Monday, December 11, 2017

God is not the God of the dead, but of the living


 The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, saying:  "Teacher, Moses said that if a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring for his brother.  Now there were with us seven brothers.  The first died after he had married, and having no offspring, left his wife to his brother.  Likewise the second also, and the third, even to the seventh.  Last of all the woman died also.  Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?  For they all had her."  Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.  For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.  But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."  And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching. 

- Matthew 22:23-33

It is Holy Week in our current readings, the Passover week of Jesus' final days of His life as Incarnate human being.  He is in Jerusalem, He has cleansed the temple, and has been questioned by the leadership as to His authority to do so.  On Saturday we read that the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk.  And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.  Tell us, therefore, what do You think?  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"  But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the tax money."  So they brought Him a denarius.  And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  And He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."  When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

 The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, saying:  "Teacher, Moses said that if a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring for his brother.  Now there were with us seven brothers.  The first died after he had married, and having no offspring, left his wife to his brother.  Likewise the second also, and the third, even to the seventh.  Last of all the woman died also.  Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?  For they all had her."  Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.  For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.  But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."  And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.  My study bible tells us that here Christ confirms for us in His teaching that there will be a resurrection.  But it is not the sort of resurrection that the Sadducees are imagining.  The Sadducees were a wealthy landowning class of the area around Jerusalem.  They were active as part of the Council.  But unlike the Pharisees they followed only in the first five books of the Scriptures (the Pentateuch or Torah) and did not believe in resurrection.  They imagine the concept of resurrection to be a continuation to be a continuation of earthly life, including earthly marriage, and thereby mock the doctrine with an absurd scenario.  However, Jesus says they are ignorant of the Scriptures, which reveal that there is a complete transfiguration of life in the resurrection, which makes earthly questions like their irrelevant.  Moreover, they fail to understand how Abraham and his sons can be alive in God even if they are physically dead.  It is the clear teaching of Christ that the souls of the faithful who have departed this life are sustained before the face of God in anticipation of the final joy of the resurrection.

What is life?  How do we characterize life?  Jesus speaks of the Resurrection as a transformed reality.  Life as we know it shifts.  We're in a new mode.  We get a few hints about this in the experiences of Jesus' own Resurrection.  Mary Magdalene doesn't recognize Him until He calls her name (John 20:11-16).  Neither do the disciples who walk with Him on the road to Emmaus, until "He was known to them in the breaking of bread" (Luke 24:13-35).  Life is transformed.   But Jesus characterizes life itself when He replies to the Sadducees asking them, "But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."   Life itself may not look like what we expect it to be.  It may not take on familiar characteristics of appearance, nor even of nature.  But life is life, and life exists even beyond death and its power in this world.  Jesus is known to His disciples in the breaking of bread.  He's known to Mary when He calls her name.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus reflect on their experience, and ask one another, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?"  In this familiar experience of person-to-person communication, they recognize the Jesus they knew intimately as their Master.  Jesus names definite persons in His expression of life from the Scriptures, as God speaks by saying, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?"  God names distinct persons in revealing God's own identity, identifying life with each person.  Jesus further expresses the sense of the Scripture, opening its meanings, by giving to us the gift of recognition of persons as well -- in a place of life that is without barrier to that life, not by time, not by space, and not by death.  We are transformed to expand with life itself, to be taken to the "next level," if we can put it that way, so that we are more filled with life than we could previously accommodate.  We are transformed in order to accommodate more fully the life offered by God.  In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis writes of a place where everything becomes more, color has more depth, people are more substantial, and the worldly seems ethereal, pale, abstract, and muted by contrast.  This is the fuller life for which we are transformed, the place Jesus teaches us about, the life that God characterizes in self-revelation as "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."  Perhaps it is we who are far too diminished and little in our own understanding of life, and who need to expand to accommodate God.  Let us consider all the ways that God fills life, and the essential unknown that is filled with that life we cannot conceive, but awaits in His life for us.  Jesus says that God is the God of the living.  It is we who must find the way to learn what that means, in a fullness and depth we have to find through faith.






Saturday, December 9, 2017

Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's


 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk.  And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.  Tell us, therefore, what do You think?  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"  But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the tax money."  So they brought Him a denarius.  And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  And He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."  When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way. 

- Matthew 22:15-22

In our current readings, Jesus is in Jerusalem.  It is what we know as Holy Week; pilgrims from all over Israel and the Jewish diaspora are gathering in Jerusalem for Passover.  Jesus has made His Triumphal Entry, He has cleansed the temple, and has been disputing with the chief priests and Pharisees regarding His authority to do so.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus gave yet another parable to them:  "The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come.  Again, he sent out other servants, saying, 'Tell those who are invited, "See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready.  Come to the wedding." ' But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business.  And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them.  But when the king heard about it, he was furious.  And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.  Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy.  Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.'  So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good.  And the wedding hall was filled with guests.   But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment.  So he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?'  And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  For many are called, but few are chosen."

 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk.  And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.  Tell us, therefore, what do You think?  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"  But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the tax money."  So they brought Him a denarius.  And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  And He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."  When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.  This question is designed to trap Jesus in an answer that will either make Him vulnerable to charges of treason by the Romans or rejection by the Jewish people.   But, as we so often observe about Jesus, He never answers hostile questioners on their own terms.  Rather than accepting the dilemma posed by the Pharisees and Herodians (who are those who support the court of Herod, who rules under Rome), Jesus offers His own basis of understanding.  My study bible says that the distinction between things that are Caesar's and things that are God's does not imply the division of a believer's life into the secular and the sacred.  Instead, the picture is more wholistic:  God is the Lord over all of life, including the secular.  But we do fulfill government requirements that do not conflict with our first responsibility to God (Romans 13:1-7; contrast Acts 4:19, 5:29).   The coin bears the image of Caesar, but each of us is created by God, and bear God's image within ourselves. 

