Wisdom 6:12-16 / Matthew 25:1-13
So which am I? Foolish or wise? Am I ready to join in the marriage feast, to go into the banquet hall? Or am I unprepared, not even knowing the day or the hour? Is my lamp made ready with fresh supplies of oil to give light for the Bridegroom when he comes? Or will I be locked out by my own failure to know what is needed and to have it at hand? Are my mind and my heart open to the Wisdom of God who invites me? Or am I isolated in a foolishness of thinking myself to be awake, yet still living in the darkness of self-concern and complacency? Wise or foolish…which are you?
Jesus challenged his hearers with this question of wisdom and foolishness earlier in the Gospel according to Matthew. Indeed, he concludes the Sermon on the Mount with the parable of a wise and of foolish man, each building a house. (Matt. 7:24-27) The wise man builds on rock so that the house can withstand rain and wind and flooding. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like this one,” says Jesus. But “great will be the fall” of the house which the foolish man builds on sand, unready for the inevitable storms which human life brings, both literally and figuratively.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Though cautiously doing so by night, still, Nicodemus feels compelled to come to Jesus. This elder, a respected leader among the religious authorities, comes to see the mysterious rabbi from Galilee. However, mere curiosity does not motivate Nicodemus’ visit. He seems, rather, to be one of the “many [who] believed in [Jesus’s] name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23) during that first Jerusalem Passover festival at which Jesus appears in John’s gospel.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”(John 3:2) Nicodemus, I would say, exhibits a certain amount of courage and imagination. Courage in approaching Jesus in the wake of his disruptive action in the temple; imagination in that though there is much that Nicodemus already knows of God, he comes to Jesus aware that there is likely still much that he does not know.
In the first creation story told in the Book of Genesis, God’s spirit broods over the waters of chaos and speaks the universe into being, “Let there be light”—the first day of God’s creating work. Over a succession of five days, God continues creating—dry land, the dome of the heavens, winged birds, earthly creatures and humankind—and blessing everything that God has brought into being, pronouncing it all “very good.”
Then comes the seventh day: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” After much creative labor, God takes “a day off,” simply to enjoy the fruits of this work and delight in all that creativity. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
Though enshrined in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest, the rhythm of activity and leisure, creation and recreation, remains as countercultural in our present moment as it was in the world of our ancestors in faith.
As Director of the Fellowship of Saint John, over the years I have received – from committed members of the FSJ and from probationers trying the rule – a request to temporarily suspend their participation in the Fellowship. Most often the reason given is a perceived inability to “keep up” with their personal version of a rule of life. In the past, I’ve been inclined to accept this view without argument. But more recently I’ve tended to push back. Here’s my reason why.
In the gospels, Jesus is criticized for failing to “Keep the Sabbath day holy,” both for his acts of healing and for his disciples’ “work” on the Sabbath in plucking grain to eat. Jesus answers his critics by stating that God’s loving desire to help and heal all creatures overrides a rigid interpretation of the written law. Jesus teaches that the Sabbath observance is a gift of God: the Sabbath was created to serve humanity, not humanity to serve the Sabbath.
Similarly, I’ve come to believe that keeping a personal rule of life is to be seen as a gift of God, a way for becoming fully alive in Christ. By means of our baptism into Christ’s continuous dying and rising, we participate in God’s own life as members of a beloved and redeemed community. Thus the FSJ rule is not a task by which to achieve some self-styled perfection, but an invitation to companionship with God, the SSJE Brothers, and other members. The moment when we’re feeling least able to “keep” our personal rule on our own is the very time to breathe deeply of God and ask for help to creatively, lovingly adapt the rule to our present circumstances.
I wonder if there might be readers of Cowley who have delayed or denied themselves the chance to become members of the Fellowship for similar reasons, out of a sense that they were not somehow, or in some way, “enough” just at this moment: not committed enough, not prepared enough, and so on. If so, I would encourage you: Consider whether becoming a member of the Fellowship might be, not a marker of your arrival at some destination, but a way of a joining companions on the journey. We truly are joined to the Fellowship, even when – and perhaps especially when – during difficult times and fear of failure, we gratefully accept it as Christ’s gift for us.
