Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of the members of the church I serve or other organizations for which I am employed.
The best-learned lessons are often the hard ones, and Donald’s Trump’s presidency has brought into sharp focus the ego-consciousness that humanity must evolve beyond in order to survive.
Ego-consciousness developed out the primitive reptilian centers of the brain. Its primary focus was originally physical self-preservation: to protect us from bodily harm. That came in handy when we needed to run from saber-toothed tigers. But once we no longer needed to worry about being eaten by predators, ego-consciousness shifted its primary focus to psychological self-preservation: to protect our self-image from harm.
That shift has caused a lot of problems for humanity.
Our self-image (or ego) is the ideas we hold about who we are, but those ideas are just that. As Shakespeare wisely quilled, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players ….” Our bodies and self-image are just as unreal as the costumes and characters of a play. When our time on stage is over, we hang up our costumes, retire our character, and return to who we really are – Life itself.
When Jesus said in “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life …” (John 14:6), he meant that we are not humans experiencing life; we are Life experiencing itself as human – the One experiencing itself as many. Since we are Life itself, we do not die; we simply keep experiencing ourselves through an infinite variety of costumes and characters.
Life supports all of Life. Every aspect of life is equally worthy of care because Life is One. When we accept this truth and begin living our lives according to it, we leave behind ego-consciousness and enter into Christ-Consciousness (or Unity Consciousness).
The ego sees itself as separate from the rest of life; therefore, it perceives life as “the enemy.” It hates life because it doesn’t always cater to its desires. Whenever life doesn’t go the ego’s way, it feels “cheated,” then it does whatever it can to get its way – no matter the cost.
That makes the ego Life’s enemy – not the other way around.
Trump is obviously strongly attached to his self-image, particularly the idea of being a “winner.” In his mind, if he is a “winner,” then it is impossible for him to lose. Conceding to any loss would cause the annihilation of his “winner” self-image, so he must do everything he can to defend himself against the idea that he lost – no matter the cost.
Losing is like a saber-toothed tiger to his self-image.
No one can win all the time, so we can imagine the unbearable pressure this must put on Trump and those like him. People who are in tremendous pain cause tremendous pain for others. We need to have compassion for them while holding them accountable for their harmful behavior. We also need to increase our own awareness of ego-consciousness operating within us so that we can let it go.
That is the only way to be at peace with ourselves, others, and all of life.
Synopsis: It has been a tough year – so tough that if we could have any Christmas gift we wanted, many would probablysay, “I just want peace.” God has already offered us the gift of peace through the coming of Jesus, but not many have received the gift. To receive the gift requires us tobe willing to change how we relate to life.
This Christmas is extra special. In celebrating the birth of Jesus tomorrow, we also celebrate new birth. And we are so ready for something new. More than ever before, we are eager for the new – so eager that for several months, many have expressed how they can’t wait for the coming of the new year.
Yes, it has been a very stressful year. Nationally, we’ve faced the tension of political strife and social unrest – add to that the strain of a global pandemic. At this point, if we could have any Christmas gift we wanted, anything at all, I bet most of us would say we want peace.
But you know … we have already been offered the gift of peace through the coming of Jesus Christ into this world and his redemptive work. His peace is a priceless gift that lasts forever. Unfortunately, not many have received the gift. The main problem is that we don’t feel worthy.
I bet the shepherds felt the same way. After all, they were just lowly shepherds, watching over their flocks by night – working the graveyard shift. The next thing they knew, light was shining all around them, an angel was speaking to them, and the entire heavenly host was singing. God was sending them a message, and it was marked “important.” Don’t we wish we could mark our email messages “important” like that instead of with that little red exclamation point that everyone ignores?
When God sends an important message, it’s impossible to ignore. He sure got the shepherds’ attention! They were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t’ be afraid! I have good news for you!” Then, the angel announced the best gift ever: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Then the angel tells them something that I’m sure really shocked them. He tells them that they will find the Messiah wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Maybe they expected to hear that they will find him wrapped in the finest silk, lying in a crib of gold, inside a king’s palace. But this was not a worldly prince; this was a heavenly prince: The Prince of Peace.
The gift of peace is for ALL the people. That means you are worthy to receive it no matter who you are or what you have done.
The shepherds received it. How do we know? The shepherds said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” They went to check Jesus out. They wanted to see their gift because they had received it.
Receiving the gift of peace requires a shift in how we relate to life. The shift starts with acknowledging who we really are. We are not really these persons; we are the Christ – one with God, with one another, and with all of creation. In fact, we are part of Life itself, so we lack nothing – including worth.
Once we can accept that we are part of Life, then we can stop relating to life as if it were the enemy. Yes, life can be hard, but it is ultimately good. God designed it for our spiritual growth – so that we, like Jesus, might each become the perfect expression of Who God Is.
We humans are like a caterpillar – driven to constantly seek and consume. Inevitably, life as a caterpillar becomes too painful, so it begins to shed its skin and build its cocoon. This past year, the pain of a pandemic has caused many of us to shed the false ideas we had about ourselves, particularly the idea that we are separate beings – that our choices do not affect others. So, we entered our cocoons.
The caterpillar doesn’t know when it will transform into the butterfly, but God knows. God decides when the time is right. But the caterpillar will definitely transform, and so will we. Until then, we must accept life as it is, including the pain, trusting that all is proceeding according to God’s Plan.
The Christ cannot be found in the “inn” of our minds. There is no room in the inn or “intellect.” That’s where all our false ideas are lodged – including the idea that life is not good enough and neither are we.
The Christ can only be found in the stable of our hearts – in that peaceful, still space between thoughts – and we nurture the Christ child within us by paying more attention to that space rather than to the complaints that fill the mind.
This is the journey of becoming that we have been on our entire lives. That child represents our potential as human beings. Like all children, that child is destined to grow up and become an adult.
Once we have grown up, we are no longer becoming. We are being. We are being the gift of peace, and that will transform the world into the kingdom of heaven. Let it be so. AMEN.
Synopsis:Humanity has been presented with an unexpected, overwhelming challenge with this pandemic. How do we respond? When Mary was presented with an unexpected, overwhelming challenge, her response was the most loving response possible: to accept what is. It’s simple, but not easy. How was Mary able to do it?
The appearance of an unexpected event in our lives can challenge us spiritually. When that event is not only unexpected but also overwhelming, it’s even tougher to deal with. How many of us anticipated a pandemic at this time last year? Yet, this unexpected, overwhelming challenge is the card humanity has been dealt along with many other challenges that have come with it.
How do we respond to challenges like these? We focus a lot on the life of Jesus as an example for us, but Mother Mary provided a worthy example as well. Unlike Jesus, she was not “front-and-center,” but she was there, behind the scenes, shining her great light in a quiet, humble way.
Our gospel story takes place in Luke’s gospel, which was written for a Gentile audience. At the beginning is a dedication to someone called Theophilus. No one knows who he was, but most scholars believe he was an influential Gentile for whom Luke wanted to offer an historical account of the life of Jesus Christ and the spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
The conception of Jesus is not the only miracle in this first chapter. There is also the miracle of the conception of John the Baptist, whose mother, Elizabeth, was barren. An angel appeared to Zechariah to give him the news of his wife’s pregnancy and the upcoming birth of a son. Since Zechariah doubted the words of the angel, he was struck mute until the angel’s words were fulfilled.
That takes us to today’s reading about the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High.
Ladies – try to imagine yourselves in Mary’s shoes. You are a young woman – 12-14 years old. You belong to a respectable Jewish family. In fact, you come from Jewish royalty. You belong to the tribe of Jessie, and you are a direct descendant of King David.
You are betrothed to Joseph, who is also of the tribe of Jessie and a direct descendant of King David. Your father arranged your marriage. You were consulted about this after the fact, but only as a formality. Even if you said, “Him … ewwweh, no way!” You wouldn’t get out of it. All you’d get was a look of extreme displeasure from your father.
Next a public announcement was made, and you were officially “engaged.” During this time, typically at least a year, you still lived in your father’s house, and you were not allowed to lie with your betrothed.
Even so, your engagement couldn’t be broken off except through death or divorce. Your father, Joachim (YO-ah-kim), would have received a “mohar” – a dowry – as payment for you. The mohar was typically paid in cash, but sometimes it was paid in service.
Once the engagement period ends, the marriage ceremony will take place where you will be escorted to Joseph’s house to begin living with him. At that time, ownership of you will be passed from your father to your new husband.
Now, imagine that at some point during your engagement period, while you were still living in your father’s house, you are visited by the angel Gabriel.
You’re not only very startled by this supernatural greeting but also shocked at the news that you will give birth to the Son of the Most High who will reign over the house of Jacob forever. You have only one burning question, “How can I possibly be pregnant?” The angel’s answer is bewildering and astounding: The Holy Spirit will impregnate you, so the child will be the Holy Son of God.
The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, “Joshua,” a common name which means, “the Lord saves.” The symbolism of Jesus’ name would not have been lost on the people of his day. As Joshua led the people Israel into the Promised Land, Jesus will lead them into eternal Life.
As we know, the Jews lived according to Torah Law, which is found in the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible. According to Deuteronomy chapter 22, if a girl is found not to be a virgin when the marriage is consummated, not only can her betrothed divorce her, but she can also be stoned to death for adultery.
Just imagine ladies: You’re barely a teenager, and now you have to explain your pregnancy by telling everyone about a vision you had from the angel Gabriel. Maybe you can imagine them looking at you, shaking their heads, and saying, “Sure Mary, the Holy Spirit made you pregnant.”
How scared might you be? How much might you wish this situation would just go away somehow? How much might you wish it was someone else, not you? But we all know Mary’s wonderful response upon hearing the angel’s message. She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary’s response reflects the most loving response we can possibly have toward unexpected, overwhelming challenges and anything else that shows up in life – to simply accept what is. It’s simple, but not easy. How was Mary able to do it?
She said, “Here am I – the servant of the Lord.” Mary was able to respond with love because she accepted “what is” by first accepting who she is: a servant of the Lord.
We are experiencing ourselves as human beings who appear to separate from God, one another, and all of Life. The truth is that we are not separate – only different – and each with a specific function.
Just as the hand may be different from the foot but is not separate from the body, we are all part of the body of Christ with different functions all in service to God as an expression of who God is.
Mary accepted what is – the fact that she is part of the body of Christ with a specific function, and her function was to be the vessel through which Christ became manifest in the world of form by becoming a human being – Jesus.
God chose Mary for this task – a young, poor female. These characteristics might have made the people of her day doubt that anything good could come from her. But God created her for this purpose, so Mary didn’t say, “I can’t do this! I’m not worthy!”
You might think your age or lack of experience, education, or ability might disqualify you from God selecting you for any major task. But God created you. God knows your gifts and talents. If God selects you, then you should have confidence in yourself because He has confidence in you.
Mary was able to respond with love because she accepted another “what is” – that we are not all alone in this world. She knew that this was not the one-and-only time she would receive guidance from Spirit but that she would continue to receive this guidance on a regular basis.
How can we know that she believed this? Well, if she thought this one message was it, she probably would have asked a lot more questions than just “How can I be pregnant?” I think she would have also wanted to know, “How am I going to explain this to everyone? What will happen if they don’t believe me? Will I get stoned to death?”
