Thursday, June 23, 2022

Hearts in Action: The Parable of the Talents

Let's dive right in!

“For it is like a man, going into another country, who called his own servants, and entrusted his goods to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one; to each according to his own ability. Then he went on his journey.  Immediately he who received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. In the same way, he also who got the two gained another two. But he who received the one talent went away and dug in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.

“Now after a long time the lord of those servants came, and reconciled accounts with them.  He who received the five talents came and brought another five talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents. Behold, I have gained another five talents besides them.’

“His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

“He also who got the two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents. Behold, I have gained another two talents besides them.’

“His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things, I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

“He also who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter. I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the earth. Behold, you have what is yours.’

“But his lord answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant. You knew that I reap where I didn’t sow, and gather where I didn’t scatter. You ought therefore to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received back my own with interest. Take away therefore the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn’t have, even that which he has will be taken away. Throw out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”(Matt. 25:14-30 WEB)

This next parable is in an interesting place in Matthew.  In Chapter 24, the disciples ask Jesus what will happen at the end of the age.  He also comments that only His Father knows when these things will come to pass.  He talks then in a parable about the good servant who is in charge while his master is away, and is found to be doing good when the master returns.  He contrasts that with a wicked servant who acts irresponsibility and who will be punished when his master returns.

Then Jesus goes on in Chapter 25 to talk of the virgins who await the bridegroom--some prepared and some unprepared.  The foolish ones miss the opportunity to enter the feast with the bridegroom when he finally appears.  The context still operating here is one of expectation and not growing weary in the waiting.

Let's set the stage for this parable.  The master must leave.  He has business elsewhere.  He doesn't just assume his servants will know what to do or how to proceed once he's gone.  He calls them together.  Yes, you could argue that they have been with him awhile (he trusts them with his money after all--that shows he knows them well enough) and that they should know how to operate without him around.  But calling them together goes deeper than that.

He gives to each of them something of value.  He is saying to them, in essence, I have been with you long enough to know what your abilities are.  I know the level of your integrity.  I am showing my love and trust by giving you something of value...I am not simply asking you to keep the home fires burning. I am giving you oversight of my wealth and am trusting you to handle it with care and diligence.

Wow.  The master is acting as if these servants are his partners, his peers, his equals.  He is entrusting them to handle his estate, to be engaged in his business as if it were their own. 

Now, he distributes the wealth to each servant according "to his ability."  He knows each of his servants so well that he gives them what they can handle competently.  He knows their strengths and weaknesses and doesn't give them too much or too little.  So, each man receives a different amount.  The master isn't showing favoritism...he is showing concern.  He wants his servants to walk away with two things:  My master values me and he's knows I can do this. 

Notice, Servant #1 goes "immediately" and multiplies the money's amount.  The master knew this servant's heart.  He knew he would be about his master's business in a heartbeat, making his master's money increase.  Not for greedy gain, but so the wealth can go further to benefit more people.  More money means more servants to hire and more land to be bought--the wealth poured into the community will benefit the community and Servant #1 knows this.  

Servant #2 also goes "at once" and makes the money multiply.  He doesn't see the wealth of his master as something to be tucked under a mattress.  He sees the wealth of his master something to be actively used.  

By investing it, the two servants are acting in love for their master--joyfully going out and getting down to business.  They didn't start whining about why Servant #1 got more entrusted to him than Servant #2.  They saw what they were given in the light of the master:  My master trusts me to do good with his wealth and I will not let him down!  His love for me inspires me to do good, for he is good!

Now on to Servant #3.   Uh-oh.  He didn't grab his bag of gold, happily entering the world to make his master proud of him.  He hides it in the ground.  Time goes on.  Does Servant #3 even remember where he buried it?  What is he doing all this time?  While Servants #1 and #2 are out and about in their master's service, what is he doing?  Is he just hanging out?  Or after awhile, when his master didn't return, did he wander off, uninvolved and unconcerned?  Did he feel justified in his inactivity?  Wow--look at those two!  Running around as if our master is coming home any day now!  Right!  It's been YEARS since the master left and it doesn't look like he's coming back any time soon.  Maybe we misunderstood him.  Maybe he spoke falsely to us--he never intended to return.  Maybe we misunderstood him.  Maybe, he's not a good master--a good master would have returned by now.  How can I trust him?  Where is he?  I am not going to waste my time, running around for an untrustworthy master.  Bury the money, forget about it and carry on.  Works for me!

But:  The master DID return. Yes, it was a long time, but the trust that his servants had led to action--they trusted him to return, and they acted on that trust.  

But not so with Servant #3.

Look at the heart of Servant #3:  He believes his master has a hard heart and thus he distrusts his master's actions.  Servant #3's view is that others do the master's work and only the master reaps the benefits. In other words:  Master, you are about you.  I thought it would be best to hide the money so that no one could steal it, but I really do not trust you...I trust myself.  I thought hiding it was a good move--aren't you proud of me?  See!  No one stole it at least.  Isn't that good enough?

But isn't master's reaction a tad harsh?  No.  The master is saying Yes, I do have others do my work.  But, why do they do it?  They do it because they love and trust me.  Even if you weren't confident enough to engage in an active investment, at least what I gave you could have been entrusted to others.  But it is your heart with its lack of trust in me that is the problem.  You buried the money because your love for me is buried in the ground of disbelief.  You serve me with a heart that is far from me.  You have a heart of darkness and now you will leave my presence.  You never tried to get to know me, even while you were in my house all those years.  Your heart doesn't really want to be around me, so now you will live what you wanted: away from me.

