The teachings of Jesus towards the end of the Gospel of Matthew focus on events connected with the end of the age. They contain unsettling scenes of judgment and distress, a temple in ruins, and a period of “great tribulation” before the coming of the Son of Man at an unknown day and hour (Matthew 24:1-44).
The distressing series of events in this “eschatological discourse” culminates in a dramatic judgment scene in the gospel reading today when the Son of Man takes his seat on the throne and assembles “the nations” before him. Like “a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” the king will divide humanity into two camps.
Those who have shown compassion for the hungry, the thirsty, the refugee, the prisoner, the sick, and the powerless will be placed on his right. To sit on a king’s right was a great honor in ancient near eastern culture. On the other hand, those who have not shown mercy to such “least ones” will be seated on the king’s left, a place of dishonor and shame.
Since most of us on occasion have overlooked the needs of the poor or ignored someone suffering directly in front of us, Jesus’ words, once again, are uncomfortable. This Sunday marks the final installment of our eight-week message series, called More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion. Over these weeks, Jesus’ teachings have packed a punch. We’ve been told that we must produce good fruit, show up to his party, repay all to God, love authentically, live with integrity, perform good works, invest everything into the mission of God’s kingdom, and lift up the poor. The penalty for failure will be various forms of exclusion, including being replaced, evicted, humbled, locked out, divested and dispossessed, and segregated in a place of “eternal punishment.”
Jesus challenges us in these passages to help us grow spiritually. In the weeks leading up to his enthronement today on the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe, when God will “be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), Jesus has been moving us into mission and reminding us that, in the days, weeks, or years leading up to his return at the end of time, we must not act like consumers but work for the kingdom as his disciples.
The Church has a very specific mission to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). It’s precisely why producing fruit, loving and serving others with integrity, using all the resources the Lord has given us to perform good works and reveal to the world the mysteries of the kingdom is so imperative.
But the good news is that our shepherd will not leave us alone. In fact, there is a good argument that the “least brothers” of Christ in the parable of the sheep and the goats actually are his disciples, who in every age evangelize the world. To the extent we are starved, depleted, displaced, condemned, disabled or denuded by the world when we honestly try to live as his disciples, the Lord comforts us with his promise in the first reading that he will “pasture his sheep” and “give them rest.” This Advent, how will you move into mission for the Lord?
Jesus continues an uncomfortable line of teaching with another troubling gospel message this week. The scenario is that of a rich man who went away on a long journey and entrusted his money to three servants. The first two servants doubled their share of the master’s money through investments and are highly praised upon his return.
The third servant, however, was afraid of losing the money and buried his share in the ground, but was condemned for his inaction when the master returned to settle accounts. Because he did not make even a minimal effort, he was branded a wicked and lazy servant and thrown “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
These are sobering words that every disciple of Jesus needs to hear. However, over the last sixteen months that I have been Pastor of Saint Brendan Church, I have observed so much talent that has not gone to waste.
Jesus has been challenging us over the last six weeks of our message series, More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion, because he wants us to grow spiritually by taking steps towards greater discipleship. In fact, you can think of the word “STEPS” as an acronym of how to grow in the Christian life as a disciple:
You can find all kinds of information about opportunities to grow on our website, www.stbrendanparish.org.
This Sunday, we will thank all of our volunteers with a special blessing at each Mass and a reception after the 9:30 a.m. Mass. Join us for the festivities, but also join us in sharing your talents for the kingdom of God. Because you’ve got talent!
In the first episode of the fourth season of the popular television series, Vikings, legendary ruler and warrior, Ragnar Lothbrok, sees a vision of Valhalla. According to Norse mythology, half of all warriors who fall in battle are taken by spirits of war, called the valkyries, to this “hall of the slain” belonging to the pagan god Odin. The hall is depicted as a splendid palace with an unending banquet of food and drink. Norsemen saw it as the highest honor to live there in the afterlife.
In the opening scene, Ragnar runs towards the immense gold doors of Valhalla, which are quickly closing. He can see the beautiful light inside and hear sounds of feasting and singing. Visions of his violent life flash before his eyes. As the doors shut before he can get inside, Ragnar falls prostrate on the front steps in despair.
