The gospel texts for the last two Sundays have been parables from Matthew that have to do with waiting. The first is the parable of the ten virgins who are waiting with their lamps for the arrival of the bridegroom. The second is the parable of the harsh landowner who leaves three of his servants with money to invest in anticipation of his return. The setting for both is the coming day of the Lord, with the destruction of Jerusalem foretold as a sign of the end of the age which precedes these parables, and the dividing of the sheep from the goats in the judgement immediately following them. Taken together, this section of Matthew seems to be saying things are not as they will be. Wait as a wise person would wait. Live in keeping with these outcomes in mind. Be ready (cf. Matthew 24-25).
Those who have enough oil to keep their lamps trimmed will be wise in light of the realities of the coming age. The one who buries money in the ground out of fear rather than investing it in anticipation of the return of the master is foolish. These seem to be parables that correspond to Jesus’ saying at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about wise and foolish persons. While you wait, be wise and not foolish. Choose rock, not sand. You know the nature of what is coming. You know it will get worse before it gets better. You know that care for the prisoner, the hungry, and the naked will make you either a sheep and not a goat. Be wise as you wait. (For a great sermon on the ten virigns, check out my colleague, Natalie Magnusson’s, sermon https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=811041639472244&ref=watch_permalink).
None of this mitigates the fact that we live our Christian existence in a time of waiting. We’ve tasted what’s coming. We know who Jesus is and are confident that his being lord in relation to the kingdom of God by virtue of the resurrection will bring all death-dealing powers to an end. We have the first fruits of the Holy Spirit, God’s pledge to us that all things will one day be transformed according to the purposes of God. We live in these tangible signs of hope now, but we are still waiting. We are waiting for justice. We are waiting for our bodies to be redeemed. We are waiting for the meek to inherit the earth. We are waiting for the powerful to be brought down from their thrones. We are waiting for swords to be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and for the lion to lie down with the lamb. We are waiting on God.
And this is the crucial thing. We are waiting on God. If we trust God’s coming future, and if we have tasted that the Lord is good, then our prayer is for God to work in the world for the sake of his reputation. Hallow your name. Bring your kingdom. Make it on earth as it is in heaven.
Too often we are waiting on something else, and not God. We are waiting on election results. We are waiting for power. We wait putting our trust in princes and rulers. We are waiting on a cure. We are waiting on others to live up to our expectations. We wait for the job that will make us feel whole. We wait while building on the sand. We spend our oil waiting on the wrong things. We bury hope, like so many talents, in the ground. We wait foolishly.
I have to say, that I’m uneasy with where this line of argumentation could lead. This sounds like resignation. But elections do matter. The details and circumstances of our lives matter. Black lives matter. Isn’t Matthew just giving us permission to say “God has this, I’ll just sing praise songs about how great my God is and do what’s best for me and mine.”
Here’s our problem. We think of waiting as doing nothing, as resignation. But this is not the view from Matthew. There is nothing to be done about whether or not we will wait. It’s baked in to what it means to be human in time and space. We are all waiting for one thing or another. And we are all doing things while we wait. The question from Matthew’s gospel is, are we wise or are we foolish as we wait?
Foolish waiting would be striving after things not related to God’s promised future. Here, we fill up our waiting with anxiety about our place in the world, and so act to preserve our power or ability to control our own destinies. “You fool, who can add a single day to his life by feeding this anxiety” (Rough translation). It is a world built on fear and self-dealing, not a world built on trust and self-giving. This is neurotic waiting and it creates a world of winners and losers, of privileged and not privileged, of have’s and have-not’s.
The followers of Jesus, in contrast, seek first the kingdom of God, trusting that all else will take care of itself. Waiting in this case, is not filled with protecting your treasure out of fear and burying it in the ground. But waiting here is investing in what will endure in the age to come. It includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison, activity which makes little sense in terms of return on investment unless you believe that this in keeping with God’s promised future related to the kingdom of God. This, in the words of my friend Natalie, is the oil in our lamps that let’s us see the return of the bridegroom. This waiting is not anxious or neurotic, because we have learned not to be worried about what we will eat or wear. We have learned to be like the birds of the air and the flowers in the field. This is wise waiting because it is filled with activity related to God’s interests in the world. It is waiting in trust. It is waiting that prays, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and then it is the waiting that is busy with anticipation of the realization of that kingdom. It is the waiting that lives as if God’s promised future is real.
In my estimation, much of American Christianity, particularly among the culturally privileged, is characterized by foolish waiting. We have spent our oil in pursuits not in keeping with the outcomes of the kingdom of God, namely those related to preserving our own power and wellbeing. We have waited in fear, anxious and neurotic, airing our grievances and attacking those we perceive as threats to our way of life. And to the extent that this is true, we have missed the opportunity to find Jesus in the hungry, in the naked, in the prisoner. We might very well find that we have buried our treasure in the ground.
Wonderful article, Mark. It was both convicting to me on how I spend my “waiting time”, and also hopeful.
Heidi, so honored you read it.