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The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

Gospel, First Reading & Psalm


Second Reading


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GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

So we are moving right along in the Gospel of Matthew, and we can find the parable in Matthew 22:1-14.  It is kind of a two-part parable, so stick with me as we read through it and I'll ask a few key questions about it and try to unpack its meaning.

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come.  Again he sent other servants, saying, `Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.'  But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.  The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.  Then he said to his servants, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.'  And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.  "But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'  For many are called, but few are chosen."

Okay, I hope you can see here that as with Jesus's other parables, this is one of those stories that is rooted in common life, it is rooted in experiences that even today people will be familiar with; like being invited to a wedding banquet, being invited to a wedding and to the reception.  That was a common part of Jewish life in the first century A.D.  And yet at the same time, there are some aspects of the parable that are strange, that are weird, that are unexpected, twists.  So, for example, in this case, number one, why don’t the people accept the invitation to the wedding?  I mean think about it, even today if we live in a republic or a democracy, if you received an invitation — like a wedding invitation — to the British royal families royal wedding, you would think twice about turning it down.  This is a major event.  The news media is going to cover it.  This is a huge thing, it is something that would be a big deal.  And yet, in this case, although these people are being invited to a royal wedding, where you know the food is going to be good and you know the drink is going to be good, and you know you are going to have a good time, they just turn it down to do things like go to your farm or your business.  It doesn’t make any sense.

Also too, another twist, notice that some of the reactions to the invitation is that they seize the servants, treat them shamefully, and kill them.  Now that's an unexpected response to a wedding invitation.  If somebody came to your house with a wedding invitation, you would not be inclined to take them aside and beat them, or much less to kill them.  So already, you are only a few verses into the story and you are already realizing very clearly that this is no ordinary king, this is no ordinary wedding feast, and these are no ordinary invitations that are being sent out.  Sure enough, the same thing happens with regard to the king's response.  If you sent a wedding invitation out to your relatives and your neighbors and a bunch of them didn't come, what would be your reaction?  Would it be to go and find them and burn down their homes?  Probably not, and yet that's how the king reacts here.  So the king is angry, he sends an army in, and he burns down the city of those to whom he had sent the invitation but who rejected it and did not respond,  who killed some of his servants.

And then finally, why does the king then turn around and say “go out to the streets and bring everyone in”?  The good, the bad, the ugly, whoever.  I want them all in my wedding feast.  And then at the very final part of the parable, when this guy comes in and he is apparently not dressed adequately for the wedding, what is the king's response?  Tie him up and throw him out of the wedding hall.  And not just throw him out of the wedding hall, but throw him out into the “outer darkness; there people will weep and gnash their teeth.”  Now if you're a Jew in the first century and you hear Jesus give this parable, you know what the outer darkness means.  The outer darkness was a way of referring to Gehenna, of referring to the realm of the damned, of the place of darkness and distress, where those who were wicked and who had rejected God would weep and gnash their teeth in punishment and in eternal separation from God, in the torments of what today we would call hell.

So the beginning of the parable, the kingdom of heaven is like “X”, and the end of the parable, being outside the wedding is like hell; both make clear to the audience that this is no ordinary king, this is no ordinary wedding, and it's no ordinary wedding feast.  So what's going on here?  Well a couple points.  Number one, obviously the king in the parable represents God, and he's giving a royal wedding feast for his son.  So the son here is a symbol for Christ, for Jesus, the Messiah.  In the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 2, Psalm 89, and in other places, the Messiah, the king of Israel, the Davidic king, would be referred to as the son of God.  That was a standard title for the king in the Old Testament.  So that is the background.  However, there is even more going on here when you look at the imagery of the wedding feast, because here Jesus is alluding to a Jewish tradition that saw the coming of God's age of salvation in terms of a wedding banquet.  This Jewish tradition is called the expectation of the messianic banquet — that is how scholars will refer to it — the messianic banquet, the banquet of the Messiah, the banquet of the kingdom of God.  And this expectation of a future banquet of the Messiah was actually rooted in the Old Testament itself, was rooted in the prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures, and in particular, in one prophecy from the book of Isaiah, which just so happens to be the first reading for today.  So once again, although we are not done with the parable yet, let’s go back to the Old Testament reading and see what that is.  In Isaiah 25 we have a prophetic description of what would later be called the messianic banquet, and this is how Isaiah describes this great feast:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined.  And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.  He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken.  It will be said on that day, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."