Just like Mary, we are all capable of regularly receiving guidance from Spirit, but if we are not open to receiving this guidance, then we will not experience it. The main problem is that we don’t consider ourselves worthy enough to receive it, so we try to handle life’s challenges on our own.
Mary was able to respond with love because her trust in her connection with Spirit enabled her to stay in the present – with “what is” in time. At that moment, the only pertinent question was, “How can I be pregnant?” She didn’t ask any questions about the future because the future was not yet “what is.”
Most of our suffering is caused by our own thoughts and feelings, which create an alternate reality that is not “what is.” Our minds create stories about the past or future, and if we believe those stories, we naturally experience feelings, like regret or fear, that make those stories seem true. But feelings don’t make it so.
We so often feel like we are on our own because Spirit doesn’t “buy into” the alternate realities created by our minds. As far as Spirit is concerned, if the problem isn’t real, then guidance isn’t required. Spirit is available to us to help us deal with what is real – with what is happening now.
Mary said, “Let it be with me according to your word.” If this is God’s Will, then I accept it as it is. Mary was able to respond with love because she had the right attitude toward “what is.” No matter what is happening, life is always changing. Even if an external situation doesn’t change for a while, we can decide how we want to experience it internally. We can choose peace.
Mary was favored by God, but didn’t mean her life was easy as Jesus’ mother. Her fiancé came close to abandoning her, her peers probably ridiculed her, and her son would be rejected and murdered. Mary endured all these things trusting in God’s plan, even though she couldn’t see how it would all work out in the end.
Life is like a river. The river does what it does whether we like it or not. We can either go with the flow and be at ease or resist it and exhaust ourselves, but the river will always win. So, resisting life and being unhappy doesn’t change anything but our experience.
It’s human nature to have preferences, but the mind often turns those into likes and dislikes and insists that life always deliver according to its preferences in order to be happy.
So, I might simply prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream, but if mind tells me that I like chocolate ice cream and dislike vanilla ice cream, and I chose to believe that, I will no longer be able to enjoy vanilla ice cream when I can’t have chocolate ice cream.
We resist half of life in this way when we forget that we simply have preferences and allow them to turn into strong “likes” and “dislikes.” I’m sure Mary would have preferred that Jesus was conceived in the usual way, but she was open to a very different experience.
We can notice the mind’s complaints and then gently remind ourselves everything is good and exactly as it should be. Nothing is lacking within you, within me, within others, or within life. When we can let things be as they are, we can let go, relax, and be at peace instead of always fighting “what is.”
Mary was able to respond with love because she allowed love to be her guide since love is “what is.” Love is all there is. She allowed the Mind of Christ to guide her, not the human mind, which generally takes us in the opposite direction of love. Love guided her actions and speech. She was the servant of Love.
We too are called to be the servant of Love and give birth to Christ in human form – in our human form. Jesus was the first to show us what Love looks like in human form, and now it is time for us to morph into the butterfly – to become the full potential of who we are.
Mary’s response perfectly illustrates a loving response toward whatever is happening in life: first, not resisting what’s happening which makes perfect sense since it’s already happening, so it’s too late to do anything about it anyway; second, trusting that life is essentially good; third, trusting that we are loved and supported, and finally, letting love be our guide.
It seems miraculous that someone as young as Mary had the wisdom to respond the way she did, but when we think about it, it is perhaps her young age that made it easier. She was still just an innocent child, and as Jesus said in Matthew 18:3 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
There is no better time than this unexpected, overwhelming time we live in now to accept “what is” and let it be the catalyst that inspires us to become a Portrait of Love.
Let love be our guide. Like Mary, we are dealing with many judgmental, hostile people these days too. If we are tempted to say something that we know does not come from love, then we can choose to keep quiet. If we are tempted to do something that we know does not come from love, then we can choose not to do it. If we make mistakes or fail to resist temptation, we can choose love again and forgive ourselves.
Love is the strongest force in the universe, and it will save the world. One person shining the light of love can dispel the darkness generated by thousands. Just think of the saving power unleashed into the world by Mary’s loving acceptance of her task. That is how powerful we are.
Let’s pray together: Father, we are willing to accept the task of becoming the Portrait of Your Love that you created us to be by allowing the Christ to become manifest in our human form. Through the power of Your Spirit, help us to accept “what is,” trusting that You, the Author of Life, made Life good, and offer us all the loving support we need to be happy. AMEN.
Deffinbaugh, Bob. “Christmas Faith: Matthew 1:18-2:23.” Bible.org, bible.org/article/christmas-faith-matthew-118-223
Lake, Gina. Ten Teachings for One World: Wisdom from Mother Mary. Kindle Edition.
Life Application Study Bible (NIV), 3rd ed. Tyndale, 1 Oct. 2019.
Synopsis: In difficult times such as these, we may begin to ask, “Why hasn’t the Lord come already to make things right?”To be at peace, we must accept God’s timing and patience as well as our responsibility to obey the Law ofLove by extending Love to others.
Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.
Scripture: 2 Peter 3: 8-15.
What makes difficult times even more difficult is when there is strife close to home – when there is conflict with your spouse or children or other relatives. I know of at least one friend who has sadly become estranged from her parents over their different opinions around politics and the pandemic.
The same strife can occur within the church in tough times. Christians can lose their patience. They may wonder, “Why doesn’t Christ come already and set things right?” They may wonder if Christ is coming at all. They may begin to believe those who tell them, “Stop believing in fairytales. God doesn’t exist, and no one’s coming to save the world.”
This problem is why Peter wrote his second letter to the churches in Asia Minor. Some false teachers were scoffing at the idea of Christ coming again to judge the world. Peter wanted these Christians to focus on the Word of God as their primary instruction, not on the word of false teachers.
Those false teachers were living lustful, greedy lifestyles. The teaching about the final judgement was inconvenient, so they tried to persuade other Christians to abandon their faith in the Lord’s promise. Perhaps that way, they would lose having to constantly hear about the final judgment and gain some party friends.
The first subject Peter addresses is the question, “If Christ is coming again, why hasn’t he come already?” Peter’s explanation makes perfect sense. God’s timing is different from ours. We live only about 100 years, but God is eternal. Just like $2000 is like a penny to a billionaire, two thousand years is like a day to God.
Christ will come again at the right time, and only God knows when the right time will be. Only our eternal God can see what is happening in all times: past, present, and future because God is connected to everything. Through Christ, God is aware of everything because Christ is connected to God. Everything that has ever existed, is existing now, or will exist in the future is within this One Consciousness that we call Christ consciousness or the Mind of Christ.
We all share this One Consciousness. Those who designed this church, who built this church, who created every aspect of this church, who witnessed it being built share this One Consciousness with us. That is why we can all see this church and describe it the same way. Its creation is recorded in Christ Consciousness.
We do not have the ability to be aware of everything as these personal selves, but we all have the ability to perceive beyond our personal experiences to a certain extent because our individual consciousness is part of Christ Consciousness.
Some of you might have experienced this ability, known as “clairvoyance.” Some people have developed this ability to the point where they can help with things like criminal investigations by looking into the past or guide people by looking into the future.
It’s pretty cool! But not even the most skilled clairvoyant can see all that God sees, so we don’t understand what’s taking so long for Christ to return. We’re like the little kid who doesn’t understand calendar time, so she keeps asking, “Is it my birthday yet?” or the little kid in the car who has no concept of time as it relates to distance, so he keeps asking, “Are we there yet?”
Are you coming, Lord? Are you coming? Are you coming? We Christians have been asking this question nonstop at least since the 60 A.D mile marker. That’s when this letter was written. We’re at the 2,020 A.D. mile marker. Those Christians in Asia Minor thought they had been waiting a long time? Huh! The Lord promised he would come again, didn’t he? Yes, but God’s sense of time is different from ours.
Now, imagine if you were one of the people who was not yet saved when Christ returned. Wouldn’t you wish the Lord would have waited for you? What if one of your loved ones was not yet saved? Wouldn’t you wish Lord would have waited for them? That’s Peter’s second explanation as to why Christ hasn’t yet returned; it also makes perfect sense.
God loves all of humanity and doesn’t want anyone to perish. He’s not making us wait because he’s foolishly procrastinating or reluctant to keep his promise. He’s patiently waiting for as many people to come to Christ as possible. Let us not use His merciful patience against him by claiming that He can’t save us – or won’t.
It took about 100 years for Noah to build the ark. During that time, Noah preached repentance to the people, trying desperately to change their hearts. God didn’t want anyone to perish. He gave them as much time as he could to repent, but when it was it time, the judgment came in the form of a great flood, and no one could escape it.
That’s how it’s going to be when Christ comes again. If everyone is not saved by the time He comes, it isn’t because God failed; it’s because of our free will, which God gave us. Some will not enter into the kingdom of heaven, but eventually, all will return to the Kingdom of God.
What’s the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of God? I believe the kingdom of heaven is what we are working toward – the part in the Lord’s prayer where we say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At some point, most of humanity will choose to follow God’s Law of Love, and that will transform all of our lives on earth.
I believe humanity joined with Christ will judge the world, using God’s Law of Love as the measuring stick. Love supports Life unconditionally. Christ will judge all our earthly institutions, systems, policies, and laws to determine if they support Life. If they don’t, they will be destroyed or reconstructed to support Life. That’s my vision of how the kingdom of heaven will come.
I think Peter is alluding to something else: The Day of the Lord – the day when all of heaven and earth will pass away. I think of it as the pause between God inhaling and exhaling. When God exhaled, that was the Big Bang. Everything came into existence. Eventually, God will begin inhaling – drawing everything back into Himself. When all has returned, that is the Day of the Lord, the Kingdom of God – the pause before the next exhale. No manifested forms, only the Spirit of God.
Peter imagines this day as there being another loud noise, like the Big Bang, and everything being disclosed before it is dissolved in fire. It’s the end of the world – all worlds – all of Creation, and the beginning of a new Creation. It’s the Cycle of Life, and the Universe is part of it. It begins and seems to end only to begin again anew.
So, while not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven when it arrives, all will eventually be drawn back into God Himself, the Kingdom of God, and purified before the next round of Creation begins.
Peter’s description of the end of the world is terrifying for those who don’t know who they are, but it isn’t terrifying for me or for you. Beneath all of the layers of my humanity, I know there is a part of me that will always be me, and that part is God.
And you know that beneath all of the layers of your humanity, there is a part of you that will always be you, and that part is God.
I will always be aware of me, and you will always be aware of you, and we will always be aware of each other because in Christ, we are literally God’s identity. We are his “I AM.”
That is the good news that Jesus came to not only teach us but to demonstrate to us. There is no need to fear because in Christ we never lose our “I AM,” not when we die physically, not even when all of heaven and earth passes away.
So, what do we do with this knowledge? First, let us be grateful that we know this and have no fear of death. We know the death of our physical bodies is not the end of our “being.” But not everyone knows that, and those who don’t are living their lives very afraid. That should touch or hearts. That should inspire us to go out and spread the good news.
Unfortunately, the way we Christians have spread the “good news” has often been a fire-and-brimstone kind of approach. Fear is what blocks love. We can’t expect people to turn to love by making them feel afraid. And if we make people feel guilty or ashamed, how will that make them fear God less?
