The Judgment of the Nations
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31–46 (NRSV)
Each of us at some point in time has had an interaction where we faced a dichotomy. Our expectation was one thing and the reality of the situation was something different. Nearly every day we encounter these issues. I expected to get a good night sleep, but the reality of the situation is that I tossed and turned for a couple of hours, and then just when I got to sleep my alarm begins to go off. Of course, I slept for several hours but the expectation of waking up totally refreshed was not met. If you work for an employer you are given a description of your job. You expect that your job will in some way resemble what that description says, but the reality is that in every job description there is a clause that say something to the manner, “You will do whatever you are asked to do.” I have found that because I am able to do many things and learn quickly most of my jobs have been solidly based in the “do whatever I am asked” portion of the job description and often I wonder if I even do the job I was hired to do. I have to admit that my current employer has tried hard to keep me within the job description although I do tend to fill the role of my supervisor.
We all have expectations in life. We have expectations in our relationships. We have expectations in finances. Even children have expectations. We will soon be entering into the Advent season, the season we anticipate the coming or birth of Jesus, and during this season children will look at every catalog available to find the things they anticipate or expect to receive for Christmas. Of course, today’s catalog is now a Wishlist on Amazon instead of the sears wishbook I browsed in my youth, but the feeling is the same. After making careful considerations of all the options many children will make a list and check it twice…or you know thousands of times, and many will compose a letter to tell Santa Claus exactly what they expect. What happens when their expectations are not met?
Thinking of those expectations in your life, think about the many disagreements you may have had with someone. If you look at them deeper, you will find that you expected one thing and they did something else. Often those expectations that were unrealized were unrealized because we did not express the expectation and assumed that the other party knew the expectation, so we are upset and we fight.
Why focus on expectations when we should be focused on Thanksgiving and looking forward to Christmas? I mention it because God has expectations. And like every relationship sometimes there is contrasting aspects between all the parties involved.
Today’s passage takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus is giving his disciples the last pep talk before the arrest, trial, and passion takes place. In the city there is a rising clamor of anticipation sides are being drawn by the faithful and the religious leaders as to if Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah or not. With each side there are expectations and assumptions made. The problem with these expectations though many are based in scripture, they have interpretations that are largely skewed through assumptions and desires. Why do they want a Messiah? The answer to this question could be different depending on which person you asked. The version of Messiah for the Sadducee and the Pharisee are different because their religious focus is different. The zealots had ideas that even differed from the others because theirs were less religious and more political. All of these expectations on one side the human side of the conversation, but what is the expectation on God’s side? Has God even told us what his expectations are?
Jesus is sitting there with his disciples, they have these expectations going on in their mind. They have even mentioned some of them. Just before they marveled at the temple’s beauty. Many of them could only see their lives physically and spiritually through the temple. They could only consider their lives through the eyes of Rome or some idealistic fantasy of independence. Their lives religiously and physically were based on their expectations not that of God’s. Sure, God was important in their lives, so important that they had turned from their previous lifestyles to follow Jesus for the past three years, but they like many of us, had ideas about God that may represent ourselves more than the God we say we serve.
He speaks to them, he tells them the parable of the talents. I am sure they are sitting there at his feet considering the story and trying to decide for themselves which of the men they would be for their master. Jesus then give them this prophetic message, which includes within it the expectation that God has for humanity.
In the parable Jesus said the master leaves and returns, in this prophetic vision Jesus says when the Son of Man comes in his Glory. They do not fully understand what is meant by this statement at the time, because most of them are thinking that day is soon approaching and the king will soon be placed on his rightful throne. When that glorious day comes, Jesus continues, the son of man will sit on the throne and all the nations will be gathered before him. I want to stop there because this is one of the first expectations of God. All the nations will be gathered. From the very beginning of God’s interaction with humanity it has included all people. The singular revelation to Israel was not that they were chosen because they were better, they were set apart to be the light to the nations. He promised them the land situated at the crossroads of empires for a reason. That narrow strip of land connects east and west, north and south it connected Egypt and Persia, Babylon and Greece. Because of this unique placement the people of Israel would constantly be in contact with the other nations. God chose to reveal himself through them not only for them but for all nations, so that through them all could be saved.
