Tag Archives: Parable

Shrewdness

Shrewdness (CaD Jos 9) Wayfarer

However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. They put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the Israelites, “We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us.”
Joshua 9:3-6 (NIV)

Today’s chapter is a fascinating story of how one of the people groups living in the Promised Land dupes Joshua and the Hebrew tribes into making a binding oath not to destroy them. The Gibeonites use a little improvisational theatre to make Joshua and the tribal elders think that their delgation had made a long journey from a distant land in order to make a treaty with the Hebrews.

Joshua, who just a couple of chapters ago made the mistake of not asking God what the battle plan should be before attacking the city if Ai, makes the same mistake of not taking this decision to God and asking for God’s wisdom. He and the tribal elders fall for the ruse and make a binding, sacred oath not to destory the Gibeonites. They quickly discover that they’ve been duped.

Having made the binding oath, they conscript the Gibeonites to perpetual service as woodcutters and watercarriers for the Hebrews and the temple-tent (aka Tabernacle) used for worship.

As I read this chapter, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ parable about the business manager of a rich tycoon. The manager had allowed local merchants to run up a ton of debt which the business manager had never collected. Realizing there was a cash flow problem, and suspecting that his business manager is not doing his job, the tycoon calls a meeting, demands a thorough audit, and plans to fire the guy.

The business manager, seeing the handwriting on the wall, realizes that he’s about to be put into a lose-lose situation. He won’t have a job, and he’ll also have the reputation of being a bad manager. Thinking ahead, the business manager realizes that he’s going to need good connections and leverage with other potential employers in order secure a new job. So, the business manager calls all the merchants who owe his boss money and tells them cut their bill in half. Now he’s got a whole host of potential employers who both appreciate that he saved them a ton of money, and who now owe him a favor.

After telling this parable, Jesus says, “The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” He then tells His followers, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

I realized this morning that Jesus could have used the Gibeonites as Exhibit A as an example of His parable. They found themselves in an imppossible position and acted shrewdly to survive. God’s man and God’s people fell for it.

Jesus turns this worldly shrewdness upside down and asks me to consider myself in the role of the business manager and God in the role of my master.

Who do I know who lives at my Master’s mercy? The poor, the needy, the down-trodden who have nothing and need a hand-up.

Who owes my Master a debt they’ll never be able to repay? Sinners who have yet to repent and be forgiven.

Next, consider that all of my money, power, and position belong to my Master and His business. Let’s say I use my money, power, and position on this earth to “make friends” with those whose life circumstances leave them living at God’s mercy. Let’s say I treat those who owe a debt of sin with grace and forgiveness.

Someday I will be fired from this earthly employment for my Master. All of that wealth, power, and position I had on earth will be stripped away and left behind on Earth. Then I will arrive at Heaven’s gate. What I will find there, Jesus is telling me in the parable, will be a welcoming committee of “friends” to meet me.

Jesus will then look at my “friends” and then look at me. Then will He say, “for when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

Time to “make some friends.”

Note: Wendy and I are taking a long weekend’s rest. I plan to be back on this chapter-a-day journey next Wednesday. Cheers!

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Context

The Context (CaD Matt 22) Wayfarer

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’
Matthew 22:8-9 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that it’s easy to read with a mental microscope or magnifying glass to inspect every word, every verse, or every parable as if they exist as individual and/or exclusive works of divine wisdom. I’ve come to observe that there’s more to be gained by launching my mental drone to rise above the text and see the word, verse, and parable within the larger tapestry of the Great Story. Today’s chapter is a great example of this.

The entire chapter takes place at a very specific time and place. It’s the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. He is in Jerusalem and spending His day at Herod’s Temple, the seat and center of Hebrew religious power and worship. There is an escalating conflict emerging between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. Public opinion is on Jesus’ side for the moment, and the religious leaders are working their fundamentalist political playbook. They keep sending different groups with questions in hope that Jesus will make a gaffe, say something stupid on the hot mic, or make a partisan comment which will offend His audience and give them political ammunition to publicly discredit Him. This is the same kind of political theater that plays out in press conferences and the media every single day.

