As a Star Wars fan, the question that recently sprung up in my mind was, “Who is the Jedi that returns in The Return of the Jedi?” Anyone here care to shed light on this? Does it not refer to Luke Skywalker, who returns after losing his hand to Darth Vader’s lightsaber to defeat Vader? That would seem to be the answer to my question. Now some of you might be thinking that I should get a life, but as I pondered the question I realized that there is a second level to it. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is not a Jedi. That is what we learn from Yoda, who is about as reliable a character as one could get. How then could Luke be the Jedi who returns? And if Luke is not the Jedi referred to in the title, who is? I believe the reference is to Anakin Skywalker, who is rescued from the dark side by Luke. Anakin was a Jedi before turning to the dark side and becoming Darth Vader. And in The Return of the Jedi he returns to the good side. The reason why the title fascinates me is that there is more than one level of meaning—the obvious and the not so obvious. And it is a sign of genius to be able to combine two levels of meaning in a cryptic title.
Would we expect any less from Jesus? In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says this: “It is not possible to trust Jesus… in matters where we do not believe him to be competent.” He goes on: “[Can] we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart?… Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived?” Elsewhere Willard says, “‘Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying ‘Jesus is smart.’”
So, if multiplicity of meanings in a movie title is a sign of genius, we should expect multiple meanings in what Jesus says. And that is what we have in the passage we will deal with today. Before we go on to our text, let me warn you that I will be preaching three Sundays in a row, including today. The three sermons will be a series titled “Entering the Joy of Our Lord” based on Matthew 25.21 and 23. In these three sermons we will understand what it takes to enter into the joy that Jesus has for us as a church in the present and the near future. For the series I have chosen the chunk of text in Matthew 24.36-25.30. Today I will be preaching from Matthew 24.45-51. Next Sunday I will preach from Matthew 25.1-13, unless Jesus returns in less than a week. And on the 21st I will preach from Matthew 25.14-30.
Before we read our text, let us set it in its proper context. It is two days before the night when Jesus would eat his last meal with his disciples prior to his crucifixion. Two days have passed since Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on what we know as Palm Sunday. As was his custom, Jesus went to the temple every day of that week from Sunday to Thursday. On Tuesday, as he and his disciples were leaving the temple, his disciples noticed how magnificent the temple was. In response to that Jesus said, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
This pronouncement of a curse on the central symbol of Jewish faith made the disciples curious and they asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”
It is important here to observe that this is not one question but three: 1. When will this be—that is, when will the temple be destroyed; 2. What will be the sign of your coming; and 3. What will be the sign of the end of the age? Jesus proceeds to answer these questions, not strictly in order. Part of the answer is in the chunk of text with which we are dealing. If you are able, please stand to hear then what Jesus says:
[Read Matthew 24.36-25.30 here.]
Please be seated.
Today we are dealing specifically with Matthew 24.45-51. Now, because we view this as Scripture, we tend to see in it application to us right away. That is the obvious level of meaning. However, that might not be the real way of understanding the passage. So before we try to apply the passage let us uncover the not so obvious meaning. Then we can let that meaning guide us in applying Jesus’ words to NUPC (North University Park Church).
Our passage is a parable. But it is also presented as a riddle. Jesus asks, “Who then is the faithful and wise slave?” And at the level of a riddle, we can get to the not so obvious meaning. There are two clues for the not so obvious meaning.
First, Jesus describes a wicked slave as one who “eats and drinks with drunkards.” Turn with me to Matthew 11.18-19. Here we see that Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus’ response is, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
Now turn with me to Deuteronomy 21.18-21. Here we see that a rebellious son is described as a glutton and a drunkard. And the solution to the problem is the stoning of the rebellious son. That is, the rebellious son is to be put to death so that evil would be purged from Israel.
In other words, when Jesus is described as a glutton and a drunkard, he is being portrayed in the mold of a rebellious son. And the solution is to put him to death. So, when Jesus is crucified, his accusers would be able to point to his death and say that God had cursed Jesus and ordered his death because Jesus was a rebellious son who led the people of Israel astray.
Jesus, as we saw, does not refute outright the charge of being a rebellious son. Rather he responds with the cryptic words, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
The second clue is the way in which the faithful slave is rewarded. Jesus says that the master “will put that [faithful slave] in charge of all his possessions.” That is the vindication Jesus is looking for. And in Matthew 28.18 he claims, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” In other words, God has placed Jesus in charge of all of God’s possessions. In other words, Jesus is the faithful slave of the riddle. Though he fraternized with people of ill repute, though he ate and drank with gluttons and drunkards, he had not mistreated the members of God’s household, nor led them astray in a manner that his enemies accused him of doing.
