The Lord Jesus give a penetrating analysis of the state of the sinner and some very sobering advice to we would-be saints in today’s Gospel. Let’s look at the Gospel in two stages: The Analysis of the Sinner and the Advice to the Saints.
I. ANALYSIS OF THE SINNER – The Lord Jesus describes a sinful steward in the opening lines of this gospel. Let’s look at the description:
A. DEFINITION (of the sinner)-Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward – Notice he is called a steward not an owner. God is the owner of everything, we are but stewards. A steward must deal with the goods of another according to the will of the owner. This is our state. We may have private ownership in relation to one another. But before God we own nothing, absolutely nothing. Part of the essence of sin is to behave as though we were the owner. We develop an arrogant attitude that what I have is really mine to do with as I please. We think, “It’s mine, I can do what I want with it…..I call the shots…..I can do as I please with my own body….” and so forth. But the fact is everything belongs to God. Scripture affirms, The earth is the LORD’S, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Ps. 24:1). Even of our bodies which we like to think of as ours, Scripture says: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). And old song says, “God and God alone created all these things we call our own. From the mighty to the small, the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone….” So the Lord defines the sinner as a steward, though the steward acts as if he were an owner.
B. DISSIPATION (of the sinner) – who was reported to him for squandering his property. The Lord here describes the essence of many of our sins: that we dissipate, we squander the gifts of God. We waste the gifts we have received and using them for sinful ends. For example in greed we hoard the gifts he given us to help others. Instead of helping, we store them up only for ourselves. Yet all the goods of the world belong to all the people of the world and they ought to shared to the extent that we have excess. Other examples of squandering the things of God are in gossip, lying and cursing wherein we misuse the gift of speech; in laziness wherein we misuse the gift of time; in all sin wherein we abuse and squander our freedom. This is dissipation, this is the squandering of God’s goods. God has given us many good things, and instead of using them to build the Kingdom, we squander them and dissipate the kingdom.
C. DEATH (of the sinner) – He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ – Here the Lord teaches and reminds us that someday we will all be called to account and our stewardship will end. Elsewhere scripture reminds us So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. (2 Cor 5:9 ) . We have an appointed time to exercise our stewardship but our stewardship will end and the books will be opened. Here too Scripture reminds: And books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. (Rev 20:11) While it is true that many pay little heed to the fact of judgement Scripture warns Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bids his time. Of forgiveness be not over-confident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy, my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger are alike with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed(Sirach 5:4). Every steward (us) will die, our stewardship will end, and we will be called to render an account. It thus follows that we ought to listen to the advice which the Lord next gives.
II. ADVICE TO THE SAINTS– After analyzing the sinner the Lord has some advice for those of us sinners who want to be saints. He gives Four principles we ought to follow:
A. Principle of INTENSITY– The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting shrewdly. For the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. – The Lord is telling us here many of the worldly are more crafty in what matters to them than the Spiritually minded in what (supposedly) matters to them. The fact is many of us are very intense and organized when it comes to wordly matters. We spend years of preparation in college training for careers. We work hard and are dedicated to climbing the company ladder. In worldly expertise many are dedicated to developing skills, and becoming incredibly knowledgeable. In earning money and holding a job many display great discipline, getting up early to go to work, working late and hard to please the boss. But when it comes to faith many of the same people display a third grade knowledge of things spiritual and show little interest in advancing in the faith or of praying. They will please the boss, please man, but not God. Parents will fight for scholarships for their children to get into the best schools. Students will compete for scholarships. But when it comes to saving truth, the pews are empty, Sunday School is badly attended.
To all this, the Lord says to us here that the spiritually minded ought to show the same intensity, organization, dedication and craftiness that the worldly show in their pursuits. We ought to be zealous for the truth, for prayer, for opportunities to sharpen our spiritual skills and increase our holiness. We ought to be as zealous to be rich in grace as we are to be rich in money. So the first principle the Lord gives us is intensity.
B. Principle of INVESTMENT – I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. – The Lord told of how the dishonest steward made use of the money at his disposal to make friends who would help him in the next stage of his life. How about us? Are we willing to use our money and resources to bless others, especially the poor, who can bless us in the next stage of our life? On the day of your judgment will the poor and needy be able to speak up on your behalf? Will they be among the angels and saints who welcome you to eternal dwellings? I don’t know about you, but I am going to want the poor to pray and speak to God on my behalf the Day I am judged. Scripture says that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and needy.
In this Gospel the Lord Jesus tells us to wise in our use of worldly wealth (which the Jewish idiom calls “dishonest wealth” indicating the intrinsic injustice of this world). Now the world tells us to take our wealth and invest it wisely so that it will reap future rewards. Well the Lord says the same thing. He says, “Use your money wisely. Invest it well.” How? By storing it up it up in up in heaven. How do we do that? By giving it away. Then it will really be yours. You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead. Scripture elaborates this elsewhere: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17) Notice how the passage says that through their generosity here the rich lay up treasure in heaven. This is the scriptural principle and the great paradox in the Kingdom of God: that we keep something eternally by giving it away. We save our find our life by losing it, we keep out treasure and store it in heaven by giving it away. So invest my friends, invest wisely! Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:20)
C. Principle of INCREASE – The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? What is the small matter of which the Lord talks and in which we can prove trustworthy? The small matter is money. We make money the most important thing in life. But Spiritual matters are more important. Scripture attests to this clearly: The Book of 1st Peter says our faith is ore precious than fire-tried gold. The Book of Psalms (19:10) says The words of the Lord are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. So God says let’s see how you are in the small but significant matter of money, then I’ll see if you are able to able to handle bigger blessings. Do you think you can handle heaven and the spiritual blessings of holiness? Well let’s see, If you are trustworthy with worldly wealth, God will give you true wealth. If you’re trustworthy is what belongs to God, he’ll give one day what is yours. You want more even here? Use well what you’ve already received. Then God will know he can trust you with more. You want increase? A gospel song says: You must faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life.
D. Principle of INDIVISIBILITY – No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon. Pay attention. To serve, means to obey. Most people obey money, affluence and worship the American standard of living before they obey God. They meet their world obligations first and then give God what is left over. But we are called to obey God alone, to have an undivided heart. The wording here is strong You CANNOT obey the world (money) and think you’re also going to obey God. You have to choose what will be more important. Now don’t tell me you don’t need a lot of grace and mercy here! Money and the lure of the world is very powerful. It’s to get on our knees and pray for a miracle to prefer God to the world.