To learn more or apply to become a member of the FSJ, visit www.SSJE.org/fsj
“Consider your own call,” the Apostle Paul writes to the fledgling disciples of the Church in Corinth. Now of course Paul knows that every disciple’s call comes from Christ alone, that they are each and all chosen to serve and to be glorified in the one Lord. Yet Paul says, “Consider your own call.” From his own transformative encounter with the risen Christ, Paul also knows that each disciple’s vocation is unique. For just as each person is an image and likeness of the one God unlike any other, so too the circumstances, gifts, and mission of each disciple called into Christ’s mystical Body have a personally peculiar manifestation in each one. Paul says, “Consider your own call,” reminding us that each woman or man’s call will be transformed by God into a strikingly particular life of love and self-offering in Christ.
As human beings and Christians, our life of faith and relationship has its source in divine Love who eternally delights in each one of us as an image and likeness of God unlike any other. God’s yearning for companionship and union with all creatures has been, is now and always will be drawing us into the fullness of our created being, into the glory of the divine Life itself. Even now, divine yearning is active drawing us into community, to experience relationship with God and one another through shared worship and service. The present reality of our connectedness to one another in God, therefore, also rests on the foundation of all those who have gone before us as believers. There are some whom we have known personally, who have been instrumental in forming us in the love of Christ and our neighbor.
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself… entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. –2 Corinthians 5:17-20
In Christ, each of us is made a minister of reconciliation in the realizing of God’s vision for a new creation in which all creatures are made one with God and each other, freed from the bonds of evil and death. Grace-filled, transforming reconciliation, therefore, both within our own selves and with others, always takes place in partnership with the One who first brought us into being. God has always been reaching out to us and continues to reach out to us, yearning for companionship with us. In this longing, we can see that the essence of both the divine life and our created nature is to be in relationship. In Christ, God has been revealed as a community of reciprocal self-offering love, the Holy Trinity. Thus we, made in the image and likeness of God, can only come to be fully reconciled in and alive to our created dignity through relationship with God. We, like God, find the fullest expression of who we are in community, so our relationships with one another also have their source in God. We become truly who we are only in relationship to others. In lives committed to loving ourselves and one another as God loves us, we fulfill the ministry of reconciliation by beholding and honoring the image of Christ in every person.
Jesus Christ is the exemplar and embodiment of the ministry of reconciliation. Fully human and at one with God, Jesus chooses to bear in himself the misunderstandings and rejections that mar and distort human relationships, and he takes the risk of personal vulnerability and loss in order to redress our brokenness. Jesus looks at the disciples gathered around him and says, “These are my brothers, my sisters, my mother,” that we might come to understand ourselves, in relationship to him and one another, as having been adopted into the family of God. Jesus teaches that relationships involve the exercise of tough love and the willingness to forgive – even before those who have wronged us seek forgiveness. Jesus commands us to forgive as many as “seventy times seven,” to expose ourselves to the same vulnerability toward others in which he lives. It is much easier to avoid difficult relationships and to ignore within ourselves the same traits we despise in others. But Jesus calls us to live into the fullness of our humanity, to embrace what we, in our brokenness, experience as physical, psychic, or spiritual limitations. Jesus urges that, rather than seeking to be cured of our limitations, we ask God to heal us in them, and waken us to the spiritual gifts hidden in them. God desires that each of us live into the particular image of divinity which only we can be, and which God’s world needs in order to be reconciled.
One way to find renewed energy and desire for our role in God’s work of reconciliation is taking time for intimacy with Christ in silence and prayer. The chapter on retreat in the Society’s Rule of Life explains how times of retreat give us an opportunity to “celebrate the primacy of the love of God” in our lives as the sole focus of our attention. Regardless of how fragmented our lives may seem, how alienated from the world or at odds with others we may feel, retreat allows us inner space and time to know that we are beloved of God. Many guests in our houses remark on the experience of coming to a deeper knowledge of themselves and those around them in the silence of retreat. They are learning, as the Rule also says, to cherish “adoring love for the mystery of God,” to “honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies,” as well as to revere that mystery present in themselves through the indwelling of Christ. This kind of silence does not see the mystery of self or other as a problem to be solved or as something to be understood. Instead, in silence, we acknowledge the mystery of self and other, like that of God, as a wonder to be adored. Even in the absence of those with whom we seek to be reconciled, praying for them and practicing silence can help us come to truly love them.
