Monday, June 29, 2015

The Day God Left America

     On June 18, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is the law of the land. 
     We are done.  No more protests, no more campaigns, no more tearful couples standing on the steps of county courthouses.  Gay marriage is now as much a part of America as abortion.  Both are human rights issues, and both are the law.  We have made tremendous progress.
     Have we?

     Abortion has terminated the lives of almost 57 million babies. Human rights?  Yes, for the mother.  For the baby?  Not so much.   
     Perhaps the team of doctors who would have found the cure for cancer are in that number.  How many gifted musicians, lawyers, politicians and scientists are in that number?  Perhaps next time we lament that there is no cure for cancer/Alzheimer's/ AIDS/ Ebola...we should consider that someone was going to make that discovery, but alas, that someone was inconvenient.  Inconvenient for the mother.  Inconvenient for the society?  Not so much. 
     Some leaders in the black community have even called this the "black genocide," because a large percentage of these little ones were black.  Sadly, many have recanted this position; political party alliances are far and away more important than black lives.  Black lives matter, unless they are in the womb.
     California has had scandals with Planned Parenthood, which has performed abortions on underage girls and despite the fact that the fathers were adults, CPS was not contacted.  Good for the adult males--no need to be held accountable for their actions.  The young girls?  Not so much.
    Many states do not require that the parents of underage girls be contacted when an abortion is to be performed.  Again, great for the adults who do the impregnating.  The parents of such girls?  Not so much.  
    If you would have brought any of this up in 1973, the response would have been, "You are being ridiculous.  Women should have rights over their bodies.  Underage girls?  No parental notification?  Nonsense.  This is to protect adult women from having to have a baby that they do not want.  You're just using scare tactics."
    Really?  We're there.  It took 43 years, but we are there.
    Now, we have jumped the next big hurdle:  The Supreme Court says that we should not cry out in the night alone.  Marriage thus is what you define it to be:  a human right, an antidote to loneliness, a civil right, a right for two people who love each other.
     Marriage is no longer tethered to that Book that dares not speak its name.  Forget the divine design.  Pitch such antiquated notions on the scrapheap of history.  Celebrate diversity in marriage.  For now that means hetero- and homosexual couples.    
     What is the future 40 years from now in America? 
     Why limit the number? 
     Enter polygamy or polyandry.
     Why limit the age?
     Mohammed married a nine-year-old.  Many men in the Middle East do likewise today. 
     Why limit the species?
     In Germany, there are brothels (excuse me, they are called "erotic zoos") that specialize in animal partners.
      I hear you say, "Oh, that is ridiculous.  People will not allow such affronts to marriage.  If two adults love each other, that is the standard.  All these other examples are just scare tactics."
      Tell that to the 57 million.  They're listening.
      So is God.
      Wait a minute.  I believe He left America.
      "When did that happen?" you ask.
       June 18, 2015.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Hey, Wanna Come to a Wedding?

     This parable comes right after the two parables about the two sons and the landowner.   Jesus first addresses His authority with the parable of the two sons.  At first, the one son will not heed his father's wishes, but then changes his mind, and goes about his father's business.  The second son says the right thing--that he will be obedient--but then he isn't.   
     Then Jesus ups the ante by talking of a landowner, who leases his property to some tenants who, because they are farmers, seem to be the men for the job.  But the tenants refuse to allow the landowner to collect what is rightfully his: the harvest.  He sends his son, thinking he will be received respectfully; instead the tenants kill him, trying to steal his inheritance.  
     Now Jesus goes one step further, and shows upon whom the Kingdom of God will be built:  

