Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hey, Brother, Can You Spare Some Oil?

     Jesus has just discussed (as I have in the previous blog) about how leadership in the Kingdom of God is characterized by "servantship." He describes a person who is dutiful in love and commitment whether or not the master is present. This person serves out of love for the master and for his fellow servants--pure and simple. 
     Love is the hallmark of a Kingdom servant.  The "job qualifications" for such a servant is outlined by Paul so wonderfully in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians.  God's love for us was made manifest in the giving of His Son:
  • For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
  • But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
     Commitment is equally important, and comes from love.  Love is the attitude such a servant takes because he responds to the great love lavished on him by the Master.  Commitment is love put into action.
     Love says, "I will be there for you."
     Commitment says, "Hold on! I'm coming!"
     So, Jesus moves from His servant parable in Matthew 24:45-51 to the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25.  The servant parable shows how love is our attitude.  This next parable shows how commitment is love in action: 
     “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
      6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
      7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
      9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
     10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
     11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
     12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
    13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour."
    OK, we could talk about being prepared for that momentous day when He returns.  Yes, the parable illustrates that.  But why be prepared in the first place?  The other five ladies went with the first five.  They at least brought their lamps.  That was worth something, right?
    Yes, only if a servant's motivation is to appear prepared.  
    In other words, the servant is acting as if love for the master drives what that servants does.  The servant appears to love the master. 
    But Jesus isn't about appearances.  He is concerned about the heart and its ultimate motivation.  He is asking in this parable:
  • Are you doing just the minimum for My Father--do you just grab the lamp but figure you'll get the oil later?   Do you think, Hey, I am doing my duty.  That should be enough.   
  • Are you doing what you can for My Father--grabbing the lamp and the oil and waiting in eager expectation for the Son?  Do you think, Hey, I am ready no matter when He shows up, because I love Him.
    Love is the sustaining factor.  The Bridegroom may be awhile.  It is our love for Him that means you come prepared with whatever is needed to further Kingdom work.  If you bring a lamp, you need to bring the oil.  You can't be light if you serve Him out of duty.  Your love is the oil--it keeps the light burning in the darkness and lights the way for others. 
     In the parable, when the bridegroom appears, all the ladies were asleep.  I like the tender touch here--Jesus recognizes that in our weakness, we may grow tired and perhaps take a snooze.  Our flesh is weak--witness the apostles on the night Jesus was arrested.  They fell asleep.  
     But, if we know we are weak, then His strength is manifested in us and our love drives us to grab His hand and get going.  We don't allow our weakness to be the excuse for self-pity, which leads to inaction.  "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." (2 Cor. 12:9)
     Wake up; don't wallow up.  Grab your lamp and oil.  The Kingdom needs your light.
     Our love for Him, united with His strength, will yield joyful servants in His kingdom.  It will end, yes, with a wedding feast.  That's why Jesus used a wedding feast to illustrate what His arrival will be like!  
      One more observation about this parable:  all the ladies woke up with the announcement of the bridegroom's arrival, but not all were ready.  We can't rely on our pastor, our mom or dad, our whatever, to walk as servants for us.  There are no grandchildren in God's Kingdom:  only sons and daughters, who have made the choice to be His own.  We can't borrow from others.
     What would we think of a best man who grabbed a bouquet from the flower girl at a wedding and presented it to the bride as if he had bought it for her?
      We would scowl at him and say, "You knew you were the best man.  You knew that you were responsible for bringing a bouquet to the bride.  You knew all of this before the actual day, for the bridegroom told you when he asked you.  Do you think the bridegroom will not notice how careless you are by trying to pass off that little girl's bouquet as your own?"
     Bingo.  Jesus, in His parables and teachings, is the Bridegroom instructing us as to what to do and what to bring as His day approaches.  We are to bring love and commitment to what He asks of us.  We gladly go out and do it, even if we get tired now and then.  
     Isn't it interesting that at the end, when the door is shut, and the five ladies ask to come in, the bridegroom says, "I don't know you."  Duty, guilt and obligation are not substitutes for knowing and serving Him.
     Our servant's heart is created the day He enters in.  With His Holy Spirit, He gives us a heart of flesh for a heart of stone.  We love Him, wanting to know Him better at the end of the day than we did at the beginning.  His mercies are new every morning, so we start afresh as servants each day.  We put feet to our love by being committed to Him and His kingdom.   