The parable here isn't just use what God gives you.  It's deeper than that.  Serve God because you love Him and are grateful that He has entrusted you with some kingdom work, however large or small it may be.  The real talent our Master is looking for is a heart that knows Him and will serve Him.  He wants a heart to love Him and to trust Him, until He returns.  And return He will.

 But until then?  Invest in others with what He gives you.  It's a paradox of our faith in Jesus that the more we give away, the more we receive.  But it is equally true that the more we hide what He gives us, and it molders away in the ground of disobedience and unbelief, the further removed we are from Him.  One day, sadly, that removal will be permanent.  Not because He wanted it, because our actions spoke of not wanting to be in His presence. 


Thursday, June 16, 2022

Lights! Camera! Bushel? The Parable of Salt and Light

You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do you light a lamp, and put it under a measuring basket, but on a stand; and it shines to all who are in the house. Even so, let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”                 (Matt. 5:13-16 WEB)

It is interesting that this parable of salt and light comes after the beautiful "Blessed are the..." part of the Sermon on the Mount.  The kingdom of God has characteristics of those who would be a part of it and those whose lives reflect that membership.  Notice that these are qualities of the heart, not religious duties to be performed.  God is concerned with our character and its development.  What is the ultimate goal of this character transformation?  In Romans 8:29, we read:  "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters."  Our character's not fully developed until we are like Jesus.  Pure and simple.

So, how do we gain entrance into God's kingdom where His Son is our Mentor, Guide and Friend? Let’s go through the Sermon on the Mount to lay the groundwork, with my comments in parentheses.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, 

(We realize how much we need Him,)

    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

(for we have come to the end of ourselves.)

Blessed are those who mourn, 

(We realize how needy we are,)

    for they will be comforted. 

(for He not only provides the comfort, He is the comfort.)

Blessed are the meek, 

(We submit willingly to His Son,)

    for they will inherit the earth. 

(for we long to be back in the place where He is.) 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,  

(We crave for His life to be in us every day,)

    for they will be filled. 

(for He fills us as nothing else can.)

Blessed are the merciful, 

(We no longer seek vengeance; we receive and give His love,)

    for they will be shown mercy. 

(for our cup now overflows with His love.)

Blessed are the pure in heart, 

(His heart is becoming our own,)

    for they will see God. 

(for it is His light in us that now shines out.)

Blessed are the peacemakers, 

(We now serve the Prince of Peace,)

    for they will be called children of God. 

(for we are Kingdom children, running free.)

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 

(The darkness fears the light,)

    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

(but light, like love, perseveres and never fails.)

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

(We speak what we are: free and forgiven.)


So, our new heart has a new mission:  to bear witness of our inner transformation by our words and actions.

Jesus drives His point home.  With our new mission, what will we be like?  First: “You are the salt of the earth…”

Salt preserves.  We will preserve His presence in the world through His touch and love those hearts that are decomposing from the rankness of sin.  Sin pollutes; salt preserves.  It also flavors:  "To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Col. 1:27)

But, it also makes men thirsty and craving more.  It sustains the hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Salty foods drive us to finish the whole bag and that's the kind of craving we would like others to have when they see Christ in us.  

The next analogy:  “You are the light of the world...”

The comparison changes, from salt to light, but the idea is the same.  Light illuminates--driving out darkness with a small but sure flame.  Light simply is...with the kingdom of God in our hearts, His light should be evident to everyone.  You can't hide the love of Jesus in a sincere heart...the light radiates out.  So, we can start with a small area--our home--and move out, lighting the world as we go.

Any city, all aglow in the evening, is quite a sight.  The lights are there in the daytime, but the darkness provides contrast.  His light in us will provide the contrast with the darkness that is in the world.

But a lighted city, in the darkness, also provides a destination.  When I walk down our mountain roads in the gathering evening dark, the lit up houses are a comfort.  My eyes naturally gravitate to them and they remind me that I am not alone.  I love the lights on my house:  they are an invitation to finish up my walk, and come home. 

The light we shine is an invitation: Come, join the kingdom!  The God Who forgave and empowered me will forgive and empower you.  My light is His light--you will not praise me, but see Him and praise Him. 

Ultimately, salt and light induce a craving, a desire to seek, find and embrace.  Salt makes us thirsty and light makes us long for home.  He waits for those who who are thirsty and long for home.  Those of us who know Him must live as to remind others that thirst can be quenched and Home is available.

What if we don't use our salt?  It becomes useless.  What if we don't shine our light?  It goes out.

Jesus said, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working." (John 5:17)  Can we, who know His work in our hearts, do anything less?



Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Cost of Being a Kernel: The Parable of the Sower

Let's jump right in!

He spoke to them many things in parables, saying, “Behold, a farmer went out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell by the roadside, and the birds came and devoured them. Others fell on rocky ground, where they didn’t have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of earth. When the sun had risen, they were scorched. Because they had no root, they withered away.  Others fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and choked them. Others fell on good soil, and yielded fruit: some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matt. 13:3-9 WEB)

Let's picture the scene.  Jesus leaves the house and makes His way to the seaside. The multitudes, eager to hear Him, become so numerous that He must get into a boat, and make it His pulpit.  Then He starts teaching.

