Christianity 201

November 21, 2017

Bible Texts Offer Two Types of Wisdom

The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction,
and concern for instruction is love of her,
and love of her is the keeping of her laws,
and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality,
and immortality brings one near to God;
so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.

– Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 (Deuterocanonical book) NRSV

Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, “He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness.” And again, “The LORD knows the thoughts of the wise; he knows they are worthless.”

-I Cor 3:18-20 NLT

Today’s author is a first-time appearance here at C201; Josh Blakesley came recommended. He is an ordained minister who has a heart for inter-faith interaction and dinner theatre! Click the title below to read at source, and then navigate around the rest of the website.

Alternative Wisdom

The most common type of wisdom in society is what we call conventional wisdom. This is the mainstream, what “everybody knows.” It is society’s understanding about what is real and how people should live. Conventional wisdom includes ideas that are so accepted they are not questioned. These ideas tell us now to live; we are socialized into conventional wisdom as we grow up.

Example: we are told that life is about reward and punishment, i.e. “your reap what you sow” or “get what you deserve.” Though this idea is prevalent in secular culture, it also exists in religion, i.e.: “God will reward or condemn you based on what you’ve done.” Obviously, conventional wisdom leads to social separations, because it claims that some people’s roles in society are more important than others.

A person’s self-worth or identity is based on how they measure up to society’s norms.

At the end of the day, conventional wisdom can lead to us thinking that the reality as we have labeled it is actually the end-all. This of course can close our minds to new realities and ideas.

There are many examples of conventional wisdom. Here are a few:

  • The Earth is flat. The Earth is the center of the Universe.
  • You have to make more money. It is always best to pursue promotions and jobs that pay more.
  • You should buy a house.
  • You should do tons of cardio exercise to lose weight.
  • Keep taking antibiotics so you won’t be sick.
  • In Hollywood: a movie can’t succeed unless it stars a famous actor.

What examples of conventional wisdom can you think of?

To bring this home, consider that many people’s image of God is based on their acceptance of conventional wisdom. God, for them, is the enforcer and the one who gives legitimacy to religious behaviors and viewpoints. It’s the idea that people must satisfy God…

Now let’s switch gears to alternative wisdom—a grouping of ideas and perspectives that are not afraid to ask questions, to challenge convention. Alternative wisdom confronts the so-called norms of society and asks why we consider these norms to be our reality. For example, conventional wisdom says that a person’s worth is determined by measuring up to social standards. Alternative wisdom says that all people have infinite worth that is intrinsic and not based on merit. Likewise, while conventional wisdom says that our identity comes from social tradition, alternative wisdom says that identity comes from centering in the sacred, and in our humanity. And finally, conventional wisdom tells us to strive to be first in line for everything, no matter what. Alternative wisdom says that the last will be first and the first will be last.

Can you think of your own examples of alternative wisdom?

More specifically, in Jewish and Christian Scriptures, there is most certainly a blend of conventional and alternative wisdom. If you look closely enough, I’m sure you can find various examples of both. To bring this conversation to its center I would like to hone in on alternative wisdom as it was for Jesus of Nazareth. For Jesus, parables were storytelling methods of imparting alternative wisdom. The parables were not black and white. They asked questions. Typically, wisdom teachers like Jesus, Socrates, Buddha—they focused on a “wise” way and a “foolish” way; a narrow way and a broad way. Instead of telling people how to live or which rules to follow, wisdom teachers made observations about life and spoke from experience. This is why Jesus periodically referred to nature.

Jesus of Nazareth, unlike other religious leaders and teachers of the time, and unlike many of the churches and religious leaders of today, did not spend so much time interpreting scriptures. Instead, Jesus taught and modeled experiential living—the daily experiences people have.

Rather than focusing on written words, Jesus focused on the experience of God.

Jesus and others invited people to see something they might not have otherwise seen, to look past conventional wisdom and conditioned culture to something beyond, something that could transform a person. For example, the idea that a person’s purpose in life is to follow certain rules so that God will be pleased and then, when they die, God will allow that person to go to heaven—this is not the alternative wisdom of Jesus. Instead, Jesus flipped this convention on its head, saying that those who were thought of as the lowest and the least religious would be the ones better off in the end. Jesus’ wisdom portrayed God as Giver of Compassion and not Judge. Further, when Jesus spoke of death, it was not a physical death, but a death of that conventional self—dying to the societal norms that trap us and living into a new reality of transformation, resurrection and enlightenment.

Friends, don’t buy into conventional wisdom. Be different, be weird, defy the conventions.

Ask questions about why we do this or that. Seek alternative wisdom—based on what you see in nature, what you actually feel within yourself, and your own experiences. Seek and develop alternative wisdom, as this will help you see the bigger picture and enable you to get to know yourself better, apart from all the social conditioning and convention.

Give heed to alternative wisdom, which gives assurance that we are truly alive.


Here’s another short article by Josh on the notion of being “blessed.”

November 21, 2015

Forgiveness for All

When the host of the party is outraged that a woman of sketchy reputation is devoting so much attention to the rabbi Jesus, the teacher launches into a parable

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Most people reading this know this story, and understand the parable, which sort of quantifies degrees of forgiveness. Debts do, after all, come in various sizes.

The parable itself comprises only two verses, 41 and 42, but it contains a foregone conclusion of a forgiveness that doesn’t take place until verse 48. The woman knows who she is, the life she’s lived, and her need of repentance. Jesus responds to the contriteness of her heart and tells her that her sins are forgiven.

But who else needs forgiving in this story?

Simon has not been very accommodating to Jesus, he has not acted as a host should, especially if we see this in light of 36 which seems to paint Jesus as the guest of honor. I’ve often wondered then, how this woman of ill repute gets in, but some suggest that certain occasions might have been open to a wider swath of people, not unlike a situation where a British lord might invite the villagers to a type of open house at the manor. By whatever means she gets in.

But Simon seems to have snubbed Jesus somewhat, and his outrage at the interaction between the woman and Jesus provides Jesus with a context to note Simon’s lack of social graces.

Clearly, Simon is also in need of forgiveness.

But here’s the good news: In the parable Jesus tells, two people are forgiven!

At this point, I need to acknowledge a footnote in Ann Spangler’s telling of the story in the recently released Wicked Women of the Bible:

I am indebted to Kenneth E. Baily for his fascinating interpretation of this story in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (IVP, 2008, pp 239-60). Though Baily does not speculate on whether Simon showed signs of repentance as I have done… he does make it clear that the story Jesus tells Simon speaks of forgiveness that is extended to both people, the one with the large debt and the one with the small one, implying that Simon is the person with the smaller debt.

It must be said however that there’s nothing in the text to suggest Simon enters a posture of penitence. But the parable leaves the potential there for both the one with the great debt and the smaller debt to have the same opportunity to begin with a fresh slate.

How many people do you think were forgiven that day?

