The Unexpected Gospel: To Unstop our Blocked Ears

Then the disciples came and said to Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”   (Matthew 13:10-11)

Luke 12:32

It can be hard for us to feel excitement about the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven, for we hear about it all the time in church, and it loses its newness and attraction to us.  Year after year we listen to the same Gospel lessons and they come to sound so familiar, so ordinary, that we forget how totally unexpected, how original, how startling and exciting was the message of St. John the Forerunner and Jesus Christ and His apostles : “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent!

To get some sense of the newness of the Gospel, let us consider the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We’ve all heard that phrase in church and it seems like that is just common fare from the Bible.  And yet, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” never occurs in the Old Testament.    Not even one time.  And how about the phrase “the Kingdom of God”?     That occurs one time in the  Old Testament, in the Wisdom of Solomon.     A book Protestants don’t even have in their English bibles.

So when the Evangelist Matthew has St. John the Forerunner and then Jesus proclaim, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:7), the people were hearing a newly worded message for the first time.    This Gospel belonged to the New Creation for it was new and renewing.  It is no wonder that the apostles didn’t always understand Jesus.  They would not have learned about the Kingdom of heaven growing up or  in any scripture classes they took at their local synagogues.  Jesus was proclaiming a new idea, something strange to their ears, to get their attention.  What is more surprising is that the people don’t ask more often, “What’s the kingdom of heaven?  We’ve never heard of it.  What are you talking about?

And do you think the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven” permeates the New Testament?     The Evangelists John, Luke and Mark  and the Apostle Paul never use the phrase “the kingdom of Heaven”?    Not once.  None of them.

We hear the phrase Kingdom of Heaven and we think, O that’s what the bible is all about  or that is what the New Testament constantly talks about.  But no, there is only one author in the New Testament who uses the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” and that is St. Matthew.  He uses the phrase 31 times .   But He is the only writer in the entire Bible to use that phrase.  It seems as if he coined a phrase and an idea that he wanted us to hear.  He made the Kingdom of Heaven a central idea to the Gospel.  And he was quite the evangelist, for now we think that phrase occurs throughout the Bible from beginning to end.

However, for us already the newness of the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven has worn off.   We’ve heard about it so much that our senses are dulled.   We are at risk to become like the people of the Gospel who turned against Jesus, as St. Paul says in the Acts of the Apostles:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people, and say, You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’   (Acts 28:25-27)

We Christians today need constant spiritual renewal to restore in our hearing and in our hearts just how new, exciting and unexpected the Kingdom of Heaven really is.  It is light shining forth out of the darkness.

And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus used many images to try to convey to His followers what the Kingdom of Heaven is.   He needed to do this because the constant was new, perhaps even foreign to those listening to Him who had heard the Torah taught as a book of Law.     We are not unlike them, for we Orthodox every summer read through Matthew’s Gospel, learning about the Kingdom of Heaven – repeated 31 times for as many years as we follow the Orthodox lectionary.  It becomes hard for us to hear it as new each year.

Jesus gives us parables to tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  He doesn’t explain to us how the Kingdom of Heaven is like these common experiences, nor if the parable speaks only about the beginning of the Kingdom being like these things, nor if the Kingdom will be like these things but not like any other things, nor if the Kingdom will never change.  Here are His images:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field;

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. “

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad   (Matthew 13:24-52)

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents   (Matthew 18:23-35)

For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  (Matthew 20:1-16)

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come.  (Matthew 22:1-14)

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.   

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.    (Matthew 25:1-30)

When we realize that His disciples and followers never learned about the Kingdom of God from the Torah or the Tanakh, we realize why Jesus spent so much time explaining ideas about this coming Kingdom.

In the parable found in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son, but the invited guests refuse to come to the feast.  Ultimately, the king commands his servants to bring in what amounts to the dregs of society to fill his banquet hall.  Yet, when the king comes into the banquet hall he sees one man who had no wedding garment.

While the parable is about this unexpected and surprising Kingdom of Heaven, it has one more surprise in the lesson itself – the wedding garment.

