As you well know by now, this week’s gospel reading (Mt. 25:31-46), the
parable of the sheep and goats, is particularly important to me. It
forms the basis of a lot of my theological thinking, and it is the lens
through which I see the church, the world, and the interaction between
the two. In truth, it is the passage that forms the basis of how I
understand the basic interaction between God and humanity, Christian or
not. It has everything to do with how I understand mission.
You remember the story. The Son of Man gathers all of humanity
together and separates them as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.
The sheep, gathered at the right hand, are blessed; the goats, gathered
at the left, are condemned. The basis of the judgment has to do with
how one has responded to the needs of the poor, giving them food when
hungry, drink when thirsty, welcome when lonely, clothing when needed,
and whether one has visited them when sick or in prison. “Truly I tell
you,” says the Son of Man, “ just as you did it to one of the least of
these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The Son of Man
and the poor are one. It is a radical teaching.
It is also a disturbing teaching, for the opposite is also true.
“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of
these, you did not do it to me.”
And that is a pretty sobering message, or at least it is for me. I
know that I pass many a hungry person on the streets of New York and do
not even look in their eyes. It is rather like fear of looking directly
at the face of God perhaps. The judgment to come ought to cause me
Sometimes, though, I run across reason to hope. An article in ENS last
week was such an occasion. Two weeks ago, an Episcopal priest named
Mark Sims was arrested and charged with a crime in Ft. Lauderdale. He
was fingerprinted, photographed, and released with a court date on a
charge that carries a possible $500 fine and 60 days in jail. Do you
know what the crime was? It was that he fed homeless people in a city
park and he led his congregation to do likewise.
Now I don’t know Mark Sims, although I’m calling him today. I want to
hear his story. I want to hear his story because I’m pretty sure he has
seen Jesus, and that is something I would like to hear about. I want
to hear his story because I think he had five talents and just made a
big profit. I want Canon Sims to know he inspired me to be a better
Christian. I want Canon Sims to know he has given me hope, not just
hope to avoid the judgment. More importantly, it has given me hope to
enter into the presence of God more fully day by day on the streets.
And isn’t that what the mission is?
It’s not uncommon to see someone holding a sign in Times Square with a
rather disturbing warning: “The End is Near.” It’s enough to cause
This week’s epistle (1 Thess. 5:1-11) has St. Paul holding such a
sign. “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will
come like a thief in the night” (v. 2). Paul and the earliest disciples
believed the world would soon end. From their perspective, the end was
just around the corner.
And that fact had concrete consequences for how to live, according to
Paul. “Let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love,
and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8). With God so close at
hand, it ought to call out in Christians, not fear, but faith, love, and
hope, the most important Christian virtues.
Here’s the problem with the end. No one knows when it is coming. It
will come suddenly according to Paul, like a thief in the night or the
sudden onset of labor. So, the coming of the end calls for perpetual
vigilance. One must be constantly prepared. Paul specifically calls
for disregarding any thought that the coming of the end has been
delayed. And that’s the way it is, nearly 2,000 years after Paul did
the equivalent of taking to Times Square with a scary sign.
It seems to me there’s only one approach to this reality. It has been a
long time since Paul announced the message, an awfully long time to be
on the edge of preparation. The End is Near? Who knows? I think we’re
better off to treat the end as if it’s here now, not near but already
come. So let the faith, love, and hope Paul counseled prevail. The end
is here! Or at least we’re going to act like it is.
Some books you read in order to know something. I recently read a book
by Larry Sabato called the Kennedy Half Century. Dr. Sabato is a
political scientist (my undergraduate major) and he wrote about how the
legacy of John F. Kennedy had influenced the administration of each of
the Presidents who had followed him for the next 50 years. It is a book
I read in order to learn something about a subject that interested me,
politics. I read the Kennedy Half Century because I wanted to know
something a period of time in which I have lived and by which I have
The Bible is not such a book, try as we often do to make it such. This
week’s epistle (1 Thess. 4:13-15) is a good example. It speaks about
an important topic, one that has been of ultimate interest to human
beings since human beings appeared on the Earth, which is what is beyond
death. First Thessalonians does not offer information or knowledge.
