Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son decided that life would be better away from the family, so he asked for his half of the inheritance early. He didn't want to wait until his father died. In a brilliant show of either grace or naivete, the father sold half of the property and gave the money to his younger son.
That young man took the money, traveled to a foreign land, and squandered his wealth on wild living.
That life was short-lived. Soon the money was gone. Then the friends were gone.
He hired himself out for work, but with no friends or family, and since there he was a foreigner, there were very few job opportunities. The only job left for him was working with the pigs. He discovered that he was paid so little that the pigs were eating better than he was.
It was at that moment that he had a self-revelation. He remembered that his father treated the servants back home far better than he was being treated in that pig lot. He decided he would go home. While he knew he was unworthy of being a son, he might be able to stay there as a servant.
So he went home.
In yet another move of extreme grace, the father forgives the errant son and welcomes him back home. There is a celebration and the whole household is there rejoicing with the father that the lost has been found.
Everyone that is except the elder son.
The elder son pulls the father aside and rebukes him for this celebration, complaining that it is not fair that such expenses should be given, yet son, to celebrate his little brother.
The father responds, "Everything I have is yours and you had only to ask. Nevertheless your brother has returned and it is right for us to celebrate."
You may be familiar with this story from Luke 15. What if this was not the end if the story though. There is another story from scripture that takes place between two brothers trying to justify themselves in the presence of a father figure.
Genesis 4 recounts that Cain and his younger brother Abel both made sacrifices to God, but God showed his favor took Abel more than Cain. When Cain complained to God, he too was taken aside and reminded that he could obtain favor if he simply did what was right. His jealousy was unwarranted because God did not have a limited amount of favor to split between the two brothers. Furthermore, God told him to be careful because sin was crouching at his door, ready to overtake him if he did not gain control of it himself first.
The elder brother, in a spirit of jealousy, called the younger brother out into a field and murdered him. This first murder started with the same seed of jealousy that Jesus left us with at the end of the parable of the lost son.
So let's take a moment to trace this back,
Murder came from jealousy left unchecked.
Jealousy came from a feeling of unfairness.
The feeling of unfairness, particularly in the parable of the lost son came from placing greater value on possessions and experiences rather than relationships.
Both God in Genesis 4 and especially the father in Luke 15 demonstrate a consistent value of relationships. God comes across harsher perhaps in Genesis 4, but the emphasis is not on performing a specific ritual, which was Cain's focus, but rather on staying in relationship. Cain wanted the blessing his brother had, he didn't want God, the giver of that blessing.
I believe there is a clue in here to how we can end the power of violence in our lives. It is not about eliminating weapons, be they sticks and stones or words of hurt. It is not in pushing for complacency, thinking that if we hide our struggles away we can all just get along. I think the key to violence is to find new ways of dealing with jealousy and to promote the value of relationships over and above experiences and possessions. When I recognize the value, perhaps even my need, for those richer or poorer than I, it will be me, standing in the way of their own threats of violence. When we truly become brothers and sisters, we will keep one another and keep one another from harm instead of being the source of that harm ourselves.
So what would it take to bring us all together as brothers and sisters?
An act of God.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit..."
He changed the world by calling the least, the last, and the lost. In a world that only knew how to use the poor, He only gave. They were not any more loyal than the rich and powerful. They came to be fed, healed, delivered from spiritual oppression. Some of them said thank you. Some did not. Many people followed Him. A few actually put His words into practice. In the end, they all either turned on Him or abandoned Him, and He died... perhaps the poorest spirit of them all.
"You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world..."
But they were not. They were nobodies. The man who memorized this message was a hated tax collector and traitor to his own kind when he first heard these words. He rated below Judas the thief. On their best days, they were just people, trying to get by in a world that seemed set against them. Whatever He saw in them, they did not see in themselves or in each other. It is a strange thing to have the one in Whom you hope, put their faith in you.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."
