Monday, December 3, 2018

29. Resurrection

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 29: Resurrection!

Our journey through the gospel according to Matthew has reached it's final chapter. Chapter 28 is all about resurrection. Resurrection has been mentioned time and time again throughout the previous chapters. Just as He has often spoken of His death, so Jesus has taught His disciples 'On the third day I will be raised to life'. Just as, until it happened, they did not accept He would die, so, until they encounter His risen presence do they accept that He would be raised to life.

The resurrection is not simply an afterthought. It is not a happy ending tagged onto the end of an otherwise tragic story. It is the culmination of all that Matthew has taught us about Jesus. If there be no resurrection then the rest of what he has told us has only limited meaning. There are many accounts of people with lofty ideals who came to tragic ends. There are numerous historical instances of people who worked wonders and taught eternal truths, but their graves are their shrines and they live only in memories.

An oft used Christian formulation is the phrase; 'Christ died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again.' Such a formula reminds us that the gospel is not that we have, in Jesus, a hero to emulate, but that we have a God who, in Christ, is with us, yesterday, today and forever. A God who sends the presence of His Holy Spirit to lead us, guide us, comfort us and renew us. For Christianity resurrection is not what happens when we die, it is the atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being. Because He lives, we live.

The accounts the different gospels give us are not consistent with each other. The authors offer us what may be best described as  'theological tableau' (using the word tableau here to speak of something that is 'a graphic description or representation'). They do not provide us with a historical reconstruction, nor do they seek to explain the event, but rather insist that the resurrection took place and seek to demonstrate what it means both for the individual and for the church community.

They accounts read more like the description of a volcanic eruption than something that happened in a graveyard. Exactly who saw what and when, and the precise sequence of events is obscured by the magnitude of the revelation. Jesus died. Now He lived. This was unprecedented , and, even though Jesus had told them it would turn out that way, it was also completely unexpected. Let us read verses 1 – 7.

Matthew 28:1-7 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay.  Then go quickly and tell His disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him.' Now I have told you."
One of the huge tectonic shifts made following the earthquake of the resurrection was that the Christian church decided that the Sabbath should not be observed Saturday (the seventh and last day of the week) but Sunday (the first – or eighth day of the week). That this change came within a community Jewish in origin, whose founder and first adherents were all religious Jews who had Sabbath observance rooted in the very core of their identities makes that shift all the more unlikely. Unlikely that is, unless something had shifted in the nature of their reality to justify such a radical change. It is not by coincidence Matthew, writing predominantly for a Jewish audience tells us that the resurrection takes place on 'the first day of the week'.

The first day had become the day that Christians worshiped their God. Matthew wants his readership to know that the reason why, was not accidental, but had everything to do with their belief that the resurrection of Jesus was an earth shaking historical event. Just as he tells us that the earth quaked when Jesus was crucified, he tells us the earth shakes at the revelation of His resurrection.

At the birth of Jesus angels play an important part in the drama. They largely disappear from the story, except to minister to Him after His wilderness temptations. Now, in the accounts of His rebirth, an angel reappears. As with the angelic appearances in the birth narratives the angel appears in a way that is so dazzling that it is unnerving. 'Fear Not' were the words of angelic address to both Mary and the Shepherds. In this account we have soldiers fainting and falling to the ground as dead men.

By the time the women appear, it seems the angelic glory has become muted and the angel is pictured as sitting atop of the stone that he had rolled away. Matthew Henry views the fact that it is an angel, and not Jesus Himself who rolls the stone aside, as being a glorious picture of all heavens approval and joy at the resurrection of Jesus. He compares it to the way a jailer is dispatched to open the prison door for an inmate who had been declared innocent of all charges, an admission by the earthly powers that they have been thwarted by a greater truth.

However that may be, there is an almost whimsical quality to the image of the angel sitting on the stone, relaxing in the morning sun, almost in a 'Hey ladies! What's happening' kind of mode! For some reason whenever I read it the Otis Redding song 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay' comes to mind.

Some commentators see a significance in the fact that there are two women in attendance. There was a legal ruling in the Book of Deuteronomy that, in the case of a crime, at least two witnesses had to be present to make the charges stick.  Deuteronomy 19:15 "One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Matthew has previously referred to this law when he was speaking about church discipline in chapter 18.

There is also significance in that the angel describes Jesus to them as being the 'crucified one'. In Greek the grammatical sense of the phrase ('ton estaursmen'  - crucified one) indicates a completed act with ongoing consequences. To quote from the New Interpreters Bible 'Jesus crucifixion was not a temporary episode in the career of the son of God, a past event nullified, transcended or exchanged at the resurrection of heavenly glory. Even as the risen one, He bears the mark of His self-giving on the cross, as His permanent character and call to discipleship.'

In John's gospel we are given the account of Thomas, who has severe doubts about the claims of the rest of his fellow disciples that Jesus is alive. When he eventually encounters Jesus for himself, he is invited to touch the wounds left by crucifixion. He recognizes Jesus, not because of His radiance or beauty, but because of His scars. In the Book of Revelation the image of Jesus is not only as the conquering King, but also as the 'lamb who was slain.'  The two great themes of Christian theology are the cross and the Resurrection. They cannot be separated as neither makes much sense without the other!

The women are reminded that the resurrection had taken place 'just as He said.'  This underscores the point we made earlier that the resurrection is not a happy ending tagged onto the end of the story, but an intrinsic part of Matthews message throughout his gospel.

They are told to go and share the message with His disciples. As well as the fact of His rising, they are instructed to tell them that Jesus 'is going ahead of you' . The image of the Risen Christ being one step ahead of us, leading us to new encounters with His life and love, is a positive one that stirs us to action. Which is exactly what happens! Read verses 8 thru 10.

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell His disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," He said. They came to Him, clasped His feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

This moment is beautifully captured in the second verses of the Easter hymn “Thine Is the Glory”

    Lo! Jesus meets us, Risen from the tomb;
    Lovingly He greets us, Scatters fear and gloom.
    Let the church with gladness ,Hymns of triumph sing,
    For the Lord now liveth; Death hath lost its sting.

Verse 8 gives us this wonderful image of those who are first called to proclaim the resurrection as being  'afraid yet filled with joy'. It is not simply the angel that they are fearful of, but the very fact that Jesus has been raised. Whilst I'm sure the full implications of the event had yet to sink in, the dead coming back to life is definitely up there on the 'scary' scale.

When eternity breaks in it upsets our whole apple cart. If Jesus lives, then it calls us to re-evaluate everything we are living for. It places life in a whole new framework. It calls us to think of our existence not as being from birth to death, but as something that begins before the womb and continues long after the tomb.

It affects our values and puts meat on the flesh of Jesus teaching. Only if eternity is reality does it make sense to take up a Cross and follow Him. Seeking His Kingdom over and above all other things is only an option if we believe that His Kingdom is a greater prize than all that the kingdoms and powers of earth can offer us. Either we adopt the philosophy “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” or we build upon the notion that what we do on this earth has eternal consequences.

If there be no eternity, then there is no final reckoning. Whilst we may choose to adopt a moral code, because life is a lot easier if everybody gets along, ultimately there is no imperative to do so and no matter how much pain or trouble we may cause we answer to nobody but ourselves. Unless, that is, something actually happened in that tomb that is a game changer!

A blogger by the name of Rick Rice writes 'If Christ is risen, that proves He is Who He said He was; God in the flesh. What could possibly be more important than that? And if Christ is NOT risen? What is the point of life, the universe and everything? Life only means what I say it means to me. And I have but a few years of existence and then; nothing.'

One of the most celebrated scholars of the 20th century, Jaroslav Pelikan; author of 30 books, Yale University professor, President of the American Society of Arts and Sciences, died of lung cancer in 2006. But before he died, he said, "If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen – nothing matters.

It is a fearful notion that everything we thought about life could be wrong. Yet it is also a joyful thing. Resurrection life is so much more than just getting by. In John's gospel Jesus is recorded as saying "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."(John 10:10). We are constantly pushed to make our choice. As one preacher told his congregation in an Easter service; “What do you want? Life in Jesus name or just more of the same?'

I guess folk sometimes wonder why we make such a fuss about worship. Well, here we have the example of the women. 'They came to Him, clasped His feet and worshiped Him.' If we genuinely believe Christ died for our sins, that without His love we haven't got a hope in hell and that Jesus is not only alive, but with us every moment of our existence, then the only right response to make is to bow down in worship, in such a way as to get a grip on His reality. We 'take a hold of His feet', that we may learn how to walk His way. We worship Him because He is worthy of our worship, the Son of God, come to redeem us and who sends His Holy Spirit to be with us and continue His world changing mission.

The joy comes as we follow where He leads. Then we discover His presence is with us. The disciples are invited to go to where Jesus tells them so that 'there they will see' Him. We used to have a phrase in Great Britain that the 'proof of the pudding was in the eating.' The reality of the resurrection sometimes only dawns upon us as we seek to do the things we believe Jesus is calling us to do and be the people we believe He is inviting us to be.  But, of course, not everybody sees things this way!

