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What He Said Week 4

Study Four:  TRUTH TRUMPS TRICK QUESTIONS.

TAKING IT IN

Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. 22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”   Mark 12:18-27

GETTING AT IT

Smug atheists often try to paint Christianity as irrational.  The most ridiculous trick question may be: Can God create a rock that is too heavy for him to lift?  The most challenging attempt is described by the term theodicy (divine justice).  An 18th century English philosopher named David Hume put the argument this way: 1. A good and caring deity will prevent evil from occurring. 2. An all-knowing and all-powerful deity is able to prevent evil. 3. Evil exists in the world. 4. Therefore either God is not good and loving, or he is not all-knowing and all-powerful. 

The theodicy question misrepresents God, of course, for God is perfectly just as well as loving.  What may appear as evil to us could be God’s justice meted out against those who reject him.  The second century Christian writer Irenaeus responded to the theodicy question by pointing out that evil provides the necessary problems through which we learn to treasure God’s grace and grow in faith and character.  If God removed all the consequences of sin from our world, people would not seek his grace and forgiveness and would suffer the ultimate evil of eternal condemnation.  God is justified in allowing evil to occur as a consequence of sin when doing so fosters a greater good. The fourth century theologian Augustine attributed evil to the fallen nature and limited free will of human beings, saying that God could not have created a moral being without the possibility of evil.  To eliminate the possibility of evil would rob human beings of the possibility of loving God as well as denying him. The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant reasoned that rather than a denial of God’s existence, evil necessitates the existence of God, for there must be final justice in the end.

Actually, the Bible itself raises the question of theodicy.  Ecclesiastes 8:14 says: “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve.”  The inherent question “why” is not answered. It may be that we couldn’t understand and wouldn’t accept God’s answer.  He is sovereign, not answerable to us; and he knows what we can’t about tragedies. Faith means trusting God’s will and God’s judgments when we don’t understand.  There is one huge reason for doing so – the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son.  St. Paul wrote in Romans 8: “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

In the aftermath of 9/11 people asked: Where was God when those two planes took down the twin towers and killed hundreds of innocent people?  A Lutheran pastor answered: God was in the same place as when he watched his innocent Son suffer and die for the sins of the world.  That was the greatest injustice and yet the most amazing love.

Christianity is not irrational, it is supra-rational – above and beyond reason.  Truth trumps the trick questions of human reason.  Jesus did just that in the days before his crucifixion, exposing the holes in mere logic.

DIGGING INTO IT

Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. 22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

The Sadducees were a relatively small sect of first century Judaism.  They were centered in the temple at Jerusalem and were as political as they were religious.  The high priest, at this time a political appointment, was a Sadducee.  The Sadducees accepted only the five books of Moses – Genesis to Deuteronomy, denying the inspiration of the historical, poetic and prophetic books of the Old Testament.  They rejected among other truths of Scripture the resurrection of the dead. 

The Pharisees’ attempt to discredit Jesus and the resurrection of the dead is an absurd scenario based on the Law of the Levirate (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).  The term is based on the Latin word for brother-in-law.  If a man died childless, the widow’s brother-in-law was to marry her.  The first child of that marriage would be legally the child of the deceased first husband.  With this law God sought several things.  In a time when women were severely limited in opportunities to support themselves financially, the levirate law provided for their physical needs.  God did not want the family lines of Israel to be lost, and the levirate law helped to accomplish that goal.  The promised land was assigned in portions to the families that entered the land under Joshua; and the levirate law meant preserving property rights for families.  The Pharisees accepted the Law of the Levirate, but they used it here in an attempt to make the resurrection of the dead irrational.

 

24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”  

The Bible speaks about resurrection to life in two ways.  (See Revelation 20:4-6.)  That the soul survives death, separated from the body and – in the case of believers – in the presence of God, is a first resurrection.  On time’s last day, Jesus will raise dead bodies and reunite them with souls for eternity. That is the second resurrection.  In response to the Sadducees Jesus speaks of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as alive with God — the first resurrection.

