In Service

Read Matthew 25:34-46

In a few months we will be entering the Christmas season. The Christmas season means a return of wonderful movies and animated shows. Two of my favorite, must-see movies are A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge learns the importance of caring for others and taking care of the needs of others as one of his lessons. George Bailey discovers in It’s a Wonderful Life how much his decisions and actions have had a positive impact as he met the needs of others. Both movies provide an important message regarding how we are to demonstrate love and compassion for one another.

The reading for today comes in the midst of Jesus telling a parable about caring for others. Jesus presents a scene which can occur upon the return of the Son of Man. There is a division which happens. This division is between those who cared for others in their lives and those who chose not to reach out in compassion and love. The point made in this story is that even if we are not aware, the choices we make in regards to the needs of others have an eternal impact. Since God is love, and Jesus is the embodiment and example of this love, those who desire to follow Jesus must demonstrate this love in their lives. Jesus indicates here that failure to do so means a person cannot truly be in Christ.

The truth of Jesus’s parable was demonstrated in the Christmas movies mentioned at the start. Our choices about how we respond to the needs of others around us have impacts of which we may never be aware. These impacts change the lives of those in need but also change our very own life. The lasting nature of these choices make their importance even greater. Both Jesus and Paul tell us that only if love resides in and through us can we truly know the fullness of our God.

There are needs constantly around us. We must be open to seeing the needs of others. Then we must act on meeting those identified needs. This is not something relegated to a select few. No, this is the responsibility of each person who claims Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Lost One

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Luke 15:1-10 (NIV)

Have you ever had the experience of misplacing an important item, maybe car keys, your wallet, your identification, or your bank cand? I begin a deep search, retracing my steps, getting frustrated with myself, and worrying in large degrees. I am unable to rest or relax until the lost item is found.

We hear about such a frantic search in our passage for today. Jesus teaches using two stories. The first is about a lost sheep and the shepherd searching for it while leaving the rest of the flock behind. The second story is in regard to a woman who seeks out her lost coin. In both stories, the seeker rejoices greatly when the lost is found. Jesus tells those gathered that this is the reaction of God when one sinner repents.

Jesus’s message here is great news for each and everyone of us. There is not a person among us who has not been that lost sinner who Jesus refers to here. In fact, some of us get lost after having been found so we need to be searched for again. Our Lord will not relent on the search for each person. There is no limit to the number of times the Lord will search.

This leads to rejoicing all around. God rejoices every time a lost one is found. We rejoice in the knowledge that we are so valuable to the Lord that there is a search which never ends and will be repeated if necessary. We should also rejoice each and every time the lost one is found.

Soil and Seed

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Matthew 13:1-9 (NIV)

Having grown up in an agricultural state in the Midwest, I experienced a lot of planting and harvest seasons. Many of my friends lived on farms and some still are engaged in farming. Over the years I have seen many changes in how crops are planted and harvested. An eight row planter was pretty standard when I was young but today a farmer can purchase a forty-eight row planter if they have a large enough field. That is a significant change over the last thirty years. Prior to the industrial age, most planting was done by casting seed (sowing) on the ground which had been tilled up in some way.  A century later, farmers use satellites, GPS, and multi-row planters at each start of the growing season.

Today’s passage involves Jesus teaching the crowd from a boat using a parable or story. He tells the people about a man who goes into a field to plant. Some of the seed fell on a path, some landed on rocks, some fell among the thorns, and some seed landed on good soil which produced a very bountiful crop. Jesus leaves the story at this point. Later he will explain the parable to his disciples but does no explanation to the crowd. The people are left to interpret themselves.

This story has caused some speculation even today. If you read further in Matthew you will find Jesus’s explanation which gives meaning to the elements of the story (See verses 18-23). So the current day speculation is not about the meaning of the story’s pieces but instead, what is the focus of the story — the farmer, the seed, or the soil. I lean toward the soil.

