Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Be Debt Free!

     I find it fascinating that the Parable of the Shrewd Manager comes right after the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Hmmm...one is well known.  The other?  No so much.
     This parable comes after a long string of "The Lost  ____."  We have looked with the shepherd for one sheep, a woman for a coin, and a son who goes and loses everything and returns home, seeking forgiveness.
     All of these were in the hearing of the "Pharisees and the teachers of the law." (Luke 15:2)  The eager audience of "tax collectors and 'sinners'" had once, again, brought disdainful looks and comments from the self-righteous listening in on Jesus. 
      My daughter made an interesting point to me today.  You can help others, but if after you help, you then turn self-righteous about it, you negate the good you've done.  God wants our obedience to be sure, but He equally wants a good attitude about what we do.  The Pharisees are all too willing to do good, but they then act like they are the ONLY ones who are obedient to God and how dare this Jesus comment on our attitude?  At least we are doing what God commands.  Can we say that of those tax collectors?  Those 'sinners'?  This Jesus?  No way.  
     Attitude begets altitude.  If you fly low and slow, helping but judging as you go, you never get lift.  You fly high in His love, and reach out and do your work in His name, then you truly acting as His son or daughter.
     So, let's get to our parable, found in Like 16:1-8:
     "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
      The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
      So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
      'Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
    The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
     Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
   ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
   He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
   The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light."
    Wow.  This is not your average parable.  But let's try to unpack it, and sees where it leads.  
    Who accused the manager of wasting the rich man's possessions?  Was it the rich man's friends? Was it the talk of the town?  Whoever got it started, the accusation reached the ears of the rich man, and he wanted to investigate the matter.  He just didn't sack the manager.  He wanted evidence of the manager's practices.  The rich man would then make a judgment.  
     So, we have a rich man who is calling into question one of his employees.  This manager is under suspicion.  Interesting how earlier on, the Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus' choice of who to teach.  So, could the rich man be the Pharisees' and their attitude towards Jesus?  You are teaching and preaching the Torah and that, Rabbi from Nazareth, puts you under our domain--we are the representatives of the Torah, so you answer to us.   Account for yourself.  We won't sack you outright; we will show our magnanimity by allowing you to demonstrate how you deal with our "clients."
     So, the manager sees his job going away quickly.  He doesn't doesn't openly deny or affirm his master's suspicions.  He sees himself not cut out for digging ditches or begging.  He plans for the future by investing in his master's clients.  He decides to show the rich man how he goes about the business. Why?  He knows that once the rich man lets him go, he'll need a place to stay to get on his feet.  He knows the clients in town and he wishes to put his business relationship with them to good use:  he wants to gain some friends at the end of all this.
     So, in front of the master's debtors, he shows his master what his cleverness.  The rich man probably ducked out behind a curtain, so he could hear the manager in action.  The first client owes 800 gallons of olive oil.  The client is all too aware of what he owes.  But the manager has him change the bill by reducing the amount owed to 400--half the original amount.  
     The second client owes a 1000 bushels of wheat--he also is all too aware of what he owes.  The manager has him changed the bill to be only 800.  The clients leave and the rich man steps back into the room.
     The manager reduced what is owed by these clients by having them change the bill.  They left grateful,  for any reduction in debt is a benefit.  The debt can be paid back sooner.  With the clients gone and prepared to pay the new amount, the rich man looks with respect upon the manager.  
     Yes, the manager is "dishonest" for he did not have permission to reduce the amount of the debt.  He is to manage the rich man's affairs, not make decisions on his own.  But his solution created happy clients, who will more than welcome him in once he is unemployed.  
      "Shrewd" is defined as "having or showing sharp powers of judgment; astute" per the online dictionary.  Remember the original charge against the manager?  He was accused of mishandling and "wasting" the rich man's possessions.  Perhaps he had in the past; we don't know.   But the manager's solution now brought praise from the rich man.
     Jesus then comments,  “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.  Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.  So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?  And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?  No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."  (Luke 16:8-12)
     Hmmm...This interesting commentary from Jesus.  He is accused of effectively mishandling what the Pharisees value:  the Word of God, the Torah.  The clients knew what they owed; Jesus' listeners, tax collectors and sinners, have no doubt what they owe and how they are not welcomed in the Pharisees' version of God's kingdom.
    Jesus' listeners are like the clients--their debt is lessened and they go away happier than when they first showed up.  The burden they now carry is less because of the way Jesus handles the Word.  It's the same "debt"--the Word of God--but in Jesus' managerial capacity, the Word is not so burdensome, as it is when the Pharisees handle it.  
     He then zeroes in on the real issue of the Pharisees:  where their hearts truly are.  They are the "rich man."  They are the accusers of this "manager."  They demand an accounting.  
     Then Jesus says, just like He did with the rich young man, Give it away, boys.  Even the ungodly know how to use wealth to gain friends and influence people.  You claim to be godly; OK, then, why not use it to further the good?  You are not handling the blessings you have with much honor and care; you just want more and the status it brings.  
     I, as God's Manager, am now calling YOU to account for what you have.  
     You have been blessed with much, yet give so little.  You claim to be rich in God, yet you are miserly with what is, after all, His.  You really have two masters above you, boys, and you must choose.  The object of your devotion is evident, and it must change.  You can't serve both. 
     Whoa:  Look at the reaction of the Pharisees:  "The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, 'You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.'"
     This Manager will go one step further than the one in the story:  He will climb upon a cross to fully pay the debt of sin and shame we all carry.  No reduction of the debt.  It will be a full remission.  
     When we wave the "bill" in God's face,  look at it carefully:  It says "paid" and is written in the blood of Jesus.   
"So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."  (John 8:36)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

