Day 136: Matthew 15:7-9

You hypocrites! How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! ‘These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!’

[Jesus continues to chastise the Pharisees for inquiring about why his disciples don’t wash their hands properly before they eat.]

Yesterday on Day 136 Jesus talked to the Pharisees about how they faithfully obey the laws of men while they ignore the Laws of God.  The main problem is that while the Pharisees were certainly willing to obey God’s Laws, they confused their own interpretations of the Law with God’s actual Laws, which embody truth (See Days 21-23).  Jesus repeatedly accused them of being legalistic.  Instead of teaching people to use their own judgment and obey the spirit of the Law, they created more and more rules in an attempt to get people to conform to their own interpretations of the Law. 

For example, Jesus and the Pharisees often argue about the Sabbath.  On Days 113 and 115 I discussed Sabbath Law and the concept of “work,” which is prohibited on the Sabbath.  Here is a list of ALL of the scriptures in the Law of Moses regarding the Sabbath (feel free to skim over these; I’ve highlighted the actual rules):

Remember that I, the LORD, have given you a day of rest, and that is why on the sixth day I will always give you enough food for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day and not leave his home.” So the people did no work on the seventh day. (Exodus 16:29-30).

 “Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. You have six days in which to do your work, 10 but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. In six days I, the LORD, made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested. That is why I, the LORD, blessed the Sabbath and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-10).

“Work six days a week, but do no work on the seventh day, so that your slaves and the foreigners who work for you and even your animals can rest. (Exodus 23:12).

The LORD commanded Moses to tell the people of Israel, “Keep the Sabbath, my day of rest, because it is a sign between you and me for all time to come, to show that I, the LORD, have made you my own people. You must keep the day of rest, because it is sacred. Whoever does not keep it, but works on that day, is to be put to death. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a solemn day of rest dedicated to me. Whoever does any work on that day is to be put to death. The people of Israel are to keep this day as a sign of the covenant. It is a permanent sign between the people of Israel and me, because I, the LORD, made heaven and earth in six days, and on the seventh day I stopped working and rested.” (Exodus 31:12-17).

 “You have six days in which to do your work, but do not work on the seventh day, not even during plowing time or harvest. (Exodus 34:21).

Moses called together the whole community of the people of Israel and said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded you to do: You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is to be sacred, a solemn day of rest dedicated to me, the LORD. Anyone who does any work on that day is to be put to death. Do not even light a fire in your homes on the Sabbath.” (Exodus 35:1-3).

Keep the Sabbath, and honor the place where I am worshiped. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:30)

You have six days in which to do your work, but remember that the seventh day, the Sabbath, is a day of rest. On that day do not work, but gather for worship. The Sabbath belongs to the LORD, no matter where you live. (Leviticus 23:3)

“‘Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, as I, the LORD your God, have commanded you. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. Your slaves must rest just as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and that I, the LORD your God, rescued you by my great power and strength. That is why I command you to observe the Sabbath. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

The only other laws are the lists of sacrifices that are to be performed by the temple priests.  So there you have it.  If you condense these scriptures down, these are the only Laws specifically stated that apply to the ordinary people:

  1. Rest
  2. Do not work
  3. Do not travel
  4. Do not harvest
  5. Do not light a fire
  6. Worship

God left it up to his people to figure out the specifics of what rest and work should look like.  But rather than letting people figure it out for themselves, the Jewish religious authorities made up a whole lot of specific rules.  Most of the rules that they made up had to do with the nature of “work.”  They decided that because God rested the seventh day after he created the world, that there should be a ban on creativity on the Sabbath.  As a result of that questionable decision, even today not only work but creativity are banned.  All of the following activities are prohibited according to the jewfaq.org website:

  1. Sowing
  2. Plowing
  3. Reaping
  4. Binding sheaves
  5. Threshing
  6. Winnowing
  7. Selecting
  8. Grinding
  9. Sifting
  10. Kneading
  11. Baking
  12. Shearing wool
  13. Washing wool
  14. Beating wool
  15. Dyeing wool
  16. Spinning
  17. Weaving
  18. Making two loops
  19. Weaving two threads
  20. Separating two threads
  21. Tying
  22. Untying
  23. Sewing two stitches
  24. Tearing
  25. Trapping
  26. Slaughtering
  27. Flaying
  28. Salting meat
  29. Curing hide
  30. Scraping hide
  31. Cutting hide up
  32. Writing two letters
  33. Erasing two letters
  34. Building
  35. Tearing a building down
  36. Extinguishing a fire
  37. Kindling a fire
  38. Hitting with a hammer
  39. Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain.

So, in an effort to establish uniformity and support enforcement, 6 of God’s laws turned into 39 men’s laws.  Over the years they made up even more laws – like banning automobiles, buying and selling, writing, and electricity.  So there are actually many more than those listed.  Oh, and there is another law – you can break any of these laws to save a life.  Thank goodness for that.  I think they adopted that exception based on the teachings of Jesus.

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While the Pharisees were busy debating the Sabbath issue and compiling these lists, Jesus kept reminding them that it wasn’t adherence to specific Sabbath rules that made God happy.  The important thing was rest, relaxation, and spiritual refreshment for his people so they would be happy, healthy, and well-rested.