They ask Jesus about paying taxes to Rome because it’s a hot-button issue. Most of Jesus’ audience hated the Romans, and they hated paying taxes. The religious leaders even make sure that Rome’s local political puppets, the Herodians, are there to witness the answer. They hoped Jesus’ answer would be treasonous enough to arrest Him.

A religious faction, the Sadducees, try a trick question on Jesus that was rooted in a hot-button theological debate about whether there was a resurrection or not. The motive was to trip Jesus up and make Him look like a fool. Jesus nailed the answer and discredited the questioners.

They tried another theological question, but Jesus nailed that one, too.

Then Jesus decided it was time for Him to ask the question. He asks about the popular term being used for the coming Messiah, the same one they were indignant about children applying to Jesus in yesterday’s chapter: Son of David. Jesus discredits the term (perhaps in response to their indignation the previous day?) based on David’s own lyrics.

This is a political tennis match with Jesus volleying back and forth with the religious leaders. And it’s in the context of this rising conflict that I must understand Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet. The guests invited to the feast who ignored the invitation are Jesus’ religious enemies. They’ve ignored the heart of God’s commandments to cling to their power, greed, and fundamentalism. The servants who get beat up and killed are the prophets. The King sending His army to destroy the murderers and raze the city is prophetic, as this is exactly what happened in AD 70 when the Romans razed Jerusalem and the Temple. The King’s decision to go to every corner and invite “anyone you can find” is equally prophetic. It is what happens in the book of Acts when the Jesus Movement breaks out of the shackles of Hebrew fundamentalism and embraces anyone, Jewish or not, who chooses to repent, believe, and follow.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself asking what this means for me today. My heart’s desire is to always follow Jesus, but I can look back on my journey and see ways in which I’ve been more like the religious leaders. I’ve been religious, but I confess that there’s hard evidence that my religion has at times been more about being right, condemning others, and holding appropriate political and doctrinal views instead of being about love, grace, and mercy. That makes me more like Jesus’ enemies.

Mea culpa.

Whenever personal faith intertwines with human institutions and systems, it’s hard for it not to get sucked into the same trap that the Hebrews fell into. And that’s as true for me as it is for anyone else.

So, for me, that’s the take-away. I want to be diligent in living out my “religion” in Jesus’ terms:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 (NIV)

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Old Couple Who Lived Up on the Hill

The Old Couple Who Lived Up on the Hill (CaD Matt 20) Wayfarer

“…they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

Matthew 20:11-15 (NIV)

I was surprised to get the call. I barely knew the old couple who lived up on the hill. I’d visited them once or twice, despite people telling me not to waste my time. They’d been described as cold, grouchy, and cantankerous, but I found them pleasant enough. I don’t think they ever learned my name. I was always just “Preacher,” which I discovered happens a lot when you’re the pastor of the only church in a small town.

Granted, I don’t ever remember talking to them about much of anything except the safe pleasantries of rural Iowa conversation between acquaintances. I asked them about their lives and their stories. We drank coffee and enjoyed the quiet majesty of the view from their house, which overlooked the rolling Iowa countryside. I never invited them to church. I don’t recall that Jesus ever came up in our conversations.

The call came late in the afternoon, asking me to come immediately to the ICU unit of the regional hospital about a half-hour’s drive away. The moment I walked into the room and saw the old man who lived up on the hill, I knew the situation. I reached out and took his hand.

“You’re dying, aren’t you?” I asked gently as I took his hand and smiled.

He nodded, wordlessly.

“You don’t know where you’re going when it happens, do you?” I asked.

He shook his head.

I shared about Jesus in the simplest of terms. He listened. I asked if he’d like me to pray with him for Christ to come into heart and life.

“Yes,” he said.

