Saturday, April 20, 2024

Who Gets the Glory? No, Really...

How often have you driven past a guy holding a cardboard sign and turned away/glared/felt guilty or handed him some money, all the while wondering if you did the right thing.

I tend to help women over men. I will stop for a woman stranded on the road.  Having grown up in LA during the time when serial killers were making the news nightly, I will not just drive by someone who is vulnerable.  

But sadly, women are used to lure people to help them, while an abusive man is standing by, knowing people's compassion will win the day and he will grab whatever she brings in. 

Sometimes, you feel it's a no-win situation.  What will they spend the money on? Drugs, alcohol and whatever they are using to numb themselves--are we contributing to their demise?   Once, I offered to take a woman grocery shopping.  She stayed outside with her son, and I went and bought groceries. I brought them to her and I gave her son a little stuffed animal. I felt I had done the right thing--but the doubt always remains.

I have brought water to people stranded in their cars on a hot day; I talked with an anxious motorist until she was calm enough to drive away, and I bought water and bread to a mentally ill man who was wearing a sweater on a hot summer day and who was attempting to walk along the highway that was going into the mountains. 

This list is not untended to impress you; it's my way of saying I just don't drive by with a guilty conscience every time nor do I help every single person I see. 

When I do, I pray it's the right and safe thing to do.

When I encounter someone, I ask over and over, "Spirit, is this what You want me to do?"  If I don't get a clear directive, I pray for the person and keep driving.  The Spirit is very clear; my niggling doubts are not from Him, and I also don't want to act from guilt.

Guilt is a powerful tool to get people to act in ways they might not otherwise consider.  The people who stand begging for a "job" have many things going for them: (1) a torn piece of cardboard indicating they are so down and out they had to scrounge in a dumpster just to get a sign (2) the sign says "God bless," indicating you are serving God if you give them money and they are really grateful for it (3) they are desperate for any show of human kindness, so they will wave and smile at you (4) the goal isn't a job but money, but their "willingness" to work means they want you to know that they aren't just begging (5) they are there "spontaneously," being as desperate as they are, despite picking locations that are strategic--such as intersections where you can't talk to them, get their story and find out if they have sought out services (6) have they actually applied for a job, or are they implying that no one will hire them so they have to beg?

Not a flattering picture, is it?  And yet, it must work, for there is no shortage of people every day out there, sign in hand and asking for money. 

As Christians, how are we to handle the "giving to the poor" thing?

Jesus is not asking us to give everything we have to the poor; He is not advocating indiscriminately giving them money, for we may be assisting the person to pursue sin. He isn't asking us to ignore the plight of the poor or have distain for them. He is asking us in these verses form Matthew 6:1-4, to have the right motivation as we give. The right posture.  The right heart.

What does He say? 

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

Hmmm.  So these verses seem to indicate that there were those who made a big show of their philanthropy.  Hmmm.  Why would people do that?

Wait a minute, Rabbi Jesus!  You said earlier that we are to be salt and light, and that we should shine our light, so others will see what we are doing, and praise God because of that!  Oh.  The praise and focus is on our Father, not in us.  We are just the candle.  God is to be praised because of the light. Oh.  Got it now.

Is there a modern equivalent?  


Instead of looking at our big church with all of its programs, and admiring it, it is better to ask:  What is God doing in my church?

Instead of putting a teacher or pastor on a pedestal and admiring him or her, it is better to ask:  What is God doing through this person?

Good deeds are good deeds, and benefit the recipients, but in the Kingdom of God, good deeds should point to God.

We, Christian or not, grow prideful when people focus on us or on our church--its programs, its worship team, its influence in the culture--but we forget one important thing when our eyes are on the tangible:  Who gave us the resources, talents and knowledge to do these things in the first place?  

In the parable of the talents, it was the master who gave the men the money--although the amounts were different, the master expected the men to use the talents to benefit the master. 

Instead of, "Wow!  Look at what those men did with the talents!" our response should be, "What a wonderful master who knew his servants so well that he empowered them to go out and increase what he gave them!"

Jesus is asking His listeners to remember who gave them the resources in the first place and the opportunities to disburse them:  God.  So, trumpeting your giving and making a big show of your generosity is contrary to the silent but sure working of a person in the Kingdom of God.  If you don't get any acknowledge or praise, so what?  Your Father will reward you, and that's way better than anything man has to offer.