Jesus tells the Pharisees, “The scripture says, ‘It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.’ If you really knew what this means, you would not condemn people who are not guilty; for the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7-8).

Sabbath was supposed to be a gift.  God left it open for people to figure out what works for them.  After all, one man’s rest is another man’s work.  The Sabbath was created for the refreshment of the mind and body, but the means of achieving this is different for everyone.  Gardening may be work for me and rest for you.  While helping someone might be the thing that give someone peace, refusing to help them might be a strain.  An afternoon drive may be extremely restful for one person and stressful for another. Jesus said repeatedly that the specific rules are very often a burden to the people.  They do not necessarily facilitate the kind of Sabbath that God intended.  That’s the problem with the rules of men.  That’s why Jesus says it’s important to know the difference.

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So let’s talk about something that’s more relevant to Christians today – abortion.  There are a lot of people who think that one’s position on induced abortion is the definitive test of whether or not a person is a true Christian.  However, there is nothing in the Law of Moses, the teachings of the prophets, or the teachings of Jesus about abortion or the intent to terminate pregnancy.  Prohibition of abortion by the church is presumably based on Exodus 20:13 – “Do not commit murder” translated in the King James version of the Bible as “Thou shalt not kill.” The church asserts that abortion is murder.

I did a little research on the Hebrew word for “murder.”   I’m not going to bore you with the details because it’s complicated, but the “ratasach,” is a very specific Hebrew word and it refers to “illegal killing” or “manslaughter.”  According to this definition, the intent of “Do not commit murder” is two-fold:

  1. Don’t take the law into your own hands.  Allow the legal system to take its course.”  In other words, no vigilante justice.  No killing people who are awaiting trial.  Of course the question here is – whose laws are we talking about?   The laws of the religious community or the laws of the state?  Back in the time of Moses they were the same thing.  In the time of Jesus, as well as our current time, they are different.
  2. Don’t kill innocent people.  Do not kill anyone unless they are intending to harm you.  The word is also used when referring to manslaughter (accidental death).  Any time you harm an innocent person it is considered to be “ratsach”.

Jesus, however, greatly expands the definition of “ratasach.”  Remember the words of Jesus on Day 24:

You have heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who does will be brought to trial.’ But now I tell you: if you are angry[a] with your brother you will be brought to trial, if you call your brother ‘You good-for-nothing!’ you will be brought before the Council, and if you call your brother a worthless fool you will be in danger of going to the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22).

Jesus’ expanded the definition of murder to include simple name-calling underscores his commitment to nonviolence and pacifism. He also demonstrates this with his own behavior.  He never physically defended himself against those who intended to harm him.  He had a completely different interpretation of “ratsach” (murder).   He tried to teach us that any time we fight in any way – even with an unkind word – it’s against God’s Law (See Day 24).  He wanted us to know that God wants us to live peacefully together and that we should never do anything antagonistic, let alone kill people.  Under any circumstances whatsoever.  For example, killing a home invader or a military enemy. 

So back to the topic of abortion – many people think you are not a Christian if you believe that abortion might be appropriate or even necessary under certain circumstances.  They spend a lot of time debating when “life begins,” as though they can come up with a definitive law. While almost everyone that I’ve ever talked to agree that abortion is a terrible thing, the real debate seems to be whether or not there may be exceptions.  Like rape or incest or if the mother’s health is endangered. But in the final analysis all anyone can ever come up with their own rules, which are rules of men and not of God.  And Jesus seems to indicate again and again that there may be exceptions to any rule of men.

What Jesus wants the Pharisees to remember is that God’s real interest isn’t in creating and enforcing specific laws.  God’s laws are truth, like the laws of physics of law of gravity (See Day 24).  Man’s laws are only “best guesses” about what God really wants.  We always need to keep that in mind so that we don’t feel justified in  punishing people or casting aspersions against those who don’t conform to our own personal or collective standards of holiness.  We never have a right to do that, even when God’s Law is violated. Remember Day 54 – no judgments allowed.

Ultimately all laws (religious or secular) are irrelevant because people tend to treat them as guidelines.  We all have free will decide for ourselves whether or not to obey any law.  We all make our own decisions about Sabbath observance and abortion and washing our hands and all of the other things we do.  We all have our own beliefs and we all do the best we can with what we’ve been given.

The uniformity that religious authorities and secular leaders want to establish through a proliferation of moral laws is ultimately unachievable because people are not uniform.  People are unique, and so are the circumstances they find themselves in.  The prophet Jeremiah predicted a day when laws wouldn’t be necessary: “The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33). Jeremiah looked ahead to a day when people would intuitively know right from wrong in any given situation.  They would not “obey the law.”  Instead they would know how to “do the right thing.” Then we could ditch all these laws and live in peace and harmony as God intended.  Laws can point you in the right direction, but they are a poor excuse for true kind of goodness that comes from the heart. 

All of this is why Jesus says laws aren’t that important.  He says that what God wants is for us to make every decision based on the “Great Commandment” to love God and love one another.  He says repeatedly that everything we do should demonstrate kindness.  Jesus says that if we can do this we will be in full obedience to every Law of God. 