 

June 20, 2015

The Father Image Jesus Wanted Us To Keep

AMP Mark 4 : 2a And He taught them many things in parables (illustrations or comparisons put beside truths to explain them)…

PHILLIPS Mark 4 : 1 – 2a Then once again he began to teach them by the lake-side. A bigger crowd than ever collected around him so that he got into the little boat on the lake and sat down, while the crowd covered the ground right up to the water’s edge. He taught them a great deal in parables…

When you look at the ministry of Jesus there are at least three things that separate Him from all others who came before and all others who have come after:

  • Miracles
  • Questions
  • Parables

While all the parables contain more depth than we see in the first reading, one that is especially rich is the one we call The Parable of the Lost Son, or The Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Two years ago, for Father’s Day — which happens Sunday here in North America — our pastor spoke on this parable and as always happens with this particular section of Jesus’ teaching, there is always a new takeaway waiting if you look for it.

Before we gloss over this point too quickly, let me say that we need to approach familiar Bible passages with the attitude of expectancy. I do this every year at Christmas and Easter and I am never disappointed if I have my radar set to look for a new insight or revelation.

I knew of a pastor once who would begin some of his messages with a prayer that ended, “…and God if there’s anyone here who feels they’ve heard this all before, help them to know that your desire is to write this on the tablets of their heart.” (And that was before computer tablets!) Some messages we simply need to hear over and over and over and over and over and over again.

But that’s not what I mean here. I’m talking about where we haven’t heard it all before because there is so much depth to the passage in question. I’ve said that I think all scripture is like that to some degree, but in some passages, the potential message outlines are infinite.

I am continually fascinated by the concept of scripture as a multifaceted jewel which reveals, refracts and reflects with each slight turn. The geometric properties of a large diamond mean that each face is interconnected directly to several others, which in turn are attached to others.

Christianity 201, 1/24/13

Today, the takeaway had to do with the father in the story running to meet his returning, contrite, repentant son. Our pastor pointed out that traditionally, because of the son’s shame in losing his money to Gentiles, the town would gather to shame him as he re-entered. But instead, the father runs to meet him, hug him, kiss him and give him a ring.

NIV Luke 15: 20b … But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

Usually, the focus here has to do with the way in which the father runs to meet the son, that he was essentially shaming himself by lifting his tunic to run to do so. He thereby identifies with his son’s shame, his indignity, his disgrace.

But there’s a parallel between this event and what happens minutes later in the story where the father has to take shorter but equally important walk to meet his other son, the elder brother.

The Voice Luke 15 : 28b The older brother got really angry and refused to come inside, so his father came out and pleaded with him to join the celebration.

The NLT has “begged” instead of “pleaded.” Young’s Literal Translation has “entreated.” This was not a 30-second conversation. This other young man required convincing; he needed to be persuaded.

So the parallel is that the father leaves his party of which he is the host, and leaves his home to go outside and beg the older son to come in. He is identifying here with the elder son’s appraisal of the injustice of the situation, his feeling that his performance based approach has counted for nothing.

And in terms of performance, Jesus was sinless. Jesus’ life was characterized by the injustice of the condemnation of an innocent man. Jesus had to leave the comparative ‘party’ of heaven to come to us. Jesus suffered the indignity of the cross.

…I grew up in The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada under the ministry of Dr. Paul B. Smith. Each Sunday night as the choir sang Just As I Am, Dr. Paul would remind everyone that, “If you take one step toward God, God will take ten steps toward you.”

So imagine how much the speed at which God will move to embrace and welcome and restore you if you yourself come home running…

January 1, 2015

The People Whose Name You Can’t Speak

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

NIV Footnotes:

  1. Luke 10:27 Deut. 6:5
  2. Luke 10:27 Lev. 19:18
  3. Luke 10:35 A denarius was the usual daily wage of a day laborer (see Matt. 20:2).

Each of us, myself included, carries baggage into a new year. Perhaps family or work events surrounding the holiday season left you upset or angry with relatives or coworkers, or inflamed relationships which were already hurting. That’s the topic of today’s thoughts.

Today we are drawing on the writing of an author who I feel has much to say to us, despite his recent associations and proclivity to controversy. (That in itself is a microcosm of the text he’s writing on.) For that reason, I thought I’d put the credit and link at the very end, though you’re free to scroll down.

The Reason Why People Miss the Point of the Good Samaritan Story

Let’s take a look at a familiar story from the Bible, shall we? How about the story about the Good Samaritan? Because everybody knows that one. It’s about the importance of helping people who are in trouble, right?

You could make it about that. And that might be helpful. But you’d be missing the point of the story. Most people completely miss the point of the story. 

Here’s why: Jesus tells this story (It’s in Luke 10) in response to a question. And the more you understand the question, the more you can see just how brilliant and provocative the story is. 

The question is asked by a lawyer, who wants to know What must I do to inherit eternal life?

A couple of truths about this question this lawyer asks:

First, the lawyer doesn’t want to know. He already has an opinion. That’s what lawyers (which means scripture expert) did in the first century: they had opinions about the scriptures which they spent hours discussing. Or more realistically- debating. This man is not new to the game, he’s one of the elite, a long standing member of the religious establishment. It’s important to note that whatever Jesus says, this man will have something to say in response to it. 

Second, when the lawyer asks about eternal life he’s not asking about life after you die. What happens when you die was not something people in Jesus day talked much about and it wasn’t something Jesus taught about much at all. In the first century world that Jesus inhabited the focus was this life, this time, here and now. Not life after death but life before death. So when you had a chance to interact with a great spiritual teacher or rabbi, that was one of the first questions you would ask them–How do I have the most/best/fullest life right now? 

Eternal life was a phrase people used to describe a quality of life, the kind that comes from living in harmony and peace and connection with God. 

Jesus, of course, responds like a good Jewish rabbi, asking the man what the Torah teaches. Jesus responds this way because in the first century Jewish world that Jesus lived and moved in, the answer to how you have the best, most full and vibrant life was believed to be in the Torah (That’s the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Genesis, Exodus, etc…) How does it teach you to live? 

The lawyer isn’t surprised at all by Jesus’ question to his question–

let’s pause here and note that Jesus responds to his question with a question. This, once again, was not at all unusual for his day. Jesus is asked lots of questions in the gospels, and he responds to almost all of them with…a question–

he isn’t surprised because life revolved around the Torah and so Jesus’s answer-that-is-really-a-question is how he would have expected him to respond. The lawyer then quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus about how loving God and loving your neighbor are the most important things you can do–they’re how you enter in to this particular kind of life that they called eternal life

Jesus then says to him That’s cool.

Well, not exactly. But pretty close. Jesus responds You’ve given the right answer; do this, and you will live.

Which is the end of the exchange, right?
What else is there to talk about?

The lawyer asks a question, Jesus asks him a question about his question, he answers the question about his question, Jesus tells him he got it right. Conversation over. 

Except it isn’t.
(By the way, we aren’t even to the Good Samaritan part yet and you can already smell something is up, can’t you…?)

Another parenthesis, just for good times:

(When people say the Bible is boring, I always know they’re saying that because they haven’t actually read it. Because if you actually read it, and enter into the stories, and the depth and background and context and innuendo and hyperbole, the one thing you will not be is bored…)

But the conversation isn’t over, because the text reads

But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus And who is my neighbor?

Ohhhhhhhhhh. Interesting…the dude had an agenda all along! It’s a set up. All that question and response and love your neighbor blah blah blah was all a set up! The lawyer has an issue with Jesus, he disagrees with Jesus, and his questioning was to get to the point of conflict. Which has something to do with who your neighbor is. It’s as if he says

Yeah yeah yeah, we can do Torah all day and agree that loving your neighbor is how you get eternal life but we both know that you and I, Jesus, don’t agree on who our neighbor even is…

At which point Jesus then launches into a story about a certain man who was going to Jericho from Jerusalem and was beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest comes along and passes by on the other side-

let’s stop there.
That’s funny.
The road between those two cities was a trail a few feet wide. With a cliff. Jesus is being funny here because there was no other side.

