The reason the Bible has more verses on money than on faith and prayer combined is because how we manage our money reflects how we manage our lives. Jesus taught that where our treasures are, there our hearts will be also. Hoagy Carmichael reminded us that heart and soul go together. So either our souls belong to God, or we have sold them to someone else.
- Stewardship: more than money, but money is where it begins
- Seven Principles of Generosity from 2 Corinthians 8
- BLOG BONUS! Four Principles of Generosity from Deuteronomy
- Questions to Ask when Managing Money
This is a message about financial generosity. Only in church circles, do we talk about this using the term “stewardship.” This has the effect of driving down worship attendance on “stewardship Sundays.” It means that non-church people don’t think about money’s relationship to their spiritual lives. But worst of all, it leads church going people to think stewardship only applies to money.
Stewardship works well with money because money can actually be counted and monitored. But the main principle of stewardship—that all things belong to God—applies not only to money, but to our time, our skills, even our bodies. Since all things belong to God, we’re only “managing” them for a time—this is the base definition of “to steward.” Eventually the owner will ask us to give an account of how we managed his belongings—his money and everything else about our lives.
In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul resumes a conversation that has been part of his ministry with the Corinthian churches for at least a year. It has been his custom to collect money from wealthier communities and to distribute it primarily to the poor Jerusalem churches. Titus appears to be the courier of these funds after Paul raises them. In preparing his return to Corinth, Paul writes them about the remarkable practices of the Macedonian churches. In doing so, he gives us seven principles on generosity.
- Generosity balances suffering with joy. Paul is impressed with the Macedonian churches, who despite suffering “a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and extreme poverty overflowed to produce a wealth of generosity.” According to Paul, they “begged earnestly for the privilege of sharing in his ministry to the saints.” Regardless of what kind of suffering we may be enduring, being generous allows us to feel some joy—probably because in acting like God, we experience the joyful life of God.
- Joyful generosity begins with giving our selves to the Lord first. Paul reports that the Macedonian churches, “gave themselves first to the Lord, and, by the will of God, to us.” In other words, their generosity grew out of their dedication to God. This is why Paul can be so confident in his appeals to the churches for funds: It is completely logical that if someone dedicates their very selves to God, then everything else they have will follow. Paul needs only to ask.
- Generosity is our expression of our love for God. Paul doesn’t resort to authoritarianism with the Corinthians: “I am not saying this as a command,” he writes. “But,” he continues, ““I am testing the genuineness of your love against the eagerness of others.” When you love someone, you give to them. The reverse isn’t necessarily the case—gifts don’t always indicate love. But when you truly love someone, you give to them, and the most you can give them is yourself. This fact leads to the fourth principle.
- Generosity is an imitation of Christ. On the night before his death, Jesus taught his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Paul writes about the “generous act” of Jesus who, though rich, became poor for our sake in the hope that through his poverty, we would become rich. Elsewhere Paul exalts Christ who “emptied himself, taking the form a slave,” because “in humility, he regarded others better than himself. (See Philippians 2:1-11)
- Eagerness in giving, not the amount, is the point. Because Paul is primarily concerned that people dedicate themselves to God (principle 2), that they actively love God (principle 3), and that they imitate Christ’s humility (principle 4), he asserts that regardless of the actual amount of a gift, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable.” This is why we encourage a “stewardship season” in which we ask people to make financial pledges to the church. It isn’t so that we can set the budget for the coming year. It’s to awaken the desire within the congregation to dedicate themselves to God out of love and imitation to Christ. In a reverse application of Jesus’ teaching, if our hearts are in it, the treasure will follow.
- God calls us to be generous with what we have, not what we don’t have. Paul urged the Corinthians to make good on their desire to give, but to do so according to what they have. Those of us who talk with others about giving hear things like: “I’ll start giving when . . . I get a raise . . . I pay off the car . . . My kid is done with school.” Sometimes past choices we’ve made limit the generosity we can show in the present. We should think about this when making big financial commitments. Even so, we all still have freedom, and we can all choose to be generous, whether it is with $10 or $1,000. God’s judgement begins with our choices, not with the amount. This is how the principles of stewardship and generosity apply to all of us. It’s why Jesus commends the widow who gave only 2 coins. In God’s eyes, she gave more than anyone else. She was generous with what she had, not with what she didn’t have.
- God’s providence has built in a “fair balance” between abundance and need. Paul urges the Corinthians in their financial abundance to contribute to the financial need of the Jerusalem church. But then he lifts up the “abundance” of the Jerusalem church to meet the “need” of the Corinthians. What did the Corinthians need? Paul already extolls them for excelling in faith, speech, knowledge, eagerness, and love. But in the economy of God’s kingdom, Paul says, the rich have a need to give. This “fair balance” is evidence of God’s presence. It’s also evidence of the truth of Christianity. In the church, at least (if not the world), there should be none in need. If there are some among us living in need, it is because there are some among us living beyond our need.