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 135: Matthew 15:3-6

And why do you disobey God’s command and follow your own teaching? For God said, ‘Respect your father and your mother,’ and ‘If you curse your father or your mother, you are to be put to death.’ But you teach that if people have something they could use to help their father or mother, but say, ‘This belongs to God,’ they do not need to honor their father. In this way you disregard God’s command, in order to follow your own teaching.

Here is the setup for this scripture:  Then some Pharisees and teachers of the Law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and asked him, “Why is it that your disciples disobey the teaching handed down by our ancestors? They don’t wash their hands in the proper way before they eat!” 

Sometimes it’s easy to get confused about all of the rules surrounding religious practice.  Some of the rules are God’s commands, written down as part of the Law of Moses.  Some rules were introduced by the prophets, and they are also God’s commands.  Others are rules implemented by religious leaders for the good of the community, but these are not as important.  Often we don’t know where all of the rules come from, but Jesus says that we should indeed know.

Rule # 1 – Hand Washing

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So, the first rule in question is Jesus’ disciples’ apparent violation of the rule that says they must wash their hands before they eat. This is the rule in question that has started this current argument.  Rule of God or Rule of Man?  I didn’t know so I had to look it up.  Answer:  Rule of Man.  While it’s now universally recognized as a good idea to wash your hands before you eat, it isn’t one of the 613 Laws of Moses, nor is it mentioned by the prophets. But even today you wouldn’t know it wasn’t one of the original Laws.  We used to eat at a Jewish fast food place called the Great Chicago Food & Beverage Company.  They describe themselves as a kosher family diner that it is “under strict supervision of Chicago rabbinical council.”  In addition to the regular sinks in the bathroom, there is a special designated sink in the main restaurant so that patrons obey the hand washing rule.  And they all line up to use that special sink before they eat.  Nevertheless it is not in the Torah; it is not a Law.

Rule #2 – Respect Your Parents.

Jesus says that you must respect your parents.  Rule of God or Rule of Man?  I knew the answer to this one.  Answer: Rule of God. What Jesus is referring to is one of the original 10 Commandments: “Respect your father and your mother, so that you may live a long time in the land that I am giving you.” (Exodus 20:12).

Rule #3 Curse Your Parents and Die

Next, Jesus says that if you curse your parents you must be put to death.  Rule of God or Rule of Man? Well, I suspected this was God but I looked it up just to be sure.  Answer: Rule of God.  Exodus 21:17 says, “Whoever curses his father or his mother is to be put to death.”

Rule #4 – Offering Material Possessions to God

Jesus says that the Pharisees dedicate things to God instead of giving them to their needy parents.  Is this a Law of God or Law of Man?   I really didn’t know exactly what Jesus was talking about here so I looked up this passage in Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible available at www.studylight.org. Albert Barnes was a 19th century American theologian who was famous for his biblical commentaries. Here are some excerpts from his commentary on this scripture:

The word “corban” is a Hebrew word denoting a gift.  Here it means a thing dedicated to the service of God, and therefore not to be appropriated to any other use. The Jews were in the habit of making such dedications. They devoted their property to God for sacred uses, as they pleased. The law required that when a dedication of this kind was made it should be fulfilled. “Vow and pay unto the Lord your God,” Psalm 76:11. See Deuteronomy 23:21. The law of God required that a son should honor his parent; i. e., among other things, that he should provide for his needs when he was old and in distress. Yet the Jewish teachers said that it was more important for a man to dedicate his property to God than to provide for the needs of his parent.

Our Saviour did not mean to condemn the practice of giving to God, or to religious and charitable objects. The law and the gospel equally required this. Jesus commended even a poor widow that gave all her living, Mark 12:44, but he condemned the practice of giving to God where it interfered with our duty to parents and relations; where it was done to get rid of the duty of aiding them; and where it was done out of a malignant and rebellious spirit, with the semblance of piety, to get clear of doing to earthly parents what God required. (http://www.studylight.org/com/bnb/view.cgi?book=mt&chapter=015)

So the Answer:  Law of Man.  The practice of dedicating animals and other property to God is not a Law and it is not required. So apparently some people were in the practice of dedicating their possessions to God.   They could dedicate things to God but continue to use them as long as they offered them to the Temple at some point. In this way they could avoid having to help their parents, even if they were hungry or in desperate need.  Both weird and sleazy.

So there are are kinds of conflicting religious rules out there.  In this case, Jesus says that you always need to be sure to know whose rules you are obeying.  He says you should give God’s Laws more weight than man’s rules.  But he also says that if you have to make a choice about what to do with your material possessions, it’s better to give them to someone who needs them than to give them to God.  After all, God already has everything he needs.  And remember, on Day 114 Jesus reminded us that God wants kindness more than he wants sacrifices.  While God should be our highest priority, the best way to show our love for him is to love and help others.

So I guess the moral of this scripture is that if you have to choose between two conflicting rules, choose the one that best demonstrates kindness to others.  That is what Jesus recommends because that is what God would want.

