Saturday, July 14, 2018

Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season?


 "Now learn this parable from the fig tree:  When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.  So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near -- at the doors!  Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.

"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.  But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  Then two men will be in the field:  one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill:  one will be taken and the other left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.  But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.  Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

"Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season?  Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing.  Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods.  But if that evil servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites.  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

- Matthew 24:32-51

In the past two readings, Jesus has begun teaching about end times, and the destruction of the temple with war to come in Jerusalem.  In yesterday's reading, He told His disciples, "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand), "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house.  And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes.  But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!  And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.  For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.  And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened.  Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it.  For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you beforehand.  Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it.  For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.  Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other."

 "Now learn this parable from the fig tree:  When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.  So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near -- at the doors!  Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away."  My study bible says that this generation refers to all believers at all times, the generation of the Church, and not merely those alive at the time of Christ.

"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only."   St. John Chrysostom suggests that Jesus says the angels are unaware of the precise day of His return "so that men should not seek to learn what angels do not know," and to forbid them not only from learning the day, but from even inquiring about it.  In accordance with Mark 13:32, and Chrysostom's Matthew text, Jesus declares that the Son also does not know the day of His own return.   Chrysostom teaches that this isn't to be taken literally but is rather a figure of speech.  Rather it means that Christ, although He revealed all the signs that will accompany His return, will not reveal the exact day to anyone, and that believers should not be so brazen as to inquire of Him.  

"For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  Then two men will be in the field:  one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill:  one will be taken and the other left."  My study bible points out that the second coming of Christ will entail a sudden revelation of judgment.  One will be taken to heaven and the other left.  This separation of the saints from the wicked, it says, will occur at the coming of the Son of Man according to the text, and not as some teach today, at a certain time before His second coming.

"Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.  But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.  Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."  What's the purpose in Christ's discourse on this subject?  It is not to make people experts on end-time prophecy, but to tell us that we must watch and be ready -- continuing in virtue, my study bible says, and obeying Christ's commandments.

"Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season?  Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing.  Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods.  But if that evil servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites.  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Here's Christ's illustration of our lives in this time, as we await His return.  We're to remember the that we're servants of the Master, and treat our fellow servants and conduct our own lives according to His instructions.  The repeated stress is on the fact that we don't know when He'll return.  Moreover, He repeatedly emphasizes that it will be at a time we're not aware of.

The unexpected quality of Christ's return is something Jesus vividly and repeatedly teaches us.  He urges us to really understand that not only is the hour unknown, but explicitly says that He's coming at a time we're not going to be aware nor looking for it.  The tone of these warnings is to give us pause, to pull us up short, and to consider right here and right now where our focus is.  To teach us about the end time is not to prepare us in the sense that we can anticipate a time or an event and plan for it.  Rather, the intention here is to tell us to focus on what is at hand and how we're living our lives, because no one knows that day and hour -- least of all us!    On the contrary, Jesus' teaching has the effect of teaching us that every moment counts:  there is no spare time to waste in our lives, and each moment is significant.  As servants, we're given the image that we always have a job to do, duties and responsibilities, commands to follow.  He specifically mentions the duty "to give them food in due season."  Let us consider that He's speaking to His disciples, including the apostles who will go out to all the world preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God.  So, as servants of the Master, how do we give our fellow servants food in due season?   Moreover, He proclaims another kind of beginning of creation as with Adam in Eden:  He's put us in charge of His household (whom his master made ruler over his household).   How do we feed others, and with what?  We're reminded here of the Lord's Prayer request:  "Give us this day our daily bread."  The word translated as "daily" really means something much more, and was apparently coined just for the prayer as it doesn't appear in any other literature or anywhere else.  It means "supersubstantial" or "above the substance" or perhaps even more literally, "supernatural" -- it's the bread that is the food of eternal and true life, that extra substance that we need because we do not live by bread alone (4:4).  Connecting the passages, we can't help but understand that Christ is asking us -- not only as fellow servants, but as those whom He's put in charge of His household -- to feed all those for whom we bear some responsibility in community with this bread that gives life, His word.  Moreover, we are to do this by living the lives He asks of us, following His commands ourselves.  His household is to be ruled with compassion and wisdom, humility and grace.  He asks of us alertness and care.  The opposite is selfishness, abuse, exploitation.   How do we stand as those whom He's put in charge of His household?  What's on the list to do today?



Friday, July 13, 2018

As the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be


 "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand), "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house.  And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes.  But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!  And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.  For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.  And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened.  Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it.  For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you beforehand.  Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it.  For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.

"Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other."

- Matthew 24:15-31

Yesterday we read that Jesus went out and departed from the temple in Jerusalem, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple.  And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things?  Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.  Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be?  And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"  And Jesus answered and said to them:  "Take heed that no one deceives you.  For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.  See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.  All these are the beginning of sorrows.  Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake.  And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.  Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.  And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.  But he who endures to the end shall be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come."

 "Therefore when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place" (whoever reads, let him understand), "then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house.  And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes."  Daniel's prophecy of the abomination of desolation (Daniel 9:23) was fulfilled in AD 70, when the Roman general Titus entered the Most Holy Place and had a statue of himself erected in the temple, before having the temple destroyed.  My study bible explains that the Lord's phrase when you see indicates that many of the disciples  would still be alive at that time.  It adds that the words whoever reads, let him understand are commonly understood to have been inserted by Matthew as an encouragement to his early Christian flock, who may have witnessed this event.