Monday, July 20, 2015

"How To Not be a Fool" School

     Let's put the parable of the "wise and faithful servant," in Matthew 24:45-51 into context.
     Jesus excoriated earlier the Pharisees for their willingness to burden people with rules that they themselves do not follow.  He presented His case against them as "woes," telling what they do and how this doesn't square with what the Scriptures say.
     He then leaves the Temple.  His disciples excitedly point out the beauty of this structure to Jesus, joyful at seeing the permanency of God's House.   
     The disciples are looking for something that pleases God in all of this.  Jesus has effectively dismissed the religious leaders as non-viable leaders in God's kingdom.  The disciples are saying, If the religious leaders are not worthy servants in God's house, then let's look at the Temple itself, and be thankful that God's house stands!  Here is something we can be proud of, right, Jesus?
     Jesus, in response to their confidence, says that every stone will be "thrown down."  The Temple itself will be dismantled.
     They all walk up to the Mount of Olives and gather around Him. I am sure while they were walking, the disciples were disconsolate; this beautiful Temple, God's own house, will not forever stand.  How could this be?  By the time they are able to sit down, and ask Jesus to explain, their hearts are very troubled, but open.
     Jesus explains what signs will precede the end.  He gives His disciples information empowering them to not fear and to continue what He has begun.  The Temple, the religious leaders and what they see will all soon disappear.    

     So, who will carry on God's work on this earth?  Who will staff and run what You have begun, Lord?
     Jesus then teaches, by way of several parables, what a citizen of God's new kingdom will be as the old order passes away:
  • Willing to have a servant's heart ("The Parable of Wise and Faithful Servant")
  • Willing to get ready and stay prepared for His arrival  ("The Parable of the Ten Virgins")
  • Willing to use whatever God bestows to further His Kingdom ("The Parable of the Talents")
  • Willing to serve God by serving the "least of these" ("The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats") 
      Here's the text: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
     To be an active member of the newly arriving God's Kingdom, your status is one of a servant.  But, you have a choice of what kind of servant you'll be.  
     OK, class.  Here we go.  The faithful servant will:  Take care of the other servants, even down to serving them their daily bread.  This servant will be attentive to others' needs, making sure that they are taken care of, so they can go out and do the work that the master requires.  This servant isn't obedient just when the master is watching or is in residence.  This servant is dutiful all the time, doing what is necessary all the time and cheerful all the time.  Why?  Because this servant, heart and soul,  wants to please the master.  That is the servant's only motivation. 
     This servant lives a key element in the Kingdom:  You serve the Master by serving others.
     The Pharisees served God, but in reality, they were serving themselves.  Their motivation was one of personal aggrandizement.  They wanted the accolades of others, and their service to God was a means to that end.  Serving God alone was not enough.
     A true servant serves God because it is extension of that servant's love for Him.  Love alone is enough to serve.  Why?  Because the servant knows the Master deeply and thus loves the Master deeply.  Service is based on a relationship, not an obligation.
     The master, seeing the servant's love played out in selfless service, hands over his possessions to this servant.  He trusts the servant without reservation and likewise the servant to the master.  Mi casa su casa:  All I have is yours, and all you have is mine.
     Now, let's look at the foolish servant.  
     His love for the master wanes as the master is away.  It's a kind of proximity love:  I love you when you're around, because it meets a need in me.  When you're away, I look elsewhere.  My love is not based on who you are but on what you can do for me.  So, with you away, I am in charge.  I am not acting on the master's behalf; I am taking the reins of the master and acting as if I am the master.  So, I will beat offending servants, not take care of them.  I will go where and when I please.  Besides, the real master is taking his sweet time...Why can't I? 
     Because this servant is so busy serving himself, he won't notice the signs.  The master's absence has caused this servant's heart to grow cold.  And hard.  This servant is not just hanging out idly; he's actively beating his fellow servants and getting loaded with a questionable crowd.
     But the master does return.  He is appalled by such hypocritical behavior.  The master hears this servant's heart:  Hey, yeah, I am your servant, but I while I like the title, I do not like the responsibilities.  I am serving myself, because I tried the servant thing, and that grew boring.  The other servants didn't appreciate all my hard work on your behalf.  You didn't appreciate all my hard work, either.  I should get something out of this service thing.  I like it when the other servants shrink away in fear, and act as if I am the master.  It's good to be king.
     Sounds like the Pharisees, doesn't it?
     Leaders in this new Kingdom will be servants who wash others' feet and give of themselves
wholeheartedly.  They will do so for one reason:  their love of God.
     The fate of this foolish servant is a "place with the hypocrites."  Pride will be traded in for tears, and disobedience for regret.
      The Temple will soon be gone.  The old order of sacrifice will soon be gone.
       The new temple will be each servant's heart, a new house of God, indwelled by the Holy Spirit.  The sacrifice will be Jesus on the cross, and His death will satisfy God's demand for justice for all time.
      Class dismissed.
       Now, go choose. 



