Matthew 12 – Do Good, not Dogma.

Let’s battle the image of the Christian Hypocrite.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul,the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Christian Hypocrite is a well-known character:  The little old church lady in her Sunday Best, piously in her pew every week but spreading wicked gossip every other day is a character used in more than one film I’ve seen.  Corrupt preachers are another common example – both in entertainment and (unfortunately) in real life – of the Christian Hypocrite.  There seem to be a lot of Christian Hypocrites in Southern literature and cinematography.  Preaching acceptance and the importance of following Jesus while being a bald-faced racist is the definition of hypocrisy and an easy one to portray as a foible to whatever virtues the main character may have.

Hypocrisy is the main thrust of Jesus’ message in this chapter. The dogmatic hang-up in Jesus’ day was this working on the Sabbath bit.  I do think we need to observe the Sabbath more: rest is good for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  I know for a fact I don’t get enough of it.  But I also think that I, and probably the Pharisees, too, missed the most important part of this commandment. It starts with “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Yes, then it goes into stipulations about not working (and making sure no one else in your household has to work), but upon reflection, the “work” part seems very secondary to the “keep it holy” part. Using the Sabbath as just one example, Jesus reminds us that God’s work is never done, and neither is our role in it.

Once again, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Jesus is reminding the Pharisees, and us, of the difference between the legalistic and elitist interpretation of Biblical law and a true following of God’s desire for mankind.  God’s people may not look or act the way we think they should.  They might not even be Christian. But that doesn’t matter to Jesus. “A tree is recognized by its fruit,” he tells us, along with “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him.”  Any outward signs of piety – going to church, mindlessly checking “Christian” in the religious preferences box, having an unopened Bible somewhere in the house, condemning those whose beliefs are different than yours – are fruitless and meaningless.  Legalistic and elitist interpretations of Biblical law are not going to win Jesus’ favor.  Providing love and mercy to our fellow man will.  Jesus himself says “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

And who provides this love and mercy?  Who is Jesus’ brother?  For sure, some of them are Christians.  But many of them are Muslim, Jewish, Buddist, Sikh, and I’d even go so far as to say Atheist.  Google “Islamic Charities” or “Jewish Charities” and you’ll see just how many of them there are, doing the same work as Christian charities: feeding the hungry, providing relief aid for victims of natural disasters and war, uplifting at-risk women and children. Aren’t these all things God wants us to do?  Aren’t these all fruits of a good tree?

So does it matter at all if we believe in Jesus? Is it only about good works? I don’t think so, but I’m not too worried about policing the secret hearts of those who are out there doing said good works.  I wrote about why I think being a Christian still matters, if you want to read my thoughts on the matter there.

My favorite part of this passage bears repeating in full:  “So I tell you, that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”  My NIV text notes say that this unpardonable sin of “blasphemy against the spirit” was attributing Jesus’ miracles to Satan, but even that can be seen as an allegory for condemning anyone’s good works throughout history.  For example: 9-11 First Responders are suffering serious health consequences to the point of death for breathing in toxic fumes during their acts of heroism, yet the 9-11 First Responders Bill still has 19,000 unpaid claims.  Ebola aid workers are being shunned or even attacked.  Aid workers dropping off water at the US-Mexico border to keep people from dying of thirst have been arrested and charged with felony harboring.  These are just a few examples of good works (and the people that commit them) being condemned.  Again, some of these people are Christian, but others are not.  No matter their beliefs in life, I think Jesus will judge them kindly for the work they have done here, even and especially because it has gone unrecognized or attacked.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can all be Jesus’ brother or sister.  Belief in Jesus helps, to be sure, but if belief is something you’re still struggling with, start with these two universally good steps:  First, don’t get hung up on dogma – your own or someone else’s.  Recognize the good that someone is doing, and leave it there.  Second, provide mercy.  Be the one who is advocating for the meek, providing water for those who thirst, feeding those who hunger.  In doing so, you will be perpetuating that two-step cycle: Someone will see your good works, and loosen whatever dogmatic restraints were holding them back.  Perhaps they will then extend that hand of mercy, and the cycle will start over again.  Mercy, not sacrifice, is the way of Jesus, and the way of Love.

Job 08 – A Delayed Response to the Christchurch Shooting

Standing by all God’s children.

Then Bildad the Shuhite replied:

“How long will you say such things?
    Your words are a blustering wind.
Does God pervert justice?
    Does the Almighty pervert what is right?
When your children sinned against him,
    he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.
But if you will seek God earnestly
    and plead with the Almighty,
if you are pure and upright,
    even now he will rouse himself on your behalf
    and restore you to your prosperous state.
Your beginnings will seem humble,
    so prosperous will your future be.

