The Hidden Humor of Mark’s Gospel

Standard

Happy Low Easter everybody!  Our Low Easter Celebration began low but ended fairly high which I badly needed.  I hope yours went fantastic as well.

As promised, here is the follow up to my post from last week about Mark’s gospel.  I continue to have amazing discussions with those who watched my performance and were inspired.  I hope to do it again some day.

In those conversations I have remarked several times how much fun Mark was to memorize and perform.  Mark is full of intense action verbs that lend themselves to sweeping arm gestures.  More than that, Mark is funny.  It is a hilarious book.  While I cannot now discuss that humor in depth, here are 11 or so of my favorite bits of humor from the book:

I do add one caveat.  I am not entirely sure all of these were meant to be funny or even were funny in the 1st century.  But all of them are funny to my 21st century ears.

  1. A Demon in a Synagogue? (Chapter 1):  This first one isn’t laugh out loud funny but it is a wonderful bit of irony that kicks off Jesus’ ministry.  With all the emphasis in 1st century Judaism about purity and keeping things holy, especially on the Sabbath, its pretty funny that a demon somehow still sneaked into synagogue.  Lepers weren’t even allowed in but somehow a demon got through.  But I can’t judge.  Some of the churches I’ve been to have had their fair share of demons too!
  2. Simon.  .  .the Zealot? (Chapter 4):  I have heard some great sermons on Jesus’ 12 apostles as they are listed in the gospels.  Mark wins for most creative and ironic listing.  First, Jesus renames Simon, giving him the name “rock” or as I like to say, “Rockface!”  Then the sons of Zebedee are given a name in an obscure dialectic which Mark translates, “Sons of Thunder!”  You can hear that in a guttural sports announcer voice.  But he saves the best for second to last.  Simon the Zealot, which is a nice way of saying “terrorist.”  Yep Simon the violent terrorist.  Is this a group of responsible, well dressed clergy members or Robin Hood’s band of merry men, or worse, Peter Pan’s group of lost boys?  “You’re ROCKFACE!  You two are Thundersons!  And you are an evil zealot who wants to cause terror wherever you go?  Well we may as well take you!”
  3. Who Cares about Pigs? (Chapter 5):  This is probably the best told story in Mark’s gospel.  The entire narrative is dripping with humor and irony which leads up to the devastatingly sad ending.  First off, this guy is possessed by a legion of demons which are giving him both super strength and super crazy.  Second, the demons ask to go into pigs and Jesus lets them!  Third, pigs are unclean food and if you farmed them and made money off of them you were highly suspect.  Your vocation was right down there with prostitute.  All of these realities make this story so funny on many levels.  But the ending is heart breaking.  The people are terrified of Jesus’ power, and mad about losing their 2,000 pigs.  So they beg him to leave.
  4. “He couldn’t do any miracles.  .  .except to lay hands on a few sick people and cure them!” (Chapter 6:5):  I love that little line from the narrative about Jesus’ hometown.  Angry though Jesus was, of course he went ahead and healed a few people.  He wasn’t completely heartless!  I’ve had those days where I am so angry I can’t do anything, except give my waiter a big tip, giggle with my children, clean the house for my wife and have a pleasant conversation with a stranger on the side of the road.  But I am still ANGRY!  This line is even funnier since it is followed by a very snide retort, “And HE was amazed at THEIR lack of faith!”
  5. “When Herod heard John the Baptist talk he was greatly perplexed.  .  .but he still enjoyed listening to him!” (Chapter 6:20):  This probably ranks as my favorite.  My two year annual review was a month ago and my board said something almost identical to my DS about my sermons.  “We have no idea what he is talking but man, those sermons are fun!”
  6. The Pharisees wash their cup furniture! (Chapter 7): In the entire prologue to Jesus’ instruction about “clean and unclean” Mark is heartlessly sarcastic.  The Pharisees are portrayed as absolute morons and this culminates in that line above.  Some translations say “kettles” but a few early editions of Mark replaced it with “cup furniture.”  For the record I observe those traditions too.  It’s called a dishwasher!
  7. Even the dogs under the table get the children’s crumbs. (Chapter 7:28):  This is a weird passage and has been interpreted various ways.  Jesus’ sing song rebuke to the Greek woman is almost cruel, since she is on her knees begging him to heal her daughter.  But this very well may have been a popular song that the Jewish people sung as a taunt against Greeks.  Jesus’ motives are anybody’s guess but regardless, the woman’s reply is incredibly witty and profound.  You can almost hear Jesus laughing as he says, “For such a reply you may go!  The demon’s left your daughter!”
  8. Peter didn’t know what to say at the transfiguration.  He was so frightened! (Chapter 9):  Again I can relate.  The best thing, of course, is to say nothing at all because fear and talking don’t go well together.
  9. Shoving a camel through the eye of a needle (Chapter 10):  Jesus loved exaggeration and this is a very funny one.  I just love picturing it in my head.  Before you all start talking about rock arches and gates named “Needle” that was a completely unfounded myth.  Jesus really meant a sewing needle.
  10. Jesus curses a fig tree.  .  .and his disciples heard him say it! (Chapter 11): We have all thrown temper tantrums in public and so can relate.  It is even funnier when the next day Jesus uses it as an object lesson about prayer.  “Remember that one time I sassed a fig tree?  Well you should pray more!”
  11. Which is the greatest commandment? (Chapter 12):  This is like asking someone with a PhD in Mathematics, “What is 2+2?  I bet you’ll never guess!”  Every single Jewish person living during that day knew what the greatest commandment was.  All day the authorities pestered Jesus about widows and brothers, paying taxes and proof of authority.  The fact that they are now resorting to such easy questions shows how completely lost they all were to find anything wrong with Jesus or his teaching.  Mark adds to the irony by telling us that after Jesus hit the easy ball, “nobody dared ask him any more questions.”