So, let us extend love to others, not judgment. The more you make people feel safe and accepted as they are, the more likely they will be open to hearing the good news that they are just as safe and accepted with God because of who they are, not what they have done. They are God’s child, and God has given them eternal life in Christ.
The more we extend love to others, the faster the kingdom in heaven will arrive. So, when you’re feeling a bit impatient, let that impatience be the fuel that motivates you to extend love to more people to alleviate their fears and to make them more open to hearing the good news from you.
Peter advises us to “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.” What did he mean by this?
One of the biggest misconceptions some Christians have is the belief that Jesus abolished Torah Law. Part of the problem is the anti-Semitic teachings of Marcion, who basically taught that Jesus canceled the entire Old Testament. Although he was declared a heretic in 144 A.D, some remnants of his teachings have unfortunately remained in Christian thought.
Another part of the problem is with the interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: 17-18, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
Brad H. Young, professor of Biblical Literature in Judeo Christian Studies at the Graduate Department of Oral Roberts University, believes that three words in this verse have taken on different meanings than they would have had in ancient Jewish thought.
First, the word “law.” The Hebrew word “Torah” comes from the root “yarah,” which means “shoot an arrow,” or “teach.” So, the word Torah refers to the teaching or instruction that is true and straight so that it hits the bulls-eye, which is to guide us toward experiencing the fullness of life God intended for us.
So, Torah is more than just the first five books of the Old Testament with all the rules Jews follow. When Jesus used the word, it meant far more to him than that. Remember Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question about which is the greatest commandment in the law in Matthew 22: 36-40.
He answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus loved Torah. Paul loved Torah. Torah was their life. To them, the Torah is Life because it gives Life – the abundance of Life. As Christians we do not need to follow Torah the way Jews do as part of their covenant with God, but we do need to follow the Law of Love, which is essentially the spirit of Torah. This is the bridge that Paul constructed for us – a bridge that was intended to enable Jews and non-Jews to live in harmony with one another within the community of believers.
Second, the word “abolish.” In ancient Jews thought, to abolish the law meant to destroy it through wrong interpretation. “Fulfill” refers to the proper understanding of the text, which leads to a lifestyle of holiness dedicated to God.
Another passage that is often misunderstood due to a difference in understanding the wording from an ancient Jewish point of view is Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The word “faith” in ancient Jewish thought is not just belief, it is also action. It is faithfulness or obedience to God’s Law of Love. We are not saved by works, but grace doesn’t remove our responsibility to be obedient.
What’s the role of grace then? The flesh is not evil all by itself. It’s just that we humans, being of the flesh, have the potential to commit evil deeds when we forget who we really are. God designed us that way, so how can he judge us for it? He does not.
Instead, he gives us grace through how he created us. We are experiencing ourselves as human beings with a deluded nature that often causes us to sin, but who we really are in Christ never fails to follow the Law of Love because it is Love.
So, when we identify with Christ, we are freed from the condemnation of the flesh – from the “evil inclination” of the flesh. Because of what Jesus accomplished for us, we don’t need to die in order to be “released” from bondage to the flesh and its “evil inclinations.” We can experience freedom while we are still in a body.
The less deluded we are about who we really are, the more we will be obedient to God and faithful to the Law of Love and the more we will be at peace as we wait for the coming of the Lord. This is the Light that we shine, the Light that drives away the darkness, the Light that draws people to Christ, the Light that will hasten the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
Let’s pray together: Lord, when we feel dismayed over the events of the world, we sometimes begin to doubt your promise to return, or we become impatient, wondering why you haven’t returned yet. Forgive us, for we know that God loves everyone and is as patient with them as he has been with us. In gratitude, we are willing to extend God’s Love to others as we wait in peace for your coming. AMEN.
Synopsis:In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus does not give us the right to judge others. Instead, he teaches us the importance of distinguishing between our goat-like human nature and oursheep-like divine nature so that we canconsciously choose which nature to express in each present moment experience.
Our scripture reading for today comes from the end of Matthew chapter 25, a section entitled, “The Judgement of the Nations.” I myself have never considered this a parable, but some call it “the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.” Many Christians love this parable because it seems to say that all the evil people will be thrown into hell. Serves them right!
Unfortunately, because of this passage, many Christians have felt they have the right to say to others, “You’re going to burn in hell,” or the less harsh but just as judgmental version, “I’m concerned that you won’t be in heaven with me.” Jesus taught us in so many other verses NOT to judge one another, so there must be another way of interpreting this passage.
Before we take a closer look at it, let’s look at the context.
In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus tells two parables to illustrate his teachings in the previous chapter on the importance of being prepared for his coming. He warned his disciples not to be deceived by false Messiahs or presumptuous predictions and not to be alarmed by wars, rumors of wars, or natural disasters, for these are simply the birth pangs.
Jesus told both of these parables close to the time of his arrest and crucifixion. They both include a long period of waiting before the master returns and consequences for not being prepared.
We took a look at the first parable, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, where Jesus teaches that only those with the “oil” of spiritual resilience are empowered to keep shining their lights in the darkness and are prepared to participate in the celebration when Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus teaches that only those with this empowering faith will enter into the joy of the master because they will put the gifts God has given them to work to profit His Kingdom.
And that brings us to the end of chapter 25 with what some consider a third parable, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. Jesus once again begins with the setting, but rather than creating a fictional one, Jesus opens with a non-fictional one – a real event – the coming of the Son of Man, who is seated on the Throne of His Glory as King and judge of all the nations, placing the sheep on his right hand and the goats at the left.
Jesus’ disciples would have been familiar with this setting because in Matthew 19:28-30, Jesus tells them that at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the Throne of His Glory, they will each sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. All those who have left their families and vocations for his sake will inherit eternal life. The first will be last, and the last will be first.
Jesus’ disciples also would have been familiar with the importance of separating sheep and goats. During the day, sheep and goats often mingle as they graze. At night, they need to be separated because they have different needs. Prior to specialized breeding, it wasn’t easy to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat because they look very similar, but a good shepherd could tell the difference.
Who are the sheep that Christ the King places at his right hand? To get a clue, let’s talk about what real sheep are like. Sheep are extremely dependent upon their shepherd. If they get rolled onto their backs, the shepherd has to lift them back up on their feet because they will die. They can’t “right” themselves. They are also easily panicked to the point where they would run themselves right off a cliff.
Sheep depend upon their shepherd for the basics of life – for food, water, shelter, and protection from predators. But even though they are so dependent on the shepherd, they still have a tendency to go astray. A shepherd must find lost sheep, or they will die because they are essentially defenseless.
Shepherds lead sheep, and the sheep listen intently to the shepherd’s voice. Sheep are very calm in the presence of the shepherd because they trust the shepherd. With the shepherd, life is easy: All they have to do is listen and follow.
We are the sheep; we belong to God. We are completely dependent on God for all our needs. Because we are not of this world, we are vulnerable – not because we are weak, but because we are gentle ones living in a harsh world. Without a shepherd, we can be easily frightened, go astray, and become prey to malicious people or evil tendencies.
God has appointed the Good Shepherd to take care of us. In Mark 6:34, we read, “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
Christ the King says to the sheep, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
People get confused by these verses because it sounds as if the Lord is giving salvation to those who earned it through good works. But we know that we are not saved “by” good works. We are saved “unto” good works – “released” to do the good works God gave us to do.
The sheep are confused by the King’s reward because they do not recall ever having seen their Lord hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or imprisoned. But because they did good works for “the least of these,” they did it for the Lord. The “good work” that God created us to do in Christ is to love and serve the Christ in all. We love our neighbor as we love ourselves because in Christ our neighbor is our Self.
Who are the goats the King places at the left? To get a clue, let’s talk about what real goats are like. Goats are very independent. If they want to do something, they’ll do it whether you like it or not. For example, goats love chewing on hair. A goatherd might punish a goat or chewing on his hair, but if he took a snooze out in the field, he’d probably wake up with less hair and a very happy goat.
Goats also have a huge appetite; they will eat anything. A goatherd has to be careful not to let a mother goat eat her young’s food because a mother goat will use her head to shove her young out of the way to eat their food – basically letting their own young starve.
Goats are extremely selfish; they want what they want, and they don’t care if they destroy things to get it. Goats generally don’t need protection from things; things generally need protection from goats. And goatherds don’t lead their goats; they follow their goats because the goats just browse around looking for whatever they feel like devouring, and the goatherds just do their best to protect the environment.
Christ the King says to the goats, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Just like real goats, these ill-fated ones led very selfish lives. They wanted what they wanted, and they didn’t care if they destroyed anyone or anything in the process. They were not “released” from their self-absorption and selfish desires. They rejected God’s love, so they did not depend on Him to provide for their needs. Instead, they relied on themselves while trampling on others.
The goats defend themselves using the same words the sheep used to humble themselves. When did we see you hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or imprisoned? We can’t say that these “goats” didn’t do ANY good deeds. Perhaps they did, but they did them selectively – perhaps only for people they liked – or perhaps for the wrong reasons. We know that not all good deeds are done without strings attached. Perhaps they expected things in return for their good deeds or used them to manipulate or shame others or simply to make themselves look good.
In verse 46, we read, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” This is the verse where Jesus appears to say that all the evil people will be “thrown into hell.”
God created humanity in his image, so I believe that every human being, whether saved or not, has a soul that is eternally connected with God and with all of Life. That God would reject and destroy a part of Himself doesn’t make sense to me. However, since God has given us free will, we are free to make our own choices and to experience their consequences.
I believe that as more of humanity joins with Christ, the Earth will begin to move toward the Kingdom of Heaven. As the light and love of God grows to be more and more prevalent, those souls whose hearts have not embraced the light and love of God will choose to leave the earth and/or reincarnate on some other planet where there’s more souls like them. Eventually, they will all be gone.
But they will condemn themselves to a hellish world because their hearts are not prepared to live in a heavenly world. They won’t be able to tolerate it or operate within it. But God will never give up on these souls and will eventually gather them back to Him through the irresistible Power of Love.
What does this parable have to teach us today?
I don’t believe it is giving us permission to try to judge one another a sheep or goat. Human beings don’t have specialized breeding, so it is truly difficult to tell which is which. We all have our opinions, of course, and we are entitled to them, but do we really know? We can’t see inside people’s hearts – but God can, and he has given Christ, not these personal selves, the authority to be the judge.
We are part human and part divine. The human part is temporary; the divine part eternal. But in this life experience, you could say we are part goat and part sheep. That’s not a problem because God created us that way for a purpose. There is a place for our human side and a place for our divine side – just like there is a place for goats and a place for sheep in this world.
We can’t be whole if we don’t accept both parts of ourselves. I believe Jesus is teaching us that the key is to be able to distinguish between the two parts of ourselves – and be fully aware of both parts – so that we can choose which part to express in every present moment experience.
Without this knowledge, we have no choice, and that has been the problem. We have not been aware of our divine side, so our human side has taken too much control over our lives. Our human side has become our common expression and our divine side the rare one. It should be the other way around.
Since we are not shepherds, it’s harder for us to relate to this setting. How many of you are gardeners? When you go out into your garden to harvest, you might notice that some weeds have cropped up in some places or that some of the fruits or vegetables got infested with blight or bugs or maybe a groundhog stole your cabbage.
