The Least of These My Brothers

(Year A, Sunday closest to November 23, Gospel Reading from Matthew 25:31-46)

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”  Matthew 25:37-40

Teachings_of_Jesus_25_of_40._works_of_mercy._visiting_the_prisoner._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible
An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Matthew 25:36 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.

This is one of the most iconic of Jesus’ teachings about the final judgment.  It is also a bedrock teaching for what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in a world filled with selfishness and discord.  We cannot get away from the teaching in this parable that Christ calls us to be more than just rule followers, or just “good people.”  When Jesus tells us “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” he means it.  It will be one of the things which proves out the heart we have for him.

This parable is one of those that gives me the most pause.  It is the one that most calls me to sobriety about my relationship with my fellow human beings, and how callous and disinterested I can be at times.  People that know me know a well-mannered, even-tempered man that is well spoken.  This isn’t me bragging – these are things people tell me, so I am just repeating them back.  But I know someone that is better at plastering on a fake smile, reciting scripted pleasantries, and thinking AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE that I just want to be left alone.  While I have felt the Holy Spirit working on me in this regard, I am very conscious of the miles I have left to go.

I am also the most uncomfortable with this parable, because on the surface it seems to advocate a works-based salvation – visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed and water the hungry and thirsty, and you go to heaven!  Fail to do any of these things even once, and it’s to the fire with you.  And I think many of my fellow brothers and sisters in Protestant Christianity see it the same way – otherwise, why is there such an emphasis on evangelism in “everyday” Christianity, but compassion and mercy seem to belong only to the class of Christians that go out on missions or belong to special ministries?  This may be too harsh a judgment, and if it is, I beg forgiveness.

Certainly, evangelism is a part of our Christian walk, and we should be ready to give an account of the Gospel to any who should need to hear it.  I’m not calling for a deemphasis on sharing the Gospel.  But the Gospel can be shared by works of mercy and compassion as well – as someone once said, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”

The truth is, this isn’t works based salvation at all – pay close attention to what the Sheep say to the King: “When did we see you hungry and feed you?”  And they say the same for all the other charitable deeds.  They aren’t doing them for the hope of reward, they are doing them because it is part of their nature.  In some sense, it seems to me that they aren’t saved for the sake of their deeds but for the fact that the King had to explain how their deeds were for his favor – they fed, watered, clothed, welcomed, and visited with no knowledge of the gravity or importance of those they served.  It is like James, who says “faith without works is dead.”  Faith and works go together, they aren’t opposites; works are a fruit of faith in Christ Jesus.

So then, who are the “least of these”?  Certainly, the examples from the parable of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the wandering, the suffering, and the captive are the “least of these,” but what about others who are oppressed and neglected?  What about the youth who is kicked out of their home because their parents know Law but not Love?  Or the man who drinks to forget his pains?  What about the woman who was forced upon and assaulted by a powerful man, who wrestles with the secret for decades before confessing the wrong done to her – only to be violated over again by a rapacious public opinion? Anyone who is weighed down by the scorn and derision of their fellow humans is “least” on Earth, and when we neglect to advocate for them, we miss the call of the Gospel.

When we who claim Christ prioritize our politics over justice, as some have done in recent days, we run a considerable risk of trading sheep’s wool for goat’s horns.

Lastly, we must remember what else the King says about the “least” – he calls them “my brothers.”  They are not objects for the patronage of the Righteous, nor a means for their reward.  They are kith and kin of the One who rules us, for the Lord says: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  Our compassion for the poor and oppressed must be borne of true love and empathy for them, lest it become its own form of scorn and oppression.

I ask you to pray for the welfare of the poor and the oppressed around you, and for opportunities to serve and minister to all who need the compassion of our God – both low of station and high.  Pray also for a heart that seeks after and reflects that compassion to the world around them.  And pray also for me, for I am also human and subject to the same selfish callousness that threatens and plagues all of us.

Grace and peace to all, in the Name of Our Lord Jesus.

