“I Thirst”: A Reflection on One of the Last Words of Christ


This is a sermon I preached this morning to my congregation.  It is a sort of sequel to my homily on Ash Wednesday.  Then I spoke about true hunger and this morning I spoke about thirst.  It has occurred to me this Lenten season that the words “hunger” and “thirst” are forms of pain.  We are not called to want to want a better world.  We are called to actually experience discomfort and pain in making righteousness happen.  So this sermon, with Ash Wednesday, captures much of my own Lenten journey this year.

Introduction: A Very Human God

Two of the last words Jesus spoke from the cross were “I thirst.”  It is a rather short phrase but it is pregnant with meaning.

“I thirst.”

I remind you that this is Jesus saying this and it is John’s gospel which records it for us.  John also reminded us back in chapter 1 that Jesus is God.  He is the word made flesh.  He is the one through whom all things were created and without whom nothing was made that has been made.   This is the fully God who became fully human.

As such we are tempted to think of his thirst as the more human side of Jesus.  We might say that his thirst represents his humanity.  After all, this is a human body needing nourishment that only our physical earth can give.  We think back to that wonderful Latin word “humus” from which we get our English word, “humility.”  “Humus” does not describe the sauce made from chick peas but refers to anything that sticks close to the dirt of the earth.  Surely to be thirsty is to be “humus” or to be “humbled.”

There all kinds of humbling physical symptoms that come with thirst.  You get a pounding headache.  You have a dry mouth.  You get dizzy and your vision can become momentarily blurry.  The thirsty become lethargic.  They can’t seem to stay awake and wonder why it is always so hard to move their muscles.  These symptoms are debilitating and quite humiliating.  They make you pathetic as you desperately long for material nourishment for your physical body.

So when our Christ says, “I am thirsty” he is sharing in some of the ugliness of our humanity.  We might say he is becoming pathetic to save the pathetic.

In fact, around Christmas time we talk about the incarnation, that moment when God became flesh.  We sometimes give each other the impression that when Jesus was born the incarnation was completed.  Yet I do not believe God truly experience life as a flesh and blood human until that flesh was stripped and the blood was spilt.  In a way the cross completes the incarnation because on the cross Jesus didn’t just take the form of wealthy humanity or powerful humanity or even blue collar working class humanity.  On the cross he took the form of crucified, thirsty, criminal humanity.  A God who thirsts for material nourishment is a God truly experiencing a fleshly, humble existence.

Jesus, the crucified criminal says, “I thirst.”  “I need water.”  “I desire something very concrete, very material for my concrete, material body.”

All that to say, this is the God who created water now saying, “I need some water.”


God knows what it’s like to thirst.

The Concept of “Thirst” in the John

But when Jesus says, “I am thirsty” it refers to more than just a physical need.  After all, John’s gospel and the other gospels have spoken about thirst before.  They have taught us some things about being thirsty and those things hide behind the two words, “I thirst.”

John’s gospel tells of another time when Jesus was thirsty.  It is clear back in chapter 4.  Jesus is going through Samaria, a place where good little Jewish boys and girls avoided.  Jesus, not being a good Jewish boy, walked right through the heart of it.

In Samaria they stop at a town and he sends his disciples in to buy food.  While they are gone a woman comes to draw water from the well in the middle of the day.  Many have noted that in that time there really was only one reason to draw water in the middle of the day.  You wanted to be left the heck alone.  The middle of the day was when the horribly introverted drew their water.

Jesus crashes her “me time.”  He says, “Give me a drink,” which I think comes really close to meaning, “I’m thirsty.”

The poor woman is startled by this.  After all she wanted to be left alone and didn’t want to be around people.  That’s why she is at the well in the afternoon.  So she asks a deflection question.  She says, “Why are you, a Jewish man, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink of water?”  You can paraphrase that as, “Leave me alone you outsider!  I don’t even like the insiders!”

Jesus’ reply is just as indignant.  He says, “If you would know who asked you for water, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water!”

She replies or rather argues, “Well how are you going to get it?  The well is deep and you don’t have bucket.”

Jesus says to her, “Whoever drinks this water will just get thirsty again but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst.  The water I give will become a well inside them bursting forth to eternal life.”

Jesus had a physical body that needed material substance.  The woman had a spiritual soul that needed spiritual nourishment.  There is a water better than H2O.

During the crucifixion, when John tells us that Jesus was thirsty, he is doing that on purpose.  He wants his readers to remember this conversation towards the beginning of the story and recall that there is a type of water that once drunk becomes a seed planted inside you that grows and creates an abundant and eternal life.