Many homilists  assume Jesus must have been referring to a practice that was known in his day so they assume it is true, but most scholars agree that there is absolutely  no known practice of a wedding garment in Israel.  Jesus was telling a parable and may have made up this detail about the wedding garment for the purpose of His parable.  It helps us understand Jesus is using story, not historical fact, to teach us about the Kingdom.  [Another clue that the parable is pure story and not presenting something factual – just think about the time frame it would have taken.  The food is all prepared and sitting on the banquet tables.  The king  sends out his servants initially to bring in the guests, they are rejected, he sends more servants, they are abused and killed.  Send the arm to burn down the city.  Then send more servants to gather all the undesireable – from the thoroughfares, yet the city was burned down! –  then the king finally gets to go to the banquet and the food is still hot on the tables.  All in a few hours apparently.  This could only happen in fiction.]

My “practical” thinking says it is not likely that people provided a wedding garment to everyone who came to a wedding.  The cost would be exorbitant!  Where would people store such garments?  The poor (most of the population) would not have money to purchase their own wedding garments, nor would anyone have had room to store such a garment to be worn only at weddings.

What is possible is that St. Matthew himself wanted us to experience what the disciples experienced when they first heard the parables from Jesus – the parables had details in them which are unexpected and which are not obvious at all and make us say, “What?!?!?”.  They require us to think about them, study them and interpret them.  Maybe St. Matthew wanted us to experience this newness of the Gospel, so that our ears wouldn’t be dull but rather we would hear about this Kingdom of Heaven, and not sure of what it is ,  would want – or more likely, need – to learn more and to seek it out.  The parables are inviting us to seek, not giving us pat answers.

So maybe Jesus or St. Matthew wanted us to think about these mythical or mystical wedding garments – to unstop our ears and to open our hearts and minds to the Gospel.

Maybe because the king had brought in the dregs of the earth to his banquet he provided a wedding garment – not customarily, but especially because everyone was poor and in need.  So the man without the special garment may have refused the special garment or for whatever reason intentionally bypassed accepting the garment and certainly that rejection of the king’s hospitality was noted by the king was already aggravated by his illustrious, invited guests who had jilted him and killed his servants.

In the early church we note how frequently and with great comfort and confidence the Fathers noted any biblical passage may have more than one meaning and the listeners had to decide for themselves which meaning applied to them.

During Holy Week when we pray the Bridegroom Matins, we sing these words:

Your bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

There we make use of the wedding garment imagery.  We use it to remind ourselves that we are not worthy of this blessed Kingdom of Heaven – we can’t enter it by our own goodness.  We realize our own nakedness – even if we are splendidly clothed in posh frocks!  Our chosen clothes from this world, no matter how expensive and tailored, leave us completely undressed when we try to enter the banquet hall without the God-given festal garments.    We are in need of God’s mercy and grace.  And we ask Christ to “enlighten the vesture of my soul“.  We want Christ the Giver of Light to change the garment of our soul into light so that we can enter Paradise.  We are speaking of a spiritual garment here, not a physical one.    “Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”   (2 Corinthians 5:2)

Maybe Jesus in His parable reference to the wedding garment reminds us that when we are baptized, we put on a new garment, a white baptismal garment which has a particular symbolic meaning.  For it was the belief of many Jews and Christians in the ancient world that Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were given beautiful garments to wear by God.  Garments made of light. They all believed that when Adam and Eve sinned, these beautiful garments of light were taken away from them.  Some also believed that Satan then covered us with dark robes of sinful thinking to help prevent us from seeing the image of God in each other, so that we would forget about the Kingdom Heaven and live only for this world.  Something in which Satan seems to have succeeded quite well.  Satan’s garments blind us, while baptism gives us a new garment which enlightens and illumines us.

Perhaps the wedding garment parable reminds us of that special garment which God gives to us – which we receive at baptism.  A spiritual garment, not a physical one.   The white baptismal garment is but a symbol of the reality.  The prayers of baptismal service say we will have to give account to God for the baptismal garment we received, and how we treated it and what we did with it:

That he/she may preserve his/her baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God, let us pray to the Lord.

