“Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else?”

On this third Sunday in Lent, we have an interesting reading in Luke 13:1-9.

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”

On reflection, it seems to me that this reading reveals three important lessons.

First, Jesus the Christ responded to what people were reporting to him about what had happened to people and supposed it meant that those people must somehow be greater sinners because of what had happened to them. He assured them they were not. And that reminds me of preachers and their followers today who insist that people who suffer terrible things must do so because they are horrible sinners or that the world suffers great calamities because God is punishing the world for its sins. Yet in this very reading Jesus assures us that this isn’t so.

Second, Jesus tells these people and, thus, these very same preachers and their followers, that if they don’t focus on their own sins instead, they will be the ones to suffer the wrath of God. Reminds me of Jesus’ “remove the plank from your eye before you try to take the splinter from mine.”

And then Jesus gives us all the parable of the fig tree owner and his gardener, in which Jesus expresses the Father’s patience with the sinner. Yet also implied in this parable is that even the fig tree owner grows impatient with trees that refuse to bear fruit. At least we are trees that can bring forth our own fruit — if we are self-aware and willing.

So, do you believe that people who suffer more do so because they are guiltier sinners? Jesus says no. Do you believe that God brings calamity on people because they are sinners? Jesus says no. Do you believe that God gives sinners every chance to change their hearts? Jesus says yes. And he seems to say you should tend your own garden to bear fruit instead of worrying about someone else’s garden.

“This is my chosen Son; listen to him”

Here is a radical idea: What if instead of all the people who seek to speak for God we listened to God himself. Listen to what God says in the Gospel of Luke 9:28-36.

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
This is my chosen Son; listen to him.
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.

I hear and read a lot of people who purport to speak for God. They rail on this thing and that thing, pulling bits and pieces from the Old Testament and even from parts of the New Testament. But often they fail to back it up with the words of God himself, in the voice of His Son, Jesus the Christ.

In this reading, Peter awakens from a deep sleep to see Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah, who are about to depart. And failing to notice that they are about to depart, Peter wants to honor them along with Jesus by setting up tents. But God the Father surrounds Peter, John, and James with a cloud, encompassing the scene, and says, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Listen to him.

We can’t tell in this written form of the text the inflections in God’s voice. Does He say, “Listen to him” or “Listen to him“? But I have the feeling that the Father was telling the disciples – and us – to now listen to His Son. Listen to him. The time has passed from listening to fear and hatred and division. It’s time to love one another.

Many who say they speak for God want you to loathe your fellow human. They want you to fear them. They want you to judge them. They want you to stone them or kill them or otherwise punish them. They quote old scripture or short, isolated sound bites of new scripture that support their points of view. “Fear God,” they demand. But what does Jesus say? Does He address any of these peoples’ fears or intolerances or angers? Does Jesus speak of judging others or stoning them or killing them?

Jesus speaks of love. He tells us that the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and that the second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Furthermore, Jesus says not to judge others lest you be judged, and He says to remove the plank from your own eye before you try to remove the splinter from anothers’. And Jesus says let he who is not a sinner cast the first stone; we are reminded that Jesus was like us in every way but sin, and he never cast a single stone in any story of the Gospels.

Where do these people come off speaking for God, when they fail to actually quote God? In today’s reading from the Gospel, we hear from God. And He says, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Be wary of the preacher who doesn’t heed those words.

“Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”

Today’s reading is from Matthew 5:20-26. Matthew Chapter 5 contains The Beatitudes and the discourse on divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love of enemies. It’s full of wisdom and amazing insights, including this instruction on anger.

Jesus is instructing his disciples and tells them:

“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that
of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, Raqa,
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”

The scribes and Pharisees are renown for being sticklers for detail when it comes to their laws, and Jesus the Christ names one: If you kill someone. And clearly, if you kill someone, you will be liable to judgment. But then Jesus says, your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, whose righteousness Jesus has called into question in other readings. Jesus says the letter of the law may be that you are liable for killing someone, but the heart of the law is you are liable for being angry with someone.