There is so much in the verses of Scripture that we would miss if the Bible elsewhere did not reveal it to us.  Jesus draws from Exodus 3:1-6 what we might never notice.  At the burning bush God describes himself with his promise to the patriarchs in the present tense, not past tense.  It’s not that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is their God because they are living beyond their death.  What treasures of truth still await our discovery if we will read God’s Word over and over, with reflective meditation on what God is teaching us!

Jesus provides the two basic reasons for error in people’s thinking.  The first is that they don’t know the Scriptures.  When we fail to grow in our understanding of the Bible, we are susceptible to falsehoods raised by our culture, by wrong religion, and by our own misguided thinking.  The second reason is that people fail to appreciate the power of God.  When God and truth are measured by our own limited reason and experience, we will miss the wonder of his gracious rule in our world.  Jesus had to remind his disciples of this when in Mark 10:27 he told them: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”  Much error in contemporary religion is based on the denial of the miraculous, in Scripture and in life.  Much misguided thinking is rooted in our inability or unwillingness to accept how powerful is our God.  We limit his role in our world to what we have witnessed and experienced in life; and in so doing limit our prayers. 

There was another reason for the Sadducees’ error.  They assumed that life in a resurrection would have to be like life here and now on earth.  Jesus corrects that misunderstanding by telling them that the family of God in eternity is not defined by marriage.  What can be said with certainty from these verses is that there will be no new marriages in eternity (“neither marry nor be given in marriage”) and there will be no further procreation of children (“be like the angels”).  Jesus’ words do not mean that loving relationships on earth have no continuation in heaven.  Like everything else, our relationships are made new by Jesus in eternity, free of all the selfishness that sinful nature imposes on earthly relationships.  It is our relationship with our God rather than with a spouse that is primary.  Contrary to popular sentiment, people who die – and particularly children – do not become angels.  In eternal life we are like angels, Jesus said.  It is pointless to speculate about relationships in eternity, as well as whether we will appear as the age at which we died and other things.  Jesus gives us an insight into life in eternity but not a full-blown description.

Ultimately, Jesus would answer the Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection with his own resurrection from the dead.  The apostle Paul points to Jesus’ resurrection as the guarantee of our own resurrection.

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT

How many misconceptions may we have about life?  Some may be a result of our culture’s view of what is true, moral, or normal.  Christians can be influenced by cultural norms reinforced by entertainment and news media, as well as literature, education, parents and friends.  Some of our misconceptions may be based on our experiences.  Where we live and to what we’ve been exposed help to shape our view of reality.  We may begin to believe that the way we see things is the way they are, and that the way things are is the way they should be.  Our emotions can distort our view of life also.  Those emotions may be merely our own, or they may be somewhat manipulated by our culture.  One of the misguided approaches to life begins with “I feel that. . .”

What assumptions about life may “what Jesus said” challenge us to reconsider?

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT

In this study Jesus invites us to think about things eternal.  St. Paul put it this way in Colossians 3:1-5, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”

What does it mean to “set your hearts and minds on things above?”

How does doing so help us to “put to death” the temptations of our sinful nature?

Is there a danger that we become “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good?”

SOMETHING TO PRAY ABOUT

Most of us have friends and family members who are outside the family of God and apart from Jesus will not enjoy the blessedness of the resurrection.  Think of specific individuals and pray that God will touch their hearts with his gospel and bring them into his family.

SOMETHING TO DO ABOUT IT

Read a book in the realm of apologetics – the rational defense of truth.  It will prepare you to respond to the trick questions and rational arguments of non-believing friends.  “The Case for Christ” is one of the books by Lee Strobel, who is a former rationalist become a committed Christian.  “The Story of Reality” by Gregory Koukl is another example of apologetics and a book you may want to give to a doubting friend.

SOMETHING FOR FURTHER STUDY

Read 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul’s defense and explanation of the resurrection of the dead – Jesus first and those who believe in him at his return.