“Ask the former generation
    and find out what their ancestors learned,
for we were born only yesterday and know nothing,
    and our days on earth are but a shadow.
10 Will they not instruct you and tell you?
    Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?
11 Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh?
    Can reeds thrive without water?
12 While still growing and uncut,
    they wither more quickly than grass.
13 Such is the destiny of all who forget God;
    so perishes the hope of the godless.
14 What they trust in is fragile;
    what they rely on is a spider’s web.
15 They lean on the web, but it gives way;
    they cling to it, but it does not hold.
16 They are like a well-watered plant in the sunshine,
    spreading its shoots over the garden;
17 it entwines its roots around a pile of rocks
    and looks for a place among the stones.
18 But when it is torn from its spot,
    that place disowns it and says, ‘I never saw you.’
19 Surely its life withers away,
    and from the soil other plants grow.

20 “Surely God does not reject one who is blameless
    or strengthen the hands of evildoers.
21 He will yet fill your mouth with laughter
    and your lips with shouts of joy.
22 Your enemies will be clothed in shame,
    and the tents of the wicked will be no more.”

I, like many of you, have been listening to the news coverage of the shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, NZ.  On Friday, hours before I write this, twenty-six victims were laid to rest, including three year old Mucad Ibrahim.

Bildad’s words particularly seem like disingenuous lip-service reading them in the light of this tragedy.  Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? (v. 3) Suddenly this doesn’t seem such a rhetorical question.  Surely God does not reject a blameless man or strengthen the hands of an evildoer. (v. 20) Are we so sure?

What angers me the most about Islamophobia is how quickly people – supposed Christians – forget that we all worship the same Abrahamic God.  God may have chosen Isaac and later Jacob for Xyrs special covenants, but both their brothers, Ishmael (a forefather of Islam’s great prophet Muhammed) and Esau (associated with Islam, but to a lesser extent), received blessings, too. It is in Genesis! We’ve seen one already, in Genesis 17 God says to Abraham: “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will makes him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.” (Gen 17:21).  The blessing is less explicit with Esau, but the Bible goes out of its way to tell us of his prosperity:  In Genesis 33, when Jacob and Esau meet again after many years, Esau is not only rich, but magnanimous. “I already have plenty, my brother, keep what you have for yourself,” Esau tells a deferential and nervous Jacob in Gen. 33:9.  And then, all of chapter 36 is dedicated to describing the great and long line of Esau’s descendants.  To make a long story short, Muslims are our brothers and sisters in an extended faith tradition.  Those who claim otherwise are willfully shutting their eyes to truth of the Bible.  Yes, there are some very bad people who claim Islam.  But there are also some very bad people who claim Christianity.

I don’t want to white-wash the pain of the Christchurch and larger Muslim community away by saying “it’s all part of God’s greater plan.”  That is cold comfort when you are mourning the loss of a father, a brother, a child.  I am sure God grieves with them and with us over this tragic, needless, and hateful loss of life.  So what I’ll say instead is don’t let this get swept under the rug.  Let us not be like Bildad, and mumble pious false comforts, let us instead provide real solidarity and support. Islamophobia is a real problem impacting people’s daily lives in this country and around the world.  In case you don’t believe me, here’s an article citing 86 (!!!) times our current president made Islamophobic statements.  Are you ready to take action?  Here is a thoughtful article that gives an introduction to talking, in a meaningful way, with friends or acquaintances who may make Islamophobic statements. It is of the utmost importance, I would even argue our Christian duty, to combat the hateful rhetoric that leads to attacks like the ones in Christchurch.  Regardless of faith practices we need to stand with one another, protect one another.  We are all God’s children, and deserve to be treated as such.

Malachi 02 – Love and Faith

A call to the true practices God asks of us.

“And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen,and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me.

“Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord Almighty. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.

“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,”says the Lord Almighty. “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”

10 Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?

11 Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. 12 As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the Lord remove him from the tents of Jacob—even though he brings an offering to the Lord Almighty.

13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty.

So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

17 You have wearied the Lord with your words.

“How have we wearied him?” you ask.

By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

I see this whole chapter as a call to the true practices that God asks of us, namely, love and faith, starting with our leaders.  Priests, of course, meant exactly that: the religious leaders of the day.  But today I think this message can apply to ministers, reverends, and really any thought leaders in and out of the church.  Don’t we want all our leaders “to preserve knowledge” and be someone from whom we can “seek instruction” (2:7)? The fact that leaders, by their very nature, are responsible for other people, makes it extra-important for them to be examples of love and faith, like Levi.

