Sermon on Matthew 19:16-26.
Throughout the Church year we hear from each of the four gospels. From mid September until Chrismas time we hear from the gospel of Luke, then during Great Lent we hear from Mark, from the feast of Pascha until Pentecost we hear from John, and then from Pentecost until mid-September we hear from Matthew. These gospels are not meant to be read as biographies as we have biographies of Winston Churchill or Jimmy Carter, or Martha Graham, nor are they histories as we have a history book of North America or Europe. Rather the gospels are four witnesses of the good news of Jesus Christ, they are documents of faith. Each gospel has the entire truth about Jesus Christ which is told in slightly different ways. For example lets say you leave Church today and you see a car accident. The police officer will try to get as many witnesses in order to recreate the accident. While each person may recount slightly different versions they will all say that there was a car accident. This same situation pertains to the gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provide us with four witnesses to the preaching, teaching, and miracles of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, all the gospels, especially Matthew, remind us one important thing: what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Apparently however the rich man in the gospel reading did not understand this. He thought that he could buy his way into the Kingdom. However, Matthew tells us that Jesus doesn't work this way. You cannot buy your way into the Kingdom. Following Jesus does not require money, power, prestige, name-dropping, networking, or titles. The only thing that Jesus wants from us is to be dependant on him and him alone. Yet we know this is contrary to the ways of the world. We all heard of the common phrase, "money talks" which means that whoever has money can basically get whatever he or she wants. Rich moguls who donate large sums of money to public officials usually influence the voting of these officials. In our culture money is equated with power and prestige. So is information. People climb the corporate ladder through name dropping or providing favors for someone in the company.
However, we know that Jesus is different. While power, profit, and prestige is the way of the world, Jesus doesn't care much for that. The real key to the gospel reading today is located in two short passages from Matthew which come just prior to the reading today and they are both about children. This is a bit ironic since we know that Jesus himself was not married nor had children of his own, yet he uses the example of children in order to teach his followers what it means to be his disciple. The two passages are paraphrased in the following way: unless you turn and become like a child you will never enter in the Kingdom of Heaven and if you prevent one of these children from coming to me it would be better if a millstone were tied around your neck and you were cast into the sea. What strong words from our Lord! Why would Jesus say this to his followers.
Well, we all know that children are utterly dependant on others to care for them. Children cannot feed themselves so their parents feed them. Children cannot get dressed or go to school by themselves so parents have to clothe them and drive them to school. Children need help with their homework so the parents help them with their homework. In other words, children are utterly dependant on someone else to take care of them and to help them learn what it means to be a human person. Matthew tells us that this is what Jesus demands from his followers, utter dependence on God for our sustenance, for our food and for everything that we need to get through this life. After all we too are children of God, we call God Father.
However, the second saying about children is a harsh statement. Jesus basically tells us that if we prevent other children from coming to Him, from following and listening to his teaching, then it would be better if we were thrown into the sea with a millstone around our neck. Gee, I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want that to happen. There are similar warnings throughout the gospel that basically teach the same thing. Jesus tells his disciples that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, that he who humbles himself will be exalted and he who exalts himself will be humbled that even if you say "Lord, Lord" you will not enter the Kingdom. Jesus also offers us many parables such as the parable of the ten virgins which we hear during Holy Week. Five virgins took oil and trimmed their lamps waiting for the Bridegroom to return home. The other five didn't take extra oil thinking that they would just borrow some later on, in other words, they weren't prepared. The Bridegroom, suddenly returned and the five with the oil entered and the Bridegroom shut the door leaving the five outside the party. In other words, these five girls were left out in the cold and were outside looking in. The door was closed for good they could not enter.
This truly is a warning from the Lord that we need to take our faith in him seriously. Why put off tomorrow what we should be doing today? We all are born with an expiration date on us. We will all die someday and eternity is a long, long, very long time. Why do we want to take the chance and be shut out of the Kingdom? I certainly don't want to be on the outside looking in. Perhaps we can take today's gospel as a warning, to be dependant on the Lord now so that we will be ready later when the banquet table of the Kingdom is prepared for us.
Fr. William C. Mills, Ph.D., is the rector of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC, as well as an adjunct professor of religious studies at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. He is married to Taisia Mills and has two daugthers, Hannah and Emma.
Latest book by Fr. Mills:
A Light to the Gentiles is a collection of pastoral reflections on the Scripture readings from the gospel of Luke that are read in the Orthodox Church from mid-September until the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. The gospel of Luke is also read during the preparatory Sundays before Great Lent as well as at the feast of the Ascension and at the commemoration of various saints. The gospel also contains many familiar parables and teachings: the Good Samaritan, the Publican and the Pharisee, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and Zachaeus. Luke reminds us that the gospel is to be proclaimed to the entire world in order to bring the gospel to all peoples and nations. Thus, the gospel of Luke serves as a beacon of light that shines brightly in the world. A Light to the Gentiles is an invitation for everyone to read, accept, and obey the Word of God in their lives. This book is a resource for personal and group Bible study, adult education classes, and sermon preparation.
See more books by Fr. Mills