What does this scripture say to you?

 

Day 134: Matthew 14:27,29,31

Courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid!…Come!…What little faith you have! Why did you doubt?

Here’s the whole story:

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people away. After sending the people away, he went up a hill by himself to pray. When evening came, Jesus was there alone; and by this time the boat was far out in the lake, tossed about by the waves, because the wind was blowing against it. Between three and six o’clock in the morning Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the water. When they saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and screamed with fear.

Jesus spoke to them at once. “Courage!” he said. “It is I. Don’t be afraid!” Then Peter spoke up. “Lord, if it is really you, order me to come out on the water to you.”  “Come!” answered Jesus. So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water to Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid and started to sink down in the water. “Save me, Lord!” he cried.

At once Jesus reached out and grabbed hold of him and said, “What little faith you have! Why did you doubt?” They both got into the boat, and the wind died down. Then the disciples in the boat worshiped Jesus. “Truly you are the Son of God!” they exclaimed. (Matthew 14:22-32).

Yesterday Jesus showed his disciples that they could feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fishes if they would only have faith that there would be enough.  In this scripture which immediately follows, Jesus issued another spiritual challenge to his disciples.  He demonstrated the power of faith by walking on the water, during a storm no less, and then inviting his disciples to do the same.  Peter started walking on the water, but then he got scared and started to sink.  After Jesus rescued Peter, he chastised him.  The disciples then reach the conclusion that Jesus is not an ordinary guy, a “Son of Man” (See Day 74).  They decide that he is a “Son of God,” someone with extraordinary powers.

But is this a fair conclusion?  Right there it says that Peter started walking on the water too.  Peter sort or reminds me of a child taking his first steps.  He takes a few steps, falls, and Jesus picks him up.  Jesus does not say, “You fool, Peter!  You can’t walk on the water like I can!  You aren’t a Son of God like me!”  No.  He says, “Why did you doubt? He emphatically states that Peter could have walked on water just like him if only he could have kept his focus.  He believes that Peter should have been able to do it.

I think the ending is kind of sad.  Instead of being empowered, the disciples separate themselves from Jesus and put him on a pedestal.  Instead of accepting Jesus’ challenge to build up their faith, they give up.  Instead of marveling that Peter took a couple of steps before he sank, they ignore Peter’s efforts and start worshiping Jesus.  I wish it would have ended with Peter saying he wanted to try again.  I wish all of them would have wanted their turn at trying.  I wish they would have gotten excited about the possibilities, instead of quitting before they even got started.

Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they have untapped potential to influence the natural environment. He wanted them to know how much more they could do if they tapped into the power of God and the power of their own minds through faith and discipline.

I remember going to a lecture and exhibition by Jewish psychic Uri Geller around 1979.  In case you have never heard of him, here are some excerpts from his biography on http://site.uri-geller.com/

Uri first became aware of his unusual powers when he was five. One day, during a meal, his spoon curled up in his hand and broke, although he had applied no physical pressure to it. His parents were somewhat shocked and Uri did not mention the incident to anyone else at that time. He developed these powers in school by demonstrating them to pupils.

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In 1969 he began to demonstrate his powers of telepathy and psychokinesis to small audiences. By the end of 1971, he was a household name throughout Israel, thanks to his numerous stage appearances. He was given a huge boost by the then Prime Minister, Golda Meir when asked on a national radio programme what she predicted for the future of Israel, she replied, “Don’t ask me – ask Uri Geller!”

Uri has been studied by the world’s leading scientists, including a few who worked with Albert Einstein. The world’s most prestigious scientific magazine, Nature, published a paper on Uri’s work at the Stanford Research Institute in the U.S.A – a unique endorsement, and an irrefutable proof that his skills are genuine. His work with the FBI and the CIA has ranged from using Mind Power to erase KGB computer files and track serial killers, to attending nuclear disarmament negotiations to bombard and influence the Russian chief negotiator with positive thought waves so that the Soviet delegation would sign the Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty. Uri also addressed a group of US Senators and National Security Executives at the high-security room in the Capitol Building in Washington. For decades this aspect of his career was too confidential and controversial to discuss.

Uri Geller became well known for numerous unexplained phenomena. They are:

  • Telepathy (Extrasensory perception – the ability to receive someone’s thought pattern and transmit images in a similar manner.)
  • Dowsing – Finding the location of precious metals, minerals and oil.
  • Bending, breaking and softening metal and other solids with the power of the mind, e.g. spoons, keys etc, more rarely plastic and glass.
  • Fixing broken watches and appliances, and using collective power, influencing the Big Ben to stop.
  • Moving compasses with the power of thought
  • Erasing computer tapes and disks.
  • Sprouting, causing tiny seeds (mainly red radish) to grow a few centimeters in a matter of seconds.

One of his main demonstrations of mind-power was spoon bending.  He would gently rub a spoon between two fingers and it would just melt.  On the tickets to the event we were invited to bring our own spoons.  During the event he didn’t just bend people’s spoons.  He encouraged everyone to try to bend their own spoons.  His message was like that of Jesus – we can do much more than can imagine.  God has given us mental abilities that we have not yet begun to use because we have not been taught to do so.  He said that this was the reason that he sought publicity and put on his little “magic” shows.  Uri is a very religious man.  He said that God wanted him to get the word out that we are much more powerful than conventional wisdom is willing to acknowledge.  He said that in the future we will learn to use our mind power to do many things that will greatly benefit humanity.