Performing the Scriptures: Mark’s Gospel

Standard

A couple years ago, when last the lectionary was in Mark I stumbled upon some Youtube videos of people doing dramatic performances of Mark’s gospel in its entirety.  At the time, I thought, “This is something I could do” and put it on the back burner of my brain until January 1st of this year when I decided to go ahead and memorize Mark and perform it dramatically for Tenebrae Friday.

I went about the arduous task of memorizing Mark passage by passage.  As I did I came clever audience interaction bits and props.  As I memorized it out loud I rehearsed various ways of saying every single sentence.  Some I tried sad and then happy and then sarcastic to see which I felt worked best and also conveyed the tone that I thought Mark used.

The performance was last Friday night and, though I am relieved to be done with Mark’s gospel, I am also grateful for the amount of wisdom and knowledge I gained over the last several months.  So it is my pleasure here to share with you some of those insights I have learned during this journey:

  1. I am more convinced than ever that Mark’s gospel was meant to be spoken and performed, not read.  The high amount of intense action verbs make this obvious.  The heavens do not open.  They are TORN open.  People do not kneel.  They fall down at his feet.  Nobody “asks” anything, (well, except the boring bad guys).  Instead, they plead or beg.  These verbs lend themselves to broad hand and arm gestures and overly dramatic facial expressions, making this a very fun gospel to read out loud.  You can almost imagine an elderly Peter performing this for a younger Mark and then a young Mark in turn performing it for his younger disciples.
  2. Sarcasm and irony permeate this text.  I am going to write a follow up post in the next day or two about my favorite bits of humor in Mark but moments of irony carry the gospel along.  The scene with the legion of demons and the large herd of pigs is hilarious, making its sad ending very poignant.  Jesus’ use of the prophet Isaiah and the commands of Moses to insult the Pharisees and teachers of the law is brilliant and funny.  And who can forget Jesus getting mad at a fig tree when it didn’t have figs in the middle of Spring!  I will talk more about the humor later but it sure made Mark fun to memorize and perform.
  3. Mark’s over-use of the word “immediately” is not what a lot of people try to make of it.  The word “immediately” appears over 15 times in Mark, more than one a chapter.  Other “hurry” words like “just then,” “as soon as,” “at once” and the like appear just as often.  Therefore, some argue that Jesus in Mark is in a hurry and doesn’t slow down.  I don’t think that is true.  The word “immediately” very rarely describes Jesus.  Instead it comes up most often during miracles.  When Jesus speaks immediately the leprosy leaves, the bleeding stops and the demon flees.  The word doesn’t convey a Jesus in a hurry.  It conveys the darkness and evil of our world in a hurry to get of Jesus’ way.
  4. Right around chapter 7 the entire tone of the gospel changes.  Somewhere in chapter 7, the hurry words disappear.  The strong action verbs get a little bit weaker.  The humor fades.  Chapters 8-10 were the hardest to memorize because they weren’t as dramatic or fun.  But these are the chapters which focus heavily on the demand for followers of Jesus to live humble and sacrificial lives.  It is as if Mark used the humor, intensity and hurry to get your attention but once he had it, he slowed things way down so that you could really hear the core message of the book which is.  .  .
