Who are “the least of these” in Matthew 25

Least

I am aware of two interpretations of the expression, “the least of these my brethren.”  It is used in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46.

One view emphasizes “brethren” and indicates that we will be evaluated by how we receive the servants of Christ. This interpretation notes that receiving the messengers of Jesus brought a blessing when the 12 were sent out in mission to the towns of Judea (Matthew 10:1-16).

Another passage on that theme is Matthew 18, where there is a blessing to those who humble themselves like a child to receive the kingdom. (Mt. 18:1-4)

Both of those passages indicate that a faith response is what makes someone one of Jesus “brethren.”

The other view puts the emphasis on “the least of these.”  This passage has been seen as a central motivator in missions of compassion to the poor.  Some go so far as to say that since God has a preference for the poor, they are already his brethren, and so this is very inclusive. There is no need for the recipient of acts of mercy to have a faith response because they are already God’s children.

This interpretation stands behind a lot of Christian ministries of compassion and justice.

Now, how can we answer this from Matthew?

First, we have to include both parts of “the least of these” and “my brethren.”  So Jesus is indicating something about social insignificance and about a faith response.  I say that because of verses like “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”  a recognition of need is a prerequisite to entrance into the Kingdom.(Mt 5:3)

Secondly,  we notice in Chapter 25, there is a division between those who receive grace and are included and those who do not.  In the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, 5 are prepared and enter and 5 are left out.  In the parable of the Talents, the third servant is cast outside for his lack of faith in his master.  In the Sheep and the Goats, the nations are divided between those who are Sheep (who enter the Kingdom) and the Goats (those sent to eternal punishment.)  So Matthew 25 does not support the idea of total inclusion of all people into the Kingdom of God.  Some are outside, and can hardly be considered to be brethren of Christ.

Third, there is an equivalency between those who follow Jesus and becoming the least.  The Sermon on he Mount as a manual for discipleship is opposed to self-sufficiency.  The call to discipleship is the call to leave everything, (Mt:16:24)
The mission of the 12 involved self-denial and dependency on reception by those who hear the message. (Mt 10:8ff).

Finally, there is a connection between receiving Jesus messengers and receiving Jesus.  Matthew 10:40-42 reads as follows.

40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Notice the strong connection between giving water to “little ones” with their being a “disciple”.

I believe we do have a strong calling to generalized compassion ministries.  We can find that all through the scriptures from the Law, the Prophets, the Wisdom literature, the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles.  But that does not seem to be the meaning of this text.

This text does call us to compassion.  Let us help the needy and seed justice for the poor.

But we can not separate sharing the compassion of Jesus from receiving the message about Jesus.

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Date Setting and Matthew 24

fig tree

I remember how this was preached in the 70s by some popular end times preachers.  They said that the fig tree symbolizes Israel (always) and so when the fig tree blossoms, we will have one generation before the Return of the Lord – or more specifically the Rapture.

Date setting looked like this. Israel was re-established in 1948 by the United Nations and a generation was taken to be 40 years.  1948 plus 40 is 1988.  Thus they assured us, the end could very well (some equivocation inserted here just to be safe) come before 1988.

I recall a book called, “88 Reasons Jesus will return by 1988″.  One of the reasons was that the swine which rushed into the sea after Jesus exorcised the Gerasene Demoniac were “almost 2000”, Hence Jesus will return before the year 2000. They did not use the calendar system we do today, but that did not matter. At any rate when 1989 rolled around the book could be purchased from the 90% off bin.

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.                                         Matthew 24:32-25

The fig tree is not about Israel but about how quickly fruit follows leaf.  (When we see cherry blossoms, we expect cherries in short order.) When the fig shows its leaves, the figs will soon follow.

What will be soon?  “all these things” are the subject (v. 33, 34).  What Jesus has been talking about are signs that are not of the end (v. 1-14), the sign of the destruction of the temple (v. 15-21) and then a discussion about the return of the Son of Man (v. 22-31).  The only sign of the end of the age is the sign of the Return of the Son of Man (v. 30).  That answers the question about signs in verse 3.  So “all these things” are all the other listed items.

Within the lifetime of the Apostles, all the things Jesus talked about would happen: persecution, earthquakes, false messiahs, and the destruction of the Temple (70 AD).

Sorry kids, no dates here!

In case you had hopes of a date, consider what comes next…

36 But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;     (Mt 24:36-38)

Again, I heard a speaker say that we can not get the day or the hour, but we should be able to pick out the year or month. Well, have fun with that.

The point is that the return of the Lord in Glory is unknowable. Period.