Thirsting for Righteousness in the Synoptics

We have hints of this in the other gospels too.  In fact one of Jesus most popular sayings was, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Don’t be scared of that word “righteousness.”  If you grew up in the households I grew up in righteousness often referred to that person who was legalistic.  They followed a list of archaic and weird rules and they were proud of it and very disappointed by those who did not do likewise.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that word “righteousness” doesn’t really refer to following a list of rules.  We are not righteous when we are legalistic and legalism rarely every produces the righteousness which God requires.

Instead righteousness is a synonym of harmony.  Righteousness defines any sort of state or action where people do right by one another.  If I am righteous that means I am doing right by you.  I am treating you fairly.  I am giving you that which you deserve.  Of course there are some rules involved in that.  I think of the 10 Commandments.  If I am doing right by you that does mean I am not lying about you.  I am not coveting your stuff and thus letting jealousy come in the way of our friendship.  I am not lusting after your wife or your husband or your house.  I treat you like a fellow human being. If you reciprocate that, if you treat me fairly and squarely, then we call that state, “righteousness.”  So a righteous world or a righteous community is one where everybody does their best to treat each other fairly and live in harmony with each other.

Logically then, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is to long for a world where people treat each other with fairness and love.  It is to want it so much your are willing to experience pain over it.  Hunger and thirst, by the way, are forms of pain.  Think of the symptoms I listed earlier.  To hunger and to thirst for righteousness means you want it so much you are willing to hurt for it.

A Very God Human

So Jesus at the cross says “I am thirsty.”  The deeper meaning is that he is thirsty for a righteous world where people are treated fairly and squarely.  He longs for a world where we don’t cheat, lie and steal, where we don’t gossip and lie and where we don’t covet each other’s stuff.  He longs for a world where we don’t nurse grudges against each other, grudges that lead to murder.  He longs for a world where there isn’t bullying and intimidation but we all treat each other as friends.

In this case his thirst is not from his human nature.  This is a God natured thirst.  He is thirsty because he is God.  After all, if you read your Old Testaments, you will find that on almost every page God longs for a harmonious world.  Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures God says that God wants the world put to rights.  God is thirsty for righteousness and God longs for that world.

When Jesus says, “I thirst” he is not just physically in need of a material want.  His human mouth isn’t just dry but he is saying, “I thirst for the living water.  I thirst for the righteousness that creates an eternal and abundant life.  I thirst for a better world.”

Jesus’ thirst is a God thirst.

But on the cross, he wasn’t just thirsting after a better world.  He was also creating it.

His thirst for a better world was so great that he took up a cross and he carried it up to Golgotha and there died to give us a living water that wells up inside of us to eternal life.  He wanted the world to be righteous so much that he died to make it so.  He suffered the agony, the rejection, the humiliation and even the symptoms of dehydration to make the world more righteous.

If you want to know what hungering and thirsting for righteousness looks like, look no further than the cross.

And this is grace, a God who suffers to give us the righteousness that wells up to eternal life.

Conclusion: What Hungering and Thirsting Looks Like

But this is grace which calls us to emulate it.  This is grace that enables us to respond by suffering ourselves for the better world we long for.

On that note, I get a little frustrated by those who claim they want a better world but don’t ever sacrifice anything for it.  These are the people who want the world to become righteous so badly that they spend a good 15 seconds tweeting about it, then put their phones back in their pockets and live their wealthy existence.

Other people I know are so hungry and thirsty for righteousness that they tell everybody else how wrong they are.  They live in middle class mansions.  They have ready access to clean water and safe food at the local grocer.  But they are so convinced that everything is wrong that they make lists of rules for other people to follow.  Then they go around telling everybody else how unrighteous they are.  But they themselves never change anything about their lifestyle to make righteousness come.  They never sacrifice anything in their own lives to make the world a better place.

For this reason I have tried hard in my life to not express an opinion for which I do not suffer.  I do have strong opinions and I think one or two of those opinions may even be accurate.  But if I am not willing to suffer for that opinion I try not to express it.  Or when I find myself inevitably doing so I try to preface it with, “This is my two cents but am not in a position to do anything about it or test it out.”

If you are not willing to physically suffer for your beliefs, then don’t let them come out of your mouth!

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is not to make others suffer or to point the finger and play a blame game.  To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to suffer yourself, to hurt inside of yourself, to fast, to give of your money or your time in hopes of creating a better world.

This is what Jesus did on the cross.  The cross itself was God’s thirst.  He wanted a righteous world so much he was willing to be crucified for it.

And because of his suffering, living water poured out upon us so that all of us who will drink it will have a well of righteousness springing up inside of us to eternal life.