  5. HUMILITY.  This guy Jesus has all the power in the world but doesn’t want people to talk about it.  The person Mark labels in the very first verse as the “Son of God” comes from middle of nowhere Nazareth and hangs out in forgotten Galilee for 2/3rds of the Gospel.  He then hurries back out to Galilee right after the Resurrection.  This popular teacher spends his time running away from crowds and hiding in houses.  He demands both demons and those healed to keep their mouths shut about him and in chapter 9 he is transfigured and then immediately tells the eyewitnesses not to go blabbing.  In chapter 8, right around the time the tone changes, he begins to teach that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected.  Then he starts talking about how he didn’t come to be served but to serve.  He begins teaching his disciples to do the same thing.  The first will be last.  The one who wants to be great will be the slave of all.  Those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven must do so with one eye, one hand, one foot and with the posture of a little child.  Then the rich man goes away sad because he has great wealth.  But blind Bartimaus is filled with joy because he just wanted to see.  And in the parable of the sower some receive the word but because of the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things, the word is choked and they are unfruitful.  Mark has much to teach us about the path of salvation and he illustrates it to us as the path of sacrificial humility.  This climaxes at the Resurrection scene.  Many commentators have pointed out that it is a young man dressed in white who gets to proclaim the resurrection news in the empty tomb.  There was another young man in white you fled naked and in shame at the arrest.  It is quite probable that Mark did this on purpose to illustrate that those of us who humble ourselves completely, leaving everything, even our clothes, in order to follow Jesus will receive so much more from God!

Oh that we would learn that lesson and learn it well and join Bartimaus and the young man in white on the road to the cross and then to the empty tomb!

Resurrection Sunday Reflection: Going Back to Galilee!

Standard

Well, I made it.  We made it!  It is now Easter again.  Such a remarkable day, yet an exhausting one for a pastor.  It began around 5am this morning, as Easter’s usually do for me.  The Lord blessed me with a full bladder right around the time I had to get out of bed which I wish would happen every day–He is risen indeed!

And after a day of much glorious celebrating and feasting and festivities here I sit pondering Jesus’ first words post-tomb.  Maybe for the first time in my life, I am reading the Resurrection story in Matthew 28 and realizing how remarkable it is that angels tell the good news but Jesus has something different in mind.  “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matt. 28:10)

Wait, what?  I mean, I like the “don’t be afraid” part.  That’ll always preach.  But the next part isn’t very inspiring.  It isn’t very eye catching.  It isn’t very thrilling.  “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee?”  Jesus, shouldn’t we at least first talk about how you are still alive?  Shouldn’t you tell us what it all means?  Shouldn’t we do some theology?  Shouldn’t we at least sing some songs about forgiveness, grace, mercy and the like?  Shouldn’t you tell us what God the Father is doing/thinking/wanting?  In fact, shouldn’t we talk about anything other than Galilee?

We sang around 6 songs about Jesus’ Resurrection this morning.  By the end of the Easter liturgical season we will have exhausted many more.  All of them are more melodic and poetic than, “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee!”  Kindergartners write better poetry than that!