The soil in the story represents the mind and heart of the receiver of the kingdom message. The kingdom message is God is love and life finds its purpose in this love. Hearing this message is not possible for someone who is not open to receive it (the path). If a person is able to receive the message and does so with great enthusiasm but is unable to integrate it into their lives (the rocks) then their enthusiasm will dwindle and the message dies. At times in an individual’s life the demands upon them and their focus on their goals and worries can cause them to hear the message, begin incorporating it into how they live but then they lose sight of it and it does not change them (thorny soil). The person who receives the message, lets it become deeply rooted in their lives, and produces change for them and those around them is the one who benefits (good soil).
This parable pushes us in two ways. The first is to strive to be open and receive the kingdom message, take it into ourselves, become rooted in our lives, and have it become the core of who we are as we respond to people and events. The second is to commit ourselves to assisting others in becoming good soil. Open the hearts and minds of others. Nurture others when they have received the message so it may take root and become established in them. Support and hold one another accountable to help prevent life demands, goals, and worries from overcoming the impact of the message.

My Neighbor

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37 (NIV)

Like many in my age group, I grew up watching Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood on PBS. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian pastor who became a television icon with a show which he began in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The show featured puppets along with actors portraying various public servants you would encounter in your neighborhood. He even had famous guest celebrities who made occasional visits. Through this show, Rogers explored feelings children may have, difficult experiences a child may encounter and how to respond, and of course, who is our neighbor.

Jesus encounters a teacher of the Law who asks a question that leads to a second question Mr. Rogers could easily have answered. The man first seeks to find out how to obtain eternal life. Loving God and loving neighbor is the answer which Jesus coaxes out of this teacher of Law and Jesus affirms this answer. But then the man wants to know who this neighbor he is to love might be. Jesus responds by telling the story of a man who is beaten, robbed, and left beside a road. Two Jewish leaders, a priest and a Levite, see the man but refuse to offer help. A Samaritan man, whose ethnicity  makes him an enemy of Jews, stops and provides care for the man to the point of taking him to an inn. He even pays all costs related to his recovery. A definition of neighbor is provided followed by Jesus saying the teacher should live according to the Samaritan’s example.

For many reasons, our understanding of “neighbor” has been altered. I grew up in a small, Midwestern town. Our neighbors were the ones whore houses surrounded my own but also the approximately 850 other inhabitants of the town.  Everyone knew everyone and in times of need the whole town and surrounding farm families jumped into action. My definition of neighbor was broad even though my community was pretty homogeneous.

Today, we live in a global society. Modern transportation and the internet has greatly reduced the perceived size of our world. Yet, there seems to be a shrinking definition of the word neighbor. There are people who do not even know the names of the individuals living in the houses adjacent to their own. We have isolated ourselves for a couple of reasons. First, we isolate for safety since fear is continuously reinforced by frightening crime reports. The second reason is we perceive we do not have time to get to know our neighbor. Yet if we cannot even get to know the people living next to us and love them, how can we ever love our neighbor in the broader sense which Jesus parable implies.

We need to follow the wisdom which Mr. Rogers shared with us. A wisdom which is surely based on the lesson taught to the teacher of the Law and us by Jesus. We need to take the time to get to know others and show love by taking care of them when needed.

Personal Value

We live in a time when the value of a human life is often considered very low. Most individuals have been reduced to statistics, stereotypes, and unproven opinions. In fact, often the individual is overlooked and seen only with labels. Often there is little effort made to even get to know a person. All this combines to make an individual feel as if he/she has little or no value.

However, this assuredly is not the opinion of the Creator. Actually, the opposite would be true. We learn the view of the Creator from passages found in Scripture. Here are two such passages:

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,

    human beings that you care for them?[a]

You have made them a little lower than the angels[c]

    and crowned them with glory and honor.

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

    you put everything under their feet

Psalm 8:4-6 (NIV)

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ

Romans 8:14-17a (NIV)

It is clear that God, who created us and sustains us, values us highly. Being a child of God gives each person value beyond comparison. Jesus tells parables which show us how God views us as important and thinks highly of us.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Luke 15:4-7 (NIV)

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

Luke 15:11-27 (NIV)

The truth is this…no matter what the world says about us, we are children of God. As children of God, we have been searched for while we wandered on our own. We have been crowned with the glory of God and placed as stewards of all God’s creation. We have been made heirs in the Kingdom of God.

A person’s value is not found in her or his successes. A person’s value is not found in having the “right” labels or doing the “right” things. The value of each and every person is found in the reality that he or she is a child of God. Nothing nor no one can ever diminish or take that value away.