What is remarkable is what went on before this parable. Going back a few chapters, we see Him:

1.  Harvesting grain with His disciples, because they were hungry, and being accused by the Pharisees of breaking the law about no work.  He then reminds them of what King David did--eating the consecrated bread--and how the priests break the law by doing the sacrifices and yet are innocent.  He reminds them that mercy, not a blind adherence to the Law, is what God desires and then proclaims Himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath.   (Matt.12:1-8)

2. He then enters a synagogue, where Sabbath services are in full swing, and heals a man with a shriveled hand.  He reminds the leaders that in doing good on the Sabbath, the Law is not broken.  The Pharisees are so livid that they "plotted how they might kill Jesus." (Matt. 12:9-14)

3.  He withdraws from that place and heals the sick and thus fulfills Isaiah's words about God's Chosen Servant, Who will bring hope to all. (Matt. 12:18-21)

4.  He then heals a demon-possessed man, and the Pharisees attribute His power to the Devil.  Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that attributing the work of His Father to Satan will never be forgiven.  He then talks of how a tree's fruit indicates what kind of tree it is.  He then excoriates them for their evil hearts and that their very words have condemned them. (Matt. 12: 33-37).

5.  In response to the Pharisees wanting a sign, Jesus offers the ultimate one:  like Jonah, He will be held in the darkness of the earth for three days and then He will reappear.  He talks of how utterly unwise this generation is and how they have provided a habitation, in their thoughts and actions, for evil.

6.  His mother and brothers show up and want to speak to Him.  In the heated exchange with the religious leaders, has His family detected some danger and do they wish to whisk Him away from the leaders' menacing gazes?  He gently reminds them and His disciples that doing the will of His Father constitutes His family.

So, now, (no coincidence here) that He tells the parable of the sower to the waiting crowd, and in His mind, He surveys all the different people who have been listening to Him recently.

Later, with the disciples eagerly inquiring of Him, He explains the meaning:

Hear, then, the parable of the farmer. When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom, and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes, and snatches away that which has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown by the roadside. What was sown on the rocky places, this is he who hears the word, and immediately with joy receives it; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while. When oppression or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. What was sown among the thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of this age and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. What was sown on the good ground, this is he who hears the word, and understands it, who most certainly bears fruit, and produces, some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty. (Matt. 13:18-23 WEB)

We could stop here, but Jesus isn't talking in general terms.  The disciples have already seen the various "soils" in action.  The sower is God and the seed is His word.  Notice, He casts it far and wide.  Now, does a sower throw the seed just anywhere?  No.  He is going to throw it upon tilled soil, prepared and ready.  He doesn't cast His seed on stones, on volcanic rock or on a lake.  He casts it on the soil of human hearts prepared by the tillage of the Holy Spirit. 

Now, the disciples just experienced watching the first instance of where the seed falls--on the hearts of the Pharisees who are so hardened in their hearts that they attribute God's miracles to Satan.  The Holy Spirit tills, but the rocks of pride, the drying sun of hatred and the eroding rains of judgment have rendered the soil unfit to receive the words of the Almighty, spoken through His Son.

The ones with shallow hearts, will receive the word with joy, but later will fall away because of temptation.   The disciples just experienced this with the healings.  They saw how the people rejoiced when the man's hand was healed and how eager the people were to follow Jesus.  But when the fear of disapproval, the disdainful gaze of the leaders fell upon the people, did they turn away?    When Jesus' own family showed up, rejoicing earlier over the wonderful things He was doing, but now afraid that He was attracting the wrong kind of attention, did they, too, lose heart in Him and His ministry?

The leaders and many of the richer people, whose lives directly benefited from the way things were, did Jesus threaten their status with His kingdom built on love?  Did they wither away, leaving smaller and smaller fruits behind?  Was their place in society more important than Truth?

Jesus scanned the crowd as they sat on the shore.  He could see into the hearts of those whose soil, tilled like all the others, were willing to receive the "word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience." (Matt. 13:18-23 NIV).  Ah, there it is:  a soil tilled by the Spirit, watered with the rains of sincerity and seeking, warmed by the belief that here stands the very One of Whom their prophets heralded would come.  Even after they felt the scorching heat of others' disapproval, they were willing to grow in the knowledge of Him and the One He sent.   

He must have smiled, seeing those disciples--now and in the future--whose soil would produce an abundant and far-reaching crop. He thanked His Father, in His heart, for those followers whose love for Him would never fail.

But He also knew the price that is paid when a seed, a kernel, falls on the soil: 

Jesus answered them,  The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Most certainly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life will lose it. He who hates his life in this world will keep it to eternal life. If anyone serves me, let him follow me. Where I am, there will my servant also be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:23-26 WEB)

The price they would pay, we will pay, is enormous.  His death will bring us life, and His blood will water the soil.  We will be His witnesses to His work in the soil of our hearts.  

Cast the seed of His word.  Trust the Sower to go before you and pray for a harvest.  He did no less.  We can do no more.

So, what can we glean (pun intended) from this parable?  We were created for fellowship with God, pure and simple. 

If we see a field filled with weeds, rocks and debris, we want to clear it out, till the soil and plant something beautiful.  Later, when the plants send forth their sweet perfume and the colors of all kinds of flowers take our breath away, we are grateful for this fact:  we do reap what we sow.

Sow beauty, reap beauty.

Sow ugliness, reap ugliness.