This song says, You must faithful in a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life…. The sung builds to wonderful refrain: Well done good and faithful servant, Well done!
Crazy! – The three parables of today’s lengthy Gospel challenge our conventional thinking. All three of them are quirky and describe people doing things that we most likely would NOT do. In fact all three of them, especially the first two, seem crazy. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep and the woman of the lost coin do? No one, really. Likewise the Father in the Story of the Prodigal Son breaks all the rules of “tough love.” His forgiveness has an almost reckless quality. No father of Jesus’ time would ever tolerate such insolence from his sons. It just wasn’t accepted. So all three of these parables, at one level, are just plain crazy.
But that is one of the most fundamental points Jesus seems to be making here. The Heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain “crazy.” I do not mean it is irrational by using this word, but it does stretch the limits of our human thinking. Neither do I intend irreverence by using the word “crazy.” Permit a preacher’s hyperbole so that we can enter into the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. It cannot be understood or really explained in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is “amazing” in that it goes completely beyond my ability to comprehend. It transcends merely human concepts. Thank God! If God were like us we’d all be in trouble, frankly, we’d all be in Hell.
Let’s look at each Parable. The Gospel texts are too lengthy to reproduce here. But you can read the whole of it here: Luke 15
1. The Parable of the Lost Sheep– The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one who is lost. Would a shepherd likely do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. Perhaps if the lost sheep were near at hand he might venture over the next hill. But the average human shepherd would cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Many of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave ninety-nine to search for one. Some people try and make sense of this parable by appealing to possible shepherding practices of the First Century. But this seems to miss the point that God’s love is extravagant, personal, and puzzling. In the end, it would seem that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even “more” when we stray. He intensifies his focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous, possibly enabling. But don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.
2. The Woman and the Lost coin– A woman loses a drachma. It is a small coin. Not worth that much really, perhaps one day’s wages for an agricultural worker. In modern terms less than $100. Not insignificant, but not really huge amount either. She sweeps diligently for it. So far, this seems reasonable. I’d probably look around a while for a missing “Benjamin” ($100 bill). But then it gets crazy. She finds it and rejoices to such an extent that she spends most, if not all of it, on a party celebrating the found coin! Crazy! But that is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. Some commentators try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value as part of her dowry or ceremonial head-dress of ten coins. But here too, over analyzing and trying to explain or make sense of it may well miss the point. This woman is crazy because God is crazy. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.
3. The Prodigal Son– A young son, entitled by law to a third of the Estate (since he was the younger son) tells his Father to drop dead. He wants his inheritance now. The old man isn’t dying fast enough. Incredibly the father gives it to him! Crazy! No father in the ancient world would ever tolerate such irreverence and insolence from a son. The Father is a nobleman (land owner) and could hand his son over to serious retribution for such dishonor. The son leaves his father and goes off to “a distant land” where he sinks so low, he is looking up to pigs. He comes to his senses, rehearses a speech and returns to his father, hoping only to be a hired worker.
But here’s where it gets even crazier! The Father sees him a long way off (meaning he was looking for him). He does something a nobleman would not do: he runs. Running was considered beneath the dignity of a nobleman since it would imply he was either a slave on an errand or a fugitive running. Further, in order for a person to run in the ancient world, they had first to gird the loins of their garments. Since the garments were long flowing robes they had to be “hiked up.” Otherwise, the legs would get tangled in the garment and the person would trip. But for a nobleman to show his legs was considered an indignity. Get the picture? This nobleman, this father, is debasing himself, humbling himself. He is running and his legs are showing. This is crazy. Do you know what this son has done? Done he deserve this humble love? No! This father is crazy! – Exactly! The heavenly Father is crazy too. He actually loves me and humbles himself for me. He even sent his own Son for me. Do you know what I have done….what you have done? Do we deserve this? No! It’s crazy.
The second son is also a handful. When he hears of the party for the wayward brother he refuses to enter. Again this is unthinkable in the ancient world for a son to refuse to report when summoned by a father. What does the father do? He comes out and pleads with him! Again, crazy! Unthinkable. No father in the ancient world would ever permit a son to speak to him in the way this second son spoke. The son basically calls him a slave-driver who issues orders and refuses to enter the party that his father is hosting. He says he’d rather celebrate with his friends than with his father. But (pay attention here), the goal in life is not celebrate with your friends. The goal in life is to celebrate with the Father in heaven.
This father is crazy. He is crazy because God the Father is crazy. Do you know what it is to refuse to do what God says? And yet we do it every time we sin! The heavenly Father should not have to tolerate this. He is God and we are creatures. If he wanted, he could squash us like a bug. But he does not. The father in this parable is almost “dangerously” merciful. Shouldn’t his sons learn a lesson here? Shouldn’t he punish them both for their insolence? Yes, all our human thinking kicks in. But God is God, not man. There are other scriptures that speak of his punishments. But in the end, none of us get what we really deserve. The point of Jesus here is that God is merciful and his love is crazy. It makes no human sense. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.
In today’s Gospel Jesus defines four Demands of discipleship. We can look at them one by one.
1. The CONTEXT of the discipleship. The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so he turned to address them. Just about any time you find a mention of a large crowd fasten your seat belts and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust the big crowds who were often out for the goodies. They were looking for miracles, multiplied and free bread, physical healings and a fiery sermon. So upon sensing a large crowd the texts says, rather provocatively, that Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of “hard sayings” which seem almost designed to thin the ranks and to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” crowd.
We will see in a moment what he says. But let’s take a moment and examine other incidents where the gospels demonstrate Jesus’ tendency to distrust big crowds:
Mat 7:13Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Matt 22:14For many are called, but few are chosen.
Luke 6:26Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
There is also the tendency in the gospels for the mentioning of a large crowd to be followed by a “hard saying:”
Matt 13:1-9That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.”
Matt 19: 1-6When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (cf also Mark 10)
Luke 11:29As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.
Luke 14:26-27Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Luke 12:54-56He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
John 6: 2and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick….and He said to them, I am the living bread come down from heaven…..the crowds murmured.
So, the CONTEXT of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called, indeed all are called, only few make the cut and become true disciples. There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure. But it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen. This is a fact not only in the Scriptures but it also remains true that the Lord has often had to prune his Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a kind of pruning as large numbers depart who are not able to take the “hard sayings” of Jesus and the Scriptures about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity and generosity, and so forth. The CONTEXT of discipleship is with the few, rather than the many.
