Day 301: Luke 12-13; Teachings and Parables

All throughout Jesus’ ministry we see Him teaching in both lessons from the Scriptures, much of which comes from the Law.  Our reading today starts off with Jesus directly addressing the teaching of the pharisees.  They too spend a great deal of time teaching on the Scriptures and the Law.  We’ve actually spent some time talking about that teaching too, about all of the laws that the religious leaders of that day had put in place over the course of a couple hundred years to put a hedge around the true law.  Rather than working to understand the true meaning of the Law, to hear the words of Deuteronomy 6 which say very specifically that all of God’s direction is about loving God with all that we are.  Yet, instead of looking to this and learning from the mistakes that sent them into exile, the religious leaders of Israel made more laws to protect the law.  If you weren’t supposed to do work on the Sabbath, they made sure that you didn’t even potentially come close to doing work on the Sabbath by saying that you weren’t even allowed to wash yourself or pick something up off the ground.

Jesus warns His disciples here to beware of the “leaven” of the pharisees because their teaching is hypocrisy.  The Law was meant to guide the people, God’s way of showing His people how they were to live in a way that would be both life giving and God glorifying.  Yet the pharisees had taken it and turned it into a chain, binding the people into the lifestyle that they demanded rather than helping them to love God more fully.  More than that, the religious leaders lived lives of false piety, making it seem as though they were living perfect lives while everyone else was struggling.  In some ways I would liken them to some of the false churches that are out there today, those that say you’ll be more blessed based on how much you give.  The teaching of the prosperity gospel by people like Joel Osteen doesn’t focus on loving God and living into the redemption that we have in Jesus Christ, but on how much you give… things that you can do to earn your own salvation… something we know to be not possible.  It is only in Jesus Christ that we find our salvation.

We also see Jesus teaching through the use of parables.  It is interesting that, when asked about why He speaks in parables, Jesus quotes a passage from Isaiah 6, when the Lord calls Isaiah to ministry.  What Jesus is doing for us, as He teaches about the Kingdom of Heaven and even the life of faith is to bring it into language and imagery that the people He is interacting with can understand.  The church that I worship at, Overisel Reformed Church, is a rural church that is in the middle of a farming community.  It would make little sense for us to talk about urban street life.  The reverse is true for urban churches.  Farming metaphors probably wouldn’t make much sense there.  The Kingdom of God is something that is completely foreign to us, and living the faithful life was something that wasn’t taught to the people in Jesus’ time… at least not in the way that it should have been.  So what does Jesus do?  He condescends to the level of the people, just has He condescended from the throne of Heaven to become a human.  This is a very real sense of divinity being translated to humanity in a way that we can understand.  God continues to do this as well, in the continuing revelation of Himself to us through His Word as well.



Day 293: Mark 10-13; Jesus' Ministry in Jerusalem

Unlike the Gospel of Matthew, there is a great deal of action that happens all at the same time as Jesus enters Jerusalem.  Much of this we have read in Matthew’s account, but Mark covers a whole lot in a very short amount of time, as is normal for his writing.  Quite often, when we talk about Jesus being in Jerusalem, we tend to mention the Triumphal entry, the cleansing of the Temple, and the Last Supper before Jesus’ death.  What we often tend to skip over is all of the interactions that Jesus has with people while He is in the city during this last week of His life.  Of particular notice, I think, is Jesus’ interactions with the religion leaders and how He continually subverts what they have set up as being their belief system.

The way the religious leaders approach Jesus often reminds me of the way that we as “church-goers” approach new people in our churches.  When the Pharisees or the Sadducees approached Jesus with a question about faith, theology, or doctrine, it wasn’t really because they had a question, it was because they wanted to test Jesus and find out whether He believed the same way that they believed.  They were also looking for a way to trap Jesus and get Him to say something wrong so that they could prove that He wasn’t a good teacher or someone that the people should listen to of follow.  This isn’t that much different from how we often treat new comers to our churches.  We do our best to make it seem as though we are a warm community that welcomes all into our fellowship.  We have people posted to greet everyone at the door, and time after the worship service in which we provide refreshments and enjoyable fellowship and conversations.  We even have people “sign in” so that we can send them a nice note thanking them for joining us for worship.  Yet, there are those that also take the role of the religious leaders of Jesus day too.

These are the people that go up to new families and guests that are visiting with a great and wonderful smile, asking them about their kids and about what they do, all the while analyzing every word that they are saying looking for something that might hint that their true “difference” from the community that they are trying to join.  If small talk doesn’t reveal anything, we might turn to politics or even religious matters, all in the name of “getting to know” our new “friend.”  What are we looking for?  Something that would make them different than us.  Maybe they have a differing political view.  Perhaps its a questionable job.  It might even be (and heaven forbid it if it is) that they don’t believe quite the same way that we do, or maybe they have questions about their faith.  Things like this send us into red-alert and we start talking to others about “the new family.”