In our last chapter we saw how guards were posted at the tomb to prevent the spread of any rumors about a resurrection having taken place. Matthew gives us a follow up on that story. Read 11-15.

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money,  telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.'  If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
William Barclay comments on this passage;

It is interesting to note the means that the Jewish authorities used in their desperate attempts to eliminate Jesus. They used treachery to lay hold on Him. They used illegality to try Him. They used slander to charge him to Pilate. And now they were using bribery to silence the truth about Him. There is a Roman proverb that declares, 'Great is the truth, and it will prevail”. It is the fact of history that not all humanities evil machinations can in the end stop the truth. The gospel of goodness is greater than the plots of wickedness.

The guards were in an awkward position. They had failed at their task. Matthew doesn't tell us they witness the resurrection, only that they fell, as if dead, at the appearance of the angel. Yet regardless of what they had seen or heard they still have to report to their superiors that the tomb was now empty.

In the light of their report the chief priests do what religious folk always do when there is a threat to their system. They call a meeting of the elders. At this meeting they devise a plan to stop the rumor of resurrection from spreading. 'As in the case of Judas, money oils the wheels of hypocrisy, but here the sum is greater. It costs more to suppress the resurrection message than it did to engineer the crucifixion.' (NIT Commentary)

They promise the soldiers that there will be no repercussions following their failure, just as long as they spread a rumor that the disciples came in the night and stole the body. Even today people use exactly the same story to explain away the resurrection. Or they insist that if He was seen alive, then He couldn't possibly have ever died. The Qur’an, composed some 600 years after the New Testament, though insisting that Jesus will be raised, in a general resurrection at the end of all things, skirts around the story of the empty tomb by claiming that Jesus was never actually crucified.

'That they said [in boast], "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah," but they killed him not, nor crucified him. Only a likeness of that was shown to them. And those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no [certain] knowledge. But only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not' (Surat Al-Nisei 4:157).

Such is one of the more difficult passages to deal with in Christian/Islamic dialogue. When our statement of faith claims 'Christ lived, Christ died and Christ is Risen' having only two of the three acknowledged makes it a little tricky! But the dialogue must continue and at the end of the day the best we can bring to the table in any discussion of faith is to say “I totally respect your opinion, and I even understand where you are coming from. This is what I believe....”

Like the women who run from the tomb, our sense of awe and joy cannot be taken away just because others don't understand it. Neither should we feel we have to apologize for our enthusiasm to anybody. As the inspirational hymn of John Newton, 'Amazing Grace' explains; “I was blind, but now I see.” That's not something you can't give expression to!

Matthew Henry makes the point that conviction of the reality of Christ's resurrection can only come to a person by revelation of the Holy Spirit. That all the arguments and discussions in the world never quite get to the core of the matter. That it all boils down to a question of faith. Only the action of God's Holy Spirit creates the faith needed to believe, but as we seek to do and be disciples the door to faith is opened wide.  He suggests that there is a deep connection between action and experience.

Meanwhile, back in Galilee... let us read our closing verses 16 -20.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
The closing words of the gospel according to Matthew give us a blueprint of the churches mission and  capture Matthew's vision for what the church should be.

Church is a Place 'Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go”

The disciples go to the place where Jesus has invited them to meet Him. Geographical locations have significance. Gathering together for worship and service  is important. Christianity is not an individual spiritual quest, but a pilgrimage made in the company of others. We learn of the Kingdoms ways  from each other. One of the dominant images in the New Testament is of the church being a body, with every part being necessary for the health of the whole.

In an age of rampant  individualism, in which people are urged to seek self fulfillment, the corporate nature of true Christianity is often obscured or laid aside. You don't have to go to church to be a Christian. We are saved by grace through faith. But if you want to be faithful to Scriptures teaching you will understand that you can only do that in the company of others. The place you will find that company is in a physical location... usually a building we call a church.

Jesus did not die just for you. I'm sure He would have done if you were the only human being alive, but Paul tells us that Christ 'died for us'... plural. Jesus invites us to pray; beginning our prayers with the phrase 'Our Father'.  The central celebration of Christian faith is the communion service, the word 'communion' obviously so closely related to the word 'community.'

The disciples are invited by Jesus to meet him, as a community, at a definite physical location. That, for Matthew, is part of what the church is meant to do!

Church is a place for Worship 'When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.'

We rightly call our meetings on a Sunday 'services of worship.' It may feel some weeks that we get side-tracked from our primary reason for existing. Everything from endless announcements to disruptive children may distract us. We may not even always be in the right frame of mind when we walk through the door. So it is good to remind ourselves that the reason we come to church is to worship God. Not to catch up on the news, not to publicize some future event or campaign we are involved in, not to see friends, not even because that's what we always do on a Sunday morning and it's become a habit.

There is a gospel chorus that says: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace”. It is as the disciples see Jesus that they worship Him. It is hard to turn our focus away from ourselves to our Savior, but when we do, when we consider the many blessings that are around and within our lives, we find worship comes so much easier.

I love the fact that Matthew includes the phrase 'but some doubted'. There is room in his vision of the church for those who aren't quite sure yet. He sees church as a place not just for those who think they have got it, but also for those who know that they haven't got there yet. I feel that includes most of us!

Church is a place where we can be empowered by encountering Jesus. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

As they are in the place Jesus has invited them to be, and as they bring Him their worship and doubts, so there comes to them the word they need to hear, the word about the authority of Jesus over all of life. The oldest Christian affirmation of faith is the statement 'Jesus is Lord'.

The dominant theme of the gospel according to Matthew has been that Jesus is a King, a King nothing like Herod, a King like no other King on earth. He is the Servant-King, the High Priestly-King, the Risen King and we are invited to live as citizens of His Kingdom, building into our lives the principles of the Kingdom He outlined in the sermon on the mount. Throughout the gospel Jesus has demonstrated His authority over sickness, over evil, over the created order, even over death itself. Now He comes to His disciples and tells them "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

As we gather for worship we seek to place ourselves under His authority. We seek to lay aside our personal claims and prejudices and be transformed by the authority of Jesus love, that impacts our lives through the action of the Holy Spirit. We seek to be empowered. We need to be empowered, because we have a job to do.

Church is a place where we learn to serve. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Our Church Worship Service lasts maybe a little over an hour (though if you are in choir or teaching Sunday School or serving in some other way it may take a couple more hours). We are not given a time scale on their meeting with Jesus at Galilee that the disciples experience. However we can assume it didn't take all day, all week or all year. The point being that most of our Christian life is lived outside of the church building.

We come together in church to worship, we go out into the world to serve. We go, because Jesus tells us to go! Many moons ago I entered a song writing competition hosted by a mission agency. I didn't win. My over the top disco based mission hymn was not what they were looking for. (LOL) But I still think the words I came up with for the chorus were appropriate.
Go! Take my message to the world
Tell them what you've seen,
Tell them what you've heard,
Go! in the power of my Spirit,
With a love that has no limit,
You can conquer the world!
You can conquer the world!

We are invited to go and make fellow disciples of others throughout all creation. This is not because we are in competition with any other agency in the world (except for the devil and all his minions) but because our lives our being transformed by the love of Jesus Christ and it's such an amazing thing it just doesn't seem right to not let others in on it. As the late Larry Norman penned in one of his songs;
 'When you know a wonderful secret, you don't let it go unsaid,
You tell it to your children as you tuck them into bed.
When you know a beautiful secret, you tell it to your friends,
Tell them that a life time filled with Jesus is like a song that never ends”

There is both a sacramental and Trinitarian aspect to our mission. Christian practice and doctrine are important to Matthew. We are to baptize people. Not just with water, but deeply immerse them and ourselves in the message of the Kingdom. We do this in the name of One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We are given a mission of teaching. We are to fulfill that mission in the way Jesus fulfilled His, namely that it is not just about the words we speak but about the way we live our lives, the deeds we do and the people we share our lives with. 'All the world' includes those bits of the world we don't always want to have anything to do with.

We are to teach people what Jesus has commanded us to teach them. We know from Matthew that Jesus  gave us two commands that summed up all the others and  were both equally important and equally focused.  Very simply... “Love God' and “Love our Neighbor”. Finally, if we do all of this we receive a precious promise.

Church is a place of Assurance. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
In our first session I compared the gospel according to Matthew to a movie. We have reached the final scene. If it were a Western, the music would swell, Jesus would ride off into the sunset, and the words would come up onto the screen, 'And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.' And we would leave the theater inspired to never live in the same old boring way ever again in our lives. At least until next week!

Seriously, this is one of the great promises of Scripture and its truth has been confirmed by countless numbers of God's faithful people throughout the generations. When we apply ourselves to living lives of worship and service that welcome the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we learn that we are not alone, but He walks with us. It's not always easy. Taking up a cross isn't meant to be easy. It's not that we are always sure. We always have those moments of doubt. But at the end of all things, we are assured that Jesus is with us. At the end of all things, that's all we need to know.