“And He Will Have an Abundance”

(Year A, Sunday closest to November 16, Gospel Reading from Matthew 25:14-30)

“But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25:26-30 (ESV)

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Parable of the Talents, By Andrey Mironov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Of all of Jesus’ parables, I heard more sermons or Sunday School lessons on this one and the Sower than any other growing up.  Typically, this parable was used to teach me that God has given me gifts and talents, and I must use them effectively so that I will reap a good reward.  So, that’s it!  That’s the message – use your talents wisely, and God will welcome you as a good and faithful servant.  Tune in next week when I’ll tell you about how everyone who reads this blog is certainly among the sheep, and everyone who doesn’t Like my Facebook page must be goats.

All kidding aside, I think that this parable is far weightier than we are typically taught.

The error in the way I typically remember this being taught is not in the drive toward good stewardship – this is certainly a noble and God ordained concern.  We should examine our lives, and the graces that come from God, and be ready to account for how we have used them.  The error is in teaching that this is the main thrust of the parable.  The confusion comes from a superficial similarity between a term of weight used in the parable and the word we use in everyday English to refer to our vocational gifts and skills.  In the parable, the word “talent” refers specifically to a term of monetary weight that is equivalent to about 20 years’ worth of wages for the day laborer.  Think about the servant who was given 5 talents, and think about the amount of trust you would have to have to let someone invest 100 years’ worth of income.  I am aware of the vocational gifts God has given me, and I am also piteously aware that they do not come close to measuring up to this sum.

Interpreting and teaching this parable as being merely about good stewardship with innate (even God-given) vocational gifts or material blessings is also problematic in that it necessarily sets up an error of works-based salvation.  Why?  Well, because Jesus starts off the parable as a continuation of talking about the coming of the Kingdom.  The end of the parable is a vision of judgment, so if the parable is teaching right use of skills and abilities as being what God will reward us for, and inadequate use of those same “talents” the basis for our condemnation, then a conflict exists in Christian theology and understanding of our salvation.

If the word “talent” in the parable isn’t talking about our “talents” (in the modern day colloquial sense), what then is it talking about?  There is one gift that I do believe is referred to here – namely, the gift of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is the only gift, treasure, or possession that could be understood as being as valuable as a talent of money.   It is important then that the talent is given to the servants from the master – it is such a lavish sum of money; a servant could not hope to muster it on their own.  This additionally puts paid to the notion of any works-based soteriology arising from this parable – the sum is so great that it can only refer to something that I am incapable of producing myself, and therefore it precludes looking inwardly to satisfy the judgment.

The rest of the parable then falls into place:  the master is Jesus, who leaves the disciples for a time, after teaching them and giving them in trust the Good News about himself.  The servants are the disciples, and include all the crowds that followed him around Judea as well as those that have done so over the 2000 years of intervening history to the present day.  The servants who do something with the master’s money are rewarded, by being placed over much after being entrusted with “a little.”  This refers to the faithful Christians who seek to carry out the Great Commission as well as following the commands of Christ, for the gift of grace that they have been given will return a great yield in charitable works, love, and other souls who in turn also receive the same gift and carry out the same works.  The one servant who did nothing with the money is rejected, and even what he has is taken away from him, to be given to the one shown to be the best manager of the money.  This represents the one who hears the Gospel, and for whatever reason either never accepts the gift, attempts to accept the gift without passing it on, or tries to “return” the gift by denouncing the Gospel and ultimately leading others away from it.

I believe that this parable should resonate strongly with us Christians in the modern West.  We are 2000 years from the time of Christ, and presented daily with casual rejection of our beliefs.  It has been “a long time” (Matt 25:19) and could still be longer.  We are surrounded by people who know a “gospel” that has similar characters and mentions similar events, but either through misapprehension or the idolatry of the will they cannot hear or understand or accept the true Gospel.  The temptation to give in is great, and it will become greater and greater until the master comes again.  And that, I believe, is the final message of the parable, the true heart of its message – the servants who invested the money kept faith that the master would return, because they knew his character, and that they would be well treated.  The one who buried the money acted without faith, because he did not know the true character of the master – and even if he had he acted unwisely.  Our charge, therefore, is to keep the faith until the master’s return.

As we prepare for the Advent of Our Lord, I encourage you to pray for faith and perseverance to the end.  Pray also that all who claim Christ would know and share the true Gospel, that the great treasure entrusted to us would yield far and above what we can imagine, in mercy, love, and kindness toward one another, and – above all – in redeemed souls presented to Our Master when he returns.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus.

Be Ready!