BLOG BONUS: Principles of Generosity from Deuteronomy
In worship we heard also from Deuteronomy. Here are some thoughts arising from this passage.
- God blesses (and commands) the “start over.” In this passage God requires all financial and agricultural debts be forgiven every seven years. The word for “remission” of debts is the same as “lie fallow” in Exodus 23, where God requires farming to pause in the seventh year. There, the land starts over. Here, those in debt start over. God is against perpetual work and poverty. It is slavery in God’s eyes, which is why the God of Exodus and the Father of Jesus requires those of us who have been freed from slavery and sin to work to liberate others. Far reaching consequences here . . .
- God’s blessing some with abundance is intended to bless others. This passage says, “When God has blessed you, you will lend to nations.” Those with means are to share, not hoard. This is to glorify God. Whatever the scale of abundance—financial, natural resources, talent—it is intended to bless others. This is as true for individuals as it is for nations.
- Generosity shown to those in need leads to greater blessing upon those who share. Deuteronomy, in its characteristic obedience-blessing formula, says “Give liberally and ungrudgingly, and the Lord will bless you.” In Deuteronomy, the blessing probably refers to greater resources. More universally, the blessing could include spiritual peace and joy. Either way, generosity leads to increased blessing.
- There will always be someone in need. This is probably the passage Jesus is referring to when he says, “The poor you will always have with you.” (I’m obligated to say this does not mean “so don’t worry about helping them.” In context, it means exactly the opposite: “Since I’m leaving soon, show me generosity now; show it to the poor when I’m gone.”) This means that there is always an opportunity to bless others, to give them a “start over,” and to receive a blessing “start over” of our own.
Finally, here are some questions to guide our money managing decisions. As we steward God’s money, which of the options before us . . .
- Most resembles God as creator? Since we’re made in God’s image, we are creators. How can we manage God’s money in such a way that it creates something? So often our consumer culture encourages disposable living. All that creates is landfills. Is that the best we can do with God’s money?
- Most resembles Christ as savior? How can we use money in such a way as to expand Christ’s saving activity? How can we heal, give hope, provide for the hungry with God’s money? How can God’s money in our care work for peace?
- Is most humanizing of others? How does the way we use money increase the dignity of people? Of laborers? Of children? Of families?
- Best provides for future generations? God is already present to the future generations. God provides for them through our choices. Will they experience deprivation (and blame God for it) because of our bad choices today?
- Glorifies God before ALL people, not just those we assume are “chosen.” Ancient Israel was blessed to bless the nations. This is the calling of all who consider themselves God’s people. If our use of money benefits only us, we’re short-changing God.
When we share the spiritual road with Jesus, we’ll discover the other pilgrims come from all walks of life. If not, then maybe we’re not sharing the road with Jesus.
- Those on the path we intentionally find
- Those who unintentionally find us
- Those who share our path by happenstance
- Finding meaning on our paths
- Recognizing the low hanging fruit on our paths
Walking through life with Jesus can be full of surprises, but at least we’re never alone. Sometimes we choose with whom we share the road. Sometimes God chooses for us. And sometimes the choice is made by the circumstances of life. In other words, the characteristics of those with whom we share our spiritual lives are: Intentional, Unintentional, or Happenstance.
When Paul, Silas, and the others set out on the “second missionary journey,” they intentionally targeted Philippi. The Book of Acts tells us that Philippi is a leading city in the district and a Roman colony. It was a strategic missionary choice.
Acts also tells us that on the Sabbath day, the entourage went out the gate near the river, because they “supposed there to be a place of prayer.” Faith communities always prefer to gather at the river. Maybe it is the natural reminder that life flows like a river, or conversely the abundance of living things around flowing water. Or maybe it is the convenience of having baptism with its many meanings so readily available: cleansing, renewal, shared experience, etc. Whatever the reason, living faith communities gather around living waters, and we can intentionally seek and find them there.
Acts also tells us that a certain woman, a worshipper of God named Lydia from Thyatira, was listening intently to the missionaries. This they noticed, and it was advantageous, since Lydia was a business woman, the head of her household, and clearly a leader in the community. All these aspects of the story affirm that we can be intentional about the people with whom we share the spiritual road.
“While on the way” to the place of prayer one day, Acts reports that the group met a slave-girl. For several days she followed them, and since she was possessed by a spirit of divination, she announced loudly that they were “servants of the Most High God, proclaiming a way of salvation.” Quite in contrast with the pre-planned meeting with Lydia, this slave-girl represents the unintentional sojourners on the road with us.