God reminds the children of Israel, before they enter the Promised Land, how easy it will be for them to forget Who provided for them to enter in the first place, and how He made all this abundance possible:

"When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today." (Deut. 8:10-18)

"When you are satisfied..." That is the key element here.  No longer were the people faced with insurmountable challenges: being enslaved, wandering in the wilderness with its poisonous denizens, lacking food and water, and just surviving day to day. Now, the people are settled in, with prosperity and creature comforts all around them.  But, beware when arrogance begins to settle in:  Look at what we've done!  We are so amazing that we were not only given this land but we made it into what it is today!  Go us!

Humans are not very good at taking God's blessings in the good times and turning them into praises.  We are satisfied, thinking that our prosperity and satisfaction comes from something we did, forgetting way too quickly that it is God Who gives us the abilities and the resources in the first place. Oh, we are very quick to call on God to rescue us from things we cannot do, but once we can do something, our focus narrows down to us. 

Giving to the needy is a noble thing.  Looking and praying for opportunities to help others is a part of God's kingdom. 

But we must first praise God for giving us the resources to give away.  

We need to praise God for inspiring us to give and the wisdom to know who to give to and how much. 

At the center of the Kingdom of God is God, not us.  We are happy servants, wanting our Master alone to receive the glory and praise. 

His joy about our obedience is reward enough.  

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Tax Collectors and Pagans? Really, Jesus?

Jesus knows who the enemies are as He preaches from that mountainside.  He isn't unaware of the Romans walking down the streets of Jewish towns, eyeing everyone with suspicion and contempt. 

He knows what awaits Him at the hands of the Romans, when they decide they have had enough of this troublemaker from Galilee. 

He knows all too well the adversarial gaze of the religious leaders whose jealousy and anger dangerously boils beneath the surface.

He knows what awaits Him at the hands of these leaders when the people talk of a man being resurrected and His claims of God being His Father cross the line from itinerant rabbi to blasphemer and unforgivable upstart. 

Both parties, who detest each other, will one day unite in common cause to rid their world of this Man whom the people respect and listen to, unlike themselves.  Who listens to the Romans?  Who listens to the religious leaders?  But this poser from Nazareth... 

Jesus knows His enemies and He knows ours:  Our neighbor, our family member, ourselves. So after talking about not allowing retaliation rule over our grievances with one another, but allowing love to recapture the situation, He then takes us deeper into our relationship with those who we consider our enemies:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:43-48)

Later, in answering which of the Old Testament's commandments are the greatest, Jesus will summarize it this way:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40)

First, let's visit the Jewish Law as presented in Leviticus and see what it says:

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God."

As You speak Rabbi, I am thinking about the verses in our Law.  You are not getting rid of our Law but You seem to be refreshing our thinking about it.  We have listened way too long to the religious leaders' interpretations and I think we have missed out on what the Law really says.  OK, Rabbi, You are defining who is our neighbor, aren't You? It's the poor and those who are not Jewish--the ones who live in our land but aren't one of us.  

"Do not steal.  Do not lie.  Do not deceive one another."

OK, that's fair, Rabbi.  I wouldn't want anyone stealing, lying or deceiving me, so I shouldn't do that to anyone.

"Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord."

I understand. We should just let our "yes" be "yes" and our "no" be "no."  I am listening, Rabbi!

"Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.  Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight."

Yes, Rabbi, I would want to be paid promptly and having trust between me and my neighbor are essential if me and my neighbor are to get along.

"Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord." 

One day, I may become blind or deaf, or someone in my family.  That kind of treatment is so unkind.  Life is hard enough for them; we should not make it harder. 

"Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly."

We want justice when we are wronged but we want mercy when we are the wrongdoer.  The courts need to be impartial and so should we.  There shouldn't be two kinds of justice, one for the rich and one for the poor. If anyone needs protection in the courts, it's the poor, especially if the accuser is rich. 

"Do not go about spreading slander among your people.  Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord."

Yes, if I spread rumors that assassinate my neighbor's character, people might come after him or drive him away.  Lies endanger people and I should never be party to such talk. 

"Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt."

I want to love others, like You do, Rabbi. Instead of accusing my neighbor and running into court, I need to go and talk with my neighbor.  Resentment can turn into hate way too quickly.  I am listening to Your words!

"Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord." (Lev. 19:9-18)

Wow, Rabbi, that's the defining idea, isn't it?  I love myself and look out for myself; I need to do so because God says "I am the Lord" after His decrees--He takes this all very seriously and as a follower and child of the Most High, my behavior needs to reflect that truth.  Can't bless my neighbor and the nations if I do otherwise!  Now, You are telling me to expand my definition of "neighbor."  It's my enemies--instead of cursing them, I am to pray for them?  You say that shows my sonship to my Father in heaven.  He loves us both--fallen and forgiven, chosen and cursed, loved and loathed. True, the rain falls on both of us--He still cares for those who do not care for Him.

It's easy to love those who are lovable, treat us kindly and have our best interests at heart.  That's not fair, Rabbi, to compare us to tax collectors and pagans when we love those who love us!  But I suppose You want us to remember it's the unlovable who need love the most. I think that word "perfect" You are using means that we should be people of integrity and virtue, and we are maturing everyday towards that. [1] After all, God is the One who reflects morality without flaw; if we are His, how can we settle for less? 

So, in other words, when our leaders teach us what is contrary to the Word of God--that hating our enemies is someone OK with Your Father--we need to read it for ourselves and meditate on its true meaning. 

Our roots have shriveled, Lord, trying to draw water from our leaders' springs. But the psalm says, 

"Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers." (1:1-3)

I want to draw deeper into the springs You are taking us to--I am thirsty. I can't completely blame the leaders for that--I bear responsibility for letting them think for me. But You give me hope, Rabbi Jesus, that deeper springs await.

[1] "Perfect." Strong's Concordance.

Friday, April 5, 2024

The Master's Class

 I just moved!  That is why my blog has gone eerily silent.  But I am back, sitting in my new "office" (home sweet home!) with a view of some lovely trees and a blue sky.  God is good!

We are exploring the Kingdom of God life.  Just as Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments to inaugurate an new way of life to those former slaves of Egypt, so too does the new Moses, Jesus, sit on a mountainside and present a new way of living and thinking about God and each other. 

Jesus fulfills the Law by enriching it with a more subtle and mercy-driven approach.  The Mosaic law is not devoid of mercy; quite the contrary.  But by Jesus' day, minutiae had triumphed over mercy, condemnation over community and judgement over justice.  The Lord God of Israel had become distant, eyeing every misstep of His children with impending wrath; Jesus was seeking to recapture the image of God and refashion it to not just the God of our fathers, but God the Father.

Jesus was presenting a foundation of love.  So, obviously, murder is not allowed but neither is hate. Adultery is not allowed, but neither is lust.  Divorce is not allowed except for adultery and breaking an oath is not allowed but neither is using sacred things to underscore one's word.  Yes or no is good enough.


Jesus continues with His emphasis on love. The Mosaic law allowed for many kinds of recompense for wrongs done to a person by another person.  Without that, the Israelites would have descended into chaos, and would have disappeared in the desert, victims of their own violence towards one another. They needed divine structure to contain, guide and inform them on how to live.  Their Egyptian  taskmasters had given them structure alright, but one predicated on violence and control.

The Mosaic law recast what a society predicated on the one true God looked like: free from fear, justice infused with mercy and above all, a love for God that translated into right action. 

But in every society, there are those who violate the law, scorn ethics and hold others in contempt.

What do we with these folks?

In Exodus 21:22-27, God instructs the people as to what to do in various injury cases:

1.  If someone deals a deliberate fatal blow to someone, the offender will be put to death. If someone deals an unintentional fatal blow to someone, the offender will be able to seek sanctuary in a distant place.  

2.  If someone attacks or curses their parents, the offender will be put to death. 

3.  If someone hurts someone so severely that the victim must take to their bed, the offender is liable for the victim's time lost due to their injury. 

4.  If someone beats their slaves to death, their own death will result. 

5.  If a pregnant woman is hurt during a quarrel between two people, (You can picture two men going at it, one of the wives steps in to stop the quarrel and she is injured as well) the husband has the right to demand compensation if the woman gives birth before the baby is due.

But, and this is the important part to our discussion: "But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." (Ex. 21:23-25)

Even slaves fall under this provision: 

"An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth." (Ex. 21:26-27)

Slaves are not exempt from harsh treatment.  It would be so easy for the children of Israel to forget they were once slaves, and because of the "role models" they had, act like taskmasters themselves.  

