The Challenge of Love as the Challenge of Faith

Reflection on Christ the King Sunday
Matthew 25:31-46

The past two weeks, we have listened to Jesus teach about the ending of days where Christ will come again in glory. In the parable of the wedding feast, we were reminded to be prepared (Matt 25:1-13). In the parable of the Talents, Jesus taught his disciples to use (not waste) the gifts God has given (Matt 25:14-30). Today’s narrative speaks about Christ coming again in glory, and gets more specific as we imagine what judging the living and the dead potentially looks like.

There are a few interesting scenes to consider in today’s story as it describes God’s final judgment. The first has to do with exactly who is being judged. Verse 32 describes God judging “all the nations”, then separating the “people one from another” like a shepherd. We might ask, “Does this shepherd-like judge separate the people as individuals, and/or does he separate the people into their respective tribes/nations thus judging the people as a whole?” These are important questions to consider, and I wonder if Jesus’ disciples had similar questions as these? For example, the disciples were still part of the nation of Israel even though they were also individual disciples in Jesus’ inner circle. As part of Jesus’ disciples they would have fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, welcomed the stranger, put clothes on the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison (v. 35-37). But if God also judged the nations, how would the rest of Israel hold up? In other words – and as a whole – how did Israel take care of the least of these?

The second interesting detail within this scene has to do with faith and love. St. Matthew’s gospel has always focused on right living as prescribed in Jesus’ teaching (Orthopraxy). In comparison, St. John’s gospel has a focus on right belief in Jesus as Lord (Orthodoxy). Some scholars have said that the community who composed The Gospel of Matthew was a community that had become too focused on orthodoxy, and had grown weary of waiting on Jesus to come again. Perhaps giving a prescriptive description of the judgment would have awakened this community out of their stupor, and set them back on the way to actually following the teachings of Jesus (i.e. feeding, welcoming, clothing, caring for, and visiting one’s neighbor in need). These actions (or inactions) of the faithful were to be the merits in which they would be judged; however, it is interesting to ponder God as a judge of the nations that have no belief system in any of this – yet, and at the same time – feed, welcome, cloth, care for, and visit those in need. This begs the question, “Do we (as followers of Jesus) do these good things because we want to be judged as righteous before God?” Or, “Do we do these things out of the gifts that we have been given?”[1] Put differently, “Do we do the right things out of love, or out of fear?” Pope Benedict XVI answered in this way,

[T]he profession of faith in Christ demanded by the Lord when he sits in judgment is explained as the discovery of Christ in the least of men, in those who need my help. From here onward, to profess one’s faith in Christ means to recognize the man who needs me as the Christ in the form in which he comes to meet me here and now; it means understanding the challenge of love as the challenge of faith.[2]

I can’t help but think that these parables and narratives found in Matthew 25 are there to give us a snap shot of where we are on our spiritual journeys. Bill Brosend, in his commentary of Jesus’ parables writes this,

The three stories in chapter 25 are about the consequences of actions, or, more often, inaction. The foolish maidens not only could not light their lamps; they failed to join the bridal procession in a ridiculous midnight search for oil. The third servant in the parable of the Talents buried his master’s money, and perhaps sat on it like a brooding hen…The “goats” in the third narrative saw human need, but failing to recognize in whose image the needy were created did nothing to relieve that need.[3]

Again, thinking about these stories as a snap shot of where we are on the spiritual path, you may ask yourself, “How am I doing?” “How are we doing – as a parish, as a diocese, as a denomination, city, state, and country?” If we are to follow Jesus out of love and not fear, how can our love grow deeper and wider within ourselves so that that same love extends into the image of God found in the stranger, the neighbor, the other?

If we are honest with ourselves, and stay true to the teachings found within this narrative, I believe we can judge (right now) whether we are a sheep or a goat, and whether our nation (right now) is a sheep or a goat. The truth may be within us – in that – we have the potential to be both: Sometimes we are sheep. Sometimes we are goats. Sometimes we are righteous. Sometimes we are unrighteous. Again, the key is love – not fear. As followers of Jesus we are to walk in love as Christ loves us, not walk in his love out of fear of his judgment (Eph 5:2). As followers of Jesus we are given a spirit of love, not a spirit of fear (2 Tim 1:7). Fear blinds us to the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Fear won’t allow us to experience the dignity found in every human being. The bottom line is this: If we are loving our neighbors, we are loving God. In today’s narrative, Jesus equates the two, and by doing so gives us a measure of his teachings through our thoughts, words, and deeds; our faith and actions; our understanding and modes of operation. After pondering this text all week, it still brings up many questions. As I continue to seek and serve Christ in my neighbor, I pray that God’s grace will lead me deeper into the love and knowledge of him whom I serve, that is Christ – Christ the King.

[1]                 The ultimate gift being Christ himself.

[2]                 Joseph C. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, pg. 208-9.

