coming like labor pains—urgent, joyful, inescapable, and dangerous. In the gospel reading for the end of this month, the writer urges us to keep awake, for “you don’t know when the master of the house” will return (Mark 13:33-37). This repeated call to stay awake gave rise to a tradition in the early church of the night office. Christians would awake to pray in what became matins or vigils in the monastic tradition.
My neighborhood has a night shift—mostly women who never see a dentist or social worker, and who eat at a soup kitchen because they are just waking up as most service providers are locking up. They are awake when many of us are asleep, and in the night they pray, too, for the children who have been taken from them, for loved ones who have died, and that they will survive another night.
Go to Where?
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
The gospel of Matthew contains a strong emphasis on judgment and punishment. This week we hear, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30). The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears six times in Matthew, and three times it is paired with “outer darkness” as the place where those who are punished are cast. In next week’s gospel reading, there is “eternal fire prepared for the devil” (Matthew 25:41) and “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). Elsewhere in Matthew we find the word gehenna, from the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where garbage—including the bodies of animals and some criminals—was burned. Depending on how you count them, this gospel contains a little more than half the New Testament references to hell.
It is important to know that judgment and punishment are not such a focus in the other gospels, but it is also important to ask who is punished and why. In Matthew, those who are judged are those who fail to do justice, who rely on position and power to save them, and neglect or exploit the marginalized and vulnerable. Although there is certainly an end-times aspect to the stories of judgment, there is also a practical emphasis on throwing out that which does not have a place in God’s reign of justice. In a world that treats some people as disposable, where old men sleep in cardboard boxes and orphans scavenge on landfills, the notion of gehenna raises the question of who and what really is garbage.
When Did We See You?
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
In 1992, after a four-day walk of repentance for war and colonization, my friend Brian Watson painted a vivid color banner of a black-and-white newspaper illustration by Rita Corbin titled “Works of Mercy/Works of War.” The words “visit the sick and imprisoned, feed the hungry, clothe the naked” have been on the walls of my home since.
I think this gospel reading is one of the most important biblical passages about how Christians are to live, but reading it this time I was struck not by the call to action and deed, but by how both the righteous and the accursed are equally bewildered by the words of Jesus. “When,” they ask, “did we see you hungry, thirsty, as a stranger, naked, sick, or imprisoned?”
God and Jesus are not mystery shoppers come to test us. Poverty, violence, and injustice so pervade our world that even the saints among us sometimes avert their eyes, pass by on the other side, and fail to respond to the suffering around us. “When did we see you?”
I am touched by this passage as a critique of certainty and by the idea that, righteous or unrighteous, we do not recognize our encounters with God.
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
In the Northern Hemisphere it is the time of long nights, when the church begins its new year with a season of waiting. Advent is a stark and honest season. Christians anticipate Jesus coming both “in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26) and as an infant to Mary and Joseph. Yet this week we begin our journey with Mark, a gospel that has no birth stories.
The Hebrew Bible readings blatantly accuse God of anger, absence, and alienation. “[F]or you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (Isaiah 64:7). “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure” (Psalm 80:4-5).
Despite green boughs and candles in the darkened church, Advent is not a pretty season. It is a powerful statement of challenge and resistance for Christians during the frenzy of consumption that has been made of our holy days to admit that we are angry with God—but also that we long for God. “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down …” (Isaiah 64:1). Holding fast to these truths, we begin the New Year.
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net.