The slave-girl became such an annoyance to Paul that he turns on her and commands the spirit to depart. I love that Paul becomes so annoyed. I get annoyed sometimes with my unintentional road-mates. Such is the nature of having to live, not by our own choice, but by the choice of others. Paul chose to find Lydia, but God chose the slave-girl to find Paul. This is a helpful perspective to take with our unintentional fellow travelers.
Sometimes life lands us where we would never choose. When Paul casts out the possessive spirit, it hits the profits of the slave-girl’s owners. Acts tells us they drag Paul and Silas to the “market place” where they are accused, punished, and thrown into prison. It’s interesting that the freedom of God’s good news (the “gospel”) is so offensive to the market place . . .
The gospel of freedom may announce a new day, but each new day begins in the darkness of night. And so Paul and Silas find themselves “at midnight” in prison, praying and singing hymns. By happenstance, others are with them, namely, other prisoners and the jailer charged with guarding them. When life leads us to our darkest moments, we aren’t alone. There are others whom life has led to share that same darkness. They are there, as we are, sharing the road by happenstance.
The Key to Meaning
In all these cases, whether we share our road intentionally, unintentionally, or by happenstance, there is meaning to be found. And finding the meaning behind it all requires trust. Paul didn’t complain about who was at the river gathering. (More often we complain about who is not.) Instead they sat down and spoke to the women who “were there.” (And note that even in the nascent Christian communities as today, it is the women who are present . . .)
As they were speaking, they depended not on emotionally moving illustrations or cogent intellectual arguments or dazzling technology, but on “the Lord opening the heart” of Lydia that she might “listen eagerly.” Further, the missionaries would look back and realize that if not for the slave-girl met “as they were going,” they would not have shared the gospel with the prisoners, jailers, authorities, and magistrates in the strategically positioned lead city and Roman colony of Philippi.
Remember that it was “at midnight” and in prison that we hear Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns. In the darkest and most restricted place, they expressed their trust in God. It was “at that same hour of the night” that the jailer washed their wounds and received baptism. The point is, you just don’t know what will happen when you trust God to be present on your spiritual road.
Our spiritual journeys have meaning, in part, because God has surrounded all of us with opportunities to share God’s good news. You might say there’s low hanging fruit of God’s harvest all around us, all the time. Throughout our day there are people whose hearts God has opened to hear his Word. Whether we seek them out as Lydias, or they walk into our lives like the slave-girl, or they witness our trials like the prisoners and the jailer, all of us are called and positioned perfectly to share God’s love.
If you need help identifying the “low hanging fruit” in your life, take a clue from Psalm 146. There we have listed a number of people ripe for hearing God’s Word.
- The oppressed. Don’t let the rich and powerful talk you out of noticing those who are oppressed. Let the oppressed speak for themselves. If someone claims they are oppressed—by systems made unjust on the basis of race, religion, lifestyle, or any other criteria—listen to them. Those who are rich and powerful use unreliable criteria like the “market place” to judge and silence the missionaries of good news to the oppressed.
- The hungry: here’s a place to take the Bible literally. Regardless of “why” someone is hungry—even if their own choices contributed to it—the faithful response is to feed them.
- Prisoners: This includes, of course, incarcerated people, but more practically it includes those imprisoned by addiction or mental illness. “Seek, and ye shall find.”
- The blind. Again, beyond the literal it is more helpful to realize that there are people walking blind all around us—perhaps those who are prisoners but don’t realize it because their prisons are sanctioned by society (think workaholics).
- The bowed down. People experiencing grief over every kind of loss are the walking dead among us.
- Strangers, Orphans, and Widows. Beyond literal immigrants and those who appear strange to us, this biblical catch all category refers to anyone who is politically and economically vulnerable. They are socially vulnerable, which means, of course, they are spiritually and emotionally fragile.
All these people are on the spiritual road with Jesus, and if we claim to be on the road with Jesus, we’ll share an encouraging word of help, hope, compassion, and advocacy with them. We’ll find them intentionally, unintentionally, or by happenstance. However it occurs, may we be willing to pick the low hanging fruit God has placed in our path.
Part of our hope for the future, and motivation for the present, is remembering the moment in our past when we first fell in love with Jesus.
- The significance of a name
- God always does us better by one
- Leading others by following Jesus
From very early on, the nascent Christian community knew that Simon was “the Rock.” The Gospels variously refer to him as Simon, “also known as” Peter, as Simon “whom Jesus named Peter,” and even Paul who wrote fifteen years before the Gospels referred to Simon as “Cephas,” the original Aramaic name translated into Greek as “Peter”—the Rock.
