Gnostic America

December 5, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Monday of Advent 1: The Mount of Olives

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Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives…

We brought up yesterday that the Mount of Olives was a place of messianic expectation. By Jesus beginning His grand entry at the Mount of Olives, He was making a statement (as He was by selecting a donkey, which we’ll investigate next devotion). He was fulfilling the prophecy from Zechariah 14.

Here are selections from the prophecy, with brief commentary:

Behold, the day of the LORD is coming, And your spoil will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem; The city shall be taken, The houses rifled, And the women ravished. Half of the city shall go into captivity, But the remnant of the people shall not be cut off from the city.

The day of the Lord is not a specific, single day. It’s what St. Paul was referring to when he wrote, “Behold, now is the day of salvation.” What is the day of the Lord? It’s Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, every Sunday following, every communion, every day of repentance on the part of believers, the return of Christ. It’s the one day of Christ’s salvation administered in time through the ministry of the Gospel.

So, the “nations” battling against Jerusalem has multiple fulfillments, including Roman in 70 AD but still including the antithetical secular nations of today. In every age the Lord will have His remnant. The idea of a “remnant” is a reoccurring prophetic theme. They shall not be cut off from the city, from the Church.

This sets up Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem, and we can see how. The great spiritual battle about to occur centers on earthly personages like Jesus, of course, unfaithful Jews like Caiaphas, and a representative of the “nations” in Pontius Pilate. The sheep will scatter (a prophecy from Zechariah 13 fulfilled when the disciples – and all Israel, so to speak – scattered at Jesus’ arrest), but Jesus will gather His remnant.

Then the LORD will go forth And fight against those nations, As He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, Which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, From east to west, Making a very large valley; Half of the mountain shall move toward the north And half of it toward the south.

Jesus had come to the Mount of Olives before, but He sat down there. Perhaps it was with some apprehensive expectation that the disciples saw Jesus ascend the Mount of Olives, only to sit down, but still they were moved to ask Him about the end times. His sitting there put them in that sort of mind. This is the set up for Jesus’ great teaching on the last days. It’s like a coach going over a game plan on the field of play the day before the big game.

But on Palm Sunday, we have what appears tdo be the big event. Jesus is fighting against the nations, and it begins on the Mount of Olives. Consider, already at His trial Jesus told Pilate, “Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” And following His death and resurrection, Christ has most certainly overpowered several mighty nations, from Rome to modern communism, and ultimately western secularism. But it was not earthly weapons, rather the Gospel which has done so.

The splitting of the mountain is interesting, alluding perhaps to the splitting of the rocks leading to the resurrection of saints, or to the tearing of the curtain in the temple, or even to the splitting of Christ’s side, from which the waters flowed.

And in that day it shall be – That living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, Half of them toward the eastern sea And half of them toward the western sea; In both summer and winter it shall occur. And the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be “The LORD is one,” And His name one.

The living water flowing from Jerusalem, from the temple, was fulfilled with Christ’s giving of His Holy Spirit in the waters flowing from His side. On Pentecost, from Jerusalem, the Spirit given out at His death came down and was administered by the apostles through baptism, and the calling of the Lord’s name. For, as Peter preached, Jesus is “King over all the earth,” or in his words, “Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.”

Those words culminated in the waters of baptism, a baptism in the “one” name of the Lord, the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is a loaded prophecy that ties in much from the Gospel, and explains why Jesus began the most holy week ever on the Mount of Olives. That’s where the battle began.

 

December 5, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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The First Sunday in Advent: The Many Comings of Christ

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The Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, the traditional Palm Sunday Gospel, sets the tone for the season of Advent.  Advent uses the first coming of Christ to set our minds on the second coming of Christ, anchoring it on the coming of Christ for His ultimate mission, in Jerusalem, while also hooking it into the present coming of Christ, in the Sacrament. In short, few texts better spell out why Advent is called Advent, which in Latin means “coming.”

We lose focus on what Advent is about if we see it merely as a built up to Christmas. Historically, the Advent fast was first connected with the fast of baptismal candidates leading up to the date of their baptism, on Epiphany (January 6). Advent became more connected with Christmas as Christmas itself rose in prominence, in the late fourth century. This moment in history is significant, because it was during this time that the Church was debating the Person of Christ. Christmas became important for its theological meaning: God was truly come in flesh in the Person of Christ, from conception on.

On those terms, Advent too took on that same important meaning. It’s interesting to note the first reference to Advent as a feast day was at a council that also condemned the Gnostic heresy of Priscillianism. Priscillianism, typical of Gnosticism, believed in two realms, a realm of light and a realm of darkness. Being spirits of “God” fallen into material bodies, the goal of human existence was to leave behind the realm of materiality and darkness. Interestingly, Priscillians fasted on Sunday and Christmas Day. Perhaps orthodox Christians were making a statement by setting the time of fasting as Advent, and the time of feasting on Christmas Day.

This would follow Christ’s words, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” The question is, is Christ truly “with us” on our days of feasting, as we confess by our feasting? If He is present, He is there in the flesh and blood. Christmas celebrates God’s coming in flesh; Sunday celebrates His coming in flesh and blood. The time leading up to this “coming” is indeed a time of fasting.

But lest “coming” become nothing more than esoteria about the mystery of God’s coming in human flesh, the Palm Sunday Gospel starkly reminds us what the goal of the “coming” was ultimately all about. He came to go to Jerusalem, to be the sacrifice for sins, to die there. That detail nicely ties together all the other comings.

His first coming on Christmas emphasizes that Jesus is God in human flesh. In Jesus, God and man are at peace, and for this reason, the angels can testify to the peace on earth.

His second coming, chronologically speaking, was to Jerusalem. There, the children sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” “Hosanna” is Jesus’ name turned into a prayer, “Please be Jesus, our Savior, for us.” As the angel said in Matthew’s Gospel, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” And then we learn how Jesus will actually bring about the peace that He has with God to others. He will give out the very flesh and blood in which was that peace between God and man. He will give us His flesh, and take on our sin.