Monday, July 6, 2015

Kingdom Rules--The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

     Interesting how God's ways are not our ways.  That's an obvious statement, but how quickly we forget this truth.
     The disciples come up to Jesus with a question in Matthew 18:  "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  Not who is the most blessed, not who is the least, not who is the most qualified...just who is the "greatest."  Their question is implicitly full of worldly values:   
     Who will reign over all the sheep that You, Jesus, are constantly ministering toWe follow You every day...that should count for something in this new kingdom You are creating.  May we humbly suggest that we, Your disciples, are truly the best qualified to run the show.  We have sat at Your feet, we have managed the crowds, we have distributed food and we have been able to answer questions and do wonders in Your name.  We think this is enough for us to get to the head of the line.  Besides, who knows Your teachings better than us?
     Jesus understands all too well what the disciples are really asking.  They want to be the leaders in this new Kingdom.  Jesus wants the children of God running things.  People who see themselves as family members who serve each other, not as dispassionate leaders who lord it over others.  Jesus is saying:
     Look around, boys.  The kind of leadership you are asking about is what we have already have here:  just look at the religious leaders.  Look how unloving they are.  Look how much attention they want simply for being leaders.  They show no real compassion.  They want praise from men.  They dishearten My Father, for they have the Scriptures and should know better. Do they even see the children running about?  Are the little ones ignored because they can't do anything in the eyes of the leaders? 
     So, what does Jesus do to illustrate His point?  He places a small child in front of Him and His disciples.  He then launches into a long teaching about how the Kingdom is built upon a child-like trust of God and how its members are family.  He wants the disciples to have no illusions of greatness; He wants them to have a revelation of who will occupy and lead His Father's Kingdom:  People who are children of the King.
    He concludes His teaching by saying that just as a shepherd will seek high and low for a sheep who has wandered off and rejoices in finding it, and so too does His Father not want any of these little ones to be lost.
     In other words:
     You are looking to be leaders, boys.  What kind of leaders is My Father looking for?  
     Here they are:  These little ones who dash about our feet and smile when I enter the town.  
     These little ones trust that they are loved by a Father they cannot see.  
     These little ones rejoice in the butterflies, flowers and the stars that come out every night.  
     These little ones understand Who I am.  They come with no ulterior motives, just a love that reaches out and embraces Me without reservation. 
     These little ones demand nothing but to be loved.  They sense the operating principle of My Kingdom:  Love, and love alone is what this Kingdom is built upon. 
     My Father's love is as unreserved as their smiles.
     He then talks of how to restore a fallen brother.  The Kingdom is built on restoration of its family members. 
     He then talks of binding and loosening.  The Kingdom is built on discerning where disobedience has led to a shackling; how those shackles need to be loosened, and how forgiveness, not condemnation, will set others free.
     He then talks of asking His Father as family members:  two or three gathered together in His name, making requests and trusting the Father for the results.
     Jesus has just sketched out, in clear and uncompromising terms, the contours of the Kingdom.
     Peter then pops up with a legitimate question in light of all that Jesus has been teaching:
     OK, Lord...we are beginning to understand.  Love is the foundation.  A child-like acceptance is the attitude.  We approach this Kingdom as a member of a family.  But, wait!  Every family has its obnoxious members:  the uncouth brother-in-law who can't shut up; the nagging mother-in-law and of course, the cousin who sits and does nothing while everyone else is working. What about those family members in this Kingdom? 
     Peter, to his credit, at least got it right:  "How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?"  Jesus responds with a parable in Matthew 18:23-35: 
     “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
     But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.  His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
     But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
     In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
     Servants were part of the master's family.  So, the family theme is maintained here.
     Look at how much the servant owed his master:  10,000 bags of gold.  Whoa.  That is a lot to loan a servant, but obviously, the master trusted the servant to give out such a generous loan.  In fact, you get the impression that he might have been at the top of the list because this servant is called up a the beginning of the accounts to be settled.