When the son of man comes in his Glory he will sit on his throne and gather all that nations. He will then separate them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. I have wrestled with this part for a while this week. I wanted to know if there was some reason Jesus used this image in his message, if there was some reason that he specifically said sheep and goats. At first my mind went to the images of today. The most common antichrist symbol of religions today praises the image of a goat. I wondered if that might be the reason, but no. In fact, the reasoning the goat is used in those expressions is because Jesus used that image in this passage. I then began to look up the various uses of these animals. Both are considered clean animals and both are actually interchangeable when it comes to sacrifice, except in a few instances. By in large the only time a goat is mentioned it usually refers to a male goat, where female goats are included with sheep. But then there is one instance where a temple sacrifice requires two goats. In this instance, which is on the Day of Atonement, one goat is used as a sacrifice and the other is released into the wild to carry the sins of the people away from them. Maybe this is what Jesus refers, but even still scholars do not really know. The largest and most common ideas as to why Jesus uses this symbolism is because when a shepherd brings the animals into the fold, they separate the male goats from the others because male goats are too aggressive. They will harm the other animals so they keep them separate so they can fight elsewhere.
I think there is many facets to this image. I think the scape goat and the fold both work together. Jesus separates the people like sheep from the goats, he releases the goats to the wilds of their own devices and he brings the sheep in to the sacred place. The question that remains is what is the criteria for the judgment, what will be the characteristics of the sheep and the goats?
To the sheep on his he will say, “Come…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.” Of course, Jesus says that the righteous do not understand him. They ask when did we do all of this? And he says, “Just as you did it for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The Son of Man then turns to the left and says depart from me and enter into the eternal fires prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you did not give me something to eat…” Again, they ask when did we not do this? And he gives the same response, about the least of these who are members of my family.
Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. Do we have an understanding of what the criteria of judgment will be? This past week I spent time reading commentaries and sermons from the ancient church to today and found that we have always struggled with this. I read a sermon by St. John Chrysostom, he was often referred to as Golden Mouth because of his great sermons. He was the bishop of Constantinople and preached at Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the world for over one thousand years. In this sermon he focused on the eternal fires that were prepared for the devil and his angels. He said in this sermon that these eternal fires were not prepared for us but for the devil, our rightful place is to be with God. But often we choose the wrong side so we get grouped with the demons. I considered this as I contemplated this passage. I thought about the imagery of the sheep and goats, of the high priest sending the scape goat out into the wilderness carrying the sins of the nation with it. I thought about the choices that I make throughout my life. The kingdom was prepared for us from the foundation of the world, yet many are driven out to the eternal fire prepared not for us but for the devil. We go out to that fire because we do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, we do not welcome the stranger, or clothe the naked. We go to the eternal fires because instead of following God, we follow the devil, instead of reflecting Christ we reflect everything opposed to Christ and he releases us to wonder the wilderness.
I want this to sink in for a bit. God prepared a place from the foundation of the world for us. Yet when the nations are gathered where will we go? It is a common question that evangelicals ask others, if you were to die today where would you go? And while asking that question we make sure we let them know that there is a heaven and a hell and if we are willing to repent and be born again we will guarantee a place in heaven and escape the fires of hell. But this statement by Jesus brings this thinking into question. It questions it because both sheep and goats are accepted by God, they are both acceptable sacred offerings. God loves both the sheep and the goats. He prepared a place for all nations in his kingdom, yet some of these will run out in the wilderness and find themselves far from God. This prophetic message of Jesus tells us something deeper, it says that our lifestyles must reflect our words. Jesus is telling his disciples that this is the expectation. He is saying for the last three years you have lived with me, you have watched me interact with those around me. The expectation is that your lifestyle would reflect his.