So if you don’t know where your baptismal garment is – I’m not talking about the physical clothes, but the spiritual garment, or if you don’t even remember this garment at all, maybe it is time to look for it so that you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven and remain there for all eternity as the King’s invited guest.   You have to start thinking about the garment that adorns your soul, not the garments you buy at the mall.   “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”   (1 Peter 3:3-4)   What St. Peter advised women in his day, becomes Christian advice for all in the modern age – don’t be so concerned with appearance, rather pay attention to the substance of your inner self.

 

 

 

Ascending to God

In this way we live in God. We remove our life from this visible world to that world which is not seen by exchanging, not the place, but the very life itself and its mode. It was not we ourselves who were moved towards God, nor did we ascend to him; but it was He who came and descended to us. It was not we who sought, but we were the object of His seeking. The sheep did not seek for the shepherd, nor did the lost coin search for the master of the house; He it was who came to the earth and retrieved His own image, and He came to the place where the sheep was straying and lifted it up and stopped it from straying.

He did not remove us from here but He made us heavenly while yet remaining on earth and imparted to us the heavenly life without leading us up to heaven, but by bending heaven to us and bringing it down. As the prophet says, “He bowed the heavens also, and came down” (Ps. 18:10).

(St Nicholas Cabasilias, The Life in Christ, p. 50)

Telling the Secrets of the Kingdom

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”  Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  (Luke 8:10)

In the 4 Gospel accounts, the word “Kingdom” (of heaven or of God) appears some 115 times.  The Evangelist Matthew uses “Kingdom” the most – 52 times, while the Evangelist John only mentions it twice.  Depending how you count the sayings, Matthew uses parables, metaphors or pithy statements thirteen times (25%) to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to something more familiar to his listeners: a sower of seeds, good seeds, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a fishing net, a householder and his treasure, a king settling accounts with his servants, a householder hiring laborers for his fields, a king and the marriage feast for his son, wise and foolish maidens and their lamps, a man entrusting his property to  variously talented servants, and the separating of sheep from goats.

These comparisons give us a sense that the Kingdom may be different than we imagine – for all parables require some interpretation, but Jesus does not tell us exactly how the Kingdom is like these many different common scenarios.  The Lord leaves their interpretation open ended, for his disciples to hear and and grasp the hidden meaning.  Yet, He says the secrets of the Kingdom are given to them. The meaning of the ambiguous parables and enigmatic aphorisms are the secrets of the Kingdom of God which Christ is gifting to us.  The parables, metaphors and apothegms often defy common logic or our sense of “justice” causing us to have to lay aside an earthly sense of correctness in order to see or hear the hidden meaning.  They are like photos of a common object, taken from an unusual perspective – it can take us a long time before we realize what we are looking at, if we ever figure it out.

By describing the Kingdom in terms of parables, Christ moves us away from thinking about the Kingdom purely in terms of commandments, rules, regulations, or rubrics.  Christ uses the comparisons paradoxically – the Kingdom of heaven is like… – to give us a sense that it is like nothing we can imagine.  The parables and metaphors of the Kingdom turn out to be an apophatic way of thinking about the Kingdom exactly because Christ doesn’t explain how the things mentioned are able to enlighten us  about the Kingdom.

The parables of the Kingdom have been proclaimed by Christians for nearly 2000 years.  They are the true teachings of Christ, timely in every generation and situation, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not itself changing.  Whether the Faith is prospering or being persecuted, whether the listener is rejoicing in blessings or surviving through suffering, the Kingdom of God remains the same.  It is a reality not affected by our times or by our mental state.

St. Paul whom God chooses to proclaim the Kingdom, discovers that being faithful to God can leave one in perplexing circumstances.  If one believes faithfulness to God is going to automatically yield prosperity, just read 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9, in which Paul describes soldiers hunting him down to arrest and kill him, and then also suffering personally some “thorn in the flesh” – an affliction he attributes to Satan, perhaps a serious, disfiguring illness which God will not take away from him.  Despite these setbacks, he remains faithful to that Kingdom which can be compared to seeds and sowers, talented servants as well as sheep and goats.

Even in the face of such terrible recent disasters – hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, wild fires in California, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas – the Kingdom of God remains the same reality revealed to us in the Gospel lessons.  Despite our worries about health care, and divisive politics, policy turmoil, soaring drug related deaths, the Church calls us to remember the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we can remain properly oriented in an uncertain world.   The mystery of the Kingdom, helps us to keep our feet on firm ground, even as the sands shift and the water rises against the house.