You First...No, GOD First! (Part II)

     We have just been unpacking the parable of the workers in the vineyard, who despite being hired at different times of the day, receive the same pay, in Matthew 20. 
    After His resurrection, Jesus taught His followers deeply from the Scriptures, as He has sought to do throughout His ministry, but now it had an urgency:  "'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' 
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.'" (Luke 24:44-9)
     In other words, the whole sweep of the Old Testament applies to the Messiah, and He is the Anointed One.  He connected the scriptural dots, and with the advent of the Holy Spirit, these men and women went out and turned the world upside down. 
     He is also the fulfillment of the covenant to King David.   He is the King who will reign forever, out of the house of David.  So, tucked away in this parable, could there be a veiled reference to a story that happened to David and his men?
     In 1 Samuel 30, David and his men are waging war on the Amalekites.  These unpleasant folks had raided an area and took away the wives and children of David and his men.  The men and David are utterly shocked, and cry to where "they had no strength to weep."  Their anguish turns to anger with David, and they consider killing him, but "David found strength in the LORD his God."  He seeks of God whether or not he should pursue this raiding party, and receives the divine green light. 
     He gathers his 600 men, and away they go.  Some 200 stay behind at the ravine, for they "were too exhausted to cross the ravine."  No worries--David heads out with his 400.  They happen upon an Egyptian slave, left behind in a field by an Amalekite when he grew ill.  David feeds him and this man leads him and his men to where the raiding party is. 
     David wins the day and recovers all that had been taken.  As he is returning, some malcontents say that the plunder shouldn't be shared among the men who stayed behind.  They should receive back only their family members.   
     David's response is quite similar to the words of the vineyard owner in the parable:  “'No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the Lord has given us. He has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiding party that came against us. Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.'" (1 Sam. 30:23-24)
     Notice that David is effectively the "owner" of the plunder and has the right to distribute the goodies as he sees fit; the owner of the vineyard in the parable can pay the workers what he chooses.  It is God's plunder, as David reminds everyone. 
     Jesus implies that the vineyard is the Lord's as well.  
     Coincidence?  I think not.  What we have here are unemployed vineyard workers and men who were emotionally exhausted...not involved from the word "go," but still part of the community.  This is a community where preferences are not given.  Fairness is the hallmark of the Kingdom of God, and it was exemplified in David's attitude towards his men, and the vineyard owner's attitude to the late-comers.  
     It is this equality that is so unlike the world and how it sees things.  Even those who are religious get testy when the "least of these" receives high praise from Jesus.  Remember the disciples and their reaction to the children brought before Jesus?  
     In the parable, the owner distributed the wages equally to all.  The malcontents say,  "‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’"  Yes, in the world's economy, they deserve more.  But not so in the Kingdom of God.  The owner says, "Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’"  Ouch.
    It was King David's plunder and it was the owner's vineyard.  We need to shift away from the values of the world that say that those who do more deserve more.  And yet, how many people complain about all of the wealth and resources being in the hands of the few?  The few would argue they deserve it, because they have worked hard; they were born to it; they are entitled to it because of their superior intelligence.  
     But in the Kingdom, we are God's children, all standing equal before Him not because of anything we have done, but because of what He did for us.  The plunder and the pay are ours because of His Son and His willingness to die for the good, the bad and the ugly.  
     Those who are exhausted, tired, late, or early are all invited to come.  
     Why?  He paid the price of admission.  We just walk in with joy and thankfulness for His bounty and pull up a chair.  