Jesus came living a full human life. He grew from a baby to an adult within a family. He listened and interacted with teachers as a child, and as he grew he most likely took on a position in Joseph’s business, because he was known as the carpenter’s son. Then Jesus at the age of 30, which would be middle aged in that era of time, began his ministry. We do not know what happened from the age of twelve to thirty, but what we do know is that was the time a child became a man and either entered rabbinical training or began working with the family. Jesus most likely worked for seventeen years with his family. When Jesus entered his ministry, he made it his custom to worship in the synagogues. By doing this he shows us that loving God through worship together is important. He withdrew often to isolated places to pray, showing us that we should embrace the Spirit and deepen our relationship with God through prayer and meditation of scripture. He also went out from those isolated places into the towns and the cities to teach and minister to the needs of the people. He put his words of worship and prayer into action. For three years he did this, showing and living that lifestyle with his friends. Now on the eve of his betrayal, he tells his disciples a parable of talents highlighting that the servants that knew their master’s business invested all they had into that type of work and brought a return to the master upon his return, but those that did not know the master’s business buried what they had out of fear. Those that invested their lives entered glory and those that buried their lives went into the darkness. He then tells them this prophetic message about the day of glory. All the nation will be gather and separated accordingly. They will be separated based on their life. Do we reflect Jesus’ life or the life of the world? Do we love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and live the love of Christ with others or do we continue to embrace the lifestyles of the devil? Do we feed, give drink, clothe, welcome, care, and visit the least of these or do we look only to our own selves?
These words that Jesus spoke are some of the most beautiful and hopeful words. Yet they can also be some of the most condemning. But what it all boils down to is this one thing love the lord your God with everything you are and everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. As we enter into this time of open worship, let us again remember the blessings that God has provided for us and express our gratitude for them. Let us also look forward to that glorious day when our King will come, and as we anticipate that day let us live our lives reflecting the lifestyle of Christ so we can enter into the kingdom prepared for us from the foundations of the world.
Sermon by Jared Warner, November 26, 2017
Presented at Willow Creek Friends Church, Kansas City, Missouri
The Parable of the Talents
14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
– Matthew 25:14–30 (NRSV)
Several years ago, I watch one of the most profound videos. It was part of a bible study series called Nooma by Rob Bell, yes that Rob Bell the one that we Evangelicals no longer speak about. In this particular episode Rob was out in a neighborhood and he was planting trees along the side of the road. While you were watching him dig a hole and wrestle the tree with a root ball out of his truck and into the ground, he told a parable about two trees in scripture. The first was the infamous tree in the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge. The second tree was the tree that we read about in the Revelation of Jesus given to John, which is the tree life. The whole time he was planting these trees he spoke of the life we live between the trees.
That one episode of the video series has stuck with me. I have thought about it a great deal for the past few years. If you were to read the story of Adam and Eve you would know that both the trees were present in the Garden, and that after our first parents ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge they were exiled to keep them away from the tree of life. When this tree again enters the storyline of scripture at in the Revelation of Jesus, we find that the entirety of scripture takes a different tone. From Genesis to Revelation we are presented with the story of humanity’s quest for their true meaning of life. A quest from one tree to the other.
I mention this video because I think this quest from one tree to the other, is the journey we each find ourselves in. Every person is born and they grow in knowledge and stature, they progress through their lives going somewhere. Each person has some passion or drive that moves them from one moment to the next. It might be something vast and elaborate, or it might be pretty mundane. But there is something that urges us to continue through this journey. At times we might lose sight, at times we might take a wrong turn and we find ourselves traversing through some valley we never intended to be yet we walk, we run, we stagger, and at times we crawl on our bellies through the mud. Yet we still find ourselves on that same quest from one tree to the next.
I say we are all on that journey, but there are many who do not know the way. They know deep down within them that they must move, so they move without knowing what direction to walk they just go. They walk past countless others that give advice and they may turn or not. They walk, we all walk seeking that legendary tree that brings meaning to our life. Keep this journey in mind as you consider the words that Jesus spoke in today’s passage.
This parable that Jesus spoke was spoken during his last week of ministry. If we were to place it on a calendar we would start with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday which Is recorded in Matthew 21. Also on that triumphal day Jesus went into the temple where he became enraged at the extortion taking place in the name of God. From Chapter 21 to chapter 25 we have the teachings and interactions of Jesus the first two days of that week. And in chapter 26 we will find the beginnings of the plots, trial and eventual execution of Jesus which begins on Wednesday. What I am saying through this is some of the most powerful teachings of Jesus came in basically one sermon right before he died.