As a gardener, you pretty much accept that these things go with the territory of gardening. You really don’t have a choice because if you choose not to accept it, you’re only setting yourself up for a whole heap of frustration and disappointment, which can really zap the joy of gardening right out of you.
We should have that same level of acceptance when we look within the garden of ourselves and notice the weeds of ingratitude, the blight of intolerance, the bugs of resentment, and fear – that sneaky thief that steals our joy. These aspects of our human side are within us along with all of the wonderful spiritual produce we have inside us by the grace of God.
As a gardener, you know that when you go out into your garden to harvest the good fruits and vegetables you have grown, you often have more than you need, so you probably enjoy sharing the extras with your family, friends, and neighbors.
It’s because of our divine side that there is an infinite supply of wonderful spiritual produce to share with the world. So, we can enjoy the challenge of being human.
If we look within and see jealousy, impatience, intolerance, meanness, or even hatred, we simply need to recognize that these things are not things we want to extend to others if we are preparing our hearts and the hearts of all for the Kingdom of Heaven.
As a gardener, you know that you need to do the work to look for the weeds and the infected and infested plants, pull them up, then trash or burn them, and you need to create barriers to keep the sneaky thieves out. Otherwise, all these things can do a lot of damage to your garden.
But you don’t necessarily judge yourself a bad gardener because you need to do these things. You know it just goes with the territory of gardening. In fact, you might even enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to win these battles for an even better garden because hey, there’s always another season.
Just as there are many different types of produce, there are many different manifestations of love within us that we have to share, such as patience, kindness, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and gratitude.
We don’t realize it, but there is a huge number of opportunities to extend love every day. If you wake up in the morning, and your spouse is grumpy, extend forgiveness. If you listen to the news, and it makes you want to cry, extend compassion. As you’re enjoying your morning cup of coffee, extend gratitude. If you went out the door and forgot your mask – again, extend kindness. If the car in front of you is moving too slow, extend patience.
So, let us take advantage of every opportunity to extend love. God is calling us to share love with others – especially those who most need love – the poor, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned. People need it more than ever right now. When we share love, we demonstrate who we belong to – that we belong to God – that we are the sheep of his pasture – and that we want to live in a world ruled by love.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we get so caught up in our own lives and needs that we often fail to notice those who are struggling in their lives, those who are in need. Help us to slow down, be present, and be ready extend love because in this way, we move the earth ever closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.
Synopsis: How do we keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked in dark times so that we are prepared for Christ’s coming? We do what Jesus did in times like these: We surrender to our feelings and to the unknown, trusting in God’s promises.
How many of you have experienced being “on call?” When I was in my twenties, I was an Emergency Medical Technician for Barrett Township Volunteer Ambulance Corp. When I was “on call,” I had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. I didn’t know if we were going to get a call that day, but I had to be prepared and expectant.
Jesus uses the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids to make a point about the importance of being prepared and expectant for Christ’s second coming.
You might remember that Jesus told parables to make a point, so it’s important to know the context to understanding its meaning. Since the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids begins Matthew chapter 25, the context is in the previous chapter.
In chapter 24, after Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, the disciples began questioning him about the signs of his coming at the end of the age. They assumed the destruction of the Temple would herald the End Times, but the Lord warned them about making such predictions.
He warned them not to be deceived because it might be some time before he returns. He said to them that many will proclaim themselves to be the Messiah, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, but these are simply the birth pangs.
Using the example of the fig tree, Jesus taught his disciples to be watchful for signs of the “season” of his coming, and to be expectant, but no one knows the day or hour.
The setting of this parable is a Jewish wedding. To get an idea of what’s going on, it’s somewhat helpful to understand a first century Jewish wedding, but we can’t take what happens literally since Jesus is using it as a literary device. Like any good storyteller, he might twist or embellish facts a bit to make his point, even leave out major elements that aren’t relevant to the point – like any mention of the bride!
A Jewish wedding begins with the groom leaving his home to go to the bride’s home where certain rituals would take place. After nightfall, the bride and bridesmaids would process through the streets to his home, the bride’s new home, where the marriage celebration would take place over several days.
Everyone in the procession must carry a torch; otherwise, they might be considered party crashers or bandits. They are expected to meet the groom on his way to his house, but no one could predict exactly when the groom would arrive at the meeting place.
In the previous chapter, in verses 37-39, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes.”
The bridegroom doesn’t arrive until quite late in the evening, so they all fell asleep waiting for him. When I was on call overnight, sometimes I would stay at the ambulance building, and sometimes I would stay at home. Either way, I would go to sleep, but before I went to sleep, I made sure my uniform was ready to be slipped on, and my gear bag was packed and ready to go.
The bridesmaids had all fallen asleep, but they are awoken with a shout as the groom finally arrives at midnight. That’s when we learn that some of them weren’t prepared. When they get up to trim their lamps, the foolish say to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”
The Reverend Bob Diffenbaugh sheds a lot of light on this lamp issue – pun intended. First, he explains that the “lamp” they used isn’t the kind of lamp we think of when we hear the word. The Greek word, “lampas,” is more of a torch. It was just a large, flat bowl with a rag or rope-like wick that could be attached to a pole to light one’s way in the darkness.
Next, he notes that New English Translation Bible states that the word “extra” is not used in the original Greek – which is also true of the version we use. Some translations, such as the New Living Translation, suggest that the foolish ones took oil with them, but not enough. If that were the case, why would all of their lamps be “going out” at the same time?
Rev. Diffenbaugh concludes that they must not have brought any oil with them. He writes, “There must have been some residue of oil on the rag or wick of the five empty lamps, which quickly burned out, only moments after being lit. This would explain why all five torches went out at the same time. Perhaps, too, these foolish [bridesmaids] minimized their foolishness by describing their plight as ‘running out’ so as to look less foolish.”
If I agreed to be on call for the ambulance corp., I had to be ready to respond – period. No excuses. That meant I couldn’t leave the area because I needed to be able to get to the ambulance building quickly. I also couldn’t get delayed in any way. Little things like sitting in the drive thru at Burger King would be a problem if my pager suddenly went off. It wouldn’t cut it to say, “Sorry I missed the call. I wanted a Whopper.”
The foolish bridesmaids’ excuse for “running out” didn’t cut it either. They were supposed to be prepared. It might seem cold that the wise bridesmaids didn’t help them out, but they couldn’t.
So, the foolish bridesmaids went out to buy more oil, but by the time they got to the groom’s house, the celebration was already underway. The door was shut. They were too late. The groom probably thought that since they didn’t arrive with the other bridesmaids, they were imposters trying to crash the party.
How can we apply this parable to our lives today?
Let’s be honest. We are living in a very painful and chaotic world right now. Many are dying, many are grieving, many are afraid, and many are angry. What should be our response? What should we say to people? How about what Jesus said in times like these: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.”
If any of you are feeling great sorrow today, it’s OK. It’s totally appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’ve given up on the world. It just means your heart is wide open. You haven’t become numb through it all. You’ve been very brave.
Jesus felt great sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he accomplished his redemptive work. Even though he felt great sorrow for the world, he still had hope because he trusted in God’s promises.
Christ first came in one individual named Jesus to introduce humanity to who we really are. I believe Christ will come the second time not as a single person, but in a multitude of people. That is the only way that Christ can be revealed in all His Glory. Since His Glory is in each of us, all of it must be in all of us.
There is only one thing that will save the world, and that is the love of God. God’s Love is made known through Christ. Christ dwells within every living thing, but only human beings have the capacity to make God’s love and creativity more fully known in this physical world.
For the world to be saved, we need enough wise people to meet the Christ and to join with him in the procession back to his home, the True Self.
As an EMT, I remember how awesome it felt to save someone’s life – to be part of a team of people that saved someone’s life. Maybe some of you have had that experience and remember how awesome that feels.
Imagine how awesome it will feel to be part of something that saves the whole world! To feel the joy of the fulfillment of all we came here to do. That’s a celebration we wouldn’t want to miss!
I would like to suggest that the lamp oil in this parable represents spiritual resilience. The word resilience means “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”
A therapist once told me that once I make up my mind to tackle a challenge, I tackle it like a rodeo cowboy tackles a bull. I take that thing by the horns, wrestle it into submission, and bind it up tight. That kind of resilience works well for personal challenges, but when we’re dealing with world-wide challenges, spiritual resilience is needed.
Spiritual resilience is the ability to trust God, remain hopeful, and shine our light even when it’s mighty dark out there, and it’s getting late. It’s something that can be cultivated only through a close relationship with God, so it’s not something that can be faked or bought.
We can keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked through surrender. First, we need to surrender to our feelings. Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….” What an honest prayer. Jesus was so brave that he allowed his heart to be wide open such that he was able to feel the sorrow of the whole world.
Maybe now, all of humanity can begin to appreciate that pain. All of humanity is feeling the pain of this pandemic and all the political and social chaos that has come with it. Like Jesus, in our humanity, we wish the pain would go away because … it hurts! Like so many people today, we just wish we could go back to normal.
There is nothing wrong with feelings. What matters is not our feelings, but how we respond to them.
There are two ways to respond to feelings. The first way is with fear. When we respond with fear, we try to push the feelings away by taking control. We make quick decisions and act on them. But actions based on fear are usually foolish. We often create more suffering for ourselves and others.
The second way is with love. When we respond with love, we surrender. We allow the painful feelings to be there, and we let go of control. We let events play out as they will, and respond only when it feels right. We demonstrate our trust in God and our willingness to allow His Will to be done.
Jesus responded to his feelings of deep sorrow with love when he prayed, “… yet not what I want but what you want.” Jesus surrendered. He turned his will over to God, trusting that God knows what it takes to accomplish the salvation of the world.
So, to keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked, we need to surrender to our feelings, trusting God in the darkness while we are in pain by constantly praying, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Whatever transformation you have in store for me, Father – and for all of humanity – I am willing to accept because I know you know how to save the world better than I do.
We know Christ is coming and that there will be a big party at his house when he arrives – we just don’t know how or when. To keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked, we need also to surrender to the unknown.
We think we know so much more than we do about ourselves, others, and life in general.
If we can let go of what we think we know, or at least hold onto what we think we know a little more loosely, we will be able respond when Christ arrives because we will recognize him. As we know, it’s our judgements that keep the Christ hidden from us.
We need to let go of who we think we are because we are becoming far more than that. Joyce Meyer writes, “Potential cannot manifest without form. There must be something for it to be poured into, something that will cause it to take shape and become useful.”
That got me to thinking about this form (body) in which God’s potential through Christ is made manifest. Through Christ, God poured His Potential into everything that is alive, including us human beings. But if we keep judging ourselves, the vast space within us that is the Christ becomes smaller and smaller because it’s like we keep choosing to pour our form into smaller containers.
How many of you have a set of those containers where there’s a big one, but then a smaller one fits inside of it, and a smaller one fits inside of it, and a smaller one fits inside of that one, so there’s maybe six containers inside this one big container.
It’s awesome for kitchenware, but not for human beings. As the Christ, we start out as an infinitely vast container with infinite potential, but each time we judge ourselves, it’s like we’re putting another smaller container inside the space within us and with each container, the space becomes smaller and smaller and smaller, and our potential shrinks along with it.