This is an important question, and one that tells us about the place of faith and the Kingdom in our lives.  Rather than severing the tension between the Roman state power and the duty to God, Jesus' answer suspends us in that place where we understand the worldly will always be with us, and the Kingdom will always be "breaking through" in our lives and asking us for discernment.   Rather than battling the world in a political sense, Jesus' sense of the fullness of life gives us a responsibility to bear God's image within us while we negotiate with the world and within it.  Holiness is possible in and through circumstances and dilemmas one cannot imagine if we are simply thinking in terms of worldly political power and might.  Life, in this vision, is a constant place of negotiation, where it is our alertness and state of inner prayer that suspends us in the world but not of it.  Jesus calls for discernment, not rebellion on purely political terms.  We know our first loyalty, we know the Creator of the world and the Giver of our lives.  But we also live within the world as it is, and the story of Jesus' followers is one of prayerful discernment, day by day, as to how God asks of us to respond to the world.  Martyrdom will be a calling for many of His saints.  But martyrdom is not a question of political choice; it is rather a question of spiritual understanding of where and how we are called by God to choose within our own dilemmas presented by the world.  When it is God that comes first, then the field and ground of being no longer is ruled by the merely political.   (Later on in chapter 22, Jesus will give us the fullness of the Law and Prophets summed up in just this first command to love God, and the second to love neighbor as oneself; see 22:37-40.)   Where our depth of connection is to Creator, each moment as we live our lives in this world becomes a point for discernment, a time where a prayerful orientation teaches us how to lead our lives.  This isn't merely a simplistic material consideration of "which side we're on," it is not a choice between one political power or party or another.  That depth of orientation instead requires the alertness to seek where God is leading us and teaching us to grow and expand, and to find new ways to negotiate our lives in this world while our hearts remain firmly first God's.  It is possible to serve God through all things; but in doing so it is the Spirit that chooses the battle, and thereby we enter into mystery and the long learning curve of our faith -- not the certainties of political rules, slogans, and abstract maxims treated as if they were spiritual truth.  The Church fulfills her mission through all things, in all places, under all circumstances, just as Jesus will fill His.  What we find through a life of faith is not absolute certainty, but a life of invitation into mystery, wisdom, and growth.  Christ gives us tastes of this Kingdom not in abstract philosophy, but in joy, love, peace, illumination, and grace.  He teaches us forbearance, endurance, persistence, humility, and true service.  This is the reality of a life of prayer and where it takes us, into that deepening place where we are His first.  To love one's neighbor (in the Greek, this particular word for neighbor means literally the "one who is near") is not to ask first if they share all our opinions and affiliations.  This is where He takes us.





Friday, December 8, 2017

Go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding


And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said:  "The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come.  Again, he sent out other servants, saying, 'Tell those who are invited, "See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready.  Come to the wedding." ' But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business.  And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them.  But when the king heard about it, he was furious.  And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.  Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy.  Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.'  So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good.  And the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

"But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment.  So he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?'  And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  For many are called, but few are chosen."

- Matthew 22:1-14

Jesus is currently in Jerusalem, and it is early in Passover week.  In yesterday's reading, He gave a parable before the leadership in the temple:  "There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower.  And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country.  Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit.  And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another.  Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them.  Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.'  So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.  Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?"  They said to Him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons."  Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures:  'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This was the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?  Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.  And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder."  Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them.  But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.

 And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said:  "The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come."  My study bible says that, like the preceding parables (see this reading, and this one), this parable also proclaims the transfer of the Kingdom from the faithless among the Jews (let us remember that all of the disciples are Jews, as is Jesus Himself) to the Gentiles.  It is set as a joyful wedding banquet (see also 25:1-13), as Christ is often called the "Bridegroom" (9:15, John 3:29).  St. Paul uses a marriage analogy for the Kingdom (Ephesians 5:21-33). 

"Again, he sent out other servants, saying, 'Tell those who are invited, "See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready.  Come to the wedding." ' "   The repeated sending out of the servants shows the Father's great desire to have His people with Him in the Kingdom.  The first group is interpreted to be Moses and those with him, while this second group is composed of the prophets.  These groups call those initially invited -- the Jews.  The oxen represent the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, while the fatted cattle represent the eucharistic bread of the New Covenant.  Fatted is more accurately translated as "wheat-fed," or even more literally as "formed from wheat."  Therefore, both the Old and New Covenants are fulfilled at the wedding of Christ and His Church. 

"But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business.  And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them.  But when the king heard about it, he was furious.  And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city."   St. John Chrysostom comments here that Christ is prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70.   Therefore He attributes this destruction to an act of God rather than simply to that of men.  But nevertheless, their is mercy shown, and patience.  In waiting 40 years from the time of Christ, the entire generation of the time of His Incarnation was given a chance for repentance and faith. 

"Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy.  Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.'  So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good.  And the wedding hall was filled with guests."  The third group of servants, sent out into the highways, represents the apostles sent to the Gentiles (all the nations); that is, those not initially invited, but now called.  

"But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment.  So he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?'  And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  For many are called, but few are chosen."  My study bible explains that the wedding garment would have been provided by the king, and therefore the man had no excuse for not wearing one.  Therefore he's speechless.  His refusal to wear the garment that was provided is an illustration of those who refuse God's hospitality, or who want His Kingdom on their own terms.  My study bible says that the garment specifically refers to the baptismal garment, and by extension, a life of faith, repentance, virtue, and charity.  Without these, a person will ultimately be cast into outer darkness.

