Monday, October 22, 2018

Matt 23-25: The Olivet Discourse (part 5 of 5)





This is the final installation of a post long overdue. Life has been extremely busy over the last year, yet I did not forget about closing out this five-part series on the Olivet Discourse

In this post I'm going to continue where I left off, which was my promise to show the literary relationship between the last section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 25:31-46) with the first section of that same Sermon (Matt 23:1-12). 

As I also presented in the first post of this five-part series, Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is structured in a six-part chiasm as follows: 


A)  Those seated in Moses’ seat: not doing what they do 
       (23:1–12)                                                                                               

     B)  Jesus denounces those seated in Moses’ seat / 8 sections 
           (23:13, *14, 15–39)                                                                                         
     
            C) Jesus asks his disciples a question about the temple, and then promises its 
               desolation (24:1—2)

             C’) The disciples ask Jesus three questions about the temple and its desolation 
               (24:3)                                                  
     
      B’) Jesus answers all three questions about the temple and its desolation / 8 sections   
            (24:4—25:30)                                                                                                   

A’)  The Son of Man seated on his own throne: doing what they did not do 

      (25:31—46)



This chiastic literary structure shows that there is a relationship between sections A and A', B and B', C and C', focusing heavily on a central sections (sections C and C') but yet moving forward in an A-B-C-C'-B'-A' trajectory, ending with words, phrases, and concepts that mirror how the Sermon began.

With that in mind, let's dive into the first Section (Section A above), which begins the entire Sermon as follows:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. 

For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matt 23:1-12)



Matthew records Jesus' Sermon on the Mount with a direct address to "the crowds and to his disciples" about another influential group of Jewish authorities they were all familiar with, "the scribes and Pharisees."  Nothing could be more clear from the outset that Matthew records a contrast between two groups of disciples-->(1) disciples and observers of Jesus and (2) disciples and observers of respected first century Jewish authorities. In other words, Jesus is shown directing his whole Sermon with a distinction between a group addressed as "you" and a group addressed as "them", and the main difference between the two groups is whom they would choose to listen to, and trust, and follow. Would it be Jesus and his disciples, or the already-established Jewish authorities? According to Jesus, "whoever" had decided to exalt himself would ultimately be humbled, and "whoever" committed to humbling himself ended up being exalted. 

So, again, the contrast is very clear: people in first century Judea had a choice to make when listening to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Whoever followed Jesus and his disciples would be exalted, whereas those who followed the Scribes and Pharisees (who would later indulge in slandering and crucifying Jesus, and also persecute his disciples) would be humbled. 

Interestingly, Matthew begins this discourse with a unique description of the Scribes and Pharisees, worthy of remembrance. He says "they" are the ones who "sit in Moses' seat". Here, again, it is noteworthy to point out that this action of "sitting" is what begins the Sermon. It is also what Matthew highlights from the teachings of Jesus to end the Sermon. Surely that cannot be a mere coincidence if this is a thoughtful piece of literature, which it clearly is! 


Now let's dive into section A', the last section of the Sermon in Matthew's Gospel, and look at the way in which Matthew draws together these images from the beginning of the Sermon. Pay special attention to how this section begins with Jesus "sitting" on a throne in the heavens (not Moses' seat on earth, among Jewish authorities), and the repeated contrast that is highlighted between two groups of disciples---> one flock (goats) on the left side, and one flock (sheep) on the right side of Jesus. 

This closing section of the Sermon (Matthew 25:31-46) reads as follows:
And when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne, and they—all the nations—will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 
When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”


Do you see the contrast?

The scribes and Pharisees "sit" in Moses' seat, the conceptual throne of those guarding and administering Moses' Law, whereas Jesus is described as "sitting on his glorious throne". The scribes, Pharisees, and "whoever" else rejected Jesus in preference for those authorities sitting in Moses' seat are the goats on the left side of Jesus. The disciples who humbled themselves before God, following Jesus and his Apostles would be exalted. They were the sheep on the right side of God.

Is this making sense now?

All throughout this five-part series of the Sermon on the Mount I have been showing verse by verse the literary relationship between everything described therein, and at the center of the entire Sermon in a very clear sequence of promises---> promises regarding the signs preceding the end of the Old Covenant, and the signs of the end itself---> promises regarding the signs preceding Christ's coming in judgment upon Jerusalem, and the signs of Christ's coming in judgment itself.

So far, from the beginning of Matthew chapter 23, when this sermon began, there has been absolutely zero indication of two separate historical judgments. All references clearly direct the sustained reader to focus upon the soon-coming events leading up to the (now famous and cataclysmic) destruction of Jerusalem and it's precious Temple in AD70, which was the definitive end of the old covenant administration, the end of Moses' so-called "seat".