Monday, April 13, 2015

You First! No, YOU First! No: GOD FIRST (Part I)

     Jesus' encounter with people was one of contrasts.  In Matthew 19, we see little ones being brought before Him.  You can just imagine the scene:  mothers, hovering around on the fringes of the crowd, trying to keep their children from being too loud or too wiggly.  Jesus has just finished a discourse on divorce with the Pharisees.  His view is that divorce is only allowed because of men's hardened hearts.  That must have been refreshing to the ears of His women listeners, who more often than not felt responsible for their husband's displeasure, and deeply feared that ugly word if they failed one too many times.  Did Jesus words encourage them to move from the outside of the crowd to the inside? 
     As the mothers brought forth their little ones, the disciples "rebuked those who brought them."  (Matt. 19:13)  How come?  Was it unseemly for a man of Jesus' importance to interact with children?  Did the disciples see the Master's time as too valuable to be wasted on children?   After all, He just squared off against the religious leaders--now that's really important!
     Jesus always had time for the "least of these."  He says, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt. 19:14)
    I bet the disciples, in their desire to honor Jesus, felt rather abashed by what He said.  In their effort to protect His status in the community's estimation, they lost sight of His message.  The Kingdom of God is not about putting arrogant authorities in their place; it is about swinging the gates wide open for those who are eager to be with God.
    Next, we see a man inquiring of Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life.  After his admission that he keeps the commandments, Jesus asks him to sell what he has, thereby gaining "treasure in heaven." (19:21).  Jesus then invites the young man to follow him.  But the young man declines, "because he had great wealth." (19:22)  So, Jesus comments to the disciples how wealth is a hindrance for entering in the Kingdom.  
     Why?  Wealth makes us feel self-sufficient.  We don't pray for our daily bread because, hey, we own the bakery.  We don't thank Him for the morning, because, hey, it's another day to make a profit.  We don't thank our Father for His bounty and blessings, because, hey, I earned that by the sweat of my brow.  
     The disciples are disturbed and Jesus then reminds them that “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (19:26)  Exactly.  Our self-importance must be set aside.  We must humbly enter the narrow gate of the Kingdom with the Holy Spirit working in our spirit, bringing us to that place of child-like wonder and trust.
     Peter then pipes up with an observation that the disciples have left everything to follow Him..."What then will there be for us?"  (19:27)
     Peter always says what the others are thinking.  I love that quality about him.  He doesn't silently muse on Jesus' teachings; he goes for broke and blurts out his thoughts.
     Jesus then reminds them that whatever they have left behind on this Earth to follow Him will more than be made up for when He returns.  But, a hallmark of the Kingdom is humility:  "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first." (19:30)
     Be like those children earlier, Peter, who came to Me without seeking anything other than My love.  No strings, no compensations for perceived loss, just a sincere desire to bask in the sunshine of My love. 
     Then, on the tail-end of all this, He speaks this parable:   
     “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.  About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
     ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
     He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
     “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’  The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
     ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
     But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?   Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
   So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:1-6)
   Wow.  Those who have labored long and hard are equal to those who come to the vineyard late.  Why?  Because in the Kingdom of God, no one gets a preference.  All come and sit at the banquet table as equals: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28)
     Put this teaching back into what Jesus recently encountered:  The Pharisees wanting to "test" Him, probably in order to discredit Him before the crowds; Jesus blessing the little children; Jesus asking the rich young man to love God more than his wealth and encouraging the disciples that in the Kingdom economy, a loss is a gain.
     Authority, wealth, knowledge, rules, regulations, knowing one's place...in our world, these things mattered then and they matter now.  In the Kingdom of God?  No.  None of it.
     Only the children are commended by Jesus as already being in His Kingdom.  Why?  They waited until all of the adults were done discussing and debating the Law with Jesus.  They were "brought" to Jesus with no demands nor questions.  They simply gazed into His eyes and saw His love radiating back to them.  They were the "last," the "least" in the society of the day, and yet, they were first in His Father's Kingdom.   
     The parable comes in like a flood, to wash away any doubt about how to enter the Kingdom of God.
     Humility is the price of admission.  Everyone who accepts the ticket from Jesus' hand comes in.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Today, You Decide: Fruit or Fire