His third coming is His coming in the liturgy. There, we join the angels testifying to the mystery of God in human flesh, singing, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace goodwill toward men.” We also join the throngs on Palm Sunday, praying for Jesus to give to us that same peace the angels testified to at His birth (a testimony we joined in the Gloria in Excelsis). When the minister presents the body and blood of our Lord and says, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” we are close to this third coming, this culmination of Christmas and Calvary.

His fourth coming, or traditionally His “Second Coming” will be a coming not in weakness, but in power. Palm Sunday also points forward to this coming, as this is what the people thought Jesus would be doing that Sunday, inaugurating His kingdom. We get this from the prophet Zechariah, who describes the coming of the Lord thus, “Then the LORD will go forth And fight against those nations, As He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, Which faces Jerusalem on the east.”

This puts some form on the sort of expectation we should have for Jesus’ second coming. As we meditated on recently, the second coming is not intended to be a thing of fear for believers, but a thing of wonderful fulfillment of our expectations. Jesus is coming to defeat our enemies, sin, death, and the devil! He has done so by dying on the cross and rising again, and He will finalize that victory one day when He raises us from the dead and removes “all things that cause us to sin,” and finally throws the devil into the lake of fire forever.

This also helps us understand the liturgy as a rehearsal for the last day, or, the Lord’s Day, on which each liturgy occurs. Jesus is coming. He is coming to save His people. Our prayer to Him is, “Hosanna!” or “Please be Jesus our Savior for us!” And He is. How? By communicating, or sharing with us, that mystery of peace attained by His first coming, when the angels testified of Him that with His nativity there is peace on earth.

On the last day, Jesus is coming to get His own, to save His own flesh, to love His neighbor as He loves Himself.

December 3, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Saturday of the Last Sunday after Trinity: The Day and Hour of Christ’s Return

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…for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.

To say, “you don’t know when the Son of Man is coming” is slightly different than saying “you don’t know when the Son of Man will come.” The latter emphasizes the futureness of Jesus’ return. Jesus will come in the future, and you don’t know when that’s happening. It could, in fact, very likely, it will come well after your death. Isn’t that how most of us hear that?

The early church was a bit more optimistic and hopeful about His immediate return, but that was only because they didn’t have 2,000 years of experience to realize this could go on for, well, millennia. So we’re perhaps a bit more cynical. Jesus might return in our lifetimes, but very likely, our lives will come and go without His return.

The former way of speaking, the way Jesus in fact does speak in the Gospel, has a different sense. There’s no futureness there. It’s, “He is coming.” It’s present tense! He is coming in each of our lives. It’s as imminent an event as the present tense.

This also fits the way St. Peter speaks about Christ’s return, when he writes, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” The implication of this verse is that the Lord, though taking a bit longer, will in fact return within the lives of those Peter’s writing to, which happens to be the entire Church.

Jesus is delaying His return, Peter writes, to give everyone a chance to repent. But, surely there were some among his audience who died prior to Christ’s return. Of course, every one of them died prior to Christ’s return. Wouldn’t that nullify Peter’s argument, that Jesus is delaying His return to give them all a chance to repent?

We could put it this way. Jesus has given Peter’s target audience at least 2,000 years and counting to repent! What do we do with the fact that they all died well before Christ’s return? How does Peter’s argument even make sense?

The fact is, Jesus is returning in each of our lifetimes, so each one of us should ever be ready for His return, and alert to His coming, and in a state of repentance. How so? Because each of us will witness the return of Christ within our lifetimes, that’s why. It will be the last thing we see in this world. How can this case be made?

Jesus says that the one who believes in Him will neither see nor taste death. He says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” When the Jews challenged Him on this, they changed “see death” to “taste death.” We will not die. Well, let’s clarify that. Any Christian will not see or taste death. He will die – all of us will see him die. But he himself will not see or taste death. He will see “Christ’s day” just as Abraham did, as Jesus said in this same section, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Abraham didn’t taste or see death either. He saw “Christ’s day,” which is the day of His return.

But surely, you say, this was just Abraham seeing Jesus in His glorified state, in that period between death and resurrection. So Abraham was just a spirit floating up to heaven and encountering Christ. That’s not really Christ’s return.

Yet, Jesus is teaching the resurrection here, not the immortality of the soul. And in fact, when the Sadducees challenged Jesus on the resurrection of the flesh, Jesus pointed to the fact of Abraham’s resurrection at the time of Moses (!!) to make His case. As He said, “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

How was Abraham resurrected at the time of Moses? Clearly everyone knew his body was somewhere in the ground in Canaan. Yet Jesus proves the resurrection by citing these words of Moses, “I am the God of [a living/resurrected] Abraham.”

How? Because Abraham didn’t see or taste death, Just as Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day.” That is, Abraham saw the day of Christ’s return, presumably before what we would call “his death.”

This is similar to what happened with Stephan just before he was stoned. He was about to die, but did he see or taste death? No. He saw Christ standing at the right hand of the Father. How can Christ be standing when we confess Him to be – and the Scriptures reveal Him to be – sitting? Well, when will Christ stand again? He will stand again when the “sitting at the right hand of the Father” phase of His creedal existence ends and the “from thence He will come and judge the quick and the dead” phase begins. Stephan saw Jesus coming to judge the quick and the dead. He saw the second coming.

So yes, each of us will see the second coming of Christ. It will be withing the lives of each of us. And for that reason, St. Peter can comfort us that, the reason we’re not dead yet is so that we have time to repent, and also, Jesus can say that we should, all of us!, stay alert because “He is coming” at a time and hour we do not know.

Do any of us know the day and time of our deaths, or at least, what others will see as our deaths?