A question remains: Is Matthew 25:31-46 also about the events related to AD70? After all, the scene describes Jesus sitting on his throne, which could possibly refer to another time period other than the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem.

I think this is still primarily describing the same events, and not some so-called "end of time" scenario. Let me explain some reasons as to why I say that.

First, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever in the text itself which implies, infers, or directly states that it's an "end-of-time" event. Rather, it states (in the text itself) that this enthronement scene takes place when the Son comes in glory, which, as we have seen in this series, can only refer to the event of AD70 when the Old Covenant administration (and those sitting in "Moses' seat" within it) finally vanished away and was made completely obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).

Secondarily, the scenario describes the Son sitting on "his glorious throne", which describes a host of allusions to the absolute reign of Israel's promised Messiah. Unless we presume (erroneously) that this is describing an event in our future, at the so-called "end of the world" or "end of time", there is no reason to view this scenario as anything other than the definitive reign of Christ over all the earth, which began in the first century and was demonstrated definitively as promised in the end of the Old Covenant in AD70. 

Third of all, it is well within the boundaries of biblical symbolism to imagine this scenario of Jesus enthroned as taking place within the heavenly realm, and not on earth at all. A clue given to us is the language about gathering and separating nations before him. Such a description does not need to entail a gathering of all people from the beginning of time to the end of time, let alone at a location on earth. Indeed, in its close historical context, it is far more likely to envision this gathering of all peoples to describe all those in covenant with God who spread throughout the nations within the first century, those faithful and unfaithful witnesses who had died and descended to "the dead ones" in Hades/Sheol, awaiting vindication/judgment from the living and true God of all times and all locations on earth. In other words, this "final judgment" scene is likely describing, in it's first century Messianic context, a gathering of people, faithful and unfaithful, who had died prior to and during AD70 while the reign of the Old Covenant administration was still in place. 

Yes, I said that correctly. There is no reason to describe this gathering and separating as a description of a singular, "final judgment" of all people at the end of all time. Rather, in context, it is exponentially more likely to be describing the time of the promised end in which the New Covenant would be administered throughout the world without hindrance by those insisting upon life under the Old Covenant administration. 

As I have noted throughout my exposition of Matthew's Gospel,  Jesus was very clear about "the end" taking place in that generation. The harvest where reaping and gathering takes place is in "the end of the age," the same "end" described throughout this Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere (e.g. I Cor 10:11; Heb 9:26).

















Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Remembrances of Wilma


Below is a very brief speech I gave at my Grandmother's recent funeral service during the time when family and friends went up to the podium to offer any remembrances they had of Wilma:

I want to share with you a few things about Wilma that left a huge impression upon my life. (And for those of you who don't know, I am Wilma and Cyril's second oldest grandson.) 
The first thing about Wilma that I remember is that she radiated generosity, thoughtfulness, loyalty, and love--so much so, in fact, that as I reflected upon the last few days since hearing about Wilma falling asleep in the Lord, it dawned on me just how difficult all people are to love. In general, I think all people are difficult to love. I am difficult to love. All of us here, and also those in this wide world around us, are difficult to love. And Wilma was no perfect exception to that rule. Nonetheless, because of Wilma's generosity, thoughtfulness, loyalty, and love--virtues which all of us here know were characteristic of her--she was that rare someone who I found difficult to not love. In 35 years of knowing the real and raw person of Wilma, her virtues vastly outshined what makes ordinary people difficult to love.  
In all these years I have had many memories with Wilma, from conversations in person and many phone calls, to lots of hand-written cards mailed to my doorstep. (Those of you who ever received a card from her know that she would always personally address the recipient, and never forget to include a passage or two or three from the Scriptures to meditate upon, even as she had done while writing the card.) Again, as I was reflecting this week, I realized that it is really common to think of people you spend a lot of time with as "good" people. As memories are shared and piled up together over time with particular people you enjoy, it's common to think of them as good people. But you know you have found a rare gem when you can look back and identify someone as wise. And from my perspective, Wilma is one of them. It was as though proverbial Wisdom flowed through her veins. The wisdom of God's word was so obviously dear to her that in every single encounter with her that I can remember, I can't honestly describe them as being merely with a good person. Wilma was far more than good. She had what James describes as the "wisdom from above." And that seems, at least to me, to be an increasingly rare description of how people are remembered in these days. 
This brings me to another aspect in which Wilma left a significant impression: God's handwriting was written large through her life. The apostle Paul mentions that Christians ought to be living epistles read by all men. I have known a lot of Christians throughout my life, and, sadly, I am not very comfortable describing the majority of them as living epistles. At best, most of whom I know are living chapters or verses. Not Wilma though. She was living epistles (plural). She made room for God to speak into every area of her life. And she listened. She seriously considered it, wrestling with it and submitting to it.  
Equally beautiful was her willingness to make room for others as well. Through her life, countless numbers of people were invited to taste and see how good the Lord is. Through her thoughtfulness, generosity, loyalty, and love, people came to know God. By imbibing and indwelling the wise life--and not merely the good life--countless people who encountered her encountered true life in Christ. God's handwriting was indeed written large through her life.  
Finally, I just want to share with you all that, in my eyes, Wilma was a Saint. By God's grace, she was a saint. Little did I know, as a small child, that I sat on the lap of a Saint. Books were read to me by a Saint. Hand-written letters and birthday cards were written to me by a Saint. Grocery shopping, car riding, movie watching, church gathering, meal preparing, and perhaps most memorable of all--holiday feasting--were all shared with a Saint. And as I like to think about all the Saints who I know for certain are with the Lord in glory, I can confidently share with us all that because of her beautiful and faithful life lived in Christ, Wilma is feasting at a better table now. Thanks be to God.