So our journey through the gospel according to Matthew has reached it's end. What an amazing book! From the opening credits to the final words it never ceases to challenge us and instruct us. We have been taught about Kings and Kingdoms, we have heard of great wonders, we have walked up mountains that have been transfigured by light and through times of deep darkness and suffering that culminated in the betrayal, torture and death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross. We stood by and heard a Roman soldier declare “Surely this was the Son of God”.

In chapter 28 we have heard about the resurrection and seen how Matthew envisioned the church. Over 2000 years later, here we are. Still discovering, still studying, still praying, still serving, still worshiping, still seeking to be renewed and empowered to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

My prayer is that this study has not simply been an academic exercise but that through it we have come to a deeper appreciation of God's word and God's purpose for our lives.

And to God's name be all glory. Amen.


Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

28. The Darkest Days

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 28: The Darkest Days

Tonight we reach passages of Scripture that are central to our faith. All of the gospel writers make the climax of their story the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. They differ, both in the chronology of events that lead up to these days, and in the interpretation that they give to the events, but when it comes to His death offer a common understanding. Jesus is betrayed, goes through a kangaroo court, is tortured and ultimately murdered through the act of crucifixion.

In our previous chapter the process of His betrayal has been put into motion. Judas has betrayed Jesus with a kiss. We speculated last time on what Judas's motives may have been. We begin this study with Matthew's account of his tragic end. Read 1-10.

 The Death of Judas

 Matthew 27:1 Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound Him, led Him away and handed Him over to Pilate the governor. When Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. "I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed innocent blood." "What is that to us?" they replied. "That's your responsibility." So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, "It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money." So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: "They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me."

We saw in our last study how the actions of Judas were foreshadowed by an account from Zechariah, where the powers that be try and 'pay-off' Zechariah, to stop him prophesying their doom, by giving him thirty pieces of silver. Zechariah takes the money and throws it into the Potter's field. In an act of great irony, the temple authorities take the money given them by Judas, and use it to buy a field that becomes known as 'The field of blood', a burial place for foreigners, but which was formerly known as 'The Potter's Field'.

Judas commits suicide. In Matthew he hangs himself. In the Book of Acts his body  falls to the ground and his body splits open, so presumably, he was left hanging for a while. It is a gruesome end and a chilling reflection on the words of Jesus that it would be better for the man who betrayed Him never to have been born.

Was suicide the only option left for Judas? We know that he was not the only disciple to betray Jesus. Our last chapter ended with Peter's denials. Both Peter and Judas had to deal with the stigma of failure. The difference seems to be that Peter tearfully repented, and knew enough about the grace and forgiveness of Jesus to know that there was always a second chance. Judas does not to seem to have the same grasp on God's ability to forgive him. He is unable to forgive himself. He takes the only option that seems left.

Is suicide the unforgivable sin? I've been asked as a pastor, 'Do people who commit suicide go to Hell?' My understanding is that we all, when we die, rest in the hands of God. We can never know what is going through a persons mind when they feel their only option is to take their life. They are certainly not in a healthy state of being. Jesus seems particularly loving to those who are sick in mind or body.  God is a God of grace and forgiveness. Thankfully, the eternal destiny of us all lies with God's grace, not in each others opinions!

Sadly suicide is at a high rate in our society, particularly high among our young people. Having ministered to families in the midst of such tragedy, on more occasions than I would wish for, it is clear to me that what is required in such situations, is not judgment, but compassion of the highest order. It is one of the darkest and most disturbing of all bereavement situations.

Haunting questions such as 'Could I have done more to prevent this?', 'Was this really just a cry for help?' and 'Did they really mean to end their life?' remain forever open and unanswered. Even in obituaries and on death certificates a verdict of 'accidental death' is often recorded. Often times people look for a situation or a person to blame. The effect on  families left behind can be devastating. There are just too many unanswered questions.

Speaking of 'unanswered questions' Jesus is now taken to Pilate. Read 11-14.

The Trial before Pilate

 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked Him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "You have said so," Jesus replied. When He was accused by the chief priests and the elders, He gave no answer. Then Pilate asked Him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?" But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge--to the great amazement of the governor.

This brief passage gives little details as to what was actually said by his accusers. As with the previous trial by the Sanhedrin, Jesus refuses to answer any accusations, so we can presume it was more of the same trumped up charges. His innocence is clear to Pilate, who seems to completely underestimate the strength of their hatred towards Him. To His accusers minds Jesus was dangerous and had to go, no matter what the truth about him may be! In an effort to get himself out of a tricky situation Pilate has plan. There was another prisoner on death row called Jesus...an accused man known as Jesus Barabbas. Read 15-26

The Release of Barabbas

 Now it was the governor's custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?"  For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him. While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor. "Barabbas," they answered. "What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" Pilate asked. They all answered, "Crucify him!" "Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!" When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" All the people answered, "His blood is on us and on our children!" Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed Him over to be crucified.

I have spoken before of considering Matthew as a movie script. In one of the gospel blockbusters, (though I forget which one) this event is memorably pictured. The crowd are shouting for 'Jesus of Nazareth' to be released. Agitators, obviously belonging to those who want to see Him destroyed, are looking at each other in the midst of the crowd. 'What do we do now?' they ask each other. One looks at the other, with an 'I've got it' look in their eye and begins to shout at the top of his voice, “Jesus Barabbas, Jesus Barabbas!” The others join in, “Jesus Barabbas, Jesus Barabbas!”

Slowly the crowd become influenced and also change their chant from 'Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of Nazareth' to 'Jesus Barabbas, Jesus Barabbas!'. Obviously the screenwriter is taking a large degree of poetic license with the gospel account, but it at least makes the point that crowds are easily swayed and are not known for their logical thinking. You may recall from our last chapter that Jesus had been handed over because of the fear of a riot.  Pilate has similar fears.

His fears are further intensified by the strange dreams of his wife. The Message bible pictures her sending him the message "Don't get mixed up in judging this noble man. I've just been through a long and troubled night because of a dream about him." We are not told what her dream actually was, but should remember that dreams were considered as a communication from the divine realm and were not to be treated lightly!

Pilate at first pleads with the crowd. But his protestations are drowned by the insistence that Jesus be crucified. Aware that he is losing the battle, Pilate takes a bowl and in front of the crowd, washes his hands as an act to demonstrate he was no longer being held responsible for their actions. The blood of the accused would be upon their hands, something the crowd are willing to accept as they respond ; "His blood is on us and on our children!"

 Throughout Matthew's gospel the conflict between two kingdoms, a kingdom of violence and God's kingdom of peace are the choices laid before the reader. In the garden He warns His disciples, “Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword”. Here, the people choose the option of power exerted through violence over the authority and power of God present in meekness, grace and forgiveness. They reject God's Kingdom and the fate of God's servant is sealed.

Later generations have wrongly used this passage to justify anti-semitism, suggesting that the betrayal of Jesus by the crowd, and their petition that the responsibility for His death should fall upon them, implies that the Jewish people were forever under the curse of being Christ-Killers. That is not the intention of Matthew's account. If there is any judgmental aspect to it, it is past, and took place at the Fall of Jerusalem in AD70, an event that would befall those in the crowd and their children. As the New International commentary points out 'Matthew does not wish for revenge or pronounce a sentence on all Jews forever.'

As to Pilate, there was an ancient legend that his wife, Claudia Procula, was a convert to Judaism at the time of her dream, and afterward became a Christian. According to this tradition, under his wife's influence, Pilate also became a convert in his old age. Interestingly the Eastern Coptic Church include both Pilate and his wife in their list of saints. However laying behind this absolving of Pilates' guilt is a desire to put all the blame upon the Jews.

Fact is, Pilate was the head honcho. The buck stopped there. He was responsible for the life of an innocent prisoner, no matter how loud the crowd shouted. He went against his conscience, his wife and the responsibility of his office in handing Jesus over to them. In Shakespeare's play 'Macbeth', there is the haunting image of Lady Macbeth, (Act 5, Scene 1) repeatedly trying to wash the blood of her crimes from her hands saying “Out, damned spot! out, I say!”. Hand washing does not circumnavigate responsibility.  Jesus is handed over to the crowd. Read 27-31.

Jesus is Tortured

Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on His head. They put a staff in His right hand. Then they knelt in front of Him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. They spat on Him, and took the staff and struck Him on the head again and again. After they had mocked Him, they took off the robe and put His own clothes on Him. Then they led Him away to crucify Him.

Matthew's theme of contrasting kings is given a perverse twist in the actions of the soldiers who mock Jesus. Failing to recognize His Kingdom, they initiate a violent parody based upon the aspects of Kingship. All the accouterments and insignia of royalty are present. Jesus is a clown-King complete with 'robe' 'crown' 'scepter'. They mockingly kneel before Him and acclaim His office as 'King of the Jews'

Early on in Matthew's gospel we had the account of the travelers from the East , the Magi, who come bearing gifts in deep devotion that they offer to the infant King. Among the gifts they bring is 'Myrrh'  a spice associated with suffering and death. Such was an odd gift to bring to a child, but in retrospect, Myrrh, seems all too appropriate.