In our eight-week message series leading up to Advent, called More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion, we have been looking at some of the uncomfortable statements made by Jesus in the gospels. We’ve been reading through the latter part of the gospel of Matthew. Jesus has spoken of neglected vineyards, deserted banquets, the demands of Christian discipleship, and the danger of hypocrisy.
He then turns his attention to the events connected with the end of the age, setting before us scenes of judgment and distress, a temple in ruins, and a period of “great tribulation” before the coming of the Son of Man at an unknown day and hour (Matthew 24:1-44). This “eschatological discourse” continues with a series of three parables followed by a dramatic judgment scene that we will hear about in two weeks.
While all three of the parables stress the need for watchfulness and preparedness in the time leading up to the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the age, the parable of the ten virgins this week puts the point rather starkly. The doors to the unending wedding banquet will be locked to those of us who do not have sufficient oil for our lamps to find our way inside the great hall.
The oil for those lamps corresponds to good works that we perform while living on earth. Indeed, Jesus earlier compared good deeds to the light of a lamp that must “shine before others” (Matthew 5:16). To those of us who come with unlit lamps, the bridegroom will say, “I do not know you,” and will refuse to open the doors to the banquet hall. It is the same response those of us who merely pay lip service to the Lord but do not do “the will of the Father” will hear (Matthew 7:25).
As days grow shorter, the temperature outside begins to fall, and wintry weather settles into place, our thoughts naturally turn toward the last things. Indeed, we pray for the dead throughout the month of November. As Saint Ambrose wrote in the fourth century, “[w]e should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. . . . The soul has to turn away from the aimless paths of this life . . . and reach out to those assemblies in heaven . . . to sing the praises of God,” who destroyed death forever. “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
In our message series leading up to Advent called, More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion, we’ve been taking an honest look at some of the uncomfortable statements made by Jesus in the gospel readings.
This week Jesus thunders against Israel’s religious authorities because they have not been faithful to their calling. Although they sit on the stone presider’s seat at weekly liturgies, called the “chair of Moses,” they are hypocrites, according to Jesus. They make their religious authority more of a show than real substance. In desiring places of honor and honorific titles, the scribes and Pharisees lacked the humility that is essential for ministry.
“All their works are performed to be seen,” says Jesus. For instance, they wore extra large “phylacteries,” or boxes containing scripture passages attached to their foreheads and left arms. They also lengthened the tassels of their prayer shawls, called tallits. The tassels, or tzitzits, consisted of a single blue strand to remind Jews to observe the 613 commandments of the Mosaic law. Presumably, the scribes and Pharisees did all this in order to call attention to their ostensibly strict observance of the Torah. The basic problem was that they showed “partiality” in their decisions, according to the prophet Malachi, by treating certain individuals and situations with greater respect and deference than others.
The uncomfortable message for us is that Christian discipleship requires personal integrity. We cannot preach but refuse to practice. We cannot pray on Sunday to God and prey on our neighbor the rest of the week. Compartmentalization of work and family, religion and politics, public and private life is the enemy of integrity.
The word “integrity” stems from the Latin root “integer,” which means whole and complete. Integrity therefore requires consistency of character. A person of integrity behaves in the same way in various situations, at different times, and towards all types of people.
Most of us sincerely desire personal integrity. The failure to prioritize values, however, often makes integrity elusive. When we fail to make worship of God on Sundays, time for family, and service to others a priority, we will never be able to achieve integrity in our lives. The chase after lesser goods, such as money, honor, and entertainment, inevitably will turn us into hypocrites. What we value as Christians and how we think, speak, and act will never converge until we are clear about what is important in life.
Throughout this message series, we have been emphasizing the need to stay connected to Jesus, like a branch on a vine. We “remain” in him by obeying his commandment to love one another as he has loved us. That requires a fundamental shift in our thinking from consumer to disciple.
A consumer acts erratically because tastes change and the fundamental mission of the consumer is to acquire that which he or she desires at the moment. On the other hand, a disciple acts with integrity because love of God and neighbor is a timeless value and the fundamental mission of a disciple is to serve, after the example of Christ and at his command.
Father Roger Gustafson