During Advent, in each year of the three-year cycle, the theme of the first week looks to the end times—the eschaton—with an emphasis on the second coming of Jesus and the need to be ready. In the early church, there was an expectation that Jesus would return quickly. In their post-Easter faith, believers knew that Jesus had been taken up to heaven at the ascension (a man travelling abroad, as mentioned in this gospel?) and that he was remaining with God until the time came for him to return in triumph. For Mark, it is now the church that waits and must remain always ready to greet the master on his return. The ‘waiting’ theme of Advent is established: we await the birth of the child and we await the fulfilment of human history at the end times when Jesus comes again.
Over the last few weeks, the gospel texts have dealt with issues of being prepared, staying ready, and using our gifts well. In some ways, all these themes culminate in today’s text. This gospel presents us with the bottom line! Are we judged worthy of a place in the kingdom? The criteria for being judged worthy are very clear—it is how we have served those most in need. This is what will count. If we do not see Christ in our brothers and sisters in need, then our faith is blind and will not lead to the kingdom. There is another aspect of this gospel that should not be overlooked. It is the apocalyptic vision of the Son of Man coming in glory and reigning over all the nations as King. To the King belongs the right of judgement and reward or punishment. While Matthew’s community was in the ‘in-between’ time, the evangelist held before them the central truth that the Son of Man, the King, will come again in his glory as judge.
In this week’s gospel, Matthew develops the theme of what it means to be living in the in-between time. The Master has given the servants ‘talents’ and on his return they will be judged according to how they have used those talents and whether they have followed his instructions. A talent was a standard measure of currency in the Near East, and a very large sum indeed. In fact, each servant has been given a treasure. Two perform well, but the third is paralysed by the fear of taking a risk and hides his talent away. His excuse is that he knew his master was an exacting man and so he refused even to try. He condemns himself by not responding to the demands of the master. This gospel challenges us to drop our false notion of God as an exacting master, to appreciate the gifts we have been given, and to use and develop them for our good and the good of others.
As the public ministry of Jesus draws to a close, Matthew introduces the themes of delay and the need to be ready for the second coming of Christ. Matthew’s community were living in the ‘in-between’ times. Christ’s victory over death through his resurrection had begun a new phase in history, but it was not yet complete. Completion would only come with his return in glory. We again hear the familiar imagery of the messianic banquet or wedding feast to which all are invited. But only those who live with an attitude of openness, expectation and readiness will be welcomed into the great hall. This parable speaks strongly of the need to live in the present with an eye to the future. We cannot live only for the ‘now’ with no thought for our ultimate goal, nor can we ignore the sufferings and responsibilities of the present and set our hearts only on heaven.
This great celebration of All Saints has a rich and beautiful tradition within the Church. It honours those who have died, it serves to remind us that we are part of the wider communion of God’s holy people, and it affirms our faith in God’s loving fidelity to life. There’s no doubt about the importance of Jesus’ Beatitudes as far as Matthew is concerned. It is the overture to the first of the five discourses that he gives to Jesus in memory of the five books of the Torah. The Beatitudes are steeped in the tradition that Jesus absorbed from his family and townsfolk as he grew up. At the same time they open out on to a new future. Past wisdom and future promise combine in these paradoxical sayings whose meaning we can never exhaust.
This is the final public encounter between Jesus and his enemies in Matthew’s Gospel. They are seeking to expose his lack of professional knowledge of the Scriptures or to trap him into giving more weight to one of the Ten Commandments, which are viewed as equally important. Jesus cuts the ground from under them. No one could argue with his answer! But if the dual command of love was present in the Jewish Law, what new thing did Jesus bring? His originality places love of God and love of neighbour together. It is not possible to love God and despise people. God and the human situation are intimately interwoven. This is shown most perfectly in the person of Jesus himself: Son of Man and Son of God; fully human and fully divine. Followers of Jesus must also embody the dual commandment of love. Do you find it easier to love God or love other people? Are there ways you can make your response to the great commandment more balanced?
This was an interesting question posed to Jesus. Given the political and religious structures of the society in which he lived, this was a no-win situation! Jews were required to pay a denarius (a day’s wage) to the Roman overlords and were also required to pay a half-shekel (a standard silver coin) tax towards the running of the temple. If Jesus had answered ‘yes’, he could have been accused of betraying his religious duty. If he had answered ‘no’, he could have been reported to the Roman authorities for inciting others not to pay their taxes. This was a trick indeed. Jesus’ answer makes clear that there are obligations to the state for any citizen but also makes clear that there are obligations to God. The coin bears Caesar’s image and therefore belongs to him, but the whole of creation bears the imprint of God. The first loyalty of all created things is therefore to God.
This is the third in the series of parables Jesus tells in the tense atmosphere of his final days in Jerusalem. Opposition to him has gathered momentum. Rejection and condemnation lie ahead. The lines of battle have been drawn. All this is reflected in the accusing tone of the parables. Judgement is being passed on those who had the responsibility to listen and to lead. The gist of the parable is obvious enough. The ‘chief priest and elders of the people’ to whom all three parables are addressed are those accused of refusing to accept the king’s invitation. The guests who fill the wedding hall are the despised nobodies who are not righteous observers of the Law. Like its predecessors, this parable has continued to sound a warning to self-righteous leaders in every age. The behaviour of the king is modelled on the ruthless tyrants of the ancient world’ this makes it difficult to simply equate the king with God. The final section is also puzzling. On the face of it, the guest without the wedding garment is harshly treated. Presumably, this served as a warning for community members not to become complacent.
A form of the parable of the wicked tenants is found in each of the synoptic gospels. It may be that the original story has been lost because by the time it found its way in to the gospel tradition it had been “allegorised”. Simply put, an allegory is a story in which different elements are identified as having a specific meaning. This contrasts with the most authentic parables where it is an unexpected ending that discloses meaning and generates insight. In today’s version of the parable it is clear that we are intended to see the landowner as God, the vineyard as Israel, the servants as prophets, the tenants as the Jewish authorities, and the son as Jesus. It is crucial to remember where in the gospel narrative this story appears. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem for the last time, and the conflict between him and the religious leaders has become intense and irreversible. We must also be mindful of the role this story plays in later years as the Christina and Jewish communities begin to part company and see themselves as rivals.
A great deal has happened since last week’s gospel reading. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. He has entered the city (Matt. 21:1-11) and has taken possession of the temple driving out those who corrupt his Father’s house (Matt. 21:12-17). The crisis point of Jesus’ ministry has arrived and he will enter into conflict with the established religious authorities. The point of this text is that it is not the ‘conventionally’ religious’ – those who mouth all the right words and go through the rituals – who will enter the kingdom. Instead, it is the ones, who, by their actions, carry out God’s will and become the sons and daughters of God. John the Baptist, like Jesus himself, not only preached righteousness, he lived it. Jesus describes him as ‘a pattern of true righteousness’ (Matt. 21:32), and it was the broken people, the tax collectors, and prostitutes, who accepted what he had to bring. They believe in him repented and experienced a change of heart and life.