"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.  
     Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.'  But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.  
     Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.'  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.  But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.
     He asked, 'How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?'  The man was speechless.      
       Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:1-14)
     The Kingdom of God is an invitation.  No one is forced in; no one is bullied in.  No one is shamed in; no one is cajoled in.  You are simply invited.  Everyone knows what a wedding banquet was like in this 1st century culture!  Think of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus performed His first miracle.  Dancing, singing, drinking, fine food and joyful fellowship all around, and all because two people are uniting in marriage.  Their union is a visible reminder of how God sees us:  He wants us to join Him in a lovely union, creature to Creator, with singing, dancing, and a sense of having been invited to something deeply special.  
     So, this king has prepared a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent out the invitation earlier.  Now, he sends his servants out to let the invitees know all is ready and to head on down.
     But, the original invitees refuse to come.  Why?  Do they see the occasion as special?  Do they respect the king enough to want to be a part of what he is doing?  Do they value the king's son enough to make their appearance and support him?  They knew this day would come; yet, they refuse.  
      Perhaps the invitees are not fully aware of how ready the banquet truly is.  So, the king sends out some more servants with instructions to be very specific about how ready is ready:  the meat is a-steamin' and the ice is clinking in the glasses as the drinks are being poured.  Someday is here.  Come on down!
     But the invitees have more pressing matters--one goes out to his field and one goes over to his place of business.   
     The day is here already?  Yeah, I know the king's son would show up one day, and ask his dad for a wedding party, but not today!  I am too busy!  Wish him well, but I just can't be bothered.  
     Then it gets ugly.  The rest of the group are not just busy; they harbor murder in their hearts.  Why?  Their hatred of the king and his son has lain under the surface for a while, and now it comes boiling up in murderous rage.  
     The king's son, huh?  Who does he think he is?  What, we're supposed to stop everything and run gushing to him?  Hey, we got lives.  We got obligations.  This king's son expects way too much from us if he thinks that he's so important that we will just drop everything and show up.  Besides, you say you are the king's servants...How do we know that?  Any losers could just show up in rented costumes and start throwing their weight around, acting as if they're special 'cause they're on some kind of mission.  Sorry, boys, but such arrogance deserves a take-down.  
     Next thing you know, the servants are killed.  
     The king then takes action.  He sends in his army and gives them a right royal rubbing.  Their city fares no better.
     Everything the invitees had invested in, their fields, their businesses and their arrogance (they were so sure of themselves) is gone.  He destroys "those murderers."  The king will not be mocked.  It was one thing to refuse the invitation.  It is another thing entirely to kill the representatives of the king.  Simple refusal, while regrettable, is not a capital offense.  Refusal based on anger and jealousy that leads to murder, justifies the king's wrath.
     So, what to do?  The king sends his servants out to gather new invitees... Anyone and everyone is invited.  The servants went and brought in the "good and the bad" and the hall echoed with laughter.  The king comes in to see his new guests.  He notices one person, not attired correctly.  
     This would imply that the good and the bad managed to go home first, and out of respect to the king and his son, got into their Sunday best.  They didn't just show up.  They were shocked no doubt to be invited to such a glorious affair.  Their shock soon converted to respectful behavior and they arrived, attired in humility and joy.
    One guy, though, slipped in.  Was he invited like everyone else?  Well, he seems to know about the banquet.  He shows no respect, gives no honor to the son nor his father, the king.  
     He doesn't respond to the king's question of how he got in.  He is "speechless."  
     Does this guy think that because the invitation is given far and wide, that it is no big deal?   In other words, because the king extended it to "those people"--the sinners, the cast-aways, the failures--why should dressing up matter?  It's, well, those people!
     He shows no respect for the king, the son, and his guests.   
     The Kingdom of God is filled with those whom the King invites, and they deserve respect.   Not because of who they are, but because of the One to whom they belong. 
     These new guests walked in humbly into the banquet.  They had enough love in their hearts to be considerate of the king who called them, and the son whose wedding they celebrate.   
     The king already displayed his wrath on those who murdered his servants; he also displays his wrath on those who may accept his invitation, but don't show him or his son the respect they rightly deserve.  Just like the son in the parable who mouths his obedience and then doesn't do it, this guy accepted the invitation and then acts as if it is no big deal.  
     Obviously, the King is God and He extends His invitation to all.  He will not tolerate disrespect nor disobedience.  God is not a cosmic Santa Claus, jolly and happy to everyone, regardless of what they do or think.  This parable reminded the Pharisees and all of us that God is merciful and just.  
     His mercy swings open the doors to His kingdom, and He invites all near and far to enter and rejoice in Him and His Son.  
     His justice closes the door on those who reject Him and on those who consider His provision as insignificant.  
      Jesus, as He tells these parables, is nearing the cross.  The banquet His Father will host will serve His Son's body and blood as the meal.  Jesus is warning His listeners not to take any of this lightly.
     He is telling us, as He nears His return, the same thing:  the doors are swinging wide open to all that hear Him and accept His offering of forgiveness and grace.  
    The doors will close to those who chose to ignore or belittle His invitation.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Vineyard of Decision: Matthew 21:33-45