Jesus at this time has finished his public ministry, He is now speaking to his disciples privately on the Mount of Olives just outside of Jerusalem. The disciples have marveled at the magnificence of the Temple and Jesus tells them that all of it will be laid to waste. And they are astonished. They cannot quite imagine a life without the temple, just as we cannot imagine life without some of things we have grown accustomed to, like WIFI. The temple is all that they have known it had a profound impact on and in their life. It defined who and what they were. The temple was everything to them, and Jesus says your world is about to be turned upside down.
They are on this journey of life and suddenly in a moment and instant the very direction and meaning they thought they were living for was going to come crashing down all around them. They like so many others will be left wondering in the vast unknown seemingly without direction. Unless they remember his words. The words that lead to life.
This is Jesus’s last parable. It is filled with prophetic indicators as well as inspirational nuggets. He says, “A man is about to go on a journey so he calls all his slaves to him and entrusts his property to them. To one he gives five talents, to another he gives two, and to another he gives one talent, to each according to their ability.” I think it is important to consider the value of what this man has entrusted to these people. For a common person they would work each day for a denarius. This was not a great deal of money but in ancient times it was enough to provide your family with their needs. A talent is worth approximately fifteen years of wages. Or if you were to consider the average life expectancy of people of that age, a talent was a life’s income. This man is going on a journey, he does not know when he is coming back and he has some servants so he entrusts them with enough money to provide for their livings. He does not tell them what to do with this money, he just gives it to them according to their ability and lets them know that they can do whatever they want with it.
The first servant invests his trust in a manner that yields an additional five talents. The second likewise invests what is entrusted to him and also profits and additional two talents. These first two servants learned from their master. They understood their master’s business and how he would invest his resources and they applied what they had learned for mutual profit. They were entrusted with this amount of money, included in this is all their expenses and personal income and livelihood as well. Consider that. They knew their master’s business. The third however takes the talent he is given, digs a hole and buries it. This third servant does nothing with what has been entrusted to him. He does not invest it he does not even use it to provide for his family, he simply leaves it buried in a hole. What does he do the rest of the time? How does he live? He has been given a life time of wages and he does not touch it.
Which brings me back to the story of the trees. Jesus told his disciples that for your entire life you have focused on the temple, that temple you all interpreted to be the destination and meaning of life, but it is not. The temple is not the second tree. The temple in many ways is a pretty thing that distracts us away from the true life we seek. Because that temple was filled with corruption and extortion, it was filled with exploitation and mockery. It gave empty promises to people and turned many away from the true hope were seeking. The second tree is found with God, that second tree is restored life, the hope of all humanity, the life we lost when our first parents turned from God and chased after their own wisdom. The temple was distracting people from the truth of God. The truth that all God ever wanted for us was for us to enjoy communion with each other and with him in his creation. His desire was for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve to walk with him in the cool evenings singing praises of life. Yet we fell and forever we have chased the dream without knowing which direction to run.
Jesus tells us in this parable that each of us are servants. We each have been entrusted by our creator with certain gifts and talents to use while we journey between the trees. The question is how are we investing our lives. We can get caught up on the injustice of one person getting five and the other only one, but that really does not matter, what matters is are we investing what we have, and are we investing it according to the wisdom of our master?
According to the traditions of Friends, we believe that Jesus is our ever-present teacher and guide. According to the teaching that means that we have access to the wisdom of our master and can use that wisdom in our lives here and now for his glory. How does this work? Just like Jesus walked and taught his disciples his closest friends, we too listen to his teaching and walk with him today. We listen to his teaching by taking the words that have been given to us and allowing them to seep deep into our lives, we allow them to percolate through us till we are changed. But we do not simply read the words, we wrestle with them. We meditate and contemplate all of life through them to the point all we see in the world around us is seen through the light of God. George Fox when he was searching in his life for the way to go, he would often go out into an orchard or field with his Bible and would sit there in silence, reading and meditating and as he did this that is when he heard his master’s call. The call that made his heart leap. As he continued this practice he also received visions of an ocean of light overtaking darkness, and a great multitude gathered together.
