God chose to enter into the world in order that the world might enter into God.  For reasons largely unknown to us, God chose for the entrance a small backwater in a conflicted little country, at a particularly discordant time in its history.    And because God made that choice, they became of course the most important place and time in human history.  But we must not therefore feel bound to the political and social categories of that place and time to interpret the life of God among us.

One of those categories is the category of royalty, of Kings and Kingdoms and thrones and castles and armies and royal attendants. That of course was the form of governance in the surrounding nations during the time most of the Old Testament was written, and continued right down to the time of Jesus and in various forms in most other places since then.

But that category for thinking about the relationship of God to His own creation is one of the things that Jesus corrected. The kingdom of heaven, as Christ informs us , is not at all like an earthly kingdom, and God’s reign is utterly different from our worldly notions.

Christ came to show us who God is. Does he show us God sitting on a throne? No, he shows us God sitting on a donkey, on the most humble of pack animals.

Does he show us God sending out his armies to conquer all potential enemies? No, he shows us God on His knees, washing the feet of His followers.

Does he show us God ruling with an iron fist over a vanquished world? No, he shows us God dying from love on a cross.

When Jesus teaches that the first will be last and the last first, he’s not saying that there will be a reversal of position, so that the lowliest in the earthly kingdoms will be the most elevated in heaven, and kings of earthly kingdoms will be reduced to servitude in heaven.

He’s teaching that what counts as royalty – as authority – in heaven is entirely different from what it is here, and that if we are to begin here and now to prepare ourselves and our thoughts for heaven’s reality, then we must direct our lives into channels of service and humility and anonymity, not so that we will receive some recompense or reward once we’re in heaven, but because, in heaven, those things are the reward.


Sacrifice, in the Christian sense, is not an exchange or a transaction. Thinking of it that way is a terrible mistake, but one often made. We model Christian sacrifice after Temple sacrifice, slaughtering animals in exchange for a good harvest, or shedding innocent blood in exchange for forgiveness.

But Christian sacrifice is not the giving up of some possession in anticipation of a replacement of greater value. Christian sacrifice is a sacrifice of the self, with no expectation of personal reward.

That’s why Jesus speaks of God as a loving father. When a parent brings new life into the world and loves that new creation, the parent immediately begins the process of self-sacrifice. In a thousand ways, the parent gives up his own life for the life of the child, not with the expectation of future reward, but simply because that is what love is, that is what love does.  Just so, Christian love at its heart is self-sacrificial.

But it is not therefore unconcerned. A parent sacrifices self, not with the expectation of personal recompense, but in the hope that the child will turn out well. A parent’s love is self-interested only in the sense that its interest now lies in the well-being of another, the child. A loving parent’s sacrifice of self is linked to a faith that the child’s well-being and health will be nourished by that sacrifice, that the child will flourish.

We say that the Son of God died for us, but the deeper reality is that God sacrificed Himself in faith.

Faith in each one of us.


In many images, Jesus stresses the importance of being ready, of preparation, of vigilance on our part. We are cautioned to be about our responsibilities when the master of the house comes home; we are advised to lay up our treasures in heaven, to maintain reserves of oil for our lamps, to invest our resources wisely. And there are many others. The images vary, but they are all embellishments on the same thought. That thought is of the danger – the daily danger – of reclaiming authority over ourselves from Christ.

I speak of the danger as being daily, but of course it is ever-present, rendering significant every breath, every action. Does that sound extreme? Yes, but so it must be, lying as it does at the pinnacle of spiritual significance. In those lofty regions, withholding eye contact from a panhandler can constitute as great an omission as Israel returning to idolatry.

Does that impose too great a burden on our conscience? Yes, of course, far too great for us to bear alone. That’s why Jesus bore our sins, and asks that we yolk to Him.

But doesn’t it render us abject and timid, shrinking from responsibility?

Only if you would say the same of a toddler learning to walk and relying on its parent’s steadying hand. And that is the very heart of the problem: We challenge the eagle, when we have not yet even learned to walk.


It is certainly true that God’s ultimate end and purpose can never change.  His never-changing end is that all His human children may know Him, as Christ knows Him.  His unalterable purpose is that all of us, every single one, be conformed to the image of Christ, that we become full and mature members of the Divine Family.

That never changes.  We all have the same ultimate destination.  But the way there is not fixed.  The changes of the season may be fixed by the motions of the earth in relation to the sun; the fall of avalanches may be determined by the mass and weight of the snow and the angle of the mountainside; the explosion inside the piston may be necessitated by the spark and the mixture of compressed gasses inside.  But the journey of each individual soul towards God is neither fixed, nor determined, nor necessitated.  That’s because we are God’s children, created in God’s image.  That freedom and the responsibility that attaches to it are what separates us from the inanimate parts of God’s creation.

