Missing the Point

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)

Yesterday began the celebration of what’s known as “Holy Week” for those who follow Jesus. It’s the annual celebration of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. The events themselves are dramatic. The week begins with he crowds welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem and shouting His praises. It will end with the same crowds screaming for His execution.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. The temple was the center of Jewish worship. It was where all Jews made pilgrimages to make sacrifices to atone for their sins as prescribed in the ancient laws of Moses. The temple was where the institutional religious leaders held sway in a racket that made them powerful and wealthy.

The temple had its own currency and it had an official line of sacrificial animals. Pilgrims who came to make their sacrifice first had to exchange their Roman currency for Temple currency, and the money changers made exorbitant profits in the exchange that lined the pockets of the powerful religious leaders. Poor pilgrims who brought their own animals for sacrifice would learn that their animals were unacceptable to the priests, and the priests would demand that they buy the temple’s own brand of official sacrifices. The priests and leaders had turned religion into a money-making machine that bilked the poor and the weak.

So, Jesus begins His climactic week by overturning the money changer’s tables and setting the official sacrificial doves free in a provocative act of challenge to the powerful racketeering priests. It makes Jesus even more popular in the eyes of the marginalized and directly threatens the powers-that-be. The rest of today’s chapter is an account of the showdown between Jesus and the religious leaders who sent envoys with trick questions. Their plan is to trip Jesus up and give them reason to discredit or arrest Him.

In this showdown, Jesus gives another simple but powerful parable. Two sons are given a task. One initially refuses but eventually obeys. The other agrees but ends up not doing the task.

The message of the parable is clear. The priests were given the task of shepherding God’s people, but they ignored the task of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Instead, they pursued judgment, greed, power, and self-aggrandizement. Jesus’ followers, on the other hand, were marginalized outsiders in the context of the religious hierarchy, yet they were actively pursuing Jesus’ teaching.

I am reminded this morning of our daughter emailing me from a missions trip in Africa some years ago. She was in a challenging situation with a highly dysfunctional team. Her team “leader” seemed interested only in sitting around the foreign resort area doing nothing all day. Taylor said the person on the team who acted the most like Jesus was the one member saying they didn’t even believe in God. It was Jesus’ parable come to life. Given the parallel to today’s chapter, I believe it quite possible that the atheist on Taylor’s team was closer to God than those who were the most religious.

Holy Week is chalk full of opportunity for religious services, religious acts, and religious observations. This morning I’m reminded that we easily turn our churches into a 21st century example of the temple in Jesus’ day.  We can dutifully attend services, take communion on Maundy Thursday, weep on Good Friday, and shout “Hallelujah!” on Easter morning in our best Easter dress. And, the whole time we can be ignoring the most important things Jesus’ asked of us.

Faith, Following, and Fairness

Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
Matthew 20:15 (NASB)

During my lifetime I have observed that fairness and equality have increasingly become societal expectations. There are certainly worthwhile issues to be addressed and ills to be confronted, but I have observed that expectations of fairness and equality can easily expand to encompass almost every area of life. It seems at time as though we want same-ness. Everyone should have the same, make the same, look the same, enjoy the same.

On my spiritual journey I have come to accept that the overarching fairness I observe us striving for does not exist in God’s economy. Everyone has access to the Life, love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness which Jesus purchased through His death and resurrection. Once on the path of following Jesus, however, I discover that God never promised that all followers would all enjoy the same lot in life, be called to the same path, or have the same purpose. In fact, God’s self-revelation gives evidence to infinite and creative diversity in being, calling, giftedness, purpose, and experience. The Trinity itself reveals unity in diversity; Three distinct persons – One God.

In today’s chapter Jesus tells a simple parable that addresses this very issue. A vineyard owner hires workers throughout the day. Some in early morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, and some more for the last hour of the work day. The owners agreed to pay them each the same wage. At the end of the day the laborers who worked all day are indignant that the workers who only worked one-hour received the same amount of money.

Hire a lawyer! Call the Labor Board! Organize a union!

That’s not fair!

But, Jesus points out that each laborer readily agreed to the wage when they began. The issue, then, was not the fairness of the employer but the envy of the workers.

In find it ironic that Matthew follows this parable with the story of Jesus’ own disciples having conflict over who among them were Jesus’ favorites and who would get positions of honor in God’s Kingdom. Jesus response matched the parable He’d just told: “Don’t worry about each other’s rewards; Focus on the job you’ve each been called to do.” 

This morning I am reminded once again that my job is not to concern myself with comparisons to everyone else. My focus is to be on my personal relationship with God, existing in the flow of God’s Spirit, faithfully walking the path God places before me, and fulfilling my role to the best of my ability. When I embrace and embody my unique person and purpose, I contribute to the unity of God’s Kingdom.

