“The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.” 1 Samuel 15:21 (NIV)
Plundering has been an aspect of warfare for as long as people have made war on one another. In fact, throughout history, there have been people groups who made themselves rich by attacking weaker people groups and plundering all of their possessions as their own. Part of the horrors of the holocaust, less than 100 years ago, was the fact that the Nazis drove Jewish families from their own homes to death camps, and then plundered all of their possessions. American soldiers also plundered as they fought their way through Europe to Berlin. Plundering has always been a part of warfare.
In today’s chapter, it’s important to place Samuel’s directive to King Saul in this light. The Amalekites were a nomadic people who had violently opposed God and set themselves against God’s people since the days of Abraham. We read about the Amalekites warring against Abraham, Moses, and Joshua as well as in the days of the Judges. When Samuel gives Saul the instruction to destroy the Amalekites, the ancient Hebrew word refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to God. In other words: No plundering. Destroy it all.
Of course, this directive would not have been popular with the fighting men who saw plunder as the reward for putting their lives on the line. Plundering was viewed as a right and privilege of warfare. There would have been grumbling and complaining. There might even have been talking amidst the troops of desertion or rebellion. This is a test of Saul’s leadership.
Saul compromises on carrying out the directive, allowing his men to plunder “the best” of the Amalekites’ hoard. He then “set up a monument in his own honor.” When confronted by Samuel, Saul tries to justify his actions before confessing that he feared his own men. Samuel then declares that God has rejected Saul as king.
I noticed a small detail in the text that I believe might often be overlooked. When Saul is justifying his disobedience he twice tells Samuel that they took the Amalekite plunder in order to sacrifice them to “the LORD your God.”
As Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
Saul distances himself from God, and God’s command. This is your God, Samuel. We did this to make sacrifices to your God.
This got me thinking this morning about my own relationship with God. I have long observed individuals who relate to God as other. Jesus, however, was quite specific about His desire to be one with His followers just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in the mysterious union of being that is beyond human comprehension. I don’t consider God to be other, I consider God to be intimately personal, connected, and one with me, and me with God, in ways I can’t even comprehend.
As I wrap up my quiet time this morning and launch into a busy new work week, I’m not leaving God behind in the quiet. As St. Patrick’s prayer so aptly communicates, God goes with me, within me, before me, beside me, above me, behind me, on my right, and on my left. This, in turn, changes the way I think about the entire week.
I’m living to surrender and serve Christ, not plunder this world.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” Judges 7:2 (NIV)
History is filled with stories of military deceptions. In World War II, the U.S. created an entirely fictitious army group so that the Germans would think that the invasion of Europe would be focused on a different part of the French coast far east of the beaches of Normandy. They even used inflatable tanks and vehicles so that German reconnaissance planes would verify the misinformation that had been fed to spies and planted in radio communications about the “First U.S. Army Group.” The Germans were so convinced by the deception that when the invasion finally did happen at Normandy, they kept reinforcements at the false invasion point for seven weeks, allowing the Allies much needed time to resupply and bring in more reinforcements.
Today’s chapter is a classic case of military deception allowing a smaller force to rout a much larger enemy. Before the battle, God purposefully whittles down the army Gideon has gathered to fight in Midianites from 20,000 to just 300. Using the powers of illusion to stoke the Midianites’ fear, the enemy is thrown into chaos and begins to flee, believing that there is a much larger force about ready to attack.
So, on one hand, today’s chapter is just one in a number of great stories about military deception. What’s fascinating to me was the fact that it was God who was leading Gideon. It was God who told Gideon to get rid of 19,700 of his troops and attack with just 300. Today’s story is one in which it’s very easy for me to focus on the event and lose sight of the context.
At this point in the Great Story, we’re still in the toddler stage of human civilization, and God is trying to teach His people to trust Him and to follow Him. God has a motivation in reducing the fighting force. He knows human pride and hubris. A giant army defeating a similar or smaller force requires little faith, just good tactics. A force of 300 routing an enemy of thousands? Well, that requires a considerable measure of faith.