So the New Testament refers to this person sometimes as Simon Peter, sometimes just Simon, sometimes just Peter, and sometimes Cephas. But it’s only in the Gospel of John that we read about “Simon, son of John,” and that only in two episodes.
The first scene is when Andrew brings Simon to Jesus in chapter one. Then Jesus says to him, “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas.” Through the rest of the Gospel he is referred to as “Simon Peter” or “Peter.” But then, in chapter twenty-one, this original designation returns.
In the meantime, during Jesus’ arrest, Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus the servant of the high priest. In doing so, he denies the whole of Jesus’ teaching and example. And then during Jesus’ questioning, Peter is also questioned about Jesus. And he denies even knowing Jesus—three times. Eventually, the Gospel writers tell us, Peter breaks down, leaves, and weeps bitterly.
Now in chapter twenty-one the resurrected Jesus is the one who questions Peter. And it’s not whether Peter knows him, but whether Peter loves him. And he questions three times, once for every one of Peter’s previous denials.
No matter how many times you’ve let Jesus down, he’s going to come and pick you back up. No matter how many times you get yourself lost, one more time, Jesus is going to come find you. No matter how far your sin takes you away from God, God’s grace is going to go farther and bring you back.
This is why Jesus calls Simon Peter “Simon, son of John.” It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Do you remember when I first found you? When I changed your name? When I changed you—the first time? Every time I call you it’s a new beginning. We start fresh. And my first question will always be the same: Do you love me?”
And so Peter is reinstated, but more, Peter is made the new shepherd. Jesus tells him, “Tend my lambs; feed my sheep.”
Like Peter, Jesus calls us to be shepherds. But also like Peter, we have first to follow the Good Shepherd. It’s a call to grow past our younger ways. Earlier Peter had bragged about his faithfulness to Jesus. Then he resorted to violence. This led to his becoming lost—like denying Jesus three times. This is what results when we rely solely on our own strength and wisdom.
Eventually we have to mature. We have to grow older, stretch out our hands, and let someone else lead us. And it doesn’t matter what God calls others to do—even the other disciple “whom Jesus loved.” We do have our own job to do. Jesus calls each of us again and again. We are the new shepherds. And we start as we always start, like Peter had to, by following Jesus because we love him.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Do you remember the first time Jesus called you? Or a time when God’s claim upon your life was undeniable? Or do you remember when you first came to love God in Christ? How did these times change you? How have you changed since then?
- For whom are you charged to be a shepherd? Whom are you called to feed? How do you first look to Jesus before you attempt to feed others?
In Jesus’ resurrection, God offers to all people the hope of restoration first promised to ancient Israel. Now people of all nations can endure the valley with the assurance of God’s presence and deliverance.
- Three evolutions of “the valley”
- The valley of Cleopas and his companion
- How we come to be in the valley
- How Jesus comes to us in the valley, and transforms it
In Psalm 23 the shepherd turned King David wrote that though he were to go, “through the valley of the shadow of death,” he would not fear, but find comfort. Five hundred years later, God’s people weren’t just in the valley of the shadow of death, they were dead, having been deported to Exile in Babylon.
God gave then a new vision through the prophet Ezekiel. God’s Spirit would blow the dry dead bones in the valley together. The Spirit would put sinews and flesh and skin on them, and blow life into them. And the nation would survive.
Five hundred years after that, Jesus would come and offer this hopeful vision to a man named Cleopas and his companion, and indeed to all people.
Cleopas and his companion were in that valley described by Psalm 23, the “valley of the shadow of death.” Their rabbi, hero, inspiration, warrior, redeemer, even Messiah, had been killed. He didn’t die in a “last stand” battle with the cry of “Freedom!” on his lips, or “God bless our nation.” He died on a cross, as a traitor, in the most humiliating way possible. He died totally alone, abandoned by his followers, by his religion, and abandoned even by God.
Cleopas and his companion were in the valley of the shadow of death, of Jesus’ death.
Earlier that morning they entered another valley. With the report of Jesus’ missing body and the angelic message of his resurrection, they moved from the valley of the shadow of death, from the valley of fear, to the valley of confusion and disorientation. In this new valley they suffered a loss of identity. They experienced self-doubt, even religious doubt. It is a deep, dark valley.
When we enter such a valley, nothing makes sense anymore. Scripture no longer speak to us. Prayer seems like a waste of time. Friendships can’t hold us together. And the horizon of hope, if we have any hope, is drawn back to today: “If I can just make it through today.” Or to this hour. Or to our commute back home. That’s where Cleopas and his companion were when Jesus found them.
When Jesus comes to find us it is because we are in the valley. It is because we are lost. We don’t even recognize our lives anymore, so it isn’t surprising that we don’t recognize Jesus. But that’s when he comes, when we are lost in the valley.