     It's always noteworthy to see what preceded Jesus' teaching.  You can imagine the people listening to Jesus and someone eagerly brings up this horrible event for Jesus' interpretation: "Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.'” 
      The Book of Job was as familiar to this crowd as it is to us.  The righteous man visited with sufferings unimaginable, draws us immediately in with the question:  Why do we suffer?  All of Job's friends have explanations and Job is constantly bombarded with the idea that he must have done something to warrant his current situation.  So, tucked into telling of the Galileans' tragedy to Jesus is, what sin did these people commit to warrant such treatment?
     Stop for a moment.  Think about what is really being asked.  What did those Galileans do so we can avoid doing the same things and avoid having that kind of judgment rained down on us?  In other words, like Job's friends, who kept hunting for something that he must have done, these listeners of Jesus are on the same hunt.  Going even deeper still, at the core of the question, is pride.  We won't have that kind of judgment on us because we are good!  We haven't done anything so obviously wrong that we'll get into trouble.  
     Like Job's friends, who were terrified that they would be the next Job, these people are distancing themselves from suffering with their prideful assertion that things like that don't happen to people like us--that is, good people--only to bad people. 
     Jesus had no tolerance for separating ourselves from those who suffer.  Satan was involved in Job's suffering.  We live in a fallen world, and we live under the rule of the Prince of this World, who loves to torment and cause pain and suffering among the just and the unjust.  Why?  Because the just grow afraid that they are not good enough and have committed some unpardonable sin, and the unjust sink deeper into despair, thinking they are beyond the reach of God.  Ultimately, both the unjust and the just move further away from each other, not willing to share the burden of walking on a planet defiled by sin's consequence.  
     We want to be considered just, because our sins are not as bad as that other guy's.  We compare ourselves to each other, and we walk out on the good side of things.  Or, we are so stepped in sin and shame that we walk out hanging our heads.
     But here's the key:  the standard of goodness is not each other...it is God Himself.  Paul speaks of all of us when he says that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." (Romans. 3:23).  
      Whoa.  So, those of you standing on the "We Are the Just--We Won't Suffer 'Cause We're Good" side of the field need to come on down. 
      Those of  you who are standing on the "We Are the Unjust--We Deserve Everything We Get" side of the field need to come on down.  
     Let's meet in the middle.  And what is the middle part of the Humanity Field called?  "We All Have Eternity Staring at Us and We All Stand Condemned."  Coach Jesus is calling us and warning us that the world is filled with evil--there are towers and Pilates everywhere and they can strike us at any time.
     How do we play this field, then, Coach?  With humility.  Those who sin and those who suffer are on the same field.  We are a team.  We are all in this together.  We all have in common our sin, our failings and our need for a Savior.  Don't stand on the sidelines when a team member gets decked and say, "Well, that was their fault.  I wouldn't have made that play that way."  NO!!!  Rush into the field and help out!  Why?  At the end of the game, all of us will face the Eternity Playoff.  
     The "good" and "bad" players will stand on the same yard line, and face the Big Judgment.  We will all stand before the most fair Coach in the Universe.  He will judge fairly, but He will judge:  "But unless you repent, you too will all perish."  
    OK, let's cut to the parable.  "Then he told this parable: 'A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
    ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
     See Jesus' point?  We all are given adequate time to repent.  Even an unfruitful fig tree is given time to produce.  But why has it not been productive?  Look at the man's solution:  it needs fertilizing.  Obviously the soil it is in is not providing enough nourishment, even though it is old enough to have produced fruit.  The man is the fig tree's advocate...the owner of the vineyard wants it gone.
     The owner wants "justice"--it doesn't produce, so it deserves to be cut down! 
     The worker in the vineyard wants "mercy":  give the tree another chance, and with the right application of nutrients and enough time, it will produce!
     Contrast that with the earlier question about the death of the Galileans.  Was their calamity actually a punishment for their sins?   A divine act of justice? 
      But the fear woven into this discussion was one of wanting mercy.  If God allows such justice to fall, isn't there any mercy available?  Don't we really, if we are honest enough, all deserve God's justice?  But we want mercy!  We want a second chance!  We want another year to be tended and fertilize and then we will produce!
     Jesus stood before the crowd with a reminder that God is patient, forgiving and willing to grant us mercy.  But...He is not endlessly patient, forgiving and willing to grant us mercy.  We are not to take advantage of Him.  Now is the time to seek His forgiveness and mercy.  Allow His word to fertilize you and His Son to forgive you.
     Fruit or fire:  The choice is yours and today is a good day to make that decision.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Fig Newtons, Anyone?