     Jesus' authority is under fire by the religious leaders.  He uses two parables to explore His authority and Who He is.
     The first one concerns a father of two sons. 
     This second one concerns a vineyard: “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.  The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.  But  when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.  Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
     OK, let's see what is happening.  The landowner, who can do what he pleases with his land, decides to plant a vineyard.  Jesus talks of new wine into new wine skins.  He will use the wine of Passover to announce the arrival of a new covenant, which is His blood, soon to be shed upon the cross.  So, using a vineyard as a place of encounter is not surprising.
     The landowner plants the vineyard and then in order to protect his investment, he builds a wall around it.  He sets up a watchtower, from which the vineyard can be guarded.  It also provides a place to stay.  
     Now, he could have stayed, but he placed his investment in the hands of the "farmers."  He didn't rent it to just anybody; he rented the vineyard to people who knew what they were doing.  It would have been irresponsible to do otherwise:  The vineyard would have suffered from their ignorance.  They would have then feared the return of the owner.
     So, from the outside looking in, the landowner hired the right folks for the job.  Right?
     The gloves come off the day he sends his servants to collect the fruit.  Uh-oh.   
     Remember:  He has the right to send anyone whom he chooses to collect his fruit from his vineyard. 
     The servants come in the name of the landowner to collect what is rightfully his.  
     The welcome is anything but.  The reception is shocking: The servants are met with violence and death.
     Why such brutality?  Perhaps the tenants were not doing their job.  They had the knowledge yes, but they were disobedient.  They probably had very little to show for their efforts.  The vineyard was not yielding fruit the way it had when the owner left it to them. 
     What have the tenants been doing?  Going out and leaving the vineyard unattended and in disarray?  Is the vineyard full of weeds?  Are the grapes no longer robust and the wine is lackluster to say the least?  Whatever the state of the vineyard was, they are guarding a secret:  They have been disobedient tenants. 
They would have welcomed the servants and shown them around the vineyard with a sense of satisfaction that it looked much the same as it did when the landowner left, if all is in order.  
     Something is wrong.
     The landowner, by all rights, could have come storming in and demanded justice for his three servants.  But he decided to give the tenants a second chance.  This is exceedingly generous.
     The next group of servants he sent were treated just as abominably.  
     The landowner decides to do a curious thing.  He will send his son.  He believes the tenants will respect his son.
      Interesting.  Perhaps the angry tenants were responding to these men who showed up in the landowner's name out of mistrust and skepticism.
      Who are you and what are you doing here?  Right.  You represent the landowner.  OK, pal, and I represent the Queen of England.  You're servants.  How can I trust what you say?  Where are your credentials?  No, your word is not good enough.  We were called to take care of this place and we're not handing over the goods to just anyone.   The landowner trusts us and gave us dominion over this here vineyard.  Yeah, we know it's not ours, but the landowner has been away for awhile.  So, we're kinda owners now.  But if you think we're just gonna hand over the fruit we've labored over, you got another thing comin'.  Did I mention Levi here is a blackbelt?
     So, the landowner believes that his son will be seen by the tenants as trustworthy enough to collect what is rightfully his father's.  
