The Lord said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”Luke 13:18–29
Today is the Sunday of the last judgment. We are preparing ourselves for Lent which will begin in one week’s time. But what is lent for? Jesus says that the Kingdom of God starts small. At its beginning, it is somewhat underestimated. Who would have guessed that a tiny mustard seed would become a big tree?
If you have never seen a tiny mustard seed, it is about the same size as a sesame seed or a poppyseed. Tiny seed. Big tree. Also the analogy about the baker: small yeast. Big loaf of bread. The Kingdom of God starts small. In particular, it starts with a very small amount of excitement. Holiness seems boring at first. There is no pomp and circumstance. If there is pomp and circumstance, or lightning and the choir of angels in your spiritual struggle, you are probably going in the wrong direction. There is a trap and a passion which, in Slavonic is called “Prelest” and in Greek is called “Plani.” It is spiritual delusion. People stir themselves into a spiritual ecstasy which they convince themselves is from God. But it is actually self-made. Carrying your cross means walking to your death. Very seldom is it anything but a challenge, and if the angels do show up, it is often in the midst of extreme struggle.
The Orthodox Christian spiritual path is not glamourous. It is not one that you would suspect opens into a great palace. It looks more like the servant’s entrance. A narrow door.
Jesus tells the people these two analogies today. And someone asks him “Are there only going to be only a few people who are saved?” What is Jesus’ answer? Jesus talks about the door to the household being shut. Get in while you can. To be sure, there is a deadline for repentance. There is a deadline for beginning the path of holiness. There is no deadline for completing the path to holiness, as that takes all of eternity. But make sure you are still pursuing it. Keep going. You do not know when the deadline is. It is either when you die or when Jesus comes back; whichever happens first. You do not know when that will be. So get busy now.
There is a second way of looking at the matter, which is that we observe this Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, every year. How many last judgments are there? The point is to remind us that the doors will close. This is meant to convince us do what Jesus says in this passage: Strive. Hurry up. Get to work. Do something! Your deed will be small and unremarkable like the mustard seed and like the yeast. They are both deposited and hidden. You have no control over what happens after that. You cannot make the tree grow or the dough rise, but they will.
There seem to only be a few people who can enter through the narrow gate. Or at least, it is difficult enough that many fail. Do it. Be one of the ones who strives. Be one of the ones who gives. Be one of the ones who deposits their fasting and their prayer into the earth and who believe that the creator of all will cause it to grow. Because while the level of difficulty might scare people off, the results will be out of all proportion to what you have done. Many will come from the east and the west and north and south to eat at the feast of the Kingdom Perhaps they will eat the bread that your yeast was put into. Perhaps they will eat food that has been flavoured with the mustard from the tree that your mustard seed grew into. I should not really say “perhaps.” It will happen. You will not see it in the short term.
Jesus says that the door will be shut, and the people will say: “Lord …” They call Jesus Lord. They say, “You came and taught in our cities, and we ate and drank with you.” These are largely passive matters though. Jesus was the one teaching, not them. Who did the cooking? These people were eating and drinking. They were members of the community, not servants of the community.
Do something. You are empowered. You are invited. What Jesus has done is not done in order that you do not have to do anything, but rather so that you will learn to do that which is good. Lent is given to you As that “something” to do.
If you must choose one thing to do during Lent (and you do not have to choose only one), show up. Practice the askesis of the feet: feet on the floor of the church. Your soul will be softened like a pebble in the stream because of all the prayers washing over it. You deposit your attendance, and the Kingdom of God will grow in you. But only if you show up. People tell me, “Father, I struggle to remember to pray, to make myself go to my icon corner and pray.” Well, lent helps you because you don’t have to organize your prayer yourself. You just show up at church. And you will be carried through a whole hour of prayer!
The second thing to do in lent is to search your soul and find more to give. Strive to come in through the narrow gate. Choose the challenge.
And third: fast. In the Orthodox Church, fasting means that we abstain from all or some of the following: meat, fish, dairy, alcohol, and sometimes from oil. This all depends on what kind of fasting day it is. During Lent we abstain from all of this except oil. Most of us should not attempt to abstain from oil. It is too much if you are not a monk, in most cases.
I am going to finish by reading two more passages which demonstrate the teaching of our gospel passage. One is from the Didache, which is a very early Christian document written only a few decades after Christ’ ascension. And the second one is the gospel reading which the deacon read a few minutes ago. Let’s see if you can hear any suggestions about what we can do.
There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbour as yourself; and all things whatsoever you would should not occur to you, do not also do to another. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there, if you love those who love you? Do not also the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone gives you a blow upon your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes away your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to everyone that asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). Happy is he that gives according to the commandment; for he is guiltless. Woe to him that receives; for if one having need receives, he is guiltless; but he that receives not having need, shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what, and, coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape thence until he pay back the last farthing. But also now concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.
The Lord said, “When the Son of man comes in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”MATTHEW 25:31-46