Reconciliation takes place within us not so much by what we think as by who we allow God to help us to become. God calls us to emotional honesty with ourselves and others, and we can best find that disposition through intentional relationship with God. In the humility of silence, we can hear the voice which speaks in every human heart, and says, I cannot be the God I truly am without being fully in relationship with you. Times of retreat can help to awaken in us the desire for that time when all people will be drawn into that community of love which is the only God.
Today’s scriptures parallel one another in presenting us with images of brothers in community. Genesis portrays the sons of Jacob who are blood brothers, though born of different mothers. In Matthew, Jesus is gathering a community of “brothers” as followers. Some of these are pairs of blood brothers, namely Peter and Andrew, James and John. The others in the group have been paired together as “brothers” to share with the blood brothers in Jesus’ itinerant ministry of exorcism and the healing of diseases. But this group of twelve also has a representative role. Their number and gender symbolize a reconstituted Israel, the nation of twelve tribes descended from the patriarch’s sons. They are being chosen and given authority to act as a focus for the gathering Jesus movement. In company with other “brothers”—and sisters too—they are being empowered to proclaim in word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Contemplative Humility: A Meditation on Psalm 131
O LORD, I am not proud;
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
from this time forth for evermore.
Apart from their grouping under a shared, descriptive superscription, “Song of Ascents,” the psalms numbered 120-134 seem a motley crew at first glance, unconnected, even fractious: some are individual laments, others collective thanksgivings; some laud the joys of domesticity while others the glories of the assembly at worship; communal doxologies contrast with a single penitent’s cry for divine mercy; personal pleas for deliverance from enemies are juxtaposed with hymns of gratitude for national protection.
Yet the designation “Song of Ascents” indicates their commonality and interrelationship, for all are psalms of pilgrimage – toward and into God. And as such they are hymns for an upward journey experienced on two levels simultaneously, the outer and visible, and the inner and unseen. Outer and visible, since pilgrims traveling on foot to Jerusalem, whether coming from north or south, east or west, must physically ascend through hill country. For though not itself one of earth’s great peaks, Mount Zion presents a sometimes arduous climb, whether approaching via Roman road or overland. But also inner and unseen, for pilgrimage entails a moment-by-moment commitment to rise to the new life which is God’s gift to us in Christ. The temple to which we make ascent is the Lord’s own crucified and risen body, of which we are members.
The “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” of which Paul speaks is made in humility in walking through life, day to day: feet treading the ground of reality, of paradox, upward ascent implying true groundedness. Humility stilling the soul (the word humility derives from humus, the soil, earth, and clay from which we come). Speaking of fears, trials, losses and hopes, dreams and lasting meaning. Making the ascent to God’s dwelling place in pilgrimage, we learn that it is very much within, trusting in humility as a child on its mother’s breast, nurtured, caressed, kissed, sung to, suckled.
Psalm 131 comes as an oasis on the way, a place of respite for the journey, a reminder of the Holy One who has preserved us in life to this very moment, and who promises life yet more abundant, even beyond our wildest imagination, when the pilgrimage ceases. This hymn of humility invites us to revel in remembrance of God’s love, which first brought us into being and which at this moment as always delights in our companionship.
“O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks,” we pray, first confessing our forgetfulness in acknowledging ourselves as entirely dependent on God alone, a vital truth which we often refuse through our illusion of self-sufficiency.
“I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me,” the Spirit prays from deep within. And though we have occupied and still do so occupy ourselves with reactive, unconsidered words or actions, the Source of all being invites us to rest from our striving and wait patiently upon Love.
“But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” Here in the midst of pilgrimage we come upon an image of God unique in the scriptures: God as the nursing, nurturing mother; God gently rocking and calming the weary and hungry child who seeks the security of unconditional love. We pray to return to the child-like dependence, even vulnerability, by which alone we enter the kingdom and the security of God’s embrace.
And so our journey in prayer comes full circle: “O Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.” We travel on in humility, joined to the community of God’s chosen, and knowing even now of our union with the One to whom we ascend. The stance of waiting is pregnant with expectation, the hopeful assurance of seeing things which are now hidden from our sight. It is to trust in God’s unfailing generosity, which ever provides not what we think we need, but what we actually need – in the right degree and at the right time. The unexpected is made visible to the contemplative heart, which watches and waits on God in all circumstances.