And that same difference, that same freedom, is why Jesus teaches us to pray.   To imagine a God who is so bound by the mechanical laws of His own creation that He could not intervene to alter the course of that creation is to imagine a God who has less freedom than we do ourselves.

To imagine a God who would create children with a sense of their own freedom, and who exercise that freedom by turning to their Father in submission and appealing to Him for help, but who would willfully and eternally ignore those pleas for assistance, is to imagine a God, not of infinite love, but of infinite cruelty.



Faith has two components, call them A and B. A offers something, and B either responds or does not. A man hanging by his fingertips from the edge of a cliff sees a withered plant within reach. He offers his grip to that plant, and the plant either holds or it does not. Faith is always in something, although what it is in may of course prove unreliable.

Beyond this, we don’t know very much about faith, about that which lies at the root of our salvation. The ways we use the word in conversation, what we ‘mean’ by it, the way it functions…all these are matters of curiosity, but not of salvation.

But although we don’t know very much about it, what we do know is important, particularly that it involves willful activity, component A. It is a doing, not a being or an abstraction. It is not the game of baseball, it is a game of baseball. We do not demonstrate faith any more than the players are demonstrating a game. Their playing is the game.

When Jesus lauded the faith of the Syro-Phoenecian woman, he was focused on her activity, because it is the activity that advances the person along the way of salvation. When he called it great, he meant it was impressive, like a brilliant double-play. And when he rewarded her activity, he assured us that such activity is always an advancement, whatever the worldly response.


Heaven measures, not by size, but by weight. I’m using ‘weight,’ of course, as a metaphor or stand-in, because we have so little understanding of what it is. But Jesus Himself tells us that feeling anger towards someone, though it be hidden deep in one’s soul, has the same ‘weight’, in heaven’s measurement, as committing violence in a public square.  And by parity of reasoning, a murderer’s kindness to a cockroach in his jail cell may have a greater heavenly ‘weight’ than a saint’s ministrations to thousands.

That’s the same way of understanding what Jesus was modeling when he advised his followers that they would accomplish even greater things than He had done. The point was not that they would minister to larger numbers than he could manage, but rather that anything, however small, that they as fallen creatures might do because Jesus had gone to the Father – that they might do in His name – would have a ‘weight’ unlike anything else heaven had ever contained.


It is certainly the case that when a farmer sows wheat, he may expect to harvest wheat, and not carrots. When it comes to farming, like produces like, and it would be a poor and quickly disappointed farmer who operated according to any other principle.

And it is equally true that the size of a farmer’s fall harvest will depend on the amount of seed sown in the spring. Sow sparingly, reap a modest harvest; sow generously, reap in abundance. Slightly different from the first, but still an application of the general principle of like producing like.

These rustic illustrations of a general principle are often carried into the realm of religion. Sometimes their use in that realm is quite coarse, as when they are employed in appeals to donate generously to one’s church. In other cases, it finds application in giving religious sanction to an almost universal human appreciation of ‘aptness’ in punishment.

But do these applications about financial generosity being rewarded in kind, or criminal behavior meriting an equivalent response, really get at the heart of what Jesus is teaching when, in many different images, he points to a relationship of correspondence between our behavior and the consequences of our behavior? (Luke 6:38; Mark 4:24; Matthew 7:12; and elsewhere.)

Clearly not.

As for the first, the whole tenor of Christ’s teaching is to the point that following Him will not result in worldly reward. The rich young ruler is to dispose of his wealth, not with the expectation of a larger fortune, but because it is a hindrance to following Christ. Do what I tell you, He teaches his disciples, and the world will hate you. And so on. It is consistently Christ’s emphasis that one must not seek or expect worldly reward for one’s activities on His behalf, that such motivation in fact diminishes their spiritual weight. And to respond that the monetary reward will take place beyond the Pearly Gate is descending into inanity.

As for the moral application of the principle, suffice it to say that Jesus explicitly rejects it: You have heard it said, Eye for eye…but I tell you… Whatever sort of case – moral or prudential – can be made for equality or correspondence of punishment to infraction, it cannot find its warrant in the thought of Christ.

Which only brings us to our real interest. How then are we to understand good measures pressed down and running over, bearing fruit a hundredfold, and all the rest of Christ’s imagery?