     Wrong.  Not only do they seek to kill him right off, but they want to take his inheritance.  They want the vineyard all to themselves.  If there's no son, then there's no one to leave the vineyard to.  The landowner will be forced to leave it in their hands.  They don't kill the son in the vineyard.   They take him somewhere else.  How thoughtful.
     That son!  All smiles, thinking his daddy will protect him.  Ha.  He comes in his own name, and thinks we'll just fall into line and hand everything over.  Right.  But we can't kill him here.  We'll drag him out to the back forty and let him have it there.  No one will see him.  No one will find him.  He ain't gonna come back, is he?  When the landowner finally shows up--if he ever does--we'll just say we don't know what happened to Sonny Boy.  We'll say he never came here.  A bunch of yayhoos claimed to come in your name, Mr. Landowner, but we made short work of those losers.  We'll stick to our story:  We did what we did for your sake, Mr. Landowner.  It was all for you, Sir. 
     So, at the parable's close, Jesus asks His audience that when the landowner returns, what should be the fate of these tenants?  Their response is very telling: "'He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,' they replied, 'and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.'"  Reasonable.  In other words, their utter irresponsibility takes away their privilege of being tenants, and others shall come in and share in the harvest.
     Interesting. We need to give the religious leaders credit for their insight.  But intellectual prowess is not what the Kingdom of God is built upon.  It is built upon Jesus and His work.  Jesus immediately takes their response and focuses the discussion back to its origin:  by what authority does Jesus do what He is doing?  
     He responds:  “Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
     In other words, the very ones who should know the Christ, because of their vast knowledge of the Word of God, are the very ones who have missed the Son.  Sad, but so true:  knowledge is not enough.  A sincere heart that seeks God earnestly is what He rewards.  
     Now, at this point, the leaders could have engaged in a conversation to pursue truth and see what this Jesus was all about.  But, if you are sincere about the truth, you have to be willing to pursue it to where it leads.  The truth sought by a seeking heart will lead to Jesus, His work and His divinely appointed authority.
     The leaders' reaction illustrates their hearts:  "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet."  
     Whoa.  They were not interested in pursuing whether or not Jesus' claims were true.  They weren't interested in the Kingdom of God.  They wanted him out of the way.  Period.  They wanted to arrest Him and whisk Him off to some jail, where He would languish and not be heard from ever again.
      But the parable speaks a deeper truth:  Jesus is claiming to be God's Son.  How do the tenants react to the landowner's son?  Death.
      The leaders' hearts will continue to harden to the point where they will ask the Romans for the death of the Son.  The end of Jesus' earthy ministry was coming, and sadly these leaders will, out of jealousy and hatred, be involved in ending it.  
     But, the Good News is:  Fruit will come.  The Kingdom of God will come.  Salvation in His name will come.  
     The Bad News:  The very Temple that the leaders so cherish will be torn down stone by stone by the Romans who earlier had helped the leaders destroy Jesus.   The Romans will turn on the Jews and many of them will be thrown to their deaths from the Temple ramparts in 70 AD.  
     The Kingdom of God is built on His Son as the foundation, with His sacrifice to be the cornerstone.  The vineyard will have new tenants whose hearts will open to truth, to the Truth.



Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hello Sonshine! (Part 2)

    We have set up the context for the next two parables in Part 1.
    Jesus will teach on two sons and a landowner.  Jesus has entered Jerusalem triumphantly.  He is now in the Temple (the Pharisees' ultimate turf) and He is being grilled by them as to His authority to do and to teach what He does.
    In light of this, He teaches this parable: 
       “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go          
       and work today in the vineyard.’
       ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
       Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. 
       He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
       'Which of the two did what his father wanted?'
       'The first,' they answered.  Jesus said to them, 'Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.'" (Matt. 21:28-32)
    Jesus uses a lot of father/sons parables.  If He is willing to call the Almighty, "Father," then He needs to show what that means.  His parables are perfect for that, for everyone can relate to family stories.  The father in this parable gently commands his first son to go to work.  Vineyards take a lot of work; as any farmer will tell you, there is always something to do.  
    The first son is unwilling to be initially obedient.  He is honest in his response, but as a son, it is a disappointing response.  This is not just any employer; it is his father that he is saying "No" to. 
    So, the son's response reverberates deeper.  Why did he tell his father,  "I will not"?  He didn't say that he was unable to do the work, or that he is too busy to do it or that he is too good for such labor; he says he won't do it.  It is his choice not to do it.
    Why do we choose to disobey God?  Does this son feel that he can't please his father?  That whatever he does will not pass muster?  The fact that the father asked him in the first place indicates that the father has confidence in his abilities.  Otherwise, the father could go out and hire workers.  But, the father gives his son the job:  for the father trusts the son, even if the son is unsure of his abilities.
    So, the first son, having giving it some thought, changes his mind.  Why?
    Dad asked me to do the work today.  He didn't indicate he was going to show me what to do; he trusts that I know what to do.  He trusts that I know enough to do well enough.  His vineyard is important to him; he trusts me to go in and work.  Wow.  I sorta thought he didn't even consider me worthy enough to head in there and do what needs to be done.  But he does.  I don't want to let him down.  I'll go!
    Away he goes.  Perhaps the father knew that as well--the son's lack of confidence would initially stop him from going, but with a little love shown his way, his son would perk up and go.
    The father asks the next son.  This son sounds eager and obedient, but his heart is neither.  He complies, but then will not go.
     Dad asked me to work today.  How come?  I don't like all that dirt.  The bugs drive me nuts, swarming around my head.  The sun is hot and I get tired.  Isn't being his son good enough?  There are workers out there he could hire.  I am not just any 'ole worker--I am his son.  I sure wish he'd treat me like one.  I get certain privileges as his son, and I don't see getting dirt under my fingernails as one of them.  So, yeah, I said yes, but why do it?   I am a son, not a servant, and I need to act like one; even if my father forgets, I don't!
    Of course, the question is answered correctly by the Pharisees--the first son is the one who did what his father wanted.  The son's actions portray his heart.  
    The Pharisees must be happily associating themselves with this first son.
    We obey, Rabbi Jesus.  OK, we may grumble here and there, but at least we get out and do the work.  
    Jesus quickly interrupts their reverie by unpacking the parable for them.  John the Baptist was clearly chosen as the Messiah's forerunner, to show the people the "way of righteousness."  The very bottom of society--the ones who think they are not worthy to go into the vineyard--are going in.  Why?  They changed their minds.  They caught a glimpse of the truth that they are the sons and daughters of God, and that is why he invited them in.  Not because of what they have done, but because of who they are.  
    The society labels them "sinners."
    The Father labels them "sons and daughters."
    These folks took hold of John's words and saw Jesus as the Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world.  They came to be baptized by John.  They were willing to have their sins cleansed and then enter into a new way of seeing themselves.  They went into the vineyard because of their Father's invitation.  The Kingdom of God is a place for sons and daughters, and the people's willingness to enter in show their willingness to see themselves as God sees them.
    Wow!  Now, to the next son, who really sports the attitude of the Pharisees.  They outwardly act like sons, but are not willing to see what the Father is really doing.  They have figured God out, and have boiled down the relationship to rules and regulations.  The Pharisees didn't see the people flocking to John as Heaven's gates swinging wide open, but as an affront to their neat and orderly way of serving God.  It was an affront to their way.  But, God's way was right in front of their eyes.  They refused to see this. 
    Their way didn't include sinners walking in forgiveness and freedom.  Their way wouldn't have showered the status of sons and daughters upon such low-lifes...that title was reserved for those He favored, which, of course, meant the Pharisees.
     Let's look at the blueprint of God's Kingdom, found in Isaiah 61.  (Incidentally, Jesus read this very scripture to inaugurate His ministry): 
       "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD And the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.…"
    Sons listen to their Father.  Sons obey out of a sincere heart. 
    Daughters enter His presence with joy and thanksgiving.  They serve because of love.
    They may feel unworthy at first, but they changed their minds.  Why?  It is the Lord's kindness that leads us to repentance.  No one ever entered the Kingdom by rules and regulations...a lesson the Pharisees had yet to learn.