     The parable of the fig tree shows up in an immense teaching on the end of the age.  In chapter 21 of Luke, the disciples comment how beautiful the temple in Jerusalem is: "Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 'As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.'"
     Stop for a moment.  Can you imagine the disciples' reaction?  Here they are gazing on a monumental structure--the Second Temple, built by Herod, in all of its beauty.
    Gaze up at the mighty Temple of God.  It is His House.  The Jews believed that although He was not limited to any earthly structure, His House on Earth was this temple.  Jesus' comments must have stopped the disciples dead in their tracks.
    How could something so permanent and indwelt by the very Creator Himself come a-tumblin' down?     
    Jericho's walls--yes.  That was a pagan city.
    Sodom and Gomorrah--yes.  That was a place of sin. 
    But Jerusalem?  The City of David?
    What's interesting is that before Jesus launches into His discussion, the disciples and Him had witnessed a widow putting her offering into the Temple box: "As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 'Truly I tell you,' he said, 'this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'"
    Jesus is setting up a contrast here.  A widow, with so very little, gives a fortune in Heaven's eyes.  She puts her all into that box.  
    First, all of her love:  She serves  a mighty God, Who provides for her day by day, and loves her deeply and she knows that so well.  
    She puts in all of her faith:  She knows that whatever she has, is ultimately God's, and she gives it back to Him, knowing that God's "manna" and "quail" will never cease.  
    Finally, she puts in all of herself:  She herself is an offering, and knows that God loves someone who holds nothing back for Him.  She has no fear, just gratitude and love for her God.
    In the larger scheme of things, her coins will not even fund a minute of Temple activities.  In Heaven's scheme, however, her gift will move the Kingdom of God one step further because it shows real faith in action.  Her faith is a pleasing sacrifice to God. 
    So, Jesus, with the widow wandering away, and the disciples being wowed by the Temple, (probably forgetting this little moment of what true worship is) Jesus makes His profoundly disturbing statement about the Temple's future.
    He lists in Luke 21 all of the signs that will herald this astonishing event of the Temple's destruction.  Jesus tells in no uncertain terms about what will happen in 70 AD.  The Romans will put down a rebellion of the Jews in the harshest terms possible:  mass murder of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple, stone by stone.  
    He then warns them, that like the fig tree and other trees, whose leaves herald the arrival of summer, they must read the signs to be prepared for what is to come.  Jesus doesn't leave His disciples ignorant of the future.  
    God promised after the fall of man that He would never stop the seasons--that the earth would continue:  "As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease." (Gen. 8:22)  He promises this covenantially with Noah and with all of us.  The signs of the seasons will allow mankind to plant, water and harvest all in the right sequence, insuring survival.  If we are diligent and watch, we will act accordingly.
    The same holds for the signs as to this coming catastrophe.  The disciples are being told what "leaves" to look for, and how each successive "sprouting" draws the day of destruction even closer.  How should the disciples respond?  After using the parable of the fig tree, He says that "this generation" will not pass away until all has come about.  
    He then focuses on what is truly permanent:  "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."
    The Temple...Roman rule...The Jewish homeland...The sacrificial system...The dispersion of the Jews to faraway lands...The near future will rain down like a deluge, like a second Flood, to sweep away the world of the disciples and their generation.  Wow.
    Jesus sees the fear and utter consternation in their faces.  He goes on to say: “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
    "Be always on the watch."  Look for the little buds on the branches under gray winter skies.  Look for the little buds slowly starting to unfurl as the days grow warmer.  Look for the tender green leaves.  Look.  Watch.  Pray.  Don't run from the signs, but embrace them, knowing that God will stand by you.  Even if you have very little in this world--don't forget the widow--you have God and His provision.  Live by putting her kind of faith into action. 
    The parable also addresses where we put our faith.  Do we put our faith in our grand monuments, churches and cathedrals?  Beautiful, yes, but what was more beautiful to Jesus?  The Temple in all its glory, or the widow giving everything she had?  What furthered the Kingdom of God?  The Temple or the widow?  
    We love our man-made structures, for they testify to man's greatness.  But the Kingdom of God is based on His love for us.  We are in covenant with Him:  He is our Shepherd and we are the sheep of His hand.  Everything around us may fall, but His love and His word stands forever.  
    Today, this is all that is left of that magnificent Temple:
    We are now the temple of God.  The veil tore on Good Friday.  We can now enter in to God's Holiest of Holies by the blood of Christ.  But, God also left the Temple to enter into us: "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?" (1 Cor. 3:16).  So, what is permanent in man's eyes is fleeting in the larger picture of the Kingdom.  We are His temple, His dwelling place.  
     We look to the signs of the times and understand the direction things are going, but we stand on His promise to never leave nor forsake us.  This temple, this dwelling place of God is you.
    May this Good Friday with its sadness and sacrifice burst into Resurrection Sunday, where the stone is rolled away and we are set free from the fear of sin and death!  Hallelujah!  
    He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