The Gospel does give us an answer to current worries – it gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God.  It is just that this insight is not necessarily the answer we think we need to solve all our problems.

The Lord Jesus taught this parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (Luke 8:5-9)

Understanding Seeds and Parables

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  (Matthew 13:8-10)

“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).

The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?

If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?”  (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)

Christian: To Be Christ’s Friend

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”  (John 15:15)

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   (Luke 12:29)

“What a sight – to see a countless multitude of luminaries above the clouds, an incomparable company of men exalted as a people of gods surrounding God! The fair ones surrounding the Fair One, the servants surrounding the Master! He does not begrudge His servants if any of them share in His splendor, nor does He regard it as diminishing aught from His own glory were He to receive many as partakers of His kingdom. Those among men who hold others in subjection, even if they give their subjects everything, would not bear even to dream of them sharing their rule. But Christ does not regard His servants as though they were slaves, nor does He bestow on them honors fit for slaves; He regards them as friends.

Towards them He observes rules of friendship which he has established from the beginning; He shares His own with them, not merely one or another part of His riches, but He gives the very kingdom, the very crown. What else is it that blessed Paul has in view when he says that they are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), and that all those who have shared hardships with Christ reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12)?”  (Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 166-167)

All Are Invited to the Heavenly Banquet

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2)

 

One aspect of the Heavenly Kingdom which Jesus modeled is the banquet to which everyone is invited – not just the righteous, but sinners as well.  Biblical scholar James D.G. Dunn notes:

“In his own ministry Jesus embodied this forgiveness and acceptance of the end-time kingdom, particularly in his table fellowship. These gatherings, from which Jesus excluded no one, even open sinners, expressed the heart of his message, for they were the foretaste of the messianic feast of the new age (Luke 14.13, 16-24). Hence Mark 2.17 – ‘I came not to invite the righteous (that is, to the wedding feast) but sinners’. So too his immediate band of disciples included two or three tax collectors and ex-prostitutes. This is why he was so disparagingly called ‘a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matt. 11.19, Luke 7.34, Luke 15.1-19.7).”  (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p 16)

Despite Jesus’ embrace of all, welcoming them to His Messianic table, not everyone is willing to accept the hospitality of the Master.  So the Lord Jesus offered the following parable  in Luke 14:16-24.

Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’  Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master.

Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

The Gospel lesson of the messianic banquet has the originally invited guests all making excuses for why they won’t attend the banquet with the celebration offered to them.  In Orthodoxy we read this Gospel on the 2nd Sunday before Christmas.  We are reminded in the Nativity season that it is possible to reject the heavenly kingdom for very mundane reasons.

“In church today, however, we celebrate the forefathers, most of whom were Hebrews by race. For what reason? So that all of us may learn that the Hebrews were not disinherited nor the Gentiles adopted as sons in a way that was unjust, unreasonable or unworthy of God who did these things and made these changes. Rather, just as among those Gentiles who were called, only the obedient were chosen for kinship with God, so the race of Israel, and Adam’s descendants down to Israel’s time, were a great multitude, but only those among them who lived according to God’s will were true Israelites. To them the prophecies belonged, through them future events were prefigured, and to them the promises were given (cf. Rom. 3.1-4.13). Only these men were the true fathers and forefathers, firstly of her who in virginity bore Christ, who is God over all (Rom. 9.5), according to the flesh, and then, through Him, of ourselves.

These fathers and forefathers were certainly not cast out of Christ’s Church, for they are publicly commemorated by us today as partakers of the fullness of the saints. For in Christ Jesus there is neither old nor new, ‘nor Greek, nor Jew, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all and in all’ (Col. 3.11, cf. Gal. 3.28). In Him there is no Jew, which is one merely outwardly, neither is there any circumcision, which is outward, but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter of the law (Rom. 2.28-29). All, old and new, who have been well-pleasing to God, and all who have led lives acceptable to God, either before the law, under the law or after the law in the gospel of grace, have this circumcision and are united by it (cf Rom. 4.10-12, Phil. 3.3, Col. 2.11).” (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp 454-455)

Am I My Possessions?