The laws and their interpretations piled up more and more all the time. It seemed impossible to please God. How can you earn a life of peace and comfort? Nothing seemed to work. They wanted to give up and come up with new laws, simpler laws. They wanted to start fresh. He looked at the broken mess of their lives and told them they were not far from God at all. They were just missing one thing.
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder'..."
Justice, in its purest form, has always been 'an eye for an eye'. Justice had gone missing though. When the Jews were trampled down by the Romans, where was their justice? When their property was confiscated and their people sold into slavery, where was their justice? Injustice led to anger and desperation, and that led to hate and violence and vengeance. That story ends with rivers of blood poured out across the nations. He does not deny the injustice. He denies the vengeance. He denies the violence. He defies the hate and the desperation, and He even defies the anger experienced in the face of injustice. What are we to do in the face of injustice? Seek reconcilliation above all else, He says.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery..."
To be poor is to know want and to want what is not yours. He proclaims that it is not merely the act of taking that which is not yours which is wrong, but even the wanting itself. Not only is anger intolerable, so is desire. Anything that causes uncontrolled desire should be cut off. Marriage is a calling from God and it is to be entered into and lived trusting in God's provision, not demanding fulfillment from one another.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely...'"
It is a human privilege to be able to speak truth. The powerful ability to speak is part of our connection to the image of God. Lies therefore are a desecration of that image. This desecration becomes even worse when we speak untruth and point to God. There are no need for vows. Every person carries the seal of heaven as one of God's creations, as one of God's children. That is enough, and more than anything else we can call up to vouch for us.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye...'"
Injustice is not defeated with punishment. Injustice is defeated by reconciliation. In a complicated world of desperate needs and broken dreams, sin compounds upon itself as one misdeed is countered by one worse. Evil snowballs into atrocity. 'An eye for an eye' was the attempt to cut the cancer out before it spread too far. He is not proposing surgery though. What He speaks to them is a cure for the cancer. He will not cut anyone out and He will not let us cut them out either.
"You have heard that it was said 'You shall love your neighbor...'"
You have set the bar too low, He explains. From the beginning, we were meant to be extraordinary beings. We were made in the image of God. We were taught to be Holy, because He was Holy. When we saw the world fall apart around us, we lost our confidence in God. We failed when we tried to fix the world ourselves. We made it worse. So we lowered the standards for ourselves and repeated this process over and over and over again. Now we have no standards and we still cannot seem to satisfy that overwhelming sense of injustice in us. Depression sinks in as our hope goes out. There is no way out. We are powerless against the waves of death and destruction that come our way.
But His voice rings out from the chaos. It's time to raise the bar. It is time to set your sight back on the God who made you. You will never hit the target if you keep aiming below it. Anyone can just get by... You are a child of God and it is time to start acting like one.
I have wondered over the years why the gospel writers were so critical of the Pharisees compared to the other groups of Jewish people that lived in Israel, let alone the Gentiles. There are some moments when Jesus seems to stop his lessons about God and God’s Kingdom start picking on the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23) Why would the early Christians have been so critical of this particular group of Jewish teachers.
One thought is that it was because they were so wrong. I think there is some merit to this, particularly to the Early Church as they grew in Gentile territories. Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome demonstrated a close evaluation of the purpose of the Law of Moses in the life of the Christian. Both in that letter, as well as in Philippians, where he specifically identifies himself as a former Pharisee, as well as in Galatians, he concludes that both Jews and Gentiles find equality through faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 3; Philippians 3:1-11; Galatians 3, 5:1-6). The Pharisees were a big deal to Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. Yet it is not Paul calling these Pharisees out by name in Asia Minor and Rome. It is Jesus calling them out in Jerusalem.
It is possible that the Gospel writers, Luke in particular whom we know traveled with Paul, may have been influenced by him in writing that gospel account. I think that may have defeated some of his attempt to write an orderly and accurate account if he was intentionally adding in some verbal jabs Jesus gave to the Pharisees on behalf of Paul and his frustrations that occurred years after Jesus ascended to Heaven.