By the time our short, child-like prayer was done, the tears were streaming down his cheeks. He was suddenly filled with an energy that seemed absent in his mind and body just moments before,

“Preacher!? You have to go visit my wife. Right now. Tell her what you told me. Tell her I want her to have Jesus in her heart, too. Go. Now. Right now.”

So I went, and I did as he asked. I shared in the simplest of terms. I offered to lead her in prayer as I had her husband. She prayed. She cried. I told her I would come back and visit to check on them, but I never got the chance.

He died in the ICU unit a few hours later,

A few hours after he passed on, she followed him, dying quietly at home.

I did the funeral in our little Community church with both caskets sitting in front of me. It was a tiny gathering. They hadn’t built many positive relationships in their lives. I got to share about the call, our visit, their prayers, and I talked about it never being too late to give one’s life to Christ.

After the service, I was approached by an elderly couple who told me that they had, for many years, ceaselessly visited the old couple on the hill. They’d loved on them, they’d shared Jesus with them, they’d begged them to ask Jesus into their hearts. They’d been rejected time and time again. And while they seemed glad to hear that the old couple on the hill had finally made the decision, I felt a hint of indignation underneath the surface. They’d done all the work and seemingly experienced no reward for their spiritual labor. I showed up at the last minute to harvest what they’d been sowing for all those years.

That experience came to mind this morning as I read Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard. I find that there are certain parables that mean more to me the further I advance in this life journey, and this is one of them. Each group of workers agrees to work for the same wage, but when the workers who slaved away all day watch those who pitched in for the final hour receiving the same reward, they become indignant. I find it such a human response. It is neither fair nor equitable in human terms.

The economics of God’s Kingdom, however, doesn’t work like the economics of this world. That was Jesus’ point, and He famously pins this epilogue to His parable: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In the quiet this morning as I mull over the story of the old couple who lived up on the hill, I find myself asking about the motives of my own heart. Why have I followed Jesus these forty years? I find that reward is not something I think much about. I have been so blessed in this life I just assume that I’ll be among the “the first shall be last” crowd, and that’s okay with me. The reward is not my motivation. It’s gratitude for what I received that I never deserved that fuel’s my journey. It’s Paul’s words of motivation that ring true in my soul: “Christ’s love compels us.”

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Finding Forrest

Finding Forrest (CaD Matt 13) Wayfarer

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.
Matthew 13:34 (NIV)

I have a confession to make. The first time that I saw the movie Forrest Gump I bawled like a baby on the way home. I remember being absolutely perplexed as I drove the tears pouring down my cheeks. I didn’t know why I was crying. I had no clue what it was about the movie that so obviously touched something so deep inside my soul.

Forrest Gump was released in 1994. That particular waypoint of my Life journey was an important one. I was 28 years old with two wee girls at home and a struggling marriage. My life was not turning out to be anything I expected it to be. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I was about to embark on the most important stretch of self-discovery of my life. It was a difficult stretch that would lead to some deep, dark valleys before I would find my way back to high places.

It would be twenty years or so before I would add a layer of self-understanding in learning about being an Enneagram Type Four. Equipped with that lens, my emotional reaction to Forrest Gump finally becomes clearer. An Enneagram Four’s core fear is that there is something hopelessly flawed in me, like Forrest’s diminished mental capacity which he can do nothing about. A Four’s core desire is to be special. The entire story of Forrest Gump is that of him being uniquely special, intersecting with the most famous people and moments of history, and most importantly having a life-changing impact on loved ones like Jenny and Lieutenant Dan. Forrest Gump tapped into core fears and desires I didn’t see at the moment. It resonated so powerfully and deeply within my being that I wept uncontrollably while having zero understanding why. I found a piece myself in the story of Forrest Gump. Such is the power of story.

In today’s chapter, Jesus speaks to the crowds following Him in a series of parables. They’re simple metaphorical stories and Matthew says that during this stretch of Jesus’ ministry He exclusively used them in teaching the crowds. Gone is the direct, plain language of the message on the hill. Jesus tells little stories about sowers, seeds, farmers, wheat, pearls, treasure, and weeds. Jesus tells His disciples that the purpose of the parables is to both reveal and conceal for spiritual purposes.

