15 Trinity 2008

The Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity
August 31, 2008
Verse 24 of St. Matthew 6:24-34
‘Divided Loyalties’

Today is the Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity on the Liturgical calendar, within the Labor Day weekend of our national calendar and quite by coincidence the gospel lesson today records for our hearing, words of wisdom from our Lord worthy of consideration on so important a national holiday as Labor Day.

Do you recall that the subject of labor is included within the context of the Ten Commandments? As a matter of record, the Fourth Commandment states our obligation toward God with regard to our labor. ‘Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.’ On the Hebrew calendar that was the last day of the seven day week, the Sabbath, what the Spanish language terms ‘Sabado’ and what we in the English-speaking world term Saturday (after the Roman god Saturn).

Actually, the commandment is lengthier than the portion we memorized as children. It includes this admonition: ‘Six days shall you labor, and do all that you have to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the lord thy God. In it thou shall do no manner of work; thou, and thy son and thy daughter, thy man servant and thy maid servant, thy cattle and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.’

Now the Jewish priesthood took measures to make sure that the Faithful kept the Sabbath. That is why they came down hard on our Lord; they perceived that he oftentimes appeared to violate the Sabbath and that his behavior set a dangerous precedent for the people.

There was that time when Jesus and his disciples were going through the grain fields, and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees drew Jesus attention to the fact it was not lawful for they were breaking the Sabbath, and hence the fourth Commandment as well. Jesus reminded them of what King David had done when he and his men were in need and were hungry. David and his men entered the Temple and ate the Bread of the Presence reserved for the priests alone to eat. Jesus added, ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’

On another Sabbath when he entered the synagogue and taught, a man was there whose right hand was withered. Jesus knew their thoughts and knew that they were watching him and said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ And so he did. And Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, it is lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’ And he looked around on them all, and said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he did so, and his hand was restored.

Again on the Sabbath he was in the synagogue and there was a woman who for eighteen years had been bent over and could not fully straighten herself. Jesus called her to himself and said, ‘Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.’ And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant, said to the people, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day. Healing in the ruler’s estimation was considered work. Jesus rebuked the ruler and called him a hypocrite. Putting his adversary to shame Jesus stated that even on the Sabbath the ox is untied from the manger and led to be watered, and shouldn’t this woman also be loosed from her bond on the Sabbath.

Again on the Sabbath Jesus saw a man at the healing pool at Bethsaida who had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus told him to rise, take up his pallet, and walk. And he took it up and walked. Thereafter Jesus left the scene. Immediately the leadership reprimanded the man and reminded him this was the Sabbath and therefore it was not lawful for him to carry his pallet! To carry a pallet or stretcher too was considered as work.

To this day, orthodox Jews especially are very careful not to perform any form of work on the Sabbath. Therefore on the Sabbath, they walk to synagogue and do not drive the car there, as that is considered work. They prepare their meals for the Sabbath before sundown on Friday, or have a servant prepare and serve them. For these and many other ordinary daily tasks are considered as ‘work’ or ‘labor’ and are not permitted on the Sabbath.

But as strange or foreign as this behavior may seem to us, the underlying principal WAS and IS to observe the Divine Commandment that the Sabbath is HOLY UNTO THE LORD. Therefore, it is a day to be spent at worship and in prayer, and in the reading and studying of the Scriptures and in quiet reflection. Work is to be performed the other days only.

Does this mean that the same discipline is required of us as Christians? Even though the Ten Commandments were given through Moses to the Jews, our Lord said they are binding upon his disciples as well. ‘Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ Jesus himself complied with keeping the Ten Commandments.

However, as he stated that he is Lord of the Sabbath, it was therefore most certainly within his authority, within his power and his prerogative to interpret the meaning of ‘work’ and ‘labor’ so as to allow for corporate ‘works’ of mercy to be performed such as the feeding and the healing of persons. Works of mercy may be done without violating the spirit of the Commandment: which is to keep HOLY the Sabbath, as our Lord himself kept holy the Sabbath. We remember that it was in the synagogue on the Sabbath day that Jesus did these specific miracles.

But are we Christians bound to keep the Sabbath the same, seeing as the Church moved the Sabbath observance from the last to the first day of the week? Doesn’t that change things in some manner? First of all, the Church moved the observance because the Great Observance for Christians is the Resurrection of the Lord, which took place not on the last day of the week, but shortly before sunrise on the first day of the week. The Resurrection of Christ is the Great Day of Observance for the Christian Community.

Second, the Church had the authority to make the change because Christ gave to his Church the power to bind and to loose, which includes matters of doctrine as well as matters of discipline. Hence the Church, acting in proper accord, moved the Observance from the last to the first day, without in any way diminishing the importance of keeping the fullness of the observance. It is still to be emphasized and to be kept as being a HOLY day unto the Lord. The movement of days from the last to the first, does not thereby somehow ‘free’ us from the obligation to keep the Fourth Commandment. As Jesus said, ‘Not one iota, not one jot!’ We may personally fail at keeping the Commandments because we are sinners: but Christ enjoins us to keep them, and to confess before God that we have broken them when we have done so.

