Do you ever run back into your house just to make sure that you have turned off the coffee pot or the iron? I do it all the time. No matter how much of a hurry you are in some things are just too important not to double check. It doesn't matter if you are running late—you have to check. You don't want to lose everything you have in a house fire. Today's Gospel makes me feel the same way. It makes me feel like no matter what else is going on in my life right now, no matter how busy I am, I had better take some time and figure out if I am wheat or chaff. That is what I have been doing for the past few days as I studied and prayed about this text. I must confess I have found the whole process disturbing. I find this text disturbing. I think I am chaff. I am worried you all might be too.
At first, I tried to fool myself. I try and keep the commandments. I'm in church on a regular basis. I tithe. I can't be chaff, right? You are probably thinking the same thing about yourself. Here you are in church and this intern pastor is saying you might be chaff instead of wheat. How unfair! What about all those people who are sleeping in today? What about all those people who don't come to church at all? What about the people who don't give anything to support the church's work? Why are we chaff and not them? I don't know about them. I only know about us. I will explain.
When I first read the lesson I was relieved to see that John the Baptist was talking to the Pharisees and Sadducees. In verse 7 it says, “When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Whew, what a relief. He is talking to them, not me, right? That verse started to get me wondering. Why was John the Baptist so harsh to them? Why should they be chopped down like a tree that doesn't bear good fruit or burned up like worthless chaff? What is so bad about them? Who were they anyway?
This is what I found out about the Pharisees: they were one of the two great Jewish religious and political parties of the second commonwealth. Their opponents were the Sadducees and it appears that the Sadducees gave them their name, perushim, Hebrew for “separatists” or “deviants.” The Pharisees upheld an interpretation of Judaism that was in opposition to the priestly Temple cult. They stressed faith in the one God; the divine revelation of the law both written and oral handed down by Moses through Joshua, the elders, and the prophets to the Pharisees; and eternal life and resurrection for those who keep the law. Pharisees insisted on the strict observance of Jewish law, which they began to codify. While in agreement on the broad outlines of Jewish law, the Pharisees encouraged debate on its fine points.
I am sorry, but that doesn't sound that different from us. We also have faith in one God. We also believe that scripture is divine revelation handed down orally and in writing. We believe in eternal life and resurrection. We believe in the broad outlines of Jewish law and we certainly engage in debate on it's fine points. If you attend a Lutheran Bible study, you will most likely hear plenty of debate on the finer points of scripture. Except that the Pharisees didn't believe in Jesus and they didn't eat Jello salad, the Pharisees could have been Lutheran.
We don't know as much about the Sadducees. They were a sect of Jews formed around the time of the Hasmonean revolt (c.200 B.C.). They were the other powerful religious and political party during the time of Jesus. They upheld only the authority of the written law, and not the oral tradition held by the Pharisees. They are believed to have had a small following, drawn primarily from the upper classes. Eventually, they reached an accommodation with the Pharisees, which allowed them to serve as priests in exchange for acceptance of Pharasitical rulings regarding the law. Their sect was centered on the cult of the Temple, and they ceased to exist after its destruction in A.D. 70.
So the Sadducees were not that different from the Pharisees and the Pharisees were not that different from us. Why did John call them a brood of vipers? Would he call us a brood of vipers?
If we go farther into the Gospel of Matthew we can hear Jesus explain why Pharisees would be condemned so harshly. Jesus had no problem with their teaching. He actually told the disciples to do what they teach. He warned them not to do what they do. The Pharisees were condemned for not practicing what they teach. Jesus said they place heavy burdens on others and don't lift a finger to help them. I think Jesus looked around at all the poverty and injustice on earth and he couldn't stand it. He was so mad at the elite groups because they had the power to change it and they wouldn't. They knew better, they knew God's law and refused to keep it. They were more worried about being respected. They went to worship and they wanted people to see them and know that they were better than others. They wanted people to know that they were better than the people who slept in on the Sabbath day.
I don't think things have changed that much today. I think Jesus looks around at all the poverty and injustice and he can't stand it. We know that Jesus had a special place in his heart for children. He rebuked the disciples sternly when they tried to keep them away from him. What do you think he would say about poor children today?
Health systems in poor countries around the world are rapidly deteriorating, and in some cases, have failed entirely. Young children and pregnant women bear the brunt of these inadequate health systems. Every year, 10 million children die before their fifth birthday, nearly all of them from preventable causes—causes that we have the power to prevent. Each year, more than 500,000 mothers die from complications during child birth. There are affordable technologies and interventions in existence that would prevent nearly all of these deaths.