Jesus paints a simple story that draws listeners in. Once I am in, one of three things happens. First, I might not see, hear, or understand what Jesus is saying in the story. Whatever Jesus is talking about is concealed to me at this time. Second, I might find myself in the story. I am the seed that fell on the soil. I am the weeds springing up among the wheat. I am the woman who would sell everything she had in order to have the treasure Jesus is offering, and this understanding propels me forward in my spiritual journey. Third, I might find myself in the story and utterly reject what has been revealed.

In the quiet this morning, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic as I remember back to 1994. I thought that I knew so much about myself. I thought I knew so much about Jesus. Driving home from Forrest Gump weeping for unknown reasons was spiritual significant in ways I couldn’t see or understand. I found myself in the story, and it propelled my spirit forward on the journey to discover more.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Sow What?

Sow What? (CaD Mk 4) Wayfarer

Again [Jesus] said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
Mark 4:30-32 (NIV)

It is spring in Iowa, arguably the best place to grow things in the world. Growing up, our state used the tag line: “A place to grow.” I always found this a great tag line full of metaphorical layers. I’m sad it got buried under slogans like “You make me smile!” and “We do amazing things with corn.”

Spring brings my perennial desire to plant something and make it grow. I have to confess that when it comes to being a child of Iowa I’m a bit of a prodigal. Growing things has never come naturally to me. I’ve done okay with my rosebushes, but I think it’s because they do well on their own despite me. Last spring we planted some herbs on the patio. I even got to use them to make fresh seasoning a few times before they died.

It’s a beautiful thing about the cycles of life, isn’t it? It is perennial. Hope springs eternal with Easter. Every spring the Cubs have a chance to win the World Series and I have a chance to successfully grow something. It doesn’t matter that the odds are 1:108. There’s still a chance, and each spring the hope is intoxicating.

Last year, Wendy and I bought actual herb plants. Undeterred by their premature death, I decided that this year we’re going to grow them from seeds. If I’m going to commit serial herbicide, I might as well make it more difficult. So, we got three grow-kits with pots, dirt, and seeds.

What struck me as I planted the seeds was how minuscule they were. Seriously, I felt like I was sprinkling dust particles in the dirt! I followed the instructions for watering and a week or so later Wendy and I went to the lake for a long weekend. When we got back, there were actual plants growing in two of the three pots. What did I do wrong with the third plant? I’m telling you: I can kill a plant before it even sprouts! When I contacted the grow-kit company I was told that sometimes you can get “bad seed.” I’m not sure what that means, but it felt like a pardon from the Governor. I sanded out a couple of notches off the handle of my garden trowel.

I thought about my little herb garden as I read today’s chapter. Jesus uses planting seeds as a word picture of God’s Kingdom. The seed can be as small as a speck of dust, but it can sprout and grow into something huge. Which is why earlier in the chapter Jesus told another story about a person who was sowing seed as they journeyed along. The seed was sown everywhere, which got me mulling this over.

Jesus told His followers that the seed is the Word. In the Great Story, I learned that Jesus is the living Word and also incarnate Love. So, one way I sow the Word along my life journey is by sowing love that is joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, faithful, good, and self-controlled. In doing this, I’m scattering that hopeful possibility of spring that the seed might happen to fall upon a soul that it good soil for that seed to germinate and grow into something exponentially huge in relation to that little seed sown in a gentle word, a gesture of forgiveness, a random act of kindness, or a timely hug.

Of course, the Great Story also talks about bad seed that can equally be sown. The seeds of hatred, anger, malice, chaos, violence, rage, jealousy, envy, selfishness, dissension, and division. Bad seeds don’t grow much of anything.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again looking within and without. What am I sowing in my thoughts, words, actions, reactions, posts, tweets, replies, and comments? I look outward at the things I see in the media, on social media, and the people I “follow.” What is being sown? Good seed? Bad seed?