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What He Said Week 3

Study Three:  GOD’S TWO KINGDOMS

TAKING IT IN

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.  17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  And they were amazed at him.   Mark 12:13-17

GETTING AT IT

 The constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of religion with what has been described as the separation of church and state.  What that means has created controversy.  Should crosses and plaques bearing the Ten Commandments be banished from all public spaces?  Can states fund education in parochial schools?  Is it unlawful discrimination when a business refuses its services to people who argue for a lifestyle the owner considers immoral on religious grounds?  The issues in controversy keep increasing.

Politics is a realm in which the separation of church and state can become murky.  Religious conservatives as well as liberals find it difficult to draw a line between what is religious principle and political cause.  The gap between right and the left, red and blue, grows wider, with moral stances like the right to life linked to political positions like taxation.

None of this is new.  The Roman Empire had a surprisingly tolerant “freedom of religion” policy in the nations it conquered.  This furthered their interest in blunting insurrections.  That Caesar was considered divine, however, presented a problem for Jews and Christians because church and state weren’t so clearly separated in Rome.  In Judea and Galilee also any separation of church and state was murky. God’s institution of Israel as a theocracy meant that “church” was to rule “state.”  Under Roman rule “state” often dictated to “church.”  Freedom fighters in Israel used religious fervor in their attempt to overthrow Roman rule.  Religious leaders, fearful of losing everything, sometimes found common ground with the Roman government.  At the center of dissent were the taxes that Rome imposed on conquered people.

Martin Luther spoke of church and state as God’s two kingdoms.  He established the church to address spiritual life with his Word and bring peace with God through the Gospel.  He established the state to address physical life with law and bringing peace between people and nations with the threat of force.  That, of course, leaves questions wherever the two mandates find overlap.  When Jesus was confronted with a church/state dilemma, he essentially affirmed the “two kingdom” solution of God’s rule.  Mark 12:13-17 describes the confrontation.

DIGGING INTO IT

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

Politics make strange bedfellows, the saying goes.  The Pharisees were a religious sect, aligned more closely with Jewish resistance to Roman rule.  The Herodians were a political entity whose power depended on their alliance with Rome.  Herod the Great, an Idumean not a Jew, had curried favor with Rome and received most of what was once David’s kingdom as a vassal state.  Among his many construction projects, Caesarea (you recognized the name Caesar) on Israel’s coast testified to his loyalty to Rome.  The decades-long reconstruction of the temple was an effort to placate his Jewish subjects.  Political intrigue and continual unrest among the Jewish people resulted in Herod’s territory carved into pieces, parts of which were governed by Herod’s descendants, who kept the “Herodian” name.  What the Pharisees and Herodians had in common was that Jesus was a perceived threat to their power.  If the crowds followed Jesus, the Pharisees lost religious control.  If crowds followed Jesus, Rome would see a building threat and curtail the power of the Herodians.  “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” says another maxim.

That Jesus was above all such party politics is apparent in the disciples he chose.  Matthew had been a tax-collector, a Jew who sold out to the Romans.  Simon the Zealot’s name suggests that he was part of the Jewish resistance and likely a “terrorist.”

It didn’t take much thought to see through the hypocritical flattery which attempted to disarm Jesus.  Their description of “integrity” and “truth” for Jesus likely reflected how the people viewed Jesus, one reason he seemed a threat to the Pharisees.  How ironic that their flattery so perfectly described Jesus!  How ironic that their approach to Jesus entirely lacked integrity and truth! 

Proverbs 29:5 says: “Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet.”  Just such a trap was the dilemma posed by the Pharisees and Herodians.  Rome exacted several taxes from its conquered countries.  The tax most galling to the Jews was a poll tax or head tax applied to every person counted in a census.  Paying the tax was viewed as legitimizing Roman rule.  If Jesus said yes, it is right to pay the tax to Caesar, his words would be used to turn patriotic Jews against Jesus.  If he said no, his words would condemn him as an insurrectionist before the Roman governor.  In the polarized world of contemporary politics, “gotcha” sound bites baited by reporters or antagonists have the same effect.