Monday, May 25, 2015

Hello Sonshine! (Part 1)

     Jesus is having  yet another dispute with the Pharisees.  He enters the temple courts.  He begins to teach the people and then here comes the By What Authority Are You Doing This? crowd.
     Now, let's stop there and moment and ponder the boys in their linen vestments.  Jesus is on their turf, so to speak, and they want to know,  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23).
     The Temple represents God's dwelling place on Earth.  Let's see what their possible motivations are with this question:
1.  We are guardians of God's House, here Rabbi Jesus.  You come from a hayseed town in Galilee.  Where were you trained?  Who trained you?  We have a reputation to protect and we can't just let anybody set up shop and start teaching.  
2.  We appreciate your zeal, but we are alarmed at how the people gravitate to you and away from us.  WE have been appointed to do God's work.  You?  
3.  You don't look like us or sound like us.   You need to fall into line with how we do things around here if you want to teach here.
4.  The Romans are always breathing down our necks.  If you anger us, that's one thing.  Anger them, and we all will pay dearly.
     OK, so either the boys are sincerely guarding their turf; they are jealous; they want brand consistency or they're desperate to maintain the status quo.  So, how does Jesus respond?
    "Jesus answered them, 'I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?' And they discussed it among themselves, saying, 'If we say, "From heaven," he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, "From man," we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” (Matt. 21:24-6)
     Jesus' rather piercing question is to see what is in their hearts.  He wants to expose their motivation in asking Him this question.  The question on the surface seems well-intentioned.  They seem to take their guardian role very seriously.  But do they?
     In other words, what is the foundation upon which they stand?  They claim it's God's holy Word; is it?
     The question takes on epic proportions because it points the debate right back to the Scriptures.  The authority of the Messiah's forerunner points to the legitimacy of the One Who comes after.  John took on the authority of baptism to prepare the hearts and minds of God's children for the greater One to come: 
        "In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 'Repent, for the kingdom of
        heaven is at hand.' For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
        'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
        Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts
        and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to
        him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." (Matt. 3:1-6)
    John is fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy.  "Lord" means "Messiah" (the Anointed One of God) and John is announcing the imminent work of God.  Thus, he is a prophet as well as a forerunner.
    How the Pharisees answer Jesus' question is critical, and they know it.  If John spoke the truth, the Pharisees will be held accountable by God for their unbelief.  If John spoke falsely, the leaders, while wanting to expose this (and by extension, Jesus) will run the risk of angering the crowd.  The crowd sees him as a prophet.
    So, Jesus is demanding that they reevaluate their position in the light of the Scriptures.  They have studied the Old Testament to the last detail.  Does John fulfill the criteria of a prophet? 
    Instead of going directly to the Word, they decline to respond.  They are not even willing to debate the matter.  But, if they look to the Word (which they claim to stand on) they would see it being fulfilled right before their very eyes.
    Earlier, Jesus rode into Jerusalem upon a donkey, thus fulfilling Isaiah's and Zechariah's messianic prophecies.  In fact, the reports of His ministry show that messianic prophecies are being continuously fulfilled and the Pharisees know it. 
    Jesus is deliberately placing the Scriptures front and center.  The criteria for the Messiah is clearly delineated; thus, any discussion as to Jesus' claim should be an exploration of the Word.  
    The Pharisees' response?  Either we debate the Scriptures with this hayseed from Nazareth and risked looking stupid--he seems to really know his stuff--or we tick off the crowd, who seems to be at a fevered pitch of excitement and support for him.  
    Sadly, they take the worse tactic possible:  "We do not know."  (Matt. 21:27)  The easy way out, to be sure, but the most telling:  they are in the presence of Someone that they cannot understand.  They equally choose not to pursue the truth in order to understand. They reject the very foundation they claim to represent:  the Scriptures.  In fact, Jesus says in another place to them, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life." (John 5:39-40)
    Jesus, seeing their unwillingness to pursue the truth, responds, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things." (v. 27)
   Sadly, no one has ever been won to the Kingdom through argument alone.  If one is willing to pursue the truth to wherever it may lead, and be willing to risk having to leave behind one's preconceptions, the Scriptures should be the only arena of discussion.  
   Jesus' method was to always point back to the Word to validate His ministry.   
   Why do we think we can improve on His method?