The Sower in the parable looks at the barren land and wants to see beauty:  tall grasses swaying in the wind, later to be harvested to feed many.  God looks on His now barren earth (He started the planet in a garden) and longs to see beauty in His children:  growing in the Son and feeding the spiritually hungry.  God's covenant-love here is seeing what is not—barren fields, empty hearts, sin’s ravages--and bringing forth something of eternal value:

Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honor me,
    the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
    the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise. 

                                                (Is. 43:18-21 WEB)

Do you see yourself as His harvest?  He loves to watch you grow, for it is He that cast the seed into your heart.   

He rejoiced when you resisted the evil one and not let him steal the seed.

He loved your joy, but loves it even more when His truth keeps reaching into your heart and taking root, growing strong and sturdy.  You may be buffeted by oppression or persecution, but your roots are deep.

He loves that the allure of this world cannot uproot you.  You’re happy than you are in solid ground, and not the shifting and lifeless soil of the world.   

He rejoices at your many baskets of fruits brought to harvest:  He loves how you love Him, share His Word, and praise the Sower with your life. 

God is about growth, abundant, springtime and harvest, and He wants to start with you.

I just realized today is Pentecost--this was the ultimate casting of seed to bring in a harvest of a new and living way.  Praise God!






Monday, May 30, 2022

OH NO! It's GONE! Parable of The Lost Coin

"Or what woman, if she had ten drachma [two days’ wage for a fieldworker] coins, if she lost one drachma coin, wouldn’t light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost.’ Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting.”  (Luke 15:8-10 WEB)

Now, the two parables in Luke 15 that we have explored, the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep, are spoken by Jesus in this setting: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”

The NIV Study Bible says that when you eat with people, you are recognizing them and accepting them. This is the reason for the muttering: Jesus is acknowledging the very people that the Pharisees and teachers disdain. What's interesting is that Jesus shares three parables with a common theme: Something/someone valuable is lost, then found and then celebrated over.

Three is the number of perfection in the Bible. It is little wonder that Jesus tells us the same idea three times—these stories deftly illustrate God’s perfect love for us.

We have looked for the son to come home and the sheep to be found. Now, let’s look for a coin.

Fill in the blank: You could have lost your contact lens, your iPhone, your keys or your mind, for that matter!

The world you live in skids to a halt when you have lost something. Now, is that something just any ol' thing? Not usually. The sound of screeching brakes occurs when you lose something valuable.

How often do we not value something until it is lost? To quote an old 60's song: "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." So true. But valuing goes both ways: Our prodigal son didn't value his father's love until he was eating pig food. But the father valued his son immensely and waited patiently until the son returned. The older brother in the parable didn't value his younger brother nor his father's love. But the father valued the older son and made everything he had available to the older son.

The shepherd with the lost sheep valued it and was willing to leave the other ninety-nine to find the one. He then returned to the town and wanted the people to rejoice with him. Seeing the joy in the shepherd's face perhaps made them go home and look with renewed joy in what they had. Sometimes, others' loss reminds us of what we have and how we should value what we have.

A woman has ten silver coins. One goes missing. Does she say, “No worries. I still have the other nine.” No.

The floors of ordinary people in Israel in Jesus' day were made of dirt. People with money had flagstones. The windows were few and light was minimal. No matter what her economic status was, finding a coin in a dimly lit house would not be an easy task.

So, let's listen in to what our lady is doing right before she notices the missing coin…

I want to make sure that my money hasn't gone missing. There are thieves out there who want to steal what I have. Each coin is worth day's wage and one less coin means a day's work for nothing. I will pull out the coins from their hiding place--I will never tell where they are!--and I will sit at the table and start counting... What? Is that neighbor's dog barking again? Wait a minute! Don't move! I have lost a coin! Did I drop it? When I was pouring the coins out onto the table just now, did one roll off? Oh no! Wait, calm down. I can't see it! The light is terrible in here. Let me get the lamp and start hunting. Oh, the floor hurts my knees. But I bound and determined to find it...

Do you see it? Each coin is as valuable to the woman as the next, because each coin represents a day's labor. How did it fall to the floor? What happened to it? Does it really matter how that the coin got lost?

Her concern is not because she miserly. It's because each coin represents her labor. We don’t know what her profession is, but imagine losing your paycheck. She just can’t go to her employer or back to the marketplace, and asked to be paid again. There is no safety net in the first century.

She has worked hard for each coin. Now, once she calms down, she has a plan of action: Light a lamp and start sweeping. Two ingredients are needed here for the search and the ultimate restoration: light and cleaning away of dirt.

Jesus Himself provides what we need for restoration. He is the Light we need to see our way in the darkness. He calls Himself "The Light of the World," (John 9:5) implying that our earthly room is dark and needs illumination.

But with light comes revelation of just how dark the world is and how covered in dirt it is. Here He "sweeps," looking for each valued person, who struggles in the dirt of sin and pain. He searches for us, "carefully" as does our lady. He looks in every corner, desiring to return us to the safety of His keeping.

Satan is a thief, always on the prowl and wants nothing less than to steal us out of our fellowship with God. Each one of us is valued. How do we know this? We were "bought with a price." (1 Cor. 6:20) Jesus Himself did a day's labor on the cross, paying once and for all for our freedom, not because we are so good and wonderful, but because He values us.

A coin has value because a government assigns an amount to it. Jesus' death is the ultimate assigning of value to you and me: He paid our debt of sin with His life and will continue to search for us until we return home. Home is His Father's kingdom.

