Sunday, May 26, 2024

Seek Ye First...

In the previous passage, Jesus declares that serving both God and money is impossible, because you cannot love both. You cannot be devoted to both. Why? At some point, both occupants of your heart will demand what the other one will not be compatible with or agree to, and you will plunge into a kind of war with your heart and your conscience. 

Paul explicates this in no uncertain terms: "Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God." (Romans 8:5-8)

But those of us in Christ have a different perspective, a different motivation: "For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Romans 8:14-16)

So we are either children of God, or children of the world. Our familial ties are expressed in how we act and what we believe. The world, represented by money, has its own values and will not tolerate sharing the stage with the Kingdom's values.

Think: How often have you wanted to do the right thing financially, but had divided loyalties between your love for God and the pressure and pleasure that debt and spending can bring?

  • You want to put even more debt on your credit card for a purchase but your church is conducting a fundraiser for an orphanage in Mexico and you are torn as to what to do.  You really want to make that purchase, but you know that outreach is important. 
  • You want to spend time with your kids but your wife is worried about money, so you go into work that day.
The list goes on and on. 

Jesus knows that we are ultimately at war with the things of God--hence, His teaching on the Kingdom of God. He wants us to know what life in the Kingdom looks like and how we should operate.

The values the Kingdom proffers are not the world's, pure and simple. The world is about self and a born-again heart is about God. 

Yes, we fail to uphold and live out those values quite often, but we know that.  The world goes about its business as if it's all about itself, and if people don't like it, too bad.  The world sees itself as progressive, hip and so aware of what's really important. 

But the world is deceived.

Jesus brought light and is Light to a world shrouded in darkness.  All too often the world thinks that darkness is the only quality life can have. 

So Jesus' teaching on this mountain is to reassert the values, the ways and the attitude of those who call on God.  A lot was lost under the cloak of "religion" and Jesus wanted to show His people that God was still standing by them and wanted far and away more for them that they could ever imagine. Isaiah 64:4 says, 

    Since ancient times no one has heard, 
        no ear has perceived,
        no eye has seen any God besides you,
        who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

So, Jesus moves from how money can turn into a very demanding master to, what I am sure the crowd is thinking, what seems like an impossible place to stand. 

OK, Rabbi Jesus.  You should be able to live on the very words of God.  We know His words are life, and we do not live by bread alone, but you must earn the money to buy the flour to bake the bread. That takes work.  Whatever money we do get goes to the Romans anyway.  So, really, even though we work hard, you wouldn't know it. The poor are everywhere and we see them, pity them, but we do not want to be them.  Yet, when we walk away from the tax collector's booth, we realize all too well, we are them. 

Now Jesus launches into quite a response to the question, "If we don't seek money, how will we live?  How will we eat?" in Matthew 6:25-34: 

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"

You mean, Rabbi, even though we see how God takes care of His creation, we forget far too easily that  we are part of it?  A very important part?  Do You mean to say that we are just as important to Him as our children are to us?  What kind of father would not provide for his children?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them."

Wait a minute!  Are you saying, Rabbi, that we are  acting no differently from those who do not believe when we are frantic about how we are to get along in this world?  It's true, though.  Those pagans have to do all sorts of rituals to get their gods' attention and I get the impression they are afraid that if they don't do exactly what their priests tell them to do, or they don't do the ritual in just the right way, the gods will punish them. They live in fear of their gods. But we don't!  We are God's children!  Oh, I get it. We need to not just say we are His, we need to act like His. 

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:25-34)

Oh.  Wow. You have been saying all along, Rabbi, that this Kingdom of God (not the one we see around us with all of our buildings and religious practices) is about relationships.  If we make our relationship with the Father our deepest goal, our deepest pursuit, then He will bless us, sustain us and show us that He is all too aware of our needs. 

Wow.  This Kingdom of God teaching feels like a much lighter load than the one I am used to carrying. 


Saturday, May 18, 2024

You Gonna Have to Serve Somebody

The Kingdom of God is an odd place.  Why wouldn't you pursue wealth, treasures and money? 

Good question.  

If this world is it and nothing lies beneath nor beyond, then go for it.  Right?

But if there is something else, then we need to pause. Jesus is asking His listeners to pause and think about another way to pursue what life has to offer--but in this life, but in the life of the Kingdom of God. 


“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, [generous*] your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy [stingy*], your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Matthew 6:19-24)

Treasures...the very word conjures up riches, luxury and a sense of adventure.  The word denotes a kind of abundance, almost a kind of hoarding of valuable things, all stashed to be admired.  At least to us.  