Jesus characterizes the repeated messages of the Kingdom, given through all of God's messengers through time, as invitations.  They are invitations to a great wedding feast.  All of the Kingdom will celebrate the marriage of the Son to His beloved bride, who is the Church -- that is, all of the faithful people of God, wherever they are found.  Let us remember that the invitations go out into the highways and to all whom they find, both bad and good.   There are no elites here, no privileged members.  Everybody is included in the invitation.  And each is given a wedding garment.  In this scenario of the wedding banquet, it is all a question of what we find of value, what we treasure.  And that is up to us.  Do we treasure the wedding garment we've been given?  Do we use it and wear it well?  Do we care for it?  Life, in this picture of the parable, is a true banquet.  We've been invited -- every single one of us, both good and bad, whomever is found -- to the King's joyous celebration, to this wedding feast for the whole of the Kingdom, even those who are abroad on the highways.  There is no more generous spirit possible than that involved here.  It is all up to us, whether or not we accept, we say yes to the generous offer of the banquet and the wedding garment itself.  In that spirit of understanding, and in light of the parables Jesus has already given us in the readings from Wednesday and Thursday, let us consider carefully all that we truly find good, and that we truly value.  In this banquet of the Kingdom there is the greatest joy.  Its picture is one of the greatest festivity possible.  It is this to which we are all invited, without discrimination, without barrier, bad or good,  regardless of our station.   In chapter 25, Jesus will give the parable of the Talents (25:14-30).  In it, the Lord says to one:  "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord."  It is this joy into which we are all invited to participate.  The banquet continues into all time, and through all things.  In the Eucharist, we celebrate and participate continually with the angels and with the great cloud of witnesses, in the communion of all who are a part of this wedding.  Let us recall the joy to which we are invited, and our gracious Master who wants every single one to say "Yes, I accept."



Thursday, December 7, 2017

Whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder


 "Hear another parable:  There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower.  And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country.  Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit.  And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another.  Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them.  Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.'  So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.  Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?"  They said to Him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons."  Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures:
'The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
This was the LORD's doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes'?
"Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.  And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder."

Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them.  But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.

- Matthew 21:33-46

Yesterday we read that when came into the temple (after He had cleansed the temple), the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things?  And who gave You this authority?"  But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John -- where was it from?  From heaven or from men?"  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet."  So they answered Jesus and said, "We do not know."  And He said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.  But what do you think?  A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go, work today in my vineyard.'  He answered and said, 'I will not,' but afterward he regretted it and went.  Then he came to the second and said likewise.  And he answered and said, 'I go, sir,' but he did not go.  Which if the two did the will of his father?"  They said to Him, "The first."  Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him."

"Hear another parable:  There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower.  And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country.  Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit.  And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another.  Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them.  Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.'  So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?"  They said to Him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons."    My study bible says of this parable that the landowner represents God the Father, and the vineyard refers to God's people.  The vinedressers to whom the vineyard is leased are the leaders who are entrusted to care for the people.  The servants sent by the owner are the Old Testament prophets, who come to call people back to God.   The landowner's son is Christ Himself.  That they took the Son and cast Him out of the vineyard and killed Him, is understood on two levels:  (10)  Jesus was killed outside of Jerusalem; and (2) He was crucified by foreign soldiers, and not by those of his own vineyard.  The other vinedressers to whom the vineyard is later leased are the Gentiles who are brought into the Church.  As in the events of yesterday's reading, when Jesus posed a question about John the Baptist in response to the demands of the leadership regarding His authority, the leaders convict themselves by their answer.

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures:  'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This was the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?  Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.  And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder."  Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them.  But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.  Jesus quotes from Psalm 118:22-23.    He refers to Himself as this stone.  St. John Chrysostom teaches that this saying illustrates the two ways of destruction.  Those who fall on the stone are people who suffer the consequences of their sins while yet in this life, therefore having the capacity to learn from mistakes.  Those on whom the stone falls are the unrepentant who suffer utter destruction in the final judgment.

Jesus refers us to the consequences of being told the truth, a spiritual truth that we are meant to hear.  He describes Himself as the Son in the parable, the One who follows all the prophets and their messages which call the people (especially the leadership of the people) back to God.  How we respond to that message of truth seems to be all-important, and it certainly is true for the leadership.  This may seem incredibly harsh, but we have to consider that this message is for those who've already been prepared for it.  It is given to those steeped in Scripture, who understand fully the calls of the prophets who have appeared in Jewish spiritual history all along.  This is not a message given for condemnation, but for salvation.  It is given to those considered fully prepared and ready and equipped to hear it and understand it.  Jesus' warnings come to the deliberately blind.  But what is important to consider are the "two ways" of destruction mentioned by Chrysostom.  There are times when we don't pay attention to what we know or perhaps ought to know, and we take some kind of fall in our lives. We stumble.  Often we may find this is the one and only way we become aware of personal flaws, our weak points.  We fall flat on our faces, we blindly walk into complete disaster.  One may have heard the expression, first attributed to Alexander Pope, that "fools rush in where angels fear to tread."  If you have had the experiences I have, you know by personal difficulty the meaning of this expression.  But those of us who are given something upon which to stumble may be grateful for the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, and to make corrections.  This is a spiritual viewpoint that is wise.  It views correction from Christ as something for which we are to be grateful, something which is helpful and loving to us.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus rebukes those whom He loves deeply, such as Peter, for instance, in this passage.  Peter learns from Jesus' rebukes, and becomes the leader of the apostles whom we know.  But those in truly deep circumstances are the ones who refuse to learn from a rebuke, or a pitfall, or a stumbling block.  It is they upon whom this stone will fall.  We have a lifelong learning curve, a journey of faith.   In yesterday's reading, Jesus took the leadership to task for failure to practice repentance at the message of John the Baptist, when harlots and tax collectors did listen and repent.  He spoke of judgment, of such notorious and repentant sinners standing in judgment against the failed leadership.  In today's reading, He gives a dire warning about the consequences of the failure to repent or to reconsider.  This is a failure to heed warnings, to listen to spiritual truth -- in particular to those who know better but prefer place and position to the humility of our place before God, and before the kingdom of heaven which is at hand.  Where do we fall on this scale?  Do we consider the importance of repentance?  Do we take seriously the power of the stone which Jesus likens to Himself?  Do we take note of the numerous times we've stumbled, or do we fail to notice?  Let us be grateful for stumbling, even grateful for the times we've been "broken," in Jesus' language.  In Jesus' telling, it is a way to know ourselves, to correct ourselves, to gain wisdom and spiritual insight.







