Parousia -- The Coming of the Lord Part 5:  Year A, Proper 28

Judges 4:1-7; Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 123; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The prevailing conventional theme for proper 28 is judgment – retribution – payback for sin.  Because the Canaanites oppressed the Israelites, God delivered their armies into the hands of Barak.  (A truly serendipitous name for this second week in November 2008.)  But in a nice twist, Barak doesn’t get the credit.  The seductress Jael is the one who kills the Canaanite general Sisera., but we are not supposed to read the whole story.  The Elves apparently have decided a) that God’s stated intention is enough (“I will deliver him into your hands”); and b) we should not look too closely at exactly what Jael was doing under that rug with Sisera before she pounded the tent peg into his skull.  It’s retribution, all right, but maybe a bit too intense for Sunday morning (Joshua 4:8-5:31).

Likewise, Jesus’s over-the-top joke about the normalcy of civilization gets watered down by Matthew into a judgment against people who don’t have enough faith to wait for Jesus to come again.  The master leaves the first slave 30,000 silver coins.  Assuming each coin is an ounce, that’s $300,000 according to today’s New York spot price.  It’s also not a great deal of money for the 21st Century trading floor, given the billions now required to rescue global financial markets.  But in the 1st Century of the common era, the first two slaves received a fortune, and the third received what amounts to about 20 years of wages.  By this time the disciples – who had been with Jesus long enough to know what’s coming – must have been listening closely for the punch line.  Unfortunately we don’t really know what the punch line may have been.  The story certainly reflects the unjust economics of Empire, but as it stands – whether in Luke’s version or Matthew’s – the disciples must have just shrugged.  So what?  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Matthew resorts to stating the obvious, then adds insult to injury by having the master throw the slave – who was afraid to invest in the stock market on his behalf – into the utter darkness where, as the NRSV puts it, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Somehow “faith” or “belief” in Jesus acquires some means of being measured, and those who have more will get more, and those who have less will be thrown under the bus by a vengeful God.

Meanwhile, Paul says the Christ will come like a thief in the night, so we better be ready – sober, not drunk; awake, not asleep; morally pure, not caught in the night of darkness and sin like that hapless slave, who buried his faith in the backyard.

Ho Hum.  Remove the Elves’ insistence on “judgment,” and what we have here is a series of completely unrelated snippets – cherry-picking, if not proof-texting, at its worst.  Back to Crossan and Reed and the chapter on The Golden Age, or As Golden As it Gets pp. 124-177.

This week’s section of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians follows immediately last week’s explanation of what the arrival – the visitation – the parousia – of the Christ will be like.  The use of that word reminded Paul’s community in Thessalonika that Jesus, who had become the Christ, was greater than all the Emperors of Rome.  The Emperors come in war, and the people welcome the entourage into the City in victorious procession.  But the Christ will be met in the realm of spirit, and will be accompanied by the living and the dead to a transformed earth where distributive justice is established at last, and the golden age can begin.  The question is the timing.

Crossan argues that Paul was convinced this parousia – and the transformation – would happen within his lifetime, or at least within the lifetime of the people he organized into communities.  What is important to realize, however, is that the anticipation of the parousia is not passive.  The work of restoring God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion starts as soon as anyone accepts Jesus as Lord.  

Those words, “accept Jesus as Lord,” have become a litmus test for belief in a resuscitated corpse instead of a radical repudiation of the authority of the Emperor – or the President, the Prime Minister, the Bishop, the Pope, the Stock Holders, the Boss – whomever or whatever stands in the way of distributive justice.  Christianity long ago jumped the tracks, and likely within a few days of Jesus’s death.  By the time Paul began organizing communities, the inevitable tension with imperial authority had split the followers of Jesus into several sometimes feuding factions.  Some of this is reflected in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, as well as 1st Thessalonians, and in the contradictions found in Luke/Acts and the letters attributed to Paul, but not accepted as genuinely Paul’s.  

To accept Jesus as Lord means signing onto the program.  Once everyone is participating in the program – the restoration of God’s distributive justice – we have a transformed world into which to welcome the returning Christ.  But Christianity soon found itself not only side-tracked, but propelled into a virtual train wreck of exclusivity, intolerance, and deliberate ignorance of the world we live in.  Worse, is the embrace of the theology of Empire (piety war victory), and the repudiation of Covenant (non-violent, distributive justice-compassion, and peace).

The Elves have also mis-used the prophet Zephaniah’s warning about the great “day of the Lord.” The selective words go along with the sentence that Matthew’s Jesus suggests should be meted out to the slave who buried his talent and his master’s reputation.  But Zephaniah’s “judgment” is about the need for religious renewal in this world.  The prophet is calling for commitment to God’s vision of a world without violence, injustice, and oppression.  Last week’s quotation from Amos was more direct:  He asks, who wants the day of the Lord (final judgment)?  It is darkness, not light; it is ending, not salvation.  Instead of praying for the “day of the Lord,” Amos says, do justice now and live in the light of God’s favor.  

        “Paul, like Jesus before him, did not simply proclaim the imminent end of evil, injustice, and violence here below upon this earth.  They proclaimed it had already begun (first surprise!) and that believers were called to participate cooperatively with God (second surprise!!) in what was now a process in human time and not just a flash of divine light (third surprise!!!).”  Crossan, p. 176.

Even though the timing has been shown to be wrong (so far), Crossan continues, “ . . . the first and fundamental challenge they offer to Christian faith is this: Do you believe the process of making the world a just place has begun and what are you doing about joining the program?”

The real story Jesus told as he and his band camped beside the Sea of Galliee, not far from Tiberias probably went like this:

“There was a rich man who was planning an extended marketing trip to the Roman colonies in Syria.  Before he left, he turned over his business operations to three slaves.”

One of the women is cleaning fish poached from the lake and throwing them into a cauldron steaming in the fire. She pauses a moment and says, “I heard something about this from Mary’s uncle Mordecai not two hours ago.”

Jesus looks around at the company.  They have seen that look before.  “To the first he gave 30,000 silver coins . . .”

Several snickers are heard as several more fish find their way into the soup.  The woman starts shaking her head.  A child runs into the group, screaming about some outrage his brother has perpetrated.  Another woman catches him, and quiets him down to listen.

“He gave 12,000 silver coins to the second, and to the third, 6,000 silver coins.  The first slave immediately used his master’s name to buy the most lucrative farm within miles, and sure enough, when the crops were harvested he had increased his investment ten-fold.”

“Sounds like that thief Jered,” grumbles one of the men.  “Put my whole family off the land and here we are.”

“The second tripled his money by seizing all the land bordering the lake and charging the fishermen for access, and requiring that they buy back the fish they caught before selling them in the market.”

Nothing is heard now but the bubbling stew.  This is too close for joking.  They wouldn’t be throwing contraband fish into a pot liberated from someone too rich to miss it if not for the recent edict handed down by Herod Antipas.

“The third slave took his 6,000 pieces of silver and buried them in the master’s kitchen garden.”

Jesus smiles a private smile, reaches for a loaf of bread, breaks off a hunk, chews, and waits.