We’re faced with an interesting situation this weekend. Usually, it’s the Old Testament 1st reading that’s all fire and brimstone, and then Jesus gives us a parable that presents a new perspective that we can sink our teeth into. Well, today we’ve got the reverse happening.
This particular gospel reading has always been a challenge for me. Luke has the same story in his gospel but, for some reason, Matthew adds a whole bunch of gory parts, and I think it kind of overwhelms the real message. It’s fair to ask, why does Matthew’s gospel take such a negative tone?
I suppose it boils down to this - Matthew, like all of us, is a creature of his times, and when he was writing his gospel, it was a very violent and uncertain time for the Jewish people, as well as the emerging Christian church.
The evangelists, and the gospel writers in particular, felt an urgency to get through to the people. The end is near. Repent or die. That kind of thing. And in this case, I think Matthew’s zeal comes through too strongly and completely overshadows Jesus’ message.
Don’t get me wrong, we can’t ignore the urgency in the call to repentance. In a few more chapters, Matthew hits the nail on the head when he writes “you know neither the day nor the hour.” We should always act as though our next breath will be our last.
But I also think that Matthew almost wants to scare us into repentance. Fear that we will be culled, fear that we will be found unworthy, fear that we will be uninvited to the party, so to speak.
And this is my first point - responding to Jesus’ message can never be a reaction to fear of something else. We can’t be looking over our shoulder saying, “well, I definitely don’t want that, so I guess this will do.” It doesn’t work that way.
Fear never leads to commitment. With fear, when things get difficult, we’ll simply move on to the next thing that we fear less. We run the risk of allowing ourselves to become this leaf that just gets blown around wherever the wind takes it.
The gospel, really the whole bible, is a message of love. It’s an invitation into an intimate relationship where we find fulfillment and joy beyond our wildest expectations. It’s an invitation into a love that has no boundaries.
But if we’re following Jesus simply out of fear of the alternative, then we need to reevaluate our faith. Our faith, first and foremost, needs to be an act of love. A response to the unconditional love God first offered us.
There’s an important word there though - act. It needs to be a choice that we make. We need to say that we want it, but at the same time, like all choices in life, we are saying no to other things. We must pick God’s path and follow him.
So, first thought - we must make a choice, but we need to do it out of love, not fear.
Let’s shift our focus to the first reading because it’s easier to understand. And it gets to my second point, which is - if we’re being asked to make a choice, why choose God?
And I think it’s a fair question. This isn’t like Let’s Make a Deal where there’s some mystery prize hidden behind door number three. It doesn’t work that way. Remember that love is based on truth. And for us to love God, we need to see what he’s offering. He needs to reveal himself - show us who he really is.
And this is the alternative that God reveals. Instead of a world of haves and have-nots, he offers a place where everyone eats in abundance.
Instead of a world that is separated - by color, by political beliefs, by sexual orientation, and in a million other ways - he offers a place where everyone is treated equally and exceptionally well.
Instead of a world that is divided by death, both literally and the little deaths that we suffer inside ourselves every day, he offers a place that is free of tears.
Salvation isn’t some nebulous concept. Salvation means becoming whole. It means sharing at table and loving one another and God fully. Salvation elevates us above the petty arguments that litter our everyday life. This is what is being offered to us.
The bible is really just one big love story where God the Father, Son and Spirit reveal themselves to us. They tell us about the feast that we are being invited to.
The Eastern churches call this theosis. We were created by God out of love and sent into the world where we have the opportunity to choose to love God above all else. And when we’re out here, he shows us who he is, so that we can choose to complete the circle and return to the center of this Trinitarian love story.
We are the last piece of the puzzle that completes the picture - if we choose it.
One last point, if I may. God isn’t speaking to us in the future tense where we promise our love now and are offered something in return at a later time. Offering a gift with the understanding of future promises is called bribery - and God doesn’t do bribery.
While the fullness of the promise will come later, we are able to experience some of it today. And this is the heart of the Christian life. By choosing to love God, we choose to make the promises come to life here and now on earth, as much as we are able.
Where we see division, we become the hands of God and create unity. Where we see poverty and inequity, we work to eliminate it. Where we see death, we offer life. They will know we are Christians by our love.
There are a lot of layers in what we’ve heard today in the readings, and I encourage you all during the week to take a few minutes and look at the readings again. Ask yourself what you are being called to do. Ask what it means to be called to the feast. Ask God for the courage to choose what he offers each of us and strength to act on it. Amen.