Exodus 22-24, Psalm 24, Matthew 25
Whatever you do for the least of these, you have done for me
Exodus 22 – 24
On my second day of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I left the town of Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees Mountains and headed toward the town of Auritz/Burguete in Navarra, where Ernest Hemingway used to lodge and spend his days fishing for trout.
Before entering Aurtiz/Burguete, I passed through a forest called “El Bosque de Sorginaritzaga,” which literally means “the Oakwood of witches.” It was here in the sixteenth century that some of Europe’s most well-known witches covens were held, which led to nine people being burned at the stake. Perhaps they were just trying to carry out the command from Exodus 22:18, “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.”
These writings are well over 2,500 years old. They come from a culture where violence ruled the day, men were in charge, every tribe worshipped different gods and slavery was commonplace. No matter how bad some of these principles appear to be, they were a marked improvement over the rule of the land before the Israelites introduced them.
Think of an attic full of really old things when you read through these chapters. Some of the things that you will encounter as you rummage through should be cast out. They are from a time long past, and they no longer serve a useful purpose. Some never served a good purpose. Others are treasures or things that are as useful today and way back when.
Were all of these laws created by God? I think not. Were some of them created and inspired by God? I think so. When we read them, we have to sort through what is worth maintaining and what can be discarded, just as if we were cleaning an attic. What appears crucial to the author of Exodus is to be devoted to Yahweh, God of the Israelites and avoid syncretism, which is the combining of different, often seemingly contradictory beliefs. Americans are good at this.
Some of us like to mix and match our religious beliefs, taking a bit of Buddhism, a dash of Hinduism and mixing in some Christianity and Judaism. The problem is that we often allow ourselves to play God, putting ourselves at the center of this spiritual creation instead of God and ending up with a religious hodge-podge that is not much of anything other than our own doing.
Judaism takes a far more exclusivist approach, shunning the mixing and matching of beliefs and religious traditions. To this day, most Jewish religious communities discourage marrying outside of the faith. There are only 12 million Jews in the world as compared with two billion Christians. Many rabbis fear that marriage outside the faith will eventually eliminate Judaism, the oldest of the three Abrahamic faiths and the most vulnerable.
Hence the goal of religious rules such as are found in Exodus 22-24 is to keep Judaism functioning in a strong manner while avoiding the faith being distorted by merging it with different religious beliefs practiced by the tribes sharing the land with the Israelites. It is a matter of self-preservation and helping a community and religious people to cohere.
The authors were adamant that foreigners were to be treated well. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 22:21) The Israelites were to insure that the punishment dealt to them by Egyptian taskmasters will not be meted out in turn on aliens living in Palestine. “If you abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry,” says God. (Ex. 22:23)
God favors the lowly and oppressed. This is a theme that runs through the entire Bible. God champions little people, vulnerable individuals and groups, the poor, the widow and the orphan, the blind and the lame, anyone who is marginalized physically, racially, economically, sexually or by gender or age. God champions the underdogs and those who are marginalized by life.
“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits” (Matt. 23:6) and “You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (Matt. 23:8). These are treasures found in the Old Testament attic which are as useful and important today as when they were first uttered by God 2,500 years ago.
Note that the Israelites were commanded to give to God the “first fruits” of their labor, not their leftovers. One of the key lessons for a Christian is to give first to God and then take care of the needs of our family and ourselves, our charities, savings, hobbies and interests. One of the most common mistakes Christians make is to seek a “spiritual” relationship with God that does not cost them a thing. “I’m interested in being spiritual,” or “feeling more spiritual,” but we imagine that everything in our wallet belongs to us.
One of the ways that the Israelites manifested their relationship with God and one of the ways God commanded them to honor their Covenant with God was to share a tithe or ten percent of all their labor and the first fruits of it, not what was leftover, with God. “The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.” (Ex. 23:19)
You and I simply cannot seek and find God, if we want to keep our money, time and talent apart from God any more than we could develop a serious relationship with someone and say, “My money, time and gifts and talents will never be shared with you.” Your relationship will not go far.
To enter into a relationship means to share and to commit. God told Moses, “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” (Ex. 23:20) By honoring this relationship and refusing to bow down before strange gods, God promises Moses, “I will bless your bread and your water; I will take sickness away from among you. No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.” (Ex. 23:25-26)
God warns the Israelites to make no covenant with the people around them, but instead to rely upon Yahweh, their God, alone. “Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.” (Ex. 23:30) The books of Judges and Joshua, which follow the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible, explain how the Israelites took over Canaan in two very different ways.