Then a Levite comes along and does the same thing. 

The priest and the Levite are the bad guys, right?

Nope. The man on the side of the road has been beaten, hasn’t he? Which means he’s bloody, correct? And according to the Torah, if you have contact with someone else’s blood you would be considered ceremonially unclean, correct? And if you’re a priest or Levite, to serve your people, to be true to your God, to contribute your part to the community, you can only do that if you remain ceremonially clean, correct? So when they come across the man, they each have a to make a decision

Do I help just this one man and in the process make myself unclean which means I can’t serve for a period of time?

You with me? Any telling of this story that makes them the bad guys misses the point. Which we’re about to arrive at…

Then, a third dude comes along. Let’s pause for a minute and point out that it’s only logical for the third person to be a lawyer who then helps the wounded man. Then Jesus would have made his point to the lawyer about how your neighbor is anyone who is in need that you are passing by. Which is how a lot of people tell this story. 

Which completely misses the point.

It isn’t a lawyer who comes along, it’s a…wait for it…Samaritan. And teachers of law and lawyers hated Samaritans. This is the last character the lawyer would have expected to enter the story. Samaritans were the TalibanPedophilesWhoKickPuppies of the day. This hatred went way back, generations back, and it ran really, really deep. But in this story that Jesus tells, the Samaritan helps the man. 

This story would have been next to impossible for the lawyer to hear. A good Samaritan? In our day when people use the phrase Good Samaritan it is said without disgust or irony or most of all disbelief. It’s not an oxymoron now. It was then. A good Samaritan was impossible. It didn’t exist in their minds. Jesus then finishes this story in which a Samaritan is the hero and asks the lawyer 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? 

Boom! Do you see how insanely brilliant and clever and subversive Jesus is here? Please tell me you see it-because the whole thing started with the lawyer asking Jesus a loaded question, didn’t it? And so what does Jesus do? He tells a story that appears to ramble way off into the deep weeds, then a shocking character enters the story and ends up the hero, and then Jesus turns the table on the lawyer and asks 

Who was the neighbor?

The answer is The Samaritan, right? Yes, that’s correct.

But how does the lawyer answer?

The one who showed him mercy.

Oh man. The lawyer can’t even say the word Samaritan. That’s how deep his hatred goes. He can’t even say the word. 

Have you ever noticed how people often refer to the person they used to be married to as their ex? How rarely you hear them actually say the person’s name? Names connect us. Names bond us. Names create intimacy. If feels terrible to forget someone’s name, doesn’t it?

But this lawyer, he can’t even answer Jesus’s question by saying the name. He simply replies the one

That’s your neighbor.
That’s who you’re called to love.
That’s where the eternal life is found.
In loving your neighbor, the one you hate, the one you despise, the one you wish didn’t exist, the one who’s name you can’t even say.

Now obviously some people we avoid. Some people we have boundaries with. Some people are so toxic and dangerous and hurtful, some people have done so much damage to us we have to keep our distance. We love them from a distance. That’s all part of being healthy. But even then, we forgive so that the hate and bitterness won’t eat us alive.

Do you see why I began by talking about the point of the story? You can make it about roadside assistance, which is fine, and maybe even helpful, but Jesus is calling us to something way bigger and higher and deeper and transcendent. Jesus is calling the man to love like God loves. Which means everybody. Even those you hate the most. Jesus is challenging the man to extend divine love to those who are the most difficult to love. That’s where it’s at. That’s the answer to the question. That’s where the eternal life is.

~Rob Bell, part 74 in a continuing series, What is the Bible.

October 28, 2014

Parables Aren’t Fantasy; Based in Reality

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:17 pm
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Acts 1 8

I would expect all readers here are familiar with the parable that we call The Good Samaritan. As with most parables, we believe Jesus invented the story on the spot. It begins in most translations “A certain man.” Only once — with Lazarus and the rich man — is the character in a parable even given a name.

The surprise ending of course is:

NIV Luke 10:33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.

It’s easy to say at this point that Jesus made the hero of the story a Samaritan for shock value. The story could stand — albeit not as forcefully — with one of his own people bandaging his wounds and offering to pay for his care at the inn. But were there good Samaritans?

Of course there are. There are good and bad in any sect you wish to define by drawing lines.  There are good and bad Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics and Mormons. As I write this, news stories in my native Canada remind me that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. It’s wrong to stereotype.  But Jesus’ statement picture of a good Samaritan is revealed just a few chapters later, in Luke 17 in the story of the healing of the ten lepers:

NKJV Luke 17:15 And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, 16 and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan.

That was a real life situation, not a parable. (I hesitate to say, this was a situation over which Jesus had no control; but theologically and practically that is incorrect. He could have easily placed it in the heart of the one man to return and give thanks; but it defeats the purpose of Luke’s inclusion of the detail if you’re going to dismiss it by saying Jesus supernaturally manipulated the post-healing moment.)

The point is that Samaritans, like any other group both then and now, should not be subject to stereotyping or profiling.

A study of Samaritans in scripture also reveals some paradoxical moments:

In Matthew 10, we see Jesus sending out the disciples with these words:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.

But as Jesus enters a later phase of his ministry he does just the opposite:

NIV Luke 9:51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.

But the Samaritans don’t receive him. This is the only place in scripture where they are cast negatively. If you’ve read the encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman at the well, you might think the key to verse 33 is Jerusalem itself.  After all she says,

NIV John 4:19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

But the IVP NT Commentary suggests a broader theme:

The explanation is that Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem. In other words, rejection is his fate. Even though that rejection will occur in the capital of Israel, the Samaritan reaction mirrors that coming reality. The world is not responsive to Jesus; rejection is widespread.

The commentary on the verses that follow 53 is also interesting:

James and John ask for the ancient equivalent of nuking the enemy: “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” The disciples understand the great power they have access to, but the question is whether vindictive use of this power is proper. Is their hostile reaction justified? The request for “fire from above” recalls the ministry of Elijah (2 Kings 1). In their view, surely rejection means instant judgment.

Jesus corrects them. The text does not tell us what he said. In a story that is a little unusual in form, it simply notes that Jesus rebukes them and they move on to the next village. Many Gospel accounts end with a climactic saying of Jesus, a pronouncement that is key to the event in question. Here Jesus’ action speaks for itself. There is no saying; rather, the disciples’ saying becomes a view to be rejected emphatically

The disciples reaction is amazing considering that this passage almost assuredly follows chronologically the parable and the healing. Biases and prejudices do not disappear easily.

So who are the Samaritans in your life? In mine?

We’ve shared before about this verse:

Acts 1:8 NLT But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

and with this we’ll end today.

…Driving home, my wife pointed out that a most-literal reading of the passage would be difficult since Samaria no longer exists and the “end of the earth” (ESV and NKJV) or the even more archaic “ends of the earth” (HCSB and strangely, NLT, above) no longer applies to an earth we know is round and has no ends.  (I like the NASB here, “the remotest parts of the earth.”  Good translation and very missional.)