I was curious what the Greek word for "treasures" was. The word is used biblically to describe, "the place in which good and precious things are collected and laid up; a casket, coffer, or other receptacle, in which valuables are kept; a treasury; storehouse, repository, magazine; the things laid up in a treasury, collected treasures." [1] 

Hmmm.  Not too far off from our sense of the word. The word "wealth" signifies something that can be gotten quickly or over time. But "treasures" speak of time--amassing valuable items until the room is overflowing. Not only does the word in Greek describes what is stored--the items themselves--but also the place where such valuables are stored. 

So, Jesus is wanting us to consider both the valuable item itself and where it's put. 

So, if we pursue and amass treasures that are earthly, we have a problem.  Creatures such as moths and vermin get into those things (clothing, textiles, food, anything that can be eaten by little mouths) and they will destroy them.  I remember my mother using moth balls to protect her woolen sweaters.  I have had mice get into a quilted weekend bag and chew through the fabric, taking the bits for nesting material.  My husband's Corvette seat had most of its stuffing removed from underneath it to also provide bedding for some wee mice.  

In a world where houses are standing on the ground, wee creatures getting into things is not unusual. Jesus' audience all have lots of stories of taking valuable items out of storage, only to find them  shredded and full of mouse poop.  Horrified, the person realizes the items is past redemption.  (It is no wonder that the Egyptians made the cat into a goddess--cats saved their granaries from mice and their destructive ways.)

But now Jesus moves from the items themselves to the place where those items are kept. Thieves will break in and take what they can from any place a person stashes valuables. I am sure after awhile thieves know exactly where to look for them in a home, because most people place their items in the same places, thinking they are secure.   

In other words, those things you value here on earth, so will other people.  

People will admire you. People will envy you.  People who will sneer at you.  People will plan evil against you.  What drives you to acquire an abundance equally drives others.  You want more, so do  they. You got more. So do they. You may have even gotten your valuables in a shady way; why wouldn't they do so as well?

Bottom line:  The world gives and the world takes away.  If you live by the world's rules, you will never be at peace because someone, somewhere, wants what you have and will do anything to get it. 

Why do wealthy people live in virtually fortified compounds, with body guards, high walls or in gated or exclusive (we only trust people like us) communities?  Protecting all that wealth.  If wealth made people happy, then Hollywood would be a bastion of joy.  


Now comes the punch line, if you will. Your heart stands by your treasure, like a guard dog.  Your heart worries about your treasures.  Your heart obsesses over them and wonders if they are safe, and if you can obtain any more. 

If you want to know the heart of a person, see where their heart hangs out. See what the person's focus in on.  The next verses speak to that:  If a person is focused on being generous, looking for ways to benefit others with their treasures, then that person walks in the light.  Why?  Because everywhere they look it's not for What can I get, but What can I give? 

This is the Kingdom way: Using the bounty God gives you to benefit others.  God isn't against the treasures--He's against the focus, the energy and the dissatisfaction that wealth brings, because it will never be enough.  Why?  Because we are wired to acquire His gifts: wisdom, service and communing with Him and others. Wealth is a false better, a counterfeit to what God really wants us to pursue:  Himself. 

But if we are stingy, we are full of darkness, because we don't see or want to see others in their need.  We pull away, either blaming them for their woe, or how we can't do enough anyway, or how I enjoy what I have, so I am not giving it away.

Now Jesus boils down His argument into its fundamental thesis:  What you love is your master--whether you want to accept it or not. Your wealth, your prestige, your status, whatever you love, you will serve.  

Dual loyalty is an illusion, for God and money occupy polar opposites.  

Money gratifies you right now. Strokes your ego.  Keeps you moving to obtain more. Makes you blind to others because you just focused on acquisition or protecting what you have. Makes you proud, desirous of others' approving nods. 

God wants you to find life in Him now and in the long haul  Your self needs to die.  You move to serve the Kingdom. Makes you see others as children of God and you look for ways to alleviate their suffering. God wants you humble, desirous of only His approval as a faithful servant.

Jesus was basically telling listeners that day, (to quote Bob Dylan) "You're gonna have to serve somebody.  It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody." 

The Kingdom of God is odd, isn't it? 

*Text notes for NIV on Bible Gateway.

[1] Strong's Concordance 

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Piety Not Performance

I have been a worship leader for many years.  Music is one of those areas of the church where performance can start to out distance piety.

The reasons people join worship teams and perhaps go on to be a leader, or start out as one, are varied.  Some love to worship and being on a team means joining with other brothers and sisters and standing in the presence of God together.  Others want to learn to grow in their musicianship and playing with others is an excellent way to do that. Others want to expand their musical horizons by learning new songs and to be part of something creative and growing. 

But there is another side to this, and I have seen both.  Some people are frustrated musicians and want to be on stage (and admired) so they think a worship team is a substitute for that.  Others want to serve, but the need for validation takes over and they lose their love for worship. The focus shifts from God to themselves. Still others are intimidated because they keep comparing themselves to others.  They stop growing in their musical journey, because they think they will never be good enough. 