A man is driving his car. Suddenly a semi trailer veers into his lane from the opposite direction. Lo and behold, just in the nick of time the man hears trumpets, sees heaven opened up, and sees Jesus standing up, calling him up. What a coincidence! But what a joy…especially if he is ready for Christ’s return.

None of us knows the day or hour when Jesus will return, but it will most certainly be in each of our lifetimes.

December 3, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Friday of the Last Sunday after Trinity: The Strange Conclusion of “Watch Therefore”

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Watch therefore…

These two words encapsule the theme of the Gospel. The five foolish virgins did not watch, and that led to their exclusion from the banquet. But what does this mean? After all, the problem, arguably, wasn’t that the virgins didn’t watch, but that they didn’t have reserves of oil. Why does Jesus conclude a parable that begins with tone of “Be sure to have reserves of oil” with “Stay awake and keep your eyes open”? It’s like mixed metaphors. There are two ways we can go with this, two interpreations.

The first interpretation is that “watch” here – despite its meaning – cannot mean “stay awake,” because, as we have seen, the wise virgins fell asleep as well. It means, obviously, to be mindful and prepared, to think about what is needed to be ready for the main mission the virgins had, which was escorting the bridegroom to the wedding.

This is an interpretation that follows how the parable is set up. The five foolish virgins, after all, are introduced as “foolish.” Why? Because they didn’t have reserves of oil.

The interpretation then follows this foundation. The foolish virgins had not oil because they didn’t prepare for the delay. They had enough oil for the immediate coming of the bridegroom, but didn’t factor in that he might be delayed. The wise virgins did, and so brought extra oil. That’s significant. It gives us a focus about what Jesus is teaching here. He’s teaching that He will be delayed, and that we should be prepared for that.

Keep in mind, many early Christians believed Jesus would be returning quickly. Several times in the New Testament there is teaching about how Christians should handle it if in fact Jesus doesn’t return quickly. Here are some other examples:

From Matthew: But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of

From Revelation: When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.

And here’s the most famous one from II Peter: But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

So why is Jesus delayed?

Well, we know He’s going to prepare a place for us. Above we learn the Lord is allowing time for repentance. Finally, there seems to a be a “letting of blood” needed from Christ’s bride, paralleling the requirement for blood to show on the nuptial sheets of the bridegroom and his virgin bride, to prove her purity. Is the same true of Church? Is this the reason for the delay? To purify the Church through martyrdom and test her?

Whatever the case, our task is to be watchful, to consider the requirements for preparation, and to make sure we have reserves of oil. It’s to nurture those things which keep the flame of faith flickering, prayer and God’s Word, attendance at church giving thanks, receiving the sacrament, and so on.

The second interpretation is a bit more surprising and goes with the word Jesus actually used, “watch therefore.” Watch. The word specifically means to stay awake and alert, even to keep ones eyes open. But wait a minute! Didn’t the five wise virgins also sleep? Yes. But perhaps here’s the subtle point. When the bridegroom came, their eyes were filled with light and his face. Meanwhile, the foolish virgins were away from the groom in darkness. The wise virgins were “awake” and “watched” in a way other than simply by not sleeping.

In other words, “awake” isn’t a subjective thing, but an objective thing. It’s not about what was going on with the virgins eyes and state of mind, but rather what was going on with the object of their vision. As long as the bridegroom wasn’t there, it was like a sleep, like night. But as he approached, it was like being made awake.

“Watch therefore” means “keep your eyes filled with Christ.” To have your eyes filled with Christ is being awake. On these terms, the foolish virgin’s foolishness wasn’t so much that they didn’t prepare, but that they left the scene when the bridegroom came! Of course, they felt they had to leave the scene because their duty was to escort him with lighted candle, so that indeed was part of their foolishness.

But, say the foolish virgins stayed put even when their lamps went out. Say they said, “Sorry, sir, but we didn’t bring enough oil. But we’d rather be here for this great moment than not be here.” Would they still have been foolish? One has to believe that if they’d been humble and repentant, the bridegroom would have forgiven them.

Or again, if indeed the “watch therefore” is governed not by the virgins staying awake or not staying awake – because again, they all in fact did fall asleep, even the wise ones – but rather by idea of sticking around when the bridegroom comes, because he himself is the wakefulness of the virgins, then there’s a suggestion that the bridegroom himself had a sort of self-generating light, that the lamps weren’t ultimately needed.

This, indeed, is exactly as the Bible teaches regarding Christ’s return. As Revelation says, “The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light.” In the waiting time, that is, we are “dark,” but when He returns, there will be a revelation of light, or as St. Paul puts it, a “revealing of the sons of God” or the “sons of light.”

So, yes, the lamps of the virgins did provide light, a real light, a needed light as part of their task. But at the end of the day, this light would be swept away like a shadow with the coming of the “light of Light,” our Lord. Should the foolish virgins simply have stayed put and stayed “watchful,” they wouldn’t have been so concerned about their lack of oil, and simply rejoiced in the glory of the bridegroom.

Their foolishness, then, wasn’t that they didn’t have reserves of oil, but that their lack of oil led them away from the bridegroom when they should have stayed put. Again, Jesus’ final word isn’t, “Make sure you have reserves of oil, therefore.” Rather, it’s “Watch, therefore.”

When Jesus returns, He is clear, we should be doing one thing, watching, keeping our eyes open, not fussing about what we need to be doing. Just watch, become filled with light, a light, yes, our eyes have been adjusting too because of the light of faith from our lamps; but in the end, just watch.

 

December 2, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Thursday of the Last Sunday after Trinity: To be Known by the Lord

Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ …“Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

After the five foolish virgins acquire more oil, they come to the banquet. To the groom, they appear as wedding crashers. They weren’t there to escort him to the bride. How would he know who they were? He wouldn’t, as he says, “I do not know you.”