We enter the valley when we discover as kids that our parents aren’t perfect. We enter the valley as parents when we realize that our kids have discovered this. We enter the valley when we have to deal with the person we’re married to, and not the image of them we married. We enter the valley when our job is no longer a passion or a calling but is just a job. We enter the valley when we can no longer do, or hope to do, the things we once did. We enter the valley when we experience firsthand that Jesus was serious about his followers having to suffer.
In the valley, Jesus walks with us for a ways. It doesn’t matter that we don’t recognize him, or even acknowledge him. He walks with us. He listens to our discussions. And eventually, when we stop talking, maybe because we have no more to say, he asks a question.
“What are you discussing, as you walk along, in this valley?”
And we have to stop, and we stand still, and go back, once again, to the beginning, and tell our story to a stranger. I think Jesus makes us do this because, when we retell our confusing stories about how we found ourselves in the valley, from the beginning, in the presence of Jesus, we discover that the story changes.
We begin to see our story differently, not just through our own eyes, through the eyes of a sheep lost in the valley. But we begin to see it through the eyes of a shepherd who knows his way through the valley. In Jesus’ presence, we don’t really know why, we find comfort in the valley. The rod and the staff of this shepherd, they comfort us. There may be some meaning to the valley. We may even discover hope. The shepherd shows us green pastures in the valley, and leads us beside still waters. Right there in the valley, the shepherd restores our souls.
In Jesus God prepares a table for us in the valley, just like he did for Cleopas and his companion. And when Jesus takes the bread, and blesses and breaks it, and gives it to us, our eyes are opened. We recognize that God is with us, even when God vanishes from our sight.
Even here in the valley, our hearts burn again within us. Life begins to make sense again, ever so slightly. And we can walk back through the valley to where it all began, and hear from others in the valley that the Lord has risen, indeed, for he has appeared to others in the valley.
Then together, with these others, those who find themselves in the valley, we can rest in the presence of Christ, in the absence of sight, in the breaking of the bread, in the valley of our lives.
It is the experience of all your people, Ancient and Faithful God, that we should walk through the valley. Maybe not today, perhaps by your providence, or perhaps due to the strength of our denial, but some day, we will all find ourselves with Cleopas and his companion walking in the valley of the shadow of death, in the valley of doubt, confusion, despair, anger, or aimlessness. We thank you that there is no valley through which you have not already traversed, that there is no darkness in which you have not already stationed a guiding light, that there is no soul so lost that you cannot send the shepherd Jesus to find it. Send Jesus today, we pray, to find us where we are, even if we are in the darkest valley, that we may recognize him present with us, and continue where our hope had left off, following him into your kingdom. For it is in his name that we pray. Amen.
Jerusalem means “City of Peace.” If today that seems unbelievable, even comical, think of it this way. Jerusalem remains a powerful symbol of God’s enduring patience to fulfill his promise of peace.
- How Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a march of protest
- Why our many “Jerusalems” keep us from experiencing peace
- The first step to true peace
All four gospels record the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem as the “blessed king who came in the name of the Lord.” The problem was, Jerusalem already had a king. The King of the Jews was Herod, and though he was a puppet of Rome, Jesus entry on the back of a colt was a statement of protest against Herod—and Rome.
Jesus’ protest was that peace does not come from Roman military superiority. For the gospel writers, peace comes from heaven to earth, from God to us. In other words, peace is found in Christ.
We still try to build our “Jerusalems” today. You know where your “Jerusalem” is by how you complete this sentence: “I would have more peace if only I . . .” Lost 15 pounds. Finished my degree. Got a raise. Took a vacation. Lived in a better neighborhood. My boss would finally retire.
Our city of peace, our oasis, our refuge is always just out of reach—like Jerusalem is to Bethany. We can try to get there, to get to peace, using Roman means. We can struggle and engage a conquest. We can ty to muscle our way to peace using oppression and exploitation. But Rome’s ways to peace always lead to misery.
That’s why Jesus laments when he sees Jerusalem. He doesn’t proclaim a judgment so much as articulate the natural consequences of self-reliance and self-preservation. He taught that those who seek their life will lose it. Those who seek a peaceful life using the means of Rome will lose it.
For Jesus it is especially tragic when religion is involved. To seek peace outside of God is a betrayal of God. And for religious leaders to encourage such a pursuit is a betrayal of God’s people. So Jesus laments for the people of Jerusalem, and is angry about the failure of religion to call people to faithfulness instead of to collusion with Rome.