But for those of you who do not know, Galilee held a pretty unique spot in the Roman Empire.  Don’t let my word choice of “unique” trick you.  Unique here does not mean special and it certainly does not mean glorious.  Instead it means weird.  Galilee was a weird place for so many reasons.  They were like the Puerto Rico of Rome.  They were totally a part of the country but everybody kind of forgot they existed.  (No offense to the Puerto Ricans.  In fact you have my humble apologies!)

Beyond that, Galilee had its own government, kind of.  In fact, their kings were kind of a drag.  The citizens were too.  They were farmers and fishermen and shepherds.  They didn’t have the temple, or really many great buildings at all.  They were Jewish but not always faithful ones.  They were also Romans but not always loyal ones.  They were simple, slightly uneducated and, as I all ready said, mostly forgotten.

Yet Galilee is where Jesus lived.  Galilee is where he ministered.  Galilee is where he made his namesake and Galilee is where he began the revolution of love against sin and evil.  And Galilee was where he apparently couldn’t wait to get to after defeating death and all that.

That’s right, Galilee.

That might be the most awkward part of any Easter liturgy:

He is risen!

He is risen INDEED!

He is going to Galilee!

He is going to.  .  .wait.  .  .Galilee?   Um, indeed.   .  .Galilee indeed?

Yet where else would he go?  In fact, what better place to go?  He is not just risen.  He is risen and going back to Galilee.  He is risen and going back to the forgotten, poor, rural communities.  He is risen and journeying back to those who are marginalized, weak and foolish.  He is risen and you will find him where you were always able to find him, in Galilee.

So as I sit here after a full and wonderful but exhausting day and wonder where this Easter might take me or might take you, I find myself hoping that the resurrection of the Lord will find us in the Galilee’s!

Happy Easter!  He is risen (and in Galilee) indeed!

Saturday Vigil Reflection: The Lamb Before Its Shearers Is Silent

Standard

I never know what to feel on Holy Saturday.  The liturgical Holy Week is brilliantly designed to take us through the emotions of Jesus’ last week.  Palm Sunday lifts our spirits.  Jesus’ teachings on Monday through Wednesday confuse and frustrate us.  The foot washing and Eucharist of Maundy Thursday comfort us.  The cross on Friday saddens us.

But then what?  What is Saturday supposed to do to us?  I have no idea.

My home church growing up did an Easter egg hunt on Saturday before Easter.  I protested one year, claiming it was wildly out of place and such festivities should wait for Sunday.  My pastor rebutted that it was strangely fitting.  When else should we have an Easter egg hunt?  The Saturday after Good Friday represents life returning to normal after a rather disappointing and absurd Friday.  Easter egg hunts, with their complete lack of any sort of sacramental backing, show the absurdity of it all in ways nothing else can.  I don’t know if he really believed this, or if he was trying to keep the peace with people who were not as liturgically minded as us and so came up with a clever logical argument to justify their silliness.

But his argument resonated with me and still does today.  What else should we do on this Holy Saturday?  Hunting eggs with chocolate in them seems almost as absurd as the fact that yesterday we just killed God so why not.  .  .

And today, a decade later I am getting a haircut and cleaning my house.  What other ways are there to commemorate this day of silence?

Speaking (or writing) of this day of silence, after a week spent studying Jesus’ final teachings, it is worth noting that right before his death he was silent as well.  Matthew 26:53 reads, “But Jesus remained silent.”  He did so again before Pilate.  Now Jesus was not exactly silent.  He did speak a few words but his silence was a response to the accusations.  He gave no defense.  He called no witnesses.  He sat there and took their accusations.  He rested his case before even offering one.  He remained silent and gave no answer.

This is quite profound.  On Palm Sunday he was called, “prophet.”  He spent the week teaching in the temple courts.  Particularly in Matthew, Jesus never was lacking for words to say.  But now he has nothing left to say, no logical argument to make, no defense.  Just silence.