 

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.  17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  And they were amazed at him.

The denarius’ value was a day’s wages.  It was a coin stamped with the image of Tiberius Caesar, with an inscription calling him the son of the divine Augustus.  That was an affront to the faith of Jews and an ironic contrast to Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.  Pharisees interpreted the law of Moses forbidding graven images to include just such a coin.  While money-changers compelled visitors to the temple to exchange such coins for “temple money” because of the image stamped on them, these Pharisees didn’t have the same scruples in everyday commerce.  Possession of the coin implied acceptance of Roman rule, a premise these Pharisees seem to have missed.

While the Pharisees and Herodians used a Greek word that means simply “give,” Jesus used a different word – a word that means “pay” or “fulfill.”  The word implies meeting an obligation.  Paying taxes and committing ourselves and our possessions to God are fulfilling an obligation.  This is what is owed as citizens of our nation and as citizens of the Kingdom of God, our Creator.

 

Jesus’ response cut through the dilemma posed by the Pharisees and Herodians – a “both. . .and” solution rather than an “either. . .or.”  The response amazed his antagonists, who were trapped in their own limited perspective.  That God governs his world through two distinct human agencies, church and state, is the truth behind Jesus’ response.  There are several lessons to draw from his well-known words: 1) Unlike Islam, Christianity is not political.  The mission and message of the church is compromised when the church aligns itself with political parties or movements.  2) The state has a legitimate claim on a Christian’s loyalty, including obedience to laws and taxes.  So-called “militia” groups that claim a religious exemption from taxes have no biblical basis for the claim.  3) When the state’s claim on us does not infringe on God’s claim, Christians are to be good citizens.  As Peter and the apostles put it, however, “we ought to obey God rather than men” when the state requires disobedience to God.  (Acts 5:29)   4) God has a claim on our money and, much more, our life.  St. Paul wrote: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price (the blood of Jesus).  Therefor honor God with your body.”  (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT

In a polarized culture there are false dichotomies, attempts to force us to choose one viewpoint when an opposing view may also be legitimate, labeling that smears us with an extreme position we do not claim.  Certainly, Christians can disagree on issues such as universal healthcare or climate change.  Can’t Christians disagree whether prayer in public schools is a good idea, or must one viewpoint be morally wrong?   Are we misogynists if we believe that abortion is killing?  Isn’t emotional and financial support for women who keep their baby a pro-woman position?  Are we homophobic to acknowledge Scripture’s insistence that homosexual behavior is morally wrong?  Can we not also affirm Christian love for gay people and that they have civil rights?  

When people want to make issues either/or, be sure that there isn’t a both/and alternative.  To be sure, there are many issues where one must choose truth over error.  Where God’s Word is decisive, to compromise is the devil’s option.  Christians won’t let politically correct public opinion stand alongside God’s revealed truth.  There are also personal values that lead a person to choose one viewpoint over another.  How one manages a budget and a household is an example.  Where such values are personal rather than biblical, we won’t condemn those who disagree with us.  Think through your strongly held opinions and ask yourself whether these are truly right and wrong, either/or, issues, or whether God’s people can come to a different conclusion from ours.  Doing so not only brings greater harmony to relationships, it may open doors for our Christian witness to the Savior and his gospel.

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT

How does our faith impact our vote?  Those who think that they can make their country more godly by voting church-going politicians into office may confuse changing laws with changing hearts.  At the same time, compartmentalizing life into separate religious and civil categories denies God’s claim on the totality of our lives.  Our faith should impact our vote; and godly citizens vote.  Some Christians take a “single issue” approach to voting.  They feel conscience bound to vote only for a pro-life candidate.  Other Christians take a broader view of their voting, willing to tolerate candidates’ pro-choice position if the rest of their policies have a greater impact for the good of their constituency.  Can one Christian’s conscience be different from another’s in such matters?