We do the same thing to others when we judge them, and they take our judgments to heart, so we need to let go of who we think others are because they are becoming far more than that. We need to stop judging people for what they think and feel. allow them to have their thoughts and feelings, and create a loving, safe space for them to be whoever they are. We might discover that there’s far more to them then what we “knew.”
We need to stop judging life also. Through judgments, we put Life itself into smaller containers also. We need to let go of our ideas about the way things “should” be happening. With God, there are infinite possibilities and infinite potentialities for life on Earth. When we are so fixated on our own ideas about how life should be, we might not see Christ’s arrival happening right under our noses.
Yes, this time could very well be the late evening through which the Christ is making his way back to his home for the wedding celebration, so we need to be ready to join the party by surrendering to our feelings and to the unknown.
Marianne Williamson has said, “Something amazing happens when we surrender and just love. We melt into another world, a realm of power already within us. The world changes when we change. the world softens when we soften. The world loves us when we choose to love the world.”
Let’s pray together: Lord, when we are in pain, help us to remember to surrender our will to God’s Will and to open our heart even more widely in acceptance of ourselves, others, and of this beautiful life we have been given. Amen.
Synopsis: By practicing the three pillars of the Greatest Commandment – appreciation, acceptance, and sharing – we can be a complete, perfect, unique expression of God, encourage others, and return Love to its Source.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 22: 34-40
Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon.
I think it would be safe to say that most people know the Great Commandment Jesus spoke of in our scripture reading for today, or at least the Golden Rule part of it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If that’s the case, then why are we living in a world where love appears to be so lacking.
The same was true during Jesus’ time. Most Jews knew that that they were supposed to love God and one another. Even so, there wasn’t much love going around. Most Jews knew of God as a God of justice, but there wasn’t much justice going around either.
The problem is the same today as it was back then.
After Jesus entered Jerusalem, his conflict with the chief priests and elders became clear. Jesus’ conflict was not only with the chief priests and elders. Jesus also had a conflict with the Pharisees because he refused to follow their “teachings of the elders.” He refused to follow them because he believed they were overly burdensome to the people. Generally speaking, the Pharisees themselves didn’t even follow them (which is partly why Jesus calls them hypocrites in the next chapter).
So, the Pharisees were also looking for opportunities to discredit Jesus. After Jesus discredits the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees attempt to trap him with a question about taxes, which Jesus successfully escapes by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Then, the Sadducees attempt to stump Jesus with a question about the resurrection of the dead, which was obviously deceitful because the Sadducees did not believe in it. The Pharisees did, so the two factions were constantly debating one another about it. Jesus’ response made it clear that he believed in the resurrection of the dead – indeed, he would soon demonstrate its truth.
That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Rather than being happy with the fact that Jesus actually sided with them for once, the Pharisees continued to try to discredit Jesus, so they decided to test him again with a question about the greatest commandment.
There are over 600 Torah Laws, so there was always plenty of debate over which ones were more important and which ones were less important. The man who asked Jesus “which is the greatest commandment” was an “expert in the law.”
He wasn’t a “lawyer” like we think of one. In our society, church and state are separate, so our lawyers are experts in civic law, not biblical law. For Jesus and his fellow Jews, Torah law was civic law, and these men were experts in the practical applications of it.
This question was posed to Jesus to test his judgment, not necessarily his knowledge of the law. They probably hoped that he would answer in a way that displeased the crowd gathered that day, which would be enough to successfully discredit him.
Jesus answered the question the way the “experts of the law” would have answered it since it was known which law they had previously judged to be the greatest commandment and the sum of all the rest. Jesus obviously had no conflict with their position on this point, so to ask him this question was a bit condescending.
He knew the law, but I think what the chief priests and elders found so disturbing was the fact that he actually practiced it, which made them look bad. With their mouths they declared the Greatest Commandment, but their hearts were far from it. They were more concerned with power, not love.
The confusion many people have with the greatest commandment is a misunderstanding of the word “love.” God’s love and human love are different. Human love is exclusive; we love only certain people – usually our family members and closest friends. God’s love is inclusive; God loves everything in Creation.
Human love is finite; we might stop loving those who hurt us. God’s love is infinite; it never ends no matter what we do. Human love is conditional; it often depends on what someone can give to us. God’s love is unconditional; it’s s all about what God can give.
It has been said that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves, but I also believe that we can’t love God unless we love ourselves. I believe the foundation is love of Self (with a capital S). If we love our Self then loving God and others will naturally follow.
This is why the idea of original sin has been so damaging. We certainly can’t love ourselves with such a negative view of our nature. And how can we love a God who creates defective creatures and then punishes them for it? At most, we can fear such a God, but never love. Fortunately, we are not defective creatures, so we must start there to correct our mistaken perception of ourselves.
We have all acknowledged the truth that we are not these personal selves – these bodies with personal thoughts and feelings. These personal selves are merely tools that we use to be an expression of God in Christ. God is infinite, so God would need an infinite number of expressions to be fully expressed – to be fully known.
We can be that expression by practicing the three pillars of the Great Commandment.
The first is appreciation. How many of you have engaged in a creative piece of work? Maybe you composed a piece of music. Maybe you like to write. Maybe you like to draw, paint, or create other pieces of artwork. Maybe you like to knit or crochet. Maybe you like to cook or bake goodies.
Everything you create is a unique expression of who you are. It starts out as an idea, and then you begin to work on it, but that original idea keeps developing. There are many stages in the creation process, and each stage has value. In every stage, your creation exists in relationship to you, its creator, and in each stage, it is what it is. Sometimes, it’s a complete mess.
What you create is a unique expression of you in form. In that sense, you and it are united. There might be some challenging times in the process, but even those have value and help your creation to be all it can be, and you love it despite those challenges because it lives within you and you within it.
Now, there’s a point in which your creation is “finished.” It then becomes a static expression of who you were at a particular point in time. We live in time, so our personal selves are finite, but God lives in eternity.
God is infinite and as an expression of God, Christ is infinite – always changing and evolving –something always changing and evolving would expresses God’ infinite nature perfectly and completely.
This is difficult for us to understand since we live in time. In eternity, we can never really be “finished,” but we are nevertheless complete. This is good news because if we have this “ideal” image in our heads of who we will be when God is “finished” with us, we can burn that as a false idol. We are already complete in Christ even though we are constantly evolving. God sees each of us right now as the complete, perfect, unique expression of His infinite nature and deeply appreciates us.
Let the appreciation for the unique expression of God that you are fill you heart, allow it to extend to an appreciation of the Creator who is joined with you, loving and supporting you in every moment of your life, and let this appreciation extend to the others who are also complete, perfect, unique expressions of God as together we are all woven like unique threads in this beautiful tapestry called “Life.”
The second pillar of the Great Commandment is acceptance. If we are complete, perfect, unique expressions of God in Christ just the way we are in each moment, then we can accept the thoughts and feelings we experience without judging ourselves.
This is especially true of painful thoughts and feelings. How often do we have thoughts or feelings we wish we didn’t have? We wish we didn’t have them because they are painful, and most of the time, we feel pain because we are believing lies.
These lies are judgments that enter the mind, but they do not come from the Mind of Christ. Thoughts and feelings that come from the Mind of Christ are always in the moment. They aren’t generated by regrets about the past or predictions about the future. They don’t protest what is because it already is.
I’ve been feeling impatient a lot these days. Everything seems to take longer to happen, right? So, I’ve been calling myself an “impatient person,” which has been painful because it’s not the truth.
Just because I feel impatient now and have felt impatient in the past doesn’t justify a future prediction about how I will act. Impatient feelings don’t make me an “impatient person.” But if I slap an “impatient person” label on myself, I will more likely act impatiently – thus fulfilling my own prophecy.
Even though I feel impatient, I often choose to act with patience. That is a present moment inspiration coming from who I really am – from the Christ within.
Lies might enter our minds about others as well. We might feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is gossiping about another person. What often happens is that simple feeling of discomfort quickly turns into disgust as we imagine that that person has probably gossiped about us behind our backs too and will do so in the future, so we choose to stay away from that “gossiper” and all those other “gossipers” that we see them talking to.
In that single moment, we imagine a past that may not exist and predetermine who that one person and all those other people are and how they will act in the future. Instead, we might simply accept our discomfort and choose to politely excuse ourselves. That inspiration comes from the Christ in the present moment.
This is why Jesus taught us not to judge others. We judge ourselves in the same way we judge others. Judgment is how we create the many layers concealing the Christ within others and ourselves. We don’t see ourselves or them in the present moment; we see only the layers of judgements.
The only way we can become expressions of God in form is to have a form – a human self. As human beings, lies will naturally come into our minds. We can accept this without believing them. If we don’t believe them, then we won’t react to them in unloving ways.
We can choose to appreciate and accept ourselves and our brothers and sisters in the present moment and act out of that appreciation and acceptance. When we do, we are the extension of God’s Love we were created to be. In fact, the words “appreciation” and “acceptance” are good words to describe the “attitude” of God’s Love.
The third pillar of the Great Commandment is sharing. If appreciation and acceptance are the “attitude” pillars, then this one is the “action” pillar. Acceptance is not passive. Jesus certainly was not passive when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and merchants in the Temple. He dealt with the situation in the moment without judging the people involved. He felt anger, and he acted in the moment without really hurting anyone – only their wealth and pride.
After Jesus cleared out the Temple, he shared something we all have to share – our time and attention. People came to him, and he lovingly gave them his time and attention. No matter how little time we have, it’s not so little that we can’t give someone “the time of day” – a simple gesture like a smile or a nod toward a complete stranger just to let them know we acknowledge their existence. Something as simple as that can make someone’s day.
It is very loving to take the time to really listen to someone. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced what it’s like to have a conversation with someone who really listens, and I don’t mean in a clinical way, like a therapist who would ask, “So tell me, how did that make you feel?” Most people don’t want to feel like they’re talking to a therapist – unless of course they’ve hired one and are paying for it.
What really helps both speakers and listeners to feel connected is when listeners are quiet but use good eye contact and facial expressions to indicate that they are truly listening. They speak sparingly – only to ask relevant questions or rephrase what the person has said to make sure they understand.
We think it’s helpful to share our experiences, but most of the time, it isn’t. It can be a form of giving unasked-for advice. Most people would rather figure things out for themselves, and they will, if we lovingly give them our time and attention – the “space” to talk about it.
Everything in creation was given to us by God, not to hoard, but to share with others. One of God’s laws we have difficulty understanding is that when we give, we receive. We always get something in return for what we give especially if it was given in love with no strings attached.
In Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. A landowner had such an abundant harvest that he didn’t have big enough barns to store it all. He had this brilliant idea to tear down the old ones and build bigger ones so that he could sit back, relax, and enjoy life.
We might think that the landowner was being smart, but God called him a fool saying, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Instead of taking the opportunity to share, all that surplus will end up rotting in his barns.
So, if we have more than we need, we should give away the excess to someone who needs it. We receive the blessing of having less to manage, but we also open our lives up to receive new gifts from God – like something we need.
Sharing talents is part of appreciation and acceptance. We need to appreciate that as a unique creation, we have unique gifts and talents, but we must accept those gifts and talents in order to share them.