(Year A, Sunday Closest to November 9, Gospel Reading Matthew 25:1-13)

“And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.  Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’  Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:10-13 (ESV)

parable_of_the_wedding_feast
Parable of the Wedding Feast, By Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
As we approach the Advent season, and as our world spins seemingly closer and closer to war, famine, and disaster, it is natural for our minds to turn toward what the End of Days will look like, when it will be, and how we are to prepare for it.  It is fitting then that we read this parable a few short weeks out from Advent, when our hearts, minds, and Lectionary will turn toward the anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming as we prepare to read about and celebrate His first.  This parable is packed with eschatological implication, and has been debated by scholars based on various facets of interpretation.

But I’m not focused on the academic debate.  It is clear to me that the Christ is the bridegroom, and the virgins represent Israel and the nations, and those who are prepared with ready and obedient hearts will be accepted as disciples and Kingdom citizens.  Those who are unprepared, through spiritual blindness and willful ignorance, will be turned away and left to wander a parched and thirsty land.

How do we know Christ is the bridegroom?  In Isaiah chapters 61 and 62, God’s love for Israel is compared to that of a bridegroom for his bride.  The ESV Study Bible notation on Isaiah 61:10 asserts that the speaker is the Messiah, and that he “will lead his people into the romance of salvation.”  Isaiah 62:5b makes an explicit connection between the joy a bridegroom has for his bride and how God rejoices over His people.  So the bridegroom is both the Messiah AND God, which should signal to the reader that the Messiah is more than just a mighty earthly king over Israel.  By virtue of the repeated vision of the bridegroom, the reader should see that the expectation of the Messiah is that he is to be “like” God, as in, having the same substance, the same being.  It is clear to me that the parable is talking about the coming of Jesus at the end of the ages.

One of the core points of this parable is that the wise virgins were ready – they foresaw a reason to bring extra oil and therefore didn’t need to leave where they were staying to go get more.  What does this translate to in the Christian life?  One part, I firmly believe, is an acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity.  That is a key starting point, because to seek to rob Him of that is to try to put He and I on a level playing field – and we are very much not.  If Jesus is not God, part and parcel with the Holy Trinity, begotten not made, Very God from Very God, then I might start to think that “Hey, this guy called Jesus lived a perfect life, maybe I can do that too!” and I seek to be my own “savior,” as if it was not by Jesus’ Lordship and His Spirit at work in me that I could attain to His perfection.  How can Jesus be my Lord if I am seeking equality of station with Him?  If my salvation is predicated on acknowledging that Jesus is my Lord, then I must get that He is more than I can be, in this life or any other.

Therefore, readiness can be considered as related to true faith, or, put another way, true faith will produce readiness.  Let’s think it through – if I have true faith in Jesus as my true Lord and true Savior, then I know that I have an advocate that is Very God on my side.  When I subject my will to His, I accept that all other things are secondary – my wealth, my esteem, my material wishes.  I rely on His Providence, and because He is Good, my God will provide for my needs.  Therefore, when the calamity strikes, there are only two outcomes for the Redeemed: either we are called home from the bodily life, and “asleep” in Christ until He calls us to our Resurrected lives, or God sees fit to spare us and preserve our lives.  This is readiness – that I have the depth of faith to recognize that it is only God who can provide for me in the hour of need, that I cannot, in the end, provide for myself.  So, to be ever watchful is to continually seek renewal and edification of faith.

How do we take the knowledge of Jesus as the bridegroom, and what it means to be ready, and apply it to how we approach the end times?  Well, one of the first ways is to listen to the words of the bridegroom, as the authoritative source, and understand them as one who has true faith in His Lordship: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)  Earlier, he says “…be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:44)  In fact, each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all contain this language.  Therefore, hearing that no man will be able to predict the timing of the Second Coming, we must fully take it to heart.  We are to be ready to recognize the things that happen as forerunners of that great day (“He who has ears let him hear,” the refrain throughout the Revelation of St. John), but we are to know absolutely that trying to predict or calculate the Day of the Lord is a futile effort – for only the Father knows when it is.