2. The CENTRALITY of the discipleship. Jesus indicates that we can prefer or love no one more than him if we are going to be his disciples. This extends even to our family relationships: If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Now “hate” here does mean that we are to have contempt for others or nourish unrighteous anger toward them. What we are dealing with here is a Jewish idiom. The Hebrew language, for some reason, has very few comparative words such as: more, less, greater, fewer, and so forth. Hence in ancient Hebrew if one were to prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate one would say, “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.” But what “hate” means here in context is that I “prefer” vanilla, not that I literally hate chocolate.
So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He’s first, he’s number one. Jesus says, I must have absolute priority over the closest human relationships in your life. If there’s anyone in your life that can talk you out of obeying God, forget ‘em! Anyone who keeps you away from God has too much power. Anyone who can keep you from your Christian walk has too much power. Anyone who can pull you into unrighteousness has too much power. So if The boss instructs us to do something immoral – sorry boss. If the accountant or lawyers advise saving money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits – sorry boys. A boyfriend pressures his girl friend to have sex – sorry dear. Peers pressure to use drugs or abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal – sorry buddies. A spouse calls his or her mate away from teaching the children the ways of faith. – sorry honey. A child pressures a parent to that which is unwise or wrong. – sorry child of mine. So, do you get it? No one is to have priority of Jesus Christ and what he teaches., The word “hate” here may not be literal but on second thought, if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some to say, “You’re so devoted to him, I think you hate me!”
3. The CROSS of discipleship. Jesus says if we want to be a disciple we must be willing to carry the cross. Now the cross comes in many forms, but in the end, to be a disciple does not mean we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated by the word (cf Jn 15:20), persecuted and sorely tempted by this world. But if we hold out, victory will be ours. It is a simple rule: No cross, No crown. There are some who want to preach a prosperity gospel. There are others who demand a gospel stripped of its moral imperatives. Still others demand an updated faith that tickles their ears and affirms their aberrant behavior. But Jesus points to the Cross, not to torture us, but because it is the only way to glory. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Now, for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…(1 Peter 1:6)
4. The COST of discipleship. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. Jesus asks us to count the cost of what he is teaching here. Many of the Protestant preachers like to emphasize that salvation is free, and it is. But discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the image of someone building a tower or of a king going to battle. But, truth be told, these examples are distant from us. So Jesus brings it home and says to us: anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.
The Greek word ἀποτάσσω (apotasso) translated here as “renounce” also means, “to say farewell.” And the Lord is reminding us that heaven costs everything. Ultimately we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious here in order to inherit heaven. This of course is not something that waits merely for death.
At one level, we give back everything to God as we go, little by little. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps too we have given back youthful figures, strength, good health, and so forth. Ultimately we will give it all back.
But at another level the Lord is clear to say here that we must be willing to part with anything that hinders discipleship now, not later. The fact is that many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to de-clutter our life, simplify and get more focused on being disciples? Or will we go on setting down roots here and amassing a worldly kingdom? What’s it going to be, the world or the Kingdom? Count the cost. See what it really means to be a disciple and what it cost, then decide.
What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are ready, nonetheless, to be his disciples. Tag-alongs, lip service Christians, fair weather folks, need not apply. So today Jesus is looking at a big crowd and teaches in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” disciples. We are asked to ponder in which category we most truthfully belong.
Is heaven on your spiritual radar? The question may seem strange, but the truth is that heaven is not a big part of people’s spiritual life today. It has been remarked that there are very few sermons on hell any more but it is also true that there are very few sermons on heaven! Until the last hundred years or so life was brutal and it was short. Heaven was a longed-for release from this valley of tears. People longed for heaven and feared to lose it. But most sermons and spiritual books today focus on life in this world and how to make it a better place. This is not wrong but heaven has moved to the periphery. Even our so-called spiritual life is mostly about worldly matters. When people pray aloud they usually pray for things like better health, better finances, a job opportunity, improvement in a relationship, etc. It almost seems like our main focus is to ask God to make this world a better place, so much so that if we have enough health, creature comforts, and friendship we’d just assume stay here forever. It is not wrong to pray for these things but again, we must remember that are true destination is heaven and to be with God and we should long for it and pray for it every day. When was the last time you really meditated on heaven, when was the last time you really longed for it and to be with God?
But how is heaven to be understood? At one level, we are beyond our league here. The Scripture says that eye has not seen in years not heard nor is it ever dawned on the heart of man what God has in store for those who love and trust him (1 Cor 2:9). The first letter of John says “What we shall later be has not yet come to light. But we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Hence, we long for something beyond our wildest imagining, something so glorious and fulfilling that we cannot now grasp it. And perhaps this is why it is difficult to meditate on heaven. The Book of Revelation however does gives us some touchstones for our meditation.
In an occasional series on heaven I’d like to look at some of the Biblical descriptions of heaven. Today we can consider the heavenly vision of John at the culmination of the Book of Revelation (21 & 22).
As you can see the passage is not brief and neither is the commentary by me. You may not feel inclined to read all this text at your computer just now. Perhaps then you might like to print this article and read it later in a more comfortable and prayerful place. Here is a PDF of this article: When Was the Last Time You Meditated on Heaven?
Here then is the Passage and commentary to follow which I prepared a couple of years ago:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its breadth; and he measured the city with his rod, twelve thousand stadia;£ its length and breadth and height are equal. He also measured its wall, a hundred and forty-four cubits by a man’s measure, that is, an angel’s. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass. And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. 22: 1Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev 21:1-22:5)
1. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away – notice here that in order to inherit heaven we have to die from this world. Don’t miss the obvious. In order to go to heaven, we have to leave here. What does heaven cost? Answer — everything! It is interesting how strongly we cling to this world, how difficult it is for us to let go. But the truth is, heaven comes only once earth passes away.
2. And the sea was no more — in the ancient world the sea was a symbol of chaos. We often think of the sea as a place to go on vacation. We go down to the beach. But for the ancient world the sea was a frightening place. Terrible storms came from there, monsters lived out in the deeps. The sea was also unpredictable. One moment calm, the next moment stormy. One of the most unpleasant aspects of life here in this world it is unpredictable quality. At one moment we are enjoying the pleasures of life and family but suddenly the phone rings with tragic news. Heaven will not contain this desperately unquieting chaos. Heaven will be a place of serenity and stability.
3. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband – heaven is described as the beauty of a bride on her wedding day. The book of Revelation is filled with marital imagery. And, in fact, all throughout the Bible God uses marriage imagery to describe his relationship with his people and what heaven will be like. Imagine the desire and excitement of the groom on his wedding day as his bride approaches beautifully clothed. We have to get beyond the rather cynical attitudes of today’s world. In the ancient Jewish world promiscuity prior to marriage was largely unknown. For a young Jewish man and woman their wedding signaled the first time they could be together an intimate was near at hand. Hence the wedding day was truly a time of deep desire and excitement regarding the communion they would enjoy. God permits us to think of heaven in this way. We will enjoy a deep and fulfilling communion with God, not in a sexual way of course, but in even deeper, more joyful, and desirable communion. God allows for the intimacy of the marriage act to symbolize this far more satisfying communion we will one day enjoy with him.
4. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them – We must avoid the tendency to be “self-centered” in our imaginings of heaven. Often when I ask people to described heaven I am surprised what they leave out. They mention mansions, streets paved with gold, the fact that they will be happy, that they will see relatives and friends who’ve died, Angels, clouds etc. and I keep waiting and wondering if God will be mentioned! Many people leave God out of their description of heaven! But, as we shall see, the heart of heaven is to be with God! But the heart of heaven is to be with God! Think not so much of mansions and pearly gates and streets of gold, rather, think of being with God in a deep rapturous communion. We will be swept up into a praise filled place of exquisite beauty where we will enjoy deep communion with God and with one another in God. Heaven is to be with God! God and God alone would be the joy of our eternal home. He will be are one desire, our hearts will never tire of God and God alone.
5. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away – not only will we enjoy the unspeakable joy of being with God but we will also know that the sorrows of earth are long past, never to afflict us again. Regret and sorrows like tears will be wiped from our eyes, there will be no more fear and anxiety, no more pain. And, unlike the brief and passing joys we experienced on earth only to see them replaced with a new round of challenges and pain, this joy will last forever. The former things that cause pain and grief and sorrow have passed away!
6. And he who set upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” – we all have had the experience of the excitement over a new car, or some new gadget. Even more the excitement over a newborn baby. But all too soon our excitement over the newness can pass away and become boredom. But in heaven this excitement over the newness of all things, this delight over something new, will never pass away. The terrible affliction of boredom will never afflict again. Notice too, the God says he will make all things new. At the end of time when Jesus comes again in glory the earth and the universe will not be destroyed but rather, gloriously transformed it renewed. They will be restored to their original perfection and perhaps, receive even greater glory. Everything will be new, everything will be renewed. God and God alone created all these things we call our own; from the mighty to the small the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone.
7. Also he said, “write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. – God is our beginning in our end. We were made for God! We were made to know God love him and serve him and be with him forever. God is our all and all. To say that God is our end, our Omega means that he is our destination, our fulfillment, our perfection.
8. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment – Again, notice the image: thirst and the satiation out of that thirst. Try to remember a time when you were really thirsty, dehydrated. How wonderful that water felt as it rushed to fill the spaces that the thirst created! Here is a symbol of all our desires and cravings. Think of the joy and satisfaction that will be created as God himself satisfies all our desires, all our thirsts, all our cravings.
9. He who conquered shall have this heritage, and I will be is God and he will be my son. – Notice that in order to receive the incredible blessings we have been meditating upon we must conquer. By God’s grace we must persevere. We must overcome temptation and remain faithful. For now there is a battle to wage. But just like the soldier who willingly fights because he knows what is at stake we fight on. Just like the athlete who has his mind fixed on the prize we too discipline ourselves and train for glory. Remember, we are meditating on the joys of heaven not just to have a pleasant experience but to stir ourselves up for the battle that is at hand. We keep our eyes on the prize knowing that the victory comes only after the battle, a crown comes only after the cross. What a prize, what a victory heaven will be. O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold, Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, And win with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia! And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear a distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong, Alleluia. The golden evening brightens in the West, soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest, sweet is the calm paradise most blest, Alleluia.
10. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, they’re a lot shall be in the lake that Burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. – Whoops, where did this verse come from! We are having such a nice time meditating upon heaven and suddenly God mentions hell. But remember, God loves us too much to avoid telling us the truth. It is appropriate, when meditating on the joy and beauty of heaven, to remember what a terrible loss it would be were we not to inherit it. The Lord warns of certain behaviors here that can exclude us from the kingdom of heaven. We should not consider it an exhaustive list but rather as a representative list. Cowards do not inherit the kingdom. At one level this means those who, in order to receive blessings from the world, turned away from the gospel and rejected Christ. But at another level, a coward is any one who refuses to take up the cross and follow Jesus. People who reject the cross by refusing to resist temptation for example, or those who never confront evil, who preferred to remain popular and well liked rather than to risk any self harm that might come from speaking the truth. The faithless are those who did not keep faith, the polluted are those who refuse to seek cleansing forgiveness for their sins, those who made light of their sins or declared them not to be sins at all; these are the polluted. Fornicators are those who indulge in sexual promiscuity. Please note many people make light of this sin today but it is very serious to God. If you have relatives or friends who are promiscuous warn them! Heaven is too great a blessing to lose! The sorcerers are those who invoke elemental spirits or demonic spirits for self-serving and magical purposes. Idolaters are those who placed something else on the throne that belongs to God alone. Liars are those who do not speak the truth about God and what he has revealed. Rather, they spread lies and heresy. None of these sinners shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. As we said the first night, we need to sober up. Sin is serious and it renders us incapable of being in communion with God both now and in eternity. As beautiful and joyful as heaven is, hell is just as desperate and awful at the other extreme. There is emptiness in a fire of limitless desire with no hope of satisfaction. Rather than being fully alive souls in Hell are half dead. They burn with indignation have longings that will never be satisfied and are ultimately frustrated because they cannot attain the end for which they were really made: to be with God. They don’t want God but they need him
11. Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” – Again, notice the marriage imagery here. The Church is Jesus’ bride as we see elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Ephesians 5). Jesus is the groom, his Church is the bride. Heaven is like a marriage, a good marriage of deep communion and intimacy with God and his bride.