The heavens resound when a sinner comes home. Jesus doesn't give up on us...nor did our lady. She kept searching until she found it. She didn't jingle the money bag and just focus on the ones already in her possession, ignoring the one covered in dirt. Both are important: the ones in the bag and the ones in the dirt.

Remember the muttering religious leaders listening to Jesus? Jesus is saying that all of His Father's children are important. The ones in the "bag" need to rediscover their compassion for the ones in the "dirt." Why? 

Because you, religious leaders, are valued. You are not valued for how good you are at church. You are not valued for how much you tithe. You are not valued for how much you obey the rules. You have been assigned value by the One who "minted" you. His image is stamped on each of you and on each of them...yes, even those "sinners" over there.

What about those "sinners" listening to Jesus as well? 

You, yes, know how much dirt covers you.  I am reaching down and offering to lift you out of the dirt.  Please don't roll further under the chair. Accept My offer of restoration. Allow Me to cleanse you of that dirt and when you join the others in the bag, rejoice!  Heaven does! 

Finally, notice how the woman celebrates her finding of the coin. All of her friends and neighbors are invited in to join her! Heaven rejoices when one sinner is found, because that person realizes that lying in the dirt of life is not what a loving God would have us do.  The kingdom's doors swing wide open when we realize who we are--sinners.  We hear the songs of angels when we accept Who He is--our Savior.

One of the words in Hebrew for “covenant” is “lovingkindness.” Lovingkindness is how God deals with us: He is willing to send His very Son to fulfill and be the New Covenant.

Just the father looked for his son, the shepherd for his sheep, and the lady for her coin, God never stops looking for us.

Both the prodigal son and wandering sheep choose to leave home and go their own way. God will not impose His lovingkindness on us; it is not for a lack of trying. He calls to us every day we are here, but we have to listen and respond. We are not an inanimate coin, lying in the dirt with no awareness. We have been created to choose, and God encourages us to choose wisely:

Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil. For I command you today to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce to you today, that you will surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you pass over the Jordan to go in to possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants; to love Yahweh your God, to obey his voice, and to cling to him; for he is your life, and the length of your days; that you may dwell in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.  Deut. 30:15-20 (WEB)

Just as the children of Israel, standing before the Promised Land, were given a choice to serve and be blessed or turn away and face dire consequences, we too choose how we will respond to God and His love.

Do you see yourself as valuable to Him? “Oh, yes, I do!” is perhaps your response. 

But, do you live as if you are valuable?

Do you respond, “No, not really.” So, do you live as if you are not valuable?

Either way is missing what is important to God. You are important to God. These parables show that even humans beings, as flawed as we are, still search for valuable things or people.
  • The father did not say, "Well, he’s gone. Nothin’ I can do about it. Time for a beer.”
  • The shepherd did not say, “Well, it’s only one sheep. It was kinda dumb anyway, so no loss.”
  • The woman did not say, “Yeah, money’s valuable, but I got enough. One coin ain’t gonna get me off my chair and scrounge around in the dirt. If it shows up one day, fine. But I ain’t gonna put myself out.”
If the people acted this way, we would be horrified due to their lack of compassion for something/someone other than themselves.  God is love. He thought of us so much He sent His Son to die for us. But, I can hear you saying, if God is so loving, way is there such pain?

The prodigal son went out into a world that is abusive, exploitive and manipulative.

The sheep went out into a world that is dangerous and filled with predators.

The coin fell into the dirt of the earth.

My point? The world, handed over to Satan in the Garden of Eden, is a dirty place, filled with the consequences of sin.

Good things happen to bad people.

Bad things happen to good people.

But, God is not absent from His creation. He didn’t say, after Adam and Eve sinned:
  • “Well, they are exiled from the Garden and there is nothing I can do about it.”
  • “It’s only two people. They were kinda dumb anyway, so no loss.”
  • “Yes, creation is valuable, but I am not going to leave My throne to scrounge around in human flesh and sully Myself in earth’s dirt.”
Heaven forbid. God did say,
  • “My children are exiled from My presence. I will bring them back.”
  • “Even one child lost is an affront to My love.”
  • “I will step out of the courts of Heaven and wrap Myself in their flesh. I will walk on the dirt, be mocked, betrayed, spat upon and killed. My love will show them that I will never stop seeking My children.”
Amen:  "I once was lost, but now I'm found."  That is what Jesus was seeking to point out to His audience and to us:  Being lost need not be a status, but a stepping stone. 

Friday, May 20, 2022

I Wonder Where I’ve Wandered? The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Here we go!

“Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7 WEB)

Let's set the scene: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" 

Stop right there. Jesus is a fascinating and yet irritating presence to the religious leaders. They watch in horror as the riff-raff of their community flocks to Him and listen to His words that seem to be cool water in a dry land for such thirsty people... They can't fathom why a rabbi would associate so freely with people who are so obviously disgusting to them and, of course, must be to God too.

What are the leaders probably thinking? 

We strive every day, God, to be good. We do all of the rituals You require and we even go above and beyond that. We work for You! Do You notice, God? Are You aware, with all due respect, of how much we strive? And then comes this hayseed from Nazareth, who seems to gather, without effort, those whom You despise. He seems comfortable with them--their smelly clothes, their dirty faces and their despicable habits. They seem to love Him. Love? You want order and obedience. Love? It’s not necessary. Love? We would rather be respected. Only we, O Lord, truly understand You.

What are the people probably thinking? 