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26

At that time someone came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

And the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

He said to him, “Which ones?”

And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?”

But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.

St. Nikolai Velimirović (d. 1956AD) comments on the Gospel lesson, seeing the rich young man as a prisoner of his own wealth, unable to distinguish himself from his possessions.  His worth as an individual, and how he measured others as well, was in terms of what he possessed.  Or, as the case was, possessed him.

Though the young man approaches Christ with respect, St. Nikolai pardons him for not recognizing Jesus as Christ and Lord.  The young man sees Jesus as just another teacher of Israel.

“ ‘Good Master.’  Thus the young man addressed the Lord.

From him, this was enough. He who has spent his whole life in prison with only a candle to give him light – is it a great sin in him, when he first sees the sun to call it a candle?

What good thing shall I do?’

This question was obviously in the context of his riches, as is usually the case with the rich, who cannot see a distinction between themselves and their possession, nor think of themselves without thinking of their possessions. What could I do – what good work – with my wealth, that I may have eternal life?”  (HOMILIES,  pp 117-118)

What the rich man cannot imagine is salvation apart from his wealth.  This is the thought on which Jesus challenges  him.   Eternal life is not dependent on how wealthy you or how blessed you are in this world.   Eternal life is not open only to the fortunate elite who are blessed with abundance in this world.  Even the poor – including those poor in spirit! – can be blessed by God and receive the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who pursue wealth in this world and imagine that will be a sign of their eternal blessings as well, might find themselves disappointed in the Kingdom of God.  Poverty is no barrier to eternal life, and wealth is no guarantee of eternal blessings.

 

God Moved by Compassion, Forgives

At that time, Jesus said to Peter, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

 

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and   besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you   besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

(Matthew 18:23-35)

“The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35) or, what the kingdom of heaven is like:

Moved with compassion, a king forgives his servant who owes him a ridiculously large sum of money. The king releases him from debtor’s prison. But when this servant won’t forgive a fellow servant a small debt, he shows he doesn’t really understand the king’s action.

The servant rejects the sort of ‘economy’ found in the kingdom of heaven. This economy is not a market economy in which we are encouraged to make as much money as we can for ourselves. It is not a barter economy in which we trade with others who can give us something in return. It is not a tit-for-tat or you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back economy. It is not an economy in which we do business only with those dear to us or who can do something for us. The economy in the kingdom of heaven is a gift economy in which we are all invited to participate. When he compassionately forgave the debts of the servant, the king gave a gift of forgiveness and compassion to the servant. The servant, however, did not pass that gift on by forgiving his fellow servant. He wasted both the compassion and forgiveness given to him. So, he excluded himself from the kingdom of heaven.”  (Fr. John D. Jones in In Communion:Journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Spring – April/June 2012, pp 8-9)

The New Covenant of the Mystical Supper

Certainly the highlight of Holy Thursday is the institution of the Mystical Supper by our Lord Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, in the current liturgical practice of Orthodoxy, the Vespers-Liturgy of Thursday evening is sometimes de-emphasized and the service is often relegated to a more minor role in the spiritual life of a parish.  I’m guessing this occurred in the years or centuries in which Holy Communion was de-emphasized in the weekly life of Orthodox Christians.  As piety made Communion less frequent, the significance of the Vespers-Liturgy of Holy Thursday also waned.  Since people weren’t going to Communion anyway, Matins of Holy Friday and the drama of the events of the crucifixion replaced in piety the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and the participation of the faithful in the Mystical Supper of Christ.

The Eucharist like the sacraments of Baptism or Unction is a way for us to actually participate in the saving grace of the incarnation of the Word of God in Christ Jesus.  The profundity of this saving event cannot be over emphasized.  It is somewhat sad that we replace the reception of the Word of God in the Eucharist with only hearing of the Word in the Gospel lessons when in our parish celebration of Holy Week we focus on the Matins of Holy Friday rather than on the Vespers-Liturgy.  It doesn’t seem quite Orthodox to me.  We have our icons to “look at”, but the Divine Liturgy of the Church takes us beyond just “looking” and beyond a re-enactment or drama to actual participation in the Body and Blood of the incarnate God.  It is my hope and prayer that some day all of Orthodoxy will again make the Vespers-Liturgy the main liturgical focus of Holy Thursday evening.

