Preaching in these strange times on parables and events in the gospel of Matthew focused on the extraordinary of God, particularly in relation to discipleship, challenges both preacher and the worshiping community.
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt daily rhythms, work and school and leisure, as it continues to spread a deep sense of uncertainty, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual, as it tests and unsettles deeply held assumptions and values, revealing often shallowness or inadequacy, preachers are called to turn hearts, minds, bodies to a unique joy—the joy of the master (Matthew 25:14-30, Ordinary 32A [11/15/2020])—that transforms all life into a new dynamic.
The way of gospel joy is unexpected. It does not immediately grant admission to a paradisiacal or fairytale land but passes through suffering and death. Gospel joy confronts suffering, turmoil, and death not with explanations and attempts at meaning-making (for example, “God wanted you learn something through it”) or, even worse, conspiracy theories (for example, “it was sent by satanic forces”) but with truth. Gospel joy steps into the reality of life and death with perseverance, knowing that suffering and death do not have the last word.
The readings from the Gospel of Matthew highlight this perseverance, not as an effort of the human will but as gift. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) brings into focus several themes that help us understand these readings in Matthew. They can guide preaching especially during these next months of uncertainty and anxiety.
What is initially striking in this parable is the superabundance of gifts. The table, so to speak, is overflowing. A talent is a vast sum of money. It is generously distributed to the servants though in different amounts. The master entrusts his wealth to his servants. But not only is he trusting them with his wealth, he does so over a longer period of time. In a culture, which places so much value on things happening immediately, even instantaneously, people have become unaccustomed to waiting. Yet, here another gift is the gift of time, a “long time,” allowing the servants to live faithfully in this superabundance. The gift of time reorients a community’s perspective. Patience and vigilance characterize the community of faith.
The servants in the parable of the talents already participate (or are invited to participate), in a yet incomplete fashion, in the life of their master. This is true for them in the midst of many challenges. Contextually, the Matthean community is dealing with several issues—rupture from the synagogue, a delayed parousia (delayed or unfulfilled expectations), and a diminished and weakened vigilance. In the midst of this anxious situation, Matthew redirects attention to the dynamics of faith sustaining the community.
The community enters the joy of their master first and foremost perhaps through the gift of forgiveness and the way in which forgiveness shapes the community (Matthew 18, Ordinary 23A [9/6/2020] and Ordinary 24A [9/13/2020]). Forgiveness is the break-through to community (Bonhoeffer). It frees individuals from isolation, from self-obsession, whether that obsession be concerned with one’s personal “rights” in a time of pandemic or a simple materialistic obsession that separates people from each other. Forgiveness is the fabric of the faith community. It too is patient and vigilant. It is not naïve and it does not avoid judgment but now, under the lens of forgiveness, judgment serves restoration and reconciliation, bringing the neighbor back into the joy of the gospel community.
God’s generosity is immense (Matthew 20, Ordinary 25A [9/20/2020]). It is given to all and the joy it creates pours forth in both obedience and commitment. These fruits of faith surface in surprising and unexpected places. The son who initially refused to obey is the one who goes out and works in the field (Matthew 21, Ordinary 26A [9/27/2020]).
With faith comes discernment, distinguishing what is of God and what is of human invention (Matthew 22:15-22, Ordinary 29A [10/18/2020]). This realism is critical in dealing with values and moral codes that a society sanctions as “god-given” when, in fact, they may be merely societal or cultural inventions. The world will oppose this way of faith.
It will oppose Christ, (Matthew 21, Ordinary 27A [10/4/2020]) and Christ’s disciples. Yet, the readings from Matthew’s Gospel clearly mark this gospel way as a way lived, not in a segregated community, not removed or isolated from the world, but in the midst of the world and its plagues, pandemics, politics, and crises.
This way, as already mentioned, is characterized by forgiveness, a forgiveness embodied in the community as reconciliation. This way follows a simple gospel law: love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19 and Matthew 15, Ordinary 30A [10/25/2020]; see also Romans 13, Ordinary 23A [9/6/2020]).
This way is blessed (Matthew 5) on All Saints Day (November 1, 2020). We are once again reminded, at the end of this year 2020, which has been long and devastating, of the extraordinary way of the Gospel that has shaped preaching since the season of Epiphany.
God continually invites the faith community into the joy and blessing of God’s reign, a reign that does not look like any power this world offers but identifies with those who are the poorest, with those imprisoned, with those who are homeless and hungry (November Matthew 25, Ordinary 32A [11/8/2020], Ordinary 33A [11/15/2020] and Christ the King/Reign of Christ [11/22/2020]).
Living the extraordinary of the gospel is done unseen, in the midst of the world and its tensions, filled with a joy, a fullness only God can give. Preachers are continually inviting the community into this joy and responsibility.
Dirk G. Lange’s six-part Working Preacher series, “Themes in Year A,” highlighted liturgical and sacramental realities that flow through the texts and inform worship and sermon preparation.