Throughout the Great Story, God reminds me again and again that the Kingdom of God does not operate like the Kingdoms of this world:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. Isaiah 55:8
So [the angel] said to [Zechariah], “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.'” Zechariah 4:6
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5
In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the ways that the kingdoms of this world operate. How ironic that government, media, social media, big tech, and the corporate world are all worked up about misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. Illusions, deceptions, and talking heads, it all begins to feel a bit chaotic to me.
So, as a Jesus follower, I shift my focus from the chaos of this world. I take captive my thoughts, opinions, fears, and anxieties. I consciously choose to direct my thoughts toward love, joy, and peace, and the things Jesus calls me to do as a disciple. I’m to make people my priority. I’m to love the person I’m with, even if that person happens to be a stranger in an elevator or a check-out guy at the gas station. I’m to look for opportunities to serve others and then do it. I’m to be kind. I’m to be generous. I’m to forgive.
God wanted Gideon to see what He could do with just 300 men. Jesus wants me to see what He can do through me if I will trust, follow, and love well.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
When a local union threatened and bullied me into quitting a part time job I’d taken for a season to save for college.
When a local political machine allowed their employees to smoke at work even though it was against the law for everyone else.
When a powerful businessman and donor of the church successfully twisted the arms of church leaders to wrongfully accuse the staff and force his will on the congregation.
The world has been having a conversation about systemic racism for the past few years, and it’s an important conversation to have. However, along my earthly journey, I’ve observed and experienced that systemic power exists in many forms and affects every person in one way or another. It’s woven into the human experience. Even Jesus was a victim of it.
I couldn’t help but notice this morning, the contrast Matthew presents between the religious power brokers at the pinnacle of the religious system, and Jesus with His followers.
The religious power brokers met in the high priest’s palace, while Jesus and His followers were guests at the home of a former leper whom He’d healed.
The religious power brokers in their palace schemed how to arrest Jesus secretly and kill Him. FYI: it was illegal to arrest someone secretly at night, and they had no legal authority to execute anyone. Meanwhile, Jesus quietly arranged to celebrate the Passover feast with His disciples in a borrowed room.
As the religious leaders broker a deal with Judas to betray Jesus in the middle of the night, Jesus assertively prepares for His fate in fellowship with His closest friends and in prayer. He has, three times in this chapter, demonstrated that He knows what is coming:
“As you know, the Passover is two days away — and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (vs. 2)
“When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” (vs. 12)
“Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” (vs. 21)
In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but ponder the difference I see between Jesus and the religious system that killed Him and ponder Jesus’ words: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” What does that mean for me as I endeavor to follow Jesus every day of this earthly journey? As I ponder Jesus example in the chapter I come up with:
Live a life of surrender not of supremacy. Invest in people, not possessions. Live a life of giving, not of getting. Always expect the Prince of this world to use the systemic power of this world to suppress the purposes of God’s kingdom on earth.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Matthew 4:8-9 (NIV)
This past fall I gave a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. In the message, I shared a handful of stories from my early adult years which were harsh life lessons. I was harassed and threatened on a job because I chose not to join the union. In another job, I repeatedly witnessed government employees breaking the law and others simply choosing not to do their job. They could do so without consequence because they worked for the political machine that had been in control for generations. In yet another experience, I learned the hard way that even a local church can be secretly controlled and manipulated by a powerful and wealthy member.
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that people easily forget that the Great Story told from Genesis to Revelation is a story of good versus evil. The enemy messes up things for humanity in the Garden of Eden in the opening chapters of the story. The final chapters of the story speak of a final conflict in which evil is vanquished once-and-for-all. In between the two, the conflict is perpetually present.
In today’s chapter, Jesus withdraws to the wilderness for 40 days where He is tempted by the evil one. The Hebrew audience to whom Matthew is focusing his account would have been reminded of the 40 years of wilderness wanderings of their own people (recorded in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) in which they failed the test. The three temptations Jesus faced are, likewise, the same basic temptations that Adam and Eve faced: the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.
In the second temptation, the evil one shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” and offers to give them to Jesus. This means that they were his to give.
The harsh life lessons of my young adult years taught me that there is a certain truth about how the world works. No matter how good we like to think we are, there is no escaping the fact that both individuals and institutions in this world are driven by lust and pride. The Great Story makes it very clear that this world is the dominion of the evil one, whom Jesus called “The Prince of this World.” The Prince of this World, and his disciples, set themselves up as anti-God and can always be found lurking to promote darkness, hatred, corruption, chaos, and death. This is why Jesus came in the first place to make a way of light, love, goodness, peace, and eternal life for any who, by faith, believes.