That brings me to a third alternative. It is possible that Jesus did indeed make those verbal jabs not because the Pharisees were so wrong but because, out of all the groups of Jews out there, they were so close to getting it right. If you read the comments Jesus makes about the Pharisees closely, you will discover that much of his criticism of them is not about their beliefs or their verbal teaching - it is about their practice. In fact, he explicitly tells His disciples to do as they say, but not as they do. (Matthew 23:2-3).
We know that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both Pharisees that followed Jesus - so it was possible to be both, it just presented its own challenges. In fact, given that the Pharisees eventually conspired to end the life of Jesus, I think the Pharisees had much more problems with Jesus than He had with them. Joseph and Nicodemus had to be careful, not of Jesus or His disciples, but of their fellow Jewish community leaders. For them, it was not just a matter of religious differences, it was an issue of political alliances.
There is also one final reason for the abundant presence of Pharisees in the gospels. They were simply more prevalent in the region of Galilee than the Sadducees were. Although Jesus spent a significant amount of time in Judea, he grew up and spent the majority of his three years in ministry in Galilee. Whether they came out from the towns and villages he visited, or actually followed him on the road, it was simply more convenient for the Pharisees to have access to Jesus, so it makes sense that, of all the Jewish groups near him, the Pharisees would have been better represented.
I think, in light of these reasons, that the Pharisees may well have deserved their part in those woes Jesus pronounced upon them. However I think they also in part were representative of all the groups in Israel at that time. They represented those who know what is right, but do not do it. At the end of the day though, as critical as Jesus was about the Pharisees, He let them follow Him… and He made disciples out of some of them.
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Two by two. It’s how the animals went into the ark in Genesis and it is how Jesus sent his disciples out in the Gospels. God’s plan of salvation spreading across the earth has never been one person at a time, it’s always involved us working together.
Now, obviously there are biological reasons for two of each animal on the ark. That is not the purpose of this writing. Nor is it the immediate practical purposes of survival outlined here in Ecclesiastes. No, there is a third and equally important purpose in the 2x2 rule, specifically related to ministry. Making disciples who make disciples.
That is some of the new terminology being used to describe the task given to us by Jesus in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). It is a catchy, shorthand way of describing the transition of that mission between generations of Christian leaders. Passing the torch of leadership, you say? That is a part of this, but it involves more than the perpetuity of an institution or organization. I’m thinking in much broader strokes. I’m thinking about the way that the number of Christians across denominations seems to be cut in half with each generation.
Some chalk this up to evidence of the approaching End Times, but most who do so do not acknowledge their own responsibility in bringing this result about. There is little point in laying blame. The damage is done and there is no punishment or payment that can be made to take back anything that brought us to where we are today. We react to the situations around us instead of being proactive, and the result is that we end up losing our values in the process.
There are many shocking similarities between our politics today and those around 1860 - just before the Civil War. Without getting into any of the specific candidates for election, let me focus instead on party platforms. In 1860, the Republicans in the north were pushing to end slavery in the U.S. They met at their convention in Chicago and Abraham Lincoln was their nominee for the presidency. The Democrats in the South were incredibly divided between North and South. The North wanted to let states decide for themselves about slavery, while the southern Democrats wanted to keep slavery as it was. There was also an Independant party of primarily older citizens who nominated a slaveholder from Tennessee for president. Their platform was to ignore the slavery issue altogether and keep our nation from tearing itself apart.
What strikes me as odd (and I’m no US history expert by any means) is that we had the Republicans pushing for stronger federal laws, while the Democrats were fighting for State sovereignty. This tells me that one of two things happened. Either both parties got really confused over the slavery issues and abandoned their foundational platforms of federal sovereignty vs state sovereignty, or the experience of the Civil War transformed the parties into switching roles in the twentieth century. Today, we have two divided parties and it is getting harder to tell how they differentiate in their political values. They spend a lot of time trash talking the other party and the competitors within their own party as well.