Monday, September 3, 2018

Living Epistle (A poem for Wilma Sedlak)







As I write these things my Grandmother, Wilma, is dying. She has reached the point of no return. There is no hope in her being miraculously preserved to live a handful of more years in her mortal body. She has already lived past ninety years. Now she is hospitalized, and unresponsive, yet still alive as of right now. She will die.

I love Wilma. She radiated God's generosity, thoughtfulness, and loyal love. As the only Grandmother I ever knew (my birth mother's side being entirely unknown to me), proverbial Wisdom echoed in every room she resided, in every phone call, in every note and hand-written card. God's handwriting was written large through her life. A "Living Epistle" read by all, is an apt description of all memories I have of her.

I spoke with her last week on the phone. I'm so very glad I answered the phone that day. She lives very far away from me, but very soon she will be nearer than most Christians realize, being with Eternal Life, Who is much nearer than most realize. 

I am at peace with her impending death. Death actually isn't her end. It is for many of us, but certainly not hers. She will continue to live beyond the moment her frail, mortal body "gives up" its life. She will continue to live beyond mortal death because, in Christ, there is no mortality, no eternal death. There is only eternal life, because Christ is God, and only in God is life-eternal, and only through Jesus Christ our God has eternal death been defeated and eternal life secured. Outside of Christ, there is just this mortal life, and just this mortal death. I'm not the judge of those outside of Christ. I'm not even the judge of those inside of Christ. I'm merely expressing, with absolute certainty, that Wilma's life has testified, and continues witnessing to participation in Eternal Life, here and now, and not in eternal death. 

"In dying, you shall die" was the warning given to human life. In Jesus, the resurrected Christ, there is no more warning--only blessing--saying, "In dying, you shall be raised with Me to life."

So then, what else could I say, given my convictions about the life and death of my grandmother? 

Well, I actually have a poem I wrote recently, inspired by a Byzantine hymn that is sung regularly in the Eastern Church, that I'd like to share, too. Consider it a meditation on what I have noted above, and a pattern of thoughts woven through many of my convictions, hopes, and dreams, all keeping my thoughts in balance in the midst of life's real turmoils:



In dying you will die
Do good
In dying you will die

Don't ask why
Do good
Don't ask why

Don't question who
Do good
Don't question who

There are no but's
Do good
There are no but's

Don't pretend to know better
Do good
Don't pretend to know better

Don't deflect
Don't ignore
Just do good

How, you ask? 

Imagine God
Becoming human
So that you can become divine

Participating
Sharing
Communing 

In the Divine Life
For ever
And ever

Who fashioned you 
Out of nothingness
With the work of His hands

Who honored you 
With the Divine Image 
The likeness of Unutterable Glory.