In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that the kingdoms of this world are still, at this point in time, under the dominion of the Prince of this World. Commerce, politics, and even the institutions of religion will be given to corruption and evil until things are ultimately set right in the climax of this Great Story.
I am equally reminded that Jesus came to exemplify a different way of being and to teach me to live differently in this world as a citizen of a kingdom that is “not of this world.”
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness. Nahum 1:7-8 (NIV)
The world has watched in horror the past week-and-a-half as Afghanistan quickly fell into the hands of the Taliban. No matter which side of the political aisle one stands, and setting aside the argument of whether NATO forces should have been at all, there is no escaping the brutal realities of life under the Taliban. It’s been hard to read and hear the eye-witness accounts. A woman shot in the street for not wearing a burka. Another woman burned alive because she was considered a bad cook. When a mother is willing to throw her own baby over barbed-wire in an effort to ensure that he/she will have a life elsewhere, it tells me something.
Much of the story of what we refer to as the Old Testament is really about how one people, the Hebrews, lived and survived throughout several centuries in which one empire after another sought to control the world: Egyptians, Medes, Persians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans.
The ancient prophet, Nahum, lived in a time when the Assyrian Empire was the largest the world had seen to-date. Its capital city, Nineveh, was the largest city on the planet. He was probably writing his prophetic poems during the reign of Assyria’s last great king, Ashurbanipal (see featured photo). The Assyrian army was particularly brutal. Ashurbanipal’s records speak of him flaying enemies (removing the skin off of bodies) and draping the human skins over piles of corpses and city walls. The Assyrian armies would leave piles of dismembered limbs and dead bodies impaled on stakes as calling cards telling everyone they’d been there.
Enter Nahum, a prophet who both seeks to comfort his people and encourage them to trust God, but who most warns the Assyrians/Nineveh that God will see to it that their mighty empire will fall. In today’s opening poem, Nahum establishes God as both kind and stern. He predicts Ninevah’s fall and Judah’s joy when it does.
The Great Story is layered with recurring themes. Justice is definitely one of them, and Nahum is a mouthpiece for God’s message that the mighty empire of Assyria/Nineveh with its record of violent oppression and brutality will not last. Their just downfall is coming. But that same message also exists on a grand scale of the larger eternal epic of the Great Story. The night before Jesus’ crucifixion, He tells His followers that “the prince of this world stands condemned.” The end of the Great Story is about eternal justice on a cosmic scale. Wrongs are made right. Justice prevails. Love wins.
In the meantime, the story continues. The journey goes on, and the kingdoms of this world perpetuate injustice, violence, and brutality. Jesus tells His followers to be agents of a very different Kingdom marked by blessedness of those who are poor in spirit, the mourning, peacemakers, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the persecuted. He asked me to be marked not by power, anger, vengeance, violence, hatred, but love that is manifested in joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
Being a follower of Jesus is a faith journey, and that faith includes believing that justice will prevail, just it did for Nahum. After Ashurbanipal’s reign the Assyrian Empire quickly fell apart. Its decline was swift and historians argue to this day how could so quickly fall apart and recede. So, I believe, the end of the Great Story will come just as prophesied.
In the meantime, I press on doing what I can to act justly and with love. One simple agent of a different Kingdom journeying amidst the kingdoms of this world in faith that justice will ultimately prevail, and that Love wins.
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. John 17:15-16 (NIV)
Earlier this year Wendy and I were on the back patio with friends late into the evening. One of the things we like to do in the dark of night is keep our eyes peeled for meteors, satellites, constellations, plants, and other interesting objects in the night sky. On that night I spotted a satellite, which basically looks like a moving star, trekking slowly from west to east. Then there was another one right behind it. I’d never seen two of them so close and moving in the same trajectory. Then came another, and another, and another, and another.
Pulling up the internet on my phone to find out what we were looking at, we learned that evening about the satellite train. The brainchild of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, it is a long string or “train” of 60 satellites that follow one another in orbit. SpaceX plan to eventually have 12,000 of them in low orbit to provide internet service everywhere from space. Fascinating.