Jesus laments that God’s peace is “hidden from our eyes” by religion’s complicity with Rome. Peace is denied us. We appear to live in Jerusalem, but are not at peace. In Jesus’ dramatic depiction, our enemies will “set up ramparts around us, surround us, hem us in, and crush us.” Instead of living in Jerusalem, we find ourselves only in Bethany, which means “house of misery.”
And this is why Jesus starts and ends his journey to Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. It is his place of rest and prayer, where he can be removed and alone. There he is strengthened for his forays into Jerusalem where he will confront the pseudo-peacemakers from Rome and within religion. His time spent on the Mount of Olives prepares Jesus for his death and resurrection by which he makes true peace for all the world.
This is why Jesus calls us back to being a “house of prayer.” In prayer we express our longing for peace. In prayer we confess our need for God. We profess our faith in God, not Rome, not in religion, not in ourselves, but in Jesus. And it’s never too late to return to prayer. Jesus says, “If you, even you, had recognized on this day the things that make for peace.” No matter how far away peace seems to be, the first step to be taken any day is prayer.
And so this is the way Jesus begins Holy Week. This is the week we remember the path of Jesus, who suffered and died to show the way to peace. But more, Jesus resurrected to help us walk his path, so that we can join him in his march of protest and of peace.
Lord Jesus, like you, we long for peace. Like Jerusalem, we have looked to other gods for the peace we desire. We have trusted in the might of war horses and chariots. We have collaborated with powers that are foreign to your Father. With regards to true peace, we have found ourselves on the outside, looking in, still longing for. Help us to retreat with you to a remote and solitary place of prayer this week. There may we find the strength to walk with you the path of peace, to lose our lives in order to find them, to take up our cross as you took up yours, and to follow you. And by your faithfulness and our faith, may we find true peace and life in your resurrection. Amen.
Part of the transition to adulthood is taking responsibility for building our lives. Fortunately, as we lose our parental support, Jesus steps in to help.
- The relationship between future and present in Christ
- Then warning against false prophets
- The difficult Word of the true prophet
- Why some are excluded from the Kingdom of God
- The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount
People who had a good childhood were surrounded by adults who built and protected their lives. Eventually the child becomes and adult and takes over the project. We begin to make our own choices, including which foundation we will use—rock or sand?
In the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers his teaching as the foundational rock for our lives. When Jesus speaks of a destination (like “heaven”), we naturally think of the future. It’s usually a distant future. As on a road-trip, we speak of the destination it in terms of time, not distance. We don’t ask, “How many miles is Phoenix from here,” but, “How many hours does it take to get there?” This removes heaven from us both in time and in location.
But Jesus’ destination, while future, is also present. His words about “there and then” address us “here and now.” Theologians calls this the “eschatological future”—a promised future that has a present reality. Jesus called it living in the Kingdom of God. This is how Jesus’ words about the future destination provide the present foundation for our lives. Jesus calls us to live the future today.
In the future, Jesus assures us, the rains will fall, the floods will rise, and the winds will blow and beat against the building of our lives. And what happens then to the lives we’ve built is determined by where we build today. So one of the things Jesus warns us against is false prophets.
We immediately think of preachers and religious leaders. They’re the ones who are supposed to guide us, to help us find the narrow gates and the difficult roads that lead to life. We expect prophets to be like we are, sheep, which is why the false prophets disguise themselves as sheep. But inside, Jesus says, they are ravenous wolves.
The false prophet uses the sheep, the ministry, and the gospel for personal gain. And not just financial gain. False prophets are easily identified by opulent lifestyles. But the inward wolf of the false prophet has other appetites also: The need to control others, for adoration, for a sense of self. These ravenous wolves also make a prophet false.
The true prophet surrenders the ravenous wolves of insecurity to God, like Jesus did in the wilderness. Once these inward ravenous wolves are under God’s control, the true prophet emerges to listens for God’s Word and to relay it to others. The true prophet is able to do this even when the Word is a tough one. Even if the Word is one that cuts and prunes, challenging and painful Words that are necessary for a tree to bear good fruit.
This pruning Word is very personal. We’re tempted to see the pruning that needs to happen in others’ lives, like the speck in our neighbor’s eye which is so obvious to us despite the log in our own eye to which we’re oblivious. But Jesus isn’t talking about our neighbor’s tree. He’s talking about our own.
This is evident when he warns us, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of God, but only one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.” Like the people in the parable, we protest: “Didn’t we prophesy, cast out demons, and do powerful deeds in your name?”
The problem isn’t the deeds. Good deeds are good; by all means, do them. The issue of concern for Jesus is that we do them for the right reason. We’re not to do them so others can see. We’re not to perform for a wide audience like the “hypocrite” (the “actor”) from a few weeks ago. Disciples of Jesus do good to please the audience of one, to please God.