"But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days!"  My study bible cites Luke 23:29 here, as a similar reference by Christ to what is coming in Jerusalem.  It's an expression and acknowledgement of the pain endured at seeing one's children suffering.  A nursing mother's life is concerned with care for her child, but an inability to save the child is understood here by Christ in its terrible pain.  One cannot help but consider the knowledge of His own mother's experience that is soon to come.

"And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.  For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.  And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened."  The severity of winter weather or respect for the Sabbath would prevent many people from quickly fleeing in a time of desperation. Jesus' emphasis here is clearly on the desperate need for escape at this time, and the terrible reality of the circumstances.  My study bible notes that there is a patristic spiritual interpretation given to this passage, which sees the Sabbath as symbolizing idleness with regard to virtue, and winter as indicating fruitlessness with regard to charity.  Therefore, the person who departs this life in such a spiritual state, it says, will suffer judgment.

"Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it.  For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you beforehand.  Therefore if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it.  For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together."  Jesus speaks here about His return, the Second Coming.  He does this chiefly for clarity in the terrible circumstances under which they experience suffering and will be susceptible to those who falsely claim His return.  My study bible says that the manner in which He states He will come back clearly suggests an event that will be unmistakable to the whole world -- and that is there is any question or doubt, this alone is evidence that He has not returned.  As Christ's return will shine from the east, so Orthodox and other Christians worship facing eastward whenever possible, in symbolic hope and anticipation of His second and glorious coming.

"Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken."  Here Jesus continues to speak about the time of His return.  According to patristic commentators, the sun will not be destroyed but rather darkened in relation to the glory of Christ.  In other words, the sun will appear to be dark by comparison when Christ returns in the fullness of His splendor.

"Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other."  My study bible says that the sign of the Son of Man is the Cross, which will be revealed as the standard for Christ's impending judgment.  While at His first coming, Christ came in humility and mortality, at His second coming, He will be revealed in power and great glory.  (See also St. Paul's description at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

What will it be like when Christ returns?  I don't think we can have a way of understanding that, save to say that what we are given here is the understanding that it will be unmistakable, instant, and clear to everyone.  These are the clues that we have been given. But it is also important to understand the context in which these descriptions are given.  Jesus is first of all intent upon enforcing to His disciples that they should not be fooled by false christs, false reports of His return, or false prophets.  He gives them an understanding of His return so that they are not deceived in desperate circumstances in which they face great hardship.  Secondly, we are to understand this critical warning of what is to come in Jerusalem.  He is emphatically urging them to flee at the first sign of the wars that are coming, and to pray that this does not come at particular times which will cause even greater hardship.  There are those who teach that it is because of His warnings that many survived from the early Church at Jerusalem after the destruction of the city.  But there is a deeper truth here we can read into the text.  The Siege of Jerusalem will mark not simply the end of one age, but the beginning of another which in itself is the "end time."  It is, in spiritual perspective, all of a whole.  We remain in this time, and we await His return.  We live with the problems today that He names, with uncertainties and seemingly ever larger and more widespread warfare even as we progress industrially.  As such, He gives us a kind of roadmap for our faith in the time in which we live:  we await His return but we live in the here and the now.   Our focus should be on following His commands and living the life He has taught, and not on when exactly that will happen.  His assurance to us that it will happen in an unmistakable way gives us the freedom to consider how we best live out our faith even in the midst of difficulties.



Thursday, July 12, 2018

He who endures to the end shall be saved


 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple.  And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things?  Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down."

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be?  And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"  And Jesus answered and said to them:  "Take heed that no one deceives you.  For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.  See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.  All these are the beginning of sorrows.

"Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake.  And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.  Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.  And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.  But he who endures to the end shall be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come."

- Matthew 24:1-14

Over the past three days, we have read Jesus' final sermon, delivered in the temple at Jerusalem.  (See Monday's and Tuesday's readings for the first two parts of this sermon.)  In yesterday's reading, Jesus preached, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.  Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.'  Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt.  Serpents, brood of vipers!  How can you escape the condemnation of hell?  Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes:  some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.  Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  See!  Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'"

 Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple.  And Jesus said to them, "Do you not see all these things?  Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down."    This prophecy of the destruction of the temple was fulfilled in AD 70, when the temple was destroyed by the Romans.  True to the prophesy, not one stone of the temple was left upon another.  Only a small portion of an outer retaining wall was to remain, known as the Western Wall.

