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Robert Farrar Capon on Last Sunday – Matthew 25:1-13

by pastorjuhl ~ November 15th, 2010

If you’re looking for some help from Luther this week, keep looking. No sermon exists in the Church and House Postils on this text. Perhaps one could make the argument that Luther preached through the cycle of texts and stopped the cycle once he reached the Sunday next before Advent. No “skip”, no three weeks of Judgment parables, and no “Last Sunday” for him. Preach the texts until it’s Advent, then start all over again.

We turn to Fr. Capon this week to see his fresh, sometimes unorthodox, but always intriguing take on this text. Here are some highlights.
So it is with the biblical view of history in general, and so it is with Jesus’ parables of judgment in particular. Both it and they are about an action going somewhere to happen. They are not about a system of static recurrences in which time goes on forever – where there is always, by the rules of the system, time for a second chance at everything. They do not allow you the luxury of a historical perspective in which a step taken too soon or a move made too late can always be remedied the next time around. Rather, they are about a world in which too early or too late can be crashing, fatal mistakes – in which there is only one chance for anything: one moment to aim the arrow, one brief, high time to make allowances for the crosswind, one critical instant to shoot, and one final judgment, hit or miss, on the entire proceeding. In the Ten Virgins, for example, the bridegroom comes late, the oil of the foolish has run out, the storekeepers’ shops are closed, and the door to the marriage feast is shut…. Just as history is a series of unrepeatable, even unrehearsable performances, so the history of salvation is just one krisis after another, with no going back.
“Behold, the bridegroom!” has become the church’s watchword as it begins every Christian year with the season of Advent. That gives us a hint as to how we are to reconcile ourselves to both the slapstick of history and the complicity of God in evil. It is only as we wait in faith that all of the above ceases to matter and we are able to lay hold of the reconciliation that lies below the mess of history. Because if he finally does deliver on his promise to draw all to himself, if the reconciliation really is all ours no matter what our sins – if even Peter, even Judas, is within the drawing of his love and subject to the voice of his calling – then all we need is the faith to accept the reconciliation, no questions asked, from the hand of the one who brings it, no questions answered. Advent, therefore, is the church’s annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for “blessed”) of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God  has fudged everything in our favor: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer’s fingernails. But no, it isn’t any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he’s got the package and we’ve got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers.
Someone once said, “The world God loves is the world he sees in his only begotten Son.” That fits here. For the world God sees in his only begotten Son consists of all those who have accepted their visibility in Jesus by faith. But those who have not accepted it, those who have pretended to make themselves invisible by their rejection of his acceptance of them, have the sentence of their self-chosen invisibility ratified by God. There was no relationship on their part; therefore God just says as much on his and gets on with the feast.

“Watch therefore,” Jesus says at the end of the parable, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” When all is said and done – when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment – we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Because what we are watching for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us, It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is a funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.

2 Responses to Robert Farrar Capon on Last Sunday – Matthew 25:1-13

  1. Peter Bauernfeind

    Actually, Luther did preach and/or teach on Matthew 25,1-13, but the resources are a challenge to track down. Joel Baseley has two of them in his translations. One is in "Luther's Family Devotion" on page 650 where Luther is commenting on Verses 1 and 2. Also, Baseley's "Festival Sermons of Martin Luther" contains a complete sermon on the text on page 16ff; he preached this sermon on 4. Dec. for the Feast of St. Barbara. I also have a note that the Erlangen edition of Luthers Werke, Vol. 18, pages 244-45 contains a sermon on this text, although I think it forms the basis for page 650 of "Luther's Family Devotion". Since I do not have the Erlangen edition, I cannot verify this however.

  2. pastorjuhl

    Peter, thanks for setting the record straight.

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