We try every day, dear God, to be good. We tithe from what little we have and yet, in the faces of the leaders, we see nothing but scorn. No matter how much we strive, we see the utter disgust in their faces. We know we are so unworthy to even call upon Your Name. You seem so distant; but this Jesus seems to bring You so close, we can almost hear Your voice. Maybe Your voice is His. He doesn't notice our dirty clothes and ragged faces; we know we are not pleasant to be around--the leaders have made that plain enough. And yet, when we look into Jesus’ face, we see kindness, openness, and a sense that You do care for us, warts and all. Yes, our hands are dirty, but this Jesus is willing to clasp them and look in our eyes. We feel the scorn burning into our backs from the eyes of the leaders; so we just keep our gaze on His face...Are we seeing Your face, dear God, as well?

Everyone listening knows about sheep and how, if not watched carefully, the sheep will wander. How often did an errant sheep wander into town, because some shepherd's afternoon nap went on a bit too long? How often did a panicky shepherd come running into town, asking the townspeople if they had seen his sheep?  So, everyone could understand the wandering of a sheep and the fretful reaction of the shepherd. Isn't interesting, though, instead of talking about a shepherd out there, Jesus brings His audience into the story: "Suppose one of you..."

Yes, you: Mr. Obstinate Pharisee.

Yes, you: Mr. Scorned Tax Collector.

Yes, even you, Mrs. Despised Poor Woman.

Everyone is invited to imagine themselves in the place of the shepherd.

Now, Jesus poses a question. A shepherd doesn't just fret over the sheep. He needs to get a move-on and go out and find it! He will not rest until he does. The other ninety-nine are safe in the flock. The wandering one is subject to all kinds of dangers: wolves, falling into a ditch, being stolen... How many times had one of the townsfolk come across a sheep whose shepherd had not been able to find it, and found its body was rotting in the sun?

Everyone could picture the shepherd searching high and low for the sheep, having left the care of the other sheep to the other shepherds. He is focused on finding the one sheep. Why?

Each sheep is valuable. There is safety in numbers, but not value in numbers. Each sheep is as valuable as the next. No one sheep is inherently more precious than another. The shepherd knows each sheep and cares for each sheep's welfare. 

The shepherd doesn't say, Hey! I still have the well-behaved ninety-nine. They are staying in the flock, obediently grazing where I have told them to. What's one missing? Next spring, there will be more lambs to replace it...No big deal.

Far from it.  Our shepherd finds the sheep and puts it on his shoulder--"joyfully." He doesn't chide it, yell at it or condemn it for wandering away.

Do you notice that, Pharisees? Do you catch that, everyone?

Yes, it is always preferable to stay obediently in the flock, following the shepherd's direction. But, what if someone wanders away?

What if YOU wander away? Would YOU want to be yelled at? Would YOU want to experience scornful looks and judgement about how stupid YOU were for wandering away?

Wouldn't YOU want a joyful Shepherd scooping YOU up, placing YOU on His shoulders joyfully and triumphantly marching into town to tell everyone of YOUR rescue?

Doesn't the sheep know already of its inadequacies? The burrs in its wool, the scratches on its legs are reminders enough of how wandering off is not wise. The "tax collectors and sinners" are all too aware of how wandering off is not pleasant. No one has to remind them of that. Scornful looks and their own condemning hearts provide enough shame. 

The flock is content...perhaps too content. Perhaps they take advantage of the shepherd’s presence.

In a way, that’s good: they are so secure in his care that they graze in utter safety and assurance.

In a way, that’s not good: they are so secure in his care that they forget his diligence and willing sacrifice to make sure that they are utterly safe.

It's those who wander off that need God the most and feel His loving balm the most when they are recaptured by His love. Heaven rejoices! Why? Because the sheep knew it had strayed. It is willing now to come home with the shepherd and be restored to the flock.

Jesus looks at the listeners. Many of them have heads lowered, knowing that they have wandered from the Shepherd of their souls. Yet, in their troubled spirits, hope flutters--I can be forgiven and Heaven is rejoicing as I do!

Many of them are looking at Him, flummoxed. I am in the flock, obedient, and yet I am not in love with the Shepherd, only with my own goodness. Do I need to come home too?

Jesus' eyes scan the crowd. Are you willing to come home? Will you join Heaven and rejoice as others do as well?

I, the Shepherd, will never stop looking for His wandering sheep.

Jesus will press on with the next two parables--the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son, driving home the point of God values each one of us. His love extends forgiveness to each one of us. Yes, Heaven rejoices over the returned sheep, but do we, as the other sheep, open up our hearts as well?

Why wouldn’t the shepherd go out looking for that sheep? It’s a given. Why? The Shepherd deliberately goes out to find us because that is who He is: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) He couldn’t do anything else. He will look for every sheep that wanders away. Period.  His covenant driven love for us means that even if we wander away, He will come looking for us. He will keep looking, for He has bound His heart to ours.

Once He has brought us back into the fold, how will we be treated? Perhaps as we come back into the flock, we will get scornful and judgmental looks from the other sheep.  

The Shepherd accepts us, based on our repentance, which is simply agreeing that yes, we wandered off, and yes, we regret our actions. His response? “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.…” (Romans 8:1)

Our place in the flock is secured, based on His relentless love. He secured our freedom because of His love for us:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)

But…once we are back in the flock, we cannot bring up our wandering. He has forgiven us and “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12).

But…once we are back in the flock, the other sheep must accept us as well. Maybe they didn’t wander off…this time. But as they would like mercy when they return, so too must they give mercy when another one returns. Why? Look at the name of the pen we all are in: “Better Than The OK Covenant Corral.”