I’m not sure I agreed with the pastor’s take on Samaria, however.  He chose Toronto, a city about an hour west of where we live, as our “modern Samaria” because of its cosmopolitan nature; because it’s a gateway to so many cultures impacting the rest of the world.  Truly when Jesus met the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4, it was a clash of cultures in several ways at once.

But Samaria would not be seen that way by those receiving the great commission.  In Judea they will like me and receive but in Samaria we have a mutual distrust and dislike for each other. Samaria is the place you don’t want to go to.  Your Samaria may be geographically intertwined in your Jerusalem or your Judea.  Your Samaria may be at the remotest part the earth and it’s your Samaria because it’s at the ends of the earth.

Your Samaria may be the guy in the next cubicle that you just don’t want to talk to about your faith, but feel a strong conviction both that you need to and he needs you to.  Your Samaria may be the next door neighbor whose dogs run all over your lawn doing things that dogs do.  Your Samaria may be the family that runs the convenience store where you rent DVDs who are of a faith background that you associate with hatred and violence.   Your Samaria may be atheists, abortionists, gays, or just simply people who are on the opposite side of the fence politically.   Your Samaritan might just be someone who was sitting across the aisle in Church this weekend.

 

September 26, 2014

Justice, Equality, Fairness and Jesus

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:38 pm
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NRSV Matthew 20:8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 

In first introducing today’s writer last year, I explained that some blogs consist of pastors’ sermon notes written for churches that use the Lectionary as a guide to preaching. In these churches, the Evangelical concept of a sermon series in completely foreign; instead there are three or four prescribed readings for each Sunday, usually consisting an Old Testament reading, a Psalm , a selection from the gospels, and an excerpt from an Epistle.  (These vary somewhat by tradition and some denominations send out an amended version to their ministers.)  The pastor then chooses one of the texts to form the basis of the weekend sermon.

That’s the case with the blog ForeWords written by Rich Brown.  Click the title below to read at source and discover more Lectionary based sermons.

Live the Gospel

Parable of the LaborersHeritage Day (Community of Christ)
Ordinary Time (Proper 20)
Exodus 16:2–15; Psalm 105:1–6, 37–45; Philippians 1:21–30; Matthew 20:1–16

Those of us who’ve lived our entire lives in countries where justice, equality under the law, and fairness are considered the bedrock of society tend to forget that the kingdom of God preached by Jesus is not a reflection of the world we’ve created. But then, neither are our democratically oriented cultures necessarily an imitation of the heavenly kingdom. And that’s one of the reasons why so many of us may have a tough time with Jesus’ parable at the beginning of Matthew chapter 20.

If we were to hear about a comparable tale here in the 21st century our first response might well be that those vineyard workers sure needed a strong union seeking a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement. It is, after all, patently unfair that those workers toiling all day in the field–no doubt under a hot Judean sun–got the same amount of pay as the ones brought to the fields in late afternoon who had worked only an hour or two. Matthew recounts that this is not just a 21st-century concern:

“Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” –Matt. 20:10-12 NRSV

Parables, it must always be remembered, are not literal storytelling; they are stories told to get across greater, deeper truths. And so this isn’t a story about unfair working conditions. Certainly in our own day–as in Jesus’ time–workers are exploited. We Christians should be in the forefront of those seeking an end to such abuse. This story/parable is about something quite different. It’s about the kingdom of God, which is based on grace not fairness.

The landowner in the parable (presumably a stand-in for God) made it clear that he set the rules and established the relationship with the workers. In kingdom-of-God terms, this is not a contractual arrangement; it is instead a covenant:

“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” –vs. 13-16

Many of us Christians have an unfortunate tendency to think that God loves us more than all the rest of humanity–or at least that God places us at the front of the line for eternal blessings because we’re followers of Jesus. But we must remember that we’re not the first to be “chosen” by God. That belongs to the literal descendants of Abraham and Sarah: the Jews. Yes, that covenant is still in force. Check out what the apostle Paul has to say about that topic in Romans chapter 11.

With that in mind, then, who might those late-afternoon workers in God’s vineyard be: why, that would be us Christians. An uncomfortable thought perhaps for many of us. And it might be even more squirm-inducing if we Christians are actually the mid-day workers who were added. If that’s the case, then God may well be planning to add even more to the divine fold. But, but, but…we might protest. How unfair of God to invite those we casually term “unbelievers” (or heathens or any number of other less complimentary terms) into God’s presence. Once more: it’s not about fairness, it’s all about grace.

God, being the generous Creator God is, was, and always will be, can expand the boundaries of the so-called “chosen” for whatever reason God so desires. Among other things, that puts to shame our “Christian” tendency to point judgmental fingers at others, deciding on our own who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and who’s damned. In fact, this could just change everything.


I really loved the idea in the 2nd last paragraph that perhaps many of us are the mid-day workers — or even late day workers — in the story. Think for a moment; how might that fit individually or corporately?

 

April 28, 2014

The Parable of the Soils, Revisited

Matthew 13:1-9 (NIV)

The Parable of the Sower

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Today we introduce a blog that’s new to us, and fairly new itself. Ernest blogs at Sincere Son of the Sanctifier (it’s alliterative and makes you think) where you’re invited to click through to read Lord Prepare the Soil of my Heart.

The parable of the Sower as recorded in Matthew 13:1-9 with its explanation by Jesus later in vv. 18-23 is one of my favorite parables. Yet even with Jesus explaining the basic meanings of the soil compositions of path, rocky, weedy and good, I believe that there is even more to glean from this parable.

As Jesus presents the allegory, the soil appears to be static. Yet considering that the soil is representative of our hearts and how receptive we may be to God’s word, I know that God works in our hearts to make us better people as time progresses as we submit to Him. I believe, therefore, that this allegory is more about knowing our hearts and taking heed to watch for weeds, packed soil and stones within ourselves that we may always be ready to receive the Word of the Lord into our lives.

Yet is it the work of the soil to pull weeds, till, or to cast out rocks? Is it not the work of the farmer to work the field? What, then is the responsibility of the soil? I believe it is the soil’s responsibility to be receptive to the plow, and not treasure the rocks and weeds. There is a tool that Satan uses upon us that is most likely to thwart the work of the farmer. That tool is Pride. Pride is hard soil that will not easily submit to the work of the plow or hoe, or allow the farmer to easily work a rock free and will hang on to a weed so fastidiously that removing it would be to the detriment of the good seed that the farmer seeks to grow within us.

So pride would be the very thing that Jesus, the Lord of the harvest is warning us against. Pride keeps our hearts from being tender and yielded. Pride treasures the things in our lives which keep us from having good relationships with God and each other. Pride seeks to isolate when we know that others do not approve of our actions, or when we are ashamed… Umm… what?

Yes, there is pride in the isolation we harbor our souls in when we should be pressing in to God and to each other through the humility of confession. So again, it is the farmer’s job to help us even with our pride. The act of being truthful to God and His other children (carefully chosen confidants, of course) about that which shames us is the beginning of that humility which will prepare our hearts to receive the farmer’s preparation for that which He would grow within us: Grace, Love, Hope and Faith in abundance.

So what shall we say, then? Shall we hang on to those areas of our hearts which are hard, or full of care and desire for worldly gain or lusts, or let the rocks of suffering and persecution work in us bitterness?