A crown of thorns, that have sharp points that radiate outwards, like the rays of divinity that surrounded the emperors heard on a Roman coin, is placed upon Him, which must have been excruciatingly painful.  Yet Matthew does not focus on the pain or the details of Christ's torture. His original readers needed no description of what it meant to be crucified.

Those who are victims of violence, or even torture, in today's world, find in these accounts a God who is no stranger to their own suffering. I vividly recall visiting a parishioner in a city parish who, as an elderly lady, half-crippled and frail, had been robbed in her home, tied to her chair whilst the perpetrators ransacked her meager belongings, sworn at, beaten and kicked before they left. There's not really a lot you can say to a person who goes through such an experience, but I recall her words to me.

She said, “They beat Him... didn't they.” The fact that Jesus was an innocent victim subjected to mockery, violence and torture,  resonated with her and gave her hope. She did not feel God was absent, but in a curious way felt she had gained a new appreciation of what Jesus was prepared to go through for her, that she may live free and forgiven. One of the true privileges of ministry is that you get to meet people who truly redefine the term 'saint' and give you a whole different perspective on faith.

The reality is Jesus was not just a murder victim but also an innocent victim of mockery, torture and the grossest kind of violence we can imagine. All this at the hands of soldiers whose job was to stand for justice and restrain such acts as those in which they willingly participated. Such seems to be a feature of every war that's ever fought. We heard during the Iraq war of those whose actions made a mockery of their profession. Allegations of torture and violence are not just confined to history but remain a disturbing trend at times of conflict when prejudices are inflamed and opponents see each other as somehow less than truly human.

The darkness deepens and Jesus is led out to be crucified. Read 32-44

Jesus is Crucified

As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means "the place of the skull"). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, He refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over Him there. Above His head they placed the written charge against Him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Two rebels were crucified with Him, one on his right and one on His left. Those who passed by hurled insults at Him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked Him. "He saved others," they said, "but He can't save himself! He's the king of Israel! Let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue Him now if He wants Him, for He said, 'I am the Son of God.'" In the same way the rebels who were crucified with Him also heaped insults on Him.

Gentile Kings welcomed the birth of Jesus. Now Simon, most probably a Gentile (as he hails from the Romanized district of Cyrene), is press-ganged into carrying His cross. Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospels, continues to emphasize the importance of the Gentiles. One man, a Jew, formerly named Simon (we know him as Simon-Peter) has denied his Master and sits broken in tears, and though he proclaimed he would walk to the end of the road with Jesus he is now nowhere to be seen. He is replaced by another Simon, who does go with Jesus all the way, this one an outsider and a stranger. Maybe this is one of Matthews ways of saying that it doesn't matter who you are or where you are from, right now this story of the crucifixion, is about you!

Wine was used not only for pleasure, but also as a narcotic to dull the sense of pain, rather like, every time anybody needs a tooth pulled or limb amputated in Wild West movies you see whiskey being used. Interestingly, as we contemplated earlier the gifts the wise men brought the infant Jesus, the wine administered as a narcotic was often augmented with Frankincense to increase the numbing effect. Such maybe the 'gall' referred to in our passage. However that may be, after tasting it, Jesus refuses it.

William Barclay comments, “He would not drink it, for He was determined to accept death at it's bitterest and its grimmest, and to avoid no particle of pain”. In order to fully enter into the human situation of death and suffering, Jesus will take nothing to prevent Him plumbing the depths of abandonment.

At the time of prohibition anti-alcohol preachers made great play of the fact that even in His hour of death Jesus rejected  demon drink. Of course they also completely ignored, or reinterpreted the fact that He both turned water into wine at a wedding and encouraged His disciples to drink wine to remember Him at His Last Supper. Some argued that the wine mentioned on those occasions was non-alcoholic, but there is scant evidence historically that such was the case.

The act of crucifixion is not dealt with in gory detail. This is not Mel Gibson's “The Passion” movie. As stated earlier, there was no need for Matthew to describe what a terrible death it was as, at the time he wrote, his original readers would be familiar with the Romans' barbaric execution methods.  For them it didn't need explaining.

What Matthew does focus on is the events that happen around the Cross. The soldiers divide His clothes. Many commentators see here a reflection on Psalm 22,  in which a dying person laments that their relatives are already dividing up their belongings.

There is deep irony in the fact that it is in mockery they nail a sign to the Cross 'THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.' Such a sign would be offensive to the Romans, because it would challenge the emperors all embracing power, and  to the Jews, whom the Romans sought to belittle by portraying their King as broken and defeated. The Romans would consider it a warning to any potential Jewish Messiahs that may arise in the future.

Isaiah  53:12, considered one of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, reads: “Therefore I will give Him a portion among the great, and He will divide the spoils with the strong, because He poured out His life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isa 53:12 NIV)

Commenting on Christ's crucifixion at the center of two criminals (and by implication suggesting He was the worst of them) commentator of old, Matthew Henry, writes: “Though while He lived, He was separate from sinners, yet in their deaths they were not divided, but He was made to partake with the vilest malefactors in their plagues, as if He had been a partaker with them in their sins; for He was made sin for us, and took upon Him the likeness of sinful flesh. He was at His death, numbered among the transgressors and had His lot among the wicked, that we, at our death, might be numbered among the saints and have our lot among the chosen.”

Those who pass by, those who sought His death, the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders, and even those crucified with Him, throw back the words Jesus has spoken during His ministry to mock Him. They dispute His claims to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, His claim to be the Son of God, His works of salvation, His claim to be King, His hopes for Resurrection and His trust in God.

Two thousand years later those who mock the Christian message often pick on similar things. They dispute with us regarding Resurrection, Salvation and the claim of Christ to be Lord . They misinterpret His words, just as the passers by misunderstand His words about the temple. They say to us, “Show us a miracle and then we will believe” but fail to recognize the implications of the Son of God dying for our sins.

General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, once said, “It is precisely because He would not come down that we believe in Him”. Barclay comments “The Jews (and all of Christ's opponents) could see God only in power; but Jesus showed that God is sacrificial love” .

The events of the darkest day continue to unfold. Read 45-54.

 The Death of Jesus

 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" (which means "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?").  When some of those standing there heard this, they said, "He's calling Elijah." Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, "Now leave Him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to save Him." And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with Him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely He was the Son of God!"

As with the passage about dividing up His clothes, the words Jesus speaks about His abandonment are from Psalm 22, a Psalm in which a suffering person cries out to God for vindication. Those who knew the Psalm would understand that in the original instance the story ended with celebration, just as Matthew's gospel ends in resurrection, extending the call of the gospel to all nations and all peoples of all generations.

When ever we say together the words of the Apostles Creed we include the phrase “He descended into Hell”. Whilst the phrase is often linked to a rather obscure passage in Peter's letters about Christ preaching salvation to the spirits of the imprisoned dead,  it finds a deeper meaning in Christ's cry of dereliction from the Cross. There was no deeper abandonment , no deeper Hell, Jesus could travel through than feeling completely abandoned by His Father God. He cries out “My God, My God...” and the implication is that His God had left Him and abandoned Him to His fate.

With the benefit of hindsight and viewed through the lens of Resurrection, we know that was not the case.  What these words can mean for a person of faith is that, when we feel abandoned by God, or even if we feel like we are traveling through an undeserved Hell, then we have a Savior who totally understands and has experienced that most profound depth of suffering characterized as abandonment by our God.

'He descended into Hell' can be interpreted as one of the most hope filled phrases in the whole creed. The words imply that when we travel through times that take us beyond what we can endure, Jesus not only knows how that feels, but walks with us towards resurrection and restoration. At the time, we won't see it. But in God's time, we will find healing. Such is the tremendous promise of these words.

Of course the passers by don't see it that way. They misinterpret the mumbling of Jesus as though He is calling upon Elijah to save Him. But the reader of Matthew knows that Elijah had already come in the person of John the Baptist, the fore-runner to the Messiah. Jesus had explained to the crowds, back in Chapter 11:13-14 “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

With a loud cry Jesus dies, He 'gives up His spirit'. A number of signs follow.

1. The curtain in the temple is split from top to bottom. The temple curtain was the barrier that divided the Holy of Holy's from the people.

a) The curtain represented Christ's body, which, as we demonstrate every communion meal when we tear the loaf into two pieces, was broken.  He is mocked upon the cross for saying the temple would be destroyed, but as Matthew has explained, the temple He spoke of was His body, which would be crucified and be raised on the third day. As His body, the true temple of God, was broken, so the veil in the temple was also split down the middle.

b) The curtain represented the mysteries of the Old Testament. The veil in the temple was designed to conceal, as was the veil  n the face of Moses when he came down from the mountain after receiving the ten commandments. In 1 Corinthians chapter 3:13-16 Paul teaches how the removal of the 'veil' or 'curtain' signified the old order that was passing away.