Interesting, but every time the expression is used, “Lord, Lord,” it is in a similar context. It’s always the cry of those who began in faith but for whatever reason lapsed in that faith. Let’s look at the several examples.

The first is from the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”

The second from Matthew is in the parable we are working on: “Lord, Lord, open to us!”

The next two references are from Luke. The first is, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?”

The second is, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ ”

This last verse goes on to suggest those who have this lapsed faith are, in fact, the Jews. These are they who ate and drank in His presence and whose streets Jesus taught in. Gentiles, Jesus says, will eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while they are cast out.

The second last “Lord, Lord” could also reasonably be applied to the Jews. Jesus says, “why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” He goes on to describe two houses, one built on Jesus’ words, and the other not. The one not built on His words He describes thus, “And the ruin of that house was great.” One can’t help but think about the contrast between the Church, the house of the Lord built on Jesus’ words, and the temple, which was in fact ruined in 70 AD.

The first “Lord, Lord” referenced, from the Sermon on the Mount, parallels this previous usage in Luke, and could thus arguably apply to the Jews as well.

What is all this to say, this suggestion that the Jews are the criers of “Lord, Lord” on the last day, who will be told by the Lord that He never knew them? Well, the Jews are the type of those who began in faith, but lapsed in the very moment of their redemption.

Jesus’ coming was for them their possible marriage celebration. John the Baptist was the “friend of the bridegroom” proclaiming the coming of the Lord, preparing the bride through baptism and repentance (virginal purity) for the groom. But their faith had run dry. When the wedding banquet began, they were left in the dark crying “Lord, Lord.”

Yet, the parable is clearly an “in house” parable warning for Christians as well. For Jesus’ conclusion is, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” This is addressed to Christians.

I guess St. Paul’s words of warning speak to this situation: “Because of unbelief [the Jews] were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.”

The foolish virgins may be Jews, but are a warning to Christians, not to run out of faith.

Or else, as the text says, the Lord will declare He does not “know” them. What a terrifying thing to encounter? To not be known by the Lord. What does it mean to be known by the Lord?

In fact, this language of “known” might give a clue about what the reserves of oil could mean. Who are those “known” by the Lord?

St. Paul talks about being known by the Lord in the strong baptismal context of Galatians 3-4. “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God.”

This makes sense, because being baptized goes hand in hand with confessing the baptismal creed, the Apostles’ Creed, of which Jesus says, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.” That’s one way the Lord will know us, because our names are ever being proclaimed before Him.

Another way we are brought to the Lord’s mind – so that He would “know” us – is by remembering us. Is not Holy Communion taken in the Lord’s remembrance? Like the rainbow, which reminds the Lord of His promises, Holy Communion is a testament that brings to mind how the cross has forgiven and purified those who partake in it.

So, baptism, confession of faith, and communion are thing which, when done, cause it so that the Lord “knows” us. These, of course, are the means of grace which support and built faith, and faith is the oil that keeps the light going. The light makes our faces shine before the Lord, so that He most certainly knows us.

Meanwhile, consider the foolish virgins. They were virgins! They were “pure” from the corruptions of this world. Yet, they were not “known.” Why? Because they ran out of oil. Virginity is not enough. Oil is needed. Moral purity is not enough. Faith is needed.

 

December 2, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of the Last Sunday after Trinity: The Happy Return

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“And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ …And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut.

Jewish marriage occurred in three stages. First was the engagement, during which the terms of the dowry would be negotiated and set. Second was the sexual consummation. Finally was the seven day banquet. At the sexual consummation, the second stage, the groom would be escorted by the bridesmaids to the place of consummation amidst shouts, while the groomsman (the friend of the groom) would escort the bride to the same place. This place was a room built by the groom on his father’s house. (When Jesus says He goes to prepare a place for us, this is the reference.)

Our parable of the wise and foolish virgins focuses on the second and third stages. The job of the bridesmaids was to escort the groom at night with lamps toward the bride. The groom was delayed building that honeymoon suite at his father’s house, which gives us insight into why Jesus is being delayed even now. He’s preparing a place for us, for His bride!

When the midnight cry was heard, it was a time of excitement, at least for “those who were ready.” They were to enjoy seven days of joyful feasting.

This serves as a good reminder that the return of Christ is actually a joyful event. Christ’s return is when He comes back to get us. It’s when He rights all wrongs we have endured in this world. It’s when He removes all that causes sin for us. It’s when He answers our petitions, that His will be done, that His kingdom come, that our trespasses are forgiven, that we are delivered from evil and temptation. It’s when He rewards us for our faithfulness to Him, to our enduring confession of Him in the face of an adversarial world.

So often we look at the second coming as a terrifying event, something causing us to shudder. Why? St. Luke writes about the end, “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” In other words, when the tribulations begin, and you hear the trumpet sound, don’t cower in fear like the rest of the earth, but lift up your heads! Your redemption draws near!

Very rarely in the New Testament is the return of Christ taught as a thing of fear for believers. On the contrary, it’s almost always presented as the focus of our hope. Likewise, the judgment of Christ should be seen as an exciting time. One of the most repeated expressions is that He will rule in righteousness. He will commend us for our faith. He will display deeds we weren’t aware we were doing. He will reward us.

Did we not beg our Lord throughout our days that He have mercy on us? Did we not confess our sinfulness before Him and ask His help to improve? Did we not hunger and thirst for righteousness in our heart of hearts? Did we not strive to be pure and honest toward others, to love our neighbors, and to give thanks to our Lord?

Due to a hyper-Protestantism, we sometimes fear a judgment based on “works,” because that suggests we’re saved by works. Yet, several times the Bible says just that, that we will be judged by our works, whether good or evil.

We have Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, “the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

St. Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

Again Jesus says in Revelation, “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.”

The Holy Spirit in Revelation talks of Christians, how “their works follow them.”