It’s easy to become cynical when one sees the moral and spiritual nature of the country’s culture in decline.  First century Christians preferred to view the moral and spiritual decay of the Roman Empire as an opportunity to live and speak the Christian alternative.  What can churches do to turn cynicism into mission perspective?

SOMETHING TO PRAY ABOUT

Rather than complain about government, ask God to over-rule evil and encourage what is good and godly in legislatures and courtrooms and executive offices.  Pick specific officials or representatives to pray for and specific issues to pray about.

SOMETHING TO DO ABOUT IT

Examine your charitable giving, with 2 Corinthians 9:1-15 as a guide.  Is your giving willing, grateful and cheerful?  Do you trust that God will bless your giving, both in the people and projects who benefit from your gifts and in his promise to provide you the resources to give more?  Are there mission projects and human needs that particularly tug at your heart, suggesting where you want to direct special gifts?

SOMETHING FOR FURTHER STUDY

The New Testament has a consistent message about a Christian’s obligation to his government.  What principles do you see in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-6 and 1 Peter 2:13-14?


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What He Said

WHAT HE SAID

The focus of Christianity is what Jesus DID.  He left eternal glory to be born into the sinful squalor that human beings made of God’s world, in order to save us.  He lived out all the perfection our holy God required of us as our stand-in, because we couldn’t and we wouldn’t.  He made God knowable by who he was, what he did, and what he taught.  He suffered a gruesome death because suffering and death are the price of sin; he endured that price as our substitute under divine justice.  He rose to life again, demonstrating that death was no longer our destiny because he is the Lord of life and death.  And he ascended to govern our world in the best interest of his truth and his people, until he returns to restore the perfect forever that a loving God has always wanted for us.

But we wouldn’t get all that if it were not for what Jesus SAID.  That he had foretold his death and resurrection made sense of the events for his disciples once the risen Jesus made the connection.  That he explained why his death and resurrection were necessary gave them a stake in the story of salvation.  Everything comes together when we connect what Jesus did with what he said, in his Word.

You don’t need a lot of religious experts to interpret the Christian faith.  Listen to what HE said.  Faith isn’t just a feeling.  Faith must have content that is true and reliable.  Listen to WHAT he said.  And when you get push-back for sharing your faith, you can smile and say: “It’s what he said.”

The words of Jesus seem more weighty as he closed in on the culmination of his work on earth in the week of his passion.  Let’s explore, then, WHAT HE SAID, in that last week of ministry in Jerusalem: to the calloused, to the curious, and to the committed.

 

TO THE CALLOUSED

Study One:  IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.

 

TAKING IT IN

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.  “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.      Matthew 23: 1-12

 

GETTING AT IT

In my home church, when I was a child, some people would stand in an attitude of prayer for a minute or so when they walked to their seat.  It seemed a bit ostentatious to me, as though they wanted to be noticed.  Maybe I was being judgmental, and they were standing there as a sign of respect for God.  We are all probably too concerned with how we look to others.  And maybe we don’t always consider how our non-verbal communication is being received.  Jesus is concerned about what is in our hearts; but he makes us sensitive to how our actions may reveal what lies in our heart. 

Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 are actually addressed to the curious and the committed initially, though that changes quickly.  He’s sending a message to the self-proclaimed religious experts of that day.  That’s pretty common.  A politician talks to a reporter, knowing that the people he’s talking about will get the message.  A parent speaks to the oldest child expecting the younger ones to take the message to heart.  Sometimes it’s easier to say what people need to hear by not addressing them directly.  Jesus sent a message to the Pharisees while talking to his followers.  And he sent a message to his followers using the Pharisees as an object lesson.

The Pharisees were one of two major religious parties in first-century Israel.  They dominated the outlying towns and villages while the Sadducees were more prominent in Jerusalem.  You might think of the Pharisees as religious conservatives who emphasized religious piety through strict adherence to Old Testament law.  In fact, they observed accumulated extrapolations about how that law should be interpreted and practiced.  (For example, they had more than 400 little rules for observing the Sabbath.)  These countless little legalisms put them at odds with Jesus repeatedly.  The “scribes” or “teachers of the law” were scholarly sorts who made copies of the Old Testament and knew it thoroughly.