According to the book of Judges, God helped the Israelites “little by little” to “drive [other tribes and peoples] out from before [the Israelites], until” the Israelites had increased and possessed the land. Meanwhile, the book of Joshua, tells the story of Joshua, the great military leader, staging a blitzkrieg to invade and take over Palestine. Which story is the correct one? Scholars continue to debate it, but a slow process of assimilation is thought to be more likely than a blitzkrieg.
St. Augustine assigned values of heaviness or weight to various things that humans love. God, honesty, truth, faithfulness, chastity, forgiveness, grace, purity, honor, integrity, selflessness, compassion, caring for the poor, generosity, and patience, are light things. If we love them, we will love and attach ourselves to light things, they will not hold us down, but rather they will lift us up and cause us to ascend.
If, however, we love lust, gambling, lying, adultery, stealing, hoarding money, selfish behavior and gluttony, we will love and attach ourselves to heavy things that will weigh us down to the earth. As a result, we will not ascend to God. Anyone who knows anything about the spiritual life knows the validity of what St. Augustine was describing. It is true.
You cannot carouse in bars all day, play the slot machines and craps tables, smoke heavily and pollute the body, drink and eat excessively, hoard money, refuse to volunteer and help others and steal from those around you and be on a spiritual journey that is leading you forward. It simply is not going to happen. The psalmist puts it this way:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and so not swear deceitfully…” (Ps. 24:3-4)
It must have been wonderful traveling with Jesus and listening to him as he told stories. Clearly, there were hardships along the way – much travel, being besieged by people begging for help, needing to feed the multitudes and staying up all night assisting Jesus as he healed those who suffered. There were also risks incurred in traveling to areas where Jews normally never ventured and knowing that Roman authorities could arrest them at any moment, just as they had tossed John the Baptist in prison.
Story-telling, however, must have been highlights along the way. Chapter 25 offers two parables and a judgment those words have motivated Christians for nearly two thousand years. Each stands alone, but together they strengthen the Jesus’s overall message that each of us is called to serve.
The first is a scene so common that it has occurred countless times in more than three millennia. It was customary in Palestine for the groom to try to surprise the bridesmaids and enter a village at an unexpected hour. He had to send someone ahead of him heading shouting, “The bridegroom is coming! The bridegroom is coming!” If the bridesmaids or other members of the wedding party could not be roused and ready on time, the doors where the celebration were being held would be locked, and they would be left outside and miss all of the joy and festivities.
This parable speaks to our own need to be ready when Jesus enters our lives, whether it be the day of the Second Coming, or when Jesus comes to us in our home, at work, at school, in a hospital room or while we are visiting with a friend or walking along the beach in the summer. Will we be found doing Jesus’s work and caring for Jesus’s people, or will Jesus find us doing nothing to serve him or engaged in some activity so compromising that it will bring judgment down upon our head?
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids also reminds us that we cannot put off some things in life to the last moment or trade off the hard work and efforts of others. Building spiritual capital is one of them. Building spiritual capital is like investing in a 401K or retirement plan. You cannot reach the age of 64 and plan to retire in less than 12 months and start to build a decent retirement fund. You start this as soon as possible. When you retire, all your hard work pays off and allows you to enter retirement in a good position.
The same is true as we face adversity and challenges, especially our own death. I have witnessed people approach death with enormous fear. Almost always, they are the ones who spent few hours in church, few moments reading the Bible, few occasions on their knees in prayer and few opportunities in Christian fellowship. Their faith is like a 401K plan that was opened but never filled. It is worth almost nothing. They face the end of life almost in terror, having little confidence that anything exists beyond the grave. Their fear unsettles those around them. Yet, it is too late to build a strong faith when death approaches.
Nor can we rely on the faith of others and use their spiritual capital as our own. We can trade frequent flyer miles and give someone travel miles to take a trip, but we cannot pass along our spiritual capital like a bank transfer from one account to the other. When we face adversity and at the time of our own death, we will come up short if we think that we can rely on another’s faith to comfort and guide us. Jesus uses this parable to encourage us to be ready and to invest regularly in building our spiritual reservoir so that we will have significant faith resources like oil for ours lamps when we must walk forward into the dark moments of life.
The Parable of the Talents is another classic parable. Note these three things. Resources are not evenly divided. Some people receive more than others, whether they are more intelligent, are raised with more advantages, receive more talents or benefit from better parenting, coaching and teaching. Life is not fair. What matters, is what we do with what we have been given, not how much we have received.
