Based on Ezekiel 34:11-24, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
In May of 1793, the French National Convention included in their decrees a statement on the responsibility of leaders that has been echoed by many people over the last 227 years. In one decree the authors stated that the national representatives “…must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power…”. This statement was reworked by such notables as Winston Churchill, the Roosevelts (Teddy and Franklin) and none other than Stan Lee in the Spiderman comic series in 1962. It is the latter case that brought it to my attention as an avid Spiderman reader. Peter Parker (aka Spiderman) was being counseled by his kindly Uncle Ben over some of his behaviors as he learned how to be a super-hero. Uncle Ben told Peter in no uncertain terms that “with great power comes great responsibility”. Learning to use power responsibly is one of the hallmarks of forming and living together in healthy community.
How does one learn to be responsible? Most of us were taught how to be responsible when we were young within our families of origin. Between 3 and 4 years of age we began to become more socially aware of how our choices and actions affected others. We began to understand that in order for our group life to be fair, just and to get things done, all members of the group must do their part. Whether it is cleaning up after an activity, taking turns with limited resources, doing jobs to the best of our ability, or not always getting our way, we learn to be responsive to the needs of others and responsible for our part in how well a group functions. If these early skills are reinforced, we learn how to be ever more responsible for larger and more challenging tasks. We may eventually become trusted enough to be put in charge of people, programs and budgets, or leading whole organizations. Each position of increased responsibility carries with it more actual or implied power. How we use the power entrusted to us determines what happens in our world. This is what our scriptures are speaking to us about today. Whether it is the prophet Ezekiel speaking God’s judgement against the leadership of Israel, Jesus judging the nations on their treatment of the marginalized or Paul writing about how Jesus uses his great power responsibly for our benefit. Before we go any further, let us go to God in prayer asking for the wisdom to use the power God gives us responsibly and well…
The prophet Ezekiel was carted off into exile in Babylon in the first defeat of Jerusalem. He has learned of the final fall and destruction of Jerusalem in the chapter before our reading for today. He is listening to God speak to him of the irresponsible behaviors of the leaders of the people – how they have been poor stewards of what they have been given. In our reading for today, God compares the leaders of Israel to poor shepherds who acted like their only responsibility was to themselves. They neglected and treated harshly the sheep of their flocks and so those sheep were scattered and preyed upon. Now, says the LORD God, those scattered sheep will be gathered and cared for and the weak strengthened, while the fat and strong will be destroyed. God’s judgment on Israel’s leaders is the result of their irresponsible use of the power God gave them.
Paul is opening his letter to the believers in Ephesus by noting their “faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints”. Paul prays for them that they might grow in their faith through the power of God’s grace and get to know God more intimately. Paul knows that as believers deepen their relationship with God that they will come to know the hope to which God calls all believers. That hope is the realization of God’s dreams for them – dreams that God has gifted them to realize. There is also the hope of the inheritance of the saints for the kingdom to come to earth – the inheritance of children of God. Finally, Paul’s prayer is that they realize the hope that the power of God is available to them through faith so that worldly powers and principalities, the kings and rulers of the world, can never finally defeat them. Paul’s point here is that when we act responsibly as heirs of God’s kingdom we are rewarded with hope, inheritance and power.
We are winding up our year in Matthew’s Gospel with today’s parable from Jesus. Starting next week we will be reading Mark’s Gospel until this time next year. This final parable from Matthew speaks of what will happen at the second coming to all the nations of the world and their people. We are told that Jesus the king will sort the sheep from the goats based upon how they have treated those among them who were marginalized and oppressed by the powers of the world. Here he is echoing what the prophet Ezekiel had to say. Have they taken responsibility for these “strangers” to welcome, feed and water, clothe, visit, and heal them? Notice in the parable both the sheep and the goats did not realize what they were or weren’t doing – both ask, “…Lord, when was it that we saw you…” The implication here is that we will never know when we are serving Jesus, so it behooves us to make responsible decisions about how we follow Jesus and care for “the least of these”.
Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said that with great power comes great responsibility. There are more than 100 Bible verses that deal with how we are to live responsibly with others as followers of God through the power that our faith gives us. They cover things like taking responsibility when we mess up as in Psalm 51; taking care of strangers like the Torah, the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel and today’s reading in Matthew; 2Corinthians 5 which deals with caring for each other and doing right; others include Ezekiel 18, Luke 6, 10 and 12, Genesis 3 and 4, Deuteronomy 28, Matthew 5-7, to list just a few of the more compelling teachings on this matter. It is not like we are unaware of these teachings – many of us have heard them repeated time and again in Sunday school, Confirmation, at Baptisms, etc – and have vowed in front of the Church to live into these teachings. We have heard how we are supposed to live responsibly and well as servants of God. Sadly, there are many preachers and laity who can quote chapter and verse on this, but whose lives take little to no responsibility for the lives of others inside or outside the Body of Christ.
At issue here is the process of memorizing versus embodying biblical teaching. All of the prophets of the Bible, Jesus included, chastised those who were all head and no heart. Prophets are adept at pointing out the hypocrisy of those in spiritual leadership positions and of those who follow them. Primarily those who say and do things responsibly on the Sabbath but then live the other six days of the week like the care and feeding of God’s sheep doesn’t matter. The spiritual leaders of Jesus’ time had responsibly memorized the 613 laws and applied them zealously and literally (ex: Saul who became Paul). Jesus knew the laws as much but chose to live responsibly into the spirit of why God gave them in the first place. For Jesus, the laws existed to help the people to understand their responsibility to grow in love for God and for everyone whom God had created. For Jesus, the laws are not an end in themselves, they are a means to an end of understanding our responsibility to follow the commandments of our God and King for the benefit of all of creation.
As children of God and followers of Christ the King we are given great power to work with God to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Great responsibility comes inseparably with that great power – the great responsibility to live in ways that seek to transform the unjust systems and institutions that fail to unite, and to heal and ensure that all are treated equitably. We are given the great responsibility to make sure all are welcomed; have adequate amounts of healthy food and clean water; safe, warm and dry shelter; adequate clothing; access to high quality, affordable healthcare; and a functional justice system that is impartial, unbiased and therefore truly just. Will you choose to live fully into that great responsibility and be sorted among the righteous sheep? My prayer for you is that you will have “the eyes of your heart enlightened” by the wisdom and revelation of God so that you will continue to grow in responsibility and love. Amen and amen!