Least

Have you ever had the same bible story or passage come up repeatedly in different settings over a short period of time? Like hearing a story on an add on Christian Radio, then having a rabbit trail at Bible study bring the same story to light again, and then having the pastor at church talking about the same passage a week later in church. It is noticeable when it happens and leads me to do some self-searching to figure out why? What lesson is God trying to bring to my attention? What do I need to learn from the passage? How can I apply it to my life?

Lately, it has been the passage found in Matthew 25.31-46. Jesus is talking about when He takes his place on the throne and He separates the masses in front of Him into two groups. He invites those on His right to come to their reward and similarly sends the group on His left to their eternal punishment. Both groups are a little confused by the criteria that the King has used to separate them. He had said in verse 35-36 to those whom he welcomed “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” And said the opposite for the group that he sent to punishment. Both groups asked “when did we see these things” and the King replies (vs 40 and 45) “Truly, I say to you, as you did it (or didn’t) to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it (or didn’t) to me.”

Now I have heard this story many times before – I thought I has a good grasp on the point – notice those around you, help those in need and shine Jesus light on the weak, poor and marginalized. It could look very valiant – serving in a soup kitchen, giving out money or food to those holding signs at exit ramps, gutting houses that flooded, volunteering at Feed My Starving Children, or many other noble causes. But then I listened to a song I’ve listened to many times before. This time one particular line hit me hard. The song is “This World” written by “Caedmon’s Call”.

Did you hear the lyric neatly tucked away in the bridge of this song? At about the 2:06 mark is the line “… the least of these look like criminals to me So I leave Christ on the street“. That thought shakes me up a bit. We tend to default to the adage “God helps those who help themselves”. So we are ready and willing to help those who in all humility are asking for some help from those of us that “have it together”. That’s when we act. But first of all, we don’t really have it all together. We are all fallen and flawed people trying to navigate life through our own issues. To think differently is to lie to ourselves.

And the heart of the Matthew passage, I believe is resonated in the above lyric. We are to show God’s love, compassion and helpfulness to everyone from the greatest to the least. And the least may very well be people that are not asking for help, and may even look to hurt us or take advantage of us if given the chance. I ask you, who is the one with the greatest need to encounter a forgiving savior? A humble, broken person looking for any help they can get, or an unrepentant convicted rapist or murderer? The answer is they both have the same great need to encounter the Jesus of the Bible. And their need matches our need for Him too. As believers, we are His chosen representatives in our world tasked to “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28.19) So what do we do with that?

It is so easy for us to pass judgment on others and determine for ourselves who is worthy of our help and attention. But the verse in Matthew 25 makes no such distinction. Instead, it identifies those in need as the “least of these” which suggests those at the bottom of our “worthy” list.  What does that mean? Well, allow me to draw your attention to another lyric from a different song –  “Leaving Jesus” by Send the Beggar.

at 2:23 they sing

“I won’t treat my witness like some kind of sickness, I won’t make the beggars think You think they’re lepers.  I’ll leave Your life near them (repeat)

And they don’t call me Jesus but I leave your name everywhere I go. I prove that You’re here by being here, like tracks in the snow

And they don’t call me Jesus, but I leave your name like bleeding fingerprints. but the blood that I leave says more than these, these words upon my lips.”

The message is clear, our actions speak louder than our words. We pour ourselves out for others to know Him.  This is the task that we have been given. We share the truth of the Gospel, even if it falls on the ears of mockers. We don’t judge who is worthy to know Christ, but we remember that we, ourselves, are not worthy of the gift of His grace. And we ask for His eyes to see His beloved creation so we can be blinded to our prejudice and self-importance. In doing so, we extend God’s loving, forgiving arms of grace to the lost that He loved enough that He died for. May we have a true perspective of our own need for a Savior as we offer ourselves to serve those He came to save. Doing so leads to eternal reward, failing to do so leads to eternal punishment. It seems like He takes this pretty seriously, I guess we should too.

 

Filled

It is almost Super Bowl time and many of us have plans in place to get together with friends and take in the festivities together. Some are invested in the game, but not all. Some will have their stop watches out to time how long it will take Pink to sing the National Anthem. Others will be eager for stoppages in play so they can check out the newly released Super Bowl commercials, and still others will await anxiously to see what surprises will accompany Justin Timberlake and the Half-Time show.