In a way I think Jesus was trying to tell us the same thing.  God created us to do more than we are doing.  God wants us to use all of the skills and abilities that he has given us to make our world a better place, including some that we have not yet fully utilized. Like Peter trying to walk on the water, we need to step out and start taking those baby steps.  Jesus wants us to walk on water right into the unknown and let God lead us into the sometimes frightening reality of our full potential.  So from now on I am going to remember this as the story where Peter walked on water.

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Bubbles says it’s easy to walk on water if you have faith.

On a metaphorical level this story is great. I love the comparison to the other storm story on Day 70.  In that other story the disciples cried out to Jesus to help them.  In that example Jesus told the disciples that they could have calmed the storm themselves without his help if they had a little more faith.  But I think what God really wants us to do with storms is what Jesus does in this story.  He walks right out into the storm.  Head held high, walking straight into the wind. Doing the impossible.  Fearless.  Fierce.  Powered by pure faith.  He wants us to be able to do that in all of the storms that come our way, all of the storms in our lives.  God doesn’t always get rid of the storm, but he equips and enables us to do unbelievable, fantastic, impossible things in the very midst of it.

So no, my spoon did not bend that night at the Uri Geller lecture and neither did my friend’s.  In fact I just now tried again as I was writing this to see if it would work, and it did not.  However I should add that when I got home from that Uri Geller demonstration I did get a “dead” mechanical watch to work using his instructions.  And it didn’t just run for a little while, it kept going.  It was repaired.  And there were a lot of spoons that were bent by people in the audience that night.  I guess I’m low on that kind of mind power, so don’t expect me to be walking on water anytime soon.  I believe in it alright – I believe I would sink like a rock just like Peter.  (Hahaha I just remembered that the name “Peter” means “rock”.  Maybe one of the other disciples with a more promising name would have been able to do it).

Of course all of this is dismissed by conventional Christianity as “new age” nonsense.  Christendom works better if we are all powerless.  Christendom doesn’t approve of ordinary people performing miracles.  Only special people.  Only saints.

To walk on water is to walk by faith and God wants all of us to do that every minute of every day, even in life’s storms.  So I guess I’ll try to stay open to the possibility and if I ever really get an urge maybe I will give it a try.  In the shallow end of the pool.  Just until I get the hang of it.

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 133: Matthew 14:16,18

They don’t have to leave. You yourselves give them something to eat!…Then bring them here to me.

Here is the whole scripture in context:

When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself. The people heard about it, and so they left their towns and followed him by land. Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart was filled with pity for them, and he healed their sick.

That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the villages to buy food for themselves.”   “They don’t have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat!”   “All we have here are five loaves and two fish,” they replied.   “Then bring them here to me,” Jesus said. He ordered the people to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God. He broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. Everyone ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up twelve baskets full of what was left over. The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21).

Jesus has just heard the horrible news that his comrade John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod Antipas.  His reaction is to go off by himself, presumably to pray.  By the time he returns a crowd has gathered, perhaps because they, too, knew that John had been murdered.  Maybe they were in need of encouragement in the face of this horrible event.

Jesus doesn’t yell at them or tell them to go away.  Even in his own time of sorrow about the fate of his friend and compatriot, his tender heart feels pity for the crowd and he heals them.  Then, when his disciples tell Jesus that he should shut it down so they can all go to the village and grab a bite to eat, Jesus instructs his disciples to feed them.  He says, You yourselves give them something to eat!” 

The disciples are perplexed.  There are more than five thousand people gathered.  That’s a big crowd.  And they only have five loaves of bread and two fish.  Ummm…..a little quick math reveals that it’s not nearly enough.  Pretty obvious.  But Jesus proves them wrong.  He took what the disciples had to offer, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God.  He didn’t ask God for anything.  He gave thanks.  Not a prayer of petition.  He gave thanks.  Because he had faith that God was going to provide for these people who had touched his heart.  He gave thanks because he believed that God would feed them.  He gave thanks because that’s how it works in the Kingdom of God.  More than five thousand people can be fed on five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  With leftovers.  That is something to be thankful for.

The thing that really strikes me is how Jesus tells them, You yourselves give them something to eat!even though they clearly lack the resources to do so.  I’ve read or heard this scripture hundreds of times, and I never picked up on this.  When I see a need out there, how many times do I look at my own resources and decide that I don’t have enough to make a difference?  Or that I don’t have the skills or abilities to do provide others with the help they need?  If you look at the world through the eyes of a citizen of the Kingdom of God, you have everything you need to make great things happen.  There is always enough to feed people and provide for their basic needs.

Jesus tells us to give what little we have, give thanks to God, and believe.  That’s all it takes.  Remember all the times that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that food is not a problem for God:

This is why I tell you: do not be worried about the food and drink you need in order to stay alive, or about clothes for your body.  After all, isn’t your life worth more than food? (Matthew 6:25).