I don’t want to be judgmental, but I do want to be wise.

I can’t control others, but I can control myself.

I am embarking on yet another day. Day number 20,088 of my earthly journey.

It’s spring in Iowa. A place to grow.

What am I going to sow today?

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

You Never Know

You Never Know (CaD 2 Pet 3) Wayfarer

You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 3:17-18 (NRSVCE)

As a young man, I was asked by a friend to accompany him to a friend’s wedding. I didn’t know the couple getting married, but my friend didn’t want to go to the wedding alone. “Tom? Do you know what a young, single man is at a wedding?” he asked me. I shrugged, wondering where he was going with this. “A carcass,” he answered as though bestowing his wisdom upon me.. “Every single, unmarried woman at a wedding sees you as nothing more than the piece of meat who might be the one to marry her.”

It was then that I realized that my egotistical friend, who happened to be engaged, asked me to be his wingman to help ward off the single women he assumed would be flocking around him. Arrogance and cynicism aside, I have attended and officiated a lot of weddings along my life journey. From what I have observed, there is a thread of truth beneath my friend’s hubris. When you’re young and unmarried and all your other friends seem to be getting married, it’s fairly common to wonder “What about me?” And then you start dreaming of a story in which you met “the one” at your friend’s wedding. Come on. We’re all human. It happens.

Jesus told a story about a wedding. In the Hebrew tradition of His day, weddings were at night. The groom and his entourage would arrive at the bride’s house where the bride and her virgin, unmarried bridesmaids waited to escort the wedding party to the groom’s house where the wedding would take place and the marriage consummated. Keep in mind there were no street lights in those days. The bridesmaid’s job was to carry an oil lamp or torch to illuminate the wedding party’s trek across town. The lamp/torch served a dual purpose. Not only did it light the way for the wedding party, but it also illuminated the bridesmaid herself who was an unmarried virgin looking for a husband. You just never know when one of the groom’s unmarried friends might “see her in a good light,” shall we say, and decide he wants to marry her. If a virgin bridesmaid was unprepared and missed the entourage or didn’t have enough oil in her lamp or on her torch to make the entire journey it would be considered a disgrace and a bad omen, but she might miss out on winning the eligible groomsman lottery.

In Jesus’ story. The bridegroom was waylaid. He and his entourage were taking forever to arrive. Some of the bridesmaids got distracted and felt like they had plenty of time. They didn’t have their lamps oiled and ready to go. The groom shows up suddenly, the unprepared bridesmaids ask to borrow some of their fellow bridesmaids oil, but no virgin bridesmaid is going to freely hand her ticket for the eligible groomsman lottery away. Besides, the less competition the better the odds. Are you with me?

So the unprepared bridesmaids run to the local Walmart for some oil. By the time they get back, the wedding has taken place. The reception is in full swing and the DJ has the whole crowd dancing to Love Shack. The groom’s servant at the door takes the young bridesmaids for wedding crashers and won’t let them in.

That’s the story. So, what was the point of the story?

Jesus was very adamant that someday He would return from heaven in what will be the climax of the Great Story being told from Genesis through Revelation. Jesus didn’t just hint at it. He was very clear about it. In fact, after Peter saw the risen Jesus ascend into heaven, there were angels who said to him and the other disciples: “In the same way you just saw Him ascend, someday He’s going to come back.” Peter, Paul, and the rest of Jesus’ original followers were convinced that Jesus could return at any moment. In fact, they fully believed it would happen in their lifetime even though Jesus said that even He didn’t know when it would take place. The original Jesus followers used a Greek word, maranatha, meaning “He’s coming back” as a salutation when greeting and parting with one another.

Of course, we’re still waiting 2,000 years later.

Today’s final chapter of Peter’s letter to Jesus’ followers, Peter addresses the issue of Jesus’ return for two reasons. The believers who were raised in Greek culture didn’t have any kind of developed understanding of apocalypse, eternity, or a judgment day that had developed as part of Hebrew and Christian teaching. So, the Greek believers struggled to understand it. Second, there were cynics who were like, “You keep talking about Jesus returning, but it isn’t happening.”