Do you listen to the sounds of Heaven drifting down when you return to the Savior of your soul? Is there any place He can’t find you? Walk through Psalm 139:1-18 & 23-4 (WEB) and realize with David that you are never beyond His loving reach. He is always there, ready to heal, forgive and strengthen you.

Yahweh, you have searched me,
and you know me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up.
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
but, behold, Yahweh, you know it altogether.
You hem me in behind and before.
You laid your hand on me.
This knowledge is beyond me.
It’s lofty.
I can’t attain it.
Where could I go from your Spirit?
Or where could I flee from your presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, [the place of the dead] behold, you are there!
If I take the wings of the dawn,
and settle in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there your hand will lead me,
and your right hand will hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me;
the light around me will be night”;
even the darkness doesn’t hide from you,
but the night shines as the day.
The darkness is like light to you.
For you formed my inmost being.
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to you,
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Your works are wonderful.
My soul knows that very well.
My frame wasn’t hidden from you,
when I was made in secret,
woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my body.
In your book they were all written,
the days that were ordained for me,
when as yet there were none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is their sum!
If I would count them, they are more in number than the sand.
When I wake up, I am still with you…
Search me, God, and know my heart.
Try me, and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the everlasting way.

The Lord, my Shepherd, is always watching over His sheep.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Knock, Knocking at Heaven's Door: The Parable of the Widow, Part II

The purpose of this parable was that “men ought always to pray, and not to faint…”  So, to use the KJV’s word, why do we “faint”?

Well, our focus is on our prayer… 

·       Not being answered

·       Not being answered in the way we desire

·       Taking way too long

·       Being overtaken by other needs

Well, what is the focus of the parable?  The focus is on the judge’s character, not on the widow’s prayer or the circumstances surrounding her.  Jesus sketches out the judge’s character, but not that of the widow or of her complaint. 

Our focus needs to stay on the Father’s character.  Think of prayer as a way to get to know God better.  Prayer is more than a recitation of our needs, which He already knows.  He desires fellowship with us, and prayer is that place of meeting.

Remember the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus?  This temporary structure was ordained by God to be built to very specific instructions, while the children of Israel were living in the desert.  It was portable and it could be taken from place to place.  Once it was set up, God’s presence came down and resided in it.  It was called the Place of Meeting.  That is what prayer is, a place to meet and get to know God.  Yes, He, like the judge, knows of your life, its challenges and your needs.  But, the heart of God longs for interaction with you, not just a quick reminder that what you’ve asked for hasn’t come about yet. 

We do not faint because our faith is in God:  

My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.  He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. (Psalm 121:2-4)

Our faith is not in our faith:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast… (Eph. 2:8-9)

Our faith is not in our words: 

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom. 8:26-7)

Our faith is in God. Read those passages that speak of His character. God is the very opposite of the judge in the parable: He is utterly reliable and regards us as His children.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Knock, Knocking at Heaven's Door: The Parable of the Widow, Part I

 Let's dive in!

“There was a judge in a certain city who didn’t fear God, and didn’t respect man. A widow was in that city, and she often came to him, saying, ‘Defend me from my adversary!’ He wouldn’t for a while, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God, nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will defend her, or else she will wear me out by her continual coming.’”

The Lord said, “Listen to what the unrighteous judge says. Won’t God avenge his chosen ones, who are crying out to him day and night, and yet he exercises patience with them? I tell you that he will avenge them quickly. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:2-8 WEB)

In the preceding chapter, the Pharisees inquired when the Kingdom of God will come.  Jesus teaches it is not somewhere out there: because “God’s Kingdom is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

The disciples then ask Jesus (probably later on) about how the Kingdom of God will come.  Jesus says that first He will suffer “many things and be rejected by this generation.”  (Luke 17:25)  Jesus comments on how both in Noah’s time and Lot’s, people carried on as usual. Then swift and utter destruction came.  Jesus speaks of an upcoming catastrophe.  Vultures will gather (death will be everywhere) and it will be a grim and soul-trying time.  I am sure that the disciples were crest-fallen when they heard this.  If they were expecting a triumphant Jesus vanquishing the Romans, and making God’s Kingdom a reality on the inside as well as on the outside, they were quickly disavowed of this notion by Jesus’ words. 

Then, in the first verse of Luke 18:2, Jesus tells them “a parable to them that they must always pray, and not give up” and here we have our persistent widow, an unrighteous judge and an adversary, who menaces the widow.  

Let's set the scene.  We have a less than sterling judge. We have a widow who is in desperate need of a judgment against an "adversary." 

These two people are neighbors and probably so is the adversary--so it's a case of "You can run but you cannot hide."  How often does the widow see the judge walking to his office?  How often does the widow catch a glimpse of her foe, ducking into a store or staring at her from over clearance rack at the discount department store?  These people interact every day at some level, and because of this, the widow feels desperation...her foe is a constant reminder of the injustice she has suffered. 

Do we know what the offense originally was?  Does it matter?  She wants justice, plain and simple.

The judge is probably the only judge in this small town.  Jesus gives him a quick personality sketch—this judge doesn't care about what God or others think. 

Uh-oh.  In a small town, with religion permeating every nook and cranny of the people's existence, this judge would stand out.  He obviously has said words to that effect or has behaved in such a way that people know what he is like.  He may the guy that everyone loves to hate, but are the people supposed to do?  He's the only one in town who can dispense justice.