It’s an amazing time to be alive and to make this earthly life journey. In the course of my lifetime, the world has arguably changed more rapidly and drastically than in any other time in human civilization. Advancements in technology and science are beginning to outpace our ability to comprehend the effects of all that it possible.
Along with the “progress” has come a sharp decline in the number of people who adhere to traditional Christian belief systems or attend institutional Christian churches. One of the things that I read consistently about this trend is the criticism that believers and churches in America haven’t done enough to address social justice issues and the problems of our world.
Today’s chapter is traditionally known in theological circles as “the high priestly prayer.” John records Jesus praying just before He was betrayed by Judas and arrested. In the prayer Jesus acknowledges two important things. First, that His followers are “not of this world.” In my experience, Jesus is acknowledging that those who follow Him have expanded their world-view beyond this earthly life to God’s eternal Kingdom. After acknowledging this, Jesus consciously chooses that His followers not be removed from this world, but protected from the same prince of this world that will see Jesus crucified within twelve hours of this prayer.
To quote Hamlet, “ay, there’s the rub.”
In this world, not of it. How do I, as a follower of Jesus, hold that tension?
That’s what my soul and mind are chewing on in the quiet this morning. And here are a few of my thoughts…
I confess that critics of Christianity are not wrong. Followers of Jesus and the institutional churches of history have not done enough adhere to personally fulfill Jesus’ mission of crossing social boundaries, loving the outcast, and caring for the poor. Mea culpa.
At the same time, history has taught me that revolutions and reformations typically paint complex realities with broad-brush generalizations, and then throw babies out with the bathwater. Despite the moans and wails of how awful of a state the world is in, here are a few undisputable facts:
In 1966 (the year I was born), 50% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. In 2017, that’s dropped to 9% despite population growth.
When my parents were young, average life expectancy was between 30-40 years. In two generations it’s risen to 72, and still climbing.
In 1975, 58% of children with cancer survived. By 2010, it was 80%.
In 1980, 22% of one-year-olds received at least one vaccination. In 2018 the percentage was 88%.
In 1970, 28% of the world’s population was undernourished. In 2015 that number had dropped to 11%.
In 1900, roughly 40% of children died before the age of five. By 2016 the percentage was down to 4%.
In 1980, 58% of the world’s population had access to a protected water source. By 2015 the number was 88% and climbing.
It’s easy to cast a stone at the institutional church, its members, and cast stones regarding all that it hasn’t done. I also know many believers in my own circles of influence who, led by their faith in Jesus and dedication to His mission, have given their lives to contribute to the numbers I’ve just quoted.
Scott and Marcia have helped mobilize native efforts in Eswatani Africa to care for unwanted babies, lower the spread of HIV, increase access to clean water, and improve agricultural yields to feed the local population.
Tim and an entire host of individuals in our local gathering of Jesus followers have done a similar work in Haiti. Learning from the mistakes of the past, they are helping native Haitians create sustainable and healthy life and community systems.
My college suitemate, Tim, has dedicated most of his career to helping care for impoverished children and single mothers around the globe. He’s now leading a non-profit to address the 12% of the world’s population that still need a protected water source.
I have long believed that with the technological age I may just be witnessing humanity’s next great attempt at building a tower of Babel. Instead of bricks and mortar, we’re using processors, fiber optics, CRISPR, and satellite trains. The goal is the same: nothing is impossible, and we ascend to be our own god. I find it fascinating to observe what I perceive to be “Babel 2.0” is that we largely still speak the same language but our transmission and translation are increasingly confused. What one intends to say, what they say, and what the other hears and interprets to have been said are incongruent. Language is hijacked and redefined in a moment by part of the population. New words are created, defined, and trend within one part of the population while everyone else in the population failed to notice. They are therefore ignorant and confused when they are discussed.
So what does this mean for me today? I don’t run an institution, nor do I want to. I am a follower of Jesus and, as such, I have a world-view that sees beyond this world and incorporates God’s Kingdom into my earthly existence. I seek to accomplish His mission of “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth” and I take that responsibility seriously. This earthly journey is not about biding my time until death and eternity, but rather trying to bring a Kingdom perspective into my every day intentions, choices, work, actions, and relationships.