Have we gotten this way in our church as well? There used to be much clearer distinctions between different denominations. On the positive side, I think we have all mellowed out a little from senseless competition and learned to work together. In some circumstances the trash-talking about other pastors or congregations still happens I’m sure, but in the light of our common struggles, it has been downplayed as of late. I think the real problem has been the values of our churches that have been lost in translation between the generations, and part of that can be seen in the lack of participation in younger people.
For instance, 100 years ago, you were expected to be in church every Sunday, somewhere, if at all possible, if you were going to call yourself a Christian. There was something about church attendance that was tied to salvation. Then, someone came along and told people that it wasn’t true, that attending church did not mean you were saved - which is true. But what some people heard from that criticism of the church attendance practice was that attending church was not valuable - so they stopped attending church and decided to worship God on their own, in their own way. That may well have been the start of the modern agnostic movement, though I doubt it was intended to be such.
Over the years, fewer and fewer of those values were passed down and new values were brought in by younger people who either inherited leadership without any real training or who left churches to start their own. Today there are very vocal acknowledgements made to being rooted in scripture, although that is often not articulated well, and the importance of our more recent church history is downplayed to a place of sentimentality about how parents and grandparents raised us, or the glory days of our time in church youth group. Either way, we can name the things we think we should do in church, but we cannot say why. We do not really understand, and thereby don’t truly value these aspects of church, so we are unable to pass them on… and the process continues.
The other concept that feeds this problem is our understanding of spiritual gifts. In our hyper-individualistic society it is now considered normal to believe that God created us all entirely unique and our spiritual gifts by which we serve God are different for every person. Again, there is some truth in this. We are unique people, uniquely gifted in many ways… yet the Apostle Paul felt compelled enough to write several lists of gifts that we have in his letters. These are not exhaustive lists, but they are fairly inclusive lists - in the sense that they represent broader categories that all of our uniqueness can find homes in. Or, in other words, they represent values in ministry. Teaching, preaching, administration, healing, encouragement, etc… these are all values that the early church had and that Paul sought to pass on to the next generation of Christians in all these churches he helped start.
So how does doing ministry 2 by 2 help with this concept of values? It ensures that the gifts I am using to carry out any given ministry are not limited to my own values, because there are two persons involved. The values are shared and the people being ministered to receive a double dose of those values to mix with their own. Perhaps most importantly is that the act of disciple-making goes on between the ministry partners as well as those with whom they are serving.
There is also a more practical reason to do ministry in partnership with others. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, and unexpected things happen everyday that mess up our well-intended ministry plans. If one person is removed from a ministry, there will always be the partner who can carry on the work, with the same consistent values in mind. If not, the transition is far rougher and often those important values are lost in these transitions.
If partnerships in ministry help ensure more consistent transitions of values in and through leadership, just imagine what ministry in the context of an entire team could bring!
"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"
- Matthew 7:3 KJV
Tonight I'm finishing up the chapter on the gospel of John. It is just the first draft and I imagine there will be plenty of revisions. If there is one thing I have learned combing through the politics in the gospels is that we all have room to grow. I do not just mean that nobody knows it all like Jesus does... that much is a bit too obvious. I mean that we all - right, left, middle, other, and abstaining, are unified by the effects of fear in our political lives.
Every day it is something else. I used to hear about the negativity in the media and how some people wished the stories were more uplifting. Today though, it is not just negativity, it is anxiety. It is fear. I do not know if we have grown up into a fear-consuming nation or if there are external pressures that intend on keeping us that way. All I know is that fear is prevalent.
That is except when we cover it up with our anger. The political anger today matches the fear and meets it head on in a violent chemical reaction that is imploding communities and exploding across the nation. We react. All of us. Anger and fear, two sides of the same coin that herd us around in circles.
So tonight I'm wondering, if we strip away the fear and anger as motivations for our politics... what is left? Is there any motivation? When we strip away the manipulators is there anything left that honors God?
It's time to quit reacting to the motes in our own eyes. They lead us into jousting matches with windmills like Don Quixote that make us feel important because we cannot see what we are doing... just being foolish. We need to see clearly what is going on in us, so that we can see clearly what is going on around us, and where God is at work.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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