What Jesus does is break the link that many people entertain between being faithful to God and the company one keeps. Fraternizing with gluttons and drunkards does not make one a glutton and a drunkard as long as one is bringing the light of God’s grace to those gluttons and drunkards.
We have two options. Either we believe Jesus is still dead and under God’s curse for leading people astray. Or we believe that God raised Jesus and put him in charge of all creation. If we choose the second alternative, we must conclude that the way of Jesus is the way of God. That is, Jesus’ life reveals the way of living as God would have us live.
But what was Jesus’ way? If we read the text at its superficial level we might conclude: 1. that we are to treat the other slaves of the household well; and 2. that we are not to associate with gluttons and drunkards. But from the riddle we see that Jesus is defending the way he associated with the gluttons and drunkards. For him, treating others in God’s household well involved bringing God’s light to them.
Do you know why most Protestant churches have Sunday services that start between 10 and 11? It goes back to the German reformer Martin Luther. When he was an Augustinian monk, he lived a secluded life that was concerned with his personal purity before God. He was burdened with being able to present himself holy before a holy God. He would spend most of his time confessing his sins to his confessor—that is, the priest who heard confession and pronounced absolution. In fact, his confessor disclosed that Martin would come to him to confess the sins of a five year old. The sins of a five year old were burdening Martin!
Then Martin stumbled upon the gospel of God’s grace. So what did he do? He left the Augustinian order, got married, and began to spend much time in the taverns of Wittenberg. He realized that it was the sinners who needed to hear the liberating gospel of God’s grace. So he spent time with them. But he stayed so late every night, including Saturday night, that he was not fully functional the next morning till about 10 am. So he moved the Sunday services from 7am to 11am.
Though this bit of information is somewhat humorous, it stems from the fact that Martin realized that sinners will only be saved by our bringing God’s light to them. Did he drink with the drunks? Sure! That’s where we get the melody for the great hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God! He took a well known German tavern song, wrote new words, and soon had the drunks singing this hymn while they chugged down their steins of beer.
So today we are faced with the question, “What is the way of Jesus for NUPC?” But for our context, what is God’s household? Again, there are two levels.
At one level, God’s household is NUPC itself and the slaves who are in charge are the leaders at NUPC. How do we fulfill our task as leaders? The answer is not programs of different sorts. No! Jesus’ way for the leadership at NUPC is twofold. First, we need to spend time with everyone at NUPC. It will not do for the leadership to always huddle together in its little clique. Second, as leaders we need to do what Jesus did as a leader. He delegated his authority to his disciples. In like manner, the leaders at NUPC need to delegate the authority Jesus has given us. Both of these we have done to some extent. But we need to go much further. And we need the help of all of you. When you see us falter in this, please bring it to our notice. And please do it gently.
At the second level, God’s household is the community and the slaves who are in charge are all of us. We are soon to be moving some distance from the University. We will now be a real presence in the community. However, in order to bring the light of Jesus into the community, we need to personally go into it. Nothing can substitute for the presence of redeemed humans in a community that needs God’s redemption. We need, therefore, to understand the community and its needs. We need to realize where it is hurting and also what its strengths are. And we need to use all this information to be intimately involved with the life of the community.
There will be people whom we have been taught not to associate with: the poor, the homeless, single parents, pregnant teenagers, gangs members, drug addicts, pushers, prostitutes, people with AIDS, drunks, gays. But which of these do not need the love of God to shine in their lives? Which of these is beyond the blood of Jesus? It will not be easy. Each of these groups has its own cultures and its own challenges. We need to decide which groups we will seek to understand and, having understood, formulate a strategy for bringing God’s love to them.
Here let me make myself very clear. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because he ate and drank with people who were shunned—like prostitutes, tax collectors, etc. Though he associated with sinners, he did not condone their sinful behavior. However, he did show them God’s unconditional love by entering their homes and eating and drinking with them. So also, in seeking to bring God’s love to people who are otherwise shunned or believed to be beyond God’s acceptance, we should certainly not condone their behavior—far less behave like them—but neither should we refuse to be their friends. For be very certain of this: if we refuse to be their friends, we are, as people who claim to be God’s friends, telling them that God refuses to be their friend. How then, when we consider how great sinners we ourselves are, are we so sure that God is our friend?
Now we are still a relatively small church. However, the issue is whether or not we fulfill God’s task to us of ministering properly to his household around us. So let us take stock of our resources and gifts. Let us use them to fulfill our vision. But just a concluding note of encouragement—or, for those of us who do not like responsibility, of warning—if we serve him faithfully, he will put us in charge of greater things.