Next up:  the Parable of the Two Sons

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Hey You! Who Me? YES: YOU!

     The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is an especially powerful one, because sometimes we are the Pharisee, and sometimes, we are the Tax Collector.
     What do I mean by that?  Luke gives a quick preface to this parable:  "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable..."  
     Haven't we occupied, at one time or another, both roles?  
     Today, the Pharisee mode is in full swing:
     I walk out of the door of my nice house, climb into my nice car and buzz down the road, to my nice office.  On my way to work, I see some guy standing out in front of a stoplight with the cardboard sign of woe:  homeless, moneyless, out-of-work-less and I think (in my heart, of course), "Clueless.  I am not giving you dime one.  Why can't you be like me and get a job?"
      I drive to work.  I walk into the office and notice my fellow worker's desk:  all askew with sticky notes multiplying on monitors like mold in a cabin shower.  I say (in my heart, of course) "Why can't she be like me?  My desk is organized.  That's why she can never find anything and is always asking me for things."
     I head to lunch and notice the heavily-tatted young woman behind the counter.  I order my food and notice that she moves at a glacial speed to fill my order.  I'm thinking (in my heart, of course) "You're going nowhere sister, with all those tats.  Why didn't you spend your money on education, so you don't have to work such a dead-end job?  I bet you have screaming kids and your take-home pay won't even take you home."
     So...We have our Pharisee mode.  We feel so better.  We feel so blessed.  We go forth with a critical heart for those who don't measure up to our standards; we have contempt and wish those folks could just be like us.  Then their problems would go away and they could be, well, like us.  
    We don't just have a standard; heck, we are the standard.
    Some days, the Tax Collector is us:
    I walk out of my apartment, and head for the stoplight.  It's degrading but with all of the money I owe the court, begging seems to work.  Yeah, I get a lot of flak--jeers, sneers and an occasionally rock or bottle thrown my way.  But I do get an occasional smile.  If you had asked me two years ago if I'd be standing by a stoplight, begging for money, I would have laughed.  A lot can happen in two years.  Yeah, I get it.  I should get a job, right, lady, sneering at me in her nice car?
     Or:  I sit down at my desk, with my husband's angry words still ringing in my ears.  I forgot about picking up the kids at Grandma's last night.  The boss always has some last minute must-do he places on my desk, causing me to walk out each day a little later.  The sticky notes are numerous because my work gets broadsided by my boss.  Trying to find a new job would take too much time.  With my husband's job always on the brink of being outsourced, I have to work this job.  Options dwindle while the sticky notes pile up.  Why must my co-worker stare at me every time she passes by my desk?
     Or:  We drop the toddlers off at Mom's; am I pregnant again?  I was careful this time.  I can't afford to lose this burger job.  I am so tired today; Ben was up all night screaming, and Toby seemed to be feverish.  I hate this job; I hate being away from the boys.  Am I pregnant again?  Nate and I were careful...Why is that customer sneering at me?  I know I'm slow...
     So, let's hear from our two in Jesus' parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’" (Luke 18:10-13)
     The Pharisee looked around, and measured his goodness by himself.   He wasn't  a robber, an evildoer,  an adulterer, or even like that tax collector over there. He may have gone to the temple to pray, but it turned quickly into a Personal Praise Session, with whom he loves the most at the center.  I love the little detail Jesus throws in: the Pharisee stands by himself.  He doesn't brush elbows with the average Joes standing in the temple.  