Now imagine that you are just about to watch the second half of the game kick off.  You are still recovering from the half-time show and wondering if the Eagles can hold off the Patriots or if they will be planning another parade in the greater Boston area.  Then, there is a panic – the food is gone. There is no more coming. What do you think the reaction of the houseguests will be? Some may think “it’s okay, I’ve really eaten enough”, some will look to order pizza, some will maybe revolt or at least black list this place for next year. For the host of the party, it would be an embarrassing oversight to run out of food on Super Bowl Sunday.

Now, let’s take a look at a potentially embarrassing moment at a celebration in the Bible.  This time, we are looking at John 2. It is not a Super Bowl party, but instead, it is a wedding – a joyous celebration that could go on for days. And in this moment, the wine has run out. It is a potentially embarrassing situation for the hosts. Mary, Jesus’ mother hears about the issue and brings it to His attention. He doesn’t jump at the chance to take action. Instead, he tells her that “my time has not yet come (vs 4)”. But she then instructs the servants to “do whatever he tells you (vs 5)”

And to the surprise (I’m sure) of these servants, Jesus tells them to fill these large jugs with water. The bible points out that this is means fetching between 120-180 gallons of water – many trips to the well – it would take lots of work to make this happen. And what do you suppose they were thinking. We have all these guests and we are going to give them water? This is a disaster! Who is this guy and why are we listening to Him? This is going to take a long time and…water at a wedding?  We will be the laughing stock of the whole region. This is going from bad to worse.

But it doesn’t go from bad to worse. Instead, this is the first miracle that Jesus does publicly. It becomes a real circle-the-date-on-your-calendar moment. Miraculously, Jesus transforms the water in these vessels into the finest wine served. A sampling is taken to the head of the banquet and he is surprised by the quality of the wine that he tastes. The guests are none the wiser and the reputation of the bride and groom is preserved.

The takeaways from this story are:

1- Be faithful in the little things – What Jesus said would seem crazy and with the servants and the wedding planners on the edge of being embarrassed by this wine-shortage. And they had no reason to believe that anything miraculous was going to come from this exchange with Jesus. He had not yet established his history of miraculous wonders and built his reputation of awe-inspiring feats. He was just a guy at a wedding reception. But they did listen to Him. They did trust that He would do something helpful for their case. It would have taken time and effort to fill those vessels with water – time that could easily have allowed doubt to stop them from filling the jugs all up – but they persisted and their faith was rewarded.  They are the ones that got to witness this miracle. God is still in the business of helping people in miraculous ways. We are invited to trust Him – and to obey Him in the little things.

2- The Disciples Believe – Verse 11 tells us that this was the first time that Jesus revealed his glory and the disciples believed in Him. This story doesn’t tell us if they were privy to the information about the wine running out, but it does show us that they spent time with him and that their lives were changing. They would of course continue to travel down an unpredictable path where they would learn from the Master and see things far beyond what they could imagine. It is amazing how life changing time spent with God can be. Will you spend time with Him and allow him to change your life. Will you believe him, trust him and allow Him to lead you on the adventure of a lifetime?

Keeping Track

This is the third post in a mini-series among the Tangible Truths that our Radical Jesus has challenged us with. We talked about loving our enemies, we talked about loving our neighbor, even if that neighbor is an enemy. And as we have talked about loving others, we will finish this mini-series by looking at what true forgiveness is in relation to the love we are called to show to others. Our text is Matthew 18. verses 21-35.

Here we see Peter comes to Jesus and asks a bit of a loaded question. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Now there is not a lot of context here as to what Peter may have been thinking, but I picture it as Peter attempting to show Jesus how he “gets it”. He is showing Jesus he understands what Jesus has been teaching and demonstrates this learning with what he feels like is a pretty radical concept. Forgive someone seven times?  After all teaching of the day suggested that forgiving 3 times was the limit. So imagine how Peter’s mind would be blown by the answer of seventy times seven. If Peter is attempting to prove the depth of his spirituality, he is outdone by Jesus answer.