Dear Lord, let us humbly come to You to submit the soil of our hearts to the work of Your hand. We desire to hear Your Words in such a way that they penetrate, germinate, and become a product worthy of the labor of your nail-scarred hands.

November 29, 2013

A Sermon for Reign of Christ Day

Luke 23:33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

At my other blog, Thinking Out Loud, you’ll find repeated references to Nadia Bolz-Weber — like this one — but we’ve never used here material here. Nadia, the founder and pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, is a very controversial Lutheran pastor. Actually, let me amend that, she’s controversial-looking, but when you get past the outward appearance, she is surprisingly orthodox in her beliefs and teaching.  This is taken from her most recently-posted sermon text on her blog, there’s also a link where you can click to listen along as you read. Most sermons, like this one, run 11-12 minutes.   Click to read, Losers, Amish and the Reign of Christ.  (Again, please note what follows is only an excerpt.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber…I’ve been obsessed all week with the fact that three times in this text during his crucifixion, people say to Jesus, “save yourself”.

Seriously Jesus, you healed the sick and raised the dead and performed wonders and miracles, so we know you have it in you…for God’s sake man, save yourself. If you are the son of God, if you are the messiah, then why on Earth are you allowing yourself to be humiliated like this. Make it stop.  You’re embarrassing us.  And why are you being such a loser, anyway?

See, we humans tend to be obsessed with winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, good people and bad people. And we can only win if someone else loses. This is the game. Some win, some lose. It’s everywhere.

And that win-lose, good-bad, insider-outsider thing we are all engaged in?…I know this is a little pop-psychology-y but think that it is somehow linked to our own fear of death and loss and fear that we are not loved.  So we fight, and compete and argue based on principle. Or we send passive aggressive emails when we feel wronged.  Or we talk trash about someone who has hurt us.  All of which I have either done or considered doing in just in the past week alone, but none of which will ever fend off loss or convince me I am worth anything in the ways I think they will in the moment.

Which is where Jesus enters the story…annoyingly.

Jesus shows us that these strong at the expense of the weak, rich at the expense of the poor, good at the expense of the bad ways of being together debases everyone involved.  The bully is as dehumanized by bullying as the victim.

In our win-lose way of understanding things it would have made a lot more sense for Jesus to have come and be a superhero, kicking ass and taking names. Showing everyone how strong God is by winning at our game.

Instead, at the cross we see that Jesus came and showed us how strong God is by voluntarily losing at our game.

No wonder people kept yelling “save yourself!” If you are God, then have some self-respect. Because that’s what we would do. But that’s the thing about God.  God doesn’t seem nearly as interested in self-preservation as we are.  God isn’t self-preserving, God is, by nature, self-giving…not in the way that keeps abused women abused.  But in the way that loves the abused and the abuser. Which is to say, God is self-giving in ways that don’t seem to make a lot of sense to our ideas of win-lose, right-wrong, insider-outsider.

And that’s the reign of Christ.

He’d been trying to tell us this the whole time: by having a mom without status, and there being no room in the Inn for his birth, and by gathering around him, not a team of all-stars, but a motley crew of losers…He tried to teach us maddening things – things that destabilize our systems of trying to get-over on people by saying that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  If you want to find your life then lose it. The greatest among you must become servants. If someone slaps you offer them the other cheek as well. If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too.  Why? Because like being right about everything… It doesn’t matter.  All of this losing can happen and we will still be ok.

None of this losing matters because the source of our worth, the source of our dignity, the source of our lovability does not lie in the – who is right who is wrong, who is good who is bad, who wins and who loses game. Our worth, dignity and lovability lies in Genesis 1:26 and our having been created in the image of God.

I think this imago dei, this image of God, creates in us a longing for what is real and beautiful and redemptive. And even as we are drawn to self-preservation and the game of winners and losers, there is something in us that always knows it’s all a lie.

I think this is why, despite the countless stories of revenge that could be told, that story from 2006 of the shooting at an Amish school continues to be told and continues to pull at that place inside all of us, the imago dei, reign of Christ, kingdom of heaven place that longs for the Gospel. On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts walked into a one-room Amish school house and shot 10 young girls before taking his own life. The response of the Amish community was not one of self-preservation, saving themselves, revenge, or winning in any way.  The response was one of pure Gospel and this is why it is still told to this day. We recognize the real thing when we see it.

Amish community members affected by the shooting offered forgiveness.  They refused to hate. Instead they visited and comforted the shooter’s widow.  Reportedly, “one Amish man held the shooters sobbing father in his arms, for as long as an hour, to comfort him”[1].

I may feed my desire to be right, to get over on others, to make people who have harmed me pay for what they’ve done by narcotically consuming movies, TV shows and video games that indulge my revenge fantasies. But it’s an empty high and then I crash. But the reign of Christ is significantly quieter than a Jean Claude Van Dam movie.  Jesus of Nazareth kept saying the kingdom of God is like things that are hidden and small and easily missed. He also said that the kingdom of God is within you. Quiet, hidden, small, easily missed.  But unmistakably THERE. There within the image of God from which you were created, is the kingdom of heaven, wanting to be known, wanting to be expressed, wanting to be lived and absolutely lighting up when it hears the real thing. Within it is your beauty, your value, your dignity. And it has absolutely nothing to do with being right, or making your point, or saving yourself or winning or losing.

Catholic theologian James Alison puts it this way – he claims that at the cross it is as if God is saying to us:

“I’ll occupy that space of loserdom to show you that I’m not out to get you, that I really do like you. Then you need no longer engage in that awful business of making yourselves good over against, or by comparison with each other. Instead you can relax about being good, and as you relax you will find yourselves becoming something much better, much richer in humanity than you can possibly imagine.”[2]

And I have to believe that the Image of God within us, that source of our worth and dignity and lovability from where our longing for truth and beauty comes – is nourished and honored every time we come here and once again hear that we are loved like crazy by this crucified God who doesn’t mind losing…

This, brothers and sister, this is the reign of Christ.  It is within you. And the true source of your dignity, worth and lovability… and nothing else matters. Not really. So relax and find yourselves becoming something much richer in humanity than you can possibly imagine. Amen.


[2] James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim; Listening for the Unheard Voice (Raven Foundation)

November 22, 2013

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

sheep1

For three recent blog posts, Kevin Rogers at the blog The Orphan Age has been studying the parable that is part of a trilogy of stories that we call “The Lost Sheep.” Below are excerpts from the series and a link to each.

Luke 15:

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

One hundred sheep represent a healthy community. Together they have shared resources and maintain a strong defense. The predators are warded off by the efforts of good shepherding.

Jesus told this story to religious leaders who were entrusted to take care of God’s flock in Israel. They noted with contempt that Jesus always surrounded himself with the people who were not righteous. This story responds to the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ self-righteous, smug posturing.

People who were immoral or who followed occupations that the scribes held to be incompatible with keeping God’s law. A rabbinic rule stated that “one must not associate with an ungodly man,” and the rabbis would not even teach such a person… The rabbis taught that God would welcome a penitent sinner, but these parables teach that God seeks out the sinner.[i]

The Jewish leaders excluded those who wandered away from their demanding righteousness. These people who got into trouble were the lost sheep and expected to find their own way home. Shepherding was conditional upon compliance with flock standards of behaviour.