Part of that acceptance is accepting the fact that we don’t have certain gifts and talents. We often compare ourselves to others, wishing that God had given us what they have, but that just keeps us from appreciating and using what God has given us.
I’ve always been intrigued by people like Sylvia Browne who was one of the greatest psychics of our time – how she was able to communicate directly with her spirit guides and other disembodied entities and as a medium give comfort to those grieving the loss of loved ones. She even had telepathic abilities.
I’m no psychic, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be one. But I do know that God loves me just as I am and has already given me exactly what I need be a complete, perfect, one-of-a-kind expression of Him in each present moment. Because of that, I can choose to appreciate myself, accept myself, and confidently express myself in each of those moments, and I can give that appreciation, acceptance, and encouragement to others.
By loving ourselves and others we return love to its Source. That is what the Greatest Commandment calls us all to do.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to appreciate and accept ourselves as God created us and to act lovingly using the resources, gifts, and talents we have been given. May this appreciation and acceptance inspire us to act lovingly in each present moment of our lives as we extend God’s Love to others. AMEN.
Perron, Mari. A Course of Love. Combined volume, Kindle ed. 2nd ed. Take Heart Publications, 2019.
Pearson, Stephen. A Faith of Love: Teachings of the Greatest Commandment. Kindle ed. 2017.
Synopsis:Our mistaken human perception of God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earnedcauses us to resist God’s blessings, thus rejecting His gracious invitation to partake in the wedding banquet of His Son.
Imagine that you’re planning a huge graduation party for your son or daughter, so you send out invitations to all your friends and neighbors, and they all send back their RSVPs stating that they would attend.
You spare no expense and put a lot of time and effort into making the party awesome with everything anyone could possibly want: spreads of delicious food, a DJ spinning favorite tunes, and fun games for all ages.
Finally, the time arrives for the party to start, and you wait … and wait … and wait … but no one is showing up. So, you send your son or daughter out to tell people, “Hey! The food is out! The DJ is spinning tunes! The games are ready! Come now!”
You assume the invited guests will say something like, “Oh! The party’s today – like right now? Holy Toledo! I’ll be right there!” But instead, when your son or daughter returns, you hear that they’re saying, “Well … I’m kind of busy right now.”
How would you feel, and what would you do? It’s hard for us to imagine people acting this way, but Jesus teaches us in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet that that’s pretty much how we respond to God’s Gracious invitation.
Our scripture reading for today is situated within Jesus’ response to the elders and the scribes questioning his authority. They questioned his authority because the day before Jesus had entered into Jerusalem peacefully on a donkey, and the crowds welcomed him shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!”
Immediately after his entry, Jesus went to the Temple and drove out the merchants and moneychangers who had set up shop to essentially rob worshippers coming to the Temple from distant lands through low currency exchange rates and high prices. He then set up shop himself to teach and heal the people.
The next day, he returned to the Temple to continue his teaching and healing ministry when the chief priests and elders confronted him, asking “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were trying to discredit Jesus, but he turned the tables on them – something he was very good at.
First, he turned the questioners into the questioned, agreeing to answer their question only if they would answer his first. Then he struck them between a rock and a hard place with a question about whether the baptism of John had come from God.
The chief priests and elders couldn’t answer his question yes or no without either discrediting themselves or angering the crowd, so they said, “We do not know.” As a result, Jesus refused to answer their question.
He then launched into a series of three parables designed to discredit the chief priests and elders – to expose their lack of divine authority because they were not following Torah Law. Instead of guiding the people toward a closer relationship with God, they were guiding them in the opposite direction.
He began with the Parable of Two Sons, followed by the Parable of the Wicked Tenets. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is the third in this series of parables.
A king throws a wedding banquet for his son. The two calls are consistent with Middle Eastern tradition. The first call’s purpose is to invite the guests, and the second call’s purpose is to announce that the festivities have begun. This was practical since they didn’t have clocks back then, so it’s not like they could tell everyone to show up at 1 PM.
But when the servants give the second call, we read, the guests “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.”
In our Western culture, if no one showed up for your son or daughter’s graduation party, most people will judge your son or daughter. They figure, people must not like him or her for some reason. Maybe he or she is weird – like some nerdy middle school kid who invites everyone in the class to his or her birthday party, but no one shows up. They don’t blame the classmates; they blame the kid for being a nerd.
In Eastern culture, it’s the opposite. Guests are obligated to attend, or they would shame the host. Shame is a big deal in the East, so you’d better not even think about not showing up unless you have a really good reason. The fact that the invited guests in Jesus’ story made light of it, “blew it off” as we would say, would have been appalling to his audience.
Brad H. Young, professor of Biblical Literature in Judeo-Christian Studies at Oral Roberts University, believes Luke’s version of this parable is probably the closest to the actual parable Jesus taught. Matthew adds some things to allude to historical events and to combine several of Jesus’ teachings into one parable.
Remember that all the gospels were written for a specific audience and purpose. Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jews, and his purpose was to show them the error of their ways by proving that Jesus is the Messiah the prophets predicted.
In Matthew’s version of this parable, some of the invited guests mistreated and even killed the servants. Young believes Matthew added this part to allude to the Jews’ mistreatment of the early Christians.
In response to this disrespect, the king refused to be shamed. We read “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Young believes this part was also added by Matthew to allude to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. – a tragedy Jesus predicts in Mark’s gospel, which is the oldest of the four gospels and used as a source by both Matthew and Luke.
Next, we read the king sent his servants out to invite anyone they find – both the good and the bad – to fill up the wedding hall. This act of charity would place the king in high esteem and shame those who insulted him through their refusal to attend.
But it turns out that a man was there who was not wearing a wedding robe. We read he was thrown out to “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Young believes that Matthew also added this additional complication to emphasize one of Jesus’ teachings.
In his gospel, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’ problem with the religious leaders of his day was their ability to put on good outward show, but their hearts were not pure. Many Jews believed they were “entitled” to take their place in the Kingdom of Heaven because of God’s covenant with Abraham.
That’s why they rejected John’s Baptism, and that’s why, in Matthew chapter 3, John the Baptist said to them, “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”
In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees. In verses 25-26, he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”
You might be asking, “How is it that we respond in much the same way to God’s gracious invitation? “
Jesus begins the Parable of the Wedding Banquet with the words, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” We can safely assume the King is God, His Son is the Christ, and we are the invited wedding guests. In fact, we are the betrothed – the ones destined to join with Christ.
Just as a host goes through extensive preparation to ensure that all the guests have everything they could possibly need or want, God created Creation just for us, and He gave us everything we could ever need or want. Everything that we could ever need or want exists within Creation.
In fact, God loves us so much that he made it impossible for us to be separated from this abundance by creating us part of it – part of the whole of Creation. We are made of the same stuff as everything else that God created – everything in existence, so everything that we could ever need or want literally exists within us.
All of Creation is our inheritance as God’s offspring. He gave it to us as a free gift. If this is so, then why do so many struggle to get the bare essentials they need to survive while others have far more than they need?
The clue is in the words, they “went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” We turn down God’s Gracious Invitation because we have learned to see God and His Creation incorrectly. Jesus came to try to correct our misperceptions – to give us a fresh (and truthful) view of ourselves, of God, and of Creation – all of Life.
How are we mistaken in how we see God and Creation? We see God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earned. But God is not an employer, and Creation is not a paycheck because it can’t be earned – it’s a free gift. We can either accept it or reject it, but we can’t earn it.
And that, my friends, is why we often feel so angry around the topic of money. No matter how much we earn, it’s never enough because money is really just a symbol for the abundance of God’s Creation which cannot be earned.
It is also why we often feel as if we are lacking. Those who are the “have-nots” are afraid they won’t get what they need, and those who are the “haves” are afraid of losing what they have, so they keep striving for more, even at the expense of others.
Because we don’t trust God and are too proud to accept his free gift, we rely totally on ourselves, so we’re far too busy working hard to obtain or maintain what we need or want. We are a culture that values hard work, and I’m German, so trust me, I understand that mindset. But this “need-to-earn” mindset prevents us from accepting our inheritance from God.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15, both sons viewed their father like an employer. When the prodigal son returned, he hoped his father would at least take him as a hired hand. Wasn’t he surprised when his father embraced him, forgave him, and took him back in full standing as a son?
The father was so happy that his son returned that he threw a feast, but the older son refused to participate because he was angry. The older son felt that since he served his father his whole life and never left him, he “earned” that feast – not his prodigal brother. The father responds with basically, “What are you talking about, my son? Everything I have is yours. There’s nothing to earn.”
The older son’s anger is our anger. Think about how much people resent those who come into money by inheritance because they didn’t earn it. But what kind of parent would you be if you made your children earn their inheritance, instead of giving it to them freely and equally just because they are your son or daughter, and you love them?
What if you offered your child a huge inheritance, one that would have him or her set for life, and he or she stuck up his or her hand and said, “No thanks! I’d rather work my fingers to the bone until the day I die.” Would that not break your heart?
Do we need to earn the beating of our hearts? Do we need to earn the breathing of our lungs? Do we need to earn the oxygen we breathe? Do we need to even ask God for these blessings? No – they are a free gift, and if these are free gifts, then all of it is a free gift. All of it.
Of course, human perception sees things differently – just as in our human perception, we believed that we are just this personal self and nothing more. This was necessary for a time for our learning, but that time is over. We know better now, and we don’t need to buy into that misperception any longer.
The same is true of this one – this misperception of God as an employer and Creation as a paycheck to be earned. Obviously, we can’t walk into a store, grab something off the shelf, and walk out without paying for it because it’s a free gift of God’s Creation! We still have to live within the systems and institutions that were created by humans who didn’t know who they are, who God is, and their unity with All That Is.
But we know, so while we must operate within these systems and institutions of earning, we don’t have to agree that they represent reality. Reality is that God is our loving Father and Creation is a free gift.
If we don’t believe this, then it’s like we’re throwing logs into the stream of God’s blessings and creating log jams. We also can’t view God like a genie in a bottle, who, if we rub the right way, must give us what we ask because he promised in his covenant with us.
That’s just another way of seeing God outside of ourselves and another way of trying to “earn” his blessings. That’s no different from the scribes and elders saying, “We don’t need John’s baptism because we are descendants from Abraham.” With that attitude, we may be at the banquet looking for some blessings, but we’re not wearing wedding robes.
When we are united with Christ, our will and God’s Will become one, so whatever we ask will be granted. And there is no one on the face of this earth who has the power to remove God from his throne or your authority in Christ, not even the President of the United States, whoever it ends up being.
So, my friends, how do we accept God’s Gracious invitation to join the wedding banquet of His Son? We ask God for what we need or want with full faith that it will be granted. Because if it is God’s Will to grant our request, nothing will stop what we asked for from coming to us expect our own resistance – our own belief that we must somehow “earn it.”
Then, we be on the lookout for the arrival of our request. We might be given some brilliant idea, or a messenger might come along with some helpful information, or an opportunity might present itself that will move us in the right direction, or someone might just come along and give us exactly what we needed or wanted at the perfect time.
