In Matthew’s gospel, today’s story is Jesus’ last teaching opportunity before he is crucified, so we have to imagine Jesus has saved the most important for last. Jesus is saying to us that our actions matter. We are to be accountable to what Jesus has asked us to do. This really is non-negotiable. You may notice that Jesus’ last teaching has nothing to do with orthodoxy, right belief, or how the church is to be structured, but rather, it’s all about orthopraxy – walking the walk, being authentic, making a difference in the world, being accountable for our choices or the choices others make on our behalf. We are living an authentic Christian life when we receive the bread on Sunday and on Sunday afternoon, as we plan our week ahead, we orient our lives to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger. Jesus did all of these things, which is why, when we do them, these moments are sacramental. Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you. In receiving the broken bread, we become Christ’s body, so that we can see, be, and do for Jesus, so we can be sent out into the world to move it toward justice, where wrongs will be set right, and only God’s love will pour from all hearts.
There is a little poem I think about this time of year. Some people dream the dream Some people live the dream Some people defend the dream God bless the defenders The Lord said “who shall I send and who will go for us” and I said “here am I; send me. Amen.
John, however, offers us a different challenge. We are to love the ones right in front of us. The ones in the pew beside, behind, or in front of us, the ones we sit next to in the classroom, the ones we share a meal with, the ones we march with, the ones we disagree with, the ones we believe we cannot understand, the ones our hearts have gotten all out of shape about. These are the ones we are to love, as Jesus has loved us, in the fullness of the truth of God’s love and revelation.
As with the younger son, whether we return home in shame, or regret, or in complete brokenness, Jesus meets us and rejoices. It is the act of our returning home that is celebrated and it is the grace offered by Jesus in the Eucharist that heals our heart and allows us to become whole, to be resurrected, to find a way toward new life out of what had appeared dead in our lives.
The criminal’s words seemed scant, insufficient, and almost pitiable. Yet they were all that was needed. The request was minimal, merely that Jesus remember him. The response was extravagant. Jesus gave him the kingdom, then and there. Jesus gave him peace. Jesus gave him love, and Jesus died doing the one thing he was called to do all along: offer forgiveness. In his last exchange with humankind, Jesus fully lived into his vocation of bringing reconciliation to all humanity. For, like the king or the father in so many of Jesus’ own parables, Jesus offers the ones most unworthy the entire feast, the whole garden of God, the state of shalom or wholeness. The criminal’s reward was abundant because, in the moments before he died, he began living and acting as though Jesus were king.
Jesus, the King of the Jews, the Son of God, stands squarely before him, bearing all things, empowering all people, and says the only thing that needs to be said to change the world, I am the truth.
Jesus, the Word, redeems each of us who have ever cried out from the depths of our soul, “Where were you when I needed you?” Jesus, the Word, redeems each of us who feel consumed with pain, and fail to find God within it, but rather blame God for it. Jesus, the Word, redeems each of us who have ever seen only our own dilemma, as the entirety of the world, and failed to see the larger picture of the Kingdom of God. Jesus, the Word, redeems each of us who have ever protected our hearts from lavishly pouring out that precious gift God gave us to give away: love. We must be willing to be broken open to love. It is what allows Jesus to save us.
There are times within each one of our lives when we are called to give a complete and whole response to God’s call to follow, to serve, to love, to give, to devote oneself entirely and utterly to God. These are holy moments when God is calling us deeper into relationship and further out into our world, and our response matters to our individual lives, to our world, and to God.