The Least of These

May 18, 2017

Over the last few months I have been preaching from the kingdom parables in the gospel of Matthew. These stories along with Christ’s other teachings and personal ministry reveal the nature and values of “the kingdom of heaven.” To me as I read the entire story as it unfolds in Matthew, the kingdom was on the mind of Jesus from the very beginning of his teaching ministry (the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7) until his last public teaching before his arrest (chapters 24-25).

As I understand it, the kingdom of God has an “already here/but not yet” aspect to it. The kingdom is here Jesus taught—among us and in us, but not in it fullest state. We still get to anticipate, yearn for, and look forward to it. To me, the best way to understand the kingdom is like this:

  • It is where God is/rules. Wherever the reign of God can be seen, his kingdom is present.
  • It is within us. So Jesus stated in Luke 17:21. When God rules within us his kingdom then is evident in us.
  • It is from another place. So Jesus stated in John 18:36. This speaks to the values of the kingdom. This is what Jesus began sharing in the Sermon and throughout his ministry. These kingdom values are usually at odds with those of our world.
  • The kingdom focus is on the least of these. This was among what Matthew last recorded Jesus saying before his arrest in a section we know as “The Sheep and the Goats” or the great judgment scene. Found here is a major way that kingdom values differ from the world.

“THE LAST WILL BE FIRST”

As Matthew presents Jesus, we hear him say these words more than once and we witness him practice them. Sure there is the backstory of the Jewish establishment’s rejection of his Messiahship—the “first” in God’s story refusing to embrace God’s Son while reacting as the invitation goes out to the “last” folks they ever expected to be in a kingdom celebration (or wedding feast as Jesus imagines it in Matthew 22:1-14). But there is more to the story than just proving a point to hard hearted Jews.

The kingdom of God really is about the least of these. I love the way Jesus replied to some disciples of John the Baptist who came asking if Jesus was, in fact, the true Messiah  (Matthew 11:4). His answer was about the least of these. It was about how the lame could walk, the blind could see, the deaf could hear, lepers were healed, the poor hearing good news. Interesting.

You can see this all throughout Christ’s ministry—stopping to listen to blind Bartimaeus, healing lepers, feeding thousands, making time for little children, offering hope to an adulterous woman, casting out demons in people others had completely given up on. This was Jesus reaching out unashamedly to the forgotten, the devalued, the fringe, the ignored, the neglected, the last–and incredibly making them first on his mind, in his heart and in his kingdom.

Remember his disciples squabbling about who would be the greatest in his kingdom? This is so like most of us—seeking the edge, maneuvering for position, wanting to be number one—first! Matthew shared this unflattering episode in 20:20-28. Once more Jesus made it crystal clear that in his kingdom this type of ego stroking would not occur. It was about being last, he told them, not first. Or as he framed it in another conversation–giving up of ourselves; our self-will and ego in order to gain much more in him.

Do we get it? It is all about the least of these. Once Jesus said that if we harm or injure one of his little ones—specifically little children in the context of Matthew 18:1-15—that it would be better for us to have a millstone (read very heavy weight) strapped to our neck and cast into the sea. Not sure how much plainer it can get than that.

It is about justice, mercy, grace, empowerment, forgiveness, hope, compassion, healing and love—demonstrated to those who frequently do not receive much of it. This is what Jesus came to deliver. This is what his kingdom in its present form is to emphasize. And when the kingdom comes in its fullest—forgotten folks like poor, sick Lazarus will enjoy an eternal place at God’s table. The last will be first.

THIS HAS CHANGED ME

On a personal level this “least of these” emphasis has changed me. First, I can relate to it. Honestly, I often feel like one of the “least of these.” This has more to do with believing Satan’s lies than Christ’s teaching, but it is a real struggle for me at times. Quite often I assess my life and feel like a failure on different levels—wondering if my life has made any real, lasting difference; questioning if my attempts at preaching really matter in the big picture; wondering if I have helped or hurt my family; at times feeling lonely and afraid–just out on the fringe. I do realize and acknowledge that these thoughts come from my enemy who wants to “steal, kill and destroy” me, but they are honest emotions. And it is good to know that when I am thus struggling that Christ is there. This is the “when I am weak, he is strong” promise of 2 Corinthians 12:10–which is simply another way of restating his kingdom focus.