[3]                 William F. Brosend, Conversations with Scripture: The Parables, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, 2006, pg. 68-9.


Not Only With Our Lips, But In Our Lives

Matthew 25: 14-30

Earlier this Fall I came upon an old commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel by the great 13th-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas’ book, he takes the early church fathers and mothers’ own commentary of this gospel, and lays them side-by-side. Today, I wanted to look briefly at Matthew 25: 14 -30 through the interpretive lenses of these early fathers and mothers, trying to put some of their teachings into the context of our culture today.

5 Talents
What struck me about these early writings were the various interpretations on the literal number of talents, and what their spiritual meaning could possibly point. For example, the 5 talents were theologically represented as humanity’s 5 senses. From our senses, we are able to experience the world; and yet, without the acknowledgment of God’s spirit within our senses (i.e. our bodies) we cannot possibly experience the kingdom of God. The doubling of the 5 talents into 10, mystically represents an infusion of this spirit with flesh. Put theologically – the 10 talents represent an incarnational faith. Put philosophically – they represent the good life.

The 5 talents were also interpreted as the 5 Books of Moses. Keep in mind this is Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus was often represented as “the new Moses”. Jesus Christ, as the very incarnation of Torah and Spirit, revealed to all that his Spirit and resurrected flesh was the way, the truth, and the life.

2 Talents and the 1
The early church teachers taught that the 2 talents represented understanding and action, while the 1 talent represented understanding only. This is a significant teaching because faith requires both. It requires an understanding of the law and the commandments of God on one hand (i.e. Torah), and on the other it activates the spirit of the law through thought, word, and deed. What the early church fathers and mothers were trying to teach – and quite possibly what Jesus was trying to teach – was that faith does not end with understanding – It begins there, and action follows.

With Great Gifts Come Great Responsibility
One of the final teachings on this passage within this ancient commentary has to do with responsibility. Responsibility was placed on those who had been given much, and were represented in the persons with the 5 and 3 talents. When the responsible faithful start to understand much has been given, and much can be taken away (think here the story of Job) those 5 talents begin to take shape, and lead with a posture of humbleness, humility, and prayer. Perhaps those with the 5 talents could also be interpreted as the Church, and how it proclaims God with us in a different way (i.e. no longer in the physical body of Jesus, but in the resurrected spirit of Christ). The Church (as the spiritual body of Christ) further proclaims the resurrected Jesus will come again in glory judging the quick and the dead. Finally, within this proclamation of the church are the 2 talents calling on those individual members who make up the Church helping them to understand the commandments of God, and to act on them accordingly – mainly loving neighbor as self, or loving the other as we have been greatly loved by God.

Quite a lot of burying one’s talents in the earth is going on right now in popular culture – Is it not? What many of us thought were great men of talent, buried their talents in the desires of the world, and are now making excuses and/or apologizing for their pridefulness, lust, and deceit. We are tempted to go along with their excuses because of the great works they have given us – in politics, comedy, movies and music; however, these men that were once considered bigger than life now seem fearfully small when their actions are put against the light of truth.

So much is being uncovered right now. So much that has been drowned through the years is bubbling up to the surface. As Christians, we are called to forgive knowing that judgment is for God – and God alone. We can hold steady to the Rock of our Salvation. We, as the Church, can counter the culture by infusing spirit with flesh and flesh with spirit. In other words, we can pray – not only with our lips – but in our lives. By giving up ourselves to the service of Christ, and by walking before God with humbleness and gentleness of heart.

We could proclaim the cerebral Amen, and stay fixed to our comfortable pews once a week, or we can translate Amen into tangible acts of mercy, goodness, and justice. This ebbing and flowing of Amen and action, action and Amen mimics the very movement of God made flesh – Torah with Spirit, Understanding with Action, Repentance with Forgiveness.

On most days when I read the news, I am struck not only by the 7 deadly sins that cover most of the front page every morning; I also become anxious as to how rapid and liquefied society has become. Classic institutions, morality, tradition, and even reason seem to be evaporating before our eyes. I once believed that politics could solve many of societies ills because politics had traditionally relied on an informed public, and the art of reasoned argument. Emotionalism, relativism, and the loudest voices in room have now destroyed this classical construct. Historically (at least in the West), politics has been infused with a morality and ethics held together by Judeo-Christian teachings and values. And what about the institutional church? If the Church is to survive and give an answer to the polarities of politics, it is to do the responsible thing and not be anything else than the Church – The Church of Jesus Christ. It is to hold up for the world the life, love, and light of Christ found in the Gospel, Holy Eucharist, prayer, and spiritual action – with God’s help.