It does not even offer opinion. It offers something much more important
to being human.
Paul wrote, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and
sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others
do who have no hope.” What the Bible has to offer is hope. It may be
an informed hope, but it is still fundamentally hope. And hope, I
think, is, in the end, more important than knowledge.
This is a bit hard for those of who have grown up in the modern world,
which is all about what we know. Faith, though, has a different value.
It is all about what we hope.
Knowledge, after all, will pass away. I don’t know, of course, but I believe hope will last. At least I hope so.
Jesus asked the Pharisees a clever question. “What do you think of the
Messiah? Whose son is he?” The Pharisees knew the obvious answer.
“The son of David.” (Mt. 22:42)
But Jesus had a not-so-obvious point to make using a very close reading
of a fairly obscure passage. But here’s the main thing. Jesus made
his point not as a statement but as a question. He tossed the ball back
to the Pharisees: “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his
son?” (v. 45) He invited engagement.
What interests me most is that the Pharisees were apparently trying to
test Jesus in some way. Jesus, though, attempted to engage them in a
conversation. He posed questions. Questions invite further
conversation. Unfortunately, the Pharisees cut the conversation off.
“No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone
dare to ask him any more questions.” (v. 46)
I think the mistake the Pharisees made was concentrating on the
answers. Answers have a finality to them. That’s the answer and that’s
that. Or, as we sometimes hear where I’m from: “God said it. I
believe it. That settles it.” Questions invite further engagement and
ongoing conversation in a way that answers just do not.
Jesus is much more about ongoing conversation than answers because
ongoing conversation is fundamentally relational. To be in conversation
is to be in relationship. That matters a lot more than answers.
The Pharisees, like the Sadducees before them, stopped engaging. That
doesn’t leave much room for relationship. And there is no salvation
outside of relationship. Not even Jesus can work with those who refuse
to engage. We don’t have to have the answers. All we have to do is
engage the question.
When you’re a bishop you get a lot of interesting mail. Some of it is
angry. Some of it is humorous. Some of it is angry and unintentionally
humorous. This is about a letter of the last sort.
I can’t remember what I said that set my correspondent off. Something
heretical about grace or the unconditional nature of God’s love, or I
suspect, God’s call on the church to respond with unconditional
acceptance and inclusion of everyone, absolutely everyone. Someone who
didn’t see it quite the same way wrote me what was intended to be a
rebuke. “If the Kingdom of God is as inclusive as you say it is,” the
email read, “why would anyone want to be a part of it?” I guess some
people would rather just stay home if the wrong people get invited.
Well, there you have the basic problem. It is one Jesus addressed in a
parable about a king who gave a wedding banquet (Mt. 22:1-14). The
invited guests responded badly. Some made flimsy excuses. Others
ignored the invitation. Still others responded violently. (It’s
interesting that invitations to God’s banquet not infrequently result in
violently negative reactions.)
When the original guests failed to accept, the king was not deterred.
He sent his messengers into the streets to invite everyone and anyone
they could find. They did so, to both good and bad, and the wedding
hall was filled with guests. I guess the original invitees wouldn’t
have wanted to be there anyway, especially if they knew who eventually
But then, as Matthew tells this story, there’s one more curiosity.
Among the guests was a man who showed up not wearing the proper wedding
garment. With this, the king was not so pleased and has the man cast
Scholars will tell you these two parts of the stories were completely
separate sayings as Jesus actually told them, and that Matthew put them
together simply because they both involved wedding banquets. Who am I
to argue with scholars, and I have no doubt they’re right.
Still, if we’re lucky enough to get an invitation, I think it would
behoove us to show up with our party clothes and dancing shoes on.
Otherwise, we might as well have stayed home, and in that case we
deserve to get thrown out.
The parable Jesus told about a landowner who planted a vineyard and
then leased it out to tenants (Mt. 21:33-46) appears to be about
judgment. I have begun to question that.