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be?  And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?"  And Jesus answered and said to them:  "Take heed that no one deceives you.  For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.  See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.  All these are the beginning of sorrows."   From these verses through verse 35, which we'll read over the course of the next two readings, Jesus speaks of the end times.  My study bible says that as the Scriptures describe the end times in a variety of ways, there is no precise chronology can be determined (see Daniel 7-12; Mark 13; Luke 21; 1 Corinthians 15:51-55; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10; and the Book of Revelation).  But Christ's emphasis here is plain for us to understand and take to heart:  He stresses watchfulness and the practice of virtue, rather than constructing timetables of things that haven't yet happened.  In Matthew, the end is described as encompassing the initial sorrows (today's reading), the great tribulation, and the coming of the Son of Man.  My study bible tells us that the period of the great tribulation includes the entire Christian era, and is not limited to the final years before Christ's return.  Here in our passage, the warnings against deception are given great emphasis by Jesus.  He particularly warns us against following a false Christ, and He repeats this warning twice (vv. 11, 23-27).  The wars here, according to my study bible, refer first and foremost to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but they also include subsequent wars.  Wars, it notes, are not a sign of the imminent end, but of the opposite -- that the end is not yet (see 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3).

"Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake.  And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.  Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.  And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.  But he who endures to the end shall be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come."    My study bible says here that all these calamities and all this opposition cannot stop the spread of the gospel, and indeed, persecutions against the Church often increase the number of souls being converted.  It adds that St. John Chrysostom marvels that while the Romans subdued countless Jews in a political uprising; they could not prevail over twelve Jews unarmed with anything except the gospel of Jesus Christ.

My study bible makes it clear that we still live in the era that Christ is speaking about in today's reading.  Indeed, "end times" really lives on a kind of spectrum, and is not limited to one set of circumstances at a particularly denoted time.  It is the age in which we live, initiated by Christ's Incarnation into the world, that is the true "end time."  True to God's own timetable and perspective, the age in which we live manifests its "end times" with echoes of Christ's words throughout the time of the end and the period in which we live, in which "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations."  Jesus speaks of the difficulties of being one of His followers, the tribulations that will follow.  It's not just persecution He warns us about, but also of false prophets in our own midst, and even betrayal, hatred, offenses -- even lawlessness, and that "the love of many will grow cold."  What a terrible scenario!  One might wonder how He could preach such things to His followers and still have a following.    Quite a different perspective than market research would indicate will draw followers.  But His word to us is to endure to the end, and that takes faith.  It takes our ability to bear our own crosses, even those things that are neither fair nor just, that may be placed upon us by a hostile world that doesn't accept nor understand Him.  The cross we bear may be a kind of unjust humiliation like His.  But He calls us to faith, forbearance, and discernment.   We're to be watchful, above all else, and to live in preparation for His return. 







Wednesday, July 11, 2018

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem


 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.  Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.'  Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt.  Serpents, brood of vipers!  How can you escape the condemnation of hell?  Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes:  some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.  Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  See!  Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'"

- Matthew 23:27-39

In the past two days, we've been reading Jesus' final sermon, which took place in the temple at Jerusalem after several confrontations with the leadership.  We began reading the sermon on Monday.  Yesterday we read that Jesus continued, "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you nether go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.  Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.  Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.'  Fools and blind!  For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold?  And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.'  Fools and blind!  For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it.  He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it.  And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law:  justice and mercy and faith.  These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.  Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also."

 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.  Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."  Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees focuses on their hypocrisy.   Their emphasis is on outward appearance, but He questions their corruptions and greed, which has made its way into some of their practices, against the intent of the Law.  Here the emphasis is on the inner life of the heart, every person's need to know themselves and to discard what is not worthy of humility before God and true righteousness in relation to others.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.'  Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt.  Serpents, brood of vipers!  How can you escape the condemnation of hell?  Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes:  some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.  Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation."  Jesus plainly names these men as included in those to whom He referred in the parable of the Wicked Vinedressers (see this reading).  He calls them the latest in a long line of those who persecuted the prophets and refused to listen to God's call back to Himself.  He also speaks to the future when He refers to prophets, wise men, and scribes who will be sent.  Some patristic commentators say that the Zechariah Jesus refers to was the prophet at the time of Joash the king (2 Chronicles 24:20-22), and others teach that it refers to the father of St. John the Baptist, who, according to tradition, was also murdered in the temple.  We note that once again Jesus uses the phrase earlier used for these men by John the Baptist (3:7; see also 12:34).

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  See!  Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'"  Jesus mourns over Jerusalem, and here we see an interesting metaphor.  Jesus images Himself as a mother hen, gathering her brood.  But instead of chicks, it is a brood of vipers, full of rejection. 

Even in the midst of condemnation, Jesus gives us an image of God's love:  a mother hen who wishes only to protect and gather her children under her wings.  Let us rejoice at this loving and maternal image we are given at this moment of condemnation, and understand our God more fully, as well as the nature of God's love for us.  Let us note the balance we have in Christ, of images both maternal and paternal.  Not only that, but Jesus also refers to God's love and God's nature when He says, "How often I wanted to gather your children together . . ." (emphasis mine).  In other words, the nature of God's love is to return again and again, even pleading, with open arms, but it is human beings who refuse and are not willing.  In a real sense, we are given here God's own image of God, a rare glimpse at the internal character of God.  How many of us understand this kind of love for ourselves, and know God this way?  This maternal image is a reframing of the repeated sending of prophets, wise men, and scribes to the leaders of the people.  It frames the image He gives us in the parable of the Wicked Vindressers and the repeated sending of servants, until finally the son is sent, as the pleas of a mother who is concerned for her children.  It should give us pause to know that this image is given to us at the moment of condemnation, at the time when the Son/son is about to be murdered through manipulation by those in charge of the spiritual welfare of the people.  Finally, this appeal is to all the people, the whole of the Holy City, and God's love is for all.  My study bible says here that God's deepest desire is the reconciliation of His people, yet most do not want Him.  The image of the desolate house can be used to mean "family" or "tribe" (see Psalm 115:12; 135:19).   The indication here is that both the temple and the nation will be without God's presence once Christ departs.  This is like a mother's statement of  letting go of her rebellious, refusing children -- until, He says, the time of His return.  At this time He begins to openly reveal Himself in His identity as Son.  St. Chrysostom writes:  "This is the language of one that loves earnestly. He is poignantly appealing to them in relation to the judgment that is to come. He is not merely warning them concerning their past follies. He is now speaking of the future day of his second coming."  Gods' love is ever-present to us as well; let us each take His words to heart for all of us.





Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Fools and blind!


 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you nether go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.  Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.'  Fools and blind!  For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold?  And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.'  Fools and blind!  For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it.  He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it.  And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law:  justice and mercy and faith.  These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.  Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also."

- Matthew 23:13-26

Yesterday we began to read Jesus' final sermon, which took place in the temple in Jerusalem after several confrontations with the leadership.   Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying:  "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.  Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.  For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do to be seen by men.  They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.  They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.'  But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.  Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.  But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you nether go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.  Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves."  My study bible notes here that because the example of a leader can be so influential, leaders who do not love God can hinder others from finding Him as well.  Therefore, leaders are held to a higher standard (James 3:1).  Jesus addresses the hypocritical and selfish practices of the leadership, particularly their greed and their corruption.  Once again, it is important to remember that the things Jesus addresses don't apply simply to the religious leaders of 2,000 years ago nor to one particular people.  They apply to all of us, and particularly to those of us who call ourselves Christians and our religious institutions.   His words remain guideposts and warnings for all of us today.

"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.'  Fools and blind!  For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold?  And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.'  Fools and blind!  For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it.  He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it.  And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it."  Jesus continues to address the tradition of the Pharisees that was developed around the Law, and its workings that actually subverted the purposes of the Law.  Central to all understanding of faith is the need to put the love of God first.  Those who do not are "blind guides."

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law:  justice and mercy and faith.  These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.  Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"  My study bible tells us that Jesus' warnings here (and in the verses that follow, included in tomorrow's reading) are especially important to Orthodox Christians (and by extension, to all other denominations with rich heritage and tradition).  The Church, it says, has maintained the ancient practices of tithing (These you ought to have done), sacred vessels, holy rites, and following the patristic tradition handed down to us.  These practices can be an expression of deep faith and lead one to a deeper commit to God, safeguarding our life in Christ -- or they can be observed without ever taking them to heart and lead to condemnation.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also."  The Pharisees would attach strainers to the mouths of decanters in order to avoid accidentally consuming a ritually unclean substance, and this is what Christ refers to here.  When Jesus speaks of cleansing the inside of the cup and dish, He is speaking of our own internal need for "cleansing" -- and the humility necessary for this kind of faith.

Jesus speaks of a kind of hypocrisy that comes from failing to put the love of God first, practices that look good on the outside but cover up personal corruption.  How does this work, exactly?  What are the processes that feed corruption?  Some people have seemed to feel that doing away with the externals will somehow fix the problems of hypocrisy.  But it just doesn't seem to work that way.  We will all sooner or later resume a mask of piety (or some kind of public display of purity) that can cover up a heart that schemes or betrays itself with some form of selfishness.  While all of us struggle with our own blindness to ourselves in one form or another, it's important to remember that our faith is really based on a deep need for humility before God, and with that goes the recognition that self-knowledge is all-important.  We can't remain deliberately blind to our own failings and think we're living a holy life.  The love of God in the heart works to open us up, to open our hearts to guidance in love.  In God's love, our failings are lovingly corrected.  The notion of some sort of morbid guilt being productive or something given by God is also false, a flip-side of self-centeredness.  Correction comes with acknowledgement within the love that is perpetually renewing, evergreen.  Even the need to hide one's true self behind mask, one might say, could be born of the failure to truly know God's love.  The strange thing about humility is just how good it can make us feel.  Humility is not about being humiliated by others, nor is it a kind of self-deprecation or devaluation of the self at all.  Humility is sitting in right relationship to God and to neighbor.  It puts us in a place that is appropriate for us; before God one is simply surrounded by love and opened in total honesty, secure in a place where guidance is acknowledged as necessary.  Before neighbor, one must recognize not simply a common humanity, but a decency born of that understanding, and the need for self-control and maturity, patience and faith to bear what we need to.  There is a limitation to the need to conform or act simply for the good opinions of others that goes with this (John 12:42-43).  Moreover, the need to humiliate others becomes tempered by our focus on and awareness of our own blindness to ourselves (7:4-5).   Jesus' criticisms of these leaders is their failure to understand the love of God and the humility it must produce in us.  They fail to address their own tendencies for corruption and their hard-heartedness that results.  Each of the faults Jesus criticizes are present to each of us today; they remain temptations for those in authority and also for each individual.  We can wear our faith like a mask, or we can let it develop us by grace, integrating God's love into ourselves through humility in prayer and seeking God's guidance for our own correction, like the leaven that leavens the whole in true faith (13:13).  What will it be?   We need to remember the humility of the poor and all the littlest ones that Christ sets before us as example.  The world is still deeply in need of true faithful to Christ's path.