Honestly, there are some days when I want the Church to be like Noah’s ark who brought in all those creatures in order to save them from the flood – In order to save them while the rest of the world destroyed itself (See here Rod Dreher’s argument for this approach). Then there are times when I want the Church to embrace its newfound role – that is – a subculture that counters the ways of the world by injecting the world with its Divine Truth with a hope that one day God will make all things new. On my better days, I believe our work as the Church of Jesus Christ is a bit of both: It holds to its three-fold ministry of scripture, tradition, and reason while at the same time recklessly scatters the love of God to an un-loving world.

Right now, in our time and place, we have great responsibility and knowledge, understanding and Spirit that are counting on us to invest – invest in the eternal attributes of God, the eternal teachings of God, and the eternal gifts of God that make us people of God. Jesus Christ is still on mission. He’s still calling disciples, and he still upholds his promise that he is with us – even to the end of the age. In this age, may we never forget these promises, and at the same time may we never forget that our Amens are constantly calling us to Action – with God’s help.


Intimacy Requires Commitment

Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s Gospel focuses on two things: Preparedness and Intimacy.

Five of the bridesmaids were prepared to participate in the wedding banquet. Five were not. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches what preparedness “looks like” in the form of new commandments. A good Jew would have followed Holy Torah starting with The Ten Commandments. Jesus took this Divine teaching a step further, and gave us the Spirit behind the commandments that are captured ever so beautifully in The Beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5). In other words, to follow God is to be prepared by following his commandments, and living into the graceful Spirit found within them. But wait; there’s more!

Jesus offers himself fully to us – his life, death, and resurrection. This truth is captured ever so eloquently each and every time Christ offers his Body to us during Holy Communion. Like a bride offers herself to her husband, and a husband offers his body to his bride, Christ offers his very flesh to us in this very intimate act of communion and consummation.

We are wise when we recognize this intimacy, and commit fully to Christ’s redeeming love by accepting his grace as well as living into his Holy Commandments. We are unwise when we expect intimacy, yet are not committed to everything that goes along with the graces found in intimate relationships.

All are invited to the intimacy of the wedding banquet. Don’t be turned away for lack of wisdom.




By Erasing Art We Forget Our Flaws and How it Mixes with God’s Grace

Art evokes many things: Truth, beauty, goodness – emotion, controversy, pleasure, and contemplation. Artists can be a bit more complicated. They can be mystics, manic-depressives, manipulators, or murderers. They have been lovers, fighters, pedophiles, perverts, and prodigies.

Often times we equate the work of art to the artist (think Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel) but this oversimplifies the complexities of the human condition. Michelangelo, for example, not only painted and sculpted masterfully, he also ate, drank, slept, had relationships, emotions, and longings. By virtue of being human he also made mistakes. You might say Michelangelo was flawed even though his work (arguably) was not.

The same line of thinking could be said for all mankind. No matter what one’s vocation may be, that vocation does not ultimately define a person – it’s simply a part of the person, an extension of the (flawed) self. For example, popular characters from the Bible – Moses, King David, and the Apostle Paul – were all murderers in their lifetimes; yet, for billions of Jews and Christians these are three of the most respectable men in the Bible. Moses freed a people, King David ruled with valor, and Paul wrote masterful letters to the early Christian communities. Again, these were flawed individuals, but (arguably) their life’s work was not.

Could we not make the same argument for the founders of this country? They most certainly were flawed, but their life’s work was not. Taking down statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers forgets the complexities of being considered great (and flawed) all at the same time.

  • Augustine was a sex addict; yet because of his work is now a saint. Should we burn his writings?
  • Lewis Carroll was a pedophile; yet because of his work his stories are read in nurseries around the world. Should we ban “Alice” from “Wonderland”?
  • Martin Luther once suggested a child with a mental disorder be drowned because he had no soul. Should all Protestant Christians return to “Mother Church”?
  • Jesus Christ often told parables where many of the characters were slaves. Should we edit these stories out of the Bible because Jesus did not object?

Why do we leave the statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers up? I would argue – You leave them up because of grace – amazing grace, dare I say?[i] You leave them up to help people and parishioners remember that great women and men make mistakes – sometimes huge – yet grace and mercy are still available. And if grace and mercy are still available to them, then they are available to us as well. Personally, I like remembering flawed people because I am a flawed person. I especially enjoy remembering them and their work knowing that they were sinners just like me; and yet, by the grace of God they were also loved.

As a Christian, I don’t define myself solely on who I am, but whose I am. In other words, I am a child of God. That is what ultimately defines me. The same can be said for Moses, Augustine, Washington, Jackson, or Lee. We can choose to label them good or evil, but ultimately they too are children of God – warts and all. As citizens in our country debate tearing down, building up, or leaving art where it stands, consider your own flawed nature compared with the goodness of God. Nobody stacks up; therefore, it is by grace that we can all be called children of God.

[i]           Slave ship captain, John Newton, wrote the song “Amazing Grace”. Should we get rid of his music in our churches too? Sterilizing history is a slippery slope. At what point do we cross the line?