No Thrift Stores in God's Kingdom

     I love reading about the circumstances that went before Jesus teaches His parables.  The context in which He teaches is illuminating to the parables themselves.  
     How often do we tell someone a story after they've shared some information with us, or recently experienced something dramatic or amazing?  Stories tie us together.  If I tell you that I received a speeding ticket on the way home from church (!), you might tell me that you let fly a swear word right when a fellow church member rounded the corner at the supermarket.  It connects our humanity and makes us realize that we all have things we go through--for better or for worse.
     So, let's look at what preceded Jesus' teaching on old coats and on old wineskins in Matthew 9:16-17. 
     Starting in Chapter 9, we see Jesus having returned by boat "to his own town."  The friends of a paralytic  man brought him to Jesus.  "When Jesus saw their faith," He then lovingly forgives the man's sins.  
     Obviously, the greater paralysis is of his soul.  How many times was he angry at God for his condition?  How many times did he envy people who passed by him?  How many nights did he cry alone, just wanting for one moment to leap up and run outside?  Sin and sadness, anger and regret, swirled in this man's soul like a tornado, and He saw the many layers of dust in the man's spirit.  
     Of course, the religious leaders are outraged that a mere man would take God's office and forgive the man's sins.  Jesus rebukes them, and stands on His authority "to forgive sins."  He wasn't blaspheming, as they evilly thought.  Why?  Because He is the One of whom the ancients foretold.    
     The man arose, healed in body and soul, and went home, much to the amazement of the crowds.
     Jesus goes on and sees a tax collector.  He calls him to follow Him, and Matthew leaves his post and follows Jesus.  Jesus comes to dinner at Matthew's house and of course, Matt's choice of guests are the very ones that the Pharisees despise.  
     They question Jesus' disciples about the wisdom of their rabbi eating with such folks.  Jesus then pointedly comments that the sick need a doctor.  He quotes a verse from Hosea about how God "'desires mercy, not sacrifice,"" and tells the leaders that they need to learn what that means.
     On the tail end of this, here comes John's disciples, observing with some consternation that they and the Pharisees fast, but Jesus' disciples do not.  Interesting to see John's disciples making common cause with the Pharisees, who despised John.  They were probably hovering about in the crowd, listening to the Pharisees excoriate Jesus and didn't want to tick them or Jesus off.  So, they ask a question as if they and the Pharisees are on the right path with their fasting, and Jesus is either misleading or undermining the law with his practices, or lack thereof.