In essence, today’s chapter is Peter addressing the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable. They were acting as if they could do whatever they wanted and there would be no accountability for their choices. Jesus wanted His followers to behave as though today is the day that He will return and settle accounts on a grand, eternal scale; Not being so foolish as to not plan for the future, but being wise enough to live each day with the understanding that tomorrow is never guaranteed.

With that, I head into day 19,890 of my earthly journey. I’m going to do my best to do it well.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Seeds, Soil, and Fruit

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Mark 4:9 (NIV)

As I am fond of saying, God’s base language is metaphor. Jesus was famous for speaking in parables, similes, and word pictures. In today’s chapter, Mark chronicles four different parables. All of them are examples from the everyday life in the agrarian culture in which Jesus and His listeners lived:

  • A farmer sowing seed over his field and the different things that happen to the seed that is sown.
  • An oil lamp like the kind of lamp every one of Jesus’ listeners used in their homes at night.
  • Crops that grow to maturity and produce fruit despite the sower doing nothing other than scattering the seed.
  • A tiny mustard seed that grows into a giant tree.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Romans 1:20 as I read:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

In the same way that an artist’s work reveals things about the artist, God’s creation reveals things about his divine nature. Jesus simply identified the ways that creation reveals truth of God’s Kingdom and turns them into a parable.

The thing I found myself contemplating this morning was the fact that Jesus knew not all of His listeners would hear and understand what He was getting at. Some would have the spiritual “ears” to hear what He was saying. Others would hear the words but be deaf to its meaning. Jesus accepts this as a matter of course and embraces it.

I became a follower of Jesus during my Freshman year of high school and was an active follower during those high school years. This past year I attended my 35th high school reunion and really enjoyed renewing acquaintances with my classmates. In the course of conversations, I got to hear stories of others who had themselves become followers on the course of their own journeys even though it happened on a different stretch of road than it did for me. Wendy has had similar experiences with former classmates and sorority sisters whom she has discovered became followers; Individuals she would have never expected to have any interest in spiritual things.

That’s the thing I’ve observed about soil as I’ve lived most of my life amidst the farm fields of Iowa. Some years a field might be less productive because it’s too wet, too dry, or the soil isn’t right. Another year, the soil might have changed because the farmer worked it a certain way and the weather cooperated so that it was ready to receive the seed and allow it to take root, grow, and produce. And, there’s another parable.

Not every heart is ready to hear or see at the same time. Some soil takes time and seasons of preparation. Jesus drew large crowds with His miracles. It’s easy to draw a crowd if you provide a good show. At the same time, Jesus knew that not every one in the audience was ready to hear and He was okay with that. He was speaking to the few who’s hearts were ready to receive the seeds He was planting. In another message He would identify them as those who were asking, seeking, and knocking. Not everyone is.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded of another parable that comes from my observations in the Iowa heartland. Fruit from one season becomes the seed for the next season. The spiritual fruit my life produces today in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and the self-control that I extend to others today is the seed that I scatter. Without me ever knowing it, some of that seed will land in a heart or life that is primed and ready to receive it. Based on Jesus’ example, that’s the way it works.

The Pursuit

Whoever pursues righteousness and love
    finds life, prosperity and honor.

Proverbs 21:21 (NIV)

A recently released study showed that the number of church-going Christians in the United States has dropped significantly in the past twenty years. As usual, I have heard a number of media outlets fanning the flames of fear, anxiety, and panic at the news. I’m not getting my undies in a bunch over it. There are some fascinating questions to be asked, contemplated, and discussed regarding the details in the data. Fear leads to all sorts of silly, reactive behavior.