The widow knows about his reputation.  She equally knows she is stuck with him.  Her personality is one of persistence: She keeps coming to him and requesting that he hear her plea.  She won't give up and is so persistent that the judge fears that if he doesn't act soon, she will attack him. He could care less about God and man, yet this widow's tenacity keeps him awake at night! 

Why is that?  Could it be that deep down inside, he knows he needs to do the right thing and hear her case and make a ruling?  He probably knows her adversary as well, and as long as the judge delays, this adversary is walking the streets, sneering at a system that doesn't stop him.  So, these three characters are in a desperate dance, which could be quelled in a New York minute with a pronouncement from the judge.  

The judge must act, if not to uphold the law but to protect himself from this widow.  The widow must act and pursue the judge so she can be protected by the law.  The adversary lurks in the town, awaiting judgment, glad of his freedom but having to always look over his shoulder. 

Jesus then points to the words of the judge.  If someone that unjust, that preoccupied with just personal safety and that insensitive about the suffering of others can recognize the need to act, how much more will our pleas be heard by our loving Heavenly Judge? 

Was Jesus in essence saying that perhaps (although they would never admit this) the disciples saw God as that judge in the story?  Were they entertaining the belief that God really didn't care, that He is insensitive to our suffering and is way too concerned about how we behave towards Him, without any thought as to how He acts towards us?  How God seems to take such a long time to bring about justice?

Uh-oh.  In other words, are we the widow and God is the judge?  Of course, we know who the "adversary" is, and how relentless he is in condemning us.  It seems he lurks about town, and gets away with murder. Literally. 

So, Jesus launches this parable with the theme to keep praying and never give up.  He has predicted a future event that will try the souls of all who call on Him.  But prayer is the disciples’ lifeline and ours. 

We need to ask for mercy for those who hurt, suffer and cry out. 

We need to ask for justice for those who sin, cause misery and repent not. 

Is Jesus asking us to be more focused in our prayers?  Perhaps.  I think He is asking us to reevaluate who we think God is.  He compares God's personality to that of the judge's, and how God is nothing like the judge--despite our believing so.   

God hears our cries.  He doesn't ignore us or avoid us.  He is actively engaged in our lives, not shirking His responsibility to His own.

God will not delay justice.  He knows what we need and what the cries of our heart are.  He is not delaying justice.  He is working to bring it about.  His timing is not our own.  We need to trust His timing.

God wants justice in the world.  Sin was not His design, and the consequences of sin have rendered His creation chock full of chaos, pain and evil.  He is all too aware of this.  He is at work in His creation. 

He is in the process of remedying it.  How?  Who is telling the parable?  It's Jesus:  The very One that the Almighty Judge has sent down, to pay the penalty Himself, on a cross that waits for Him in the near future.  Justice will be borne upon the shoulders of the One who now stands before the disciples.  The Judge, will in essence, offer Himself to render justice and set us free.  His stripes will heal us.  He will put the adversary on borrowed time.

God wants us to be persistent and walking in faith each day.  The time is coming when the judgment will be handed down.  Will we have already left the courtroom in despair, or will we be knocking on Heaven's door, confident in the knowledge that He is good and kind and just?  When the Son returns, will we still be at our Father's business, or will our hearts have grown cold?

God want us to be persistent, which is defined as "continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition."  The days will be filled with trial, to be sure, but will we meet the days with despair or determination? 

Why is the widow so persistent?  The responsibility of that judge is to uphold justice.  He was sworn in and he occupies that office because of that oath.  Regardless of his personal feelings towards the widow, it is his office that demands he act, and act fairly.  She is counting on his office and not on his personal charm, or the lack thereof. 

Now, consider that judge who is unjust, holding an office that demands justice, and consider the One Who is just and Who entered into a covenant (He walked among the animals halves in front of Abraham) that He would treat His children with love and mercy.  He would bridge the gap between His holy Self and our sinful selves.   

He upholds justice and is Justice itself, so sin will have its day in Court:  “But the Lord shall endure for ever: he hath prepared his throne for judgment. And he shall judge the world in righteousness, he shall minister judgment to the people in uprightness.” (Ps. 9:7-8)

He upholds mercy is and is Mercy itself, so forgiveness will have its day in Court as well:  Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old.” (Psalm 25:6) 

Why is this?  God’s covenant still stands: 

Don’t remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions.
    Remember me according to your loving kindness,
    for your goodness’ sake, Yahweh.
Good and upright is Yahweh,
    therefore he will instruct sinners in the way.
He will guide the humble in justice.
    He will teach the humble his way.
All the paths of Yahweh are loving kindness and truth
    to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.
For your name’s sake, Yahweh,
    pardon my iniquity, for it is great.

What man is he who fears Yahweh?
    He shall instruct him in the way that he shall choose.
His soul shall dwell at ease.
    His offspring shall inherit the land.
The friendship of Yahweh is with those who fear him.
    He will show them his covenant.                                      (Psalm 25:7-14 WEB)

God’s justice and mercy exist because it is in His nature.  He can do no more or no less.  He instructs us through His word what He demands of us. 

Both the judge and the widow knew the law—no mystery there. 

God has shown us what He expects of us and what we can expect from Him—no mystery there. 

We are children of the New Covenant.  He is the Lord of the New Covenant.  We knock on Heaven’s door with confidence: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”  (Heb. 4:16)

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