One might be tempted to say, ‘But my job requires that I work on Sundays, or most Sundays. I have no say in my schedule, and I must show up if I want to keep my job.’ Believe me, you are looking at a man who has to work on Sundays!’ I fully understand the word, obligation! I am fortunate in that my ‘work schedule’ has me in Church on Sunday!

But for those who cannot be here because they must work on Sundays, it does not release one from the obligation to keep the day HOLY or to WORSHIP the Lord. You can keep it HOLY by offering everything you do and say at work to the glory of God. In fact, you’ll find that your work ethic will improve if you do so.

And there is nothing to stop you from WORSHIPPING God later in the day after you return home. Don’t plop down in your easy chair and automatically turn on the television; but instead drop down on your knees and take some time to offer Him thanks that you have a job and remember those who you encountered that day who need prayer, and then read the Office of Evening Prayer or prayerfully read ten to twenty minutes in the Bible or recite the Rosary. Offer some form of Worship! And if you simply must turn on the television, there are many spiritually uplifting programs you could watch in place of some of the stuff we ordinarily treat ourselves to.

To return to what Jesus said to his disciples in this morning’s text from St. Matthew. ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will be devoted to the one, and despise the other.’ Our Lord speaks here in terms of extremes: hate verses love, devotion verses repugnance. We may think this appears somewhat out of character for our Lord; but it is not!

Remember how he said, ‘He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’ Many a time, perhaps most of the time, Jesus stated things in terms of extremes. It is his way of capturing our mind’s attention. It is his way of capturing our hearts and wills. It is Jesus’ way of assuring us that he is deadly serious about what he has to say to us.

The one matter he places before us today is the danger inherent in divided loyalties. ‘You cannot serve God and unrighteous mammon.’ Something will eventually give way to hating the one and loving the other, devotion to one while having contempt for the other. Jesus is saying we cannot pretend to be serving God while at the same time in actuality we are only interested in serving ourselves. God wants from us total commitment. ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with ALL thy heart, and ALL thy soul, and with ALL thy mind. This is the first and great Commandment. The second is like unto it; the second in rank: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’

If we love self or others more than we love God, it will lead to serious consequences. It is then only a question of time before we begin to love the one and begin to hate the other, and be devoted to the one and have contempt for the other. Our love for God must come above and before our love for our own families, parents, children, in-laws, our own life, our country and even our labor.

Some folks must spend their entire waking day working. Some must hold down two or even three jobs just to make ends meet. And they do their best at what they have to do. They do this for the sake of their families they love. But love for God must still come first!

Our Lord told a parable in which he cautioned us not to be anxious about life, about what we shall eat or what we shall wear, or how long we’ll live. Life is more than all of these. The Father knows we have need of the basic things, and if we put Him first in our lives, He will see that we will have them all.

Now in saying that God will provide, Jesus was not saying we don’t have to work. He was saying we don’t have to fret! With our priorities in place, we work to the glory of God knowing God will provide the just reward for our labor. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted with worry. Worry does not make things happen; it impedes them from happening. Anxiety won’t get you anywhere. Hard work will! There is sufficient distraction with each new day: don’t add more for yourself to stumble over. Work but make certain of what you are working for: be sure that it is worth all that labor.

You can’t serve God and Mammon! Others have intentionally opted for Mammon! They have made a god of their labor: They spend all of their waking moments working at acquiring more and bigger and better, to have more and to become wealthier or more influential, sometimes not only to the utter neglect of God but also to the added neglect and alienation of their spouse, family and friends.

Is it worth it in the end? We can’t take our toys with us when we die. What will we have then? Gospel singer, Jearlyn Steele sings a song with lyrics written by humorist Garrison Kielor. But these lyrics are not humorous, they are deadly serious.

‘The day is short, The night is long,
Why do we work so hard To get what we don’t even want?
We work so hard to get ahead of the game Work half our lives until we’ve won.
And then one day we set on the edge of our bed And we think, Lord, what have I done?

A man in a suit comes home and kisses his babies good bye.
Daddy’s gotta go to show, honey. Oh no, don’tcha cry.
He’s gone for a week And then he’s home for a day.
Well pretty soon the babies gonna cry That daddy’s gone away.

You know we go to the Mall And we go from store to store.
Everybody seems to be wasting time Until death walks through the door.
And then you look at all of your merchandise and you say,
We paid too high price you see,

The day is short, The night is long,
Why do you work so hard To get what you don’t even want?

Well, what do you want? Will you find it in God? Do you think you’ll find it just in your labor? Jesus says you’ll never find what you’re looking for if you put anxious mammon before God. For ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will be devoted to the one, and despise the other.’