When I was young and starting out on my faith journey, many institutional churches had a keen interest in morality and political power. There was, I know, a genuine motivation in being followers of Jesus. I experienced it first hand in my own life and in the sincere mentors I wrote about yesterday who taught me spiritual disciplines. There was also, however, a drive for size, numbers, and political influence within media-driven pastors and leaders. I myself witnessed and was often a part of a push to get people to pray the sinner’s prayer and walk an aisle to accept Jesus. While that launched many faith journeys, my own included, there were many who simply believed that they had received the heavenly stamp of approval. They had their spiritual “fire insurance” policy that would keep them out of hell, and their ticket was punched for heaven. This was often not the start of a faith journey towards becoming more like Jesus, but a transactional religious rite.

Jesus addressed this in His parable of the sower. The seed falls on all sorts of soil. Some show signs of life and growth, but never grows to maturity or produces a healthy, abundant crop.

My own observation is that there have been many who were part of institutional denominations and churches for reasons that were far different than a personal spiritual journey to follow Jesus. It could have been familial, cultural, and/or social expectation in a time when the institutional church was part of the fabric of our society. There has been a huge shift in the past twenty years. Denominations are imploding. The institutions are falling apart. In addition, being a follower of Jesus involves regular fellowship with other believers and worship. Membership and participation in an institutional church provide the opportunity for those things. At the same time, I have known many regular church members and attenders who neither worship nor participate in any real spiritual relationship with others. In addition, an institutional church is not the only place that the disciplines of worship and fellowship can be found.

This brings me back to the proverb from today’s chapter that I pasted above. It cuts right to the heart of the matter and makes me ask: “What am I pursuing?” If it’s simply a religious rite or a transactional moment that gives me some sense of eternal security, then it’s a very different thing than me being a follower of Jesus. What I have discovered is that being a follower of Jesus is a faith journey because it is a never-ending pursuit and a seeking after becoming the person Jesus calls me to be. As the proverb states, it’s not a pursuit of religion and heaven, but of righteousness and love.

Jesus said:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [life’s basic necessities] will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself asking the very simple question: “What am I pursuing?” Then there is a follow-up question that is difficult, but necessary: “What do I want to say I am pursuing, and what do my daily words, actions, relationships, purchases, time spent, and energy expended reveal to be my life’s pursuits?

Righteousness and love.

Sometimes, I have to recalibrate and remember what the goal is. Otherwise, I get distracted pursuing so many other things.

Open Spiritual Eyes

Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.
Luke 19:47 (NIV)

I’m am spending a couple of days this week working on-site with a client. I will meet with members of my client’s inside sales team and talk to them about the service they’re providing customers on the phone, which we have assessed. We’ll listen to calls together and I’ll share tips and strategies for improving the customer’s experience in those “moments of truth.”

Over the years I have learned, however, that there is something much broader that is always going on when I’m on-site with a client. The agents I train don’t work in a vacuum. There are all sorts of things going on around them, systemically, that affect their behavior and attitudes which spill out, often unintentionally, in their conversations with customers. Office environment, corporate policies, relationships with managers, and crazy-makers on the team can all have a significant impact on an individual agent’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. If I don’t have my antennae up to understand the larger picture, I’m going to be ineffective at helping my client focus on what he or she needs to do.

When reading through a chapter, it is so easy to focus on the individual stories and lose sight of the larger context of what is happening. In today’s chapter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for His final, climactic week.

Politically, the hottest issue of that day was Rome’s occupation of Judea. There was constant tension between Rome and the Jewish leaders. The temple was more than just a religious center. It was the epicenter of power and finance in the area. The religious leaders of Jerusalem who held sway had a very lucrative racket going.

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the biggest religious festival of the year. The Passover attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem and the temple. Jewish faithful were required to offer sacrifices and offerings while they were at the temple. Often those sacrifices and offerings were sold outside the temple, but the temple had its own currency. Pilgrims first had to exchange their currency before they could buy their sacrifices. The leaders were making money on both the exchange rate and the sacrifices and offerings they were selling.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, He tells a parable about servants who are given money by their employer to invest while he’s away. It’s a parable that Jesus has told before, but on the eve of His arrival in Jerusalem He changes it. In this telling, the employer leaves to be made King, much like the local monarch, Herod, would have traveled to Rome to be given authority for the area by the Roman Empire. The pending ruler’s people in Jesus revised telling do not want this person to be King. Nevertheless, he returns as King and pays back his followers based on how they’d invested what had been given.