Wednesday, December 6, 2017

For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him


 Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things?  And who gave You this authority?"  But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John -- where was it from?  From heaven or from men?"  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet."  So they answered Jesus and said, "We do not know."  And He said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

"But what do you think?  A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go, work today in my vineyard.'  He answered and said, 'I will not,' but afterward he regretted it and went.  Then he came to the second and said likewise.  And he answered and said, 'I go, sir,' but he did not go.  Which if the two did the will of his father?"  They said to Him, "The first."  Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him."

- Matthew 21:23-32

Yesterday we read that after His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.' "  Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.  But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant and said to Him, "Do You hear what these are saying?"  And Jesus said to them, "Yes.  Have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise'?"  Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there.  Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry.  And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, "Let no fruit grow on you ever again."  Immediately the fig tree withered away.  And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither away so soon?"  So Jesus answered and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' it will be done.  And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive."

  Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things?  And who gave You this authority?"  But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John -- where was it from?  From heaven or from men?"  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet."  So they answered Jesus and said, "We do not know."  And He said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."  My study bible explains that since Christ is not a Levitical priest, the chief priests and the elders challenge His authority to cleanse the temple.  As Jesus is careful not to reveal Himself to scoffers, He confounds them with His own question about John instead.   Both the elders' question and Christ's question require the same answer, and therefore would lead someone to confess that Jesus has come from heaven.  So, by not answering them directly, Jesus teaches us not to answer those who come asking about holy things with malicious intent.

 "But what do you think?  A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go, work today in my vineyard.'  He answered and said, 'I will not,' but afterward he regretted it and went.  Then he came to the second and said likewise.  And he answered and said, 'I go, sir,' but he did not go.  Which if the two did the will of his father?"  They said to Him, "The first."  Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him."  Using their own principles, my study bible notes here, the elders convict themselves by their answer to Christ's parable.

What do you do in response to news?  Jesus emphasizes that in response to John's message (that it was time for repentance and preparation for the coming of the Lord), tax collectors and harlots believed him -- but the leadership (these chief priests and elders) did not.  While they question His authority, Jesus is questioning why they did not respond to the authority in the prophetic call of John the Baptist.  If we take a look at Matthew chapter 3, we can read John's message to the people:  "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"   To repent is to do an about face, to reconsider, to change one's direction.  In John's use of this word, it is a message to change one's direction in response to the news of the kingdom -- that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Jesus tells them that tax collectors and harlots paid attention.  Those considered to be notorious sinners, tax collectors and harlots, were willing to consider what repentance would mean, and how to prepare for this day or this event -- that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  One would have to consider what that would mean for you or me, if we were to hear this news, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  That it was time to re-think, to reconsider, and especially to reorient our lives to this imminent reality.  The real question is about an evaluation of our own lives in the face of this news.  Suppose we really took this as seriously as it truly warrants -- the Kingdom present, bursting through our sense of "normal."  What would we change?  What do we know we're not doing that is really and truly a "good" idea, what it means to be "good," and to do good.  That is, things that are time-tested and eternal that we know are important to spiritual health (and by extension to the rest of our health considerations as well).  Forgiveness is a huge consideration in the face of this news.  If the Lord were to appear in person in the world, right before us, could we really and truly answer well when it comes to considerations about what is really important and essential?  Have we let go of everything we can to God?  Cleaned up all the clutter in our lives, all the unresolved things that are hanging around?  Is there someone we need to make some effort at reconciliation with, even if the other person does not respond to us?    Do we need to clear the air?   Jesus makes a similar kind of analogy to the presence of the Kingdom when He speaks of bringing our gift to the altar, as the altar is the place of God.  Jesus says, "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).  When we confess our sins, we pray about both things we have done and have left undone.  Is there something undone?  Is there love we need to express, someone who does not know that we love them, whom we'd like to get that message to, in one form or another?  Do we need to make an expression of kindness or love to ease our hearts?  All of these are things that we need to consider, especially if we think we will be "staring in the face of God," so to speak -- or as John puts it so much better (which Jesus will also say, and teach His disciples to say), "The kingdom of heaven is at hand."  With that reality truly present right before us, what do we consider then?  What becomes important in the face of that truth?  What becomes totally unimportant?  What do we wish to discard?  In the re-orientation (repentance) to the presence of that Kingdom, what do our priorities become?  All of these things Jesus says that tax collectors and harlots were willing to do.  They responded.  They changed.  What is it we need to let go of to do so?  What do we need to accept? What stands in the way?  Where do our true values, or careful reconsideration and re-evaluation, take us?  Nothing could be more important, and we know that this Kingdom is really and truly here.



Tuesday, December 5, 2017

If you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, "Be removed and be cast into the sea," it will be done


 Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.' "

Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.  But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant and said to Him, "Do You hear what these are saying?"  And Jesus said to them, "Yes.  Have you never read,
'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have perfected praise'?"
Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there.

Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry.  And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, "Let no fruit grow on you ever again."  Immediately the fig tree withered away.

And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither away so soon?"  So Jesus answered and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' it will be done.  And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive."