 “We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.  Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”

The curtain was called the 'veil of covering' for it was an offense for anybody but the High Priest to proceed beyond the veil, and this in a cloud of smoke only once a year, to offer a sacrifice for the peoples sins. In the holy of holy's were the mercy-seat, a symbol of God's forgiveness (for Christians a representation of the forgiving grace of Jesus) and a pot of manna gathered in the wilderness during the Exodus, which according to new Testament     writers pointed to Jesus, the true Bread of Life.

c) The tearing of the curtain signified the uniting of Jew and Gentile. In Ephesians 2:14-16 we read; “For He (Jesus) Himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in His flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility.”

d) The tearing of the curtain indicated the laying open of a new way to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He becomes the High Priest who offers the sacrifice of Himself, 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world',  as John the Baptist proclaimed Him to be at the start of His ministry. In Hebrews chapter 10:19 -22 we read ; “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus,by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

Revelation 3:21 – 4:1 has a glorious picture of how the death of Christ has opened a way for us, through the veil, into the presence of God. “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.”

2. The Earthquake. Matthew pictures for us the death of Jesus as being a moment in time of earth shattering significance. Until quite recently we used to number our years BC and AD, the popular designation of each epoch being 'Before Christ' and 'After Death'.  Evil is dealt an earth shattering and fatal blow as God shakes the nations.

3. The tombs of Israelite Saints, surrounding the city and the Temple Mount, are opened. These rock tombs anticipate the tomb in which Jesus shall be laid. We are given a rather peculiar picture of the saints being resurrected on Good Friday, but not going into the city till after Easter Sunday. The New International Commentary suggests “That we have (here) theology in narrative form, and not bare historical reporting, is clear. Although no theory of the atonement is elaborated, it is clear that for Matthew the death of Jesus is not a mere minus that will be negated by the resurrection. Already in the death of Jesus the eon-changing, dead-raising power of God breaks in

The crucifixion does not just impact the Jews who are standing watching the proceedings, but even the soldiers and officers are  awestruck by the signs that accompany it, leading one of them to declare "Surely He was the Son of God!". Again Matthew is keen to point out that this was an event that was a game changer for both Jew and Gentile. After death comes burial. Read 55-61.

Jesus is Buried

Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee's sons. As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

Though the disciples had abandoned Him, Matthew tells us that not all had scattered. Some of the women who had been following Him from earliest days of His ministry remained with Him. We have encountered them at various points in Matthew's story, but it is only at the end of the story their true faithfulness is revealed.

We are also encouraged to see that though there were many among the Jews who opposed Him, there were also those whose life had been transformed by Him, even amongthe ruling classes. The account of Joseph, a rich man of Arimathea, giving up his own tomb that Jesus may receive the dignity of a decent burial, is a wonderful picture of how faith could triumph over prejudice. But the story isn't over yet.  Read 62-66

The Next Day

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first." "Take a guard," Pilate answered. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how." So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Then as now, those who deny the resurrection could have happened, suggest that the disciples must have stolen the body. I guess such a rumor was doing the rounds in Matthew's day because he gives us this story of the tomb being sealed to 'nip it in the bud.' Pilate tells the guards to “Make the tomb as secure as you know how." Presumably it was more than their job was worth to not do it properly.

Matthew wants us to understand that this was a tomb that not only had a huge stone rolled across it, but was then sealed and watched. If there was going to be a resurrection in three days, as Jesus suggested, then it had to be clear that such was a work of God against insurmountable probability, not some clever conjuring trick designed to lift the hopes of those who had seen their hero come to a tragic end.

And what happens next? Why, chapter 28 of course!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

27. The Final Countdown

"According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 27: The Final Countdown

Chapter 26 is one of the longest chapters in the Bible. It details the events that lead up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. That means there will be a lot more bible reading and a little less commentary in this study! But let us begin the final countdown by setting the scene and reading verses 1 thru 5.

 Matthew 26:1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples,  "As you know, the Passover is two days away--and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified."  Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.  "But not during the festival," they said, "or there may be a riot among the people."
Jesus speaks of the inevitability of His crucifixion. It was just a matter of timing. His fate has been sealed by the chief priests. But as He approaches the Cross there are things that need to be taken care of. Let us continue with verses 6 thru 13.

 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper,  a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked.  "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."  Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

The beautiful thing this anonymous woman has done for Jesus is anointing Him for His burial. Such was a dignity that would be denied to Him when the time actually came. She sees the urgency of the moment, but the disciples are still in denial, despite the plain speaking of Jesus that He will be handed over to the authorities and be crucified.

It isn't quite clear why the disciples are so angry at the woman. It could be because they realize what she is doing, but don't want to face it. It may be that they have a genuine concern for the poor, but that's not a trait they have been upfront in demonstrating in their past. At the 'Feeding of the 5000' their first reaction was “Lord, send them home!” There's also something uncomfortable about the fact that they are quite willing to take this woman's perfume and sell it, rather than have it used in the way it was designed for. Permeating the whole passage is an air of self-righteous disapproval of the woman, her actions and even of the very existence of expensive perfumes.

There is tendency when we here of a person who passes away and leaves some extravagant amount to a cause we may not personally identify with, to say 'Imagine giving all that to a cat's home!” We never know what a persons motives may be. It's not for us to pass judgment on folks extravagance. 'Judge not' suggested Jesus' “That ye be not  judged!' (Matt 7:1). After all, look what happens next. Read verses 14-16

Then one of the Twelve--the one called Judas Iscariot--went to the chief priests  and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?" So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.  From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

Centuries earlier, the prophet Zechariah, having given up on any hope of changing the minds of the leaders of Israel, had been offered thirty pieces of silver as payment for his services. Zecheriah 11:8-13.

 In one month I got rid of the three shepherds. The flock detested me, and I grew weary of them  and said, "I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another's flesh."  Then I took my staff called Favor and broke it, revoking the covenant I had made with all the nations.  It was revoked on that day, and so the oppressed of the flock who were watching me knew it was the word of the LORD.  I told them, "If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it." So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.  And the LORD said to me, "Throw it to the potter"--the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the LORD. (Zec 11:8-13 NIV)

Though he calls it a “handsome price” he is being ironic. He throw's the money into the house of the LORD where “the potter” would receive it. '30 pieces of silver' also had a legal significance.

In Exodus 21 there are rules concerning the keeping of dangerous animals. If you have been negligent and let out an ox who kills a servant then your own life is forfeit. You ought to die but you can ransom yourself from death by paying thirty pieces of silver. In so doing, you, the guilty one, are redeemed and the servant 's life is considered atoned for.

Therefore 30 pieces of silver was the value placed on a servant’s life. Such is an offensively meager price! Yet through it the sinner found redemption. We see how fitting it is that this was the amount of blood money paid to Judas. Jesus is the Servant of the Lord, slain at the hands of the beast. He is the Prophet, misunderstood and undervalued by His people, but prized by the Potter. And He is the ransom price offered for the guilty. A ransom, infinitely more precious than silver or gold, as we read in 1 Peter 1:18-19 “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”

The 'blood of the lamb' was a significant feature of the annual celebration of Passover, recalling as it did the time lambs blood was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites, and the meal they ate together to prepare them for the journey. It is our tradition to share in what we call 'Holy Communion' a meal instituted by Jesus as He approached His sacrifice. Let us read 17-30.

 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?" He replied, "Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, 'The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.'"  So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.  When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me."  They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, "Surely you don't mean me, Lord?"  Jesus replied, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.  The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born."  Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, "Surely you don't mean me, Rabbi?" Jesus answered, "You have said so."  While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body."  Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."  When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
The table that is meant to unite us has often been a source of division among us. Matthew suggests that such was even the case at the very first last supper. One of them was a traitor who had already taken thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus. To all the others present this was an unthinkable possibility. They each proclaim their innocence. “Surely you don't mean me?”

Interestingly the faithful disciples all refer to Jesus as “Lord”, the term an insider would use of their teacher. However when Judas makes his protestation of innocence, Judas uses the term “Rabbi”, speaking as though he were an outsider to the group around the table. It is for this reason that Jesus answers in verse 25 “You have said so”. Judas's guilt is betrayed by a slip of his tongue.

Theologians over the centuries have speculated as to the motives of Judas and as to whether, if it was all God's plan, that he had any choice in the matter. It raises the great dilemma of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary suggests 'God is not taken by surprise in the betrayal that leads to crucifixion; it goes according to the divine plan expressed in Scripture. But this does not relieve the burden of human responsibility. Matthew does not parcel out the responsibility for Jesus’ death between God and humanity: God is fully sovereign; humanity is fully responsible.'

Such a view appears to harmonize with Matthew's text, for Jesus appears to be both regretful, (Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man!) but also warning Judas of the consequences of  his action (It would be better for him if he had not been born). No matter how we seek to understand it the discussion is fraught with the kind of 'What if?” questions that are impossible to answer. What if Judas had changed his mind? What if God could have done things a different way? What if Judas thought he was doing the right thing? (which he probably did!)

In the midst of all these questions come words that are some of the most familiar of all to those who gather around the table. Jesus takes bread and says “This is my Body”. Takes the cup after supper saying 'Drink from it, all of you”. The language and actions are rich in symbolism. It is beyond the  scope of our current study to go into great depth as to how the Passover celebration relates to our Eucharistic celebrations.