Stinkin’ Synchronicity

This past Sunday I was given the honor of pitching in relief for our pastor at our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. The text I was asked to address was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

In case anyone is interested:

I thought I did a relatively okay job of unpacking the theme of Life and Death in the passage. Then, in a moment of synchronicity on Monday I stumbled on the blog post entitled “The Stench” by my fellow blogger at Beauty Beyond Bones. She happened to hear a different message on the same passage this past Sunday. She wrote a powerful post that articulated it all so incredibly well:

When I was “dead” in my anorexia, my stench could be smelled a mile away. Aside from the obvious skeletal body and having my hair fall out, there were also things like, isolating myself. Being angry with a micro-short fuse. Lying. Manipulating. Outbursts of venomous speech. You name it.

It was ugly. It “smelled bad.” It was the stench of death. 

But the thing about the story is that Jesus worked through the stench…

I encourage you to read her entire post (and follow her blog). She nailed in a short blog post exactly what I was desperately trying hard to get at in a 30 minute message.

Stinkin’ synchronicity. I Iove it.

Our Physical Lives Frame Our Spiritual Perspectives

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Matthew 19:16 (NIV)

Late last week I received notice that one our clients was terminating our company’s services. Public records show that their company is facing significant financial losses, so their move is not unusual nor entirely unexpected. The news, however, is never pleasant to receive. This company had been a faithful client. We had done good work and provided good value to them through our ongoing quality assessments. The loss of income from the project will temporarily pinch the budget for Wendy and me, and I confess that our moods around the house have not exactly been buoyant since I received that notice.

On Monday afternoon I had to leave on a scheduled business trip and got the mail just before I headed to the airport. In the mail was a letter from a young girl named Joyce. Joyce is a girl in Africa whom Wendy and I support financially through Compassion International. Joyce is a young girl going to school and hoping some day to be a doctor. In her letter she thanked Wendy and I for our gifts and asked for our prayers as a drought in the region had destroyed the crops that her people depend on for survival both economically and physically. Despite the dire circumstances, Joyce expressed trust in God’s provision. As I finished reading the letter out loud to Wendy, it was obvious to us both that Joyce’s letter was a well-timed dose of needed perspective.

Our earthly lives frame our spiritual perspectives. In the chapter today a rich man comes to Jesus and asks, “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” I noticed as I read that the man was approaching spiritual matters like an economic transaction. His life was likely dictated by daily transaction. Do this and receive a fee for service. Pay this and receive this in return. He was approaching his spirituality with the same transactional paradigm.

“Let’s make a deal, Jesus. You’ve got eternity on your side and I want a piece of that. You know what? I’ll even be gracious enough to let you start the negotiations and set the price. So tell me what you require. What one thing, what good deed, do I need to do to punch my ticket to heaven? Give a tenth to the church? Be nice to a Roman? Volunteer for my company’s United Way campaign? Give a week to help build a house for a poor family? Pay tuition for a girl in Africa? What’s it gonna be? You just name it. “

Our earthly lives frame our spiritual perspectives. Life had skewed the man’s perspective to see his relationship with God like everything else in his temporal paradigm. Jesus’ answer cuts immediately to the heart of the matter. Salvation is not a transaction, Jesus tells him, but a liquidation. Jesus Himself provided the example:

Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 (emphasis added)

This morning I must confess that I’m humbly mulling over my own skewed perspectives. How easy it is for me to talk about trusting Jesus when I don’t really have to think about where I’m going to lay my head tonight, or whether my family will have enough to eat.

Have mercy, Lord.

The Enduring Power of a Simple Story

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’”
Matthew 18:32-33 (NIV)

I have been training groups and individuals in the art of Customer Service for almost a quarter century. Along that journey I’ve learned that students rarely remember all of the bullet points and service principles I teach them. They remember the stories. Just a year or so ago a woman came up to me prior to one of my classes. She had been in my class before and I asked her if she thought the content was beneficial.

Oh yeah, it was good,” she said dismissively. “But just make sure to keep telling all the stories. You tell the best stories!

She reminded me of a couple of front-line supervisors from another client who regularly showed up at the new hire service training class I did at their company each quarter. I asked them why they kept coming back. “We just want to hear you tell those stories again,” they would say with a laugh. “They never get old.”

If you haven’t noticed it, our culture has been recapturing the power of story in recent years. There are books, conferences, and entire consulting practices around story. This isn’t new. It’s eternal. The power of story is woven into the fabric of life. We were created in the image of The Great Story Teller. Story, metaphor, and word pictures communicate concepts in profound and emotional ways.

This is why Jesus told parables. They are powerful in their simplicity, profound in their impact.

