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Archive for June, 2015

In Matthew 20, there is an interesting story of two blind men who call out for Jesus to heal them. The crowd was actually angry at them because they were a distraction from the teachings of Jesus. It is pretty crazy concept. The crowds were listening to the words of the Prince of Peace, the face of love, and they were angry because two blind men were asking to be healed.

Instead of rebuking the blind men like the crowds, Jesus has compassion on them and heals them. He was not concerned that they interrupted his preaching and teaching. Though his ideas and teachings were of great importance, he did not let them get in the way of his loving actual human beings in front of him. He put the personal and tangible ahead of the theoretical. He wanted to put actual love for humanity ahead of the philosophy and ideology he was teaching. What a lesson for us today. We can go out to change the world, but unless we are showing true love to those around us-it is pointless.

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In Matthew 20, there is an almost humorous account of the mother of James and John coming to Jesus and asking him to give her sons the top places of authority in his new kingdom. You can almost see Jesus rolling his eyes at the request. What kind of request was the mother giving? Of course, when the other disciples heard it, they were outraged at the request. Who did James and John think they were?

Jesus used this as a teaching example to tell his disciples about the dangers of seeking greater power in order to lord over other people. He tells them that the greatest must become the least. I love the way William Barclay describes what Jesus was saying, “Therein is greatness. The world may assess a man’s greatness by the number of people whom he controls and who are at his beck and call; or by his intellectual standing and his academic eminence; or by the number of committees of which he is a member; or by the size of his bank balance and the material possessions which he has amassed; but in the assessment of Jesus Christ these things are irrelevant. His assessment is quite simply–how many people has he helped?”

Jesus not only warned his followers about the love and accumulation of excessive wealth, he also warned them about the lust for power, the desire to reign over other people. Though many will give noble reasons for their drive for power, it often has a very malevolent aspect to it. Unfortunately, so many of our CEOs, politicians, military leaders, etc are driven by this lust for power. In reality, most of us are. The message of Jesus is in complete opposition to this societal thinking. He told his followers that the greatest have to become the least. This is even more applicable to the church. Whenever our desire for political, cultural, or social power overpowers our desire to be of service to those around us, especially the most needy, we have lost our way.

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Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 is very relevant to the modern issue of social welfare. Though many of the social welfare programs were started based on Christian ethics and morals, the religious right has largely derided social welfare programs, with some even painting those on social where fail as leeches in the system.

In Jesus’ parable, those who only had worked a few hours earned as much as those who had worked the whole day. Obviously, those who worked the whole day were angry. They thought it was completely unjust that those who didn’t work near the hours got the same pay. We don’t know why these workers only came at the last-minute to work. The ones who worked all day probably assumed they were just being lazy. For some of them, this may really been the case. However, others may not have worked because there was a sickness in the family, they were injured, or they simply couldn’t find work earlier.

In Jesus’ teaching, the owner of the vineyard pays the workers who showed up at the end, whether it was from laziness, sickness, or inability to find work, the same as those who had worked all day. Jesus’ teachings focus on grace for all rather than a rigid “fairness”. This has great application to what the Christian response should be towards social welfare. Like any program, some of course will take advantage of the system. However, that should not be the greatest concern. The most important thing is that those who need help get it. Because of the one we follow, Christians should be the most supportive of a robust social welfare program.

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In Matthew 20, Jesus tells the story of the workers in the vineyard. He says that the Kingdom of God is like the owner of a vineyard who hires out men for the daily wage. However, the story goes that he not only gives the same daily wage to the people who are working the whole day, but also to those who only worked half a day and even those who worked just a few hours at the end. At the end of the day, the people who worked the whole day were angry because the people who only worked a few hours got the same pay.

Is easy to understand why they were angry. On one level it does not seem to be fair. However, on another level it was absolutely fair. The owner didn’t cheat the people who worked the whole day. He paid them exactly what they had agreed to. They were only angry because he was being generous with the others. If he decided to give generously to those who “didn’t deserve it” no one had the right to be angry.