So do not start worrying: “Where will my food come from” Or my drink? Or my clothes?”  (These are the things the pagans are always concerned about.)  Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things.  Instead be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things. (Matthew 6:31-33).

Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples, “It’s OK guys.  I will feed them all for you.  Just give me what you’ve got and I’ll take care of it.” No, no, no.  He says, You yourselves give them something to eat!”  He tells THEM to do it.  He wants THEM to believe. He doesn’t want them to rely on him to do these things for them.  He wants them to grow up spiritually and develop their own faith.  He wants them to believe, just like he believes.  He wants them to figure out how to do what he does.  He is already living in the Kingdom of God, and he wants them to enter in with him.

I guess I saw this kind of thing at our old church in Chicago.  We were a praying, miracle-believing bunch of people but nobody had much money. Every Sunday after church people took turns providing lunch for the whole church.  The number attending and the amount of food both fluctuated greatly, but we never once ran out of food. No matter how little food seemed to be there at the beginning of the meal, there was always more than enough.  No one ever went away hungry, ever.

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Every Sunday was a feast at Granville UMC.

Remember that famous saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Jesus doesn’t want to entertain his disciples with miracles.  He wants them to become miracle workers. I think he wants all of us to know that we can be miracle workers, too, if we just exercise our faith.  We don’t have to believe that we can make it happen.  We only have to do our best and then believe that there is enough for everyone.  Enough food, enough healing, enough love.  We only have to believe that there’s enough.

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 132: Matthew 13:57

A prophet is respected everywhere except in his home town and by his own family.

Jesus goes back to his home town of Nazareth.  While many were impressed by his teachings, others rejected him because they knew his family:  “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?  Isn’t Mary his mother, and aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers?  Aren’t all his sisters living here?  Where did he get all this?”  And so they rejected him.”  It also says, “Because they did not have faith, he did not perform many miracles there.”

Jesus apparently didn’t play well with the hometown crowd.  According to best estimates, the population of Nazareth was between 500 and 1000.  It was what we would call a very small town.  I grew up in the country, and the nearest town was about 1000 people.  I know what it’s like to live in a small town.

Of course I don’t know what it was like to live in that place or time, but the small towns of the 1960s when I was growing up were almost like clans or tribes.  Everyone knew everyone else and there weren’t any secrets.  Small towns have a certain amount of pride, and they are suspicious of outsiders.  They exert pressure on their citizens to conform to expected behavioral norms.  In my experience small towns are pretty supportive of their own residents.  They are true communities.

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Waterman Public Library.

Small towns are always looking for ways to distinguish themselves and amplify their self-importance.  They generally love their celebrities.  My own , Waterman, IL, didn’t have any real celebrities.  The only person who achieved any kind of fame was Clayton Kirkpatrick, longtime editor of the Chicago Tribune.  They never stopped talking about him and he was a great source of pride.  They did, however, have the world’s smallest Carnegie Library, something else they could brag about.  Down the road there was a town that didn’t have a celebrity, but they put up a sign that commemorates that they were the site of the first Harlem Globetrotters exhibition.  For many years another neighboring town’s only claim to fame was Isaac Elwood, the inventor of barbed wire.  Later they hit the jackpot with model Cindy Crawford.   The town I live in now is rife with celebrities – Orsen Wells grew up here, Chester Gould (creator of Dick Tracy) lived here, the movie Groundhog Day was filmed here, and Johnny Stompanado was born and buried here.  In case his name doesn’t ring a bell, he was a handsome gangster who was murdered by Lana Turner’s daughter.  We also have an opera house and a beautiful square.

I was pretty wild growing up, but I got a good job out of college and eventually married a pastor.  Throughout my evolution my town was always proud of me and looked the other way when confronted with my indiscretions.  They were always proud of my sisters, too. They never diminished our accomplishments in any way like Jesus describes in this scripture, although they were a little upset that I lived in Chicago.  That city was, in their mind, the source of all evil and they did not approve of me living there.  They would try to talk me out of it.  Nevertheless the town always embraced me when I came for a visit.  If anything, they amplified my accomplishments.  I was always “one of them” no matter what kind of negative rumors (true or false) may have been flying around.  They never gave up on me and, when I think about it, I never gave up on any of them.  Even after all these years, if someone is from my town and I grew up with them, they are somewhat like extended family to me.  Even if someone is a hot mess, that small town connection covers a multitude of sins.

So when Jesus says he isn’t appreciated in this hometown, something doesn’t ring true.  Something’s fishy, folks, and I think I know what it is.  There is one unforgivable sin – rejecting your family.  If you reject or neglect your family, you are toast.  So all you need to do is go back to all of Day 124 when he denies his mother and brothers.  In fact, it reinforces my theory that his mother and brothers were trying to get him to come home with them, and that is why he refused to see them.  You can see it again in today’s scripture where he says that he is not respected by his own family.  Again, I think Mary and the rest of the family must not have been very happy about his life’s work.  This theory also explains all of his anti-family rhetoric on Days 89, 96 and 97.  I think perhaps that his convictions and ministry put him at odds with his family, and that is the one thing that will turn a small town against you.