But what works? There are works, and there are works of faith. “Works” would be basic good deeds – feeding the poor, walking old ladies across the street, etc. This makes no sense, because ultimately Jesus is taken out of the equation. Are there not good Muslims and Hindus who walk old ladies across streets and feed the poor? And are there not Christians who may not do such things?

The works the Bible speak of are obviously works of faith, like those mentioned above. It’s giving thanks to the Lord through Christ – in Trinitarian worship – even when confessing Christ is unpopular. It’s confessing oneself to be a sinner according to a biblical standard of right and wrong, when everyone else is saying such sins are your “identity” and you should embrace them. It’s hungering and thirsting for righteousness, knowing we fall short, but also knowing in Christ we have a Savior.

A life dedicated to the Lord through the Church will not go unnoticed by our Lord, for such a life is the very life Jesus analogizes by the reserves of oil in the lamps. Christians are the light of the world, on account of our faith, our worship, our testimony, our hymns, our confession. Faith is the fuel of that light. A faith that endures to the end should not be fearful that the day of Christ’s return will be anything but a joyous day on which to “lift up our heads” and prepare to hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

 

December 1, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Tuesday of the Last Sunday after Trinity: To Sleep or Not to Sleep

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Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.

What does it mean that the bridegroom was delayed? What was the “right time” for the bridegroom to return, suggested by the language here? Jesus must be speaking in a way meant for us. He knew many of His disciples would expect Him to return in their lifetimes. He knew the wait would go on and on, that from their perspective, he would “be delayed.” Of course, the Lord knows His time, and there is no “delay.” The Lord will come when He will come.

For us who feel as if the Lord is lingering on and on, well, there you have it. He’s “delayed.” Something in the cosmic arena is keeping Him from coming at the time we think He should come. Again, it’s not that anything is really “keeping” Him. He will come when He will come.

Meantime, there is a good chance we will slumber and sleep. This detail has always struck me as difficult, because in the epistle for this same Sunday, we hear St. Paul say, “Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night.”

Were the virgins wrong to sleep? Given the conclusion, it couldn’t have been that bad. Half the virgins that slept ended up at the feast. And nothing in the text suggests they were wrong to sleep. Even for the foolish virgins, their foolishness wasn’t that their oil ran out while they slept. The text says the light was going out after they awoke, as they were trimming their lambs. Their foolishness was that they didn’t prepare for the longer wait.

Let’s go with two theories. The first theory is that sleeping is among the dangers we have to be aware of as we await Christ’s return, per St. Paul. The second theory is that Matthew and Paul mean “sleep” in two different senses.

According to the first theory, sleeping is simply one of the meany weaknesses Christians struggle with. Paul has to exhort, “let us not sleep” because it’s clearly a temptation for Christians. Even the five wise virgins fell for the temptation. It’s not exactly a “you’re going to go to hell if you sleep” type temptation, but a temptation none the less. It’s what Peter, James, and John fell for when they slept in the garden, and Jesus said to them, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Understood in this way, what would “sleeping” be? In the context of St. Paul’s words, and using the example of Peter, James, and John, we could say “sleeping” is simply taking a break from vigilance and alertness, that is, not taking a prayerful posture. St. Paul talked about those who say “peace and safety” at the end of time, as if falling into a cozy complacency regarding life in this world. We pray because we long for a new kingdom to come, not because we’re quite satisfied in the current kingdom. If we cease to pray, we may be beginning to slumber.

Not everyone is praying constantly, as St. Paul counsels, but that doesn’t mean everyone is being lulled into faithlessness. Yet, consistent repose from the things of alert faith can be dangerous. We can become lulled into slumber, falling into that cozy complacency regarding this world.

The second theory regarding sleep is that Paul and Matthew mean two different things by “sleep.” Again, nothing in the Gospel suggests the virgins sleeping was bad. The bridegroom was delayed, so the virgins did what would be expected in such a situation, they nodded off and fell to sleep.

By this theory, Paul’s use of “sleep” would be that outlined above, that is, taking a complacent attitude regarding the so-called “peace and safety” of this world. Matthew’s use, however, would be more benign.

It could be just an obvious narrative detail we need not get too worked up about. Of course they’d sleep. Or, maybe in means “sleep” in another way the New Testament often uses it, as in, “death.” Nine times in the New Testament the word is used in this way. Jesus said the little girl and Lazarus “slept.” St. Paul teaches about the resurrection of those who sleep.

Perhaps the oddest use of sleep in this sense comes up…right after the epistle for this week! After counseling us not to sleep, St. Paul writes, “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.”

Paul switches from one metaphorical sense of sleep – to not be in place of cozy complacency – to another metaphorical sense of sleep – to die. Talk about mixed metaphors.

Well, going with the “sleep is death” path of the “sleep is not wrong” theory, where might this take us? Did the ten virgins represent Christians who have died, who fell asleep in Christ? Midnight clearly symbolizes the return of Christ, does it not? The shout at midnight parallels the blast of the trumpet. The ten virgins awaking would be the resurrection.

But where this path runs into a thicket is what happens after the resurrection. There just are no correspondences. How, when we rise from the dead, will we have lamps to provide light, especially when Christ will be the morning sun at His second coming, providing light, as Revelation says, “There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light.”

There is a way to bring all these ideas together, however. We recall that baptism is a death and resurrection, and that this occurs daily. By these terms, baptism is also a sleeping and wakefulness. To die is to sleep. To rise up is to waken.

St. Paul speaks in this way in Ephesians, in a section that really brings many strains together, the night, foolishness, arising, sleep, etc. Here it is in full:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. Therefore He says: “Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light.” See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.

To be awake not as fools is to redeem the time (not falling into that cozy complacency), being filled (with the “oil,” to draw from our Gospel) of the Holy Spirit. How? Through Psalms, hymns, songs, giving thanks through Trinitarian worship, and by submitting to one another, that is, through good order in the church.