I am in this world, a world which remains the dominion of the prince of this world, which is why Jesus prayed for my protection on that fateful night. Jesus asks me to affect this world with love, service, and generosity that He exemplified. He told His followers to be “shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove.”
And so, I enter another day of the journey with those intentions.
Note: Three messages have been added on the Messages page. Click here
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Mark 8:31-33 (NIV)
Inflection point has become a buzzword in business during my career. And, it’s often misunderstood. The inflection point is the point on a line where the line changes its sign. It’s when the curve of that line reveals a shift of direction. When it ultimately shifts direction, that’s called the “turning point.” The turning point happens later. The inflection point is the subtle shift that precedes the turning point. If you see the inflection point, you can predict the turning point.
In today’s chapter, the narrative of Mark’s version of Jesus’ story hits an inflection point. The majority of the first eight chapters is an endless stream of miracles, wonders, and exorcisms seasoned with Jesus parables and teachings. It has been all about Jesus interacting with people’s lives in this world. He’s feeding hungry people, healing sick people, delivering possessed people, and teaching people spiritual principles of God’s kingdom in contrast to the human religious system controlling most of their lives.
Out of the blue, Jesus tells his followers quite plainly that He will be rejected by the religious power-brokers in Jerusalem, He will be killed, and then in three days He will rise from the dead. We’re just half-way through Mark’s biography of Jesus and Jesus let’s fly with the greatest spoiler of all time without once issuing his listeners a Spoiler Alert.
This event is a narrative inflection point. From this point forward, Mark’s version of events will drive towards the very events Jesus predicts.
What really resonated in my heart and mind this morning was Peter’s reaction. Upon hearing Jesus explain the end game of His mission on earth, Peter pulls the master aside and “rebukes” Him. In the quiet, I imagined what Peter’s rebuke might have been…
“You can’t die! We’re just getting started!”
“The twelve of us have left everything to follow you assuming this was a long-term gig! How are we going to retire if you leave us in the lurch?”
“Jesus, dude, you’ve got what it takes to ride this wave all the way to the throne. With your powers and the people behind you, there’s nothing that can stop you from ruling the world!”
“Look! Your parables and stories are confusing, but they’re great. People love them. The miracles and the free fish sandwiches, that’s what the people want. If you go off-message and start tweeting about your death like some crazy-man, it’s over. You’ll lose your momentum. These people will stop following you. Then where will we be?”
He’ll be right where He just predicted He’d end up.
It struck me this morning that this is more than just an inflection point in the storyline. This is also a spiritual inflection point in Jesus’ teaching.
I am so focused on this life. I am so concerned with my immediate circumstances. Virtually every moment of my day is concentrated on my place in this world. My time, energy, and resources are spent trying to make this earthly life last as long as possible (even if it ends up being no Life at all). I do all that I can not to think about death, talk about death, or consider the undeniable truth that my body is going to die.
“You’re right, Tom,” Jesus says through the text of today’s chapter. “Thanks for being honest. Because that is what needs to change. That is the inflection point…“
“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Mark 8:34-37 (MSG)
If I follow Jesus at this inflection point, then down the road a whole bunch of turning points in my words, decisions, actions, and relationships will reveal themselves. Consider Peter. It’s at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10 that the turning point is revealed.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating this spiritual inflection point at which Jesus asks me to consider God’s eternal Kingdom more real than this physical life, more important than the things of this world, more valuable than anything this life could afford.
This is also a point of tension. It doesn’t mean that I ignore this life, coast through this journey, live as if nothing on earth matters. It does! It matters enough for Jesus to come and do exactly as He predicted. The spiritual inflection point gets down to the motives at the core of my being.
What is it I want?
What is it I’m living for?
What does my head answer? What does my heart answer?
If there is ultimately no evidence of a turning point on my calendar, on my credit card statement, and on my task list, then the truth is that I missed the inflection point.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)
When I was a young man, I spent a short period of time working in a county office building where I participated in the the legal investigation and documentation of real estate transactions. I did it for less than a year, but it was an eye opening experience. I observed and learned how government worked under the control of a political machine. I observed and learned how people use the letter of the law to circumvent the spirit of the law to achieve their own selfish ends. I learned and observed how people try to use real estate to con others, and once or twice I actually caught people doing it. It was a crash-course in “how the world works.”