Monday, July 9, 2018

He who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted


Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying:  "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.  Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.  For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do to be seen by men.  They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.  They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.'  But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.  Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.  But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

- Matthew 23:1-12

 On Saturday, we read that on the same day that the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians questioned Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar, 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. But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.  Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"  Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  One these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying:  "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.  Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.  For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers."  This begins Jesus' final public sermon.  It is a grand critique of the ways of the scribes and Pharisees.  There will be varied themes in the Sermon, which we'll read over the next few days.  In today's reading,  Jesus begins by teaching that the Jewish leaders have God-given authority and that they teach God's Law, but they are personally ungodly and cold-hearted.  Their teaching is to be honored, but they are not to be imitated.  To sit in Moses' seat means to hold the succession of office down from Moses himself.  In the synagogue, my study bible explains, the teacher spoke while seated as a sign of this authority.  St. John Chrysostom comments that the scribes were depraved in thought and in heart, but Jesus still upholds the dignity of their office, as they speak not their own words but God's.  So also within the Church, the clergy are shown respect because they hold the apostolic office, although they too are sinners.  Moreover, the sins of the clergy do not relieve the people from their responsibilities before God.

"But all their works they do to be seen by men.  They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments."  Phylacteries are small leather pouches which contain passages of Scripture.  They are worn on the arm or forehead.  The concept is to keep God's Law always in mind (see Exodus 13:9), but here Jesus says the Pharisees used them as a show of false piety, making them increasingly larger and more noticeable. 

"They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.'  But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.  Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.  But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."   Our true Father and Teacher is God, Jesus teaches.  A teacher or father on earth is one who leads people to God.  The scribes and Pharisees do the opposite, putting themselves in God's position.  Here Jesus warns against calling hypocrites father and teacher; but my study bible points out that it is not an absolute prohibition against using such terms.  These terms are applied many times in the New Testament, all of which usages are inspired by God.  Teacher is used in John 3:10, Acts 13:1, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, and 2 Timothy 1:11.  Father is used in Luke 16:24, 1 Corinthians 4:15, and Colossians 3:21.  My study bible explains that since the very early days of the Church, bishops and presbyters have been called "father" not because they take the place of God, but because in their fatherly care for their flocks, they lead people to God, and they exercise fatherly authority within the community.

It's important to understand that the things for which Jesus criticizes the leadership are still with us.  The changes and structures in the Church, the principles upon which its practices are founded, take into consideration all of Christ's teachings.  But what Jesus principally warns against here -- and which we will reach in subsequent readings -- is the detrimental practices of hypocrisy.  In Saturday's reading Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments in the Law are "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"  He adds, "On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."  Let us note that the driving force in the beginning of this sermon is the same teaching of putting God first.  What He's saying is that the leadership here puts themselves first, putting themselves in the place of God, as my study bible puts it.   Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, He criticized the Pharisees for their own traditions, which subvert the intent of the Law (see this reading), while they nitpick and criticize and burden others with their way of practicing.  With all of these teachings in mind, the Church established its own practices.  But hypocrisy does not solely belong to the Jewish leaders.  Jesus' warnings apply to all of us.  The beauty of our Church and our worship services, my study bible notes elsewhere, may snare us into a sense in which these elements assure us of our own sanctity.  But Christ's commandments still apply to each of us, and hypocrisy remains a temptation and a warning, a true scandal.  Let us note what my study bible teaches in its notes for today's reading:  a true father (or mother, for that matter) or teacher in the Church is one who leads others to God.  It is God who comes first, not the glory of the nominal teacher or father or mother.  For this reason, humility remains after 2,000 years the key and crowning virtue upon which everything else rests.  Without it, the care of the littlest ones is endangered by all kinds of potential behavior, including the hypocrisy against which Christ preaches in this final sermon.  Each one of us who claims to be a follower of Christ is in some way both a teacher and a spiritual mother or father.  There are many who don't follow the idea that being a Christian means making a particular commitment to our own awareness of ourselves, our own humility quotient and practice, our own growth in spiritual virtue.  But this is a kind of blindness such as that which Christ speaks about when He talks about the hypocrisy of the religious leadership.  We'll find all kinds of moral codes we externally may need to comply with or to criticize others about.  But Jesus' message is internal, it is about who we are being in the world and how we are treating others.  To love one's neighbor as oneself, my study bible says, does not mean to love one's neighbor in the same way or amount we love ourselves.  No, it means to love one's neighbor as being of the same nature as we ourselves are, as being created in God’s image and likeness just as we are.  As the Fathers teach, we find our true self in loving our neighbor.  Jesus' criticism of the religious leaders really applies to the ways in which they treat the flock under their care, and it applies to us today as well.  Do we judge with good judgment?  Do we love others as if they are created in the same image and likeness as ourselves?  Do we humiliate and ridicule others with whom we disagree and denigrate their very humanity, or do we enter into dialogue?  We must keep perspective in proper order, in right relationship with God and with neighbor and not confuse the roles.  To do that requires proper humility, the crowning virtue.  Let us keep His commands.