This brings us back to a theme brought up in last devotion, that to attend the bride is to attend church. Church is where all the singing and Trinitarian thanks-giving happens! Church is where the people of God are oriented toward the East, looking for her Lord. It’s an “alert” position.

Yes, we sleep. We all sleep. Peter, James, and John slept. Not everyone sings and prays constantly. But when the “day of the Lord” arrives – Sunday – the wise ones hear the call and attend the bride. It’s part of our baptismal cycle, to die daily (sleep) to our old selves, and then to rise again with Christ. The foolish ones die daily (sleep) as well, but when they arise, they actually walk away from Christ. They willfully depart, because they didn’t care enough to be ready when He came. Christ wasn’t a priority.

 

December 1, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Monday of the Last Sunday after Trinity: Are we the Bride or the Bride’s Attendants?

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Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.

One of the confusing elements of this parable is that, typically in the marriage metaphor, God’s people are His bride. However, in this parable the bride is nowhere mentioned, but only the bride’s attendants, the virgins. What gives? What gives is a stark reminder that within the people of God are true Christians and hypocrites.

Simply put, the “bride of Christ” is sort of an abstraction. I say “sort of” because speaking in terms of “abstractions” can be dangerous. In the “abstraction vs. concrete” discussion bestowed on us by the Greek philosophers (as represented in the Raphael’s famous painting, “The School of Athens,” by Plato and Aristotle), the Bible by and large sides on the side of the concrete.

Some have described Plato as Gnosticism on steroids. Here’s why. As we look at reality, we see with our eyes, for instance, many individual trees. Yet, in our minds, somehow, we’re able to subsume all these variety of trees under the word “tree.” This became a conundrum for the ancients. We can only communicate due to these unchanging “ideas” out somewhere in the ether – tree, dog, man, justice, beauty, God. Yet, everything we experience with our senses in fact is changing quite a bit. As Heraclitus said, no one steps in the same river twice. Yet, we call that wet thing “river.”

This way of thinking, taken to the extreme, breeds Gnosticism. The Neoplatonists were a halfway house to Gnosticism from Platonism. Accordingly, as you work your way up from the hierarchy of being, from the sensible to the intelligible, less and less are you in the realm of the material world at all. There’s “that cat,” and then, “cat,” then “animal,” then “life,” then “being,” then “highest being,” which would be something like God.

According to Neoplatonism, the goal of life is to move from the senses to the intelligible, and ultimately to the “one,” which is basically God. As love of truth draws you there, all divisibleness and separation ceases as you settle into a glorious, harmonious oneness with ultimate truth.

Where Neoplatonism sees the cosmos’ fall into materiality as necessary – an eternal cycle of fall and return – the Gnostics did not. The fall into materiality was a cosmic mistake, and nothing of the material world had any correspondence in the spiritual. The material world was not like steps into the spiritual, but something to be escaped.

With that set up, Hebrew, biblical, and Christian theology doesn’t translate to this Greek issue. It’s almost nonsensical. The Platonists act as if nouns are the only thing that matter, that the world is made up of various “beings,” and all the variety of being and their change in time is “accidental.”

But adjectives, verbs, and adverbs are just as part of our God-given language as nouns, and these parts of speech reflect upon a creation that is multifarious, growing, changing, and whatnot. To act as if God’s intent was for things to be unchanging or complete is a Greek conceit which ignores that nothing was finished at least until Jesus said, “It is finished.” And even that has to be seen in light of the economy of salvation and the strange paradox between temporal and eternal.

Theologians fall for the Platonist error all the time. For instance, ask how many sacraments there are. This is a Platonist question, because Jesus didn’t teach about “sacraments” and then delineate each example of a “sacrament.” By this methodology, you begin with a definition of “sacrament” and then proceed to determine how many there are according to that definition. But “sacrament” is an abstraction. A better methodology is simply to rejoice and confess what our Lord has given regarding His many gifts of grace, in baptism, communion, absolution, ordination, marriage, and whatnot.

The bride of Christ is the Church. Is that an abstraction? The Church can become an abstraction theologically quite easily. Perhaps it becomes so when it’s understood only in this Platonic sense, as noun only. “The Church is X.” This undermines the very verbal and adjectival nature of the church, the element of growth. No one steps into the same Church twice – yet it’s always the Church. Only in a Greek mind is this a paradox.

The church has real “flesh and blood” marks. People (ministers and believers), water, bread, and wine working together according to God’s Word make up the Church. That’s not an abstraction. That’s real stuff happening, but it’s happening at all sorts of different levels, at various levels of growth.

For instance, among those “people,” evidently, you can have wise ones or foolish ones. And this is something Jesus had been teaching for some time. There’s the parable of the wheat and tares, or the parable of the catch of many fish. Some or good, some are evil.

In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, all the virgins are, in fact, virgins. They are “pure.” They are baptized. Or as Revelation puts it, “These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.”

The problem with the foolish virgins is they gave up following because they had to run off and buy more oil. And that act of foolishness serves as the heart of Jesus’ teaching.

And here is where the payoff is of the Gospel not being Platonic.

According to the Platonic methodology, which again is always a temptation of the western mind, we’d leave this parable and ask ourselves, “What are the foolish virgins and what are the wise ones? Those are two categories of Christians. Which one am I? Probably a wise one. Who are the foolish ones? Perhaps that guy over there in that pew.”

But again, the Hebrew and Christian way does not translate well into Platonism. Remember the analogy of the seed. That’s how our Lord operates, through the seed. And His teaching is a seed; He is a seed planter. He’s planting seeds here, seeds that take dirt and turn it into life.

All of His teachings have that “growth” effect. They have a realm of “here’s where you don’t want to be” and then another of “here’s where you want to go.” Driving the whole growth event is, “my teaching will either send you one direction, or your rejection will take you out of the faith.”

Humility would put us at the “here’s where we don’t want to be” point, else why even have the Gospel read? If we’re the wise virgins, then what’s the point of the text, to make the foolish virgins feel bad about the fact that the Lord doesn’t know them?

No, each of us should have the attitude of St. Paul saying, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on.” We want to be wise virgins, and not foolish.

Where is the bride, the bride of Christ, in the Gospel? It doesn’t say. But it does talk about the bride’s attendants. This corresponds nicely with those who attend the Church, or even attend Church (in the more basic sense of “attend” as in “go to”). In this parable, this consisted of five females. They went into the feast and had the banquet. The other five were elsewhere.

So, as the seed is planted, we will learn this week all sorts of things that push us away from foolishness and toward wisdom. But at a minimum, so far, we got one thing clear. Wisdom begins where the Church, the bride of Christ is. Where is the bride of Christ? With Christ. The attendants are those who are with that bride. Wisdom begins at church, not away from it.

Now let us grow away from the foolishness of the fallen, dirtiness inherent in us, toward what our actual attendance at church suggests about the wisdom that is our faith.

 

November 26, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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The Last Sunday after Trinity: The Parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins

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The Gospel for the last Sunday of the Church Year, the Parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins, is full of identifiable imagery. The dominating image is that of Christ the groom and his marriage to His bride, the Church. The Church has attendees, the virgins, who await the groom’s coming.

The reference is obvious, especially when understood in the context. Jesus is teaching about the end times. Perhaps His most consistent and prominent teaching is, “Be ready, because you don’t know the day or the hour when I’m returning.”

On one hand, there are certain markers of the groom’s coming. “At midnight a cry was heard.” The cry announced His coming. Likewise, certain signs will announce Christ’s coming. Trumpets will sound. He’ll be coming from the east. The four horsemen of war, pestilence, famine, and false prophecy will be galloping forth, the first three wreaking havoc, the last promising an earthly end to the havoc…if you just follow him. Tribulation will get worse; the elect will be persecuted. Then the end will come. Jesus will return on the clouds with the angels.
If those signs don’t happen, Christ’s return is not going on. There are two Christs. There is a Christ defined by His Word, identified by signs He ordained and sets out, and Who is present where He says He is present. The above signs mark His return. At present, His presence exists mysteriously, where the Church calls upon His name, in communion, where apostolic ministers are preaching His Word, in the Church’s absolution.

But the Church has always understood He will come again as He left, in a localized status. That will be at the end of time, and that will be a great marriage feast celebrating the marriage of Christ and His Church.

Then there’s the Christ who is crafted from human desire and human projection. He arises from humanity’s values, hopes, and ideas. In a sense there’s a “wedding” here as well. It’s the wedding between those psychic energies arising from human desire and the archetype Christ. Another name for this form of Christ is “Antichrist,” the one “in place of” the real, flesh and blood Christ marked by words He gives in Scripture.

Enough of that…we have an “on the other hand” to get to.

On the other hand, though there are clear markers of Christ’s return, there is a lot that is not known. He will come at an hour we do not know.

This paradox between knowing the signs yet having no clue when Jesus is returning is the backdrop behind St. Paul’s words, from the epistle for this week, “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, ..you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. …But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.”

The day comes as a thief, but it should not overtake us as a thief, for we will be ready for it. Because of this posture of faith – every ready for Christ’s return – churches often face east, for Christ will return as lightning from the east to the west. So also are graveyards faced toward the east, so when the bodies arise, they’ll be facing Christ. When we go to church, part of the posture of faith we are assuming is expectation that He may be returning on that day.

I remember as a child, believing on any day Christ might be returning. I still believe this, but now it’s more of a theoretical belief. When I was a child, it was as sure a thought as my own dad returning from work. Would that we had this childlike faith, the sort Christ sets up as ideal.

The parable for this week’s Gospel simply builds off this teaching, to be ready. All the images involved in the parable introduce interesting alleyways to explore. Why are we focused on virgin bridesmaids and not the bride, if the bride is the Church? What does the virginal aspect of the characters mean? What is the oil we should have in reserves? Who cried at midnight? What does it mean to sleep? What is the light produced from the oil?

This Gospel in particular invites a lot of study in cultural background regarding ancient marriage practice. Cultural history can give some background, but as a rule, I try not to rely on such explorations too much. Why? Because Jesus didn’t leave us with cultural history; He left us with a parable. The Church had centuries with this Gospel without any understanding of ancient Hebrew marriage custom. To say we can only understand the Gospel with this cultural background is to introduce a sort of gnosticism (small g) into our procedure, whereby only those with a secrete, academic knowledge are permitted access to the “real meaning” of the text.

As a rule, then, cultural details can help us explore depths, but not new depths. Everything we need to understand what’s going on should be right there, coupled with other passages that help inform us, for instance, the biblical image of our Lord’s marriage to His people.

The key question in this Gospel that emerges, whatever the cultural background is, is, how do we keep ourselves among the wise virgins who had reserves of oil? What is that oil? What does it mean to “watch”?

November 26, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Saturday of Trinity 22: Torturers, Hearts, and a Few Remaining Questions

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“And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

Three interesting things come to the fore in this passage. What does it mean to be delivered to the torturers “until” the payment is paid off? What is the focal point of this “will do to you,” communal, individual, or both? And what does it mean to forgive “from the heart”?

But let’s begin by focusing on the bigger message: the Father gets “angry” when people aren’t forgiving each other. He wants His kingdom to be a place of forgiveness. Recall, Peter asked Jesus about use of the keys, how often he should use them, and Jesus gives this parable. To not use the keys abundantly, and often, is to incur the Lord’s wrath.

Now into the details.

