Monday, September 18, 2006

Two Ways of the Kingdom of Heaven

Lately I've switched my devotional time to a straight-through reading of the Bible. I alternate Old and New Testament, but pretty much I'm just reading straight through, one or two chapters at a time. I augment it with Spurgeon's "Morning and Evening", but sometimes theres's no substitute for just plain reading the Word.

Today brought me to Matthew 25, and maybe lately I've been reading too many blogs, because my first thought while reading through the parable of the ten virgins was that in today's politically correct climate, this wouldn't fly. The prudent virgins would be roundly criticized for being unwilling to share their oil with the foolish virgins. We must have equality of results, even if that results in equal failure for all. Yet Jesus utters not a word against the prudent virgins. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: the Kingdom of Heaven rewards prudence and lets the foolishness of the imprudent fall on their heads.

Then we come to the parable of the talents, with an ending sure to make the politically correct scream in rage: we take away from the servant with the least resources what little resources he has, give it to the servant with the most, and throw the poor servant out the door. The cries of "Oppression!" and "Favoring the Rich!" ring in my ears. The poor guy probably had mental problems: he had a twisted view of the master's character and a horrendous fear of failure. To be fair, the master accepts those problems, but points out that even under those conditions, there was an alternative: handling it over to the bankers who would produce a modest gaim with little risk. His weaknesses are accepted, but aren't allowed to be an excuse for doing absolutely nothing. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: the Kingdom of Heaven rewards responsibility and punishes irresponsibility.

At this point, I can hear the applause rising among the conservative crowd, with assorted rumblings about "character", "responsibility" and "discipline". And that's ok.

And yet....

And yet....

The next thing we come to, in the same stream of thought, are the theme verses of the Social Gospel crowd, the judgement of the sheep and the goats. A place in the Kingdom requires reaching out and ministering to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.

Somehow, in our modern world, we at times make these two things opposites, contradictions even. The merest whisp of a suggestion that some of the poor and needy may have gotten that way due to imprudence or irresponsibility elicits rage and condemnation from some people. The assumption that all of the poor and needy got that way due to imprudence and irresponsibility is used as an excuse by others to avoid ministering to them. But neither of these are right. For Jesus, these two sides of the Kingdom are one. There is a place in the Kingdom to say "no" to fools who want us to save them from their imprudence. There is even a place to punish the irresponsible. But there appears to be no place for those who never help the truly needy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oloryn, I confess I have never sought to understand the parables in Matthew 25 in connection with one another. I'm sure there are good, alleged "hermeneutical principles" for NOT interpreting them in the context of other parables, but, oh well . . .

What if we understand the oil of the wise virgins, the wise investment of the talents, and the loving deeds of the sheep . . .

to be variations of the same thing?

I would start with the crescendo, the climax of chapter 25, and suggest that the oil and the talents are versions of the concrete, loving deeds done by the sheep.

(Admittedly, I have weighted the conclusion in the direction of the values embedded in "The Sheep and the Goats," but I believe this is justified by the fact that the last parable is heavily illustrated with concrete examples, whereas oil in lamps and invested talents are a tad more on the ill-defined symbolic side.)

By this understanding, the burning oil would be the light shed by the Wise Virgins' concrete, loving deeds. In a sense, it would be impossible for the wise to share this oil with the foolish, since the doing of the concrete, loving deeds cannot really be shared. You either did the light-shedding deeds or you did not.

Good deeds = light: "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)

Using your talents--where? In the lives of people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and in prison. Thus, your OWN life is multiplied in the lives you touch.

Thus, Jesus says to the ALL the virgins, ALL those with talents, and ALL the sheep and goats the same thing he said to the 7 churches of Asia minor, "I know your deeds. . ."

[BTW: The Bible's testimony on our treatment of the poor usually falls in favor of the poor. "He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker." (Proverbs 17:5)]