In these verses Jesus has three indictments for the Pharisees: 1) They don’t practice what they preach; 2) They turn religion into impossible demands; 3) They are religious show-offs.

 

DIGGING INTO IT

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

You’ve heard the expression: “Do as I say, not as I do.”  There’s often a disconnect between the morality people teach and how they live.  If you’re a parent, that disconnect has probably caused you some embarrassment a time or two. Jesus made the Pharisees the poster children for that disconnect.  He urged people to listen to what they said when they were teaching the words of Moses, but not to follow the Pharisees’ bad example.  Here, as in Matthew 5:17, Jesus affirmed the law that God had revealed to Moses.  He had come to fulfill that law, not reject it as some religious radical.

The Pharisee problem is timeless.  Pedophile priests and adulterous pastors, treasurers who have their hands in the offering basket and church elders guilty of more than one OWI citation. . . can we do as they say and not what they do?  Like Jesus, we need to call out religious leaders who turn the church’s witness to scandal with their offensive lifestyle.  But like Jesus, we need to distinguish faithful teaching of biblical truth from the life of the teacher, respecting the teaching authority Christ has invested in his church.  And we should not be too quick to conclude that fallen leaders are “the calloused,” rather pray that they be led to repent and once more treasure God’s forgiving grace.

Here’s the bigger problem of the Pharisees: legalism.  Legalism makes religion a matter of what we do (law) rather than what God has done for us (grace).  It demands what fallen human nature cannot deliver and produces either self-righteous blindness or soul-destroying guilt.  Legalists tend to make rules out of their prejudices.  Jesus exposed the heartlessness of the Pharisees, whose rules were like impossible burdens hung from a yoke placed on a sinner’s shoulders (like the wooden yoke that harnessed an ox to a load).  In fact, the Pharisees themselves used the term “the yoke of the law.”  Rather than assist sinners with grace and truth, they alienated sinners from God with judgmentalism.  Contrast this with what Jesus said in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Grace.

You can probably identify legalism in our day, “thou shalt nots” which God didn’t speak and guilt trips laid on you by judgmental people.  What you may miss is the legalism in yourself.  Not just how you sometimes pass self-righteous judgment on others, but human nature’s tendency to think about our relationship with God in terms of what we’ve done or not done rather than his mercy embodied in the Savior Jesus.  If we’ve been beating back temptation and doing kind stuff to others, we may think that God must be smiling on us.  And if we’ve succumbed to temptation or given vent to ugly anger, guilt and shame may lead us to conclude that God couldn’t love us; and then we hide from him.  Legalism runs Jesus out of our life.

 

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

Phylacteries are verses of Old Testament Law, sometimes in leather boxes, tied around a person’s forehead and left arm. This was an overly literal understanding of Deuteronomy 6:8. Maybe very visible religious tattoos are a contemporary parallel. Tassels on a garment were reminders of God’s commandments and how they identified God’s chosen people.  Numbers 15:38-39 is the basis for this. Think of religious T-shirts in our day.  Like other visual symbols of the faith, these can be healthy reminders or empty traditions.  You can make the sign of the cross as an expression of appreciation for what Jesus did for you, or just out of habit, or to make others notice how religious you are.  Jesus nailed the Pharisees for what was religious showing off.

Externalism is a term for wearing your religion on your sleeve, whether or not it’s in your heart.  Religious externals like stained glass and worship traditions at church or pictures of Jesus and prayer beads at home can be powerful aides to a person’s faith; but they can also become a substitute for heartfelt devotion to our God.  You can read more of what Jesus said about religious externalism in Matthew 6:1-18. Think about your own religious symbols and practices.  Are they reinforcing your faith or taking the faith for granted? 