But here is the way my mind was blown as I was studying this story. I read it just a couple days after a bible study that focused on 1 Corinthians 13. And there in the midst of that chapter, clear as day, it says in verse 5 (love) keeps no record of wrongs.  Did you catch that?  Now let’s put it together with the “loving others” we’ve been talking about for the past few Tangible Truths. If we are loving others, we are not to keep record of the wrongs they do to us. If we are loving them, we will not dig out our tally sheet and put another notch on the page beside their name. That is not loving forgiveness. And again, Jesus models this for us as the writer of Hebrews reminds us in Hebrews 8.12For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

But in case you missed it, Jesus drives his point home with a parable. He talks about a servant who owed a great debt to the King who has called for his debts to be settled. This servant doesn’t have the means to repay the large debt and the King calls for him and his family to be sold to repay what they owed. The servant pleads with the King, and the King, taking pity on him, releases him and forgives the debt completely. He owes nothing!

This servant, freed from this penalty, finds another man who owes him a small sum. Like the servant with the king, this man also pleads for mercy, saying he cannot repay the debt. Finding that unacceptable, the servant grabs the second man by the neck and begins to choke him. He then has that man thrown in prison until the small debt could be repaid. Word got back to the King who called the first servant back in, reinstated the debt and had the first servant thrown into prison until the large amount he owed was paid in full.

We deserve to be on the hook to repay everything that has been done for us, but God knowing that we will never be able to repay that debt, doesn’t require it of us. He has cancelled the debt and freed us from any sentence that it held. But as we discussed in the previous two Tangible Truths, He calls us to do the same for others – forgive them, not hold their actions against them and remember that we are no better than them. We also have been forgiven of much greater offenses than another person could ever commit against us.

I am challenged by these lessons on love. It is so much easier to hold on to grudges and withhold mercy and forgiveness when people hurt us. But if we want to follow the example Jesus set for us – if we want to follow His teaching and live the life He calls us to, then we are compelled to remember that He calls us to love others – our neighbors, our enemies, those who are hurtful to us. I pray that I will never again overlook these lessons and that His presence in my life would be demonstrated by helping me carry out His commands to love and forgive.

Roadkill

Today’s “tangible truth” was one of the first times Jesus words, when truly considered, caught my attention. It is a parable that Jesus used – the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.

Now to set the stage for Jesus’ storytime, we have a crowd gathered and the story immediately gets interesting.  Luke 10.25 tells us that an “expert in the Law of Moses stood up to test Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Immediate tension.

Jesus tests back, asking for the man’s opinion, which he shares by quoting Leviticus 19 – Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him “do this and you will live”, but the man presses Jesus with another question “Who is my neighbor?”

And the table is set for Jesus to teach.  Here is a review of the facts of Jesus’ story:

A man is going from Jerusalem to Jericho – a journey of about 18 miles. It was a rough, mountainous journey, reputed to be dangerous because there were many places where robbers could lay in wait. And that is what happens in Jesus’ story. The man is attacked, robbed, beaten and left for dead.  A priest and a levite come along separately, and they cross the road and pass by, leaving the man in the same condition. Then, a Samaritan comes along, sees the man, bandages his wounds, helps him to an inn and takes care of him through the night.  The next day, he pays the innkeeper to take care of him. And if the cost to do so goes beyond what the Samaritan initially leaves, he will settle the account when he returns. Jesus then asks which was the neighbor to the man. The expert in the Law says “the one who had mercy on him.”

On the surface, it seems like an easy lesson about helping those in need, going above and beyond and noticing those around us. But here is the piece that I missed. Jesus is telling this story to a Jew, likely in the midst of several other Jews. And he makes the hero of the story a Samaritan!  The Jews and the Samaritans have a long history of detesting each other. Hundreds of years. One article I read compared it to the discord seen more modernly in the conflicts in Bosnia or Ireland that were both ethnic and political. For me, here in Minneapolis, it would be like a Vikings fan gets beat up and the only one that would help him would be a Packers fan. (OK, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was even more strained than that!) To his audience, the story Jesus’ told, with its Samaritan hero, would have dropped jaws. It was surprising, offensive and attention-grabbing. Why would Jesus choose this plot twist for his story?