    He stands by himself, and for himself.  
    The Pharisee is in his nice world, all sparkly and good.  He doesn't know or even care to know the stories of his fellow human beings.  He is the standard, and everyone needs to man-up and be like him.  He rolls out his righteous deeds  as if God needs to be reminded.  He probably is not praying quietly; I am sure his "prayer" is a rather loud recitation of his goodness.  
     Notice the brevity of his prayer.  No thanking God for His blessings, His love or for His provision.  You might, in the movie version of this, hear "I Did It My Way" playing in the background.  He mentions God once, and himself four times.  This ratio shows his heart.
     The tax collector stood "at a distance."  Hmmm...Was he close enough to hear the Pharisee's prayer?  Or did the Pharisee pray loud enough to for the tax collector to hear him?   
     Either way, the Pharisee's words would have reinforced what the tax collector already knows:  he is a loser.  He isn't even worth the powder to blow himself up with.  
     The tax collector will not look up to heaven.  His heart is weighed down with the burden of his own inadequacy.  He knows, according to everyone's scornful looks--with the Pharisee happily  weighing in--that he is a loser.  He rolls this out to God by saying he desperately needs His mercy, for he is a "sinner."  
     He mentions God once and mentions himself twice.  God can work with this kind of ratio.  
     Why?  Because God wants us to humbly acknowledge our need for Him.  
     Jesus puts a coda on this parable by saying that  "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
     Some days we are the Pharisee, comfy and cozy in our superiority, and seeing God as a divine Master Card, all too willing to meet our needs because of our goodness.  
     Some days we are the tax collector, so weighed down in our shame and blame that we dare not look up to heaven.
     While the tax collector is certainly closer to God in admitting his need, he is also forgetting one important fact:  He is a child of the King.  "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.  For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God…" (Rom. 8:14-16)
     The tax collector can be akin to the Prodigal Son.  He can return home with a repentant heart, and the Father is eagerly awaiting him.  But, what if he just stands there, humble but unwilling to embrace the Father?  Jesus points out that humility swings wide the gates of Heaven.  His humility "justified" or made him right with God.  Now what?
     God wants our fellowship, so with humility comes community.  God wants us to join Him in His work on this planet.  Standing there, beating our breasts and crying out that we are sinners is a start, not a finish.  He wants to justify us to set us free to do what He has commissioned us to do: win the tax collectors and Pharisees to the Kingdom of God.  
     The Pharisee is equally a child of the King.
     He is akin to the Prodigal Son's older brother.  He is so focused on doing good for God, that he has forgotten God and is angry that he needs to remind Him of his works.  
     Both are equally precious to God.  Both can work for the Kingdom.  
     One needs to humble himself and realize his works should come from his love for God.  Pride must be put aside.  He needs to bow before God, asking for God's forgiveness.  He must now walk as the son that he is. 
     One needs to realize how deeply God loves him.  He needs to rise up and accept God's forgiveness.  He must now walk as the son that he is.   
      The coldness of this world needs the light of His love.  
My pride and my abasement will slam a bushel over His light in me.  
I must seek His forgiveness and walk as His child.  
He died to make this possible.  
My "goodness" and my sin were equally nailed to His cross.  
He, because of the cross, offers me a crown.   

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