Slavery is an abhorrent practice, but in ancient times, slavery was a common practice.  Slavery was an alternative to putting captives from wars and raiding to death; in the nascent nation of Israel, slaves were to have a measure of protection. 

So, in summary, the punishment must fit the crime.

We hold to the same idea:  We don't execute people for stealing cars or robbing banks. We don't allow murderers to go unpunished, and we seek to have the offender compensate the victim.  The law is not perfect for it is written by imperfect people, but God shows us, that in our fallen world, justice matters and law must uphold morality. Evil must not go unpunished.

Jesus is addressing a common reaction people have to injustice: retaliation. And why not?  If you kill my son, I should be able to come over and hurt your family.  If you run over my dog, I will come over and shoot yours.  If you sleep with my wife, I will seek to catch you in the act and hurt you or maybe even kill you.  Anger, hurt and personal justice drives us to take the law into our own hands and mete out our form of justice. Retaliation is a natural response to grievous wrongs. 

Jesus shows us, that in this Kingdom, there is a way to redeem the grievance, the wrong, the hurt:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." (Matt. 5:38-42)

OK, Rabbi Jesus, that is a bridge too far.  My neighbor is a bit easier to forgive, because, well, after all, I have to live next door to him.  I must admit, I would want him to be fair to me if I did someone wrong to him.  I guess we want to hand out justice when we are wronged, but we desire mercy when we wrong someone. 

If I slapped someone, I would want them to not retaliate and hit me back. Their restraint would speak mightily of their character.

If I wanted to sue someone, and they handed me more than I was demanding, I would be stunned and then touched by their willingness to end the feud with generosity. 

If I demanded that someone come with me, and they went above and beyond my request, I would be astounded and view them in a whole new and rather positive light. 

I want to have a generous spirit, and sometimes if I can bring a bit of love to someone who needs it, the blessing goes both ways--to me and the person I am helping.

But Rabbi!  What about the ROMANS?  Disgusting, idol-worshipping, pagan and violent men who treat us like dogs? 

They do force us to do things for them, and carry their stuff for them.  An extra mile, you say?  I hate doing it for just one mile.

This Kingdom of God teaching seems to want us to move beyond what we are entitled to by Mosaic law, and reach out to those who do not know the one true God except by how we act. If we withdraw and sneer at them, how can we honor what you told Abraham?  How can we be a blessing to all nations if we isolate ourselves from the nations that need to know Him?

Oh, Rabbi.  The Romans. Really?

Jesus never asked the people to do something He wouldn't do.  

Fast forward to a few years from now:  Jesus will teach the Master's class on how to apply these teachings.  Stand with me at the foot of the cross on Good Friday: "When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, 'Surely he was the Son of God!'" (Matt. 27:54)

Yes, even the Romans could be moved by Jesus.

The Kingdom of God seeks instruct those who will carry the Word to and be a blessing to all nations.   Why? They need God the most: "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Rom. 10:14)

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Be As Good As Your Word

So far, we have covered the "Ten Commandments" of Jesus--we have looked at murder, adultery, and divorce.  Notice these are all relational commandments:  They represent what has been brought together and how they may separated in a way that contrasts sharply with the Kingdom of God.

Murder is where your life meets someone who would separate you from it. Adultery is where your marriage meets someone (maybe even you) who would separate you from your spouse and reconciliation is possible.  Divorce is where you would separate yourself from you spouse and reconciliation is not possible.    

The Kingdom of God sustains life and relationships, not because we are perfect but because God is in the business of restoring our lives and our relationships with one another. 

Relationships are built and sustained by the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Our relationship with God is sustained by truth.  We cry out to God in all of our painful honesty.  He knows where we are hiding, deep in shame's shadows and He asks us, "Where are you?"  He wants us to be honest with Him, and with each other.  

When you are honest, your integrity shines through.  Honesty is not easy, but when you are honest, even to your own detriment, people realize integrity is an integral part of your character. 

Character.  This is one of the hallmarks of a member of the Kingdom of God. What you say, who you are and what you do are all expressions of your inner self.  Jesus will later talk about how your heart is a storehouse of who you are: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matt. 6:21)  Whatever you value, whatever you hold sacred, will be stored in your heart, and will come to light whenever you are challenged, tested or needing to draw deeply into your character.  

The word for "heart" in Hebrew carries with it a richness of meaning:

  • "inner man, mind will, heart"
  • "soul"
  • "thinking, reflection"
  • "memory"
  • "specific reference to inclinations, resolutions and determinations of the will"
  • "conscience"
  • "moral character"
  • "seat of pride" [1]
So, you can see, it means way more than feelings.  Our hearts reflect our relationship with God.  A heart united with God will speak volumes of our character when we enter into any kind of relationship. 

Jesus uses oaths as an interesting example about how our character operates when we are ask to bind ourselves to the truth and to another person by what we say: 

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Matt. 5:33-37). 

Oaths seem to carry with them an inherent sense of elaboration and showmanship: The more I say, the more I elaborate with grand phases of loyalty and solemnity, the more you should be impressed and see me as an honest person. 

Really?  "The lady, methinks, protests too much"--thank you, Hamlet.  Exactly. The more you say, the more it sounds like you are trying to cover over a variation of the truth or a straight out lie with the wallpaper of words. 

Jesus doesn't let His listeners have any latitude on this--no invoking heaven, earth, Jerusalem or even yourself to make your oath sounds super spiritual.  Your spiritual bluster has no place in the Kingdom of God.  

What does then? A simple but honest, "yes" or "no."


The Kingdom of God requires no more than a "yes" or "no" because your response is coming from a heart that wants to serve God.

Jesus even takes this one step further and attributes any elaboration on your part beyond the yes or no, as coming from Satan. 

Whoa, Rabbi, wait as minute.  In my line of work, a simple yes or no makes me sound like a fool, a simpleton, a gullible person.  I can dish out an oath with the best of them, making darn sure the other person knows I am serious.  He does the same with me, and we exchange oaths and swear by all that is holy to conduct our business.  What if he said a simple yes as well as I?  Hmmm...we could get to know one another better, I suppose, instead of engaging in an oath marathon, and trying to outdo one another. Hmmm.  This Kingdom of God thing is rather straight forward, isn't it, Rabbi?  I suppose Satan, being the deceiver, enjoys when we cover over our deceptive ways with lots of spiritually sounding words.  What are we trying to hide?  After all, Satan enjoys deceit, lies and the ruin such practices ultimately bring to relationships.  I guess being in the Kingdom means distancing yourself as far from anything that gives Satan enjoyment. 

Exactly.  The truth is simple, really.  Jesus wants those of us who carry His name to act as He did:  in absolute integrity of character.

And not only does He model it, He empowers us to do so as well.  The Kingdom of God is not a country club where you have to put on a front and act a certain way to be accepted by others.

The Kingdom of God is a lovely dinner, sitting and sharing with one another without pretense or guile, joyous in spirit and making the Father smile. 

Who wouldn't want to come to such a table?

[1] "Heart," Brown-Driver-Briggs Dictionary,

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Really, Jesus? You Don't Know My Wife!

Divorce, even in Jesus' day, was a difficult subject.

Marriage was all along God's plan for His human children. His divine directive is unity and the fruit of that unity. 

On the fifth day of creation, He orders that the life He has created--the birds of the air and the creatures of the sea, to be fruitful and multiply: "God blessed them and said, 'Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.'” (Gen. 1:22)

We associate that directive with human beings, but He wanted all things to reproduce. He wanted the earth to be filled with His creatures and their fruitfulness is a generational re-creating of His design.  God delights in beauty and abundance. 

God could have created one panda, one flamingo and one butterfly.  But that would have been for His enjoyment alone.  But that's not the God we serve.  He wanted a sky full of stars, oceans filled with wonderful creatures and the land hosting a variety of animals we would delight in. Perhaps we were created last, so God could enjoy all that He had made with us. Have you ever witnessed a sunset, and thought, "Oh, my mom would love this!"  Or watched a puppy playing in the yard, and you ran and grabbed your daughter to come to window and watch?  We want to share the beauty that we see, and the joy we experience--God is no different. 

Then God creates a helper for Adam--the one in Hebrew is ezer.  It means, "one who helps."  Very straightforward, huh?  Help with what?  Being a steward over creation.  A partner. Someone to share life with: the work, the joy, the tasks and the bounty.  Eve came from Adam's rib--she was crafted from a part of him--and she was his partner in everything he did. 

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Gen. 1:26) [emphasis mine]. 

Notice, God, from the very beginning, saw how important relationships were for Adam, and who better to fulfill that role that someone whose very body carries a part of him? God wanted a "they" to shepherd creation, not a "he" imbued with all the power and responsibility, lording over a "she." 

"So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)

God didn't create Eve as an afterthought--she was an integral aspect of God's creation.  All the other creatures were told to multiply--a singular Adam, alone, was not God's intention. 

Once Adam and Eve are standing before God, He says, "'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:28)

Before the Fall, relationship was the core of creation: God with us, Adam with Eve, the animals with each other and a sense that permeated all of creation:  We are all interconnected. 

The Fall shattered that.  Adam and Eve's relationship now possessed shame and they were unsure how to relate to God and to one another.  God demands of Adam what happened, and Adam says, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Gen. 3:12.  Eve lost her name.  It was subsumed under Adam's pride and fear and he was willing to distance himself from his choice by blaming God and Eve for his failure.

So, Adam and Eve, exiled from the Garden, had to sustain and maintain a relationship marred and made murky because of sin.

So, too, do we. 

Jesus states, "It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (Matt. 5: 31-32)

Jesus is recounting Deuteronomy 24:1-4:  "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man,  and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance."

The Kingdom of God is not a simple repeating of Mosaic Law...Jesus is taking the foundation and adds to it by emphasizing relationships Yes, technically, a man has the right to divorce his wife, but the Kingdom is not built on rights, but relationships.  Jesus is fulfilling, not abolishing the Law.  He says, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matt. 15:52)

Jesus is bringing new treasure to the old. 

God uses marriage and well as parenthood as a metaphor for Him and His people.  Here is a partial list:

  • "For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called." (Is. 54:5)
  • "For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you." (Is. 54:5-7)
  • "Not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord." (Jer. 31:32)
  • "And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy." (Hosea 2:19)
God used marriage as a way to explain His love for His people, and then His utter devastation when His people committed spiritual adultery by worshiping other gods.  

Broken relationships were and are never a part of God's intention or design.

In fact, Jesus uses adultery as the only legitimate reason for divorce.  Later Jesus will reiterate this when the Pharisees ask, 

"'Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?' He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh"? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.' They said to him, 'Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?' He said to them, 'Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.'" (Matt. 19:3-9)

How do we deal with this today?  If we view our relationships' purpose is to make us happy, then we would have sided with Hillel's interpretation of  Mosaic Law.  There were two schools of rabbinical thought in Jesus' day.  Shammai emphasized unfaithfulness as the core issue in Moses' teaching in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and Hillel saw the phrase "displeasing to him" as the legitimate basis for divorce.  Jesus clearly sides with Shammai; but He reminds His listeners of God's original design. [1]

Happiness is important but it not to be the sole pursuit of God's children. Today, and I am sure in Jesus' day, there were circumstances where divorce was very understandable: Violence to the woman or the children (or both) and abuse of any kind.  Violence and abuse shatter what marriage is about.  Then the divorce, while absolutely essential, destroys the unity of what God wants for us, and grieves Him, not because He is angry with us but He sees just how much sin has destroyed His children's relationships. 

Jesus knew there were many unhappy people sitting on that hillside, thinking that if Jesus only knew their wife or the husband, He'd be handing out those certificates of divorce. 

But Jesus wanted His listeners to understand that God sees us as His bride and could have, by all rights, divorced humanity a long time ago. 

But God is in the business of restoration.  He will use whatever tools He can to redirect us back to wholeness. He wants the abused wife to be whole, as well as the abuser.  Both are His children. Safety for His children is essential; restoration is God's desire but reconciliation for many may not be possible nor desirable. 

Jesus is reminding us in this mountainside sermon that God desires to be intimately involved with us, but not hovering over us like the Pharisees, ready to punish us at the slightest infraction of the Law. 

He wants to be in a deep and meaningful relationship with us, and we with each other. 

Jesus will empower us to make this possible, by giving us the Holy Spirit, to dwell in us and multiply His fruit in our lives in abundance. 

[1]  Kenneth Barker, The NIV Study Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1985), p. 1469 

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Jesus' Ten Commandments

As we are exploring the commandments of the Kingdom of God, it's interesting how Jesus topically teaches on each aspect of living, with an echo of the Ten Commandments and the Shema. Jesus says that He had not come to "abolish the Law but to fulfill it." So He taking what the people have been taught and is creating not a new law, but a new approach.  

The first three commandments given by Moses are about how we are to approach God.  We are to not have any substitute for God; we are to make no idols and we are not to use His name carelessly. 

To Jesus' Jewish audience, this is an absolute given. It is the foundation of Judaism, as found in the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one."  (Deuteronomy 6:4).  Here the first three of the Ten Commandments are being reinforced: There is only one God; idols are utter lies when you worship the one true God, His name is sacred, and when we rest, we praise and worship Him, honoring Him and His beautiful creation. 

In the second half (I am doing this division to make a point) of the Shema, the remaining commandments of the Ten is echoed: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."  If you love Him with your whole being, then out of that heart that bears His imprint, will come behavior that reflects our the intimate relationship with God. 

So, we will want to honor our parents; we wouldn't even consider killing someone, for they bear God's image; we wouldn't want to violate the sacred bond of marriage, for it is God's gift to us and reflects how He sees us.  We would not want to take anything that doesn't belong to us, for God is our Provider and if we run into conflict, we need to speak the truth. If we always want what we don't have, we are telling God, in essence, His provision is not good enough. 

While Jesus is not doing a one to one correspondence with the Ten Commandments, it is the common ground upon which He is crafting how the Kingdom of God operates. 

So, Jesus' listeners are intrigued when Jesus zeroes in on murder--the Sixth Commandment. Jesus is  going to the heart of the matter--how we treat one another.  Hatred, name calling and a callous attitude is tantamount to murder in the Kingdom. 

Now Jesus moves the Seventh Commandment--not committing adultery. Easy breezy, right?  

Oh, Rabbi.  I honor that one all the time. Yes, the neighborhood prostitute is distracting, and all those young girls at the well catch my eye, but I haven't slept with any of them!  A little dalliance in my head is no big deal.  I am not hurting anyone.  I am faithful to my wife, even though she is not the nicest person in the world.  I may not be either, but I do honor my vows.

In this Kingdom, not misbehaving isn't the way we model righteousness. Our righteousness is modelled in how we think, talk, ponder and ruminate. David said it well: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." (Ps. 51:10)

Being good isn't good enough in this Kingdom--thinking good is just as important. So, in this Kingdom, our thoughts need just as much care and oversight as our behavior: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." (Matthew 5:27-30)

Rabbi, did I hear you right?  I can't even look?  I can't even have a dalliance in my head?  I can't even think about what could happen with this person if we got together?  That's no fun then.  I like looking.  I like pondering. Wow.  You can be a real kill-joy, Rabbi.

Our society is a living example of how thinking about someone else in a sexual way has lead to a  pornographic industry.  One thought can't hurt?  But it never stays at one thought.  For many people, one thought sets in motion an avalanche of behaviors that mock God's definition of love, marriage, sex and intimacy. 

Lust is the one appetite that can't be satiated. In fact, like greed, the more you get, the more you want.  Jesus is instructing us to realize how slippery the lust slope is.  Once started,  we go on and rationalize what we are doing, only to find ourselves wanting more. A vicious cycle kicks in, leaving in its wake broken relationships, abused people and an addiction that is very hard to break.

Jesus is suggesting a radical Kingdom principle:  If it doesn't honor God, it's an idol and you are to get rid of it. Gouge out your "eye" and cut off your "hand" to preserve your soul.  The Kingdom is beautiful and any compromise to that beauty will require a major spring-cleaning of your heart. Get rid of your idols.  David, after committing adultery with Bathsheba, wrote a powerful psalm, and he knew all too well the pain of having compromised his soul and his relationship with God:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. (Ps. 51: 1-17)

Jesus is not asking for us to be perfect in the Kingdom of God.  He wants our hearts to be soft and tender.  He wants us to be willing to quickly repent when sin comes our way.  We don't rationalize our wrongs; we confess them and walk back into God's loving embrace.

The Kingdom of God requires diligence on our part, but Jesus also offers us the power to overcome. The Kingdom is not of works, but of God's mighty working. 

Saturday, February 24, 2024

"You Have Heard It Said..." The New Way of Living

Jesus, because He is taking on the Pharisees' interpretation of the Law, and thus the burden it creates, acknowledges what the people already know and then enhances it with Kingdom wisdom.

Remember, He is not seeking to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  How do you fulfill something?  You take something that has not yet begun, or is in process, and bring it to completion. You take the promise you made and make it real. 

So, why did Jesus take on the teachers of the Law, the gatekeepers of the Torah?  Let's look at what Paul  said about the Law:   

"Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian." (Gal. 3:23-25).

The Law kept the Jews apprised as to what would keep them as a unique people.  They had a special role to play in human history:

"Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Ex. 19:3-6). 

So, in order to be a blessing to the world, they not only upheld the Law, the Law upheld them. 
Jesus is not arguing that the Law is no longer fundamental of essential to Jewish identity. He is saying, in this Kingdom, the Law has a deeper dimension that just what is stated. The Jews' role in the world had not changed--the blessing they brought would now be extended through Jesus to the Gentiles--but they had lost, because of their leaders, the essence of the Law.  

Jesus once was asked what was the most important commandment.  The question tucked away in that was:  How much of the Law must I obey and still be seen as a righteous person? 

Well, Moses first laid it out very clearly the most important part of the Law, beginning with the Shema, (God's declaration of His unique and holy status) was to be obedient with what He would reveal to Moses: 

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." (Deut. 6: 4-9). 

So, fast-forward to the question asked of Jesus:

"One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, 'Of all the commandments, which is the most important?' 

"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” 

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions." (Mark 12:28-34)

Jesus is telling the man, that because he has grasped the essence of the Law, he is closer to the Kingdom than he realizes. 

Remember, Jesus has just said that the people who enter the Kingdom must have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. He is completing the Law by moving it past just basic obedience to where it is expressed as love. Jesus strikes deep by beginning with murder and enemies: 

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’" (Matt. 5: 21)

Fair.  Everyone nods their head. 

We all know the Sixth Commandment, Jesus: "You shall not murder."  Why did you start with this one?

Because in the Kingdom of God, love for one another, and treating one another with respect is of the utmost importance.  The Kingdom is relational:  It is between you and God and between you and those around you. So, while not murdering someone is obvious because of the Law of Moses, the Kingdom has some nuances worth noting. 

"But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell." (5:22)

Uh-oh. I am sure everyone, when Jesus quoted the Sixth Commandment, and added His commentary, then shook their heads and said: 

We are not murderers. Perish the thought!  That's all we need to worry about according to the Law.  But wait a minute, Jesus, we can't even get mad at someone? We can't call one another names? We cannot express our disgust at someone's stupidity?  Seriously?  But people are stupid and need to be told so, and here You are, telling us that hell awaits us if we are being honest with some dumb bunny?  What? There's more?  

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift." (5:23-24)

Wow, Jesus. This Kingdom is a bit much. Are You saying that if we call someone a name, and then go our merry way to the Temple to make an offering, (because that is what we are supposed to do) You're saying we can't? But we are being obedient to the Law! You mean, we have to go and make amends? But the person deserved it! We rather not. It's not like we murdered them! That we understand. Wow.  You're not done yet? 

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny." (5:25-26)

Wait a minute!  If we have a falling out with someone, we have to go and make amends? Go to their house, business or wherever to reconcile? But, Jesus!  If this thing goes to court, then it's way too serious to just go and make nice.  We are on our way to court, Jesus, court...lawsuits, judges, You know, that kind of thing. And we are to settle it on the way?  But we shouldn't have to!  It's my adversary who's in the wrong--but it's true, we could lose the suit and then lose it all. Hmmm...Couldn't hurt to extend the olive branch before we get there. So, let's get this straight.  Don't murder? Moses said it, and who are we to argue?  But calling our brother or sister a name, in effect, judging them harshly for their behavior or attitude, is tantamount to murder? 

There have been times, when we have been on the receiving end of such ill treatment from others, we wanted to go home and die. So, making up with the person does seem reasonable, especially if our anger starts building, we could end up like Cain--actually seeking out our brother to kill him.

The adversary thing is harder to swallow, but we must admit that if we are at the point of going to court, the issue at hand needs some serious simmering down and reevaluating.  On the road seems like a good place to start, given the enormity of what we are facing us once we enter into court. Makes sense.  You want us more aware of our relationship to each other. It looks as if this Kingdom is about building bridges that razing the town to the ground. 

This Kingdom has one very critical aspect to it:  You give up your right to be right. 

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