I’m sorry Nazareth didn’t embrace Jesus when he was alive. He would be glad to know that has changed.  Nazareth is one of the most important stops on tours of the Holy Land, a prime destination of Christian pilgrimages.  Today you can go on a tour of Nazareth.  You might start at the Church of the Annunciation, built on the site where the Roman Catholics say that the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she was carrying baby Jesus.  You can then move on the St. Gabriel’s Church, where the Eastern Orthodox say that same event took place.  A little confusion, a little competition – no matter. Then, you can visit the Synagogue Church, purported to be the place where Jesus gave his sermons to the Israelites. They also claim that he performed many miracles there (contrary to today’s scripture).  Then you can go on to the Church of St. Joseph the Carpenter is built over a grotto wherein the ruins of Joseph’s workshop are supposedly found. Finally, the Church of Mensa Christi commemorates the place where Jesus dined alongside his twelve apostles after his Resurrection.  Finally, you can visit Nazareth Village, a reconstructed village advertised as “a living presentation of the life, times, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth for all the world.”

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Nazareth Village reenactment.

 So Jesus, it turns out you were wrong.  Your hometown really did respect you.  They probably just wanted you to be a little nicer to your family. A little more polite.  No worries, all has been forgiven.  You are indeed Nazareth’s favorite son.

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 131: Matthew 13:47-52

Also, the Kingdom of heaven is like this. Some fishermen throw their net out in the lake and catch all kinds of fish. When the net is full, they pull it to shore and sit down to divide the fish: the good ones go into the buckets, the worthless ones are thrown away.

It will be like this at the end of the age: the angels will go out and gather up the evil people from among the good and will throw them into the fiery furnace, where they will cry and gnash their teeth.

Do you understand these things? This means, then, that every teacher of the Law who becomes a disciple in the Kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who takes new and old things out of his storage room.

This parable is almost exactly like the one with the wheat and weeds parable on Day 128.  The fish are the same as the plants in the other parable – at the end of the age (which is not the same as the end of the world) the good ones are received into the Kingdom of Heaven and the bad ones are thrown away. The meaning is exactly the same – the bad ones end up in the furnace, which I already explored in the other parable.  I believe that the furnace is the place of self-imposed suffering that results when we ignore God’s will.  It is in the furnace that we are refined so that we are able to join the others in the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. If you want to see how I came to this conclusion you have to go back to Day 128.

However, this parable has an additional twist at the end that supports my theory about the meaning of the “furnace”.  He says that the parable also means that when a teacher of the Law (all of whom he collectively calls evil on several occasions) begins to seek the truth about the Kingdom of Heaven he has an advantage because he understands both the traditional interpretations as well as the new ones that are being revealed.  In other words, there is a provision here for redemption if there is repentance.  The other parable didn’t have any provision for redemption – just good and bad people, no converts.  So this is comforting, and does support that the furnace is a place where teachers of the Law can get refined and redeemed.

Having addressed the substance of the parable, another commonality between the two parables is the presence of angels.  In both parables the angels are the ones who swoop down and select people to throw in the fiery furnace.  Before I started doing this blog, I never noticed this.  I have never really thought about angels throwing people into a place of suffering.  I thought about them delivering messages from God.  I thought about them guiding and rescuing people.  I thought about the weird winged creatures flying around in the prophesies of Ezekiel.  But I never thought about them tossing people into a furnace.  Yet, the Bible gives us several instances where angels are not so nice.  It seems kind of jarring, like that program “Amish Mafia”. It doesn’t seem right, but there it is:

When the LORD goes through Egypt to kill the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the beams and the doorposts and will not let the Angel of Death enter your houses and kill you. (Exodus 12:23)

When the LORD’s angel was about to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD changed his mind about punishing the people and said to the angel who was killing them, “Stop! That’s enough!” The angel was by the threshing place of Araunah, a Jebusite. (2 Samuel 24:16)

We must not complain, as some of them did—and they were destroyed by the Angel of Death. (1 Corinthians 10:10)

That night an angel of the LORD went to the Assyrian camp and killed 185,000 soldiers. At dawn the next day there they lay, all dead! (2 Kings 19:35)

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Guardian Angel and Angel of Light

 

When it comes to to angels people seem to have a lot of definitive answers about what they are and aren’t.  Here are some of the things people believe:

  • Angels are unique creatures that look exactly like humans.
  • Angels look like humans except that they have wings and can fly.
  • When people die and go to heaven they become angels.
  • Angels are not dead people.
  • Each of us has a personal guardian angel.
  • Angels are predominately female, except for Michael and Gabriel.
  • There are ten orders of angels.
  • Angels are sweet and loving.
  • Angels are scary and menacing.
  • Angels are really alien beings from other planets.
  • A lot of angels don’t look anything like humans.  They have the heads of animals and the like.
  • Some people don’t think angels are supernatural beings.  They think the only angels are human beings who do kind deeds for other people.
  • The devil is a fallen angel.  So are demons.
  • Angels like to sing and make music.
  • Angels have bodies.
  • Angels are spirits.
  • People think angels can be selectively visible and invisible.
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Ezekiel’s Angel and Victorian Angel

These are just a few of the many passionate beliefs various people have about angels. Be assured that the Bible has many different kinds of angels.  Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking they have all the answers when it comes to things like angels.  For all we know all of these things are simultaneously true.  Even if you have had an encounter with one kind of angel, there still might be other types.  Anything is possible; angels are a mystery!