How are we investing our lives as we journey from one tree to the next? Are we focused on the work of the master or do we bury all we have in a hole in fear? What is it we are even investing in? It is clear that a talent is a financial reference but it is more than just money. If a talent represents roughly the entire income of a man’s working life, a talent becomes a representation of one’s life. Each of these servants in Jesus’s parable could have been not only given charge of finances but quite possibly could have been given influence over the entire lives of five, two, or one other’s lives. Even in this parable about money again we are brought into a discussion of relationship. And the multiplication of relationships. This reminds me of the movie we watch recently Nail 32. Which is in reference to the life of the founder of the Cowboy church movement. A man asked him how much it would cost to shoe a horse and the founder said $20. And the man said how about I pay for one nail and double it for each additional nail. In this scenario the man would not get paid $20 but over $2 billion. And if we translate that into lives if we were to invest our lives into one person, and in turn each of us invests in others soon the entire world would be changed. One life at a time. One guy invested in five lives another in two and the other was entrusted with one. Two of them used their lives to bring more lives toward the lifestyle of the master and the last servant buried his influence and allowed the master’s work to stop with him. How will you invest your life?
George Fox saw a great crowd, Jesus saw a field ripe for harvest, and lost sheep without a shepherd. What do we see? Are we like the disciple that day focused on a temple built by human hands or are we looking at something that transcends mankind’s greatest marvels? Will we take onto ourselves the lifestyle of Christ and reflect his life to our world? Will we love God in worship, embrace the Holy Spirit in prayer, and live the love of Christ with others as we minister to the various needs around us? Or will we bury all we have in a hole to fearful to move? Will we invest ourselves in God’s kingdom, one life at a time?
Sermon by Jared Warner, November 19, 2017
presented at Willow Creek Friends Church
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. – Matthew 23:1–12 (NRSV)
There are times that scripture and the Christian life can seem a bit twisted. At times it almost seems as if they contradict. For example, loving your enemy seems pretty straight forward, but what about caring for your family? If your enemy is standing at the door, can we protect ourselves? We can come to our own conclusion pretty quickly, and likely we will have many scriptural references to back up our logic. Just as those that have opposing opinions will have scriptural support as well. Is it Christian to protect even if protection requires the use of force? We have seen these theological and ethical debates in our nation’s history. Probably the most tragic example would the debate that occurred over human slavery. Both sides of the debate included men and women of faith. Many if you were to look at other issues may have been quite similar in opinion yet this one issue you would find vastly different views. These singular views can rip communities of faith apart. Some wanting to stand by the ideas of tradition and others wanting to embrace a more progressive view.
Today we meet up with Jesus as he faces down a situation very similar to this. Most of us may not be able to see the social and cultural pressures that were facing the first century Abrahamic community. With the growing influence of the Roman Empire over the people of Israel there was significant outside pressures facing the community that they may not have been used to. But it was not something that was completely foreign. Looking at the history of Israel we know that on many occasions there were encroachments of foreign ideas. Many were introduced by the son of their beloved king David through the many wives of Solomon. Others were enacted upon them by the invading empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and even the Hellenistic Greeks. Each of these foreign influences caused cultural pressures where the greatest thinkers of their day needed to speak the truth of God through the shifting sands of time.
The Jewish faith that we read about in the Gospels was similar but was not the same expression of faith that was practiced by those of the Old Testament. They had similar core beliefs but there were minor practices that changed. Prior to Moses, the faithful did not worship God in a sacred space separated from the rest of the world, but they built alters where they were and worshiped and sacrificed without any priest but the Patriarch of the household. This practice was the established norm of the faith until Moses lead the nation out of Egyptian captivity. During the Exodus we see the emergence of a different expression of faith, similar to that of the Patriarchs but different. They were tribes that were enslaved, the tribes were not as close to each other as they were before, because after four hundred years it is pretty difficult to get the entire family together. It is hard enough to get the fourth generation to one location for Thanksgiving. Time and population demanded that the faith change to accommodate the needs of the people. There was a need to have a centralized teaching and system to encourage faith because after years of slavery personal beliefs can be grossly skewed through experience. And worldly emotions of revenge could have dominated the ideas of God’s promise that these people were to become the light to the nations.