This is not the End- Matthew 24

lightning-2

It is interesting that Matthew 24 is more about what is not the end than what is.

V. 1-14 are signs of various kinds that the end is not yet here.  On a popular level, people will respond to natural disasters and political turmoil as if those are evidence that the end is at hand. but the text says that these are not the end, or that they are the beginning of the birth pains (v. 6, 8)  This is a process of ending that does not have a specific end time – ask anyone who has given birth how predictable that is.  The real warning in these verses is that one should not be lead astray (v. 4, 5, 10, 11).

v. 15 – 22 speaks of an event that does indicate the end – the “abomination of desolation” which is tied to  verses in Daniel (8:13, 9:27, 11:31, 12:11).  This is specific and yet not specific.  Many scholars think Daniel was speaking of the desecration of the temple which occurred under Antiochus Ephiphanes IV in 168 BC, but Jesus was looking for something later, which is partially realized at the destruction of the temple in 70 AD under the Romans – in both cases the holy place was taken over and desecrated and/or destroyed by the conquering army.  Yet Matthew 24 deals with two questions, the destruction of the temple that Jesus spoke of (v. 2) and when would be the end of the age.  So there is yet to be a final and greater fulfillment of this abomination of desolation at the end of the age.  The tribulation in 70 AD does not seem to fit the idea that it was the worst event that ever has or will be (v. 21).  So we have another sign with an end date, but a warning to be on guard.

v. 23-31 assures believers that there can be no mistake on when the Son of Man returns – so we should not look for hidden or far of events to be that fulfillment. When he returns, it will be self-evident – as clear as lightning in the night sky.

So we have to say that the real purpose of this discourse is not to give you a date to circle on your calendar. The purpose is to give both warning and hope.  It is a warning that the world will have all sorts of trouble, both normal and natural troubles, and even intense troubles.  It is a warning against falling astray or falling for false teachers and prophets, who will always be around.  Yet the hope is that when things are seemingly out of control, they are not.  The date and time with the Father knows will come about. (v. 36).

Sermons:

The End could be the End of Me!

chart

I grew up with these sorts of prophecy charts. I think that they are good in that they give some clarity to various theories of how the End Times will occur.  I think they are misleading on two fronts.

First, the primary point of prophecy is not to give us a time table.  In fact, the thing that is the least clear about prophecy, in the sense of prediction, is the timing of things.  I point out that Jesus cited a passage from Isaiah 61 when he gave his message at the Synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16ff), he ended the reading at a comma in Isaiah 61, what follows the comma still awaits the future Last Judgment, which is now 2,000 years in waiting.  A comma can be two millennia. Other scriptures got the other way and events that seem far apart are brought together.  We call this sort of thing telescoping. The time frame telescopes freely in prophetic and apocalyptic literature.

Second, the charts do not indicate that even those who are in the same “camp” – eg Premillennial – do not agree on the sequence of events.

So with a certain amount of fear and trepidation, this preacher will speak on “The End” from the two chapter long “Olivet Discourse” in Matthew 24 and 25 this summer.  Fear and trepidation is not a bad thing in a preacher, as this quote from Isaiah 66:2 makes clear:

These are the ones I look on with favor:
    those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
    and who tremble at my word.

So I will try to chart the future without charts in this series.  The first fun thing we discover is that the signs people speak about, wars and earthquakes, are not signs of the end…   Matthew 24:6-8

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains….”

Is this a Thing? Matthew 26:6-13

alabaster-jarThe woman who anoints Jesus with oil in Matthew seems to be Mary of Bethany,if we agree that Matthew, Mark and John are speaking of the same event. Luke’s similar story has enough differences of place, time and details to indicate that it was a different story. (Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8; Luke 7:37-39)

This comes at the start of the Passion Narrative, where one event flows into the next in rapid fire succession. Matthew, however seems to continue his collecting method; the chronology of the event may not have happened right then. So then we wonder what is the thematic link.

Mary gives an extremely valuable gift, so much so that there is opposition to it. she breaks open a vial of aromatic oil and pours it out completely on Jesus head (Matthew) and feet (Mark, John).  It is an act of devotion from a disciple who expresses love.  Jesus points out that it is preparation for his death and burial.  He has been talking about that since Peter’s confession

Jesus, at the Passover meal, institutes the Lord’s supper.  He breaks bread and pours out the wine.  There is also opposition, all around this act, there are the machinations of the religious leaders and of Judas.  Jesus gives his most precious gift (his life) symbolized in every day food (bread and wine).