12. And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its breadth; and he measured the city with his rod, twelve thousand stadia; its length and breadth and height are equal. He also measured its wall, a hundred and forty-four cubits by a man’s measure, that is, an angel’s. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass. – the bride is described with exquisite beauty. Heaven, which is the communion of God and his bride is a beautiful place! There are too many details to look at each of them individually but note some of the elements below:
a. It may seem a bit confusing reading this passage. What or who exactly is being described? The bride is beautiful but the description seems to be more about heaven as a physical city rather than the bride. A place is described more than a person and yet this place is called a bride. Here we have to confront one of our distorted notions about heaven. Heaven is not so much a place as it is a communion with God, a marriage union. Heaven is a place to be sure but the heart of heaven is to be with God. Heaven is a place where God is at one with his church. Hence, the bride and groom together is heaven. Heaven is the communion. The physicality of the place is quite secondary. Hence the bride that is described here is at once the Church and also heaven: the Church, (the bride), with her God.
b. Notice that the word “like” appears quite frequently in this passage. The bride has the glory of God which is “like” a Jewel, “like” precious stones like gold. The point in using this word “like” is that the glory cannot really be compared to any earthly glory. It far surpasses any earthly glory or beauty. The Beauty is “like” a gold or precious stones but it far surpasses them!
c. Heaven is a high wall – city walls in the ancient world signified safety. The walls were not to keep people in them but to keep enemies out. Heaven is a protected place. The foundation of the wall is that of the apostles themselves.
d. Heaven has 12 gates and these gates face in all four directions of the compass. Heaven is open to all who will accept the invitation to God’s kingdom and choose to live in the righteousness of that kingdom. No one is excluded. God is open to every part of the world. Jesus had sent them to every nation to some of the nations to say. The 12 tribes of Israel now include every nation: From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: Alleluia, Alleluia!
e. The city is quite large and spacious. It is 1800 miles wide in each direction and 1800 miles tall! The fact that it is foursquare is a symbol of perfection. Don’t become too literal and try to imagine a giant cube. The point is that the city which is heaven is beautiful, spacious, magnificent!
13. And I saw no Temple in the city, for his Temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb – since heaven is communion with God, God is everywhere. There is no need for a Temple because all of heaven is a Temple, a place where God dwells in all his splendor with his bride.
14. In the city has no need of Sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and the lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk…and there shall be no night there. This city is not lit from above by the son or the moon but from within by the very presence of God. There are no shadows, for God is present everywhere. People who have been saved out of every nation shall walk in communion with God and enjoy the light of his presence. Never shall this light be extinguished, there shall be no darkness that comes with night for God is always present to his bride and she to him.
15. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who were written in the Lamb’s book of life. – Here again is a sobering declaration that we must be capable of entering heaven. Christ is our only hope of ever being able to enter. Only by his precious blood can we be perfected and washed clean. Think about it for a minute, if it were possible for an imperfect human being to enter heaven, heaven would not be heaven! Rather, prior to entering heaven we must be made perfect by the blood of Jesus. We must have every tear wiped from our eyes. We cannot bring with us any sorrow any regrets, any sinful habits, any lack of perfection. These things must be purged from us prior to our entering heaven. Ideally this purging takes place fully here on earth. But realistically, most of us will probably need some purification after death. It is a text like this that causes the Church to teach of the reality of purgatory. Purgatory is that place or process wherein those who die in friendship of God are purified of the last vestiges of sin, and have tears wiped from their eyes, and the sorrows are regrets removed. Whether this process takes time and exactly how it happens is not clear but that it must happen is set forth in a text like this. Sign me up for the Christian Jubilee, write my name on the roll! I have been changed since the Lord has lifted me, I want to be ready when Jesus comes! Notice how this old song equates having our name in the Lamb’s book of life with having been changed, that is to say, having been cleansed and perfected.
16. Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. – The grace and favor of God flow freely through the streets of heaven giving constant life and fruit to all who live there. There is a kind of reminder of the garden in the book of Genesis here. Once again, the human family is at one with its God and they can walk with God in the garden and enjoy his company. Paradise is restored and even greater than it ever was!
17. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light,. There is a great liturgy going on in heaven that is described in greater detail in Revelation Chapters 4 and 5. The text here says merely that they servants of God worship him but oh what a mighty liturgy it is! The Saints must surely be having church up there! They look upon the face of God which is a biblical way of saying they enjoy very special intimacy with God. All their longings are fulfilled as they gaze upon the beauty of God. The book of Psalms says, “My heart within me says, is your face the Lord I seek, hide not your face from me! ” (Psalms 27:8) Now is fulfilled the longing of the heart to see the face of the Lord. That his name is on their foreheads is a Jewish way of saying that God is always on their mind. They are in living conscious contact with God at every moment.
18. and they shall reign for ever and ever – to be in heaven is to conquer, to reign with God. To share his glory! And this shall be forever. This joy, this serenity, will never pass.
This song says, The sky shall unfold; Preparing His entrance. The stars shall applaud Him; With thunders of praise. The sweet light in His eyes, shall enhance those awaiting And we shall behold Him, then face to face.
O we shall behold Him, we shall behold Him; Face to face in all of His glory; O we shall behold Him, yes we shall behold Him Face to face, our Savior and Lord
The angel will sound, the shout of His coming; And the sleeping shall rise, from there slumbering place; And those remaining, shall be changed in a moment; And we shall behold him, then face to face; We shall behold Him, o yes we shall behold Him; Face to face in all of His glory
In the Gospel for this weekend’s Mass the Lord Jesus summons us to a deeper appreciation for what brings true honor, for makes a person truly great. As you may imagine, what the world thinks of as great and honorable is rather different that what God thinks and sees. Let’s look at this Gospel in three parts and discover it’s paradoxical vision.
1. THE PERSON who HONORS – The Lord is at a banquet and notices how people vie for seats of honor. He gives the following teaching: When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Now what the Lord is really teaching is that at formal banquets it is the host who determines where we sit. This is of course most common in our culture at wedding receptions where seats are determined and assigned by the couple ahead of time. For someone to walk in and sit at the head table reserved for the wedding party is both rude and pompous. The polite and expected thing is to report the entrance table and receive a table number and graciously take your seat.
Now of course the banquet we are invited to is God’s Kingdom. And in that kingdom God has a place for us but we must be clear that it is God who assigns each his place. When a dispute arose among the apostles as to who was the greatest Jesus responded: I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29). Another time James and John approached and asked for seats at Jesus right and left (i.e. the places of honor) and Jesus responded: But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not my to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared (Mk 10:40). So, our places in the Kingdom are determined by God.