There are different arguments for why he remained silent.  The most shallow argues that he was just fulfilling prophecy and nothing else.  The most elaborate has to do with legal rules and precedents.  Everything you say and do can and will be used against you after all.

However, I think he was silent because of the absurdity of it all.  What else can you say when you are the adult in a room full of angry children?  To speak is to play by their rules and to stoop to their level.  They will always beat you there.  At least by remaining silent in the midst of their childishness, Jesus remained adult.  At least thousands of years later we can say, “See how mature he was.  See how resolute in the face of absurdity!”

And like the centurion, we can look at the silent dignity he portrayed while being crucified and say, “Surely he was the son of God.”

So here on this silent Saturday may we recover in ourselves some of the dignity that Jesus portrayed.  In the face of the ridiculousness of Good Friday, may we be silently dignified as we go through the motions of yet one more Sabbath day.  Tomorrow, like the women, we will put ourselves together and bring spices to the tomb to finish off what the authorities started.  The linens themselves are signs of dignity in the face of absurdity.  It was as if the women were saying to each other, “They killed him for no reason but at least we can adorn him for the sake of respect.”

But before we join them there, let us lift our heads, hunt silly eggs, get haircuts, clean our house and rest a bit while we wait to see if hope just might break through again tomorrow.  .  .

Tenebrae Friday Reflection: The Crowd With Their Clubs and Us With Our Swords

Standard

As I sit writing the sky is blue outside my window.  There are some puffy clouds dotting the horizon which accent the beauty of a nice, Spring day.  That is if you are inside looking out.  Outside is a whole other story.  It is 20 degrees cooler than it was yesterday.  A strong wind gusted throughout the afternoon bringing with it a cold front which returned the chill to the air.  The trees are still waving, showing the last vestiges of a cold, bitter wind.

So too this bright Spring day is also tainted by the darkness of what we ironically, but appropriately call “Good Friday.”  It is a day commemorating the capture of the one who was good.  This good one was arrested.  He was tried.  He was beaten.  He was stripped naked.  He was crucified.

The climax of all this begins in a garden.  Many have portrayed this scene in movies, depicting it as chaotic with a quiet Jesus standing in the middle of it all.  His disciples are fleeing.  One leaves behind his only garment, running away naked.  The crowds are clamoring to arrest whoever they can.  Judas is counting his coins.  Another of Jesus’ disciples draws a sword and starts slashing about.  Jesus remains calm and resolute.

The only words he gives, the only teaching he offers is a question with two sentences.  The sentence and first question read:  “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs to arrest me?  Every day I was with you teaching in the temple courts, yet you did not arrest me.” (Matthew 26:55)

All it is is one question and one statement and yet again Jesus is fairly incriminating.  With that question and that statement he has again revealed the goats for who they are.  They are cowardly.  They are fickle.  They are trite.  In fact, they are quite ridiculous.  That they came at night to a secluded spot and that they are just hired men, not the authorities themselves, merely sent by the authorities, shows everything about them is absurd.  Swords and clubs??  Really??  For what rebellion?  And if Jesus’ teachings were that dangerous, why not arrest him on the spot instead of letting his harm continue?

This is all quite dumb and Jesus knows it and bluntly says it.

So too, as I have been writing all week, the cross of Christ reveals our absurdity.  We are dumb.  We change our minds at a moment’s notice.  We love God until God won’t do what we want or need.  We betray our friends.  We gossip.  We lie.  We clamor for titles and wealth that unnecessarily complicate our lives.  We worship every new product or movie that flits across our eyes.  We flock to polls to elect false Messiahs by the dozens.  We pledge our allegiance to anything and everything that is not God.  We come with swords and clubs to arrest the Prince of Peace.

Yet, there is a third sentence to Jesus’ retort.  He says, “But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.”

I hope you hear that third sentence for what it truly represents.  In so many words Jesus said, “But God’s got this!”  It isn’t about us or our evil.  It isn’t even about them and their evil.  It isn’t about what we do.  It is not about how absurd we are.  Instead, God just might use this in a way that the prophets are fulfilled.