We can meditate on the Mystical Supper of Christ and our participation in the incarnation of the Word by considering the “Prayer of Joseph the Visionary” from the Syriac Orthodox tradition.  The ancient Syriac Fathers composed poems to express their prayers and sermons.  In them we find beauty and we encounter their efforts to take us beyond the literalness of words into the mystery which is salvation in Christ the Lord.

May my mind travel inwards

towards the hiddenness of your sacrifice,

Just as you have travelled out into the open

and been conjoined to your Mysteries.

The Christian life is a sojourn – we are always traveling toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  Prayer, charity, fasting, scripture reading, service, ministry, evangelism and all that we do as Christians is movement, journeying toward God.  We move, we sojourn, even when standing still in prayer.   So the first stanza reminds us that prayer itself is a sojour: our mind/heart/soul are moving toward the kingdom.  In prayer we approach the Mystical Supper of Christ.  We are going to receive the Bread and Wine in which the incarnate God is mystically hidden, and also revealed.   Christ, God’s own Son, journeyed from His throne in the Kingdom to His incarnate life of earth.  He crossed every barrier that might separate God from humanity, to come to us and to unite us to the Triune God.

And now, when your Spirit descends from heaven

upon your Mysteries,

may I ascend in spirit from earth to heaven.

 Joseph in his prayer sees the movement in the Liturgy as occurring in both directions: from Heaven (God) to earth and also in each of us our minds traverse the spiritual realms to enter into heaven.  “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).  The Liturgy is always movement, drawing us ever closer to God and the Eternal Kingdom.

At this time

when your power is mingled in with the bread,

may my life be commingled

with your spiritual life.

At this moment

when the wine is changed and becomes your blood,

may my thoughts be inebriated

with the commixture of your love.

 In Joseph’s prayer, it is not only the Bread and Wine which are transformed by the Liturgy.  Indeed they do become the Body and Blood of Christ – God’s power mixing in with things of earth and transfiguring them.   But simultaneously with God entering into the Bread and Wine, Joseph prays that God may also enter into him and into his own spiritual life.   It is not just the Bread and Wine which become the Body and Blood of Christ, but we, the community of believers also are transformed into the Body of Christ.  We want God’s incarnate presence not only in the Eucharist but in our own lives, bodies, minds and souls.    Holy Thursday commemorates Christ initiating this most miraculous change of the things of earth, including ourselves, becoming the things of Heaven.  So Joseph’s prayer continue with these most marvelous words and images:

May my body be purified by you

of every image and form here on earth,

and may my thoughts be cleansed by you,

and my limbs be sanctified by you;

may my understanding shine out,

and may my mind be illumined by you.

May my person become a holy temple for you;

may I be aware in my whole being of your majesty.

May I become a womb for you in secret;

then do you come and dwell in me by night

and I will receive you openly,

taking delight spiritually

in the Holy of Holies of my thoughts.

Then shall I take delight in your Body and your Blood

in my limbs.

(THE SYRIAC FATHERS ON PRAYER AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, pp 356-359)

All of these things are what we commemorate on Holy Thursday as we celebrate the Vespers-Liturgy and bring to mind the mystical supper of Christ in that upper room.  We as disciples are called into this same experience that the original Twelve had.

This morning, I was at the London Correctional Institution to give Holy Communion to some inmates there.  We recited together one of the hymns of Holy Thursday:

Come, O faithful, let us enjoy the Master’s Hospitality: the banquet of immortality.  In the upper chamber with uplifted minds, let receive the exalted words of the Word, whom we magnify.

The Master’s Hospitality extends throughout the world, even into prisons, and into Hell itself.  The banquet of immortality was served in a prison today, and the cell became the upper chamber with Christ present.  The One Who descends into Hell, fills also the prison cell in which the faithful gather, and He fills the hearts and minds of each disciple.  Such are the miracles and grace of our Holy Thursday commemoration of the Mystical Supper of Christ.

I will add one more idea, somewhat related to the above, but the power and importance of the Holy Thursday Liturgy continues to resonate in my heart so I want to add this about Christ’s initiating the mystical supper with His disciples on the day before He is sacrificed on the cross.