The fact that tax collectors and sinners listen to Jesus while the leadership does not is a cultural reversal of expectation. Sometimes hearers are found in surprising places.[ii]

Religious elitism and arrogance always leaves people on their own without community. Hard-hearted religion leaves behind its homeless sheep.

[i] Reformation Study Bible
[ii] The IVP New Testament Commentary Series

Read THE PROBLEM WITH EXCLUSIVE CHURCHES in full.


Through Jesus’ continuing use of the sheep/shepherd metaphor we learn some important things about God’s involvement in peoples’ lives. Jesus echoed what the ancient Scriptures spoke of. What is a good shepherd?

Ezekiel 34:

For this is what the sovereign Lord says, “I will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord.16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

God says that this is what is in his heart towards people. Ezekiel described 4 characteristics that are consistent with Jesus’ leadership. As Jesus’ followers, have these values started to grow in us?

1.     God searches for the lost
2.     God brings back the strays
3.     God binds up the injured
4.     God strengthens the weak

Continue reading THE VALUE OF 1%


The parable of the lost sheep speaks to the challenge of living right. Personal righteousness was a central theme to Scribes and Pharisees. Lost sheep were those who did not follow the leader and stay with the flock. They disobeyed the rules of good sheep:

1.     Sheep need to listen to shepherd’s voice and follow
2.     Sheep have a communal flock instinct. Sheep that are ill might wander away

When someone distances him/herself from the faith community, it is usually for similar reasons. They have had poor leadership in their life or lacked respect for shepherds in general. Wanderers let the sickness of soul lead them away instead of letting a good shepherd restore them to health, bind their wounds or accommodate for their weakness.

So we may easily blame sheep for wandering away. But that is not the moral of the story. The heart of God searches for the wanderers and brings them home, fully aware that the sheep is sick, wounded or foolish. The Shepherd values every lamb and knows each weakness.

Read the conclusion of HOW TO GET LOST

November 16, 2013

Prodigal Son Parable Changes the Paradigm

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The Lost Son Returns:

(NIV)Luke 15:20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

In the new book, Let Hope In, Pete Wilson writes:

Pete Wilson - Let Hope InJesus’ audience continued to listen to him tell the story of the prodigal son, and they had been surprised so far, but now they were thinking, Well, the dad let his son make his own choice.  He was so overwhelmed when his son came home that he actually ran to him, but we know how this story is going to end.

From the Jerusalem Talmud, it is known that the Jews during the time of Jesus had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost the family inheritance to Gentiles.  It was called the “qetsatsah ceremony”.  Such a violator of community expectations would face the qetsatsah ceremony if he dared return to his home village.

The ceremony was simple: The villagers would bring a large jar, fill it with burned corn, and break it in front of the guilty individual.  While doing this, the community would shout, “So-and-so is cut off from his people.”  From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with them.

This was a religious ceremony designed to publicly embarrass and humiliate the person guilty of wrongdoing.  And the people listening to this story are waiting for this ending.  Sure the dad forgave the son, but the village is going to give the boy what he deserves.  They’re not going to overlook his dark past.  They’re not going to allow him to just forget where he was or who he had been.  But an amazing thing happens: the father trumps the humiliating and convicting ceremony by establishing his own.  “The father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it.   Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’  So they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:22-24  NIV).

He does something his audience is not familiar with doing: wiping his son’s slate clean.  He says, “I know my son blew it.  I know he made some horrible decisions.  But this is between me and him.  He’s not an embarrassment to me.  You can come over to the house tomorrow, but instead of a ceremony of rejection, we’re participating in the joy of a restoration.”

~ Pete Wilson, Let Hope In: 4 Choices That Will Change Your Life Forever pp. 117-118 emphasis added

June 16, 2013

God Runs to Meet Us

AMP Mark 4 : 2a And He taught them many things in parables (illustrations or comparisons put beside truths to explain them)…

PHILLIPS  Mark 4 : 1 – 2a Then once again he began to teach them by the lake-side. A bigger crowd than ever collected around him so that he got into the little boat on the lake and sat down, while the crowd covered the ground right up to the water’s edge. He taught them a great deal in parables…

When you look at the ministry of Jesus there are at least three things that separate Him from all others who came before and all others who have come after:

  • Miracles
  • Questions
  • Parables

While all the parables contain more depth than we see in the first reading, one that is especially rich is the one we call The Parable of the Lost Son, or The Parable of the Prodigal Son.

This morning, for Father’s Day our pastor spoke on this parable and as always happens with this particular section of Jesus’ teaching, there is always a new takeaway waiting.

Before we gloss over this point too quickly, let me say that we need to approach familiar Bible passages with the attitude of expectancy. I do this every year at Christmas and Easter and I am never disappointed if I have my radar set to look for a new insight or revelation.

I knew of a pastor once who would begin some of his messages with a prayer that ended, “…and God if there’s anyone here who feels they’ve heard this all before, help them to know that your desire is to write this on the tablets of their heart.” (And that was before computer tablets!) Some messages we simply need to hear over and over and over and over and over and over again.

But that’s not what I mean here. I’m talking about where we haven’t heard it all before because there is so much depth to the passage in question. I’ve said that I think all scripture is like that to some degree, but in some passages, the potential message outlines are infinite.

I am continually fascinated by the concept of scripture as a multifaceted jewel which reveals, refracts and reflects with each slight turn. The geometric properties of a large diamond mean that each face is interconnected directly to several others, which in turn are attached to others.

Christianity 201, 1/24/13

Today, the takeaway had to do with the father in the story running to meet his returning, contrite, repentant son. Our pastor pointed out that traditionally, because of the son’s shame in losing his money to Gentiles, the town would gather to shame him as he re-entered. But instead, the father runs to meet him, hug him, kiss him and give him a ring.

NIV Luke 15: 20b … But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

Usually, the focus here has to do with the way in which the father runs to meet the son, that he was essentially shaming himself by lifting his tunic to run to do so. He thereby identifies with his son’s shame, his indignity, his disgrace.

But there’s a parallel between this event and what happens minutes later in the story where the father has to take shorter but equally important walk to meet his other son, the elder brother.

The Voice Luke 15 : 28b The older brother got really angry and refused to come inside, so his father came out and pleaded with him to join the celebration.

The NLT has “begged” instead of “pleaded.” Young’s Literal Translation has “entreated.” This was not a 30-second conversation. This other young man required convincing; he needed to be persuaded.

So the parallel is that the father leaves his party of which he is the host, and leaves his home to go outside and beg the older son to come in.  He is identifying here with the elder son’s appraisal of the injustice of the situation, his feeling that his performance based approach has counted for nothing.

And in terms of performance, Jesus was sinless. Jesus’ life was characterized by the injustice of the condemnation of an innocent man. Jesus had to leave the comparative ‘party’ of heaven to come to us. Jesus suffered the indignity of the cross.

…I grew up in The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada under the ministry of Dr. Paul B. Smith. Each Sunday night as the choir sang Just As I Am, Dr. Paul would remind everyone that, “If you take one step toward God, God will take ten steps toward you.”

So imagine how much the speed at which God will move to embrace and welcome and restore you if you yourself come home running…

March 1, 2013

I Was a Stranger

Our scripture reading today is on video, or you can turn to Matthew 25:31-46.