It is a true fact that many miss this point and like to assign themselves places and honors in God’s kingdom. But in the end that belongs to God. Some go through life resentful that they are not as rich as others, or as powerful, or as advantaged. Others wish they were taller, thinner, prettier, smarter etc. They are jealous of what they see as the advantages of others. But be very careful here. It is not for us to determine what is best for us. It is not for us to assign our own seat. Just because we think it is better to be rich than poor does not mean this is correct. The Lord warns how difficult it is for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of God. So being rich isn’t necessarily the blessing we think it is. It is for God to decide what is best for us. Riches, power, popularity, good looks etc. are all things that tend to root us in the world. These things are not necessarily blessings. Having a “good” job like some one else, a family like someone else, a talent like someone else may not be what is best for us. God decides all that and gives us the talents and blessings, as well as burdens and challenges he knows are best. So don’t just walk into God’s Kingdom and seat yourself! Check in with the host and find His will in terms of your seat. He’s got just the right one for you.
2. THE PARADOX of HONORS– Now another thing to note about this Gospel is how the people were vying for the seats of honor, the important seats. They want to impress folks and be thought highly of. But remember, this is God’s banquet and the qualifications for the seats of honor are very different from worldly honors. In the world we are impressed by things like: bling, brawn, beauty and bucks. We’re impressed by big cars, big houses, big hair, and a big entourage. The limo pulls up and watch the eyes turn. Out come the popular, the powerful, the glitterati and game changers. The cameras flash and the applause ensues. We’re quite impressed actually. This is what WE notice, this is what draws OUR eyes.
But what of God? At the banquet of God’s kingdom, who draws his eye? As God looks around the banquet hall of the Kingdom who catches his eye? The Lord gives that answer in many places in Scripture:
Mark 10:43 Whoever would be great among you must be the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Luke 22:26 Rather let the greatest among you become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who do you think is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
Ps 138:6 Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar.
1 Cor 1:27 But God chose the foolish and low born things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
James 2:5 Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?
Luke 13:30 Many who are last shall be first, and many who are first shall be last.
Luke 1:52 He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
So, back to our question: In the banquet hall of God’s Kingdom, who catches his eye? Is it not likely those who wait tables? Those who serve? Is it not the lowly, the humble and the servants of all? Here is the paradox of honor in God’s kingdom: It is not about being powerful in the worldly sense. God is not impressed by the size of our house, car or bank account. Our popularity does not impress him. It is our service, our humility, our love for others that catches his eye. Here are the seats of honor, the places closest to God’s heart, they are for those who serve. You gotta serve before you sit in any place of honor in God’s banquet.
3. THE PRESCRIPTION for HONORS – And hence the prescription is clear enough. Jesus instructs us in today’s Gospel: when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Now what all this adds up to is that if we want to be great in the Kingdom of God then we had better become a servant. Jesus says, take the lowest place. Serve before you sit. What makes you great is to serve. The greatest thing about us is not our paycheck, our fancy house or any of that stuff. What is greatest about us is that we serve. We are great when we identify with the lowly and humble and seek to serve rather than to be served. We are great when we use our wealth, power, talents and abilities to build up the people of God and extend God’s Kingdom. Even in things which we are paid to do can still be service if serving is the primary reason we do it.
Jesus then adds: When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. What this amounts to is a complete change in the way we see what is great in this world. Jesus is giving us more than a moralism here (i.e. be generous to the poor). He is offering us a new vision for who is greatest in his Kingdom. We ought to run to the poor, the blind the lame, the afflicted, for they give us the ability to serve and this, in the end, is our greatest honor: to serve others, especially the poor and afflicted who cannot repay us.
A final dimension of all this is to learn that some of the greatest and most honorable people we know are those who serve US. Since to serve is the greatest honor in the Kingdom of God, we ought to hold in high honor those who wait on our tables, who clean our houses and work places, who do the “dirty work,” those also who serve in our hospitals and all those who care for us and serve us in countless ways. They are doing something honorable and we ought to treat them with respect, kindness, and honor. We ought to give generous tips where that is appropriate, but above all we are to honor them.
For the greatest among you is the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mk 10:43)
This song says, “Sit down servant, I can’t sit down….My soul’s so happy that I can’t sit down. And this video also depicts a wide cultural expression, a Thai Choir singing and African American Spiritual!
Today’s Gospel is a sobering summons to be serious about our spiritual life. Now it is a sad fact today that many, if not most people are not serious about their spiritual life. They do not pray, they do not read scripture, do not attend Mass or go to confession. They are playing around and goofing off like life were some big joke. They are often locked in serious and unrepented sin and will not be ready when judgment day comes. It is just a fact.
Perhaps you think I am overly pessimistic but I would argue that I am on strong biblical grounds. In today’s Gospel the Lord dispatches one of the most common errors of today. The error held is that most people are going to heaven. The Lord rather directly refutes this and summons us to be sober and serious in seeking salvation. Let’s look at the readings for today in three stages.
1. The Danger Described. – Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough (Luke 13:22-23). Elsewhere Jesus elaborated on this more: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mat 7:13-15). So, when asked if those to be saved are many or few the Lord answers, “Few” and goes on to describe that “many” will be unable to enter the Kingdom of Heaven but are on the wide and easy road that leads to destruction – see photo above right!
This of course flies in the face of what most people think today. We have to be sober about this and realize that many live lives that show little interest in God or the Kingdom of God. At some point this decision becomes final and God accepts their disinterest as their final choice. Beware! To persist in worldliness and to be self absorbed increasingly becomes our final disposition.
Now it is true that every says they want to go to heaven. But it is usually a heaven that they have invented. But the real heaven is the fullness of the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God has values that many people today do not want. It is a place where justice, mercy, generosity and chastity are celebrated. Now it is clear today that many today are not interested in forgiving those who have hurt them. They do not want to love their enemy. They surely do not want to live chastely. The concept of justice annoys them and usually makes them suspicious that someone is after their money. Generosity too annoys them for they would rather not part with a dime. But this is what the Kingdom of God is all about and what is celebrated in heaven.
Further, heaven is described in the Book of Revelation (4,5,8) as like a liturgy where God is at the center and is praised. Hymns are sung, a scroll containing the meaning of all things (Scripture) is read and the Lamb is on a throne-like altar. There are candles incense, prostrations, standing and all the things of the Mass. Now many people today say by their absence from Mass that none of this interests them. OK fine, God will not force it on any of them. Neither will he force them to accept the values of the Kingdom of God. But THIS is what heaven is about, the fullness of the Kingdom.
Now as time goes on, a person grows hardened in their aversion to the Kingdom of God, to heaven. Eventually their aversion becomes forever fixed. So on Judgment Day they are not able to enter heaven and frankly would not be happy there anyway. So here is the danger: walking the wide and worldly road that hardens the heart to God and the things of God so that heaven is “not able” to be tolerated. Hell is not God’s fault, it is the preference of damned who have hardened their hearts to God and the realities of the true (not the fanciful) heaven.
