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Archive for March, 2015

In Matthew 11, Jesus pointed out that the Israeli leaders always chose a negative narrative and in the process saw “evil” or “wrong” in everyone else. They said that John the Baptist had a demon within him because he led an austere life defined by fasting and self-denial. However, when Jesus ate and drank, they called him a glutton, drunk, and a “friend of sinners”. It is kind of like the old phrase, you are damned if you, you are damned if you don’t. There was no way to win with people that wanted to create a negative narrative.

I remember seeing this extreme back a few years ago when the U.S. was trying to pass some changes to the healthcare system. All of a sudden people were going crazy. Some were even comparing the changes to give insurance to more people as some type of fascist, Nazi plot. It is amazing how something benign or even positive can be so “changed” by a twisted narrative. This can be seen on the other side of the political spectrum, where even basic restrictions to late term abortion are framed as a move to strip women of all their rights.

Just as the Israeli leaders were dead set on finding the evil in John’s fasting and Jesus’ drinking feasting, all too often today we are ready to twist even positive actions of people we disagree with into some type of diabolic narrative. It is easy to do. We can assume the worst in others, while always seeing the most pure motivations for ourselves or those we agree with. It leads to a lack of any critical, self-analysis, and it sets up a system of good versus evil where of course we are always on the side of the good. However, we need to be very careful. If we are looking for the wrong in others, we will find it even if it doesn’t exist. However, when we choose to look for the positive in others, we will also begin to see it.

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In Matthew 11, John sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the Messiah. John had already previously recognized Jesus for who he was and had actually baptized him. After the baptism, the Holy Spirit descended and a voice from heaven said that Jesus was the beloved Son with whom God was well pleased. However, after John was arrested for calling out Herod, he began to doubt if Jesus was really who he said he was.

When the disciples of John came to Jesus, he was not filled with anger at the audacity of John questioning him. He told them to simply to report back all they had seen and heard. Right after this admittance of doubt, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that there is not been anyone greater born to a women than John the Baptist. It seems a little strange that he goes on to praise and defend John after such a display of unbelief.

We are told never to doubt, but even saints like John the Baptist were at times full of doubt. Jesus does not condemn us for our uncertainty. In fact, it almost seems that he welcomes our wrestling with doubt, rather than following a shallow belief system that never questions what it is told. Those who struggle with doubt and disbelief are often the ones who actually become stronger and end up making lasting change. If you are filled with doubt and worry, do not let it consume you, but at the same time do not be ashamed of it. Doubt and searching are often the ways that we come to experience God in new and more beautiful ways.

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A Call to Simplicity

When Jesus sends out his disciples in Matthew 10, he tells them to not take “any gold, silver, or copper” with them. He told them to not even bring “a bag…extra shirt, sandals or staff.” He then emphasized that the “worker is worth his keep.” It was a pretty radical thing to ask from his disciples, to basically go with no provisions from town to town, trusting that God and those who they came in contact with would help provide for their necessities.

Jesus wanted them to live a life of faith, which entailed living a life of simplicity. It was a simplicity that far surpasses any meager attempts we might make to “cut down” on our consumption and excess. Is Jesus calling of us to such a radical pledge of poverty? Perhaps not, but he does it raise a powerful point about our need to live a life of simplicity.

Simplicity is not a concept that sits well in our nation. It goes against our whole consumeristic, capitalistic society which thrives on people always wanting something bigger, brighter, and better. Advertising tries to convince that we should not be content with what we have-we need more. Jesus’ radical call to his disciples was the complete opposite. They were not to even bring an extra shirt or pair of shoes for their journey. Jesus knew that excessive possessions and wealth tend to weigh us down and distract us from his kingdom. Though we may not all be called to renounce all our possession, we all are called to simplify our lives and avoid excess with not only hurts us but those around us.

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In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out his disciples to the Jewish towns to spread the news of the Kingdom of God. He told them to continue their work in the towns in which they were accepted. In the towns where they rejected their message, he told them to simply “shake the dust” off their feet. He told them that it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than the Jewish towns that rejected the message of the Kingdom of God.

When we hear Sodom and Gomorrah, many immediately cringe as it has been used time and time again to only lamblast LGBT people. However, when we actually look at Sodom and Gomorrah, it becomes much more complex than a rant against homosexuals. Sodom and Gomorrah were so twisted in their violence, disdain for the poor, and sexual deviancy. Rabbis gave accounts that the people of Sodom would literally kill and make visitors starve to death in some type of twisted sadism. In the Talmud a story is given of a young girl who “committed” a crime in Sodom by helping out a poor person. Her punishment was being strung up and covered with honey until the bees killed her. Another story is told in Genesis of two angels visiting Lot. Shortly after they came, the men in the city wanted to rape them. In turn Lot gave his daughters to be raped by the masses. All this to say, basically Sodom makes the most “evil” or “sinful” place in the modern world look pretty tame. They were right up there with Nazi Germany, perhaps even worse.