It is about this incredible God who is able to take our pettiness, our absurdity, our fickleness and our violent nature and make something great and gorgeous and beautiful with it.  It isn’t about our shortcomings or our weaknesses or our sins.  It is about a God who says, “I see your swords and clubs and I raise you forgiveness, love and grace.”  “I see your stupidity and I raise you the wisdom of love!”  “I see your sin and I raise you sacrificial love!”

“Your swords, clubs, betrayal and denial have all taken place so that the prophets might be fulfilled.”

Then the bad Friday, the dark Friday, the cold Friday becomes the Good Friday.

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Sheep and Goats and Which One You Are Going to Be

Standard

I grew up having the cross described to me.  They started explaining it when I was two and it continued throughout my youth.  I eventually landed in a private Christian high school where we talked almost exclusively about it and then I went on to College and Seminary where I got degrees in it.

So I know a lot about this cross.  I know all about how it saves us.  It also forgives us.  It secures God’s presence for us.  It promises us an eternity of bliss.  It is both God’s love and the satisfaction of God’s wrath.

Yet it is also so much more than we will ever be able to comprehend.  There are depths to this cross which we may never reach until the New Jerusalem.

With that said, one thing we never talked about regarding this cross is that it itself is an act of judgment.

I was taught it is the exact opposite.  It is a delay of judgment, some sort of satisfaction that delays God’s wrath for a couple millenia until it boils all up inside God again and pours over to destroy us all, well all who are not saved by the blood.  God just can’t help but pour it out all again but at least Jesus delayed it.  Shallow readings of Revelation have certainly fed this view, that God’s wrath is not satisfied, only delayed.

I have come to disagree with all that.  I believe the cross itself is an act of wrath, an act of judgment.  Paul’s letters make this plain.  The most obvious place is Colossians 2:15 which describes the cross as humiliating, a mockery of the rulers and authorities.  He made a public spectacle of them and triumphed over them.  To put it simply, the powers and authorities were judged, weighed and found wanting that day when Jesus died.

This thinking of the cross is perhaps why Jesus’ last teachings before the crucifixion have to do with judgment.  The very last one, recorded in Matthew 25:31-26, is the most blatant.  It is a passage which us good Christians know really well.  It has to do with sheep and goats and heaven and hell.  Anybody who grew up singing Sunday School songs know which one they want to be.

It might be a stretch to call this a parable and yet the metaphors have resonated for millennia and it is a very popular passage from Jesus’ teaching.  Because of its popularity it is so tempting to explain away its bluntness and thus minimize its importance.  But the parable is blunt, obvious and demands a verdict.

Simply put, Jesus teaches that at the last judgment the sheep, those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked, will be welcomed into eternity.  The goats, those who ignored the hungry and despised the naked, will be thrown into hell. There is no other way of reading it.  This is what Jesus said will happen.

And right after he said it, the motions of crucifixion are put in place.  The rulers conspire.  Judas betrays.  Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine.  The guards arrest.  The disciples flee.  The governors judge.  Peter denies.  The soldiers beat.  The cross is carried and the nails are hammered.  The crowd mocks while Jesus breathes his last.

Right after teaching us about the sheep and the goats, Jesus becomes yet one more sheep who is terrorized, tortured and killed by yet more goats.  This is the way things always are and the way they always were.  Goats win.  Sheep lose.  Compassion is stupid.  Tyranny is awesome.  Generosity is foolish.  Selfishness is brilliant.  The strong and the mighty always survive.  The sheep always die.

Yet Jesus, our compassionate sheep, our lover of the poor, our feeder of the hungry, our tailor of the naked, our water for the thirsty rises from the dead!

Jesus’ death and resurrection proves that in the end the sheep do win!  In the end the goats do lose!  In such a way the cross absolutely judges the goats.  It strips them naked and makes a public mockery of them.  Those goats could kill a sheep but they couldn’t keep the sheep dead!  In fact, he rose with power to save those who by faith and the grace of God enter into sheepishness.  The rulers and authorities, the goats, become such a joke after the cross.