What I find unique about Matthew's account is that the mystery of the sacrament is placed in the context of deep life questions about the way God works and how much we are responsible for what we do. None of these questions find resolution.... and yet somehow around the table we are nurtured for the journey and inspired to sing God's praise. The section finishes with one of the few references to music in Matthew's gospel...'When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.'

Traditionally the Passover music was based around the Hallel Psalms 113-118. Bear in mind what Jesus is about to face. As part of the liturgy Last Supper, at some points in the liturgy Jesus would have sung some of the following words from Psalm 116, that in retrospect had deep meaning.

    The snares of death encompassed me,
    The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
    Then I called on the name of the LORD;
    "O LORD, I beg you, save my life!"
   
    ..For you have delivered my soul from death,
        my eyes from tears,
        my feet from stumbling;
    I walk before the LORD in the land of the living...

    What shall I render to the LORD
    For all his bounty to me?
    I will lift up the cup of salvation
     And call on the name of the LORD..

    O LORD, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the son of your handmaid
    You have loosed my bonds.
    I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving...

    (Psalm 116:3-4, 8-9, 12-13, 16-17)

This is remarkable. Not only does it reveal the script of Jesus' own anguish and passion, it also links salvation not just to His death but to 'the cup of salvation.' He refers to the sacrifice offered as a 'sacrifice of thanksgiving'. In Hebrew, this word is 'todah'. The common Greek translation of 'todah' is,  'eucharistia', from which we derive the word 'eucharist', our thank-offering for deliverance from death.

As they arrive out the Mount of Olives the final countdown continues to tick away. There are further disquieting words that the disciples need to hear. Verses 31-35

 Then Jesus told them, "This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: "'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'  But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee."  Peter replied, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will."  "Truly I tell you," Jesus answered, "this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times."  But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the other disciples said the same.
The words Jesus speaks about rising again and going ahead to Galilee don't even register with Peter. Peter is focused on his own loyalty and in an act of true bravado exclaims “No matter what the others do, I'll never let you down!' Pride comes before a fall. Yet even this is preparing Peter for the leadership role he will have in the future church that will not be truly birthed until Pentecost. We'll look at Peter's denials a little further on, but right now there's a more important task. Prayer. Read 36 thru 46.

 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray."  He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."  Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."  Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Couldn't you men keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."  He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done."  When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.  So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.  Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.  Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"

Some commentators suggest the the victory of Jesus over death and suffering was achieved in the Garden of Gethsemane rather than on the Cross.  It was at Gethsemane that Jesus wrestled with the will of God. The passage may remind us of the Old Testament story of Jacob who wrestles with an angel before he can go any further with his particular mission.

The nature of this struggle is the words 'Yet not as I will, but as you will.' Jesus pleads with His Father God three times, “Is there not some other way that all I have come to do can take place? Is there no way around this suffering I must endure?” He uses the sacramental language of the cup...  we refer to our communion cup as the 'blood of Christ'... is it not possible that this cup can be removed?

His actions and His words reflect a deep, deep struggle. He is in agony. He throws Himself on the ground. The struggle overwhelms Him to the point that it threatens His life... 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.' It is through this struggle that the resolve to follow through comes to Him. Before Gethsemane none of them are ready to face the Cross, not even Jesus. After Gethsemane it appears Jesus is once more in a place where , whatever happens, we will know it is the will of God.

The passage underlies the importance of prayer. And the sting in the tale is the fact that in this story, we are not Jesus, we are the disciples. We are the ones who cannot apply ourselves. We are the ones who sleep rather than stay awake and alert. The disciples time would come.  But not yet. They still did not truly appreciate the nature of the struggle. But that was all about to change. Read verses 47 thru 58.

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people.  Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: "The one I kiss is the man; arrest him."  Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him.  Jesus replied, "Do what you came for, friend." Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.  With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?"  In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, "Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me.  But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled." Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.  Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled.  But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome.

'Welcome to the Judas World'  
(a poem that contrasts the ways of this world with the life of Judas)

Welcome to the Judas world, the world of the betrayers,
This stage of compromise and fear, upon which we are the players.

Welcome to the Judas world, where nobodies a sinner,
Where the only thing that matters, is that you end up as the winner.

Welcome to the Judas world, where money sure speaks loud,
Where it's easier to rob the poor, than go against the crowd.

Welcome to the Judas world, where the upright, bold and true,
Hide behind their painted masks, what they really want to do.

Welcome to the Judas world, where justice is trampled underfoot,
Where the politicians can be bought, and the religion is corrupt.

Welcome to the Judas world, where a kiss is not enough,
Where tokens of affection, are designed to call your bluff.

Welcome to the Judas world, where God offers the Christ,
But we strip Him of all meaning and crucify His life.

Welcome to the Judas world, where hangs a noose upon a tree,
Where a world bent upon suicide, will fulfill it's destiny.

Welcome to the Judas world, where life is very cheap,
Where blood that spills upon the field...
Betrays the words we speak.


Betrayed by the kiss of a friend, Jesus does nothing to resist arrest. In the Garden He has accepted that this is what must happen. He points out to the crowd how ludicrous the actions of those arresting Him actually were. Arriving with a hit squad as though He were some armed and dangerous terrorist  was what we may today classify as 'Unnecessary Force'. Ironically if they truly knew who they were dealing with they would have known that there were resources available to Him that were beyond their imagining. 'Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?'

When one of His disciples (traditionally Peter) attempts to put some meat on the promise that they would never betray Him, they are told to put their sword back in it's place and we hear Jesus saying "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword”… a statement that has been adopted by proponents of non-violence ever since.

The darkness deepens. What we witness next is a travesty of justice and an indictment on our human ability to descend into unimaginable depths of cruelty and inhumanity. Read 59 thru 68.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death.  But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward  and declared, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'"  Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?"  But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God."  "You have said so," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."  Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.  What do you think?" "He is worthy of death," they answered.  Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, "Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?"


This is a complete travesty of a trial. The verdict of guilty has already been determined. The sentence of death has already been passed. The treatment the prisoner receives was way beyond anything that was acceptable. Even back then, in a court of law, being spat upon and beaten was never allowed. It is hardly surprising that Jesus says absolutely nothing. As trumped up charges are dismissed and the accusations become more absurd He has the dignity not to respond. There are times when saying nothing has far more power than any word that can be spoken.

But when it comes to the true matter at hand, which as Matthew has told us from the start, is a conflict of two Kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the earth, Jesus speaks out. And He does so in a way that enmeshes His accusers. When asked if He is the Son of God, He implies that they know very well who He is. “You have said so” are the words in our text. Lest they are in any doubt about that He prophesies that there will come a day when all be would revealed and they would be found to have been on the wrong side of the equation. “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” They see this statement as being all the evidence they need to proclaim Him a blasphemer worthy of the death penalty.

Of all the many forms of prejudice and hatred that exist in our world it is tragically true that some of the worst of it comes from within religion. The most abhorrent crimes of humanity against humanity, from the Christian Crusades of the Dark Ages to the Fundamentalist Muslims who attacked the Twin Towers, go beyond rationality and embrace a deplorable tolerance of inhumanity and violence in service of some other earthly greater cause. No wonder the atheists of our day ridicule religion and accuse theistic belief as being the root of all evil.

But that is not the whole story. The power of these passion narratives is that they show us both the best and the worse we are capable of. We see the Kingdom of God at work in Jesus, the kingdoms of the earth at work in almost everybody around Him, be they His closest friends or His religious and political opponents.  The lines are drawn. The final countdown has begun.

Throughout this harrowing account we are also given an unfolding and very human story about Peter. Peter, who was once known as Simon, but receives the far more inspiring name that we would probably translate as 'The Rock' or  'Rocky'. Peter who has been there at some of the most significant moments of Jesus ministry, on mountain tops, in the valleys, in the garden. Peter, upon whose confession of faith the church shall be built and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it. Peter who proclaims his unfailing allegiance. Peter who seeks to take on the whole a mob with a sword. Peter who promises never to deny his master. Let us read read 69-75

 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. "You also were with Jesus of Galilee," she said.  But he denied it before them all. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said.  Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, "This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth."  He denied it again, with an oath: "I don't know the man!"  After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, "Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away." Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, "I don't know the man!" Immediately a rooster crowed.  Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: "Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Mat 26:1-75 NIV)

Peter is compromised. He's fearful. The one who would take on an army single handed is now afraid of the maid who simply asks, “Weren't you one of those traveling with Jesus?” He claims absolutely no connection with Jesus, as though the very suggestion was an absurdity. He moves out to the Gateway Anther maid makes him afraid as she says to those around her, “I saw him with my own eyes. He's one of those disciples”. Peter gets really mad. He denies it, with an oath, (which probably meant he swore at her) “I don't know the man!”

Finally they all start asking questions. “Yes, you do. We saw you. You were there!” This time, as he answers, his accent gives him away. This is of course, something I can totally identify with. Being an Englishman in Maryland (by way of Liverpool, Wales, West Virginia and Long Island) as soon as I open my mouth folk are pretty darn sure I'm not a native of these parts!

Peter remains obstinate. Once you start on a trail of lies it's hard to stop. 'Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive'. But then the rooster cries and Peter remembers exactly what Jesus had told him. 'You will deny me three times before the cock crows.'