But God is in the business of helping us see our misguided priorities and is more than willing to help us realign them. 

God knows our hearts.  We can't see into the hearts of others, and some very pious people really are not.  There are others who struggle to do what God wants them to do, and feel they fail Him far too often.  

We assume that when people go up stage, their hearts are in the right place and they are sincere in what they are doing. That is a responsible assumption; otherwise, we may sit there, scornfully scanning other people, and trying to detect what they are really all about. 

Or we get so swept away in our admiration for them, we lose our objectivity.  We know they are pious (!) and if anyone asserts otherwise, we become defensive.  We think they are righteous people and everyone needs to agree with us.  

But admiration and fixation on another human being can become dangerous.  We look to them to model God for us; to be Jesus for us and to walk the walk for us.  We become (literally and figuratively) the audience and we lose motivation to be active in our faith.  

It's just easier to let the pastor open up the Word of God, and read it, so we don't have to.

It's just easier to let the worship leader and team sing and worship once a week, so we don't have to sing and praise God on our own.

It's just easier to let church be our walk, and we wait until next week for another chance to sing and learn.  

But Jesus is looking into acts of piety (giving to the needy and prayer) and now fasting, and He is not just concerned with the ones who are active in carrying on with those who watch. 

He says, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matt. 6:16-18)

OK.  First, let's listen in on the Guy Faking the Grade: 

Oh, woe is me.  I am soooo hungry.  But I must endure.  I must show others I am a good person, who obeys the Law and does all that is required of me.  But how will others know I am fasting?  I know!  I walk around downcast, depressed, even put a bit of ash under my eyes to look exhausted and wan.  People will see me coming and admire me for my piety.  I will be on stage, as it were, modelling how to be righteous, and those who look upon me will sigh and think, "Wow.  I wish I were as pious as that guy!  He is such a spiritual giant."  I am looking forward to being admired.  Sometimes I don't even know what God thinks of me.  I feel I let Him down all the time.  But if others think well of me, (even if I am faking it) what harm can it do?  I will inspire others!

OK, Let's listen in on the Guy Who Thinks He Ain't Making the Grade:

Oh, woe is me.  I am soooo not like that guy!  He's fasting, long and hard (just look at his appearance!) and he is modelling what I'd like to be, but will never make it: a righteous person.  I see guys like him, whose hearts are so pure and wonder, what is wrong with me?  I fast and it lasts only about an hour.  I then go find something to eat, and feel such shame.  I can't even last an hour.  But this guy!  It looks like he's been fasting for days!  Well, maybe one day, but still!  It's way better than I can do.  How does he do it? Why can't I be like him?

Now, let's go back to the mountainside and watch these two as they listen to Jesus.

OK.  First, let's listen in on the Guy Faking the Grade: 

Uh-oh.  This Rabbi Jesus is trying to steal my thunder.  He's calling me an actor--someone who is acting out a role, one that does not reflect the real person.  But the mask I wear is good for others.  It's shows them how to be pious, even if I, under the mask, am not. What?  No?  The Rabbi is now saying that the admiration of others is the only reward I'll get.  Well, that's good, but where's God in all of this?  The admiration of others is a funny thing, that's for sure. One day, you're the top of the pops and the next day, down with the dogs. Oh, wait a minute.  The Rabbi is now saying that we are to look no different on those days we fast--same bright face, same combed hair.  Oh, now He's mentioning God!  We are not to seek to gain the admiration of others, but to earnestly seek time with our Father, alone and in sincerity about what we are doing. Hmmm.  That is more freeing, I must admit. I guess God will accept me, if I am honest with Him and with others.  Even if I am not the most pious person around, I need to be real with others, and share my struggles.  I guess if you try to be up on a pedestal, then no one can join you.  It's lonely at the top.

OK.  Let's listen to Guy Who Thinks He Ain't Making the Grade:

Wow. Are you saying, Rabbi Jesus, that if I sit with our Father, one on one, He will reward me?  But I feel so worthless.  Well, I guess a lot of that comes from comparing myself to other people, especially those I admire.  I can't compare myself to anyone if I am seated in my closet and talking to God.  I guess I wear a mask, too.  It's the mask of someone who acts happy, but deep inside, I feel worthless.  Yet, if I enter that closet, you, Rabbi Jesus, promise me God will be there with me.  I guess He'd rather have an honest sinner than a fake saint. 

You got it, gentlemen. 

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Prayer 101

Rabbi Jesus, I am so overwhelmed by Your teachings, and yet I find myself stirred in my heart.  I have heard so many amazing things from You, I cannot take it all in, but I am trying.