     He sets the tone by equating himself to a bridegroom, and how in this celebratory atmosphere, fasting would be inappropriate.  The time will come, he tells them, when his departure will cause fasting.  But not now.      
     So, given what Jesus just did--forgave sins, healed, called a scorned member of society to be his disciple, dined with more scorned members, and allowed for joy in his disciples and not ritual, he starts to teach in parables:  “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
     Hmmm...interesting.  Jesus is exploring trying to use both old and new, and what will happen to each.   
     "Unshrunk cloth" is an interesting one--it hasn't been washed, beaten on a rock and left in the sun to dry.  There's nothing wrong with such cloth, as long as the surrounding fibers are the same.  If the whole cloth is "unshrunk," then it will go through the wash in a unified way, each fiber stretching together to face the wear and tear.  
     Now you have a garment that has hole in it--this implies it has been worn a lot, faced many washing days and needs to be repaired in order to be worn again.  Fair enough!  But, unshrunk cloth is not the solution, not because it is not good cloth, but because of its incompatibility with the fabric to which it's going to be attached.  
     So, we have a problem:  a worn-out garment in need of repair and a patch of fabric that once sewn on, will make the hole even bigger as it shrinks.  The new will "tear away" from the old.  Maybe, at first, there seems to be a compatibility between the two:  the new patch hides the hole nicely.  But on wash day--that day when fibers are stretched and pounded in order to be cleaned, then the incompatibility will become painfully obvious and damaging to both the old and the new.  The garment has a bigger hole and the new cloth cannot cover it and is ruined by the stretching of its fibers.
    Now Jesus could have stopped there.  But let us stop for a moment.  The fabric for the Tabernacle in the Old Testament was woven to very specific instructions, as to color and what materials are to be used.  The priests' garments were woven very specifically as well.  God gave His law in an orderly way, by using Moses as His intermediary, and the Tabernacle was a place where Moses met God and received instructions.  The Old Testament is the Old Covenant and Jesus is inaugerating the New Covenant.  But that's our view, looking back.
     All his listeners had was The Covenant--the Law and the Prophets.  Every day of his ministry, Jesus is enacting a new way of thinking and acting before God.  The Pharisees with their not-so-gentle reminders of the Law and the Prophets, represent what will later been seen as the Old Covenant, but only in the light of what Jesus will fulfill on the cross.  That's in the future, however.
     A new fabric is being woven in the work of this man from Nazareth.  The "unshrunk cloth" is Jesus dealing with sinners, forgiving and healing them, and calling the lowly into the Kingdom of his Father.  This is a Kingdom of the Law written on the hearts of those who love God and will act righteously out of love, not out of obligation or ritual.  
    The old garment is in need of repair--the following of rules and regulations, and  hearts acting out of obligation has led to the coldness and snobbery of the Pharisees.  They have a hole in their hearts, exemplified by their contempt of the masses, and their arrogance in thinking they alone know God.
    The two are incompatible.  The day is coming when the old garment will be cast aside for a new raiment, washed in the blood of the Lamb and shining white.  It will endure the rough treatment of the world, and all its threads will face trial united and strong.
     Now, Jesus talks of wine and wineskins.  New wine is valuable.  The old wineskins are just that--they have served well.  The vigorous pouring of new wine into such skins will be a loss for both: the new wine will spill on the ground and the old skins will be torn. Both are ruined.  
     The old garment had its place in covering the sin of the people.  The old wineskins had their place in holding the truth about God.  However, a new wine is coming.  
     The new wine is the New Covenant.  Someday soon, Jesus will take the cup at Passover and tell His disciples that this wine represents His blood that will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  He will be THE Passover lamb, whose blood will take away the sins of the world.   
     So, this new wine will be poured into new wineskins:  Jesus' New Covenant will produce a new kind of follower of God, one who is committed and driven by love for those around him and for God.  A person whose heart will be filled with the Holy Spirit and who will serve God well because the old nature "has been crucified with Christ" and we walk as new creations, where the old is passed away and we are empowered from within to live the life He requires.  The Old Covenant is being ful-filled with the wine of the New Covenant.  
     The "new wineskins" and the "new wine" are both "preserved"--they can be used again and again to serve at the table.  With Jesus' blood, we stand in a new relationship to God:  fully forgiven and free to serve Him.  No religiosity, no ritual, no righteousness by works:  He pours His newness into us, and we are free to serve Him and our fellow man.  