I had to look up “Raqa,” which in Aramaic means “imbecile” or “empty-headed.” Another version of this reading merely says, “any man who uses abusive language toward his brother shall be answerable to the Sanhedrin.” But the essence of that portion of the reading says that if you are abusive of another person, you are also liable to judgment.

And then Jesus says the most radical of things, especially in today’s divided, partisan environment. And that is, if you have something against your brother (or sister), settle it with him (or her)! Don’t come to God with your gifts of appeasement, your alms as it were, until you have reconciled with your fellow human. And Jesus gives as an example that of going to court: Settle before you get there lest you end up rotting in jail.

What are we to make of this instruction from Jesus? Let cooler heads prevail. Better not to be angry with one another, but if you lose your temper make up. Forgive and ask forgiveness. If you expect God’s mercy, show it first. Don’t be a name caller, be a respect shower. Remember that Jesus calls on us to love our neighbor as our self as the second most important commandment.

 

 

“Ask and it will be given to you”

This from Matthew 7:7-12 is not an etched-in-stone promise. It’s an offer with a nuanced caveat.

Jesus said to his disciples:
Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him.

“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”

The caveat is “…how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

I have to chuckle to myself when I think of the material things I asked God for when I was younger and was disappointed when I didn’t get them. And other people have done so, too. “Well, the Bible says,’Ask and you shall receive,’ and I didn’t get that Lamborghini I asked him for!” Even jobs or personal crushes people prayed for and didn’t get.

The thing is, God knows what your real needs are. And they are different from your wants and desires and even the things you covet after. So when you ask for a loaf of bread or a fish, and you’re starving, and you pray to Him (or Her if that’s your conception of God) for it, He’s going to see to it that you get food. In the same way, it’s been my experience that when I really needed money and someone owed it to me, when I prayed for money to come in time it always – always – came in time.

In the same way, when we are searching for God, or ask God for an answer to a question, He will come through. When we knock on His “door” He will answer. When we pray to Him, He will answer. We just need to listen, and we need to listen carefully, because God doesn’t knock loudly or shout, he whispers. He is gentle and kind and unobtrusive. We have to know how to listen and what to listen for. That’s not to say we have to only listen for what we want to hear, but rather that we have to be receptive to His calm and quiet voice.

Sometimes what God says in response is, “No, you don’t really need that.” Or, “I hear you, but someone else needs that more.” Or, “I know you would like that, but it would do you more harm (or less good) than you know.” Or even, “You know you don’t really need that.”

So the next time you pray for something and you don’t get it, don’t think that God hasn’t heard you. And don’t think that God hasn’t responded. Consider that you may not have been listening or that you didn’t know how to listen. Or that what you thought you really, really needed was in reality just what you really, really wanted and God answered you with a, “Sorry, no. But thank you for asking.”

It’s also in this reading in which Jesus the Christ gives us the profound Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.” It fits in nicely with the rest of this reading. When others ask of you with their needs, don’t turn them away and don’t fail to respond. Give to them according to your ability, and give them according to their actual need. Naturally, there will be times when you say no. But it should never always be a no answer. Always give deference to the least among us and never assume you know their story. And please, pray to God about it and listen ever so intently for His whisper for an answer.

“Your Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you”

It is in Matthew 6:5-15 that Jesus the Christ teaches us both how to pray and how to forgive.

“When you are praying, do not behave like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in synagogues or on street corners in order to be noticed. I give you my word, they are already repaid. Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you. In praying, do not rattle on like the pagans. They think they will win a hearing by the sheer multiplication of words. Do not imitate them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This is how you are to pray:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your Kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.’

“If you forgive the faults of others,
your heavenly Father will forgive you yours.
But if you do not forgive others,
neither will your Father forgive you.”

I highlighted the line, “your Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you,” because today so much of what is done in Jesus’ name is done for public consumption. It’s performed in public squares, houses of worship, and on TV. But what really matters is what is done from the heart only before the Father. And so Jesus tells us, don’t behave like hypocrites, don’t imitate pagans — pray in the privacy of your room, in the privacy of your heart. The Father, who sees what no man sees, will not only hear you but will repay you for your faith. And in your petitions of prayer, he knows before you utter a word what you need. That’s the how of prayer.