It has also changed me in how I look at others. How often have I brushed aside the Bartimeaus’s of the world in my rush to pursue my own ends—my own place at the chief seat in the kingdom? How often have I ignored the last? Had no time for the least of these? How many times have I been so focused on the winners, while denigrating the losers that I lost sight of the real purpose of my life within the kingdom of God?

God forgive me. I have come to realize that those I have called “the losers” are exactly who Christ valued–the least of these.

The evidence is just too overwhelming. Read again Matthew’s story of Jesus. It is right there—repeatedly. In God’s kingdom:

Whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. 

It really is about the least of these.


Ego: Preacher’s Secret Struggle

July 18, 2013

It is an understatement to say that the Corinthian church was a tangled mess of splits and splinters. As Paul details their struggle in the first chapter of the first letter, he reveals the part that had to do with preachers. Their preacher preference had become so pronounced that they were dividing their church over it. One of the preachers that some of them exalted to the point of division was Paul himself.

Paul’s reaction was to downplay his role; fail to remember exactly everyone he had personally baptized; and reject their notion of dividing over those who proclaim Christ. “Is Christ divided?” he would pointedly ask.

Unsurprisingly, Paul would have none of this.  He could have seized this moment to bask in the admiration of his following, but he was not about to go there. A few sentences later he would recall Jeremiah 9:24 and remark:

Therefore as it is written: Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.  (vs. 31)

He would reference Jeremiah again in 2 Corinthians 10:17 in the midst of a text in which he found qualified “boasting” necessary to defend himself against personal attacks and threats to this apostolic ministry and authority. Even then he thought the whole affair to be “foolishness” (11:1).

I have often wondered how I would have handled this Corinthian situation.  My tendency might well have been to compare myself to the other preachers in play, and decide that; yeah, I agree—I am the better preacher. Follow me.

Of course, I probably would not have admitted it.

I don’t think I am going out-on-a-limb to say that for many of us preacher-types, ego is a secret, hidden struggle. I am not speaking of the type of healthy ego we all need, but rather that driven by pride and/or insecurity, which needs to be fueled by recognition and reward.

Again let me qualify: Everyone needs encouragement; an occasional “atta-boy:” Every preacher needs to know his work is appreciated and find consistent support within his congregation. Preaching is not necessarily the best job in the world to boost self-esteem. So love, pray for, and encourage your preacher. He needs it.

The secret struggle I speak of goes beyond the natural human desire for affirmation, however. Perhaps it can be illustrated by John’s reference of Diotrephes in 3 John 9 as one who “loves to be first.” Granted this is extreme, but it gets to my point.

I can say this because I, as a preacher, have been on the front line of the secret struggle. Like James and John I have desired to sit in the chief seats (see Matthew 20). And I know I am not alone.

I have witnessed some really ugly expressions of hungry egos among my preaching brothers. But there is no place for arrogance or empire building in God’s kingdom. Whatever good may be accomplished through an ego-centered approach to ministry does not justify the means.

Back to Matthew 20: Jesus corrected the egocentric vision of James and John. He pointed out that this has no place in his kingdom. “The last will be first and the first will be last” is the kingdom ideal.

But almost everything that is within me does not want to be last. I want recognition. I want to be that keynote speaker. I want people boasting about my preaching. Herein is the hidden struggle.

I continue to learn from Paul, though. Here is what he told that Corinthian church about his preaching:

I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is, then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-2 MSG)

Now this is no diatribe against the most gifted among us, or those who bless us through their exceptional preaching ministry. I have been lifted up often through the eloquence and the plain and simple teaching of many preachers.

The key for me—and indeed for us all—is to keep “Jesus crucified” at the center of all we preach and do; and when we do have an occasion to boast, boast only in the Lord.

That need to fill up our ego? God’s got that.