At Bible Gateway (above link) the IVP New Testament Commentary begins:

This final parable in Jesus’ final sermon in Matthew brings home the reality of judgment. As the missionaries from Matthew’s churches spread the good news of the kingdom both among fellow Jews and among Gentiles, they faced hostility as well as welcome. This parable brings together some themes from the rest of the Gospel: Christ, like the kingdom, had been present in a hidden way (compare chap. 13), and one’s response to his agents represented one’s response to him (chap. 10).

…Which leads me to this excellent commentary at the blog, Reading Acts:

But is this a parable? Not in the normal sense of a parable, it is more of an apocalyptic prophecy with parabolic elements. The story is usually treated as a parable, despite the fact it is not a story drawn from everyday life. As an apocalyptic prophecy, the Sheep and Goats is an interpretation and re-application of themes from the Hebrew Bible to a new situation.

Clearly the “Son of Man” is not a symbol, Jesus is identifying himself as the one who will be doing the final judgement. There is, however, a shift from Son of Man to “the King” in verse 34. The King in this parable is not necessarily a metaphor for Jesus but an actual title of Jesus that he will have at that time. That Jesus sees himself as the central character in this parable helps us to read the previous parables – Jesus is the bridegroom in 25:1-12 and he is the king who went away in 25: 14-30.

The Sheep and the Goats are metaphorical elements that parallel the Wise and foolish virgins and the productive and unproductive servants in the parable of the talents. The elements of the judgement are not to be taken as metaphors, what the sheep do and what the goats do not do should be understood as a part of the judgement that they are facing at the end of the age. The wise virgin and prepared servant are more or less like the Sheep, the foolish virgin and the unprepared servant are more or less like the goats.

It is probably best to see this as a prophetic or apocalyptic parable using the metaphor of the separation of sheep and goats to indicate that at the end of the age the nations will be separated and judged. The basis of that judgement will be the treatment of the “least of these brothers of mine.” This prophecy may be based on several passages from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Ezekiel 34:11-17 describes Israel as a flock in need of a true shepherd. It is quite possible that the Sheep and Goats of Matthew 25 is an allusion to  Ezekiel 34:16: “As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.” (Joel 3:12 has a similar metaphor).

Like any of the parables, this story must be read in the context of the first listeners. The shocking end of the parables of the kingdom is that those that thought they were getting into the kingdom are not going to be there, and those that were on the outside do get in. The ruling Jews thought that they were going to be in the kingdom, in fact, they were the “keepers of the kingdom of God.” Yet when Messiah came, they did not recognize him. They never really had much of a chance to since they were not caring for the poor and the needy as they ought. Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees who liked their fine things, or the people giving in the temple and mocking the widow and her mites.

On the other hand, the underclass probably did not think of themselves are serious candidates for the first to get into the kingdom. They were told repeatedly that they were the unclean, “sinners and tax-collectors.” Yet they will enter the kingdom, and those that were accepting and caring for this underclass, as Jesus was, will enter as well.  Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry this kind of grace by eating with sinners, now he is welcoming people into his kingdom who showed the same grace to other “least of these brothers.”

~Phillip J. Long

Reading Acts is one of those incredible online “finds” that often greet me when I’m preparing things here.  Since we borrowed a hefty chunk of material from it today, I want to doubly encourage you to drop by and read more great Bible commentary at source.

 

 

December 13, 2012

The Yoke’s On You

Back in June we introduced the blog ministry of Scott Daniels at The Rest That Works. Today’s post appeared there a few weeks ago under the title, Yoking around with Jesus

 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.
~ Bob Dylan

   
       Not to say that we’re a bunch of cattle, but the yoke thing is growing on me (a typical Jesus paradox).

        I knew the yoke was often used in the Bible to talk about servitude and oppression, but before researching for the rest that works, I wasn’t very familiar with it as a positive image other than when Jesus used it in Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to me . . . Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me . . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Turns out, the image is common in rabbinic teaching, both from Jesus’ day and ever since. One popular teaching is: “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah (The Judaic Law), they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns” (Avot 3:5). According to this teaching, it’s one or the other—the ways of God or of the world, the yoke of fear or the yoke of Divine Love. As Bob Dylan says, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna serve somebody.

Jesus Teaching Yoke Is EasySo it’s very interesting that Jesus used the image to talk about rest — it’s such a contrast, even with much of Judaism. He was standing within Jewish tradition but saying that his work leads to relief from both the ways of the world and a burdensome experience of religious Law—and that’s exactly what I have experienced by aligning with him through the rest that works. Aligning with his “yoke” frees me to flow with Divine Love. It has the opposite effect of what one expects from the image (servitude and labor).

Jesus was saying many things in using the yoke image: First, he was saying, “Do what it takes to come into alignment with me and Divine Love. It will take some effort, but doing so will free you internally. You’ll learn to keep the conditional ways of the world where they belong—in the world. This will free you to work in a whole new way.” Second, he was saying that as we learn to settle into God’s love with him and work from there, we’ll finally experience a sense of relief inside that the ways of the world or dogmatic religion cannot give—peace that passes human understanding. There is a precious gift involved. There is a pearl of great price.

By definition, condition-based ways of doing things simply do not work to give what we really want—the inner peace and meaning found in being loved and loving unconditionally with God. When we align with and settle into unconditional love, we are freed to move freely and lightly in the world without being burdened inside with whether or not we “make the cut” or “are good enough.” We also become better able to free others from those conditions—- that’s love.

Almost everything in the world is conditional. That’s how things work in the world. It’s how society is organized. It’s how things are governed. Meet the conditions, and you’re in. Fail, and you’re out. Challenge them, and you’re threatened until you get back in line—back into the yoke of fear that governs most things in our world. It’s the cycle of how things work. We’re always moving in and out of the fears of that cycle, and until we come home to God’s unconditional love, those fears govern us inside. They govern our minds. They rule us. That’s just no fun. It’s a continual burden that wears our souls down.

It takes work to move into alignment with Divine Love, but it’s always worth it deep down inside. It feels so much better to feel an unconditionally loving spirit moving in us instead of fear, evaluations, accusations or threats. When those movements of spirit are dominant, we end up not liking or even respecting ourselves. We may be successful in the eyes of the world, but not our souls. We cannot be at peace inside when that is the case. We’re like the push-me-pull-you of Dr. Doolittle fame.

But there’s more at stake than just inner peace. We have so much more to offer others when we live in alignment with God’s love. The most loving thing we can do for others at any given time is to check our internal alignment and be moving with Divine Love. It’s for us, but not just for us. It’s for our world, starting with our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors—whoever we are with. For this is how the kingdom comes, heart to heart, one heart at a time.

Jesus’ invitation to enter the rest that works is a sweeping one. It’s a big deal. Coming into alignment with him and working with him in his “yoke” delivers us from fears and veiled threats, inside and out. But it does more than that. The discipline involved takes us beyond pie-in-the-sky hippie thinking. It’s not just about rest, but also what works. In this sense, it is hard work—checking our internal alignment as we go takes a lot of spiritual discipline. But the rewards of moving with Divine Love so exceed the rewards of any other way of living, there’s no question it’s worth it. Divine Love means so much to us that there’s no comparison with anything else. When we’re in the zone—feeling Divine, Creative Energy flowing in and out—we laugh at ourselves for ever valuing anything more.