Meditate on your “state of readiness.”  Do you rely on Jesus your Lord for your salvation?  Do you trust in God for his provision?  Think also on the age we are in – do many of your friends and loved ones spend inordinate amounts of time chasing after false “second comings”?  Consider your own thoughts.  Do you worry too much about what the End will be like?  Take comfort that Jesus is your Salvation, and that you have a Father that delights in providing for you – and knowing these things, be assured that they are true even in the midst of war, famine, and disaster.

Grace and peace to all, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To Be A Father

(Year A, Sunday Closest to November 5, Gospel Reading Matthew 23:1-12)

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.  And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.  Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.  The greatest among you shall be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
– Matthew 23:8-12 (ESV)

Jules-Alexis_Muenier_-_La_Leçon_de_catéchisme
La Leçon de catéchisme – Jules-Alexis Muenier (1890)

 

When I first broached the subject of Holy Orders with my Dad, one of his first questions was about this passage.  For people in traditions that do not call their pastors or ministers Father as a term of address, this passage can be one of the biggest reasons why they might not see eye-to-eye with an Anglican (or an Orthodox, or a Roman Catholic) understanding of the clerical offices.  This is understandable, since on the surface the practice of calling our priests Father seems to be in direct opposition to Our Lord’s commands.  Certainly, a reading of the passage in isolation seems to be speaking directly against us, as well as any other tradition that grants the appellation Father to their clergy.

To understand this Gospel lesson, especially in light of the Tradition we have received, which does call our priests Father, we have to first understand who Jesus is preaching against.  Jesus addresses the “crowds and his disciples” telling them to listen to the Pharisees and scribes because they “sit on Moses’ seat,” but he admonishes them to not follow the example they set with their actions.  These same “authorities” readily dish out opinions and nuanced interpretations of God’s Law as if they are part of the Law itself, but when the Law points back at them, they find numerous ways to excuse themselves from its precepts.

Similarly, they readily accept the honors of the crowds and those in their communities that recognize their academic prowess, but they do not faithfully execute the duties of the offices they are appointed to.  Therefore, they are false rabbis, imposter teachers, and pretend fathers, because they do nothing to earn the titles they are readily receiving.  If I go to a doctor, and they do nothing to treat my illness, are they really a doctor?  They may have correct credentials, they may wear a lab coat or scrubs, and everyone in the office may refer to them as “Doctor” so-and-so, but unless they carry out the profession of being a physician, their credentials are worthless, their coat is empty, and their colleagues are carrying on a charade.

This is what Jesus is truly speaking against – it isn’t the act of calling someone “father” that is the error, otherwise I shouldn’t even acknowledge my own Dad as such, and then I would be in violation of the fifth commandment.  And, as we have seen again and again, Jesus does not set aside or preach violation of the Law of Moses; instead he holds himself up as the fulfillment of Law and Prophets.  Similarly, if the mere use of titles were at issue, then Jesus himself would seem to be violating his own words in other Gospel accounts when he calls Nicodemus a teacher of Israel.  Therefore, what he is preaching against is the use – and acceptance! – of empty titles which heap up honor on one unworthy of it, and seek to stratify God’s people to create a second-class citizenry in the Kingdom.

Let’s contrast this with why we call our priests “father.”  Is the appellation of “father” an empty one?  In an ordered, God-centered relationship between priest and parishioner, not at all!  The parishioner submits themselves to the authority at work in the priest, and seeks his counsel and blessing, like a child seeks the wisdom of his biological father, and hopes that he will approve of their actions and choices.  When the parishioner neglects godly counsel, or scorns the teaching of the Church, upon turning back to the right path, they bring themselves to the priest and ask for reconciliation, just like a child who is estranged might seek to repair their relationship with their earthly father.

Note that I say, “authority at work in” and not “of” the priest: in a rightly ordered priest-parishioner relationship, the priest has no authority by virtue of himself.  All authority is from God, and the priest is a human example of that authority.  The Tradition of calling our priests “father” comes from St. Paul, who compared his bringing up the Church in Corinth as a father raising up children.  The text where he does this (1 Corinthians 4:14-16) is part of a larger section which talks about the humility of the apostles, and how some took that humility for granted, or a sign that they were not to be followed.  This is so very different from the circumstance that Jesus speaks against!  The Pharisees allowed themselves to be called “rabbi” on the virtue of their station, not of their heart.  The Godly priest allows himself to be called “father” in appreciation for the spiritual urging and encouragement he gives to his parishioners.