And he's broken. Peter, the guys kind of guy, openly weeps.  As predicted by the prophets, the Shepherd is being led to the slaughter and the sheep are being scattered.

Next time? It just keeps going downhill! Events take their course. We witness the passion of the Christ. Kingdoms collide and we are left wondering how it's all going to end. Twenty Seven is another long chapter. As with this chapter, if we try and over explain it, somehow the story loses it's power. As we proceed though these chapters let us simply allow the word of God to speak to us, whatever God wishes us to hear!

Monday, October 1, 2018

26. Waiting, Watching and Working.

"According to Matthew”

We move tonight to chapter 25. This is the last chapter before we reach the final act of Matthew's gospel; Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. In chapter 24 we heard Jesus casting visions of what the future may hold. There is talk of persecution and of folk falling away from belief alongside encouragement to hold fast to the faith, even when it looked like everything was falling apart.

In Matthew's gospel, chapter 25 is the conclusion of Jesus teaching. Chapter 26 begins the passion narrative. We have moved from His background and birth, in chapter one, through His teaching in the sermon on the mount, witnessed His miracles and healing, (the love of God that seemed to 'ooze' out of Him; something we defined by the Greek Word 'exousia'.) We have seen how Matthew pictures a clash of Kingdoms. Eventually the Kingdom of God will prevail, but through parables and pictures  we are taught that the Kingdom is growing in unexpected ways, often imperceptibly, among the kingdoms of this world.

There appears to have been a common belief in the earliest church that a second coming of Jesus was immanent. The problem Matthew had to address (something he began addressing in our last chapter) was that Jesus hadn't returned and delivered the Kingdom in a blaze of glory. In fact exactly when and how such a thing could take place was questionable. The only thing we can really know, Jesus suggests, is that the future was a mystery in His Father's hands. Neither He nor any angel could offer a timetable! Matthew cautions against speculating regrading dates and times. Instead he encourages readiness and faithfulness.  

We finished chapter 24 with a story about an 'Undercover Boss' who unexpectedly arrives to review the work of their employees.... and finds some are working hard, others are abusing the trust placed in them. We begin chapter 25 with a wedding story.

Wedding customs at the time were not the same as those we observe in the USA in the twenty-first century. Weddings could be a week long affair. On the actual wedding day the bride would be adorned like a queen, whilst the bridegroom would take on the garb of a King. The bride would be surrounded by her 'companions' to dress her and accompany her throughout the proceedings. These would be the 'ten virgins' referred to in the parable we are about to read.

An important part of the celebrations was the procession, usually late in the day, from the brides house (where she would be gathered with her attendants) to the couples new home. The attendants were expected to carry oil lamps to light the processions progress. Jesus tells us a story that focuses on a groom who arrived very late in the day, and a bridal party... some of whom were ready for the procession, others who are found lacking. Read 1 – 13.

 "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.  The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.  The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.  "At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' "Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'  "'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'  "But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.  "Later the others also came. 'Lord, Lord,' they said, 'open the door for us!'  "But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I don't know you.'  "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

In many ways the message of this parable reinforces that of the previous one about the 'Undercover Boss' who is in the midst of the workers and evaluates their faithfulness. Some are found to be worthy of praise, others are not living up to expectations. It also touches upon the perceived delay in the coming of the kingdom. The bridegroom does not arrive till the very final moment of the day – midnight. In the light of the delay, how were followers of Jesus expected to act? As with the previous parable the message is "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.'

The parable specifically uses the image of oil, used elsewhere in Scripture as a sign of the Holy Spirit. Kings and prophets were anointed with oil as they commenced their ministry. In the early church prayers for healing and wholeness were often conducted both with a laying on of hands and the application of anointing oil to signify the Holy Spirit's presence. 

Maybe you are familiar with the youth song I remember from my earliest church days of going to camp 'Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, give me oil in my lamp I pray, give me oil in my lamp keep me burning, keep me burning till the break of day'. Having been a song leader at camp on numerous occasions, I am delighted to know it is still doing the rounds... though now augmented with verses such as 'Give me wax for my board, keep me surfing for the Lord' and 'Give me gas for my Ford, keep me trucking for the Lord'. Although I did miss my favorite derivation 'Give me unction in my gumption help me function' … good solid theological musings right there!

Interestingly in the parable the comparison is not made between those who sleep and those who stay awake, all ten of them rest whilst awaiting the bridegrooms arrival. But is only those who have prepared their lamps who are ready to greet him and accompany him on his arrival. Those who are prepared can rest easy, those who are unprepared have not done their homework!

The implication for ourselves is that the present time is the hour for nurturing our relationship with God. 'This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad in it.' We stock our spiritual lamps with 'oil' through being faithful in the simple rhythms of worship and service. We nurture our spiritual selves through our relationship with God, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us, heal us and inspire us. That's what keeps us 'burning till the light of day'.

When using the imagery of the Good Shepherd Jesus talks about His sheep as the ones who recognize His voice. How do the sheep recognize His voice? Through regular listening and open communication. God calls us to tune our lives into the call of His love.

The sting in the tale comes as the five unprepared virgins arrive late to the wedding feast at the couples new home. They bang on the door. 'Let us in, my lord'. But it's too late. The groom simply doesn't recognize them. He has had no contact with them.  They are treated as unwelcome strangers.  'Truly I tell you, I don't know you.'

Failing to build a relationship with God in the present opens us up to the possibility that we may not get a chance to ever do so. William Barclay offers the following cautionary tale;

“There is a fable which tells of three apprentice devils who are coming to earth to finish their apprenticeship. They were talking to Satan, the chief of all devils, about their plans to tempt and ruin people. The first said, 'I will tell them here is no God'. Satan said, 'That will not delude many, for they know that there is a God'. The second said, 'I will tell them that there is no hell'. Satan answered, 'You will deceive no one that way, people understand that there is hell to pay when sin is given free reign'. The third said, “I will tell people that there in no hurry'. Satan smiled and said, 'Go! You will ruin them by the thousand.' The most dangerous of all delusions is that there is plenty of time. The most dangerous day in a person's life is when they learn that there is such a word as 'tomorrow'. There are things which must NOT be put off, for no man knows if for him tomorrow will ever come.

You may be familiar with the 17th century poet John Donne's famous quotation about the certainty of life coming to an end; 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . . .” What you may not be so familiar with is that the quotation comes from a larger poem that reflected upon the call of God to faithful discipleship through the church and our need to be concerned for our neighbor.

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions;all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and in-grafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me. All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so translated....

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...  Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . .
.” (from Meditation 17 by John Donne )

We only have so much time. There's no point in wasting it by worrying how much we have, or trying to figure out when the kingdom will be here in it's glory. As the wonderful catchphrase in Robin Williams movie 'Dead Poet's Society' bought to the popular culture, we have a responsibility to 'Seize the day” 'Carpe diem'.

But the question then, is how do we do that? Where do we find the resources for moving forward in faith? Jesus seems to offer something of an answer in our next parable, known popularly known as the 'Parable of the Talents'.  Read verses 14 – 30

"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them.  To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

  "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.' "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'  "The man with two bags of gold also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.' "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

  "Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'  "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?  Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. "'So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.  For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'


I have been fortunate on a number of occasions to have had the opportunity to explore this parable in greater depth, on one occasion during a creative arts event, another over a youth weekend. The latter event we titled “USE IT OR LOSE IT”. The idea being that if we bury our talents, we lose them altogether. God calls us to use the resources that God gifts our lives with in the service of the Kingdom.

Whilst the story has a number of characters, the main focus of the parable appears to be upon the unfaithful servant. He's the one that draws our attention and invites our response. We don't want to end up in his situation. We would much rather hear, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master's happiness!' than 'Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

At first glance it may appear that the parable is about wise investing. The first and second servants  invest their wealth in such a way as to receive a 100% return on their investment. Maybe the significant phrase is that they 'put their money to work', implying that they were actively engaged in some significant endeavors that produced equitable results. I don't think they were simply on E-Trade trading stocks. For sure playing the Stock Market is a demanding activity, but such a market did not exist at the time! The implication is that both of these characters, though not equally equipped, took what they had and made the most of it.

Barclay comments: “It is not a mans talent which matters; what matters is how he uses it. God never demands from a man abilities which he has not got; but God does demand that a man should use to the full the abilities which he does posses. People may not be equal in talent; but they can be equal in effort. The parable tells us that whatever talent we have, little or great, we must lay it at the service of God.”

In that context maybe talent isn't the best term to use. I would prefer the word 'ability'. But the play on words is of course that a talent could be both a monetary amount as well as an aspect of a persons personality, so 'ability' doesn't work so well. My main reason for preferring the word 'ability' to 'talent', is that in our current culture the word 'talent' has come to signify people with particular gifts.

You do not find folk who can type at 70 words a minute auditioning for 'America's got Talent.' Typing at 70 words a minute is pretty darn impressive, particularly to myself who types with one finger and does that with difficulty! But I'm not sure the judges would be impressed enough to make it a Vegas show worth investing millions of dollars in. We may not all have what the world calls “Talents” … but we do all have many different abilities. There is stuff that we can do! And when we do that stuff... the best we can do it... then we are living faithfully before God.