Saturday, July 7, 2018

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


 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.

But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.  Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"  Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

- Matthew 22:23-40

Yesterday we read that the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Jesus 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, "Caesars."  And He said to them, "Render therefore unto 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.  The Sadducees were an aristocratic landowning class of Jerusalem.  They formed an important political "party" or block within the ruling Council, and played a key role in the maintenance of the temple and among the priesthood.  After the Siege and destruction of Jerusalem, they disappeared as a class.  As the text indicates, in contrast to the Pharisees, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  For them the written Law of the Torah was important, in contrast to the oral traditions of the Pharisees.   Their question to Jesus reflects their understanding.  Jesus confirms that there will indeed be a resurrection, but not of the type that the Sadducees imagine here.  They consider the concept of resurrection to be a continuation of earthly life (including earthly marriage).  Therefore they mock the doctrine with an absurd scenario, my study bible says.  But the are ignorant of the Scriptures, which reveal a complete transfiguration of life in the resurrection, and make their questions irrelevant.  Moreover, they also fail to understand how Abraham and his sons can be alive in God even if they are physically dead.  My study bible says that 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.

But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.  Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"  Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."  The Pharisees had found 613 commandments in the Scriptures, and their practice was to debate about which one was central.  Jesus here teaches us the first and the second, which He says constitute the grand framework of all the Law and the Prophets.   Although this lawyer has come purely to test Christ, St. Mark tells us that this man is converted by Jesus' answer (Mark 12:28-34). 

What is the purpose of the Law?  For that matter, of the Prophets, as Christ includes both in His summary with the two great commandments.  The Sadducees come asking about the resurrection, and the Pharisees test Christ about the Law.   How are the two questions related?  What we could answer to both is that Christ is in the world to teach us about life in abundance, and that He is life itself.  The purpose of the Law and the Prophets is to call us to that life, to form and to shape the people of God within that life of God that God wants for us.  The resurrection teaches us about that life that God has for us.  In Revelation, the One who sat on the throne says, "I am always making all things new" (Revelation 21:5 - in a literal translation of the Greek verb form).  The resurrection teaches us about the surprising renewal of life, the transformation in God's life for us.  We can see the effect that Jesus' holiness has on His surroundings.  His whole ministry is a renewal of faith, a rebirth in Judaism.  He gives us the very picture of the effects of this holiness when He teaches us about new wineskins that are necessary to hold the new wine (see this reading).  In the response of the leadership to Christ, in the questions of the Sadducees and Pharisees in today's reading, we can see the effects of Christ's renewal on the leadership.  He is calling them all to the truth of their faith, to redemption, and to repentance.  His first act in Jerusalem is to cleanse the temple, to put them all on notice.  The truth of His ministry is the powerful weapon at work here, and they are fighting back in the way they can.  They plot to trap Him so they can have Him put to death.  But what Jesus leaves us with is the truth that cannot die, that which will not be altered a jot or a tittle (5:17-20).  The power of His holiness, and His commandments, remains for each of us to follow and to put our faith into, to live.  Here, Jesus lays it all out:   the love of God comes first, and love of neighbor coupled with it.  And the purpose of all life is to be transformed, renewed, made new -- whether we are speaking of life in this world and the work of the Holy Spirit or life in the next.  Indeed, His commandments are life (John 12:50), and He is the living Word (John 1:1-5).  The members of the leadership cannot accept this shaking up of their world, their establishment, their places.  They are the custodians of the faith, and yet for them the spiritual eyes and ears of faith don't seem to mean much; Christ tells us, quoting Isaiah, that they have grown hard of hearing and their eyes have grown dim.  He calls them the blind leaders of the blind.  He offers to all people, including these in the leadership, renewal and light, vision and holiness.  His teachings are here for us, in every generation, so that we may find the life in abundance He promises.  The early Church understood that His was the way of life, and contrasted it with the way of death.  Let us be alert to the light of renewal for ourselves, and accept the changes God will bring to us, the ongoing transformation of metanoia (repentance).  His is the light that shines in love for each of us, to show us the way.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Render therefore unto 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, "Caesars."  And He said to them, "Render therefore unto 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

Yesterday we read that Jesus answered the chief priests and elders and 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."

 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, "Caesars."  And He said to them, "Render therefore unto 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.  Let us note first of all that the Herodians are the followers of Herod, who rules in the name of Rome.  My study bible tells us that this question about paying taxes to the Romans is intended as a trap.  If Jesus answers "yes" it will turn the people against Him.  A "no" will bring a charges of treason from the Romans.   His answer, it says, does not indicate that our lives are divided into two, one secular and one sacred.  Rather, everything is in God's hands, but a believer can render the state its due while serving God (Romans 13:1-7; contrast Acts 4:19, 5:29).  As the coin bears the image of the emperor and is properly paid to him, my study bible says, so each person bears the image of God and therefore belongs to God.  Conflict arises only when the state demands that which is contrary to God.  Paying taxes and other types of civil duties are not detrimental to holiness.  (See also this reading in which Jesus paid the temple tax.)