Here are the tangible truths that I have learned from this parable:

1- Jesus really meant it when He told us to Love our enemy – He tells of the Samaritan loving the Jew enough to help him, care for him and even sacrifice for him. He made the Samaritan in his story a likeable guy who helped way more than those who were “supposed to help”. The Samaritan loved his enemy and the story invites the Jews listening to love the one who was “their enemy”.  Who is your enemy? How does it make you feel to know that Jesus expects us to love those “neighbors” as we do ourselves. Are you ready to help and show love to others – even the “enemy” around you.

2- Not just a one time thing – It may have been attributable to conscience if the Samaritan helped the attacked man left for dead on the road. Enemy or no, he didn’t want to see anyone die. But for the Samaritan in the story, his actions are motivated by something more. He pays for care for the injured man, and vows to come back to check on him and settle accounts if the cost of care was greater than what he had left.  Likewise, we are not called to simply tolerate our enemies for the minimal amount of time – we are called to love our enemies (which we discussed in the last Tangible Truth post). It isn’t enough to not show hatred towards others, we are called to love others, and the “whenever possible, live at peace with EVERYONE.” (Romans 12.18 emphasis mine)

3- Roadkill – The reality is that we are the ones on the side of the road. We are destitute, hopeless, beaten down and this world has left us for dead. The man and the Samaritan were enemies, just by the nature of their ethnicity. We, by our nature are enemies of God. We rebel against him, defy him, ignore him or consider him irrelevant. And while we were still in that state, doomed and destitute, Jesus died for our sins. He, in essence, found us on the side of the road, bandaged us, cared for us and rescued us. Jesus’ tangible truth here challenges us through this story to love our neighbors, even ones that hate us. He not only asks us to do it, He shows us that it can be done when He died for his enemies – us!

Enemy

In my most recent athlete post, I share the story of Giorgio Tavecchio. Part of his story included a missed field goal. The miss happened after he had made the field goal, but had committed a penalty so it didn’t count. Those missing points would have been enough for his team to win the game, and without them, they lost.

He shared that he received a lot of hateful messages on his Facebook page. His response? Pray for each of those who sent him the message. This was a great representation of todays “tangible truth”.  In Matthew 5, there is a wealth of teaching for us to wrap our heads around, and in verse 44, Jesus says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I looked up the definition of persecute and here is what I found. “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; relentless subjection to annoyance or suffering”  That goes against our instincts and in many cases, our sense of justice. We were wronged, we were hurt, we should be able to hold their actions against them.

But one time, a few years ago, as I read this passage something shocking dawned on me. Sometimes, I am the enemy. Sometimes my words are injurious, my actions harassing, or at least relentlessly annoying. I am the youngest of 3 brothers, I am sure they would support me in this claim.

There is a well known verse later in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7.12). It says “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them”. In Luke’s account of this passage, (chapter 6.27-31) they all come together. When I am mean, oppressive, hurtful to others- when I am their enemy, how would I want them to treat me?  Do I want them to hate me back, carry a grudge and wish mean, harmful things to happen to me? Or do I want them to love me, pray for me, go against what I deserve from them and be shown grace? Definitely option number 2. So with that in mind, how then should I treat those that are oppressing, hurting or insulting me? With love, grace, prayer and forgiveness.

And if we need an example of what that looks like, consider what Paul wrote in Romans 5.8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We were enemies of God. We were against Him, living in outright rebellion. That is when he went to the cross so we could be shown love and forgiveness.  In Psalm 103.12, we read that the Lord has taken our sins “farther than the East is from the West”.  Why East and West instead of North and South? well, there is a North and South Pole. There is a finite distance between those two points. There is a point that you can reach where you are as North as you can go.  No point like that exists when you look at East and West. If I were to get in an airplane and fly east until I reached the end, I would never get there. I can always go East. It is an immeasurable distance and God says our sins are taken away farther than that! He loved his enemies. He showed love, grace and forgiveness to the very ones that were sentencing him to death. (I’m not picking on the Jews in Israel at this moment, I’m talking about every sinner that has ever lived!) And He calls us to do the same, to show undeserved love and grace to those who oppress us. And when we see what that looks like modeled in our own forgiveness, we are challenged to do the same. God please help us to lean on your presence in our life to carry this out!