I don’t wear a clerical collar and not simply because it won’t get me a clergy discount these days; but pastors and priests can have positive reasons for the collar, such as ready access to people in the hospital.  And I never liked being called “reverend.”  I’m not worth revering.  Still, Rev. can be a healthy term of respect.  The issue is why we do what we do. The Pharisees wanted to be noticed and revered with the title “Rabbi.”  Do you like to be described as “religious?”  (I’m not sure if that’s positive or negative today.)  The real issue is why we’d want to be known as religious.  Jesus reminds us: It’s Not About You.

 

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.     

The title “Rabbi” means “teacher” and “guide,” or more impressively “master” and even “great one.”  To claim the title put a religious leader on a higher plane than others. “Father” can be a similar term of respect for authority, as is “Instructor.”  Jesus uses exaggeration to make the point that in his Church we are alike sinners and equally righteous for the sake of his perfect life and atoning death.  None of us is better than another.  Sin and Grace are divine equalizers.  Humility and brotherly love aren’t merely ideals.  They are to be the character of the Christian community. 

When our focus shifts from our heavenly Father and perfect Teacher to religious leaders on earth, our faith is on shaky ground.  We can be too easily disillusioned or misled.  Your pastor is a shepherd, called by God to lead you closer to your Savior with Scripture.  He should be respected and appreciated, but he should not be idolized no matter how good he is; and he doesn’t want to be.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet before the last Passover meal, he modeled real humility.  More than once he equated greatness – what “Rabbi” implied – with servanthood, because even those disciples gave in to the temptation of pride and position.  (See Mark 10:35-45.)  Meeting the needs of others rather than your own, doing the dirty job no one enjoys, honoring the work of  others that normally goes unnoticed. . . that is the counter-intuitive path to greatness.  St. Paul in Philippians two put it this way: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Jesus won last place.  Anyone can lose into last place, but the followers of Jesus win last place. Think of a grandparent subtly losing a game of checkers to a child with low self-image, winning last place and putting the child first.

Jesus echoes the proverb “pride goes before a fall.”  Self-promotion, seeking the limelight, and putting others down to make self look better have a consequence.  Sooner or later you will be humbled.  If people around you don’t do it, God will.  Most of us can relate to this leveling effect of God’s justice.  It’s a bit harder to see genuine humility rewarded with honor.  In fact, it may take until Judgment Day to recognize what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  That is worth waiting for.

 

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT

It’s easy to use guilt as a motivator.  Make people feel guilty about what they’re doing and they’ll change their behavior, right?  That may work short-term, especially if you have the power to back your guilt trip with consequences.  But long-term, guilt produces only resentment.  And it distances people from the one who made them feel guilty.  Are you trying to manipulate anyone in your relationships by making them feel guilty?

It’s also easy to think that you can make yourself a better person with guilt.  Maybe if you beat yourself up over your pet sin, you’ll overcome the habit.  Not only does that not work effectively, but it erodes a person’s relationship with God.  It makes that relationship performance-based, as though we have to make God like us or forgive us by feeling bad about our sins.  It diminishes the nature and character of God, as though he were manipulating us to behave better.  In Titus 2:11-12 the apostle Paul teaches what has been called gospel motivation.  “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”  Get that?  Understanding and appreciating God’s forgiving grace is the motivation to live like the children of God he has made us.  The Old Testament prophets compared God’s grace and mercy to a gentle rain that cleansed the earth and made things grow.  Think of yourself looking heavenward as God’s grace showers you with cleansing forgiveness and the power to grow in your walk with God.  Hold that thought.

 

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT

There are countless books, especially in the business world, on the subject of “servant leadership.”  Even in the secular world, people have caught on to the power of what Jesus taught about real humility and greatness.  Servant leadership inverts the pyramid of power, putting the people who used to be at the lowest rungs of importance into the position of importance.  An effective CEO understands the needs of those who work for her, as well as the positive impact she can have in their lives.  A servant leader listens to those who report to him and seeks to develop the abilities and the lives of those for whom he is responsible.  Servant leadership empowers people to become better and happier employees, and as a side benefit better spouses, parents and neighbors.  It works. 