In yesterday’s post/podcast I mentioned that it’s easy to get stuck looking at the text with a microscope while ignoring the bigger picture. I can lose the forest in the trees, as the old saying goes. In today’s chapter, what resonated most with me was, once again, not mired in the minutia of Jesus words, but the larger context of what is happening in the story.
Jesus ministry, at this point, has taken place in the rural backwaters of Judea. If I were to use the United States for context, I would say that Jesus has been spending all of his time and energy in fly-over country while avoiding both coasts. All of the miracles, crowds, and exorcisms have Jesus trending off the charts and the establishment powers-that-be have begun to notice. Since the beginning of time, power-brokers at the top of the political, commercial, and religious establishments have known to ceaselessly look for any threat to the stability of their power and the continuity of their cashflow.
I found Mark’s observation fascinating:
“Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.”
The more they talk about it, the more of a potential threat Jesus becomes to the religious powers-that-be. In the beginning of today’s chapter, Mark notes that an entourage of political and religious leaders from Jerusalem come to see for themselves what the hub-bub is all about. They are big fish coming to the small pond of Galilee, but along the blue-collar shores of Galilee they are not in their own environment while Jesus is definitely in His.
The Jerusalem entourage are here to find ways to discredit this threat to their control on the religious institution and the lives of all who adhere to it. They quickly call Jesus out for not washing his hands before supper, which the establishment long ago elevated onto the checklist of religious rituals and behaviors they used to maintain their self-righteous judgement of who is naughty-or-nice, who is in-or-out.
Jesus response resonated with me because He calls them out on a point of legal order. Nowhere in the Ten Commandments or the laws of Moses was ritual hand washing a thing. The religious-types, over time, had created rules that were part of legal codes which codified and expanded the interpretation of the original spiritual principle. Jesus turns this into a very simple illustration that gets to the core of the difference between His teaching and that of the institutional human religious establishment.
The religious leaders made a spectacle of their ritual hand-washing before meals to show how pious and righteous they were. Jesus quickly points out that at the same time these same religious leaders had used the letter of the law to allow children to avoid the obligation of adult children to care for their elderly parents. They allowed people to bring “offerings” as a charitable donation to the religious establishment which would otherwise have been the money needed to pay for their parents needs. They then declare a form of bankruptcy as to escape their financial obligation to their elderly parents with the absolution of the religious institution who benefitted handsomely for it.
This is a version of what I observed and learned in the county office building when I was a young men. This is how the Kingdoms of this World work.
Jesus’ response was a simple word picture. Along with hand-washing, the power-brokers from Jerusalem also had many dietary restrictions which also fell into the category of religious rule-keeping. Jesus’ observation is so simple. Food, he says, goes in the mouth, through the stomach, and out the other end. Whether eaten with ritually cleansed hands or dirty hands, the food never passes through the heart.
From a spiritual perspective, the distinction is essential, Jesus says:
“It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.” Mark 7: 20-23 (MSG)
The entourage will return to Jerusalem. Their dossier on Jesus will speak of a popular teacher among the poor and simple masses who follow Him in throngs, hang on His every word, and are won-over by His miracles. He will be labeled an enemy of the institution. He threatens the stability of their power, their control over the masses, and ultimately the stream of cashflow from their religious racket. We are still a couple of years away from this religio-political machine condemning Jesus and conspiring to hang Him on a cross, but the pieces are already moving on the chess board.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again inspired by Jesus. The more I read the story, and read His teachings, the more I see the contrast between the heart-principles of the Kingdom of God and the religious rule keeping of the institutions of this world. I am compelled to continue following the former with all my heart while exposing the latter for what it is. In other words, I want to be more and more like Jesus while shunning the religious institutions and establishments who point to their moral codes and religious rules and say, “this is what Jesus meant.”
I believe that humans will perpetually turn eternal Truth into earthly rules and religious systems. C’est la vie. It’s part of the fabric of a fallen world in this Great Story.
Nevertheless, I get to choose every day which I follow.
“Hang on Jesus. I’m lacing up my shoes for another day. I’m right behind you. Where are we headed?”