Are we to see these two acts of devotion together?  Broken, poured out, forgiven, love, complete, death.

Mary acted first in the narrative, but the grace of the Lord preceded any act that she offered.

That Guy in Matthew 22:8-14

abc_ann_royal_wedding_110222_wg

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”   Mt 22:8-14 NIV

_______

           When the king came to visit his guests he saw everyone was wearing wedding clothes but one guy.  So he asked him, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes?”

    There is some debate about these wedding clothes.  Some say that they represent the good works of those who keep Jesus teaching.  They are robes of righteousness that we create for ourselves by our good lives.  Do you think that is possible?

One of the first things Jesus taught was “blessed are the poor in spirit.”  He did not teach that we can be righteous, but he did teach that we must be made righteous. No, it is not possible to weave for ourselves wedding garments by doing good works.

There is another way of looking at this.  This garment indicates the change God has made in us.  It is probably taking it too far to say that the robes in this verse refer to Justification by Faith – because Matthew does not speak of that. But what Justification by faith means is that a person is not made right before God by actions.  That right-ness is a gift.  It is the work God does for us.

So the man in the wedding without wedding clothes represents those who are inside the community of believers, but who do not belong there.  He is in a place that he does not belong because he is not a believer himself.  Jesus said that in this age the wheat and the weeds will grow up together and in the last day they will be sorted out.  He also said that God will cast his net, and will separate the good fish from the bad fish.  So there is to be a sorting out. (Matthew 13)

If a person comes in who is bad that is not a problem because of verse 10.  If a person comes in who appear good, that is not a problem.  But if a person comes in and has not been robed by the work of God, that is a problem.

The king asked him where his clothes were and the man was speechless. And so he was thrown out.  This last part, the only guy who was inside out, is a warning.  Do not think that location is salvation.  Do not think that because you are in church or have become a member or have been baptized or have taken communion that you belong.

Only those who have had the work of God in them can stay.  Here is how this is described in Isaiah 61:10

I delight greatly in the Lord;
    my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
    and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

The Insiders are out

You do not want to be one of these, who think they are chosen but who refuse the real invitation.

The Outsiders are in

You do want to be one of these, who knows that they do not belong, but who have accepted the invitation.

And One Guy is inside out.

You do not want to be this guy, who presumes that location is not salvation.  

Meditation is like walking around in circles

spirograph

I am thinking this week about the events of “palm Sunday” as recorded in Matthew 21.  What stands out in my mind is the strange incident of Jesus cursing a tree.  It is strange because why would Jesus get mad at a poor little tree?

So the first circle is to think about that tree and see that it is not about a tree, but it is a symbol. It did not have fruit and for that was cursed.  So Jesus came to the center of the nation of the people of Abraham, of those called to be a great nation and a blessing to the world, and he looked there for fruit.

Circling around again, we see that there was a lot of apparent fruit at the arrival – a parade and shouts of hosanna.  Yet we know from Holy Week activities that Palm Sunday is followed in 5 days by Good Friday.  Jesus went from being a Popular Hero to Condemned and Abandoned faster than could be imagined.

There are those who come in faith and are welcomed by Jesus and there are those who are angry and reject Jesus.

Jesus circles past the temple, the place that is a living enactment of his ministry – a place for worship where one gets close to God via the priesthood and the sacrifices given there.  Jesus is proclaimed as the sacrifice and the High Priest what brings God close to us in his incarnation and us close to God by paying the ransom that was required to make peace with God.

He sees it and turns it over as a place that has missed it’s calling. There is a lot of business and there are many people. It is like one of those churches that has become adept at putting Bottoms in the pews and Bucks in the offering.  Yet, it had missed its purpose – to be a house of prayer. This overturning of the temple is another circle.

So the fig tree exists to produce fruit.  The Temple existed to produce prayer.  when they failed in their mission they were judged.

What is it then, as we come full circle, What is it that the Lord looks for in us? what is the fruit we are to produce?

Circling back in Matthew there is John’s call to repent and produce fruit in chapter 3.  Jesus twice spoke of good and bad trees that either produce good or bad fruit – chapter 7 and 12.  The parable of the sower is about how the seed and produce fruit that multiplies to up to 100 fold.

Is this fruit numerical?  we should see hundreds not a few followers?  Is the fruit spiritual – we think of the fruit of the spirit mentioned in Galatians. Is it as simple as faith and love, which are the two evidences of faith that Paul cites at the start of his various letters to the churches.

Like the icon on my computer which indicates a process and a search ongoing, I am circling around this question of fruit.