So pause there.  What is this banquet that Isaiah's describing?  Well notice several characteristics of it.  Number one, it's universal. Isaiah says it will be a feast “for all peoples.”  That is very important.  That means that it's not just going to be a banquet for the Jewish people, for the Israelites, but for the Jews and the Gentiles, for Israel and the nations of the world, to the universal feast.  Second, it's not just a universal feast, it's a sacrificial banquet.  That is really important.  You can see this when Isaiah says it will be a feast of “fat things.”  What is this reference to fat things?  Well here Isaiah is alluding to the language of Temple sacrifice.  If you go back to the Old Testament, in the book of Leviticus, one of my favorite verses is there.  Everyone knows John 3:16 — I am sorry, I am laughing already, I can’t help it — but this is Leviticus 3:16, which you will never see on a bumper sticker but which is a very important verse.  Leviticus 3:16 says “the fat belongs to the Lord.”  You can put that on a bumper sticker someday if you would like to.  What does it mean?  Well basically, in context, Leviticus 3:16 means that when they would offer the sacrifices, they didn't keep the fat of the animal — which was very valuable — for themselves, but they would offer it to God.  It would be burned up in the fire.  So when Isaiah talks about a feast of fat things, it's just an allusion to the Temple, it is an allusion to Temple sacrifices.

So it is a universal banquet, it is a sacrificial feast, number three, it is a supernatural feast, because at this banquet, what will be swallowed up?  Not just the sacrifices, but death itself.  Death will be swallowed up forever, which means that the banquet is also salvific, it has saving power.  As it says, “the Lord will come and will save us…take away our sins.”  Well, I hope you can see now what the significance of that prophecy of the messianic banquet is for Jesus' parable in the Gospel of Matthew.  If you go back to the parable in Matthew, you will understand that the feast that Jesus is speaking about in the parable is nothing less than the messianic banquet, the banquet of the kingdom of God, the banquet of salvation.  The banquet where God will swallow up death for ever and ever in the resurrection of the dead.  And that's why it's so shocking and so important that when God invites people to come to the messianic banquet, that when they refuse God, that when they reject the invitation, it is a matter, literally, of eternal life and death.  This is no simple invitation to an ordinary wedding feast, it's an invitation to God's kingdom.  It is an invitation to God's banquet.  It's an invitation to the banquet of the Messiah.

So when they respond to it either by rejecting the invitation, or in this case by killing some of the servants who bring the invitations, you know now what's going on.  Jesus is once again alluding to the rejection of him and his apostles by the leaders in Jerusalem.  If you have any doubts about this, you might remember from last week, we saw the parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21 which Jesus delivered to the chief priests and the elders in Jerusalem's Temple.  Well this parable of the royal wedding feast picks up immediately after that and says, again, “Jesus spoke to them in parables.”  In other words, he is still addressing the same audience here.  He is still addressing the crowd in Jerusalem, the leaders in Jerusalem, who have rejected him.  So they represent, in that sense, those who had rejected the servants of the king, who had been invited to the banquet.

So in response to that, just as in the earlier parable of the wicked tenants, the vineyard was taken away from leaders and given to someone else, so too now, the invitation was sent to the leaders of the people, but since they've rejected it, the King says “well go out and invite everyone, the good and the bad.  Go out into the streets and invite the people in for the royal wedding.”  Now no king would ever do this.  No king — well except maybe St. Louis, King of France, but that is a different issue, he was a saint — but no ordinary king is ever going to say “invite everybody, the poor in the streets, I want them to come into my wedding.”  No, there is going to be a short list.  Even today for a royal wedding, if you are going to go to the British royal wedding, you have to be on the short list.  You have to be among the elite of the world, or at least know the royal family in some way.  But this king does something crazy, he says “go out in the street and invite everyone into my wedding feast so that the halls might be filled, good and bad, everyone can come.”  So what that obviously represents, in a sense, is the message of the kingdom, beginning in the land of Israel, beginning in Jerusalem, but then once the Jerusalem leaders have rejected it, it's going to go out to the ends of the earth and it is going to include not just Israel, but also the Gentiles, not just the good, those who are members of the covenant, but the peoples of the world as well.

SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

So in this case, I think I would actually back up just a bit to verse 11. So although the lectionary begins in verse 12, if you look at the verse before, it actually gives you a little bit of context. He says in that verse:

Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.

And then he goes on to say:

I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.

So the text for today from Paul is another one of these “secrets.” It’s like a key—a spiritual key—to how to navigate the different circumstances of life that we find ourselves faced with. Now I don’t know about you, but if I would have written this, I would have written “I’ve learned how to face the difficulties of life.” I would have just focused on that. But notice, Paul doesn’t say that. He says:

I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.

Okay, so the first thing to notice about this text is Paul seems to think that we don’t just need to navigate the difficult times in life, where we face trials. He also thinks we need to know the secret of navigating times of abundance, times of plenty, times of consolation. And you know, that might…it should strike us as a little odd at first, because our natural disposition is, “Well, how do I navigate times of abundance and exaltation? Well, I enjoy them. I lap it up. I have a good time and enjoy myself. And then when the trials come, that’s when I need to buckle down and really face things.”

But remember, Paul’s a Jew, and he would have known the Jewish Scriptures well. And one of things that you’ll see when you read through the Jewish Scriptures, when you read through the Old Testament—notice I said “when” you read the Old Testament, not “if”... “when.” When you read the Old Testament, you’ll notice that there’s often a pattern that you’ll see in the history of Israel. This is especially clear in the book of Judges, for example. So the people will find themselves in a time of suffering, and God will rescue them from the suffering. He’ll send a deliverer. He’ll send a judge. And when that judge comes, he sets the people free. He brings them salvation. And once they’re free from whatever the trouble is, they tend to enter into a period of surplus, a period of success. They abound, to use Paul’s language here.

And what you’ll always notice, over and over again, especially in the book of Judges, is once they enter into that period of surplus, that period of peace or material wealth, material well being—fields are ripe, the trees are full of fruit, everything seems well—they will tend to fall back into sin. They tend to forget about God when things are going well, and this is a pattern over and over again in the book of Judges...and not just Judges, but elsewhere in the history of Israel.

In other words, surplus and plenty, economic well being, physical well being, material wealth—these things are good, but they're dangerous. They’re spiritually dangerous, because they can incline us to forget about God. The person who everything seems to be going well in their life, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking they don’t need God. This is why Jesus says in the Gospel:

...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

He’s not saying there’s anything intrinsically evil about a rich person, but he is saying there is something spiritually deadly about wealth, about surplus. So what Paul is saying here to the Philippians is “I’ve learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger. I’ve learned the secret of navigating abundance and want.” And what is that secret?

I can do all things in him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)

Okay, now that’s a very famous verse. You’ll often see it adapted as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—kind of like a bumper sticker type verse. It’s a verse that people love. It resonates with them. They’ll take it out of context and use it as a memory verse. And that’s fine to use that verse in that way, but it’s important for us (if we’re going to make that a memory verse) to remember...what’s the context here? Paul’s not saying I can do anything. It doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want, that’s for sure. And he also doesn’t mean “I can do all things” in the sense of “I am able to do all things,” like there are no limits for me. That’s not what he’s getting at either.

What he’s saying is as long as I remain in Him—namely, in Christ—as long as I remain in communion with Christ and I abide in Him, then I can navigate both the spiritual dangers of abundance and exaltation and plenty, as well as the spiritual difficulties of hunger and want and being abased.

And by the way, the word there for “abased” is tapeinousthai. It’s the same word we saw Paul use for Christ—tapeinaō is he Humbled Himself. He lowered Himself. So he’s saying, “I’ve learned the secret of how to be low and how to be high, how to be hungry, how to be full, how to be poor, and how to be rich. The secret is...stay rooted in Christ. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

So it’s only through Christ’s grace, through His strength, through His virtue, that we can navigate the dangerous waters and the ups—literally, the ups—and downs. That’s what Paul is describing here, the ups and downs of life in Christ.