The Master in the parable is usually interpreted as being God. To Jesus God has entrusted the work of the Kingdom. At His ascension Jesus commissioned His disciples to carry out His work through the strength of the Holy Spirit who came upon them at Pentecost. They are to use the gifts the Spirit gives them to bring others to know the Good News of the Kingdom.

We may notice that no particular instructions are given to the servants. Faithfulness is not simply obedience to directions. Each servant has to decide what is to be done with the money and how best to use their time until the master returns. For sure the master will be returning, but exactly when is never made the issue. All the servants know is that He has gone away and left them to take care of things.

As with the previous parable about the bridesmaids waiting for the groom, the emphasis is upon faithful service and doing the right thing, not on watching the clock to see if the time for the end had come. To Matthew's church community, some of whom had expected Christ's immanent return, this was an important emphasis.

Let us move on to consider the third servant. The poor fellow makes a number of miscalculations.
  • Firstly, he underestimates what he has been given.
  • Secondly, he underestimates his capacity to do anything with his abilities.
  • Thirdly, he underestimates the love of God
  • Fourthly, he underestimates the judgment of God.
Firstly, he underestimates what he has been given.
One can imagine him being a little envious of the servants who had been given five or two talents. According to one commentary a talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages! Another suggests it was only about $2000, but either way, the others received considerably more than he had. The tenth of the ten commandments suggests 'Thou shalt not covet' which, in this context, is a way of saying “Don't be so envious of what others have that it prevents you from fully enjoying the gifts you have'.

Focusing on what we don't have, rather than what we 'do' have can be a terribly paralyzing thing. We have all come across folk who tell us that they could have been this or that if only they'd had the breaks that some other person in life had been given. Well, guess what? Life's not fair. We are not all dealt the same hand. But we are all given cards to play with. We are not called to complain about what others have, but use to the best of our abilities what we have at our disposal.

Most telling are the words he uses at the end of the parable. “See,” he says to the master,  “Here is what belongs to you.” The Master had given that talent to him. The Master didn't need it and no longer owned it. It was the mans responsibility to make it his own. Instead of which he throws it back in the Master's face and says, “I couldn't do anything with this!”  This was highly disrespectful. He completely underestimates what he has been given.

Secondly, he underestimates his capacity to do anything with his abilities.
He's lazy. He doesn't want to do anything. Rather than 'own' his talent, he chooses to bury it, and actually expends the  little energy he has digging a hole and hiding his talent away. The one activity he involves himself in is a complete waste of time and effort.  When the Master returns he chastises him for not at least placing it in a bank where it could have gained interest (though one suspects that interest rates must have been a little better than they are at my local bank... or maybe not!).

The Master tells us that he's lazy, or as the older translations would have it 'slothful'. The implication is that he could have done something. But he deliberately chooses not to do so. Because he underestimates his capacity to do anything, he does nothing. We've probably come across folk who take that attitude. 'What's the point?” “What difference does my little make?” We easily forget that an ocean is made up of drops of water... and that every drop has significance.

Thirdly, he underestimates the love of God
This is his biggest failing. It can also be ours. We also can have a false image of God. The unfaithful servants words are...  'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid...” The master is pictured as over-demanding, judgmental and unforgiving. So it is some people have fixed in their minds that we have a God who always asks of us more than we can possibly give. The  response to such a view is one of paralyzing fear. If God is against us, how can anything possibly work out for the best? Such, of course, is not the God revealed to us through the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

I mentioned earlier that one of the events I'd looked at this parable with was a creative arts group. The format of the day was that different groups of folk split into groups and portrayed one of the characters or situations in the parable. One of the groups that turned up for the day were a rock and roll band. They provided a memorable picture of the unfaithful servant through a raucous song they titled “HE's a HARD man.... HE's Impossible to PLEASE”. I leave it to your imagination, but it surely did get the point across. A faulty conception of God leads nowhere!

I has been rightly pointed out that there are two traps we easily fall into. The first is to overestimate the judgment of God. The second is to overestimate the grace of God in such a way as to create a climate of 'anything goes'. The fourth and final characteristic of the unfaithful servant is;

Fourthly, he underestimates the judgment of God.
The man appears to be expecting that he Master will be pleased that he gets his bag of gold back. On the contrary the judgment of the Master is: 'You wicked, lazy servant!' The gift was given to the servant to be used. He doesn't use it, so he loses it. In fact he loses everything.

God's expectation of us is that we use the gifts and talents God has gifted us with for the promotion of the kingdom. When we fail to do so, we comfort ourselves with the thought that God is forgiving and gracious and won't hold us to account for what we have done with our lives. The final part of this parable reinforces what scripture elsewhere makes plain. That there will be a time when we have to account for what we have done with the wonderful gift of life that God has given us. Not a popular concept these days... but nevertheless, a very scriptural one. And indeed one that moves us to the next passage.

Before we read this passage, I'd like to point out that this is the last major teaching of Jesus that Matthew gives us. The chapters that follow are an account of His arrest, betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. We have a summary of what Matthew wants his community to believe is important in their mission and for true discipleship. Read Matthew 24:1-6;

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."


Matthew's gospel begins by picturing contrasting kingdoms. The gentle birth of King Jesus is contrasted with the megalomaniac actions of King Herod. The nature of earthly potentates who rule by force and domination are contrasted with the Servant/King Jesus whose manifesto is presented through the Sermon on the Mount that lifts up the work of peacemakers and stresses humility.

In the parables the growth of God's kingdom is pictured as being hidden among the kingdoms of the world, wheat and weeds grow side by side. The discovery of the Kingdom is pictured as being one of surprise, a man finds a hidden treasure, a crazy shepherd leaves ninety nine in a field and sets off on a mission to rescue a lost sheep.

Once discovered those who desire the Kingdom will give everything to be a part of it. A man sells everything he has to but the field. Jesus speaks of taking up a cross and leaving the things of this world, including it's kingdoms, behind. But in this final story, a time of game over and final judgment, any ambiguity is removed. To quote from the 'New Interpreters Bible Commentary';

There remains only these two kingdoms: the Son of Man with His angels, the blessed righteous, and the kingdom of God prepared from eternity stand on one side; the devil and his angels, the accursed, and the destiny prepared for the devil and his own stand on the other. The kingdom of God is disclosed as the only true kingdom.... ultimately only God is King

In this apocalyptic account of last judgment, a number of titles given to Jesus throughout the gospel are repeated and brought together. Jesus is the 'Son of Man' who has God for His 'Father'. He is called 'King' and 'Lord', reinforcing earlier images of Him as 'Messiah' and 'son of David'. He is the 'messianic shepherd ' who cares for His sheep, and the Judge who makes final separation between the sheep and the goats.

This is the only passage in the New Testament with any details that picture the nature of the last judgment. In our reformed  tradition we have become accustomed to picturing salvation as coming through our confession of Jesus Christ. We are fond of quoting Paul and emphasizing that any who calls upon the name of the Lord 'shall be saved' and  we make our bottom line confession “Jesus is Lord”. What is fascinating about Matthew's picture of the last judgment is that it has no confessional element, but is based upon 'works' rather than 'a statement of faith'.

This should not surprise us. Throughout his gospel Matthew has pictured the evidence of faith as being not rigid application of spiritual laws, something the Scribes and Pharisees were so very good at, but true religion, the true evidence of participating in the Kingdom of God, was shown through the actions of a person towards the 'little ones', those in society least able to help themselves.

Again to quote from the New Interpreters Bible Commentary:

To the readers surprise the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification or the forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds are not a matter of 'extra credit' but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment...   ...The fundamental thrust of this scene is that when people respond  to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding, or failing to respond, to Christ.

The true nature of the Kingdom is revealed to be love in action. Jesus throughout Matthew has taught that self-giving care for others is at the heart of God's requirements. He has demonstrated His love through His works of healing and deliverance. He has revealed Himself to be totally free to act in love, often powerfully and against the odds. Such miracles as 'Feeding the 5000' have reminded us of the 'exousia' (total freedom of action) that His life embodied. Jesus has pointed us to the importance of faith in order to achieve the aims of the Kingdom. Even a mustard seeds worth can move mountains and His Word is able to calm the storms.

Chapter 25 invites to take upon ourselves the disciplines of waiting, watching and working. We are encouraged to be patient. The Kingdom does not move forward according to our agenda. We are invited to watch. To always be on the lookout for signs of God's presence. We are told to work. God has gifted our lives with talents and gifts that God expects us to use for the Kingdom.

We move in the next chapters to consider the ultimate act of the loving service of Jesus as He surrenders His life for the world, going to the Cross for our redemption and being raised by God to show that even death could not defeat God's purposes.

But before that takes place, there is a last meal, there are accusations and denials, prayers and trials. Chapter 26 and 27 are long chapters, but as they are mostly narrative, they maybe need less explanation than other sections. Simply to hear the story is a testament all of it's own. Something I hope we see next time we meet together.