In today’s chapter, Jesus tells an amazingly simple parable. A servant begs his master to forgive his deep indebtedness, which the master does. The servant then immediately goes out and rakes his own servant over the coals for some small debt. I have read this parable countless times, and it still resonates with each reading. How many times have I confessed my many failings and shortcomings to God and begged His forgiveness. How great a debt God has graciously forgiven. How then can I refuse to choose to forgive the injuries, slights, betrayals, insults, and inconsiderations of others?

This morning I’m doing a Google search of my heart, mind, life and relationships for anyone I’m holding something against, or anything I’ve refused to forgive.

All because of a simple story I read again.

 

 

Driving the Action

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
Matthew 17:9, 22-23 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a message and the text was the raising of Lazarus in John 11. As we unpacked the story together, I made the point that Jesus was not a victim of the events around Him, rather Jesus was driving the action of the scene.

Whenever a writer crafts a story, play, or screenplay, he or she must be mindful of how to drive the action of the story and propel events forward. Sometimes action can be circumstantially driven when an event takes place which unleashes a subsequent series of events. In The Godfather, there is an unexpected attempt on Vito’s life and an attack on the Corleone family. [spoiler alert!] As a result of these events Vito’s son, Michael, who wanted nothing to do with his father’s illegal business will become just like his father.

Other times action is driven by a character in the story whose words and actions propel the story forward. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf makes a prophetic observation that even Gollum has some part to play in the events leading to the ending of the One Ring. Time and again Gollum’s mischief and machinations drive the action, even to the climactic moment of the epic.

One of the things that becomes very clear as we read the story of Jesus is that Jesus is driving the action. He is not a passive victim of others. He is not the victim of unexpected events that lead to execution. At every turn Jesus is driving the action which will lead to His arrest and even foreshadowing the events to come. In today’s chapter, Jesus twice refers to his death and resurrection. He knows what is coming because it was part of a larger narrative that He had storyboarded in the beginning, and had been prophetically envisioned for centuries (see Psalm 22 [c. 1000 B.C.] and Isaiah 53 [c. 700 B.C.]).

This morning I’m thinking that Jesus came with purpose. He was on a mission and He drove the action. What about me? What’s my mission? Do I act, think, speak with purpose, or am I passively awaiting for circumstances to drive the narrative of my life?

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that Jesus told us to ask, to seek, and to knock. Those are not commands to be passive, but to participate with God in driving the action of our stories.

Featured image courtesy of bnorthern via Flickr

The Struggle for Spiritual Perception

“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

“You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?”

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Matthew 16:3, 8-9, 23 (NIV)

Over the winter months this chapter-a-day trek journeyed through the writings of the ancient prophet Isaiah. One of the many relevant and memorable take aways for me from that trek was this:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

On my ceaseless pursuit to observe and plug-in to the flow of what God is doing around me, I am constantly aware of my finite limitations to see, perceive, and know. Today’s chapter is another good reminder.

The religious leaders came with their hearts and minds closed, testing Jesus by asking for a “sign from heaven,” as if all the miracles Jesus had publicly performed were not evidence enough. Jesus walked away. “You don’t get it.”

The disciples had now been following Jesus for some time. They’d been continuously, listening, following, learning, and working together. Jesus had spoken incessantly in parables and word pictures for months. He’d even interpreted parables for them on a constant basis. The boys still couldn’t make the mental shift to think in metaphor. You can almost hear Jesus’ frustration when he says, “You still don’t understand?”

Peter even makes a huge declarative leap of faith to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Yet in the very next moment Peter proves how little he really knows as he tries to get in the way of Jesus’ real mission. “Peter, you’re only seeing from your own self-centered perspective. You really have no clue.”

Those who didn’t really want to see remained blind.
Those who really wanted to see still didn’t fully perceive.
The one who saw in part still revealed a skewed perspective.

This morning I’m reminded of what little I see, how poorly I perceive, and how skewed that perception can be from my own self-interested perspectives. I’d like to stand in judgment thinking that I’m more open than the religious leaders, sharper than the dull-witted disciples, and more perceptive than Peter. But, I confessed earlier in this post that I’m ceaselessly pursuing, seeking, and struggling to perceive. I certainly have no room to judge.

My prayer today is that I can honestly embrace God’s message through Isaiah. I don’t fully perceive the mind of God, nor do I comprehend all that God does. At least today’s chapter reminds me that I’m in good company.

I take solace in the fact that Jesus did not reject His motley crew of followers or strip Peter of the mantel of leadership that He’d just laid on the ol’ bass master. Jesus urged His followers on, and they changed the world. I think I’ll just keep pressing on and pursuing God’s flow despite my acute lack of perception. Maybe God will use me to accomplish a little something along the journey, as well.

Featured  photo courtesy of Jenny-pics via Flickr

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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