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Gospel, First Reading & Psalm


Second Reading


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GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

So we are moving right along in the Gospel of Matthew, and we can find the parable in Matthew 22:1-14.  It is kind of a two-part parable, so stick with me as we read through it and I'll ask a few key questions about it and try to unpack its meaning.

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come.  Again he sent other servants, saying, `Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.'  But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.  The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.  Then he said to his servants, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.'  And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.  "But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'  For many are called, but few are chosen."

Okay, I hope you can see here that as with Jesus's other parables, this is one of those stories that is rooted in common life, it is rooted in experiences that even today people will be familiar with; like being invited to a wedding banquet, being invited to a wedding and to the reception.  That was a common part of Jewish life in the first century A.D.  And yet at the same time, there are some aspects of the parable that are strange, that are weird, that are unexpected, twists.  So, for example, in this case, number one, why don’t the people accept the invitation to the wedding?  I mean think about it, even today if we live in a republic or a democracy, if you received an invitation — like a wedding invitation — to the British royal families royal wedding, you would think twice about turning it down.  This is a major event.  The news media is going to cover it.  This is a huge thing, it is something that would be a big deal.  And yet, in this case, although these people are being invited to a royal wedding, where you know the food is going to be good and you know the drink is going to be good, and you know you are going to have a good time, they just turn it down to do things like go to your farm or your business.  It doesn’t make any sense.

Also too, another twist, notice that some of the reactions to the invitation is that they seize the servants, treat them shamefully, and kill them.  Now that's an unexpected response to a wedding invitation.  If somebody came to your house with a wedding invitation, you would not be inclined to take them aside and beat them, or much less to kill them.  So already, you are only a few verses into the story and you are already realizing very clearly that this is no ordinary king, this is no ordinary wedding feast, and these are no ordinary invitations that are being sent out.  Sure enough, the same thing happens with regard to the king's response.  If you sent a wedding invitation out to your relatives and your neighbors and a bunch of them didn't come, what would be your reaction?  Would it be to go and find them and burn down their homes?  Probably not, and yet that's how the king reacts here.  So the king is angry, he sends an army in, and he burns down the city of those to whom he had sent the invitation but who rejected it and did not respond,  who killed some of his servants.

And then finally, why does the king then turn around and say “go out to the streets and bring everyone in”?  The good, the bad, the ugly, whoever.  I want them all in my wedding feast.  And then at the very final part of the parable, when this guy comes in and he is apparently not dressed adequately for the wedding, what is the king's response?  Tie him up and throw him out of the wedding hall.  And not just throw him out of the wedding hall, but throw him out into the “outer darkness; there people will weep and gnash their teeth.”  Now if you're a Jew in the first century and you hear Jesus give this parable, you know what the outer darkness means.  The outer darkness was a way of referring to Gehenna, of referring to the realm of the damned, of the place of darkness and distress, where those who were wicked and who had rejected God would weep and gnash their teeth in punishment and in eternal separation from God, in the torments of what today we would call hell.

So the beginning of the parable, the kingdom of heaven is like “X”, and the end of the parable, being outside the wedding is like hell; both make clear to the audience that this is no ordinary king, this is no ordinary wedding, and it's no ordinary wedding feast.  So what's going on here?  Well a couple points.  Number one, obviously the king in the parable represents God, and he's giving a royal wedding feast for his son.  So the son here is a symbol for Christ, for Jesus, the Messiah.  In the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 2, Psalm 89, and in other places, the Messiah, the king of Israel, the Davidic king, would be referred to as the son of God.  That was a standard title for the king in the Old Testament.  So that is the background.  However, there is even more going on here when you look at the imagery of the wedding feast, because here Jesus is alluding to a Jewish tradition that saw the coming of God's age of salvation in terms of a wedding banquet.  This Jewish tradition is called the expectation of the messianic banquet — that is how scholars will refer to it — the messianic banquet, the banquet of the Messiah, the banquet of the kingdom of God.  And this expectation of a future banquet of the Messiah was actually rooted in the Old Testament itself, was rooted in the prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures, and in particular, in one prophecy from the book of Isaiah, which just so happens to be the first reading for today.  So once again, although we are not done with the parable yet, let’s go back to the Old Testament reading and see what that is.  In Isaiah 25 we have a prophetic description of what would later be called the messianic banquet, and this is how Isaiah describes this great feast:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined.  And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.  He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken.  It will be said on that day, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."