I love the palpable fondness for Levi in this chapter.  Honestly, I don’t know much about him, other than his tribe was the one selected out of all of Israel to be priests.  But the way he is written about here is so lovely.  I really want to have him over for coffee.  He walked with the Lord in “peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.” (2:6) Not only that, he had a holy “covenant of life and peace.” (2:5) So, he was peaceful and a good influence.  Sounds like the makings of a great friend.  Wouldn’t you want someone level-headed and helpful with whom you could discuss whatever may be troubling you?  Something about the way this passage is written just emanates a genuine love for the guy.  Described like this, he’s definitely a minister I’d listen to, and someone other leaders can live up to.

Now, when this chapter was written society was a lot different than it is today.  Back then, religion dictated what you ate, what you wore, what you were allowed to do and when. Yes, this is technically still true today, and more so for some than others, but not to the same extent as it was back then.  For example, lots of people work on the Sabbath (or Sunday) and also go to Church.  Most people do some form of business with others outside of their faith and see no conflict.  Marriage is another example, one that is the focus of most of this chapter.

Now, in case you haven’t read the “About Me” page yet (which I suggest you do, so you know all my biases), I am in a dual faith marriage myself. Well, if I am to take Malachi at face value, by being in this dual-faith marriage I have “desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying a [man] who worship[s] a foreign god.” (2:11) If I was living in the 5th century BC he’d probably be right.  Just as an aside, it wouldn’t happen, because I’d have little to no say in who I married, hence the masculine skew of this admonition, but I digress.  Back then, it was nearly impossible to maintain your faith without the cooperation of your whole household.  There were rituals that had to be followed, like clean and unclean food and clean and unclean times of a woman’s menstrual cycle, that, honestly, are so complicated that even someone with good intentions but no background in the faith would probably mess up.  And there is definitely the chance of a spouse influencing the other towards their own religion.  People convert all the time for marriage.

But I like to think that we, collectively as a species, are growing in the right direction in our Faith. I don’t think I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin by marrying my non-Christian. Let me tell you why by telling you a little about him.  What attracted me to my husband (besides his gorgeous green eyes and 6’3″ stature) was his discerning nature.  He sees through people’s bullshit. He does not offer false praise nor is taken in by flattery. He genuinely cares about things, and his actions support his feelings.  This is big reason why we quit what we were doing to become farmers – so we could be part of the solution in what we see as a dangerously flawed food system, one that, if left unchecked, will contribute to the ruin of the earth for our children.  At the risk of sounding totally sappy, his passion and heart were what drew me to him.

I’ll be the first to admit, it would be a LOT easier if we shared the same faith.  It is an issue we have to face on an ongoing basis in our marriage. Of course I’d be thrilled if my husband decided Christianity is for him, but neither of us are trying to convert the other, or, probably just as importantly, subvert the other’s faith. So, would I like it if he was a Christian?  Absolutely.  Do I believe God sees the love in his heart and claims him as His own? Even more so.

Hoping, as I do, that we are evolving in the right direction spiritually, I also think that it is also now safe to see all the talk about divorce in this chapter more allegorically than literally.  I don’t think God wants us to suffer in a miserable marriage, but I do think he wants us to love and cherish one another, hence all the condemnation of divorce here. When Malachi writes “the man who hates and divorces his wife…does violence to the one he should protect,” it is a call for all of us to treat those nearest to us a little kinder, even when it is hard.

Again, using my own marriage as an example, being kind to each other can be really damn hard sometimes.  I know I am not very lovable when I’m sick.  I’m a needy, whiny, uncooperative patient that tends to prolong an illness by starting full steam again too soon.  We’ve had many a fight over me feeling like I’m not getting enough help because (surprise!) my husband thought I was all better because I was doing everything I normally do.  A strong faith-even if it’s not one shared by your spouse but even more so if it is-can help you love and cherish one another. Knowing that God loves both me and my husband, knowing that we are both God’s own children, makes me want to do better when small emotions get a hold of me.  That’s not to say I don’t sometimes (okay, a lot of times) fall prey to being petty, annoying, or sometimes downright mean.  But when I do, I feel a spiritual need to apologize, to make right with my husband so I can be right with God.  And that, I think, is the takeaway: love and faith go hand in hand with kindness. So, I will spend this week seeing where God calls me to be kinder, not just to my husband, but to all those around me.