I encourage you to look in your own life: at how you present yourself to the world, how people relate to you.  Do you live into the role you claim for yourself?  When the people around you recognize you and show you appreciation and honor, do you rightly respond to it?  If you are in a position of authority, do you acknowledge where that authority comes from?  I pray that all of us would faithfully live out the roles we have been called to, express humility even as we accept praise from our peers, and that all in authority would acknowledge that it is God’s authority at work in us, and not our authority at work on others.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

The Law of Love

(Year A, Sunday closest to October 26, Gospel reading Matthew 22:34-46)

“And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’” – Matthew 22:37-40 (ESV)

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Moses repeated the commandments to the people (ca 840)

What does it mean to love with all your heart, soul, and mind?  The Greek word used in both verses 37 and 39 for “love” is agape, which the mature Christian should recognize as the all-encompassing love that transcends familial and romantic loves.  This is the sacrificial love that looks for no gain for the one expressing and living it.  The first and great commandment is to agape the Lord God, such that it suffuses our entire being and therefore our every word, act, or other fruit bears evidence of that love.  The second commandment, which is like it, making it equally great and preeminent, is to agape humans as fellow bearers of the Image of God.

So, it’s that easy!  Just like the Beatles sang, “All you need is love.”  Love Wins in the end, so all we need to do is keep loving and not worry about any silly rules right?

Well… not exactly.  Look back at Jesus’ words, in verse 40: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  Jesus is clearly not setting aside the Law of Moses here (as he says in the Sermon on the Mount, he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it); he is refocusing the Law back to its original intent – Love God, and love your neighbor, and here’s how to do it.  The Law of Love is the foundation upon which the statutes of the Law of Moses find their stability.  The Law of Love does not supplant the Law of Moses, but it gives life to what would otherwise be a lifeless set of dreary rules that only served to make the Jews an “odd sort” to their neighbors, and which the Pharisees turned into a harsh yoke and a crushing burden.

If all the Law and the Prophets depend on the Law of Love, could it possibly be that the commandments of God are codifying and exemplifying how to love God and neighbor?  Jesus says in John 14 that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  He doesn’t say that if you fail to keep his commandments, it’s okay as long as you “love” him, because God knows our hearts, and knows the truth of our being, which is that we are what we do.  By giving us the Law and rules of life, God gives us patterns of living which tune our hearts toward Him.  If we say we love Him but then scorn those patterns of living, then we love our own expectation of personal sovereignty more than Him, and our will becomes an idol.  But if we keep His commandments, we find that we are actively living out love for both God and neighbor.

Loving our neighbor is about seeking the true welfare of those around us.  This is why evangelism is so important to Christianity – the Gospel is the ultimate message of Love for mankind from God, and must be shared to all who can hear it.  This Gospel is not always well received because it requires an amendment of one’s life and sacrificing one’s will to God’s, both of which can be painful.  But true love does not shy away from harsh truths and difficult realities when necessary to save lives.

Loving God is about earnestly seeking His will for us, and seeking how we can conform our will to His, rather than the other way around.  Thanks be to God, for He has already given us the means to successfully find His will, in prayerful meditation on His Holy Scripture.  Therefore, a love of God necessitates living a life informed by and seeking counsel from the Scriptures.  A life lived in constant derision of Scripture, to include patronizing reformulation contorting the plain words of Scripture to suit my personal wishes, is one that gives lie to the statement “I love Jesus.”

It is important to note that while I can say “I love God; therefore, I follow His commandments,” or “I love my neighbor; therefore, I follow God’s laws,” or even “I want to love God and my neighbor; therefore, I follow God’s commandments to teach me that love,” I cannot say “I follow God’s commandments; therefore, I love God and my neighbor.”  This is the error of the Pharisees:  not that they painstakingly followed the Law of Moses, but that they did so with no regard to the heart of the Law (the Law of Love) and that they did so hypocritically.  Following the Law is a consequence of loving God and neighbor, it is not a stand-in for that love.

Consider this week the commandments of God that you may struggle with understanding or following, and pray for an outpouring of grace and peace to help in sacrificing your will to Him.  Consider also those commandments that you do follow readily, examining the heart behind that obedience, and pray for a heart that seeks to do God’s will out of earnest love for Him and His people.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.