So pause there.  What is this banquet that Isaiah's describing?  Well notice several characteristics of it.  Number one, it's universal. Isaiah says it will be a feast “for all peoples.”  That is very important.  That means that it's not just going to be a banquet for the Jewish people, for the Israelites, but for the Jews and the Gentiles, for Israel and the nations of the world, to the universal feast.  Second, it's not just a universal feast, it's a sacrificial banquet.  That is really important.  You can see this when Isaiah says it will be a feast of “fat things.”  What is this reference to fat things?  Well here Isaiah is alluding to the language of Temple sacrifice.  If you go back to the Old Testament, in the book of Leviticus, one of my favorite verses is there.  Everyone knows John 3:16 — I am sorry, I am laughing already, I can’t help it — but this is Leviticus 3:16, which you will never see on a bumper sticker but which is a very important verse.  Leviticus 3:16 says “the fat belongs to the Lord.”  You can put that on a bumper sticker someday if you would like to.  What does it mean?  Well basically, in context, Leviticus 3:16 means that when they would offer the sacrifices, they didn't keep the fat of the animal — which was very valuable — for themselves, but they would offer it to God.  It would be burned up in the fire.  So when Isaiah talks about a feast of fat things, it's just an allusion to the Temple, it is an allusion to Temple sacrifices.

So it is a universal banquet, it is a sacrificial feast, number three, it is a supernatural feast, because at this banquet, what will be swallowed up?  Not just the sacrifices, but death itself.  Death will be swallowed up forever, which means that the banquet is also salvific, it has saving power.  As it says, “the Lord will come and will save us…take away our sins.”  Well, I hope you can see now what the significance of that prophecy of the messianic banquet is for Jesus' parable in the Gospel of Matthew.  If you go back to the parable in Matthew, you will understand that the feast that Jesus is speaking about in the parable is nothing less than the messianic banquet, the banquet of the kingdom of God, the banquet of salvation.  The banquet where God will swallow up death for ever and ever in the resurrection of the dead.  And that's why it's so shocking and so important that when God invites people to come to the messianic banquet, that when they refuse God, that when they reject the invitation, it is a matter, literally, of eternal life and death.  This is no simple invitation to an ordinary wedding feast, it's an invitation to God's kingdom.  It is an invitation to God's banquet.  It's an invitation to the banquet of the Messiah.

So when they respond to it either by rejecting the invitation, or in this case by killing some of the servants who bring the invitations, you know now what's going on.  Jesus is once again alluding to the rejection of him and his apostles by the leaders in Jerusalem.  If you have any doubts about this, you might remember from last week, we saw the parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21 which Jesus delivered to the chief priests and the elders in Jerusalem's Temple.  Well this parable of the royal wedding feast picks up immediately after that and says, again, “Jesus spoke to them in parables.”  In other words, he is still addressing the same audience here.  He is still addressing the crowd in Jerusalem, the leaders in Jerusalem, who have rejected him.  So they represent, in that sense, those who had rejected the servants of the king, who had been invited to the banquet.

So in response to that, just as in the earlier parable of the wicked tenants, the vineyard was taken away from leaders and given to someone else, so too now, the invitation was sent to the leaders of the people, but since they've rejected it, the King says “well go out and invite everyone, the good and the bad.  Go out into the streets and invite the people in for the royal wedding.”  Now no king would ever do this.  No king — well except maybe St. Louis, King of France, but that is a different issue, he was a saint — but no ordinary king is ever going to say “invite everybody, the poor in the streets, I want them to come into my wedding.”  No, there is going to be a short list.  Even today for a royal wedding, if you are going to go to the British royal wedding, you have to be on the short list.  You have to be among the elite of the world, or at least know the royal family in some way.  But this king does something crazy, he says “go out in the street and invite everyone into my wedding feast so that the halls might be filled, good and bad, everyone can come.”  So what that obviously represents, in a sense, is the message of the kingdom, beginning in the land of Israel, beginning in Jerusalem, but then once the Jerusalem leaders have rejected it, it's going to go out to the ends of the earth and it is going to include not just Israel, but also the Gentiles, not just the good, those who are members of the covenant, but the peoples of the world as well.

SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

So in this case, I think I would actually back up just a bit to verse 11. So although the lectionary begins in verse 12, if you look at the verse before, it actually gives you a little bit of context. He says in that verse:

Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.

And then he goes on to say:

I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.

So the text for today from Paul is another one of these “secrets.” It’s like a key—a spiritual key—to how to navigate the different circumstances of life that we find ourselves faced with. Now I don’t know about you, but if I would have written this, I would have written “I’ve learned how to face the difficulties of life.” I would have just focused on that. But notice, Paul doesn’t say that. He says:

I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.

Okay, so the first thing to notice about this text is Paul seems to think that we don’t just need to navigate the difficult times in life, where we face trials. He also thinks we need to know the secret of navigating times of abundance, times of plenty, times of consolation. And you know, that might…it should strike us as a little odd at first, because our natural disposition is, “Well, how do I navigate times of abundance and exaltation? Well, I enjoy them. I lap it up. I have a good time and enjoy myself. And then when the trials come, that’s when I need to buckle down and really face things.”

But remember, Paul’s a Jew, and he would have known the Jewish Scriptures well. And one of things that you’ll see when you read through the Jewish Scriptures, when you read through the Old Testament—notice I said “when” you read the Old Testament, not “if”... “when.” When you read the Old Testament, you’ll notice that there’s often a pattern that you’ll see in the history of Israel. This is especially clear in the book of Judges, for example. So the people will find themselves in a time of suffering, and God will rescue them from the suffering. He’ll send a deliverer. He’ll send a judge. And when that judge comes, he sets the people free. He brings them salvation. And once they’re free from whatever the trouble is, they tend to enter into a period of surplus, a period of success. They abound, to use Paul’s language here.

And what you’ll always notice, over and over again, especially in the book of Judges, is once they enter into that period of surplus, that period of peace or material wealth, material well being—fields are ripe, the trees are full of fruit, everything seems well—they will tend to fall back into sin. They tend to forget about God when things are going well, and this is a pattern over and over again in the book of Judges...and not just Judges, but elsewhere in the history of Israel.

In other words, surplus and plenty, economic well being, physical well being, material wealth—these things are good, but they're dangerous. They’re spiritually dangerous, because they can incline us to forget about God. The person who everything seems to be going well in their life, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking they don’t need God. This is why Jesus says in the Gospel:

...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

He’s not saying there’s anything intrinsically evil about a rich person, but he is saying there is something spiritually deadly about wealth, about surplus. So what Paul is saying here to the Philippians is “I’ve learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger. I’ve learned the secret of navigating abundance and want.” And what is that secret?

I can do all things in him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)

Okay, now that’s a very famous verse. You’ll often see it adapted as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—kind of like a bumper sticker type verse. It’s a verse that people love. It resonates with them. They’ll take it out of context and use it as a memory verse. And that’s fine to use that verse in that way, but it’s important for us (if we’re going to make that a memory verse) to remember...what’s the context here? Paul’s not saying I can do anything. It doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want, that’s for sure. And he also doesn’t mean “I can do all things” in the sense of “I am able to do all things,” like there are no limits for me. That’s not what he’s getting at either.

What he’s saying is as long as I remain in Him—namely, in Christ—as long as I remain in communion with Christ and I abide in Him, then I can navigate both the spiritual dangers of abundance and exaltation and plenty, as well as the spiritual difficulties of hunger and want and being abased.

And by the way, the word there for “abased” is tapeinousthai. It’s the same word we saw Paul use for Christ—tapeinaō is he Humbled Himself. He lowered Himself. So he’s saying, “I’ve learned the secret of how to be low and how to be high, how to be hungry, how to be full, how to be poor, and how to be rich. The secret is...stay rooted in Christ. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

So it’s only through Christ’s grace, through His strength, through His virtue, that we can navigate the dangerous waters and the ups—literally, the ups—and downs. That’s what Paul is describing here, the ups and downs of life in Christ.

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