This Kingdom of God seems to be a kind of upside world from the one I know.  All these people, sitting here on this hillside, have come to hear You teach on what we have heard from the Law and the Prophets. We have heard that, and more.  You say that You are not abolishing the Law, but fulfilling it-- using Your words. We didn't know that the Law needed fulfilling and yet we did.  Our Law had become a series of just rules and regulations, yet it also provided us with a community--a community of people, sustained by traditions, waiting for the Messiah, and trying to get meaning out of every day life's routine. 

Then You come along and tell us there is more. More to life.  More to loving our heavenly Father. More to loving one another. 

Yes, it is true...we often do the minimum to get by--we feel poor in spirit, but we relished retaliating against others and reviling those who we consider our enemies, or at least those who anger us.   

We want to be peacemakers, but it's far too easy to lash back--to stay angry.  The, with our hardened heart, we go and make offerings, all the while harboring hatred--this is not an acceptable thing in Your kingdom.  

We tell ourselves that marital fidelity is enough.  Lust is what other people do.  Looking is what I do.  You say that infidelity begins in the mind and that sin isn't worth being cast into hell over; we must get rid of whatever causes us to sin.

You want us to stay married and honor our wives; just sending her away due to disappointment is not reason enough; how often have I disappointed my wife?  She should have sent me away a long time ago.

You tell us to say "yes" or "no" to whatever we are swearing to do--no fancy words and no using God's name as a kind of seal to the deal--God is to be honored, not used as insurance. 

Love my enemies. Whew. That is a tough one.  But if the Kingdom opens its door to others--our enemies--then we must love them as well as those who are easy to love.  Go the extra mile.  Turn our cheeks when they lash out. Show, by our love, how God loves. 

Then, whatever we do on behalf of this Kingdom, we do it for God and for Him alone, and not for the praise from others.  If we give or we pray, it's in front of the Father, in a quiet place and in adoration of who He is and what He has done for us. 

Now You are telling us how to pray.  Oh, Rabbi, we know how to do that--yet, I guess we don't. We babble on and on, assuming that the more we say, the more the Father will listen.  We would hate to have our wives and children to prattle on and on, and yet we think the heavenly Father is honored by this seemingly pious behavior.  

You are giving us a model, aren't You?  It zeroes in very quickly to the essentials.  I guess I spend a lot of time distracted, trying to get my bearings before the Lord, but You, Rabbi, have given us a way in: quickly, reverentially and adoringly.

Thank you for not just saying how we are not to pray; thank you for showing us.

"Our Father in heaven"--Yes, that is where He is and we, even if we think mightily of ourselves, we dwell here. We are divine dirt. We are molded clay.  It was only God's breath that brought us to life.   

"Hallowed be Your name"--Yes, His name is above all others. We recite the Shema, declaring every day, "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." His name is above all, mighty and merciful, ruling over His creation with truth and justice.

"Your kingdom come"--Yes, may it be so.  We so look to the day when there will be no more tears, sorrow or suffering. In fact, I wonder if this Kingdom of God You are teaching us about is that day already beginning...

"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"--Yes, I want to see God's will be done, for it is righteous and has our best interests at heart. The earth needs Your touch, God.  Is Rabbi Jesus doing this?

"Give us this day our daily bread"--Yes.  Just as the children of Israel gathered manna in the desert each day and double for the Sabbath, we must humbly ask for Your provision and trust You not only hear us, but You will act on it. God wants us to ask, not because He doesn't know, (or, perish the thought!) He doesn't care, but because He wants to commune with us.  Isn't that the meaning of prayer, after all?

"Forgive us our debts"--Yes!  Please do!  They are many and we need forgiveness every day!

"As we also have forgiven our debtors"--Uh-oh...You mean I have to forgive to be forgiven?  Whoa.  That's that "love your enemy" thing again, isn't it?  I know God desires to forgive us, but a lot of the time our sin is in response to someone else. So, it's a kind of yoke, isn't it?  One part of the yoke is over the shoulders of the transgressor, and one part is over the shoulders of the transgressee.  Hmmm.  But together, we can face the challenge and make something beautiful come out of it. Hmmm. 

"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one"--Yes!  I don't want to be tested, like our brother Job, but if that happens, I trust You will deliver me, and then I have some forgiving to do,  right, Rabbi?  I must forgive myself, and anyone who is involved. 

You are now repeating the point that our forgiveness comes from our Father based on our forgiveness of others. I know when rabbis repeat something, it's really important. 

I guess this while kingdom thing is not just another way to do life--it's a world turned upside down, with love and forgiveness being the air we breathe, and our love for God is as joyful as a child running down a hill.  Maybe the Kingdom of God is for the children of God--who laugh, smile, forgive and adore.

I like this, Rabbi.  But, it's a challenge.  I guess it not just another man-made system of piety, but a parting of the Red Sea, where the former slaves walk on dry ground, with heads held high and hearts filled with joy.

Wow. I am glad I am sitting on this hillside today. 

I am glad You are here on this hillside as well. 
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