Can you identify servant leaders in your experience, in school or at work or among your acquaintances?  What distinguishes them as leaders worth emulating?

 

SOMETHING TO PRAY ABOUT

Ask God to forgive your self-centered thinking and your selfish actions; and ask him to help you follow Jesus’ selfless example in your relationships at home.

Ask God to change the hearts of those who lead by intimidation and manipulation in business, government and church.  Ask him for servant leaders.

 

SOMETHING TO DO ABOUT IT

Choose a family member or co-worker whose life is difficult right now and plan two or three ways in which you can make their life easier.

 

SOMETHING FOR FURTHER STUDY

Read the rest of Matthew 23 for a fuller understanding of what Jesus condemned about the Pharisees and why.


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A Passage and A Prayer 9/18/19

“Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.’ And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’” Nehemiah 2:17-18
 
            Building sites are a bit of a mess. What was first clean lawn is now dirt and mud, temporary fences and orange barriers. The lawn was quiet, but there’s nothing quiet now with generators running and air tools popping. It’s hard to see the change as progress.

            It was especially hard to see the progress and good in Nehemiah’s case. He was proposing to take the people back to rebuild the walls and city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been destroyed in 586 BC, over 100 years before Nehemiah’s time. That destruction had come because God had warned that His judgment would descend on Jerusalem. But now, Nehemiah was proposing that the people of Israel, leave their exile, and return to rebuild Jerusalem.

            But Jerusalem was still in ruins. Do you enjoy going to chaos? Do like to revisit the scene of a sharp argument? No, we avoid those, but Nehemiah wants to take everyone back to the ruins that could only remind them of God’s judgment. But Nehemiah insisted that God was for them and the building would go well. So they went, entered the ruins and built them up.

            God was for them, even in the midst of the rubble. God is for us even on difficult days. After all, the ultimate act of God for us was in the darkness of Good Friday when rough wood was raised and the world was saved. So also now, God is still for us and with us, even when building projects don’t, at first, show all the beauty of the finished product. Let there be orange fences instead of walls. Let there be noisy generators instead of quiet students. God works through every step and He is with us.

Prayer: Our Heavenly Father, thank you for being with us through every difficult step. Make us bold in the early days of building and faithful for the long effort. Remind us that all is built by your grace and mercy. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.


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A Passage and A Prayer 3/22/19


Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?

 
Again? They did it again? We fall quickly into despair and anger when people in our lives become repeat offenders against us. It is straight to the prison of passive aggression (or very active aggression, too). We cut people out of our lives who can’t get it together. We treat others with dishonor and disrespect when we feel wronged time after time after time…
The reality is fear of punishment is rarely the motivation for change we hope it is. A severed relationship does not often change the heart of the other, and it doesn’t leave our heart in a good place, either. Jesus’ advice to us is to forgive. No matter what, no matter how often. Forgive.
 
Do you know why there are rainbows in the sky after rainstorms? Because God worked through this same issue. Remember Noah and the ark? God was so sorry he ever made humans, because they were all so terrible and continued living in sin and never sought him or wanted to be in relationship with him. So God wiped everyone out, except for Noah and his family. And from that moment on, he promised to put up with people no matter what. Jesus’ forgiveness extends over every sin- even the ones we habitually do. (This isn’t permission to keep on sinning!) Jesus meets us with truth and grace: he calls sin a sin, and he forgives us. This is permission to meet sin with truth and grace in our lives, too.
 
Challenge: If you’re withholding forgiveness from someone, pray to God about it, and seek to forgive that person. If it is possible and you are led to do so, share your forgiveness with that person as well.
 
Jesus, we make a habit of sinning, and we don’t know what to do about it. You do, though. You forgive us and restore us, and empower us to be more like You. Help us to be more like You as we face the people in our lives from whom we are withholding forgiveness. May they experience the freedom that we have in Your love. Make us to be messengers of Your forgiveness, in Your name, Amen.


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