2. The Divine Desire. Now God does not want hell for anyone. He does not rejoice in the decision of the damned but he does respect it. God is clear he wants to save everyone: As surely as I live, says the LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11-12) Thus in today’s First Reading there is described how God widens the call of salvation to the whole world: I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory. …that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. …Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD. (Is 66:18-21) Yes indeed, the Lord wants to bring people from every nation and race to his kingdom. The Lord wants to save us all. So the problem of Hell is not about God and what He wants, it is about us and what we want. God will ultimately respect our final choice. I have written more on this here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/07/hell-has-to-be/
3. The Delivering Discipline This then leads to a manner in which we can be sober and serious in seeking salvation. It is described in the 2nd reading today: My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it (Heb 12:5-7). We have a clear call from the Lord to submit our lives to his discipline and training. Notice how closely related the discipline is to discipleship. The Lord has a discipline for us that makes us true disciples.
Our discipline includes daily prayer, daily scripture, daily repentance, frequent confession, Mass every Sunday. We are to grow in the training of the Lord which comes from the study of our faith and the reception of the Sacraments. As we do this we grow in desire for the things of God and heaven. We come to share the kingdom values and are less worldly. More and more we start to love who and what God loves, we start to have His priorities, are transformed by the renewal of our minds. This is what God’s discipline, what his teaching, grace and mercy do for us.
So, in the end, God is not our enemy, he is our Savior and the only one who can get us ready for judgment day. But we have to be sober and serious in seeking salvation. All the playing around and goofing off, the presumption and worldliness has to end. The Letter to the Hebrews from today’s second reading has three last things to tell us:
So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees – In other words lift up your hands in prayer and have strong knees that are accustomed to kneeling in prayer.
Make straight paths for your feet – get off that wide road that leads to destruction and get on the narrow path that leads to God. The Next time some one calls you narrow minded thank them and invite them to join you!
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed – Sin makes us lame, weak and tired of doing good. But get used to walking the straight and narrow path that is uphill to heaven and watch your strength grow, and your weak knees be healed.
Here’s an excerpt from a Funeral Sermon I posted some time ago that seems apt for today’s theme:
This year we are privileged to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven on a Sunday. Let’s ponder this feast in three stages:
1. Explained – To be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into heaven. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary was taken up into heaven. We do not just acknowledge that her soul was taken to heaven, as is the case with all the rest of the faithful who are taken there (likely after purgation). Rather Mary was taken up, soul AND body into heaven after her sojourn on this earth was complete. There is no earthly tomb containing her body, neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful. This is our ancient memory and what we celebrate today, Mary was taken up, body and soul into heaven.
2. Exemplified – The actual event of the Assumption is not described in Scripture. However, there are assumptions recorded in the Scriptures and the concept is thus biblical.
It happened to Enoch in the Old Testament The Book of Genesis records: Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). Hebrews 11: 5 elaborates: By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God.
It also happened to Elijah as he walked with Elisha: And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven….And he was seen no more. (2 Kings 2:11 ).
Some say Moses too was taken up since his grave is not known: He was buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt. 34:6). The text of course does not say his body was taken up and if it was, it occurred after death and burial. Jude 1:9 hints at the fact when is says, But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses….. (Jude 1:9) Some further credibility is lent to the view of him being assumed by the fact that he appears alongside Elijah in the Transfiguration account. Some of the Church Fathers held this view and there is also a Jewish work from the 6th Century AD entitled The Assumption of Moses that represents the tradition of his assumption. But in the end the Assumption of Moses only a view held by some and it not officially held by the Church.
And While it is true that the historical event of the assumption is not recorded in Scripture nor are there historical accounts of the event, there may be one other scriptural account that evidences Mary’s whereabouts, body and soul. The Church presents for our consideration in today’s second reading a passage from the Book of Revelation wherein John records his sighting of the Ark of God:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads… The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Rev 11:19 – 12:5)
The Woman is clearly Mary since the child is clearly Jesus. And where is Mary seen? In heaven. Now some may argue the text does not necessarily indicate her body is in heaven but may only be referring to her soul. However the physicality of the description of her is rather strong. Some also argue that Mary is linked to John’s sighting of the Ark of the Convent which is seen by John in Heaven. He mentions the Ark and goes on to describe the woman clothed with the sun (Mary) and there is a possibility that he is still describing the Ark he sees in Heaven. (I have written on this elsewhere. See here: Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant) If she is the Ark described that Ark is clearly described as being in heaven.
So, the Biblical record, while not recording the event of the Assumption, does set forth other assumptions and thus shows that assumption is a biblical concept. Further, Mary’s physical presence in heaven seems hinted at by John and some would argue that the passage actually attests to her physical presence there.
But remember, the Church does not rely solely on Scripture. In this case what we celebrate is most fundamentally taught to us by Sacred Tradition in that the memory of Mary’s assumption goes back as long as we can remember.
3. Extended – The Feast of the Assumption may be of theological interest to some and may provide for interesting biblical reflection but eventually the question is bound to come: “So What?” How does what happened to Mary have impact on my life and what does it mean for me? The answer to this question is bound up in nearly every Marian Doctrine. Simply put, what happened to Mary in an profound and preliminary way will also happen for us in the end. As Mary bore Christ into he world, we too bear him there in the Holy Communion we receive and in the witness of his indwelling presence in our life. As Mary is (and always was) sinless, so too will we one day be sinless (immaculate) with God in heaven. As Mary cared for Christ in his need, so do we care for him in the poor, the suffering, needy and afflicted. And as Mary was assumed, body and soul into heaven so too will we be there one day, body and soul.
For now our souls go to heaven once purified but our body lie in a tomb. But one day when the trumpet shall sound, on that “great gettin’ up morning” our bodies will rise and be joined to our soul:
For we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”…….Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:51-57)
So our bodies shall rise shall be assumed and joined to our soul.
Improved model! Now a older woman once said to me upon hearing that her body would rise: “Father if this old body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!” Yes indeed! Me too! I want my hair back, my slender figure and knees that work! I want to upgrade from a general issue late model version, to a luxury model. And God will in fact do that. Scripture says:
He will take these lowly bodies of ours and transform them to be like his own glorified body. (Phil 3:21)
But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body…..So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; …..And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. (1 Cor 15:35-49)
Yes we shall also be taken up, assumed, and then shall be fulfilled for us the saying of Job: I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another ‘s (Job 19:25-27).