What about orphans? I found at least 25 different places that the Bible talks about caring for orphans. I'll just mention one, James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” The world is full of orphans that are not being taken care of properly and soon there will be even more. Eighteen million children have already lost one or both parents to AIDS, 12 million of them are in Africa alone. Unless more is done, there will be 25 million of these children around the world by 2010. If pure religion is to visit orphans and widows, what does that mean for us?
It is not just children that are in trouble. Around the world, one person in seven goes to bed hungry each night. Look around at each other, imagine we lived in one of those poor countries. Imagine 10 of us here not getting any dinner. It doesn't have to be this way. We could address hunger not just by giving food, but by helping farmers in poor countries grow better crops and helping countries build farm-to-market roads so farmers can supply distant cities.
One person in seven has no access to clean water for drinking, cooking or washing. In addition to spreading disease, this has multiple negative effects -- girls growing up in villages without water are far less likely to attend school because they're too busy spending hours walking to and from the nearest water source.
Sometimes we wish poor people would just help themselves right? They need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. How can you better yourself and have a better life than your parents if you can't even go to school? But around the world, 77 million children do not go to grade school because their parents cannot afford fees, books or uniforms for all their children. Those of you who are parents or grandparents, try and imagine choosing which of your kids gets to go to school because you can only afford to send one.
This is getting pretty depressing. I know you didn't come to church to get depressed. Let's look at some of the other lessons for today. Maybe that will make us feel better. I have always liked today's first lesson—Isaiah 11. I love the idea of every creature getting along with every other creature—the wolf and the lamb, the cow and the bear—even the little child and the poisonous snake. It is such a beautiful picture. Unfortunately, it is not any better than the parable of the wheat and the chaff. Verse 4 says that the coming savior will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. He will kill the wicked with the breath of his lips. I am not so sure this text is good news for me. I am not poor and I am not especially meek. I don't consider myself to be a wicked person, but what if not helping the poor counts as being wicked? Can we look at the psalm instead?
Psalm 72 is a royal psalm in which the Israelite king, as the representative of God, is the instrument of divine justice and blessing for the whole world. The king is human, giving what he receives from God. The language of this psalm is beautiful and extravagant, but it is all about justice for the poor again. “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” This one makes me worry too. It isn't good news for us. It seems unjust for nations like ours to have more than enough, while people go hungry all around the world. “Crush the oppressor” makes me uncomfortable. I am a citizen of a nation that spends less than 1% of it's budget on helping people faced with extreme poverty and AIDS around the world. We are doing next to nothing. I am doing next to nothing.
Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” His command is that we love one another as he has loved us. I don't want to be like the Pharisees who knew the law and didn't keep it, but sometimes it is so hard to do the right thing. Exactly how much would I have to give away to be sure that I wasn't chaff instead of wheat? How many people would I have to help? I wish I knew exactly how much would be enough. The rich young man in Matthew 19 wanted to know that too. He wanted to be sure. He asked Jesus what he had to do to gain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments and that was not a problem for the man. Then Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus. This was a terrible problem for the man, just as it would be for us. Jesus explained to his disciples that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God. This just made me sad and frustrated. It is too hard! I can't give away all my possessions. Many of Jesus' teachings found in the Gospel of Matthew are just impossible for me to live up to. Matthew 18:8 says that if your hand or foot causes you to stumble, you cut them off. I stumble all the time. There would be nothing left of me if I cut something off each time.
I find myself asking the same question that the disciples asked Jesus after the rich young man left. “Then who can be saved?” Jesus' answer is the comfort that I have been looking for all along. Finally, the good news. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Salvation is impossible for me to accomplish by myself. It is only possible with God's help. I think we are chaff, but there is hope for us. Jesus is that hope. Jesus is the root of Jesse that we read about in the second lesson for today. Look at Romans 15:12, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
At baptism, we are united with Jesus. We enter into his life, his death, and his resurrection. We come to Jesus and yoke ourselves to him. Matthew 11:28-30 explains what it means to be a Christian.
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." I have always loved this text. I picture myself weighted down with all my sin and fear. I am weighted down because I know I am chaff. I am afraid because I know I am not good enough. I have not tried hard enough to live up to Jesus' commandments. I picture myself handing all these burdens over to him and resting at his feet or maybe being carried by him. The picture I have in my head of this text isn't right. I have recently realized that I have not been reading it carefully enough. This text is not about having no burdens. I am giving my burdens to Jesus and yoking myself to him. That means his cross is my cross now. I share in his pain. His heart breaks for the poor and the orphan so mine does too. I share in his cross, but I will also share in the glory of his resurrection. That is my hope—my only hope.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.