The tabernacle worked well for a nomadic people, but when they entered the land of promise they put down roots and were no longer a wondering nation. For years the Tent of Meeting remained as the central place of worship while the people built estates for themselves, until David said why am I living in a palace while God is in a tent? It is time to build God a house. Notice God did not demand a house but it was initiated by David, God did however make some demands in how this structure would be made. Consider that for a moment. Why would God make a demand on the gift? Just as he did with the tent of meeting he wanted to make sure the people realized that life with God comes at great personal sacrifice. God is a jealous God and does not want the leftovers of life but the first fruits. So, if a house will be built for God, it would speak of his greatness as well as provide a visual teaching through every surface to the revelation of who he is. The temple was architectural scripture.
Eventually after centuries of life, the people of God were faced with a different problem. The nation was conquered, the temple was laid in ruins, and the people were in exile. Was God still relevant? The religious leaders of the exiled community had to express their faith to the people without the temple. It was during this time of exile we first begin to see the roots of the first century faith. This period of exile is extremely important to our understanding of faith today.
Eventually under Persian rule there was a return to Jerusalem and the temple was rebuilt. With the return of the temple and worship there we had two systems working within the same community. While in exile there were religious leaders that emerged that encouraged faith without the physical temple. With the reemergence of the temple, there movement of people and religious leaders that longed for the worship of their ancestors. And we see the emergence of the orders of the Pharisee and the Sadducees.
Two perspectives of faith. One holding to the traditions of the past and another that looks to faith beyond a temple. With all the negativity that Jesus directs toward the Pharisees, Jesus is actually their closest ally. Jesus knows that the temple is something that is only temporary. All structures eventually fall. Jesus and the Pharisees both promoted a faith that did not require temple worship. The difference between the two is found in the question of why.
The Pharisees looked at the laws of Moses and the history of their nation and they promoted the idea that the patriarchs were the priest of the household so each person, specifically male needed to be as righteous as a priest. And if each male is a priest then they will be holy and righteous in the eyes of God. Of course, there is much more to it than that, but in general that was the belief. These leaders promoted that every man needed to live by codes of conduct that were previously only required by those that would be performing the ceremonial rites within the temple. These were not exactly bad things to do, these religious laws are actually promoted a very healthy physical and spiritual lifestyle. The problem with this lifestyle is that a priest would dedicate twenty-five years of their life solely to keeping ceremonially clean. Everything in their life revolved around religion and their livelihood during that time was provided for them through the religious system. So, the Pharisees would dedicate their entire life to religious piety, and anyone that could not was seen as less righteous. There are many aspects of life that would make one religiously unclean in this system, and most of them deal with relationships. How can we live a life of cleanliness and not come in contact with the people or places that would corrupt you? You cannot. A career would often put an individual in contact with dead animals. A marriage would place men and women together during ceremonially unclean periods of time. Even the death of a loved one would place an individual in a position between religious piety and relational encouragement.
Remember the priests were only required to serve for twenty-five years, this was never intended to be a lifelong dedication. And the only ones that would serve beyond were the high priests, and that position demanded even greater dedication. Even during that twenty-five-year period the priests would only fully dedicated their lives to these rites when their lot was called to serve at the temple or tent of meeting. The rest of the time they lived like everyone else. Working their land and raising a family. Yet the Pharisees were promoting that this lifestyle should be something that every man pursue their entire life.
Jesus says, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The burdens Jesus speaks of are the religious laws that were once only necessary for the priests. The only way to fully live this out are if others take on daily tasks for you so that you can focus on the religious observation. The implication to this is that the only way for anyone to be able to do this is if you are wealthy enough to afford servants, and by definition each of these servants would be less righteous than their master. So, the Pharisees lived their righteous lives in front of everyone getting all the honor and praise, while they profited off the work of others. And those that they profited from were often regarded with righteous disdain.