The assumption of our bodies, prefigured by Christ in his own power and also in Mary by the gift of God, will one day be our gift too. For now, it waits till that “great gettin’ up morning.” Until that day, and on that day, fare you well, fare you well!
This song is an African American Spiritual and speaks of that Great Gettin’ up morning when our bodies will rise. And if we have been faithful they will rise to glory!
I’m gonna tell you about the coming of the judgement (Fare you well) There’s a better day a coming….In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well! Oh preacher fold your Bible, For the last soul’s converted….Blow your trumpet Gabriel…..Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right calm and easy Do not alarm all my people….Tell them to come to the judgement…….In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well. Do you see them coffins bursting? Do you see them folks is rising? Do you see the world on fire? Do you see the stars a falling? Do you see that smoke and lightning? Do you hear the rumbling thunder? Oh Fare you well poor sinner. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well.
In the Gospel for this weekend (Luke 12:32-40) the Lord presents a “Recipe for Readiness.” It is frequent problem in the Christian life that many remain vague about what is necessary to be ready to meet God. What Jesus does in this gospel is to give us some pretty specific and concrete things to do that will help us to be ready when the Lord shall call us. It is not an exhaustive list, for no one passage of Scripture is the whole of Scripture. But here are some very practical and specific things to reflect on and do. Let’s look at this recipe, this list.
1. REASSESS YOUR WEALTH. Jesus says, Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. In effect the Lord is giving us here a triple teaching on wealth. First he says that we ought to
Fore-go Fear. In the end it is fear that makes us greedy and worldly. We grab up the things of this world because we are terrified of not having enough for tomorrow. But what if we could receive the gift to trust God more and know and experience that he will give us our daily bread? He has given us the Kingdom, why not everything else besides? He may not give us everything we want but we can learn to trust that he will give us what we really need. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be given unto to you (Matt 6:21). If we can just allow God to diminish our fear we will be surprised how easy it is for us to be generous with what we have and not hoard it.
Forward your Fortune– We store up treasure for ourselves in heaven when we are generous to the needy and poor. Treasure is not stored in heaven by way of a rocket ship or balloon. It is stored there by generously distributing our wealth to others in wise and creative ways. This was discussed in last week’s reading more sustantially see here: Instructions on Income . While it may not be appropriate for us to sell everything and go live on a park bench, the Lord is surely telling us to be less attached to and passionate about money and things for they root us in this world. And where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.
Fix your focus – Our focus is wrong and worldly because most of us have our treasure here. But once we become less fearful and more generous, our obsession with worldly treasure subsides and our joy in heavenly treasure grows. And this fixes our broken focus. For now our heart is where our treasure really is and ought to be: in heaven with God. So simplify, be less rooted in this world and come to experience that your greatest treasure is God and the things waiting for you in heaven.
So, reassess your wealth. What is it and where is it? That will tell you a lot about your heart too.
2. READY TO WORK – The Lord says “Gird your loins” which is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has a work for us and wants us to get about it. Surely the Lord has more than a worldly career in mind. He has in mind things like raising kids in godly fear, pursuing justice, and growing in holiness. The Lord wants us to work in his Kingdom. We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, the reception of the Sacraments, to obedience and holiness. And the Lord has a particular work for us based on our gifts. Some can teach, others are good with senior citizens, still others are good entrepreneurs and can provide good work for others at a just wage. Some are skilled at medicine and the care of the sick. Some are called to priesthood and the religious life. Some are called to suffering and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others in weakness. But all are called to serve, called to work. So work with what the Lord gave you to advance his kingdom. Part of being ready means doing our work.
3. READ THE WORD – The Lord says, “light your lamps.”At one level, the phrase “light your lamps” is simply a symbol for readiness (eg. the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13) But in another sense “lamp” is also a symbol for Scripture. For example, You Word O Lord is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105). Or again, We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19). So here we can also understand that the Lord is teaching us that an essential part of being ready is to be rooted and immersed in the Scriptures and the Teachings of the Church. It makes sense of course. There is just too much stinking thinking in this increasingly secular world hostile to the faith to think that our mind is going to be anything but sullied if we are not reading Scripture every day. How will our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world? Clearly, being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.
4. REMAIN WATCHFUL – The Lord says, “And be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks…..Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” Now there are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting that we may do when waiting for a bus. We just sit there and look down the street. But there is another way of waiting that is more active. Consider the kind of watchfulness that one has who waits on tables. This is an active waiting and watching. It observes what is necessary and what will soon become necessary and moves to supply what is needed. And so it is that the the watchful and waiting spirit the Lord has in mind here is like that active waiting when we have invited a guest to our home and prepared the house and all is readiness. We know that his arrival is imminent and so we prepare and place all in order. And to set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness by God’s grace and to remove all the clutter of the worldliness. Regular confession, daily repentance, sweep clean the house, and simplifying our lives and freeing ourselves from worldly attachments de-clutters the house of our soul.
Have you prepared the home of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If not the Lord says, you may experience him as a thief. Now the Lord is not really a thief for everything belongs to him. But if you and I have not renounced our worldliness and greed, if we have not de-cluttered our lives of attachments to this world, the Lord WILL come to and take back what is his but he will seem the thief because we think it is ours. It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief. Bad move.
5. REFLECT on your reWARD – The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants. – The Lord is clear that he has a reward for those who are found ready. It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist wherein the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. The Lord says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And again, And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30). We have so much easy food today but in the ancient world one of the most pleasant things they looked forward to was a hearty meal in the company of good friends and family. The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of heaven wherein we will be with him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.
Do you meditate often on heaven and long for its rewards? One of the stranger aspects of the modern world is that, even among believers, we talk so little of heaven. True, it is not a place any of us have been yet so it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like. But reflect often on the joy waiting for you in heaven.Part of being ready to go home to Lord is to long for that day to come. When we want to do something we eagerly prepare for it, we are motivated and make sacrifices to do it. Last year a group from the Parish went to the Holy Land. Many of them saved and sent in money for two years on a payment plan to be able to go. As the day of departure grew near we gathered, studied maps and read Bible stories prepare for the trip. On the day of departure many in the group were up early and at the airport hours early. Eagerly reflecting on heaven and the joy waiting for us there is the same. When we desire it we will more naturally get ready and lay aside whatever is necessary to make the passage there.