Second, there is accountability. We live in an unaccountable culture. “I’m not responsible for failing the test. It was my parent’s fault for not making me study more, my brother’s fault for inviting me to watch TV and my teacher’s fault for not explaining things clearly. I am not to blame.” Our culture increasingly functions like this. Criminals are not at fault. They are victims of a bad society which drove them do awful things. Corrupt politicians are not at fault. The system corrupted them. On and on it goes. No one wants to take responsibility. God, however, expects us to be accountable for our actions.
Third, there is judgment. Just as we do not like accountability, people today want life and faith without judgment. The Church has probably overdone judgment. I have enough former Roman Catholics who feel riddled with a lifetime of judgment and guilt to fill our church three times over. But judgment is part of accountability. In the Parable of the Talents, the “man, going on a journey” returns to judge how each of his stewards has done with what has been entrusted to them. To those who have exercised their talents wisely, he distributes more. To the one who buried his talent and did nothing with it, he removes what he has been given and offers it to those who know how to use it.
Talents are meant to be used for others. If we hoard our gifts and use them only to make ourselves happy, God will not increase the gifts that have been given to us. But if we partner with God and use our talents to bless others and serve Jesus, God, like a wise investor, will increase our gifts and talents so that the kingdom of heaven might flourish among us. God invests even better than Warren Buffet.
We then come to one of the most classic passages in the Bible. Jesus describes how when the Son of Man, a term for the Messiah, comes in his glory surrounded by angels and sitting on the throne of glory, he will separate the sheep from the goats. Episcopalians are notorious for disliking judgment. We envision a God who is soft, genteel and so well-mannered that he is unlikely to judge any of us. God might make a few suggestions or correct how we eat or dress, but God would not judge us. No, no.
The truth is that God has high expectations for us, and so does the Church. If you have any doubt, just reread the Church’s Baptismal Covenant found in The Book of Common Prayer. (pp. 304-305) “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching…?” “Will you persevere in resisting evil…?” “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons…?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people…?” These are very high expectations!
Jesus tells us that the “king” or God will tell those who serve him, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:35-36) Not realizing that they had seen the king and done this for the king, the listeners asked when this occurred.
The king responded, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40) We may never directly provide Jesus with a warm coat, a place to sleep for the night, food to fill his cupboard, drink to quench his thirst or visit him in prison, but if we do this for others who are struggling or living in hopeless conditions, we have done it for Jesus.
Throughout history the Roman Catholic Church has taught that we encounter Christ when we serve the poor. This is absolutely true. We find Jesus in the face of every needy person, whether they live in poverty or happen to be our impoverished neighbor or family member going through a time of unrelenting struggle. Whatever we do for the least of these, we will have done for Jesus. How much are you doing for those who struggle to get by each day?
American Christians by and large study the Bible more than they probably need to do. I recently heard about members of a Bible study in another church, who had been studying the Bible for over a decade and still many of them had significant doubts about their faith. Jesus does not call us to study the Bible year after year like a book of endless fascination and keep it at a ten-foot distance from our daily life. Jesus invites us to read the Word and put the Word into action. It is only by doing that we experience God’s presence and become Christians.
You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 22:21)
The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. (Ex. 23:19)
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom that was 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:34-36)
Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matt. 25:40)
Ask God to honor the time that you take to read the Bible each day and to help you discern which messages are most important. Invite God to help you to put these lessons into action in your life. The Bible is not a book about how other people led their lives. It is a book that inspires how we can lead our lives today.
In what ways do you care for the lowly and the oppressed? Are you giving the Church the first fruits of your life in terms of financial support and the gift of your time, talents and energy to do God’s work, or are you merely tipping God like a cosmic waiter or giving the Body of Christ leftovers after you have distributed to everything else in your life? What are the things that you love in life? Are they heavy or light? Will they cause you to ascend towards God and descend towards earth? If Jesus returned today, would you be ready for him to enter your life? Is it likely that he would catch you doing something that you would regret being found doing? What are you doing to build a spiritual reservoir to draw from in times of adversity and as you face your own morality one day?
Gracious God, life is rich and filled with blessings, but the gifts given here are finite and each life draws one day to its natural close. We know not how many days we shall inhabit this earth and share with our loved ones and you. Help us to build a spiritual reservoir each day to draw upon in times of need and to be mindful of every opportunity to care for those in greater need, for in doing so we shall encounter your son Jesus. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania