Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hey, Brother, Can You Spare Some Oil?

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


Monday, July 20, 2015

"How To Not be a Fool" School

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

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



Monday, July 6, 2015

Kingdom Rules--The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

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

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

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