The landowner planted a fine vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a
wine press, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants.
When the time of the harvest came, he sent his slaves to collect the
produce of the vineyard as rent. But the tenants killed the slaves and
did not send the produce. He sent more slaves. The same result.
Finally, the landowner sent his son to collect the produce. He also was
killed. Jesus asked his hearers what would be the natural result of
this sort of behavior. They replied, “He will put those wretches to a
miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give
them the produce at the harvest time.” Sounds like judgment to me.
There is another story in the Bible about just such a vineyard, and it
happens to be one of this week’s options for an Old Testament reading
(Isa. 5:1-7). The parallel is uncanny. It is about another landowner
who planted a vineyard. He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted
it with choice vines. He built a watchtower in the midst of it. He
hewed out a vine vat in it. Still, despite all the effort, it yielded
inferior grapes. And then Isaiah goes on to pronounce judgment on the
vineyard, the removal of its hedge, the breaking down of its wall, its
trampling down, its wasting away. It would sound like judgment were it
not for the way Isaiah begins his story: “Let me sing for my beloved my
love-song concerning his vineyard.”
It is a song of love and a broken heart more than it is a prophecy of
judgment. It is a song of God’s wooing of the people as if a landowner
tending the most beloved and cared for of vineyards even if it ends in
Perhaps Jesus’ parable bears looking at again in light of the love song
that its original hearers would have had in mind when Jesus told it to
begin with. Immediately after the answer that the tenants will no doubt
be put to a miserable death, Jesus quotes Psalm 118 with reference to
the son of the landowner who had been killed in the story and no doubt
with reference to his own imminent death. “The stone that the builders
rejected has become the cornerstone.” And then he goes on to refer to
that stone again in the very next verse after our reading for this week
ends. It is this. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to
pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Sounds like
judgment, but is it really?
If we take the rejected cornerstone as a metaphor for Jesus, Jesus is
not judgment. Jesus is love. Jesus came, he said, not to judge the
world but that the world might live. In Jesus, we are not broken by
judgment. We are broken by love. And over and over, when we fall on
the rock solid love of Jesus, what is broken are our own hearts. What
is crushed is not our spirits or our lives but our hardness of heart.
It takes the rock solid cornerstone to break the stone cold hardness of
our souls. If there is judgment in this parable that Jesus told, and in
the love song that Isaiah sung, it is the judgment of love, which is
perhaps the hardest judgment of all to face, and also the softest.
Jesus tells a little parable in this week’s gospel reading, Matthew
21:23-32, that rings true to me as the father of two sons. I doubt it
would be different if I were the father of two daughters. At any rate,
Jesus’ choice to make the characters boys hits home.
A father told his sons to go and work in the vineyard. The first
defied him, but later changed his mind and went. His intentions were
not good, at least at first. The second complied, but then did not go.
We do not know whether he, like his older brother, also changed his
mind, or whether he deceived his father from the beginning, so we can’t
be sure what his intentions were. I don’t think Jesus cared which it
was. It’s because the only thing we can be sure of is behavior.
The point for the father was the working in the vineyard, and not what
was in the heads of his two sons. As a dad who has needed more than
once desperately to get some yard work done, this also makes sense to
me. There is no indication that he held the older son’s defiance
against him, which speaking as a father, I know is hard to do, but in
the end, getting the work done matters more. The point is the eventual
behavior—that the boy went and worked in the vineyard.
Likewise, there is no indication that the father cared whether the
younger son lied or changed his mind, only that he did not go and work
in the vineyard. Maybe that’s because fathers would have time for
little else if they got bent out of shape every time they got lied to.
What matters, once again, is the behavior and not that the younger son’s
intentions either to go (in which case he just changed his mind) or not
to go from the very beginning (in which case he was lying). What
matters is his behavior, or lack thereof.
There are other occasions for dealing with the relational consequences
of not telling the truth. For now, the point is that behavior is what
matters. Intentions, for good or for ill, are not nearly so important.