- Matthew 21:12-22

Yesterday we read that when Jesus and the disciples drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethpage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.  Loose them and bring them to Me.  And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them."  All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:  "Tell the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your King is coming to you, / Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, / A colt, the foal of a donkey.' "  So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them.  They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them.  And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:  "Hosanna to the Son of David!  'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'  Hosanna in the highest!"  And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?"  So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee."

 Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.' "   Those who bought and sold were trading in live animals for sacrifices in the temple.  It is just before Passover.  The money changers were trading Roman coins for Jewish coins.  This is because Roman coins bore the image of Caesar, worshiped as a god, and so were considered to be defiling in the temple.  Jesus "cleanses" the temple by doing what He does, for which He will be challenged upon the issue of His authority to do so.  My study bible says that the cleansing of the temple also points to the necessity that the Church be kept free from earthly pursuits.  Each person is considered to be a temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19).  This cleansing of the temple by Jesus is therefore also a sign that our hearts and minds should be cleansed of earthly matters, focused on our place in life as such temples.  Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.

Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.  But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant and said to Him, "Do You hear what these are saying?"  And Jesus said to them, "Yes.  Have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise'?"  Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there.  My study bible says that we are called to glorify Christ in the same spirit of pure love and praise as the children crying out in the temple.  It adds that, in contrast to the children, the adults' praise carried earthly expectations and agendas -- which, when left unfulfilled, led them to rebel against Jesus just five days later (27:20-23).  Jesus here quotes from Psalm 8:2.  The chief priests and scribes are indignant because Jesus not only receives pure praise but also has cleansed the temple, something which only the Messiah could do.  The children name Christ as Messiah by praising Him with "Hosanna" (meaning, "Save, we pray" and fitting for a Deliverer or a Messiah) and calling Him the Son of David, a title for the Messiah or king.

Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry.  And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, "Let no fruit grow on you ever again."  Immediately the fig tree withered away.   The fig tree is a symbol of both prosperity and peace.  It withers because it is fruitless.  My study bible calls this a prophetic act.  After three years of Christ's preaching, teaching, and healing, both the leaders and the crowds were destitute of spiritual fruit.  In the tradition of the prophets, they don't "turn back" and listen.  He curses the tree also, my study bible says, to warn those in every generation of what will befall anyone who fails to listen to His message.

And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither away so soon?"  So Jesus answered and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' it will be done.  And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive."   This is not the first time Jesus has used the example of moving a mountain as an expression of the power of faith and prayer -- see also 17:20.    My study bible notes that while it's not recorded than an apostle literally moved a mountain, the Fathers are clear that they did have this authority if the need had arisen.  There are stories of certain saints who did make crevices appear in mountains.  Moreover, not all the things done by the apostles were written down.  Beyond its literal meaning, Jesus' promise is an illustration of the power of faith and prayer in all areas of life.  Theophan comments, "Whatever we ask, without hesitation and believing in God's power, we shall receive" when we ask for spiritually profitable things.

What is the power of prayer?  What is the remarkable thing that Jesus brings into the world?  Certainly prayer has existed in manifold form before and after Jesus.  The Psalms, we know, are quoted by Jesus, and He prays from the Psalms on the Cross (see Mark 15:34 and Psalm 22:1, Luke 23:46 and Psalm 31:5).  At the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples will sing a hymn from the Psalms (likely Psalms 113-118).  Jesus gives us the prayer called the Our Father or the Lord's Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 6:9-13).  Jesus says earlier that "if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (17:20).  Here, He tells us, "Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' it will be done.  And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive."    Note the word "assuredly."  This is a solemn promise.  So what are we to understand of this mustard seed and faith?  In today's reading, Jesus commits an act -- the cleansing of the temple -- that requires faith that He has the authority to do such things.  The children with pure hearts participate in this faith when they praise Him.  He withers the fig tree in a prophetic act, with a power that is vested in the power of faith.  He Himself links up faith with the withering of the fig tree.  It is in that context that He speaks of the faith to move mountains, and the prayer that links with faith.  What we understand about all this dialogue and these events is that faith is something in which we choose to participate.  It is a sort of field into which we tap -- the field of God's presence and power at work in the world, the action of the Spirit, the energies of God's mercy.  Prayer is the method whereby we do so, the most effective way of participation and growth in this field of grace and power.  I would suggest that Jesus' words about faithful prayer teach us about prayer while we participate in this grace through faith -- not a list of what we want if we only somehow convince ourselves we'll get it.  Perhaps with this in mind we should remember what He says:  "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.'"  There is an ancient saying about God that remains true in our Christian faith:  "God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere."  It is this infinite circle whose center is everywhere in which we find ourselves when we pray, through which we find our way and steep in our faith, and grow in the practice of the presence of God.  Prayer is something we work at, continue in, live with.  Jesus has taught, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent" (John 6:29).   It is this circle in which Jesus invites us to participate, made fully human via His life and even His death, baptizing us into the great faith about which He speaks.  Let us find our way through the pure hearts of all those who are like little children.





Monday, December 4, 2017

When He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?" So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee"


 Now when they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethpage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.  Loose them and bring them to Me.  And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them."  All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:
"Tell the daughter of Zion,
'Behold, your King is coming to you,
Lowly, and sitting on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey.' "
So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them.  They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them.  And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:
"Hosanna to the Son of David!
'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'
Hosanna in the highest!"
And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?"  So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee."

- Matthew 21:1-11

On Saturday, we read that as Jesus and the disciples went out of Jericho (on their way toward Jerusalem), a great multitude followed Him.  And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!"  Then the multitude warned them that they should be quiet; but they cried out all the more, saying, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!"  So Jesus stood still and called them, and said, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  They said to Him, "Lord, that our eyes may be opened."  So Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes.  And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him.