Finally, we must be grateful – grateful for everything we have been given because if we are grateful, God will bring more and more things into our life to be grateful for, and that’s when we know we’ve accepted his gracious invitation: when the banquet becomes our reality.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept who we are in Christ and God’s gracious invitation to receive his blessings. We are willing to become aware of old patterns of resistance that prevent us from receiving God’s blessings so that we, wearing the robes of Christ, may joyfully and gratefully participate in the glorious banquet of Creation that God has lovingly given us as our inheritance. AMEN.
Young, Brad H. The Parables (p. 171-188). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Synopsis:The CDC has the authority to guide us appropriately in how to survive the current pandemic, but most of us want more out of life than just survival. We want to really live. Who has the authority to give us the guidance we need to not just survive, but to thrive?
Today’s scripture reading brings up the question of authority. We turn to authorities to give us guidance about what to do when faced with certain challenges. We trust that they are well-educated and sincere enough to guide us appropriately.
Today, we’re dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19, and most recognize the authority of the CDC to give us appropriate guidance as to what to do to stay healthy. We here at Saint Paul’s recognize the authority of the CDC, which is why we have made a lot of changes in how we worship together.
We follow the CDC’s guidance in the hopes that we will survive this pandemic. Survival is good, but I think most of us want more out of life than just survival. We want to really live. We want to thrive. Who has the authority to guide us in how to thrive – even in tough times like these?
That’s the question Jesus answers in this passage. First, let’s look at the context and the parable within it. As Pastor Edward F. Markquart so aptly states, the context enhances the beauty of Jesus’ parables like the setting enhances the beauty of a diamond.
This incident took place after Jesus’ triumphant entry into the City of Jerusalem, where the final scenes of his earthly life would take place.
After entering into the city on a donkey to symbolize his coming in peace, he immediately cleansed the Temple for the second time. As he drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
What did he mean by that? Well, moneychangers and merchants were setting up shop in the Temple and taking advantage of travelers coming into Jerusalem. Since many traveled long distances, they couldn’t bring sacrificial animals with them, so they purchased them at the Temple.
Their currency had to be converted to Temple currency first. The conversions were low, and the prices for the sacrificial animals were high. In this way, travelers coming to the Temple to worship God were being robbed in God’s own house.
Jesus had a serious problem with that.
After cleansing the Temple of those who were selfishly taking advantage of people, Jesus set up shop to do the opposite: to serve people by teaching and healing them. At the end of the day, he would leave Jerusalem and spend the night in the city of Bethany at the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.
The next morning, he was on his way back to Jerusalem to continue his ministry at the Temple, and he was hungry. He saw a fig tree but found no fruit on it, so he cursed it saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” It immediately withered. The disciples were amazed. Jesus then commented about the power of faith to move mountains.
Jesus often used parables illustrate his points. The fig tree was like an acted-out parable to make two points. The first point was stated: God can do anything they ask in prayer with faith as long as what they ask is aligned with His Will.
The second point was unstated and sets the scene for today’s scripture reading quite nicely. To Jesus, the fruitless fig tree represented the Jewish religious leaders of his day. Just as a fig tree’s purpose is grow figs, or to bear fruit, the religious leader’s purpose is to bear spiritual fruit and cultivate it in others.
The fig tree looked good at first glance, but upon closer inspection, Jesus discovered it lacked fruit just as the religious leaders of his day put on a good show, but they did not bear spiritual fruit.
The Jewish people put their trust in their religious leaders to guide them in how to thrive – in how to live to their lives in communion with God.
Instead of guiding the people appropriately, they forced them to follow complicated “traditions of the elders” while they themselves didn’t follow these traditions. They also ignored Mosaic Law when it was inconvenient.
Jesus had a serious problem with that.
It’s important to realize that Jesus didn’t have a problem with Judaism; he was defending Judaism – traditional Judaism – from those who were changing it beyond recognition or ignoring it and thus leading the people astray.
That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus returns to the temple to minister to the people. While he is there, the chief priests and elders ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were probably referring to when Jesus drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers the day before.
Jesus knows that they aren’t interested in knowing the truth; they just want to trap him in order to discredit him among the people. So, he turns the questioners into the questioned. He agrees to answer their question only if they can first answer his question as to whether the baptism of John was of divine or human origin.
If they answer that John was sent by God, then they would have to acknowledge that Jesus was also sent by God since John testified on Jesus’ behalf. But if they answer that the baptism of John was of human origin, they will anger the crowd since many strongly believe that John the Baptist was a prophet.
Since they couldn’t answer his question, Jesus refuses to answer their question. He avoided their trap by trapping them. Instead of being discredited, he discredits them not only by stumping them but also by using parables to illustrate their failure to perform their duties as religious leaders.
If you are a parent, the point Jesus is making with the Parable of the Two Sons is probably obvious. Let’s say you have two sons, and you tell both of them to clean their room. The older one says, “Sure, no problem!” But the younger son says, “No! I’m not going to do it!”
Later on, the older one’s best friend says to him, “Come to my house! I just bought this cool new video game!” And he says, “Sure! I got nothing better to do!” So, his room never gets cleaned. The younger one’s friends say to him, “We’re going to the park to play some football. Come with us!” He’s tempted, but then he thinks about his parents and his messy room. So, he says, “Nah, I can’t. I gotta clean my room.” Then, he goes and cleans his room.
So … who did what they were told? It’s obvious right? The older son was just putting on a show of obedience but wasn’t really obedient at all. And even though the younger son at first refused to do what his parents asked, he eventually came to his senses and did it.
That’s why Jesus told the chief priests and elders that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to Heaven ahead of them. At least the tax collectors and prostitutes recognized the righteousness of John and accepted his baptism.
Many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were appointed by the Romans. They thought that gave them divine authority. It didn’t. I have an ordination certificate, but that doesn’t give me divine authority either.
Who has divine authority? Who has the authority to guide us in how to thrive? In how to live in unity with God and All That Is? The one who obeys God by acting out His Will so perfectly that he is literally an extension of the Divine. The one who has not only accepted the Christ as his or her true identity, but who is also living in physical form as the Christ.
The Christ within the man Jesus has divine authority, and Jesus successfully portrayed the Christ in physical form during his lifetime. He lived out of the unity in which we all exist. That, my friends, is why he was the most influential person in the history of humankind.
All of us have just as much divine authority as Jesus had because all of us have the same Christ within us as he had within him. I have accepted this, and I think all of you have accepted this. We have accepted that there is so much more to us than our personal self. Infinitely more.
So, the challenge at this point isn’t accepting who we really are. The challenge is overcoming those old patterns of living within the illusion of separation – not only personal patterns but societal patterns.
I’m sure we all still feel the momentum of those patterns within us, pushing us in directions we’d rather not go, but we don’t have to go there because we are stepping into a new way of being.
Recognizing that is half the battle.
You probably aren’t too sure about how to live from the unity of the Christ within. Neither am I. I think the first thing we need to recognize is the fact that our personal self really has no clue. Its purpose is to provide us with the experience of separation, so we can’t expect it to know anything about unity.
So how do we learn unity? We don’t. The Christ doesn’t need to learn unity because the Christ is unity. We needed personal selves to experience what separation was like so that we could fully appreciate unity – to experience it with full awareness. Now that we have accepted who we are, there is nothing more to learn. All that’s left is to experience the Oneness of Christ with full awareness.
My friends, we have graduated. It is now time to put on the robes of the Christ, be the living Christ in physical form, and get to work. Lord knows, there’s a lot of work to do. And I believe that is why our souls have chosen to be here at this time.
But the question remains: how do we overcome those old illusion of separation patterns that keep pulling us back into the attitudes and behaviors of our old identity so that we can experience the mystery of the oneness that we truly are?
I have some ideas about that, and you will know whether what I have to say has divine authority by how it feels within your heart.
If we exist in unity, then there is an infinite supply of assistance available to us if only our personal self would relax and stop meddling. So, the first pattern to overcome is the feeling that we’re “on our own,” and we need to exert a lot of effort to survive – to get what we need – to solve our problems.
Jesus was speaking as the Christ when he said in Matthew 11: 28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We are not alone. We don’t have to do this ourselves. We are part of an interconnected web of life, and the purpose of this web is not to just to help us survive but to help us to really live – to thrive.
There’s a lot going on in this world right now that is disturbing to say the least. So, if we get that sinking feeling that says, “I’m on my own. I’ve got to figure this out myself. No one can help me,” we can recognize that as the old illusion of separation mindset and let it go. Don’t believe it. We know better now. We can tell the personal self, “Relax! The Christ has this.”
The second pattern to overcome is the fearful overthinking and overreacting of the personal self – which is of course fueled by that “we’re on our own” feeling.
There are a lot of unknowns stressing everyone out right now, so many are struggling to figure out how they are going to survive the challenges that might lie ahead. The personal self does not like the unknown, so it tries to find solutions before it completely understands the situation and before all the options present themselves.
How many times have we made a choice out of fear, only to find later on that what we feared wasn’t nearly as bad as we imagined or didn’t happen at all?
How many times have we made a choice out of fear that if we had waited, we could have taken advantage of a far better option?
How many times have we had a problem where we just had to throw up our hands in defeat, but then later on, the perfect solution presented itself?
We need to withdraw our trust in the personal self and place it where it belongs. The personal self is driven by fear, which often complicates our lives and creates more problems. We need to place our trust in the Christ within. The Christ has all the answers and everything we need.
Jesus said in Matthew 6:25-27, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
If we have a problem or need to make a decision, we need to direct our energy out of the realm of the personal self (the head) and into the realm of the Christ (the heart). We need to become quiet and still and wait for a solution comes to us.
We’ll know that solution comes from the Christ if it gives us comfort and peace.
The final pattern to overcome is the habit of passing judgment on ourselves, on others, and on what’s going on in the world. Since we exist in unity, if we judge or condemn anyone or anything, we are judging and condemning ourselves.
Life is perfect just the way it is, but there is always room for improvement! I know, it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around that. How can something perfect be improved upon? But that’s how God created Life. Think about it. Life can’t be stagnant. The book of Genesis tells us that Creation began with the movement of Spirit over the waters of the formless, empty earth.
So, if you, or someone, or something is this or that way now, you, or that person, or that situation will not stay that way forever. You are the way you are, that person is the way he or she is, and things are the way they are for a perfect reason until it’s time to move into something new.
If we recognize judgment coming into our minds and filling our hearts with anger or despair, we can let it go as part of the old patterns of our old identity. There’s a whole lot of judgment going around – especially in the media – so we can choose to limit our consumption of all of that. We don’t need it.
We can put away old distractions because nothing matters now except that we are fulfilling our purpose as the Christ. That is why God created us and why we are here. That is the only endeavor that will give our life true meaning and the love, peace and joy that is our divine inheritance.
There are people today “setting up shop” to take advantage of others in this challenging time. We can follow Jesus’ example and do the opposite. We can “set up shop” in whatever ways the Christ within tells us to serve the people.
When we’re doing what give us joy, doing what give us peace, doing what makes the love flow from our heart, and then we’ll know we’re fulfilling our role as the Christ.
Be open to the mystery of the experience of oneness. Don’t grasp for it with the mind, just open your heart to it. Be willing for the Christ to extend through you. This is how you will get to know yourself – your True Self.