…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Mark 6:20 (NIV)
Here in Iowa, the science of agriculture is big business. Each autumn when harvest rolls around the crop yield is a make-it or break-it reality for farmers. Which is why I know friends whose livelihoods are spent studying soil and seeds to try and grow as much as the land can possibly yield. As I have often confessed, agriculture is not something about which I have vast knowledge. Just enough to appreciate a good parable.
As I’ve trekked my way through the Great Story again and again over the past forty years, I’ve learned that sometimes the lesson is not in microscopically mining the minutia of the text, but in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.
Back in chapter four, Mark records Jesus parable of the sower, in which the Word falls like seed on different human hearts that each are like a different quality of soil. A quick recap:
Like seed fallen on a hardened footpath: A soon as this person hears it, the enemy snatches it away like a bird.
Like seed fallen on rocky ground: Life sprouts in them, but it doesn’t put down roots and can’t survive through difficult weather.
Like seed fallen among thornbushes: Sprout and grow, but the things of this world choke it and render it unfruitful.
Like seed fallen on good soil: Sprout, put down roots, grow, and bear fruit.
Starting in chapter Five and continuing in today’s chapter, Mark records stories of different people who rejected Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles.
Despite the fact that Jesus drove the demons from the heart of the man living among the tombs of the Gerasenes, the townspeople wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Their hearts are like the hardened footpath. It’s as if the demons snatched the Word from their hearts on their way from the man to the pigs.
In today’s chapter, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. The people of Nazareth listened to Jesus’ teaching, and some were amazed as if the Word was sprouting new life in them. But ultimately, nothing took root as their hearts couldn’t see past their prejudices: “How could Jesus Bar Joseph, the Carpenter’s boy who fixed my chair that one time, be a rabbi?”
Then we get to Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee. Herod sits atop one of the “kingdoms of this world,” the descendant and co-heir of a ruthless tyrant who amassed wealth, political power, and all the luxuries it affords through corruption, deceit, and bloodshed. When Satan went “all-in” and offered Jesus with all the “Kingdoms of this World,” Herod’s kingdom was there in the pot, and Jesus knew it. Jesus grew up knowing all about Herod’s wealth, power, fortunes, women, and fame.
Mark then does something unusual compared to what we’ve read thus far in his biography of Jesus. Mark tells a story that is not about Jesus, but about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. It gives us a picture of seed that falls among the world’s thorn bushes.
Some quick gossip from the tabloids at the checkout line at the Galilean grocery stores: There was a whole sex scandal in Herodian royal family, and Herod Antipas ends up marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist is a local religious figure who is extremely popular and extremely revered by all the deplorable religious types in Herod’s constituency. John publicly preaches against the immorality in the Herodian palace, and Herod can’t risk a drop in his approval rating so he has John arrested. He even has John brought before him (and his guests on occasion) to hear his religious rants. Mark tells us that Herod, “liked to listen to him.”
To Herod, John and his message are playthings. They are one more thing that wealth and power afford him. He has his own holy man at his beck-and-call. John is God’s little vine surviving amidst the entrenched hedge of Herod’s prickly power. Herod might have John preach for him and his party-guests. He might have John beheaded at the whim of his lust for his own step-daughter. It is of little consequence for him. He can always find another holy man: “I keep hearing about this Nazarene,” I can hear him say to his dinner guest after John’s head is carried out on a platter. “Maybe I should arrest him. John’s sermons were so entertaining. I’ll miss them.”
In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus had as many enemies, detractors, and people who dismissed His teaching as He had disciples. Perhaps 3 to 1 if the parable is any indication. My experience is that Jesus’ followers rarely think much about this reality.
And so I find myself thinking about the soil of my own heart.
Is my heart hard and unyielding?
Is my heart shallow and unwilling to put down spiritual roots?
Is my heart choked, overshadowed, and/or overgrown by the things of this world?
Is my heart fruitful with the mixed-fruit of faith, hope, and love?
As I meditated on the metaphor again this morning, I found myself mulling over the fact that the seed among the thorns and the seed on the good soil both sprout, take root, and grow. The only difference Jesus described was that the good-soil plant was fruitful while the plant choked by the thorns of this world didn’t yield fruit.