     He owes a lot, so a lot is demanded from him to pay the debt.  His family will be sold into slavery and all that the man owns will be sold as well.  Whoa.  But, the servant knowing the heart of this master, begs for mercy.  "Be patient with me..." he begs.  If the servant thought his master wouldn't negotiate at all, he would have accepted his fate, knowing that the master was cold-hearted and wouldn't budge.
     But he didn't!  He appealed to the master's heart, knowing the compassion that lingered there.  He begged for patience from the master.  The master took "pity" on his servant, knowing how great the debt was.  So, instead of just a reprieve, he received a cancellation altogether of the debt.  Whoa.
     The mercy and compassion in the master's heart exceeded all expectations that the servant held.  The master's heart was far bigger than the servant could even imagine.
     The master "let him go."  The servant was free of debt; free to start afresh; free to hug his wife and children, knowing they were safe for now on.  He could walk down the street not just debt-free, but loved.  Loved by a master whose mercy was great because the love for his servant was even greater.
     But did this love remain permanently lodged in the servant's heart?  No, like  fog wafting through the trees under a warming sun, it left.  Why?  The servant now focuses on the debt he is owed, not the love he just received.  He is focused on what is missing, not what he possesses.
     It's not like he needs the money--his debt is cancelled.  So, why does he look up his fellow servant? On principle:
     I am owed this money.  He borrowed it from me, promising me he'd pay it back.  Has he?  Nope.  I am within my rights to demand it of him; that's what I am going to do.  Promptly.  What a whiner!  He wants me to be patient with him!  I HAVE BEEN!  He's taken too long to pay.  He shouldn't have borrowed it unless he planned to pay it back in good time.  Maybe this choke-hold will show him I AM SERIOUS!  What a baby!  You're going to prison, you loser.  You can rot in there for all I care.  No one makes a fool out of me.  What if everyone finds out I am not serious about collecting what is rightfully owed me?  Everyone will then want a piece of me!  Stop your begging. You lose.
     Whoa.  The other servants, appalled by this servant's actions, go back to the one who has the real power.  This servant is pridefully waving his "power" around, acting as if he in charge.  Acting as if the other servants are subservient to him.  He's somehow gained the notion he's above all the other servants.  Why?  Because he's debt free?  Because he received his master's favor?  Because he is free to start again?
     Whatever is going through that servant's head, it is not love.
     Debt free: yes, because a great love cancelled his debt.  Favored: yes, by a master who saw his need, and released him with mercy.  Start again:  yes, with a heart no longer burdened by fear.
     The Kingdom of God is built on love, mercy and freedom from fear.
     But, this servant is not using Kingdom materials to build his house.  He fiercely reminds the other servant what he owes him; he shows no favor nor mercy, just violence; he puts fear into the soul of that other servant, burdening him with an even greater debt.
     The master calls back the servant.  He is furious with him.  He reminds him, in no uncertain terms, that the mercy he received needed to be extended without reservation to this other servant.  His mercy cup runneth over, and needed to fall into the cup of the other servant.
     Instead, he is now visited with the same measure that he measured out:  he is thrown into prison, and will now have to pay the debt.
     How can he pay the debt if he's in prison?  Exactly:  The Kingdom of God operates on impossible principles from a human point of view:
     We are forgiven much; we are to forgive much.  (But he owes me!)  
     We are given mercy; we are to give mercy.  (But he's been so mean to me!) 
     We have been given love in abundance, not because of what we have done or not done, but because of who are are:  children of the King.  (He's a child of God?  You've got to be kidding!)
     Impossible with us.  But God is the Master of the Impossible.
     Only He can change our hearts.   
     Only He can open our eyes.

     You and me and all who call on His name are His family.   Yes, we are to see all humanity as God's children.  But when we enter into the Kingdom and live under the wise rule of our Heavenly Father, love, mercy and forgiveness are the order of the day.  Every day.  How we treat one another, especially with forgiveness, will be a hallmark of our membership in this Kingdom.
     The Kingdom needs children to lead it:  forgiven and free members who cherish what the Father has bestowed on them, and a willingness to bestow it on others. 

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.

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