As people who live in the world and are citizens of various countries, we will all have civic duties which belong to us.   The extent to which we participate in civic affairs will differ.  But Jesus seems to teach us clearly that it is possible to dwell in this world without being "of it."  What does that mean, exactly?  It means always one thing, that our first love in our hearts is God, that which He names as the first and greatest commandment in the Law.  It also means that we add to that commandment that one that He names as second, to love neighbor as oneself.  But each of us may have differing ideas as to how to live out those commandments.  Clearly, in the context of the Gospel, the various authorities who quiz Jesus have their own personal interest for doing what they do.  Their questions are not honest questions, but designed to entrap Jesus.   Their objectives are for control and power.  If our first duty is to love God, we may consider clearly which duties interfere with that love in our hearts or not.  While Jesus stands up to these authorities who pose the question, and calls them hypocrites after their praise of Him (or quite possibly because of it), He does not object to the payment of taxes.   He does not incite a revolt against the state although it is the Romans who will crucify Him.  Neither does He incite a political revolution against the leaders of the temple, although quite clearly He feels they mislead the people and are murderers.  He doesn't raise an army.  Rather, for Christ everything begins with faith.  It is meaningful that at the time of Christ's crucifixion, the people are offered a choice between Jesus and Barabbas the robber/revolutionary (27:15-23).  What remains with Christ is that place in the heart in which our love is protected and declared, which is reserved for loyalty to God and love of neighbor.  The Gospels give us a great difference between the enthusiasms of the crowds and true faith.  True faith is found within us; without this love in our hearts, the exterior motions we make mean little.  Christ Himself reserves His worst criticism for those whom He calls hypocrites.  There is a time when our prayers will lead us to speak for our faith and a time when they will not.  To participate in society as it is organized is not in conflict with holiness unless it demands that we surrender that holiness.  Even then, it is up to us to decide where our hearts belong and how we must live our faith.  The key here is simply this:  holiness.  Can we live a holy life even in a world that devalues it and does not understand it?  Each of the saints has found a way to do that; some leading to martyrdom and persecution.  Indeed, Christ Himself will teach that we will find persecution as well as reward for our faith.  But it is our souls we keep first, we needn't seek out the persecution for persecution's sake.  Let us also consider that holiness will work its own way in life, affecting those around us in one way and another, even whether others are aware of it or not.  Start first with a prayer, and see where it leads you.  To participate in life in the world, to be "good citizens," does not take away what is proper.  There are times, however, when the world would seek to interfere with that prayer. 







Thursday, July 5, 2018

Many are called, but few are chosen


 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

In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught, as He spoke to the leadership in the temple in Jerusalem:   "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 leave 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.  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."  In the readings from yesterday (see above) and Tuesday, Jesus has given parables in which, like this one, He gives a message of the transfer of the Kingdom from the Jews who place no faith in Him to the Gentiles.  This one is set as a joyful wedding banquet (see also 25:1-13).  Christ is often called the "Bridegroom" (9:15, John 3:29), and St. Paul uses a marriage analogy for the Kingdom (Ephesians 5:21-33).  Here in the parable, the repeated sending out of servants shows the Father's great desire to have His people with Him in the Kingdom, my study bible says.  This is similar to the many servants sent and abused in the parable of the vinedresses in yesterday's reading.  The first group of servants in today's parable is interpreted to be Moses and those with him, while the second group is composed of the prophets.  These groups call those who are initially invited, the Jews.  The third group represents the apostles sent to the Gentiles, those who were not initially invited but are now called.  The oxen represent the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, while the fatted cattle represent the eucharistic bread of the New Covenant.  (Fatted from the original Greek would be better translated as "wheat-fed" or even more literally "formed from wheat.")  So both the Old and the New Covenants are fulfilled at the wedding of Christ and His Church.

"But when the king heard about it, he was furious.  And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city."  My study bible cites St. John Chrysostom here, who teaches that Christ is prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, thereby attributing this destruction to an act of God rather than simply to that of human beings.  Nevertheless, there is patience and mercy shown by waiting forty years from the time of Christ, giving the whole of the generation a chance to repent.

"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."  The wedding garment would have been provided by the king, so therefore the man had no excuse for not wearing one.  Thereby he is speechless.  My study bible says the refusal to wear the garment that was given is an illustration of those who refuse God's hospitality, or who rather want His Kingdom on their own terms.  Specifically, this garment refers to the baptismal garment, and by extension, a life of faith, repentance, virtue, and charity.  Without these, my study bible says, a person will ultimately be cast into outer darkness.  As in 20:28, for many is an Aramaic and Greek expression which means "for all."