However, Jesus said that on judgment day the cities that rejected his message would be more harshly judged than the sadistic, violent, twisted cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? How could this be? We like to think that we will be measured by our actions, but Jesus points out that the main thing is not our actions, but our actions given the opportunities and circumstances we have been given. It is easy for us to think we are superior to Nazi soldiers, ISIS followers, etc. However, would we be any different if we had been placed in the same situation as those we see as “evil”? We have largely been raised in a situation where we have freedom of religion, access to information, and basic standards of human rights. Therefore, we should not measure ourselves against those throughout history or the world, but by a much higher standard. It is a humbling idea to realize, but it should be one that shakes us from complacency.

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In Matthew 9, Jesus is described as having compassion for the masses, because they were like sheep with no shepard, no one to lead them, no one to protect them, no one to embrace them. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry was the idea of compassion, it was a people centered system, not primarily an ideological system.

In theory, everyone loves compassion. However, in reality, it is often much more difficult because it involves working and with and caring for people who are complex, difficult, and even at a times antagonistic. Compassion also means opening up ourselves to the hurts, fear, and struggles of others. It gives us no option to simply stand at a distance and remain unaffected or uninvolved.

All too often, ideology takes the place of true compassion for others. For those on the right, it could be traditional values and social order, for those on the left, it could be a desire for social justice. However, whatever our ideology is, no matter how noble or how correct, it means absolutely nothing without a true compassion or love for others. A desire for morality turns into self righteousness. A desire for societal justice turns to bitterness. As Paul said, even giving our bodies to be burned means nothing if it is not compelled by love. Justice, order, values, honesty, and sacrifice are all important, but without true compassion they mean nothing.

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In the story recorded in the books of Matthew and Mark, Jesus sends a “legion” of demons from a man into a group of pigs. The pigs run into the sea and drown. It is a unique story, but for the Jewish people this story would have symbolized something more than just pigs and demons-it was a specific statement to Rome.

First of all, the demons who are cast out from the man say that there name is legion. Ironically, the tenth Roman legion who were notrorious for their brutality were stationed in this area. It was also likely that this large herd of over 2000 pigs were being raised for the Roman army. When Jesus sent the demons go into the pigs, it was a direct confrontation to the imperialism of Rome.Jesus never told his followers to fight against Rome and always demanded non-violence. However, that did mean that he embraced the Roman rule.

He repeatedly tries to subvert the Roman rule and the Roman values of imperialism and conquest. In fact, when Jesus said he was the Son of God, it was a direct confrontation to Caesar who claimed he was the son of God. Though Jesus told his followers to be peaceful in the face of oppression, he never told them to accept it or embrace the Roman power structure. As the pigs used to feed the Roman armies were drowned in the sea, the Son of God was declaring his power over the Roman Empire and offering his followers a different vision of the world, a new type of kingdom where imperialism and militarism would also be abolished.

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In the 7th chapter of Matthew, a story is told of Jesus casting demons out of two men in the area of Gadarenes. The demons ask not to be left to wander, so Jesus tells them to go into the large herd of pigs close by. The pigs all ran into the sea. The people in the town were furious at the money that was lost, and they “begged” him to leave the area.

It is certainly an interesting story. One can understand why Jesus would want to heal or deliver two demon possessed men. However, what was the purpose of him having the demons go into the pigs? Wasn’t that a waste of resources, capital? A couple of things are pretty clear. It was not a small, poor former who owned these pigs. In the book of Mark, it said there were over 2000 pigs. It would have been completely contrary to the characters of Jesus in the Gospels to have destroyed the livelihood of a small farmer whether the food was a “clean” animal such as a lamb or an “unclean” animal such as a pig.

It also seems that Jesus gave little care to the excessive wealth that was destroyed when the demons went from the men into the pigs. Perhaps, he was trying to show the town that they had been so concerned about the production of more wealth, but were unconcerned with the tormented men in their own village. Jesus never sought to justify the excessive wealth of the powerful in his day. He seemed to always call it out, and in this case, he actually destroyed it.  Jesus never apologizes for drowning the pigs. It is more than likely that whoever the owned the pigs was also exploiting his workers, and the Jewish people as a whole. From the very fact that it was pigs, it was most likely deeply tied to the Roman occupation. Jesus wanted everyone to know that he always favored rescuing individuals. He cared little for the wealth of the powerful. He came to show a new vision of the world, where the last would become first, and the first would become last

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