In Jesus’ very beautiful prayer, he includes not just a way to praise the Father, and not just a way to petition the Father, but also a way to ask for forgiveness and deliverance. After the prayer, Jesus then teaches us about the process of forgiveness. It’s one thing to ask for forgiveness, but it’s quite another to recognize the need to also forgive. If you are going to seek forgiveness you need to forgive also, and the Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you in kind. Through prayer, Jesus gives us a way to acknowledge both.

Love God. Acknowledge and petition Him in the private room of your heart. And forgive others just as you seek God’s forgiveness. God knows even before you ask what you need.

 

“What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me”

Are you a lamb or a goat? Our reading today is from Matthew 25:31-46. It’s a long one. My thoughts afterward.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”

I cannot for the life of me understand those who call themselves Christians yet fail to heed Jesus’ words above. They say they are “pro-life” for the sake of the unborn, yet they fail to rise to the defense of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, the prisoner, the convicted on death row. They claim to be compassionate yet all these they fail to feel compassion for. That’s likely not true of everyone who calls themselves pro-life, of course, but of the many I meet online, I hear only of their call to bring a baby to birth and then they are silent on social justice.

Now, I have read that there is such a thing as a “social Christian,” someone who claims the morals of a “Christian” but never attends church and espouses no allegiance to Jesus’ words above. They say they don’t want their taxes to pay for taking care of these least among us, judging them to be lazy and worthless. Instead, they prefer churches to provide their needs, despite church resources already being overburdened to the maximum. So, can there be such a thing as a social Christian, someone who doesn’t meet in community and someone who doesn’t actually listen to the words of Jesus the Christ?

In this reading, Jesus clearly and abundantly calls out how we are to treat the least among us. He doesn’t judge any of them. In fact, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus judge anyone whom he heals or saves or brings back to life. Just those who complain when he performs miracles or associates with sinners.

So which are you, a sheep or a goat? Have you met Jesus along the way and fed him, clothed him, given him water, visited him in prison, shown him mercy when we was the least among us? Or failed to do so?

“You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test”

Today’s reading from Luke 4:1-13 has some interesting implications. Beyond what we might normally associate with it.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.

Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
and:
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.

There is much to absorb from this part of scripture, which were italicized in the original. “One does not live on bread alone.” “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” And, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.

Pondering this reading, what came to my attention was the last sentence. And I wondered how many times we put God to the test. Inadvertently perhaps, but still we test Him (or Her as some may prefer). We pray for our team to win the game, putting His allegiance to our favor to the test. We bargain away something in return for a need, putting His favor to the test. We like or share a posting on Facebook or Twitter because it says if we do something good will happen to us or if we don’t something bad will happen to us, testing  His goodness for us. Some try to bring on the End of Days or the final apocalypse by trying to egg on war in the Middle East, putting His resolve and His wisdom to the test.

These are just a few examples. I have always found that when I trust God, when I give myself up to His will, everything works out. Pray your personal needs, take a deep breath, and believe. “Thy will be done.”

God doesn’t favor one sports team over another because of your prayers. There are people on both sides praying, you know. He doesn’t grant wishes based on what you claim you will do in exchange for the favor. He provides as you need. And Jesus the Christ himself told those he healed that it was by their faith they were healed — the stories in the Gospels never mention anyone making deals for their healing. Ask how many people on Facebook and Twitter who liked or shared those manipulative postings were actually granted a good or who suffered because they didn’t. It is only coincidence the few who did. God doesn’t follow Facebook or Twitter. He follows your heart and your soul. And Jesus says outright that only the Father knows of the final day and hour. You cannot hasten it by your actions and it is by lack of faith that you even attempt to influence it.

The other sentences actually fit here, too. Trying to influence God by testing Him is folly and a waste of your time. If you spend your life that way, you are living by bread alone. For you miss the feast of life that is available when you trust God instead. Remember Matthew 6:26. “Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap, they gather nothing in barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?” And when you do something as absurd as seeking to bring about the apocalypse, who are you really serving? Surely not God, whose behavior you seek to set to manipulate. Him alone shall you serve! Put Him not to the test.