And that’s an important thing about the spiritual life.  We want to have all the answers, but we never will.  There are things that only God knows.  If we trust God was should be cool with that and let it go. Yes, we just need to let these kinds of things go, and embrace the wonder of the many possibilities and our own experiences.

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 130: Matthew 13:44-46

The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man happens to find a treasure hidden in a field. He covers it up again, and is so happy that he goes and sells everything he has, and then goes back and buys that field.

Also, the Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man is looking for fine pearls, and when he finds one that is unusually fine, he goes and sells everything he has, and buys that pearl.

Here we have a couple of short parables that are super easy to understand.  The Kingdom of heaven is better than anything here on earth.  It’s so great that when it is revealed to us, we very naturally pursue it with everything we’ve got – including our financial resources.

Here’s is a story that comes to mind.  In the fall of 2001 John and I went to a private “healing week” at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship in Canada.  This was a private, individualized Christian counseling retreat.  A couple of counselors worked with us both together and as individuals to explore any issues in our lives that might be holding us back in any way.  The process, referred to as “inner healing”, explores painful memories or fears that could prevent us from having true joy, peace, and healthy relationships.  These problems are then released through prayer ministry.

This was a large church with many programs and nightly revival services, so while we were there evangelist Rodney Howard Browne was having a convention in the same building.  During the week I had quite a bit of free time while the counselors worked with John individually, so I stood on the balcony and watched what was going on with the convention below. 

My nerves were pretty raw.  First of all, I was spending a lot of time introspectively exploring areas of pain in my life.  Second, the 9-11 World Trade Center attack took place on our first day there, and it was unsettling to be out of the country and so far away from our church and family at that time.  While those buildings were falling down so were a lot of my defenses, emotional crutches, and self-deceptions.  Stressful.  So I was edgy on many levels.

When I watched the convention I was really irritated by the long teachings that were offered at every session about giving money to the Rodney Howard Browne ministry.  There were two people who performed this task – a man and a woman.  Both of them were well-dressed, highly articulate, very professional.   They seemed like corporate types, but they talked about the joys of being free from the burden of money.  They said that money was a bad influence on people and encouraged everyone to give theirs away. Like most people I have a healthy distrust of anyone who is eager to separate me from my money.  They really started getting on my nerves.  I was tired of hearing about money and I wished they would go away.

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Rodney Howard Browne with the couple.

On the final day the man gave his personal testimony.  He said that he was a very wealthy entrepreneur who had an extravagant lifestyle that included a lot of sexual promiscuity.  He then met the love of his life and settled into domestic bliss.  They married and were living the good life when he was diagnosed with AIDS.  After going to a dozen doctors looking for relief, he stumbled into an Episcopalian Church that was having a healing service. He went forward for healing.  He said he felt heat come over his whole body and a weight was lifted off of him.  When he returned to the doctor he was no longer HIV positive.

It turns out that the woman who was his partner in the presentations about money was his wife.  After he was healed of AIDS they both became committed Christians and eventually attended a Rodney Howard Browne convention.  It was there that they felt God wanted them to go in another direction.  They felt a strong call to do what Jesus advises – they liquidated all of their millions in assets, distributing it to the poor and various ministries.  It all worked out because they eventually got jobs with the Rodney Howard Browne ministry doing all sorts of things.  They said they were happier than they had ever been in their lives. 

The testimony pierced my heart and I felt chagrined.  Suddenly, instead of feeling annoyed I felt guilty for judging them.  They were simply acting out the Gospel and encouraging others to do the same.  They had seen a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven when that healing occurred, and they sold the field and bought the pearl.  I don’t think they were fake.  You could feel it.  I think they were real. 

I can’t believe it but I did a search and was able to find them online. I found out their names are Eric and Jennifer Gonyon and they are still working for the Rodney Howard Browne ministry.  They have been with him ever since 1996.  They are Associate Pastors now, so I guess they got promoted. 

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 I also felt guilty because I’ve never seriously entertained the idea of giving away all of my material possessions.  I don’t think God necessarily wants all of us to give away all of our money, but I do think he wants us to use whatever we have for his purposes.  I don’t think he’s ever asked me to give away everything I own, but then again maybe I’m just not listening.  Maybe I just don’t want to hear it.  I’m certainly not going to give it all away and become a burden on society trying to please God when that’s not what he wants me to do.  I would have to be very certain that it was what he wanted.  Something to keep praying about.

I guess I agree with Thomas Merton, who wrote, “For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God’s will, to be what God wants us to be.”

The Gonyans have their destiny, I have mine. They are not necessarily the same.  We always have to remember that it’s not a competition so comparisons are not allowed. Neither is judgment.  Both of those things will get you nowhere.

What does this scripture say to you?