I also find myself thinking about these chapter-a-day blog posts and podcasts that I scatter across the internet each weekday wondering where in the world they might land. Hard soil? Rocky soil? Thorn bushes? Good soil? I have learned that there is both grief and freedom in not knowing the answer. Such is the lot of the sower who must wait until harvest to know the yield.
I hope this lands well with you, my friend.
Have a great day.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
May all the kings of the earth praise you, Lord, when they hear what you have decreed. Psalm 138:4 (NIV)
Tomorrow night I have the honor of giving the Good Friday message among my local gathering of Jesus followers. Good Friday is the annual remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death just two days before the Resurrection celebration on Easter Sunday.
One of the themes that I’m addressing in my re-telling of the events of that day is the conflict that is happening on two different levels. There’s the human conflict happening between Jesus and the power-brokers of earthly power in Rome, Judea, and Jerusalem. There’s also the conflict that is happening on the Spiritual level between the Son of God, and the Prince of this World. I believe one doesn’t fully understand Good Friday without an understanding of the conflict happening on both levels.
That’s one of the fascinating things I find about the Great Story. It weaves the stories, and holds the tension between both levels: Earth and Spirit. Perhaps that’s why, as I sit in the quiet of my office this morning, and mull over today’s chapter, I find it also resonating with me on those same two different levels.
Yesterday we got to the end of a section in this anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that focused on Jerusalem (Psalms 120-137). There were all of the songs of “ascent” along with songs of dedication to Jerusalem, like yesterday’s chapter. Today we kick-off a section of eight songs in which the liner notes attribute the songs to King David.
The lyrics of today’s chapter begin with David proclaiming praise to God. You might remember from earlier posts in these posts in Psalms that Hebrew songs often put the central theme of the song smack-dab in the middle. In today’s lyric, David’s theme is “May all the kings of earth praise you.”
On a purely earthly level, this theme fits in with the thread of the earthly story within the Great Story. God promised Abraham that “all peoples” would be blessed through his descendants. The law of Moses spoke clearly about loving and being deferential to other peoples living among them. Jesus exemplified this in His inclusive teaching and behavior towards women, Samaritans, and Romans. He then gave His followers the mission of spreading His teaching to all people. In the final chapters of the Great Story John is given a vision of Heaven’s throne room in which the multitudes include people of “every tribe and language and people and nation.”
So, on one level, David’s lyric prophetically points to Jesus’ teaching and God fulfilling the promise to Abraham. The Great Story began with Abraham, expanded to his tribal descendants of whom Jesus was one, and then burst out to all peoples.
On the level of Spirit, the Great Story makes clear that the enemy of God remains the “Prince of this World.” The “Kingdoms of this world” remain in his clutches. Power, wealth, and pride still fuel the institutions of earthly power: politics, commerce, and religion. When Jesus prayed, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth,” He was not talking about a grand, earthly power grab as His followers had been taught would happen and expected. That’s how the “Kingdoms of this World” operate. I’ve come to observe that whenever I see human institutions leveraging power to control others, it’s definitely not the Kingdom of Heaven.
Along my journey, I’ve come to observe that the paradigm of the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus taught is about love and the spiritual transformation of individuals, who in turn love and transform their circles of influence, which in turn has the possibility to transform human systems. It’s not top-down systemic power but bottom-up organic transformation of Spirit.
The prophetic visions of John also point to an end of the Great Story when “the Kings of this earth” (not the earthly level individuals who might be transformed by the love of Jesus, but the spiritual level power-brokers representing the institutions of worldly power) will eventually face a final conflict and ultimate resolution.
So in the quiet this morning I find myself holding the tension of the two levels. I’m praying for Dave, my city councilman, whom I l know and love. I’m praying for my state’s Governor, whom is well-known and loved by members of my family. I’m praying for my friends who are heads of industry and business. I’m praying for my friends who lead their own local gatherings of fellow-Jesus followers. These are all in my direct circles of influence. I also find myself praying for matters and individuals on the national and global stage that are far out of my control, yet still part of the Great Story which I believe will ultimately play out as foretold, but probably not as I expect.
And so, I enter another day trying to bring love and hope to my circles of influence and those things I do control, while having faith in God’s plan and purposes on levels I don’t control.