So this Maundy Thursday, as this weekend really begins, the question remains, who is welcome at your Eucharist table tonight?  What hungry and thirsty people are you inviting in?  What are their names?  What are their stories?  Who are the sheep?  Are you among them?

If you can’t answer those questions, the cross tomorrow night may find you judged, measured and wanting.

Holy Wednesday Reflection: Bags of Gold and Virgins Who May or May Not End Up Being You

Standard

“It is finished.”  That is one of the more confusing things Jesus said from the cross.  If only we knew what “it” was or is or will be.  Does “it” refer to his life or to our sins or to Jesus’ mission or to the reign of evil or all of the above?  If only we knew what “finished” meant.  Is it “finished” in the way my car was finished when its engine caps cracked or is it finished in the way I finish a dresser top or is it finished the way I cross a “finish” line.

Unlike some of the other things Jesus said from the cross, we don’t have much Biblical context to help us out on this.  Unlike some of the other popular ones, it isn’t a line from one of the Psalms.  The word “finish” is too common in both Testaments and in the Greco-Roman world for any word study to be of much help.  However, the actual Greek word refers to a paying off of debts so there is some help there.

Putting all the confusion aside, the statement is still quite profound.  After all, it is not uncommon, especially in Evangelical Protestant Circles, to look at the cross as a beginning and a wonderful one at that.  The crucifixion happened in the Spring and so Easter has always been celebrated during this wonderful time of the year when everything begins, or rather springs, anew.  This event is about newness, not finished-ness.  It is about beginnings, not endings.

Yet here on the cross Jesus declares an end, a last day if you will.  And it has not been uncommon in 2,000 years of church history to refer to the time after the cross as the “end times.”  “End times” as it was originally used did not refer to destructive times or collapsing times or apocalyptic times.  Instead the word “end” is the Greek word “telos” which refers to something reaching its goal or being fulfilled.  After the cross, we live in times of fulfillment, the times when creation has reached its purpose.  After the cross we stand on the “finish line.”

Therefore, it may not be surprising that Matthew, Mark and Luke record for us that Jesus taught about the “end times” during his last week.  The days before the crucifixion, Jesus told stories and taught parables about the end times, the finishing times.

Matthew 25 records two such parables for us.  The first is about virgins waiting for a bridegroom.  Five forgot to bring oil and so were out buying more when the bridegroom showed, missing him entirely.  The others had enough oil and got to join the wedding party.  The second parable is about investors.  Some of them took the bags of gold the master gave and invested it wisely, doubling their share.  One of them foolishly buried his bag, refusing to invest it for fear of losing it.  He was punished most severely.

At first glance these parables don’t really belong in Holy Week.  In fact, we have another season of the church year where they are taught, namely Advent, which commemorates Christ’s first coming and Christ’s second coming.  The church, through the lectionary, has us read these in December to remind us to be ready for Jesus’ second coming.

Yet in their original context they were some of Jesus’ last teachings before taking up the cross and finishing “it,” whatever “it” was.

Therefore, maybe what we need to hear in these parables during this week is not judgment or warning but promise.  To be sure, the parables were told for judgment, particularly against the religious elite of Jesus’ time.  But we now live in “finished” times.  We now live in the time when the master’s presence is with us through the Holy Spirit.  We confess that God is here, walking and dwelling among us.  But the Holy Spirit is merely a deposit which means God is not yet fully here.  We live at the beginning of the “end times” but still with a deposit, a promise, a guarantee of our inheritance.

Therefore, those of us who have spent this week and the entirety of our lives fasting, praying, longing, studying and, most importantly, loving need to hear the assurance from these parables.  Unlike those who fall asleep or do not prepare, our oil will not run out before the groom’s coming.  Unlike those who have buried their gold in the ground, our bags of righteousness will multiply.  Our faithfulness and our readiness to do good will not go unnoticed.  In fact, the one who notices and rewards them is all ready at the door!

Therefore, I think I can say with confidence, keep on keeping on.  For like the wise investors and the smart virgins, the cross has guaranteed our reward.