Jesus did not say that their teachings were wrong, in fact, he said listen to their teachings. We are to be a holy people. A people sanctified for the use of God, but Jesus said do not do what they do. The Pharisees did all of these things at the expense of others, not out of service to others. The priests of old were not to profit from their acts of service, they were only to be given their living. And there were teams of priest to assist in service. When one was unclean others would take their place. The sick would go to the priests for assistance and they would help. Even the sickest, the ones that were excluded from general society, were to be examined by the priests, so that they could be reintegrated when the time was right. It was service and ministry to others not self-promotion, and the laws given to the priest were there to make sure that the service to others did not cause harm to the general public.
Follow their teachings, Jesus says, but do not do as they do. The greatest among you will be your servant. Yes, we are to be a holy people, a people dedicated to service and promotion of God. Each one using the gifts that God has given us for the mutual benefit of the community. This means that all are equal, no one is greater than another only that they have different gifts. And that each of us when we are living our life in the giftedness we have been given are equally righteous.
The difference between the disciples of Jesus and that of the Pharisees is not in the teaching, but why they teach what they teach and the resulting implications. It is not wrong to dedicated one’s life to full time religious service, nor is it unrighteous to pursue a life in business. Each individual has a sacred place within the community. And each can encourage others along their journey with God. Both Jesus and the Pharisee were looking at how to life a life of faith within a changing cultural environment. And even today the disciples of both traditions are allies in many ways, because from these two groups emerge the contemporary Jewish and Christian faiths. We do not have a contemporary Sadducee expression of faith because their existence was bound to the temple.
What then does this tell us about faith and changing culture? For thousands of years faith has remained even when circumstances change. For thousands of years through cultural shifts and technological advancements, faith still remains. It remains because people remain. Jesus, God incarnate, come to live among us to take on a full human existence to connect humanity and all of creation back to God. He lived and he taught, showing us what life with God could be, and through his death and resurrection he provided the way to have that life with God. He took on to himself our sin and shame so that we can life free. Free to focus on serving others and showing them what life with God can be in our culture today. The Pharisee does not live in that freedom. They instead remain in their sin and shame because they strive to be holy in themselves. There is nothing wrong with that but there is not freedom. They are bound to law, where those in Christ are free to live. Does this mean we can do whatever we want? No, because if we are in Christ we are not our own. We are bought by Christ and we no longer live but Christ lives in us. Our lives are dedicated not to our own ambitions but each of us are gifted to be servants of all for the glory of Christ and his church. The questions a disciple of Christ or a Pharisee ask are different, one asks am I righteous and the other asks does this glorify God and serve his people. It is difficult to distinguish the difference at times, because righteousness often does glorify God and serve his people. But what happens when the culture seems to shift around us? Do we hold on to traditions of the past and rules devised by human understanding or do we live in grace?
Life with God is not easy and at times I have to admit I am more of a Pharisee than a disciple of Jesus. Recently I was asked what lead me to the life I live now? My response even surprised me. I said I did not want to be a pastor, even though looking back I know I was called from a very early age. I told this person that I did not want to be a pastor because I wanted to be smart. My understanding at the time was that you had to choose one or the other. Life of faith or learning. Even then I could see that there was a shift in the culture and my understanding of faith was more from a Pharisee point of view, and to be right religiously would mean that I would have to throw out everything else. Something changed, I learned to love. I learned that love could be something that was greater than personal benefit. I became a father. And in that moment, I knew that faith was something more. Once God opened my eyes in that way, suddenly all the learning I had just intensified the glory of God in my life. And I could be smart and faithful because it is not about proving or disproving God it is about life and encouraging life with others. So how will we face the emerging culture surrounding us? We face it clothed in the lifestyle of Christ. A lifestyle of worship, prayer, and service to others. Because in worship we recognize that there is more to life than us, in prayer we tune our lives to the greater life around us, and in service to others we promote and recognize that life in those around us. That life is God.
Times and situations often change around us, but life remains. As long as life remains there will always be a place for faith. Will that expression appear the same? No, but it will always be true to the author and perfector of faith. As we enter a time of open worship and communion with God in the manner of Friends, let us consider the changing culture that was affecting the faithful of Jesus’ era. What is similar and what is different? And as we consider that, let us focus on what remains throughout all the change. How will we encourage what remains to live?
Sermon by Jared Warner
Presented at Willow Creek Friends Church, Kansas City MO on November 5, 2017.