Religiosity for the wider audience may feed our inner wolves (we all have them, not just prophets!), but such religiosity keeps God at arm’s length. The judgment Jesus pronounces is not that people don’t know him. Clearly they do, since they do good “in his name” and are surprised to find themselves excluded from the kingdom. The problem is, when they do good for the wider audience and not for God, Jesus can’t get to know them. “I never knew you,” Jesus says, “depart from me, you evildoers.” Good that keeps us from being known by God turns evil for us.
Here, perhaps, we’ve found the point of the Sermon on the Mount: It is to be known by God, who rewards in secret; to be transformed in our hearts, and not just conformed in our behaviors; to become a good tree bearing good fruit, not a wolf in sheep’s clothing; to build our lives in such a way that they survive the inevitable storm.
And we do it, according to Jesus—in his example and in his teaching—by listening for God’s Word as we journey through this life, as we identify and walk through narrow gates, and along hard roads, with the few who seek and find the life to which God calls us in Christ, as we live our future destination today.
Oh, that we could experience more of the peace Jesus promised to his followers! Here a list of the obstacles, and how he helps clear them off the path.
- First obstacle to peace: love of earthly treasure
- Second: living in darkness
- Third: serving two masters
- Fourth: worry
- Fifth: judging others
- Sixth: thinking God is stingy
- The Golden Rule as the path to peace
- Questions for discussion and reflection
- Postscript on dogs and swine
More and more Christians, myself included, have found ourselves asking, “Why, as a religious person, am I not more at peace personally?” In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identifies how, following him, we may remove the obstacles to our peace.
The first obstacle is the love of earthy treasure. To counter this, Jesus teaches us to keep material things in perspective. He reminds us that all things material rot, but that there are values which are eternal. He urges us “to store up treasures in heaven,” to forgo treasure on earth. In this way, we will have more peace. Just think about how much anxiety you have regarding your earthly treasures—accumulating them, paying for them, securing them, etc.
A second obstacle is having lived in darkness too long. Because the eye is the lamp of the body, some of us have been looking away from the light so long our bodies are full of darkness. The good news is that Jesus assumes light within every person (as evidenced by the statement, “If the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”), and so the darkness in which we find ourselves can be countered. It’s a matter of having a “healthy” eye, which draws from the Greek word for singularity. In other words, when we look more singularly at God, at the light, we will begin again to be filled with light.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Soren Kierkegaard defined purity of heart as “to will one thing.” The more singular our vision, the more we look to God, the lighter our lives become. Overcoming this obstacle to peace begins with where we look.
A third obstacle is trying to serve two masters—God and wealth. Jesus says it’s impossible; we can only love one and hate the other. Too many people have tried and failed to hate wealth. The better approach is to try to love God more. Ask yourself, “What do I do when I love someone?” You spend time with them or thinking about them. You listen to them. You talk to them. You want to know their values. You orient your life around their presence. You plan a future with them. The more we concentrate on loving God, the more our “hatred” of wealth increases. (Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, “hatred” implies more “rejection,” that is, non-choosing, than emotional animosity).
The fourth obstacle to personal peace which Jesus preaches about is worry, and he seems to categorize it in two ways: Worry about life, and worry about the body. With regards to worry about our lives, Jesus specifically talks about food and drink, which are very present-oriented concerns. This is understandable given the poverty of his original audience. Most of us aren’t worried about today’s food, but we do worry about our life in the future. So Jesus addresses this also by asking, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to the span of life?” With regards to worry about the body, Jesus talks about clothing. Today we might add concerns about housing also.
In both categories of worry, Jesus’ approach begins by contemplating nature. He draws our attention to the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field.” The great hymn sets it well: “All thy works with joy surround thee, earth and heaven reflect thy rays; Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea; Chanting bird and flowing fountain, call us to rejoice in thee.” This is Jesus’ experience also.
Contemplating nature reminds people of faith that they are creatures of a Creator, and that the Creator is a faithful provider. Even more intimately, Jesus invites his followers to contemplate nature in order to remember their “heavenly Father” who knows what we need. The Gentiles, he says, don’t know this heavenly Father, and so they strive after all “these things.” But Jesus’ disciples, children of the heavenly Father, “seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness” to discover that “all these things are added to them as well.”
Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness leads us to live according to God’s values. We realize that in God’s kingdom there is abundance, and we are free to share. If what Jesus says is true, there is enough food in the world that no children need die today of starvation. If what Jesus says is true, there are enough resources that no adult need freeze to death on the streets of our city. When we seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, we realize that the heavenly Father is faithfully provident, and that we are the means of that providence. The reason people starve and die in the elements is because some of us, individually and as nations, have not let God’s providence pass through us to others.