And blessed are those who do likewise, who are willing to actually thirst and actually sacrifice for a better world.



Performing the Scriptures: Mark’s Gospel


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!


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


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.  .  .

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


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


“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.

Prostitutes, Tax Collectors and People Who Are Pretty Much Not You



I don’t know about you but I grew up learning a lot about Jesus’ parables.  I think we all did.  If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, surely every Evangelical 6th grader is an expert on Jesus’ parables.

I was taught these are the fun little children’s stories that came straight from Jesus’ mouth.  They are clever extended metaphors with cute little object lessons that aid dumb people in understanding who God is.  It is still not uncommon for me to read a book that suggests my teaching and preaching should follow the same path.  In so many words these chapters plead for me to be a good Christian teacher who uses silly stories and illustrations for my poor and super dumb pew sitters.  Only by teaching like Jesus did, can my ministry be effective and prosperous.  I wrote a satire piece on this awhile back but let’s just say if your ministry is going to be effective and prosperous doing things the way Jesus did them is not going to help!  After all, the guy was crucified.

I also hope it goes without saying that the gospels do not corroborate this view of the parables.

Instead, Jesus’ parables are deeply offensive and profoundly critical of the religious elites.  He couched his severe criticism in silly stories so that they would dismiss him as harmless.  Then, when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (See Mark 4:34).  He probably hid his criticism in this way so that they wouldn’t crucify him until his time had come.

Nowhere is this dark side of the parables more evident than in the ones from Holy Week in Matthew 21-25.  During Holy Week Jesus’ parables are more abrupt and less clever.  The attacks become obvious.  The veneer drops off and everyone who hears them know that these parables have a target.  As such, the authorities begin to catch wise that this Jesus guy is not harmless at all.  He is exposing them for the corrupt hypocrites they are.

The first one, in Matthew 21:28-32, is sometimes called “The Parable of the Two Sons.” It goes like this: 

There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.  Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

It is not so much a story as a question and when the Chief Priests answer, “The first one” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Let me interpret that for you, “Yep the first one is better than the second and you the second!  But the people you consider evil are actually the first!”

Sometimes I do think it is no wonder that they crucified him.  After all they put in huge effort to looking and sounding pretty in order to convince people, or maybe just themselves, that they were doing God’s will.  After all, most religious types will tell you God likes pretty people, especially if they’re also polite.  Jesus uses this parable to rip off their pretty, polite masks.  So exposed, everyone sees that what lies underneath is not pretty nor polite but scorn and violent intent.  So of course they wanted him dead.

But what about you and what about me?  Does this parable unmask us as well?  Do we need to hear it as the offensive slap to the face it is?  Do we need our pretty politeness to be stripped off of us?

What if I reworked it a bit?  Try these ones on for size:

There are two sons.  One is a bit unruly and a lot reckless but the minute you need him to run an errand he is there to do it.  The other will smile at you to your face and say, “Yes, father” but the minute you leave town for the weekend, he’ll steal your Harley and crash it into a semi truck.

There are two daughters.  One is kind of a tom boy.  She swears, chews and spits.  She’s never worn a dress and she hangs out with those goths, who dress all in black.  When you ask her to do something, she’ll roll her eyes at you and ask “why?”  But then she always does it.  The other daughter is very beautiful and super polite.  She always says the nicest things.  She remembers her “please’s” and her “thank you’s” and she compliments all the right people.  But whenever you aren’t in the room she lies to your family and friends about how you are cruel and abusive to her and claims you wish she had never been born.

There are two employees.  One shows up a little late, forgets to shave, wears ragged clothes, tells off-color jokes to your most profitable clients and he curses like a sailor.  Yet, boy, does he know his stuff and work his tail off to meet and exceed quarterly goals.  The other always shows up on time.  He wears nice suits and has perfectly formatted hair.  His smile is broad and his words are charming.  But the minute the manager leaves the room he goes back to playing free cell on his computer.

If you will allow me one more, this one for my own unmasking.  There are two pastors.  One is a bit of a mess.  Her sermons are long.  Her exegesis is lacking.  Her mind is forgetful.  But the minute trouble finds you, she rushes over to your house, or hospital or morgue and cries with you until morning.  The other is professional in the extreme.  Her sermons are meticulous.  Her bible knowledge is unparalleled.  Her board meetings are well organized and always get out on time.  But she can’t remember your children’s names and nobody in the church can get a hold of her any time other than on a Sunday morning.

Which of these brothers, sisters, employees and pastors does the will of God?

And which are you?

And are you really going to let the others enter the kingdom of God ahead of you?  Are you going to let them beat you to Golgotha?  Or are you going to pick up your cross and follow?