Whose loyal love cleanses you
Whose homeland of your heart’s desire 
Is bestowed on you






Saturday, August 18, 2018

Loving to Know






What does it take?
...
To reach the point of no return
To say, I can't anymore
I don't even want to anymore
I need You
I want You
For ever more than now
Don't fix things for me—Fix me
Fix all of me or none of me
In Your mercy exact justice
I trust Your judgment—I don't trust mine
I deserve it
What ever that is 

I'm more than a fool
Lost without You
Leading others astray from the Holy
Feet running swiftly toward the void
None of my paths are peace
I only know how to survive
And not very well
When You serve me justice I will need more 

That stream which I poisoned
How can it be purified?
I don't trust my passions
I don't trust in flesh anymore
I used You as my crutch 
I polluted wells
For fun or out of spite
You were elevator music to me
I never had to learn Your rhythm
You were just there in the background
For my listening pleasure
Or to annoy me
As evil as that sounds
It's true 

Now I don't want to live without You
Have mercy on me
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies
Heal my soul
For I have sinned against You
Give me life or give me death
I know what I deserve
Whatever You choose
Do so for the sake of Your name alone
My name isn't worthy
Uproot and plant anew
Kill and make alive

As You wish
Thy will be done
Not mine
I just want what You want
Happy is he that findeth
Happy is he that getteth
Happy is he that retaineth
Happy is he
...
What must I do now? 










Filling the Void







Wisdom hurts 
Like a broken nose
It cannot be touched lightly
Its damage is done
It can’t be unspoken
Rewinding the clock doesn’t heal its bruising
Even without batteries it keeps ticking
Only more can be spoken 
Even its silence is speech 
Beware of its soft words 
Many bones are broken by them
Its quietude is as cloaked daggers
That which has been done in silence is worthy of the Father
To possess this Word is to hear its silence
For it acts through what is spoken
And is known through its silence
Its mysteries were loudly proclaimed
Yet are accomplished in the silence of God







Sunday, July 29, 2018

Matthew 11:29






Expose the dishonest
Listen to the self-deceived
Confront the rebel
Support the surrendered
Bring low the pride of the haughty
Offer forgiveness for the guilt-crushed
Abolish the schemes of nations
Provide hope for the despairing 
Humble the exalted
Exalt the humble
Ransom the prisoners
Comfort the discouraged
Impoverish those rich by corruption
Enrich the poor in spirit
Turn back those who wander
Destroy and make alive
Die for the sake of others
Practice resurrection like Jesus







Monday, July 9, 2018

St Maximos the Confessor & God wisely dividing the ages





The following excerpt is from a very recent translation of St Maximos the Confessor’s (ca. 580-662) Responses to Thalassios, the Libyan abbot of a monastic community, probably in Carthage, whose letter to Maximos contained a lengthy series of questions, requesting written interpretations (p. 8).

What is presented below is (at least in my own estimation) one of the most profound responses to the eschatological question, “If God in the coming ages will show his riches (Ephesians 2:7), how is it that the ends of the ages have come upon us (I Corinthians 10:11)?”

Here is the written response by St Maximos:
He who brought all visible and invisible creation into being solely through the momentum of His will, had in His good counsel determined—before all ages and even before the very genesis of created beings—an ineffably good plan for his creations. And this plan was for Him to be mingled, without change, with human nature through a true union according to hypostasis, uniting human nature, without alteration, to Himself, so that He would become man—in a manner known to Him—and at the same time make man God through union with Himself, and thus He wisely divided the ages, determining that some would be for the activity of His becoming man, and others for the activity of making man God.  
Thus, inasmuch as the actual “ends of the ages” predetermined for Him to become man “have come upon us”—since the divine purpose of the Incarnation has been fulfilled through the events themselves—the divine Apostle, having carefully examined this, and seeing that the end of the ages intended for God to become man had come about through the very Incarnation of the Word of God, says: “The ends of the ages have come upon us”—not simply “the ages” as we ordinarily understand them, but clearly those which, intended for the actualization of the mystery of embodiment, have reached their proper limit, according to the purpose of God. 
Since, then, the “end of the ages”, predetermined according to God’s purpose to become man, “has come upon us”—inasmuch as God has in truth actualized and brought to completion His own perfect Incarnation—we must henceforth await those other ages that are to come for the actualization of the mystical and ineffable divinization of human beings, in which "God will show the overflowing riches of His goodness to us,” completely and actively effecting divinization in those who are worthy. For if He Himself reached the limit of his mystical activity of becoming man,—becoming like us in every way but without sin, and having descended into the lowermost parts of the earth to where the tyranny of sin had driven man—then there will certainly also be a limit of God’s mystical activity for the divinization of man in every way (with the obvious sole exception of any identification of man with God’s essence), making man like Himself and raising him beyond all the heavens, to where the natural grandeur of grace dwells and calls fallen man through the infinity of goodness. And this is what the great Apostle mystically teaches when he says: “in the ages to come, the overflowing riches of God’s goodness will be shown to us.”1


1. St Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios 
(The Fathers of the Church, Volume 136), Translated by Fr Maximos Constas; Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018; pp. 150-151