 Now when they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethpage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.  Loose them and bring them to Me.  And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them."  All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:  "Tell the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your King is coming to you, / Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, / A colt, the foal of a donkey.' "  So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them.  They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them.  And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:  "Hosanna to the Son of David!  'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'  Hosanna in the highest!"  And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?"  So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee."   Today's reading is the story of Christ's Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, which is celebrated in the Church on Palm Sunday.  By Jesus' time, my study bible tells us, Jewish nationalism had led to the expectation of a political Messiah, one who would deliver them from Roman control and to reestablish the kingdom of David.  In humility, we observe, Jesus shows that He has not come to establish an earthly kingdom.  He doesn't use the power and might of a worldly kingdom of the time.  He does not ride on a horse nor in a chariot.  Rather, He quite deliberately instructs the disciples to fetch a donkey and her colt.  A donkey is a sign of humility and peace -- see Zechariah 9:9, from which the crowds quote.  We notice that Jesus comes into Jerusalem from the East, from the Mount of Olives, as was prophesied of the Messiah.  This entrance into the Holy City declares the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  This is also a promise of Christ's final entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem with all believers and of His accepting the New Jerusalem as His pure Bride (Revelation 21:2).    We may take a closer look at the fact that Matthew reports a colt as well as a donkey.  A patristic interpretation is that the two animals represent the faithful Jews and also the Gentiles who are brought together in the Kingdom.  A Palm Sunday Vespers hymn in the Orthodox Church is sung, "Your riding on a foal prefigured how the untamed and uninstructed Gentiles would pass from unbelief to faith."  We observe also that the people spread their clothes before Jesus.  This is a way of paying reverence to a King.  It is also spiritually interpreted as our own need to lay down our flesh -- even our lives, for Christ.

Today's reading reflects clearly on expectations.  The people of Israel await a deliverer, the Messiah who will reestablish the kingdom of David, and throw off the Roman Empire.  At that time, expectations of the advent of the Messiah were very high.  Jesus enters Jerusalem from the East, as was expected of the Messiah.  He is greeted as a king is greeted, with the people spreading their clothing before him.  The people quote from Zechariah's prophecy to welcome Him:  "Tell the daughter of Zion,'Behold, your King is coming to you.' "    The multitudes welcome Jesus with words reflecting the highest expectation: "Hosanna to the Son of David!  'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'  Hosanna in the highest!"  All the expectations are seemingly set in place as Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem.  All the city wants to know who He is, and the multitudes answer, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee."   Expectation are one thing.  What Jesus has prophesied about what is to come in Jerusalem is another.   The disciples have acknowledged themselves that Jesus is the Christ, and not just a prophet (see this reading).  We might well try to imagine how the disciples are feeling as they watch this scene unfold.  But at this time they might be used to multitudes who follow Jesus, and come to hear Him, or ask for healings.  Jesus is "the news" right now in Jerusalem, and everybody -- all the city, we're told -- wants to know, "Who is this?"  None of them can understand yet the fullness of His message, of His life, of the sacrifice and suffering He will endure, of the cup and baptism He will bring to all of us, of the true Deliverer and Redeemer that He is.  His life will bring us life and His death will defeat death.  Let us imagine this great undertaking, with so much more to it than anyone can see and know, even that the Christ is so much more than the expected Messiah.  His Kingdom shall have no end.  It lives in us.  It is just as He said it would be.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!


 Now as they went out of Jericho, a great multitude followed Him.  And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!"  Then the multitude warned them that they should be quiet; but they cried out all the more, saying, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!"  So Jesus stood still and called them, and said, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  They said to Him, "Lord, that our eyes may be opened."  So Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes.  And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him.

- Matthew 20:29-34

 Yesterday we read that Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify.  And the third day he will rise again."  Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.  And He said to her, "What do you wish?"  She said to Him, "Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom."  But Jesus answered and said, "You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"  They said to Him, "We are able."  So He said to them, "You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father."  And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers.  But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave -- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

Now as they went out of Jericho, a great multitude followed Him.  And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!"  Then the multitude warned them that they should be quiet; but they cried out all the more, saying, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!"  So Jesus stood still and called them, and said, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  They said to Him, "Lord, that our eyes may be opened."  So Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes.  And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him.   Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem.  Jericho was known as a place of danger and also associated with sin (see the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke).  My study bible points out the the two blind men greet Jesus as Lord, the common title for God, and also as Son of David, a title that was deeply associated with the Messiah.  It adds that although Jesus knows what we want before we ask, He calls us to ask freely so that we might learn of His mercy.  There is also a patristic spiritual interpretation of this miracle.  In this view, the blind men symbolize future generations who would come to faith only by hearing, without the benefit of seeing Christ in person (see John 20:29).  Those who try to silence the blind men are persecutors and tyrants, who, in every generation, try to silence the faithful.  But nevertheless under persecution the Church all the more confesses Jesus Christ.