Sunday, March 15, 2015

DIY: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders

     Jesus has been teaching a variety of things by the time we arrive at this parable.  He begins with the Beatitudes, then talks of salt and light, and how He come to fulfill the Law.  He covers murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, "an eye for an eye, " loving your enemies, giving to the needy, prayer, fasting, how we are to store up "treasures in heaven," not worrying for our Father supplies our needs, judging others, asking, seeking, knocking, how we are to enter through the "narrow gate," and how we must watch out for false prophets.
     Wow.  In fact, Jesus kicks off His ministry with this Sermon on the Mount.  He was baptized by John in the Jordan, called out into the desert by the Spirit and underwent temptation by Satan.  He called His disciples and is now going about the Galilee, healing the sick. 
      He climbs a mountainside, and sits down.  He is inaugurating His ministry.  My thanks to Ray Vanderlaan for pointing out that Matthew is presenting Jesus as the new Moses.  He is on a mountain and brings forth a new law--one that gives serious consideration to the Old Testament Mosaic law, but with Jesus' added elements of love, compassion and authority.  He is fulfilling the Law, for He will do what the Lord spoke of through Jeremiah:  "'This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,' declares the LORD. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.'"  
     Moses brought down the inscribed stones of the Covenant from Mount Sinai.  This Covenant was  an agreement between God and His people to abide together.  God expected certain things from His people, and their obedience would lead to blessings a-plenty from Him.  Disobedience would equally lead to chastisement from His hand.  
     Jesus, when finished, gets this reaction: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."
     The crowds rightly sensed a new Covenant was in the offing--Jesus was not simply teaching what the Law said.  He was teaching what the Law foretold:  that God was seeking to inscribe His law on the hearts of His people, and that His definition of "His people" was going to embrace the whole world.  
     Did the crowds understand the bigger picture?  Probably not.  But the times, they were a-changing, and the crowds sensed that.
     So, after Jesus offered His version of the Law, He comments, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
     His listeners are very familiar with the desert and flash floods.  The Hebrews' history is desert history, and the geography influences their analogies.  I thank Ray Vanderlaan  for his teaching on the influence of the desert on the Jewish people.
     A wadi is a seemingly dry stream bed.  The trees are rooted along its outer banks, to make use of the subterranean water.  The wadi is a quiet place, with rocks and sand, and the heat blazing down.

    So, Jesus starts with wise man building his house on a rock.  Who is this "wise man?"  The man who hears Jesus and puts His words "into practice."  This guy doesn't just go and build his house anywhere.  He is wise in learning where the safe and stable places are. 
     I might build my house near this wadi.  It looks harmless enough--it is in the desert!  How much water could there be?  Sure, the wadi shows evidence of water flow, but I am thinking it flows more like a stream.  The quantity of water can't be overwhelming at any one time.  Besides, in a desert, a cool flowing stream would be nice and refreshing.
    But the wise man looks for truth in where to build.  He isn't dazzled by the location and its calmness.  He wants a firm foundation for when life hits hard.  And it does:
     Where's that sunny day?  Where's that gentle refreshing stream?  This is a flash flood in a wadi.  It rains in the distant mountains, and the accumulating water comes roaring down the wadi.  You might not even know it was even raining until you hear the roar.  But by then, it may be too late to get out of way of the flash flood.
     Isn't this life?  Rains come, the waters rise, and the winds beat against our house.  The very ground beneath our feet is swept away by a raging torrent we didn't even know was in the making.  Boom!
     So, who is the foolish man?  The one who looks at the surroundings:  the sunny day, the heat and blue skies, and says, "This looks good.  All those words of this new Teacher, Jesus...Well, they sound good.  But, I can't relate.  I have the Law.  Good enough.  Yet, when life gets really tough, I am not even sure that God loves me, because I don't uphold all the rules and regulations..."
     Jesus knew that the very foundation of Judaism, the Temple and its system of sacrifices, would be swept away by the raging torrent, as it were, of the Roman army in 70 AD.  His listeners were going to need a stronger, more enduring foundation: not one built of stones, but one built in the heart.  The New Covenant would be written on the hearts of those who believed in Jesus, and even the severest flood could not wash Him away.  He was and still is the Rock.
     Jesus talked of false prophets, whose words and easy demands will seduce us.  They promise us an endless parade of sunny days and blue skies. 
     But Jesus hears the rainstorms in the mountains.  He hears the oncoming torrent.  He wants us to be firmly built on a rock.  He offers Himself:  His blood, which washes away our sins; His love, which reminds us we are sons and daughters of the King; and His grace, which forgives us when we are foolish. 
     Rain, wind and torrents will come, but at the end, you will be standing if you are standing on the Rock.

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