Since Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, His actions have spoken of the consequences of rejection of the Kingdom, the lack of faith in those who have been well-prepared to receive Christ.  Of course, each of these conversations have taken place in the context of confrontation with the religious authorities, the religious leaders of the people, and so the impact of these parables and Jesus' statements is meaningful before these men who are fully prepared to receive and know the Messiah.  The parable itself, in today's reading, illustrates the fullness of preparation, and the lack of excuses, the extent of the king's mercy and efforts so that all are included and prepared for the wedding feast.  But the refusal of the king's servants, the failure to respond to repeated invitations, and the lack of a wedding garment among those who do come, ultimately has an effect and does not go unanswered.  The question here is what we are to think about God's mercy.  How long do we refuse it?  Can we listen to the words of Christ, can we understand the goodness in His ministry, and refuse?  Suppose we are the religious leadership of the people, those who teach and are responsible for the words of the prophets, the fullness of the Scriptures, and the transmission of all of Jewish spiritual heritage to the people.  Would we be responsible for our response to Christ?  In the cleansing of the temple, and in Jesus' reply to these authorities regarding their treatment of John the Baptist, we see and hear a Jesus who finally declares that the time has arrived for judgment to be known.  It doesn't imply that God's mercy is finished.  But it does imply that for these men and for their generation, the time is now to pay attention.  This is Jesus' hour.  His time has come.  He is in Jerusalem for a purpose, and He knows that this is the final week of His life, and that the Passion is to come.  His ministry has continued until this point for three years, but now these men will plot successfully to put Him to death, and it is the hour of His glory.  While God is always prepared for our repentance, there comes a time when we have received sufficient warning and preparation for us to make that decision, and our failure becomes a refusal.  It is important to understand that this cuts two ways; it's not simply that we are able to make a choice, but that we diminish our own capacities for making good choices by continual refusal of mercy and love.  In the language of the Scriptures, our heart becomes hardened.  We can neither see nor hear spiritually, and this is something to take very seriously (13:14-15).  Christ gives us to understand that we are all called to this place of reception of the Creator, this wedding feast for everyone, but our repeated and continued refusals have consequences.  God's love and mercy are endless, but our time is limited.  In yesterday's reading and commentary, we remarked upon St. John Chrysostom's understanding of the difference between one who stumbles upon the stone which is Christ, and the one upon whom that stone falls.  We know of God's mercy, but do we understand the consequences of our own choices?


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

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 leave 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 Jesus 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 of 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."  My study bible explains that in this parable, the landowner represents God the Father, and the vineyard refers to God's people.  The vinedressers are the leadership who are entrusted to care for the people.  Every servant who is sent by the owner stands for an Old Testament prophet who comes to call people back to God, while the beloved son is a reference to Christ Himself.  That the Son is cast out of the vineyard to be killed is understood on two levels:  first, that Jesus was killed outside Jerusalem, and also that Jesus was crucified by foreign soldiers, not by those of His own vineyard.  

"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 leave his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons."   As in yesterday's reading (see above), the leaders convict themselves using their own principles to answer Christ's parable.

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 prophetThis stone is Christ.  St. Chrysostom comments 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 still in this life.  Those on whom the stone falls are unrepentant people suffering utter destruction in the final judgment.  

The Gospels really illustrate for us the pitfalls of self-righteousness.  The leadership is so sure of their own authority that they can't see their own blindness to living holiness in their presence.  They can't understand the authority of Christ.  They illustrate the principle of hypocrisy that Jesus warns us all about in the Sermon on the Mount, when He teaches that we can't possibly correct others properly when we're blind to our own much greater faults, and fail to correct them first (Matthew 7:3-5).  We note once again their fear is of the crowds; their actions are not honest.  John's Gospel tells us that "even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God" (John 12:42-43).   For Jesus, everything comes down to the love of God in the heart.   In the following chapter, Jesus will be challenged by the scribes and Pharisees with a question regarding the greatest commandments in the Law.  He will reply that the first and great commandment is "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."  (The second is like it, He will teach:  "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.")   But it is this love in the heart that puts God first that shields us from the hypocritical blindness to ourselves that comes from self-righteousness, a trusting only to ourselves and a failure to conceive of our own flaws or to presume we have a ways to go before we can properly judge anyone.  To be truly aware of the love of God asks of us the humility to receive it.  It is a strange thing indeed to understand real faith that communicates a kind of love that does not allow us to delude ourselves that there is no room for growth, that always has a powerfully loving way of showing us our flaws and leading us to greater understanding and learning.  Indeed, if we really literally translate the word for disciple from the biblical Greek, we come up with "learner."  The love of God -- a relationship of love with God in the heart -- guides us always into a better way, isn't afraid to show us our flaws (sometimes in painful ways in which we live out our mistakes so that we may see them), but is only possible with the humility and dependency this requires.  It is the failure to understand this guidance that we need in our lives that makes us self-righteous.  St. Chrysostom's distinction between the "two ways" of the stone that Christ speaks about is all-important to this understanding, and yet we hear so little of it.  Perhaps we're too focused on worldly notions of perfection and success as signs of our own goodness.  To fall and stumble in life gives us a chance for change, for repentance (literally "change of mind" in the Greek).  It gives us a chance to see the flaws we're blind to, and to come to a loving God who leads us to a better way.  But without that consciousness of our own fallibility, we are stuck in our sins.  Repentance is an ongoing process of living out our baptism, being open to the surprising "new life" God will lead us to, and letting go of the things we cling to falsely.  Self-righteousness is a way of trusting completely in oneself, holding oneself as judge while being blind to our own faults.  In an atmosphere of condemnation and judgment and finger-pointing, let us understand our first duty to ourselves is humility before God, a need to be shown the way  -- an awareness that, as "learners," we will always have this deeply personal need.