There are many things that spur us to act like this.  Many if not all of them were probably similar reasons that the religious leaders questioned Jesus as well.  Fear is probably the greatest motivator here; fear of change or that the community will be disrupted because of new thoughts or questions.  We don’t want the boat to be rocked, we just want to be comfortable.  The Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t want change either.  They had things working pretty well in their favor and the pressure that Jesus was placing on them was palpable.  So they plotted and schemed in their dark corners.  I’m sure their conversations sounded similar to what ours do today; “did you hear about Carol-Anne?  We should pray for her and her family… I heard that she… [insert gossip].”  We try so hard to make ourselves look pious and upright, but in the end, we too are just trying to nail them up on a cross for sins that we made up for them… that they likely didn’t commit… that were none of our business… and that they have already been forgiven for.



Day 284: Matthew 15-17; Contrast of Faiths

There are a lot of things that happen in today’s reading; a great deal of different mini-stories that are seemingly disconnected.  Jesus is talking to different people, healing different people, and doing miracles for many.  Though they kind of seem like a disconnected bunch of micro-narratives, these are actually quite connected as a continuing contrast of those who think that they have faith, and those who actually do.

Our reading starts out with a question from the Pharisees regarding the breaking of tradition.  They were concerned with the fact that Jesus’ disciples were not doing the ritual washing before they eat.  This was one of the “laws” that we talked about when we discussed Jesus’ sermon on the mount.  They considered this as being something akin to faith, showing that they followed the rituals as a way of obedience.  Jesus’ response?  He calls them hypocrites and points them to the real Law that they are actually breaking.  More than that though, He again quotes Isaiah:

This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

Matthew then contrasts this story, the faith of the “righteous,” religious leaders of the day with that of an outcast.  In that day it would have been completely inappropriate for a woman to approach a male teacher like Jesus.  Moreover, it would have been absolutely out of the question for a Gentile to approach a Jewish person in that day.  Yet despite Jesus seeming to ignore her (Matthew’s point being that Jesus was saying that He is the Messiah sent to Israel, not that He is heartless and cruel) she shows her faith in Jesus through her words and her persistence, knowing that she was unworthy but also that Jesus was the only one who could help her.  Jesus even points out her great faith and what happens?  Her son is healed.

A few verses later we see the narrative of Jesus feeding four thousand people.  Because of His compassion, Jesus asks his disciples to feed the crowds.  I can only imagine the look on their faces when he said that.  Each of them could have worked their entire life and not made enough money to feed 4,000 men (plus women and children).  Jesus doesn’t chastise this question, neither does he tell them how it will happen, He just sends them to feed them with the few loaves and fish.  The disciples obey and what happens?  They feed the people and there are seven baskets of leftovers!  Now, there are a bunch of different themes here including the abundance of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Lord’s Supper, etc. We will talk about these, and the Transfiguration at another time.  However, I want to point out that the disciples listened to Jesus and obeyed even though the didn’t understand, and in that things happened!

So this brings together three narratives, all having to do (on some level) with faith.  As we proceed in our reading today we see (in some ways) the results of these interactions.  The Pharisees have connected their “faith” with the traditions, believing that what they do and how they follow the “law” is the same as belief.  Like we talked about, they even set up laws to protect the laws, just to make sure that they didn’t transgress any of them.  For them obedience to the law was an end in itself and the result of their “faith” was that they came back to Jesus asking for more signs.  Though it was clearly in front of them, the could not see it with their eyes, or hear it with their ears, because their heart was dull.  They wanted to see it their way and hear it their way… and it wound up with them being lost in their “faith.”

We also saw the example of the Gentile woman, whom we don’t hear from again, but we saw the contrast of her and the pharisees in that healing touched her because of her faith.

The final contrast comes in the story of Peter’s declaration of faith.  After the feeding of the Four Thousand, and the return and dismissal of the pharisees, Jesus asks His disciples who people say He is.  While it is a bit of a leap to say that the event of the feeding was the turning point of Peter’s faith, it is not so much of a leap to say that Peter’s accumulated experiences with Jesus had helped to bring him to the point of this declaration.  Though he may have not understood all that was going on at the time, Peter followed and listened, he was open and obedient to Jesus and his faith grew.  Now we see Peter declaring, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, at which point Jesus says that it is on him (and presumably a faith like his) that the church (the Greek word ἐκκλησία) will be built and the powers of hell will not be able to shake it.  This is the kind of faith that Matthew is setting up as the right faith for the Jews.  Their hope does not rest on the law, the land, or their traditions, but in the coming Messiah whom he is showing us in Jesus Christ.