Jesus’ way and truth really does set us free from the burdens that wear us down in the most spiritually serious ways. We need to work in the world, and want to, because there’s work well worth doing with our Creator who is creating out of Divine Love. We want to create good things, we want to keep our families safe, we want to do what’s right, but not because of threats, not because someone will get us if we don’t. We want to do what Love beckons us to do with God because it’s our innermost desire, for ourselves and for others. When we’re working in that zone, we know that we’re fulfilling out purpose on the planet. It feels right deep down inside, even if there is hard work involved. It’s work worth doing. In fact, it’s worth everything and our souls know it.

And that’s no yoke.

More power to you in escaping the yoke of fear and settling into the unforced rhythms of Divine Love with Jesus. He will work with you if you’ll let him. He’s saved me in ways I can’t even begin to explain—especially from myself. Just ask him for help and guidance and pay attention. Look to align with Divine Love and look for leads, inside and out. He’ll work with you from there.

October 29, 2012

How Material and Sexual Cravings Block Ministry

Church Relevance has posted a number of summaries from global:church forum. (I’m sure these are excerpts/summaries.) Here is just one:

At the Global:Church Forum, Michael Ramsden of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries discussed how the global Church is changing.

Luke 14:12-33
12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers[b] or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” 15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant[c] to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you,[d] none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” 25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

What happens at the end of the world? There will be judgment. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. And western cultures say, “Oh, and there is going to be a banquet!” But what type of banquet? A wedding banquet. And whose wedding is it? Partly ours.

What does it mean to be betrothed? Think of the anticipation. Yet I find it interesting that we often struggle to live as though we are the bride of Christ.

Most people in affluent cultures, find themselves having to constantly increase the pace and volume of consumption in order to maintain the same level of enjoyment. This cycle is called the Hedonic treadmill. Research shows that consumers consistently make self-defeating choices.

Now in Jesus’ parable about the wedding banquet, the servant is not inviting people to the banquet when he goes out. The invitations have already been sent out and accepted. When the servant goes out, he is merely ringing the dinner bell. But everyone made excuses. The first 2 excuses are commercial in nature, and we understand how people get caught up in money. This is what happens with the affluent.

But the 3rd excuse causes a lot of Westerners problems. The 3rd excuse is a man saying, “I have a women at home, and I would much rather be doing something with her than you. The is not an affluent excuse but a sexual one. The modern era has become too focused on viewing men and women as sexual objects. We live in e that tells women that they are empowered if they act as sexual objects. How is that progress?

In the Western world, sexual desire was driven by a sense of spiritual connection. In India, sex has been long thought of as a mystical connection. But today sex is increasingly viewed as a product to consume. Pornography is rampant. And we increasingly think of ourselves as animals.

Slavery reduces people to objects rather than people. Pornography treats people as objects. Sin dehumanizes us. It makes us less human than we actually are. When we treat people as objects, we lose our way.

Is it even possible that today’s Christians treat God as an object that is to be consumed?

One US government analyst said, “Hypocrisy is the new unforgivable global sin.” When you marry objectifying people and unhealthy consumption with our integrity, what do you have?

In Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet, people had an invitation that they ultimately rejected, so the servant went out and evangelized. The servant sought out who would come. The servant compelled people. He must be compelling.

If you do not pick up your cross and forsake all you have, you cannot be Christ’s disciple. That statement cannot be compelling unless God’s servants live it.

The trouble is we are trying to teach morals of discipleship that do not demand everything. Even some churches treat people as objects that give them money.

Don’t ignore the people in the trenches that are laying down their lives. We have arm chair quarterbacks that are ignoring the pleas of help from those in the trenches as well as their feedback on how to do things better. I’ve known people that would not fund a ministry initiative because they are afraid people will be martyred. But I wouldn’t fund ministry by people who weren’t willing to lay down their lives.

Salt that has lost its saltiness is worthless. If the impurities in salt reach a certain level, it will be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Poor areas of the world are modeling out an incredible spiritual richness. So since we are in the West, it is not just enough to learn from the theology of the Church of the South and the East. What we need to do is learn from those who are persecuted and willing to die yet keep growing in their passion for Christ.

If as a Church we are willing to pay the cost that the majority of the Church is paying, you will be scared at times, but you will also be more effective.

Affluent cultures are born by sacrifice. When we are poor, we mistake scarcity for spiritual discipline. But when affluence comes and scarcity becomes scarce then peoples lives are destroyed if they lack discipline. The trouble is that in the West, we have been affluent for a very long time. The types of disciplines that we need have been gone for a very long time.

God has a habit of humbling people who trust in themselves. The goal of life isn’t to live as long as possible but to live a life that is obedient to Him. That is the only life worth living.

I think the models of discipleship we have in the West (1) move too slowly, (2) expect to little, (3) promise too much, and (4) expect quick maturity.

~Michael Ramsden

June 11, 2011

Remixing Our Image of God

Today’s post is by James Rubart the author of two popular Christian fiction novels, Rooms and The Book of Days. This is the first of nine short vignettes — and one longer short story — that are yours for the reading at his website. To read the eight others, click here.  Both of these links open .pdf files; to learn more about James’ books, click the link at the end of this article.

If you can do it, think of God unedited by how you’re supposed to see Him. Not what religion or your mind tells you-oh, God is love—but your heart. What images come to mind?

Principal?

Dictator?

Judge?

The image I fight is of Him standing in front of me with folded arms saying, ―Well, you’ve sure screwed up a lot but I have to let you in anyway.

It’s probably why I cry every time I read Luke 15. You know the passage. Whole books have been written on it, music videos done, modernizations have tried to convey the message in a more compelling way. And there’s good reason for all the focus. It is the entire gospel in twenty-two verses. With it, Jesus encapsulates the core of the Father’s heart towards us.

The part that reduces me to tears? The first part of verse 20:

Luke 15:20 “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (NASB)

My Bible has little notations down the middle of the page sometimes showing the literal translation of a word, and in this case it puts a whole new spin on the verse. Before I dug into the literal translation of ran, embraced and kissed I pictured the Father jogging up to the son, giving him a swift hug, a pat on the back and a quick kiss on the cheek. A kind of Jewish-Italian-Mafia/Marlon Brando thing. ―Welcome back to the family kid!‖

Wrong.

This is how I’d write the translation based on the literal meaning of the words:

Luke 15:20 “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and raced toward his son like an Olympic sprinter. When he reached him the father nearly knocked him to the ground with his passion and joy. Seizing him with all his strength, the father wrapped his son up in his arms, and squeezed him tighter and tighter into his chest as tears flowed down the Father’s cheeks onto his beard. The father kissed his son feverously over and over and over again.

That’s how God feels about you.

Notice two more things before you go. When did the Father do the things above? Before the son confessed or after? And what was the Father’s reaction after the son did confess?

He ignored the confession.

And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Amazing.

He doesn’t even address the sin.

Don’t get me wrong. God abhors sin. Cannot abide it. But that’s why He sent Jesus; to abolish it forever.

But there are no folded arms, no cruel scolding, no tyrant or dictator to be found. Only unbridled passionate love.

Ask Him. Ask Him now to rewire your thinking about who He is.

And run into his violent embrace.

~James Rubart, JimRubart.com

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