But this requires a much more daily, even momentary, perspective. This is why Jesus concludes his words on worry by saying, “Tomorrow will bring its own worries; today’s trouble is enough for today.” For us to live in God’s kingdom and righteousness, we have to live in today. Because all we really have—and all God really provides for—is today.
One of the reasons we can live in peace today is because Jesus’ followers don’t have the same worries about life and death as others do. We know that this life isn’t all we have. We don’t live under the pressure to do everything possible before we die. We don’t have to be anxious about our lives. The apostle Paul wrote, “We live for the Lord and we die for the Lord. Whether we live or die, we belong to God.” (Romans 14:8) This is living in God’s kingdom. This is seeking God’s righteousness. Instead of being anxious about our lives, we can, like Jesus, love and serve others.
This leads us to the fifth obstacle to peace, which is judging others. Jesus says don’t—but it’s so tempting, so natural, and so easy! When you really pay attention to your judgment of others, you will be amazed at how it robs you of peace.
How do we stop judging others? By submitting to God’s judgment in our own lives. Instead of worrying about the speck in someone else’s eye, Jesus says we need to remove the log in our own eye. But when we submit to God’s judgment, we discover that God is merciful. It’s the reverse direction of the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be show mercy.” When we attend to the log in our own eye, we are shown mercy, and then when we see the speck in someone else’s eye, we will be merciful. How did God make peace with humanity in Christ? Not by judging, but by being merciful.
A sixth obstacle to peace is the conception we have that God is stingy. We mistakenly believe that God can’t wait to judge us and withdraw his blessings. But God is merciful. Even more, Jesus says, God is generous. “If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give to those who ask?” Jesus taught, in other words, that God loves you more than you love your own children.
For some people this is unimaginable. Some of us really love our children, and we can’t conceive of a love greater than that by which God loves us. On the other hand, some of us weren’t loved so well as children, and we can’t fathom being the object of the love of God.
In either case, Jesus calls us to meditate on God’s loving and good generosity. And as we do this, Jesus urges us to ASK: Ask, Seek, Knock. This is what children who know they are beloved of a heavenly parent confidently do: we ask and receive; we seek and find; we knock and have the door opened. And we have peace.
Jesus ends this section with the famous Golden Rule. In sum, he offers the Golden Rule as the path to peace. It is, Jesus teaches, the point of the Law and the Prophets: to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” You want to be loved—then love others. You don’t want to be judged—then don’t judge others. You want abundance in your life—then share abundantly with others. Would this not lead to peace in our lives? We can do this, and we begin by seeking first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- How do you practice your “love for God”? As you grow in your love for God, notice what happens to your “love for wealth.”
- Identify some darkness in your life, and pray God would “direct your eye” so that his light might enter and transform that darkness. Also note the effect it has on your attitude towards others—are you more merciful or judgmental?
- List the things you worry about for several days. Notice how many of them are truly or virtually out of your control, especially note those things that are past-based or future-oriented, for these are in reality out of your control. Try to be more present to the present moment, especially engaging something in nature. What effect does it have on your worry?
Postscript on Dogs and Swine
Following his teaching on not judging others, Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” What in the world does this mean?
Interpreters have gone a number of ways with this. Some find in it a comforting retreat from the difficult teaching about not judging others. They hear, “Don’t judge others, except for the dogs and swine, of course. You have to be discriminating with holy things and pearls.” Somehow this doesn’t satisfy me.
Others pull in other scriptures, specifically Jesus’ instruction about evangelism and his encounter with the Canaanite woman. The interpretation here goes something like this. “You are supposed to share the Gospel message with others, but some will reject it. Some will even reject it violently. These are dogs and swine—don’t waste your time with them.” The problem I have with this interpretation is, first, does God ever really give up on people for their unbelief, especially after an initial rejection? And second, it seems to me this interpretation borrows too heavily from these other texts. It just doesn’t make sense in the context we have in the Sermon on the Mount.
My reading on this verse, which is unique to Matthew, is more spiritual. Instead of a coda on the teaching to not judge others which precedes it, I read it as an introduction to the teaching about asking, seeking, and knocking which follows it. The following teaching is a holy pearl, and if we do not receive it with the faith of a child of God, it will be rejected, even violently so. Within us, in other words, are dogs and swine, spiritual attitudes (or “demons” if you wish), that refuse the parental love of God which guarantees Jesus’ promise that when we ask, seek, and knock we will receive, find, and have the door opened. What is needed is a spiritual examination and expulsion of these doggish and swinish spiritual attitudes, much like an exorcism.
This reading, then, makes verse 7 a bridge between the teaching about not judging others (but submitting to God’s judgment) and being fit to exercise the privilege of the children of God to ask, seek, and knock.