Day 283: Matthew 13-14; Parables and Miracles

Today we come to a section of Matthew that covers many of the well known parables of Jesus and some of the better known miracles as well.  In sermons we tend to hear bits and pieces of today’s reading so I thought it was very interesting to read them together as a united whole.  One thing that struck me right off the bat was Jesus’ explanation of the parable and the reasoning for it.  Immediately Jesus quotes the passage from Isaiah 6, when God commissions and sends Isaiah out to the people of Israel.

You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.

This is an interesting and hard teaching that Jesus quotes, and it is no less difficult in His day.  Jesus has been sent, bringing with Him the Kingdom of Heaven which we see breaking into this fallen world in practically every place Jesus goes.  So why is it that there are some people that just don’t seem to get it?  Why, when all these amazing things are happening, do the “religious leaders” question and criticize Jesus’ actions rather than seeing them as a sign from God as Scripture said?  It might have something to do with what God said to Isaiah and what Jesus quotes here.

These leaders, the “righteous” people have heard the message of Jesus, but they do not understand it.  They have seen with their eyes the works of Jesus by they do not perceive it.  Why is this?  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that their hearts have “grown dull” trying to follow all the laws that they have set up for themselves.  They have become so consumed with their own righteousness that they have actually closed their eyes and ears to the reality of the Scriptures in front of them.  Sadly this was the story of Israel at the time of Isaiah and it is the story of many during the time of Jesus as well.

I have to admit that I am reflecting on this passage today in the midst of conversations about Classis Examinations and some of the dysfunction that comes along with them.  Often times, at least in some exams, candidates are grilled on certain topics because some pastors have decided to use that time to get on their soapbox about particular issues.  While the names and the issues are irrelevant, the point I am reflecting on is whether the Church, or perhaps parts of it have become a lot like these religious leaders.  We have the Gospel laid out before us and we have seen the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those that God has drawn to Himself, and yet we spend more time questioning people’s faith, making sure that they believe the same way that we do, than speaking the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven.  I wonder if we have become so engrossed in our culture, in the “hot-button issues” of the day, that we are failing to God’s work in the world right now.  Are we at risk of our hearts becoming dull?  It’s time for us to open our eyes to the work of God and open our ears to the message of the Gospel once again!



Day 281: Matthew 8-9; Jesus Heals Many

This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Honestly, I think that we could just stop with that for today, reading through all of the different healing that Jesus did throughout the beginning of his ministry, we just remember that this is indeed the culmination of the many promises of what was to come when the Messiah came.  Think back to all the different prophets that we have so recently read, all the times that they would say “In that day…” or talk about “the day of the Lord…”  The incarnation of Jesus, God putting on human flesh, it the very fulfillment of those words.

What we are seeing in Jesus’ ministry is an intentionally counter-cultural movement in which Jesus challenges all the norms that had been set up in the Jewish faith community, turns them on their head, and then demonstrates the true meaning of what is written about them in the Law.  Like we talked about yesterday, the purpose of the Law was not strictly moral living for its own sake and the message of the Law as not exclusion for the sake of “purity.”  Jesus challenges this directly in all that he does.  We see the lame, the sick, the blind, and the demon possessed all as outcasts in this society.  The lame and the blind are beggars, the sick are shunned for their impurity, but Jesus does what now Jewish person would even dream of… He touches them… and they are healed.  Here we see revealed to us the true mission of God’s people: healing and reconciliation.  Yes they were to be holy as God is holy, but not at the cost of loving their neighbor.  Not at the cost of caring for the poor.  They were given cleansing rituals to clean themselves when they went before God not so they could never use them because they didn’t associate with “unclean” persons.

I think Jesus makes this abundantly clear in chapter 9 when He is questioned as to why it is that He is eating with the “sinners and tax collectors.”

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

This really is contrary to everything that the religious leaders were teaching at the time.  They had set up the Law and the sacrificial system as an end to itself; moral living for the sake of moral living.  But that was never what the sacrificial system or the Law was about.  Israel was called to be a light to the nations, a place that people could come and encounter the love of God displayed through His people.  Yet that calling was twisted into something that was never meant to be, and Jesus challenges that in front of the very people that were being excluded.

I wonder if Jesus were to talk into our churches today if he would say the same thing.  Are we all about our programming?  Our preference of worship?  Our style of sermon?  The friend group we hang out with?  Do we welcome the “sinners and tax collectors” into our midst?  Or are we so focused on trying to do our own thing that we have lost sight of the true calling of the Body of Christ?  I wonder this about my own church as well… it is definitely food for thought this morning.