Jesus wanted his followers to know that he valued grace far more than he did a superficial and shallow idea of “fairness.” He wanted his followers to break out of the idea that everyone gets exactly what they deserve. Jesus wanted to show us that we need to show grace and love even to those who we will feel do not deserve it. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, those only worked a few hours in the end were paid the same as those who worked all day. Grace, mercy, and generosity triumph over fairness. It is a truth that is at the heart of the Kingdom of God

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In Matthew 19, the story is told of the rich young ruler. He came to Jesus wanting to know how to obtain eternal life. He assures Jesus that he has kept all the commandments since he was young. He obeyed his father and mother. He had not committed adultery. He obviously had never killed anyone. However, Jesus did not seem to be impressed with the superficial morality. He wanted to show the man something more.

The young ruler was very rich. Many of the rich in the ancient Near East, just like many of the rich in our modern-day world, gain their riches on the backs of the poor and the oppressed. Extreme wealth is rarely earned in a vacuum. It often entails a great level of exploitation. Jesus knew this as the rich young ruler approached him. Though the rich young ruler may not have blatantly broken the 10 Commandments, he most likely defied the justice of God and his fellow man in his pursuit of wealth at the expense of others.

Sometimes this passage is overspiritualized, and people will say that it was just a problem of the rich young ruler loving the money more than God. While that is certainly part of the story, it is also important to realize that extreme wealth itself is against the ideals of the Kingdom of God. Any society where a few can have obscene wealth while the majority are struggling to get by has not yet realized the message of Jesus. In the end, Jesus did not call the rich young man to simply “symbolically” dedicate his money to God. Rather, he told him to sell it all and give it to the poor. It is a challenging passage for all of us in the prosperous west to really accept.

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The story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 is a fascinating one. It shows the priorities and radical nature of the message of Jesus. It also shows us that Jesus was not enamored with wealth nor those who held it. How different it would be if the rich young ruler came to one of our churches today.

We know that our politicians have been corrupted by wealth. Few politicians can actually talk about issues of inequality, exploitation, and greed because the wealthy fund their campaigns. Unfortunately, this same dynamic also plays in the church. Few are actually willing to call out the dangers regarding the excess of wealth because they don’t want to offend the wealthy donors.

Unlike so many today, Jesus was not impressed with the rich young ruler’s wealth. He did not gravel before him asking for donations. He called out his excessive wealth and told them to give his money to the poor (or perhaps back to the poor whom he had originally exploited). Because Jesus was not beholden to wealth or those who have it, he could speak the truth about poverty, riches, inequality, and greed. How we need that prophetic voice today.

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In Matthew 19, Jesus lays out one of the most controversial passages in the Gospels regarding divorce. The religious leaders come to ask Jesus if it is permitted to divorce one’s wife for any reason. They correctly state that Moses had given them the option for divorce. However, Jesus shows them a different path. He tells him the divorce is not the original ideal, and anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.

Of course, this passage has been abused by the church. It has justified keeping people in abusive, toxic, soul damaging relationships. It has caused the Catholic Church to even deny the Eucharist to those who are divorced. However, is important to look at this passage in it’s historical context. Remember that ancient Israel was not like the modern Western world. Women had very few rights. As one can see from the passage, only men were allowed to issue a divorce. A divorced woman was a scorned woman as well. Men held incredible power to not only lead to their wife’s shame but also to their poverty. The very question of whether a man could divorce his wife for any reason comes from a place of extreme chauvinism The teachings of Jesus on divorce were actually some of the most liberating for the female population at the time. It calls for their dignity and rights in a society where they were too often denied. If we do not see that in our modern context, we are missing the whole point.

In Jesus’ teaching on divorce to the ancient Hebrew world, he is undermining the whole system of rigid patriarchy where women were often helpless victims. Whenever Jesus’s words are used to support male power and privilege, we are reading his words out of context. The kingdom of God that Jesus preached of is a radical kingdom where there is actually equality between male and female, something that was unheard of in most of the ancient world.

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