You might just be amazed at the revelations you will receive, the gifts and talents you will discover, and the bottomless well of peace, love, and joy accessible to you even in these tough times.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept who we are, and we are ready to step into our Divine authority as the Christ. We open our hearts to the mystery of the oneness that we are, and we are ready to receive guidance, revelations, and gifts from our True Self. Amen.
Synopsis: Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness are our favorite ones to ignore. Jesus uses the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate quite straightforwardly why we can’t afford to ignore it.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.
Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
How many of us have to admit – if we were completely honest with ourselves – that we find it difficult to forgive? You are not alone. I have a confession to make. I found it difficult to forgive my father. I resented him for many years.
When I was 5 years old, my mother became seriously ill and spent months in isolation in the hospital several times over a few years. Needless to say, it was tough time for me. I had lost contact with my mother, and I needed a lot of emotional support.
That’s not what I got. I felt my father was emotionally distant and at times, unreasonably harsh. He had zero tolerance for me and my 2 brothers’ sibling rivalries and shenanigans, and each time he was too harsh was another strike against him in my mind and fuel for the growing bitterness in my heart.
So as much as we like to say, “Good for that unforgiving servant! He got what he deserved!” We can all relate to him. And Jesus said, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Every one of you – no exceptions. This teaching is one of our favorite ones to ignore, but Jesus makes it very clear that we can’t afford to ignore it.
Jesus told parables to illustrate his teachings – often in response to questions posed to him. That’s the case with this parable. Peter asked him a question about how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him. He suggested seven times.
Peter probably felt he was being quite generous to forgive his brother seven times – and indeed he was. The religious leaders of his day suggested only 3 times – “3 strikes, you’re out!” But instead of praise, Peter hears Jesus say, “No … seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven).”
Now, people try to dive into the spiritual significance of seven-seven times or 490 times, but I think that just complicates Jesus’ simple point that there’s no limit to the number of times we should forgive.
That takes us to the parable. I think this parable answers the question, “What does God’s forgiveness look like in the context of human relationships?” Human relationships are not perfect, so both Judaism and Christianity emphasize mercy and compassion toward one another. If we want a good relationship with God, we must have good relationships with others, who are created in God’s image.
Jesus tells us that this servant owed the king a total of 10,000 talents. In order to fully get his point, we need to translate these figures into today’s terms. So, I did some research and some math.
Ready to do some math?
How much is 10,000 talents worth today? Well, the average hourly wage in Pennsylvania is $17 per hour. If you work 40 hours a week, that’s $680. If you work 52 weeks a year, that’s $35,360 annually. Multiply that by 20, and you have $707,200. That’s 20 years’ worth of wages. That’s about what one talent would be worth today. But this servant owed 10,000 talents, so that would be 7 billion 72 million dollars ($7, 072,000,000).
Knowing the ridiculous amount of money that was, you can imagine Jesus’ listeners snickering when he said, “and as he could not pay ….” Yeah right? He probably owed more than the Jewish national debt! That’s more money than his listeners could even imagine! There’s no way the servant would ever be able to earn such a huge sum even if he worked 24 hours a day 7 days a week until the day he died.
Why did Jesus use such a ridiculous sum of money? Jesus introduces the parable with these words: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” In the parable, the king symbolizes God, and while we don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves these days, this situation was a common one that 2nd-century Jews could relate to.
God created us and gave us everything in His Creation to enjoy. God gave us our very existence and everything we need to live. If we were to put a price tag on that, what would it be?
If God called upon us to pay off the enormous debt we owe for our existence and sustenance, we’d be in big trouble. Jesus says, “His lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.” Again, this was a situation 2nd-century Jews could relate to. Slavery was commonly used to pay off debts.
What would we do in that situation? Probably do the same thing the servant did – fall on our knees and beg for mercy – and just as the king forgave the servant his huge debt, God forgives us our huge debt. Jesus’ use of a ridiculous sum of money effectively illustrates both our enormous debt to God and God’s limitless forgiveness.
Unfortunately, instead of being grateful for the abundant mercy shown to him, this servant goes out and finds another servant who owed him a hundred denarii. How much is that in today’s world? Well, by today’s numbers, the silver contained in a denarius is worth about $3.62. So, his fellow servant owed him about $362.
This amount of money is an infinitesimally small fraction of what he owed the king. I did the math. It’s literally .000005% or 5 millionths of a percent of what he owed the king.
His fellow servant did what he did when the king ordered him and his family to be sold: he got down on his knees and begged for mercy. But the servant couldn’t even forgive an infinitesimally small debt in comparison to the debt he was forgiven. It’s disgusts us, doesn’t it? Yes, but we are often just like him.
Jesus tells us that the king hears word of his servant’s lack of mercy toward his fellow servant, calls him to stand before him, and sentences him to be tortured until he pays off his entire debt. Since we know there’s no way he would ever be able to pay, that’s basically a life of unrelenting torment.
Jesus came to correct people’s mistaken idea of God as wrathful and vengeful, so why does it seem as if he goes against his purpose here?
I don’t believe that God punishes us, but God did set-up Creation in such a way that we could learn from our interactions within it. He created the Law of Cause and Effect.
If you have children, then you know that if you keep rescuing your children from the consequences of their actions, they never learn. Your refusal to rescue them from the consequences of their actions is not an act of wrath or vengeance on your part, right? It’s an act of love. We call it “tough love.”
I think that’s what Jesus is implying here. The servant will have to face the consequences for his lack of mercy and compassion. This servant who in his bitterness inflicted suffering on his fellow servant to punish him for a small debt ended up punishing himself.
The main consequence of unforgiveness is separation from God. While we can’t literally be separate from God and continue to exist, we can shut off communion with God, and that’s what bitterness does. God can’t dwell in a heart where there is bitterness because God is love.
Every single human being – everything that lives – is part of God and is unconditionally loved by God. The life that animates every living thing comes from God and is exactly the same within each form just as light is exactly the same though it shines through many different lamps. The content is the same.
If we choose to not love any part of this unity in which we were created, we choose to banish ourselves – to put ourselves in prison – to torture ourselves.
We also separate ourselves from God because the present can’t dwell in the past. God is presence. God is here and now. To God, the only reality is the present moment. The past is only a memory of a former present moment, so God isn’t there.
We humans didn’t have a problem with forgiveness until our brains developed the ability to remember. If we didn’t have a memory, we wouldn’t remember the wrongs people have done.
Memory has served us humans well. It has been useful to us for learning, but when it comes to forgiveness it hasn’t been as useful. Unless – we remember mercy and compassion shown to us and extend it to others.
Unfortunately, our brain evolved with a negativity bias. We quickly forget the good things people do for us, but we never forget the bad things. The king’s servant quickly forgot the mercy and compassion shown to him the moment he laid his eyes on his fellow servant who owed him money.
At a certain point in my life, the iceberg of bitterness in my heart for my father started to melt. It began to melt when a therapist asked me, “So, what was good about your childhood? It wasn’t all bad, was it?”
At first, I was indignant. “Yes, it was!” But then, in spite of myself, I started remembering the good things that happened in my childhood and the good times I had with my father. She was right. My childhood wasn’t all that bad, and neither was my father.
What helped the most to dissolve the iceberg was to actually sit down and talk to my father about those memories and the bitterness I felt. After my father was diagnosed with cancer, I started taking him to doctor’s appointment. I had just taken him to get the test to find out the stage of his cancer, and we stopped for lunch.
I talked about how hard it was for me when mom was sick, and he talked about how hard it was for him when mom was sick – and that he made a lot of mistakes with us kids. I was able to understand that my father did the best he could during that time, and while he wasn’t the perfect dad, we all survived, and we all suffered emotional wounds, including my father.
Holding onto bitterness also keeps us stuck in disempowering roles. The more we see ourselves as a victim, the more we call to ourselves experiences to prove it. We don’t like being wrong. As long as I saw myself as a victim, I experienced victimization. Once I forgave my father, I stopped experiencing that.
Holding onto bitterness keeps the other stuck in the role of perpetrator. If we fail to forgive someone who lies to us, then we keep treating them like a liar. If we keep treating them like a liar, chances are they are going to continue lying – because that’s what liars do.
This might explain why we have problems with crime in American society. Our criminal justice system is very unforgiving. We label people “criminals,” treat them that way long after they’ve paid their debt to society, and then wonder why they keep committing crimes.
People resist forgiveness because they want to “hold the person accountable.” There’s no such thing as holding a person accountable. Accountability comes from inside the person who did wrong. They take responsibility. They hold themselves accountable. It doesn’t come from the outside.
What we call “holding the personal accountable” is often inflicting some form of punishment. Unfortunately, punishment doesn’t help people learn to hold themselves accountable.
It forces them to focus more on their own pain instead of the pain experienced by the person they harmed, which makes them more self-centered and less compassionate. It also doesn’t help them work through the emotions that led to the wrongdoing in the first place, so those emotions will probably cause the same behavior again.
But most of all, punishment takes away people’s internal locus of control because they expect authority figures to teach them what is right and wrong though punishment. Any behavior that doesn’t lead to punishment must be OK.
When we forgive, we release both ourselves and the other from the prison of the past so that we can create ourselves anew and become all God intended for us to become. There’s tremendous power in reconciled human relationships, and we could see it if we’d only give forgiveness a chance.
I’d like to conclude with a story from my Sower’s Seeds book. This one is called “Loving Your Enemies.”
Abraham Lincoln tried to love, and he left for all history a magnificent drama of reconciliation. When we was campaigning for the presidency, one of his arch-enemies was a man named Edwin McMasters Stanton.
For some reason, Stanton hated Lincoln. He used every ounce of his energy to degrade Lincoln in the eyes of the public. So deep-rooted was Stanton’s hate for Lincoln that he uttered unkind words about this physical appearance, and sought to embarrass him at every point with the bitterest diatribes. But in spite of this, Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States of America.
Then came the period when Lincoln had to select his cabinet, which would consist of the persons who would be his most intimate associates in implementing his programs. He started choosing men here and there for the various positions.
The day finally came for Lincoln to select the all-important post of Secretary of War. Can you imagine whom Lincoln chose to fill this post? None other than the man named Stanton. There was an immediate uproar in the president’s inner circle when the news began to spread. Advisor after advisor was heard saying, “Mr. President, you are making a mistake. Do you know this man Stanton? Are you familiar with all the ugly things he said about you? He is your enemy. He will seek to sabotage your programs. Have you thought this through Mr. President?”
Mr. Lincoln’s answer was terse and to the point: “Yes, I know Mr. Stanton. I am aware of the terrible things he has said about me. But after looking over the nation, I find he is the best man for the job.” So Stanton became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War and rendered an invaluable service to his nation and his president.
Not many years later, Lincoln was assassinated. Many laudable things were said about him. But of all the great statements made about Abraham Lincoln, the words of Stanton remain among the greatest. Stanton referred to him as one of the greatest men who ever lived and said, “He now belongs to the ages.”
If Lincoln had hated Stanton, both men would have gone to their graves as bitter enemies. But through the power of love, Lincoln transformed an enemy into a friend. That is the power of redemptive love.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we acknowledge the tremendous debt we owe God for all that we have been given. When we have been wronged, help us to remember God’s limitless forgiveness of all our debts and our loving unity with all of Creation so that we can extend mercy to our debtors. Amen.