There are many ways we could view today's reading.  Often it is made note of that Matthew's text seems to include a type of doubling:  there are two blind men in this story, just as, for instance, there are two demoniacs in Matthew's story of Jesus casting the many demons into swine (Matthew 8:28-34).   Some suggest that this is possibly Matthew's fuller reporting of details involved, whereas other Evangelists report the significant testimony of one.  It's possible to have a spiritual interpretation in that the two reported can be understood as signifying that Christ is Lord and Messiah for both Jew and Gentile.  We note the reputation of Jericho as a place of sin.  Sin is often associated with blindness, a kind of handicap in which we can't see clearly what is what.  The blind men seek their sight, and their hope is that Christ can give it to them.  It is Jesus' compassion that "enlightens" us, giving light and thereby sight to their eyes.  The text tells us that these men requested that their eyes be opened.  In a "fallen" world, one in which sin is normal, our values become skewed.  We can't necessarily see clearly.  We don't know what is best for us.  Our appetites and desires become fixed by relating to the world as we "see" it.  We're bombarded with impulses, images, desires for all kinds of things, whether we need them or not, whether or not they are good for us, and even despite whether or not we truly want them.  Advertising certainly helps this along, and quite deliberately so.  In our age of social media, we are even more inundated by images to try to live up to.  "Keeping up with the Joneses" for some people can mean impossible images of acquisition and the appearance that goes along with this, giving us all kinds of goals that aren't necessarily rewarding nor truly good for us (leaving aside the question of whether or not they are actually achievable).  This syndrome, most recently, has been frequently associated with depression and even suicide, particularly in young people.  We're born into a world where we have all kinds of natural appetites and needs:  for food, clothing, shelter, and the security of belonging.  But these legitimate needs become skewed and exploited, with all kinds of demands apart from the love and care of God.  It is there we turn, in our own blindness and our inability to truly see what's good for us -- even the image to which we truly need to spire -- to Christ who is here to help out of love and compassion for us.  This is what it means to be truly "saved" -- to see what is what, to focus on our true need, and to share His light with the world and within ourselves.  To be saved is to be liberated from slavery to false ideas, ideals, and images.  Like the passengers on an airplane who are encouraged in an emergency to first of all find their own oxygen mask so they may better help others, Christ's light works that way in us.  To be healed of false needs is a way to cast off desires and demands that are hurtful, so that we might share with others the relief from such burdens, and help one another with those burdens.  The burden of sin itself is one that Christ helps us to remove, for in contrast to that type of slavery to false goals or hopes, His "burden is easy" and His "yoke is light"  (Matthew 11:30).  Our faith in Him is true to us and not misleading.  The blind men know their hope in Christ, but so often our lack of sight (or even insight) prevents us from even that understanding, as we grope to find some sort of goodness and hope in life.  We seek all kinds of substitutes.  False prophets abound and come in many forms.  Let us go to the One who loves us and has compassion for us.  It is for this He was born into the world and remains with us as Jesus Christ.  Let us share in His light in whatever way we can be healed, and help to heal others!





Friday, December 1, 2017

Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?


 Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify.  And the third day he will rise again."

Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.  And He said to her, "What do you wish?"  She said to Him, "Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom."  But Jesus answered and said, "You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"  They said to Him, "We are able."  So He said to them, "You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father."  And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers.  But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave -- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

- Matthew 20:17-28

 In yesterday's reading, Jesus gave a parable about those who labor for the Kingdom:  "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.'  So they went.  Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.  And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?'  They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.'  He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.'  So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.'  And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.  But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.  And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.'  But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong.  Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what is yours and go your way.  I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?  Or is your eye evil because I am good?'  So the last will be first, and the first last.  For many are called, but few chosen."

 Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify.  And the third day he will rise again."  This is the third prediction Jesus has made of His Passion.  My study bible says that His repeated predictions were meant to encourage and strengthen the disciples for the terrifying events they are going to face.  According to Theophan, it is as if Christ were saying to them, "Think on all these [words and miracles], so that when you see me hanging on the Cross, you will not imagine that I am suffering because I am powerless to do otherwise."  This time, He begins on His way to Jerusalem.

Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.  And He said to her, "What do you wish?"  She said to Him, "Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom."  But Jesus answered and said, "You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"  They said to Him, "We are able."  So He said to them, "You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father."   My study bible says that the quest for temporal power and glory is unfitting for a disciple, and it also shows an earthly misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God.  Matthew tells us that it is the mother of Zebedee's sons (John and James) who requested the honor.  But John's and James' own involvement is given in Jesus' statement, as He addresses them in the plural here, and in Mark 10:35.  As He is on His way to Jerusalem, the place where the Messiah must come to claim His Kingdom, they perhaps expect an imminent worldly assumption of power.   Jesus calls His Crucifixion a cup and His death a baptism.  These words have great significance.  The Cross is a cup because He drank it willingly (Hebrews 12:2), and it is His commitment to humankind, for whom He willingly suffers for love.  His death is baptism, because He is completely immersed in it, yet it cleansed the world (Romans 6:3-6), just as our baptism is meant to be a death to the old life which awakens us to the new life of His Kingdom.  Jesus' prophecy of John and James participating in the same cup and baptism shows the life of persecution and martyrdom they would lead after Pentecost.  My study bible adds that Christ declaring that the places of honor in the Kingdom are not His to give doesn't mean that He is lacking in authority.  What it means rather is that they are not His to give arbitrarily.  Those places will be given by Christ to those for whom God has prepared them.  St. John Chrysostom teaches that, with regard to sitting as equals on the right and left hand of Christ in His Kingdom, no one could possibly occupy such a position.  But with regard to the highest places any human being can occupy, those are given in the tradition of the Church to the Virgin Mary (most blessed among women - Luke 1:28) and to John the Baptist (greatest born of women - 11:11).

And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers.  But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave -- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."  Jesus first uses the rulers of the Gentiles as an example of the hunger for power, whom the disciples already consider an abomination (such as ruthless rulers like Herod the Great).   His way of greatness is through service.  He then uses Himself as example by which they should measure greatness or leadership ("first among you").  Christ serves although He is Lord of all.   For many is an Aramaic expression meaning "for all."

As Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, despite His several predictions of His suffering, death, and Resurrection, the disciples clearly have no idea what to expect.  In terms of their requests regarding "greatness" in His Kingdom (see also this earlier reading), it would seem that it is unthinkable to them that the Messiah will not manifest a worldly kingdom in Jerusalem.  Our first understanding of the position of the disciples is their own mindset which comes of traditional expectations about the Messiah.  Despite having been His disciples, they as yet are unprepared for what His sacrifice on the Cross will mean.  It won't be until after Pentecost, and at the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Father, that they begin to fully understand the things that Jesus has taught them.  In accordance with their expectations, they begin to wonder, as the approach to Jerusalem begins, what their places will be in the Kingdom which they expect.  As such, the mother of the Zebedee brothers John and James asks for the highest positions for her sons.  But Jesus is not through with teaching the disciples what they need to know for the life that is ahead of them in His service.  In many of our recent readings in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus has been emphasizing service, and the need of the disciples both for humility and for care of the "littlest ones," the humble in the Church.  It has all been an extraordinary teaching about power and its use, and the nature of the power of the Kingdom which He will establish through His Church.  Standing a worldly notion of power on its head, Jesus contrasts the power-hungry Gentile rulers to those who will be in positions of leadership in His Kingdom, those who would be great and first.  His image for the great is as a servant, and for the first among them is as slave.  We must note that He is addressing the group about how to recognize the qualities in those whom they would call great among them, and whom they would call first.  Jesus establishes what it is to rule with God-like power.  It is to exercise authority by service, by sacrifice, by the rule of love.  It is the one commandment with which He will leave us (John 13:34, 15:12), and in which is found all the Law and the Prophets (22:37-40).  St. Paul tells us that we are to bear one another's burdens, in order to practice this love.   The cup which we drink -- which we do in remembrance of Him -- is one which must be drunk in true fellowship.  Jesus sets the tone in His purpose in going to Jerusalem to serve all of humankind via sacrifice and by the great love of God, so that we understand the ground upon which we stand and the life in which we are invited to participate.  Let us find our own ways to dwell within it and remember how He has taught His disciples.



Thursday, November 30, 2017

So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen


 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.'  So they went.  Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.  And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?'  They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.'  He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.'  So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.'  And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.  But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.  And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.'  But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong.  Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what is yours and go your way.  I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?  Or is your eye evil because I am good?'  So the last will be first, and the first last.  For many are called, but few chosen."

- Matthew 20:1-16

Yesterday we read that, after the rich young man had turned away, Jesus said to His disciples, "Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?"  But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."  Then Peter answered and said to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You.  Therefore what shall we have?"  So Jesus said to them, "Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.'  So they went.  Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.  And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?'  They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.'  He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.'  So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.'  And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.  But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.  And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.'  But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong.  Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what is yours and go your way.  I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?  Or is your eye evil because I am good?'  So the last will be first, and the first last.  For many are called, but few chosen."  My study bible gives an interpretation of this parable:  the vineyard is life in this world.  The day refers both to the span of a single person's life and to the whole of human history.  The laborers are all the people in every nation.  Each hour can refer to times in a person's life, whether infancy, youth, adulthood, maturity, or old age.  There is another understanding possible in the framework of the span of history, in which each hour is seen as referring to those called during the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and finally Christ.  My study bible tells us that God's generosity provides equal reward for both early and late comers.  Jesus teaches by this parable that the former should not be proud of their long service nor resent those called at the eleventh hour.  For latecomers, it is possible even in a short time or at the end of one's life to recover and inherit everything.  For the early Church, this message specifically applied to the Jews (who are the first-called) and the Gentiles (those called later).  In the present time, we can apply it to those raised in the Church or those who find faith later in life, both of whom will receive an equal reward.  There is a famous paschal sermon attributed to St. John Chrysostom (repeated each year during the Easter service in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine rite Catholic churches) based on this parable and applied to the preparations of each person for the paschal Eucharist. 

Jesus' parable is given to illustrate His last statement to the disciples in yesterdays' reading:  "But many who are first will be last, and the last first."  He speaks to these earliest members and foundations of His Church, in response to their question about the reward of leaving all and following Him.  In the parable, He clearly gives a picture alluding to the Church and its believers who are to come.  His parable teaches us about the radical equality of the Kingdom, giving us to understand that despite the uniqueness of every circumstance and each believer who will come to labor in this vineyard, the rewards are the same.  Each is called in his or her own way to be a part of this effort, this living, enduring vineyard in which we who participate enter into the labors of others and continue the work of the harvest.  In the historical perspective, we are to understand the ongoing work of God in the world -- that we who are called to follow Him enter into the work of the harvest just as the disciples did.  Jesus tells this parable in the process of following up on His teachings to the rich young man and His speaking to the disciples of leaving wealth behind to follow Him.  The disciples wonder what they will gain in having done so.  Jesus first assured them that each one who leaves behind houses and family for the sake of the Kingdom will reap much greater rewards.   But the parable is given to teach humility on a greater and even more cosmic level, if we may use that term.  Each one who comes will receive their own reward.  The timelessness of the Kingdom is an assurance to us that although each has his or her own part, the reward is equal.  Therefore as citizens and laborers we are assured that it is right that each is called in one's own way, in God's timing, with God's prerogatives for just how this labor will work.  The landowner says in the parable, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?  Or is your eye evil because I am good?"  Therefore we who choose to become a part of this Kingdom are given to understand that its "rules" do not work according to the same structure as worldly concepts.  It is outside of time and space; we all work in this same harvest who come to serve in it.  It is under one authority and one ownership, whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).  We follow in a very long line of those who work in the vineyard, and for the owner whose direction for a harvest stretches from the beginning of Creation.   At the end of John's Gospel, the risen Christ gives St. Peter his direction and instruction for his work of service.  But Peter asks what another disciple should do (considered to be referring to John himself), saying, "But Lord, what about this man?"  Jesus replies to Peter, "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me" (see John 21:15-25).  Each of us has our own role to play, and the vineyard owner gives the assignment and the equal reward.  There is one vineyard and one owner; none of us must compare ourselves to the other laborers.  In this we must each accept the humility to do as we are called, "So the last will be first, and the first last.  For many are called, but few chosen."