Jesus immediately heads into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, as His followers proclaim Him as King. The religious leaders vehemently complain much like those in the parable who did not want the protagonist of the story to be King.

Upon His arrival, Jesus goes to the Temple and drives out the money changers and vendors selling sacrifices. Again, it relates directly to the parable Jesus just told. Those leaders of God’s people who had been entrusted with oversight of God’s people and God’s law. Rather than investing in love and generosity, the leaders perverted it for their own self-centered power and personal wealth while treating others with self-righteous contempt and condemnation.

Jesus was not the first “messianic upstart” the religious leaders had dealt with. They had a well-worn playbook of getting rid of anyone who threatened their power and wealth. Jesus was in their sites. Jesus knew it.

As He entered Jerusalem, Jesus offered a lament for the city and its religious leaders. They didn’t see, perceive, or understand what God was doing and saying through Jesus. Like the parable, they would suffer the consequences. Within a generation, the political resistance to Rome would boil over. Rome will surround the city and fulfill Jesus’ prophet words. The city and the Temple would be utterly destroyed.

On Sunday Wendy and I were traveling. We were talking about our “word” for the year, and conversing about where we find ourselves in our spiritual journeys and our life journeys. We don’t want to live in a vacuum, unaware of what God is doing in us, through us, and around us. We prayed together, seeking for those things to be revealed and not hidden.

This morning I’m praying for spiritual eyes that are open to see what’s happening systemically in my client’s office, to see the subtext of what’s going on in today’s chapter, to see the bigger picture of what God is doing in and around me and Wendy as we walk this journey together.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened…

Ephesians 1:18a

A Seat at the Table

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
Luke 14:7-9 (NIV)

When I was a young man, I was honored to be invited to a special banquet. I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to attend such an occasion again in my lifetime. The banquet hall was enormous and it was filled with some of the most powerful individuals in the world, including politicians, diplomats, and celebrities. The speaker’s table on the stage, by the podium, was a who’s who of the most elite individuals I was used to seeing in the news almost every day.

The individual who had invited me was a person with a certain amount of social status in certain circles. I was just a young man and a nobody who was shocked to have even been allowed to be there at all. So it was, that I shouldn’t have been surprised that when we approached the ticket table and my host asked for our tickets, my host was given a ticket with a table and seat assignment. My ticket, however, relegated me to stand in a line outside the banquet hall with a throng of similar nobodies. I would only be admitted if some VIP didn’t show up.

I can remember being really disappointed and embarrassed. I had felt so honored to be invited, and now I felt so humiliated to have to stand outside while my host enjoyed the banquet. I also remember my host’s attitude upon realization of the situation. The subtext of my host’s words felt to me like: “Well, sucks to be you. Good luck! Hope you get in.”

The banquet was well underway and many of the guests were already finished with their meal when the door opened and an usher pointed to me. I was led through the sea of tables to a table right in front of the ballroom, just a few feet from the podium. I was given the seat of an international diplomat who hadn’t shown up for the banquet and had the privilege of a front-row seat to hear some of the most incredible speakers in the world.

After the banquet, I met back up again with my host who was clearly frustrated. Their guaranteed seat was at a table at the very back of the banquet hall. They could barely see the stage and podium. To be honest, I felt a bit of schadenfreude at that moment. I kinda still feel it as I retell the story.

That experience came to mind this morning as I read Jesus’ words to the guests at a banquet. Be humble. Let others have the seat of prominence. Be willing to wait in the lobby for an open seat.

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the quiet this morning I have to confess to you that my attitude wasn’t so humble as I waited behind the banquet hall door. I felt anger and disappointment. The end of the story, however, taught me an important lesson that I’ve never forgotten.