Gaylord Focker was a champion in his father’s eyes. So much so that he created the Wall of Gaylord to celebrate his son’s achievements. Unfortunately, some of those achievements were essentially participation ribbons - "awards" for basically just showing up but not really doing anything worthy of merit.
Toward the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells three parables all speaking to the same theme (chapter 25). Parables were teaching devices used with expertise by Jesus. They were nearly always provocative. Disturbing, in fact, so that you couldn’t hear the parable and simply walk away forgetting about it. Not Hallmark movie stories here. He would often take shots at those who abused their power or privilege directly or otherwise. Some people hate parables, asking me, “Why didn’t he just tell us what he wanted us to “get” and be done with it? Why confuse us with these strange stories?” Your frustration is exactly why Jesus used parables. If you want faith to work, it takes some work. You’re transforming your life, after all! If it was easy, it would not likely be transformation.
In each parable Jesus presents two groups of people: those who got it right and those who didn’t. Those who got it right were rewarded with exactly what they were motivated by in the first place – honoring the object of their affection resulted in greater exposer, access and intimacy with the object. Those who did not get it right were similarly rewarded with what they had garnered – they were estranged from the central character, keeping a distance – which is exactly what they got as their reward.
When we read parables like this, we need to remember that there are three audiences involved, with each hearing the parable differently than the others. Jesus likely told the parables many times in many places over the course of his ministry. Each of those original audiences got the basic message that genuine faith involves faithful living. But they likely interpreted the groom, the Master, and the King as God, as they waited in expectation of the time when God would remove the Roman Empire from their land and put them back in control of their homeland. Matthew wrote the Gospel sometime between 80-100 C.E. His audience also got the faith-involves-faithful-living message, but they were awaiting Jesus’ return. The third audience is us. Hopefully we can get the faith/faithfulness message, but I think for many, the waiting for the return of Jesus and threat of judgment is an anachronistic distraction that trips us up. We’ve got to address it.
The Jewish people developed the idea of divine judgment in the afterlife after hundreds of years of no apparent justice coming from God. In their collective minds, the absence of God’s powerful hand simply meant God was going to handle it upon death, or upon the end of the world. Christians tied this idea in with the return of Christ, where people would be judged appropriately. Decades before Matthew wrote, Paul encouraged people to keep waiting – Jesus would be back any moment. Maybe Tuesday. But it could be Tuesday many years down the road. But he’s coming, so don’t lose hope. Because when that day arrives, the faithful will be rewarded, justice will be served, and everybody will get what they deserve.
I wonder if Paul would have maintained the same perspective if he could have known that we’d be sitting here 2,000 years later with no return in sight, and such global atrocities that made the Romans look like amateurs – surely there have been moments where God would have been moved to act? But no. Perhaps we need a new way of thinking about such things that honors the heart of what our Jewish and early Christian ancestors were yearning for that does not require Jesus to literally ride the clouds back to earth from the heavens. If that imagery works well for you, keep it. But for others – myself included – I wonder if there is another way to think. Because the idea of a loving God that morphs into a vicious, actually unjust judge doesn’t add up. The tension eclipses the charge to be faithful, and also irreparably alters the motivation for faithful living in the process. If the threat of eternal torture looms, we will be driven in part by fear, and we will use the same to move them to action. You can say love, love, love all you want. When you bring out the whip or sword or gun or nuke, nobody hears love anymore.
Grace and accountability are not mutually exclusive, however. In fact, they are dependent on each other. I think the characters in these stories who got it right, who naturally lived faithfully as an inevitable expression of their faith, got it right because of grace. I believe they learned that the nature of God really is love in its fullest sense, described so beautifully by Paul (1 Cor. 13) and so modeled by Jesus. I believe they let that love take root and grow deep within them. When we are engrossed in love, it is so easy for us to be loving. Sometimes the way of love is foreign to us, but when we see it and move in that direction, we discover that love fills in where fear and uncertainty were once present. I think about acts of love that take us out of our comfort zones, like serving people who are not like us, or forgiving someone who wounded us, or treating enemies humanely. These don’t come naturally. Sometimes we need to be shown the way. They feel like a high price to pay, but the reward is love, because God is in those acts and spaces. The motive of their behavior is love, and so is the reward. Makes total sense.
The characters who didn’t “get it” however, the ones who knew enough to do better but didn’t, who thought they knew faith but were unfaithful, I suspect had not really caught on to the love thing. The disconnect is startling in contrast to the others. They’re not really making sure they’ll go to the party. They don’t really care about what was entrusted to them. They aren’t really seeing or caring about the most vulnerable around them. In short, their behavior is the antithesis of love. They are out of touch and out of love in every possible way, so that when the judgment comes, it’s really just another day – they are no closer or further apart from the Groom, Master, or King than they were before.
The Apostle Paul gave an interesting metaphor for this where he envisions that day of judgment as a refining fire when all of our chaff is burned away and we are left only with that which can survive the flames. Those who live faithfully long for the chaff to burn away and I think are thrilled to discover that their lovely living has produced gemstones upon gemstones – all to reflect the beauty of God. Those who don’t really get it and therefore don’t live faithfully find everything burned off except the only thing that can’t be – their very soul. Undeveloped, unadorned, but survived by the skin of its teeth. Diamonds survived the firestorm. Participation ribbons did not.
My advice to you is to not get hung up on the judgment aspect of the story. That wasn’t really the point, anyway. The point is to live faithfully because it matters. Living faithfully matters to the Groom who wants the celebration to be the best for his beloved, and it won’t be the same without you. Living faithfully matters to the Master because he wants to expand his portfolio so that he can continue on doing even greater things and your good work helps make that possible. Living faithfully matters to the King, too, because the vulnerable are his subject, too, and need care. While it is not the motive, living faithfully matters to you, too, because you are rewarded with closer proximity, access, and intimacy with the Groom, the Master, and the King.
You have been invited to the wedding! You have been entrusted with the portfolio! You have been given the great honor of serving the King disguised as the hungry, thirsty, homeless, cold, sick and imprisoned! Beauty longs to be built within you as you build it into your attitude and behavior. So love in ways that you know are truly loving. And learn to love in news ways because God loves you endlessly in ways we can only begin to imagine. His mercies are new every morning. New, fresh, different than the day before. May your expressions of love be the same. May you have the spiritual eyes to see the gleaming sparkle that is growing within you – the Light of God reflecting and refracting off of the beautiful person God has made you and is making you to be. Which is so much better than a participation ribbon.