Being delivered to the torturers “until” the debt is paid off suggests to some the doctrine of Purgatory. That’s a stretch. The servant will not pay off the 10,000 talent debt. Ever.

What’s more interesting is that the man was handed over to torturers. This tells us something about the character of the servant. Torturers in the ancient world were used to extract information out of criminals. This suggests the reason for the man’s squandering of a 10,000 talent loan was not due to negligence, but to criminality or fraud. In other words, he had the funds somewhere, fraudulently hidden. This suits his greedy character, which became manifest to the fellow servant who owed him.

If this interpretation is correct, it makes you wonder why the king would forgive such a greedy character. Did he not know his character? Well, maybe he did, and his point was, “I just gave you a gift of 10,000 talents to feed your greed. But think. If I create a kingdom where such gifts are possible, there’s no reason to be greedy. There’s plenty for everyone!” This theme, that the “treasures of heaven” destroy the limiting forces of mammon, such that there is eternal abundance for all, comes up quite a bit in the Gospel.

The servant, of course, didn’t learn that lesson, and insisted on remaining in mammon’s world of limitation and scarcity.

As far as interpretations go, this idea that the servant was fraudulent – a crook – adds some dimension. Here, it’s not just that he was unforgiving, but abusive with the gifts he did have. God’s grace is mine, but not thine. God’s forgiveness is for me, but not thee. I will sublimate and manipulate the doctrine of forgiveness – almost fraudulently – in a suit of armor protecting my own ego (to use a wonderful image recently conveyed to me), but deny you any benefits from that doctrine.

According to the parable, it may take torture to get the servant thinking rightly, to extract out of him the proper understanding of grace, both for himself and for others.

Who is the focal point of the phrase, “So My heavenly Father all will do to you”? Who is “you”? Peter asked the question, and a solid argument can be made he was asking on behalf of the twelve, or even the Church. The “you” is plural. So Jesus is issuing the judgment against the body of believers, the Church. What judgment? Being handed over to the torturers.

This fits with the tone of Jesus’ overall teaching. If someone causes a lost, little, repentant sheep to stumble in his faith because forgiveness is denied him, a millstone is put around his neck and he’s thrown into the sea; he’s cut off from the larger body; he’s tortured. In this context, the torturing may not be so much about extracting information – as interesting as that interpretation might be – but simply punitive. The idea is, if you get in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work, you’re done for, pure and simple.

But what if we apply a lens of interpretation that frequents the Gospels, and that’s the relationship between Jews and Gentiles? We noted that this might shed light on the Lazarus and Rich man account, and several others. Could we apply that lens here? Is Jesus preparing Peter for dealing with gentiles? The twelve apostles, the new tribes of Israel, were tasked with ministering forgiveness. They themselves – not only Peter but all of Israel – had been forgiven much, much idolatry, much faithlessness. Now, tasked with taking this forgiveness out among the nations, would they deny that forgiveness to the more gentile who comes to her seeking God’s grace?

The Jews, in fact, were forgiven much in Christ’s cross, but were “fraudulent” with this grace, setting up a structure of teaching and theology that “hid away” God’s grace in its many traditions and new laws, which denied its being administered to others. What if they needed to be tortured for a time, in order for them to learn the true nature of this grace? Jewish theology has an explanation for the suffering they’ve had over their history, that it is messianic. Is there something going on with this?

Also note that Peter himself had to relearn this parable when he first confronted the gentiles, and God gave him the “pigs in a blanket” vision. Read selections from this account in light of this week’s Gospel: Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. …And [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sin.”  While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.”

Somehow, at first, Peter wanted to hide God’s grace in Jewish custom, preventing forgiveness from being administered to the Gentiles. He had to relearn the lesson of Matthew 18. The Jews’ greatest legacy is Jesus Christ, the incredible grace and forgiveness in Him, and yet they have no claim in Him. How angry is the Lord at this? What sorts of millstones and tortures are at work here?

Finally, we get to “forgiving from the heart.” This is probably the most bothersome language for most Christians, particularly from the Protestant tradition, who love focusing on the heart. “Have I really forgiven my abusive father?” Such questions haunt the poor Christian as he believes his eternal fate – bliss or torture – rests on the question of whether his heart was fully mustered in the forgiveness of someone who wronged them.

And we’re not longer talking about communal forgiveness here, as Jesus says, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” He uses the phrase “each of you, from his heart.” That’s singular. The Lord definitely is teaching forgiveness, by each individual Christian, “from the heart.”

But keep in mind, the ancient view of the heart was not our modern understanding, which is feeling-oriented. Because of our view of the heart, we hear Jesus’ words about forgiving from the heart and think, “We have to really feel forgiveness for the one who wronged us.” And sometimes eradicating those feelings is downright impossible, so we fall into despair because of those torturers and millstones.

But let’s look at how one lexicon defines heart: “the causative source of a person’s psychological life in its various aspects, but with special emphasis upon thoughts—‘heart, inner self, mind.’”

In the ancient world, the heart was more like what I like to call “the heart of hearts.” It’s what we believe deep down. It’s the principles governing what we ultimately think. When I run into someone who struggles with forgiveness, I ask them, “Do you really, deep down in your heart, want this person to go to hell and be tortured forever and ever?” To that they will say, “Well, no.” Sure, they won’t have the right feelings, but forgiveness isn’t so much about feeling as it is about living by a principle. You don’t have to feel good about someone not to seek revenge, try to hurt them, or act out a principle of non-forgiveness.

And this leads us back to the communal nature of forgiveness, where I believe Jesus and Peter began. Forgiveness is a principle of the Christian Gospel that each Christian acts out in the Church and its fellowship. It is the heart, so to speak, of the Christian, the foundation of his Christian identity. Though he may not “feel” forgiveness for certain types of people in the church, he nevertheless supports the church’s ministry to be a place of forgiveness. It’s in his heart.