In Psalm 78:24-25 we read that “God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels…”  John repeats this line in his Gospel in John 6:31.   But, it is interesting to note that while the Fathers found so many typologies in the Old Testament prefiguring Christ, a number of them did not see the story in Exodus of God feeding the Israelites manna in the wilderness as a typology or prefiguring of Holy Communion.  Jean Danielou, for example, says that for Origen in the 2nd Century:

“Manna is not a type of the Eucharist.  It is the bread for the imperfect, those still going forward and needing instructors.  . . . The bread of the Promised Land is the type of the Eucharist and the true food for those who are perfected.”

Origen goes on to say :

“’Hence it is written in the same Gospel: Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead (John 6:49): if anyone eateth of this bread he shall live forever.’ For the manna, though it was given by God, yet was bread of travel … bread supplied to those still under discipline, well fitted for those under tutors and governors.  But the bread Joshua managed to get from corn cut in the country, in the land of promise, others having labored and his disciples reaping—that bread was more full of life, distributed as it was to those who, for their perfection, were able to receive the inheritance of their fathers.”

The Eucharist in the minds of the early Church Fathers was not like the manna in that manna was a special bread supplied by God to sustain the Israelites on their sojourn.  But the manna did not continue forever.  For once the Israelites crossed the Jordan River they began to eat and enjoy the bread of the harvest of the Promised Land.  It is this bread which Joshua provided them in the Promised Land.  This is the bread which prefigures the Eucharist: it is not the bread of the sojourn but the bread of the Kingdom.  They bread which signifies that we have entered into Heaven and have reached the goal of the long sojourn on earth.

Holy Thursday is the day upon which we celebrate this new bread of the Kingdom which causes us to live forever.

Solomon in All His Glory

“… yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  (Matthew 6:29) 

“Christ, our generous host, has set before us again today a banquet-table worthy of veneration: a table not simply to be honored by custom, but recognized as part of our familiarity with God; a table not marked by yearning for earthly delights, but sharing in those of heaven; a table not splendid with Solomon’s delicacies, but crowned by God’s laws; a table not made blessed by abundance of food, but made solemn by thoughts of God.

For what could be richer than Solomon’s table spreading out day by day (as is told us in the Third Book of Kingdoms)

‘thirty kors (note: 1 kor is approximately 120 gallons) of fine wheat flour,

and sixty kors of ground barley meal,

and ten tender, choice calves

and twenty grazing cows

and a hundred sheep –

to say nothing of deer and gazelles and choice birds.’  (1 Kings 11:1-13, LXX)

But such a lavish abundance of dishes brought Solomon no benefit, nor did it lead him towards perfect virtue.  Just the opposite: by leading him to indulge himself beyond measure, it led him to go mad in the end.  

But the table of the Lord, richly laid before us again today – a table that is immaterial, infinite, incorruptible, immortal, uncircumscribed, beyond human reckoning – directs us not only towards earthly blessings, but towards heavenly ones as well!

For it does not offer us ‘ thirty kors of wheat flour’,

but lavishes on  us the kingdom of heaven, as the yeast in ‘three measures of barley.’

 Nor does it set out ‘sixty kors of barley,’

but the bread of heaven itself;

I mean that the Lord Christ rewards believers here with the gift of himself, day after day.

But I am speaking empty words, I think, when I compare Solomon’s luncheon, nourishing the senses, with the spiritual table of the Lord.

 For there we find ‘ten chosen calves,’

but here ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’  

There twelve grazing cows,

here innumerable martyrs

bestowing their blessings on souls and bodies.

 There deer, adorned with wide-branching antlers;

here prophets ‘judging spiritual things with spiritual gifts.’

 There gazelles struck in the flank with an arrow;

here Apostles enlightening the world with divine Scriptures.  

There a flock of birds, taking flight without rational pattern;

here a reverent people frolicking in the Spirit.  

There a hundred mindless sheep, giving joy to Solomon’s household alone;

here Christ our spiritual sheep,

shared everywhere on earth, yet never knowing decrease.”

 (Leontius of Constantinople -6th Century?, LIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN, pp 115-116)