you will always have the poor with you to help

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8; NRSVue

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Deuteronomy 15:7-11; NRSVue

It is common to use Jesus’s words, “You will always have the poor with you,” as to somehow wave off and dismiss the poor. They’re poor for a reason, someone will say, and they have to suffer the consequences. We can’t bail them out, because it will do no good. But is that what Jesus really meant?

Contrary to that, Judas Iscariot was paying lip service to the tradition ingrained in Jewish religious practice from Scripture, even if not highly valued or valued in the same way in rabbinic tradition, that the poor should be helped. That we should give regularly give alms which means helping the poor is taken for granted in Jesus’s teaching (Matthew 6). And the Deuteronomy passage above is explicit about it, the text which Jesus was probably alluding to in his response to Judas. There will always be some in need which we’re to help. But Jesus’s death and burial was indeed a special occasion, so that money that would have ordinarily been set apart to help the poor, could instead be used in honor of Jesus.

There seems to be a penchant not just in American society, but when you study the history of western society as well, but a penchant to cast the poor into a bad light. And with a tendency to push them aside, more or less put up with them, and definitely not give them the help they need. And since the industrial revolution, those making money for the rich few are more or less grounded in the dust, required to work long hours for unfair wages in often quite poor, unhealthy conditions, doing most difficult work. Societies which don’t have good safety net programs to help those in need do not deserve to be considered humane, much less Christian. The church should make helping the poor a high and first priority. But all societies, as well. Christians and Christianity should be known for lovingly helping the poor, leading the way in it. Never prey to false ideologies which unlike Jesus, disparage the poor. In and through Jesus.

sometimes you can only endure (and that’s it)

You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:11b; NRSVue

If you read the book of Job, you’re not going to find a patient Job. Job was arguably and I think accurately impatient with both God and Job’s friends. And one possible reading of Job is that he holds out to the very end, not necessarily impressed with God’s answer (Pete Enns on Job). There is more than one way to read Job, and in Jewish tradition, that is normal. And we might even say there’s an openness to it in the Christian tradition through Lectio Divina and perhaps in other ways.

When it gets right down to it, there may be days and times that one has to endure, trudge and even grind their way through. You endure in the sense that you keep doing what you have to do, trying to always be loving and right in what you do. And just keep doing that. Or maybe like in the case of Job, the pain is so excruciating and the loss so hurtful, that you can only cry out in painful lament, while not letting go of faith, enduring as far as faith is concerned.

Job was declared right in the end, and his orthodox correct friends wrong, which is interesting (note link to Enns above). God is revealed in Christ, unbroken by the way in that God is fully present in Christ, and not somehow absent at the cross as if the Trinity could be divided. God takes on God’s Self all of our wrong, every bit of it, and turns that into forgiveness through death and the new life which follows. God endured in Christ too, out of love. And in that love, we too are often called to simply endure. Endure, endure and endure again. Especially during most difficult seasons, but day after day as well. In and through Jesus.

back to “ordinary time”

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

“Ordinary Time” is a liturgical term used for the western church calendar that is other than the special seasons such as Advent and Lent. Although there’s at least a bit more to it as to why this term was adopted for the church calendar, I like the concept of ordinary. So often we’re tied up in knots over this and that, then something else. And we just need to get back to what might seem irrelevant, even too often mundane. What’s next in Scripture? And go slowly from one thing to the next.

I know that has nothing to do with the exact reason for the use of this term, as it has to do with times not marked by special occasion. Yes, it’s wonderful to have the special seasons of Advent then Christmas and Christmas season as well as Lent and Easter along with Eastertide. We can and should benefit from such wonderful occasions which help us to focus on Christ and the good news in him. Similarly there are those special seasons in our lives in which we’re working on this and that, oftentimes for me in regard to anxiety and spiritual warfare. But by and by we have to just lay those things aside, and keep plodding along from what might seem ordinary in that we may find it rather unremarkable, and not that related to us. But that’s when we need to slow down all the more, because God will help us to see and receive what we truly need from every part of Scripture. Admittedly, some specific parts are challenging that way, such as in Leviticus, though if we step back and look at each part from the perspective of the whole, we might gain some better appreciation for it, as well as some connection to life in the present.

Crisis and trials and troubles do hit us, and we can call those extraordinary times in which God wants to do a most significant work. But even in ordinary time we can’t avoid trouble, and we do well to settle in for something more low key, realizing that while we do seek to tackle issues head on at times, by and large we again do well to settle into the mode of taking one thing after the other. Realizing that we need it all, everything God has to give us in Scripture which is actually related to and through the gospel. Such will help us even with reference to the problems we work at better negotiating. We need the entire picture, the whole context, to better understand each part. God is present to help us in this as we keep moving forward day after day, yes in ordinary time, in ordinary life. In and through Jesus.

stop!

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…

James 1:2

Sometimes, in fact I think oftentimes when we’re reading Scripture we need to slow down and even stop. Yes, I know it’s important to read Scripture in context, and really, all of it. And we need to keep doing so. But there are probably too many times when we don’t let something sink in well enough, so that it never takes root and makes the needed difference in our lives. I’m speaking of God’s truth, of God’s word and nothing less.

Just yesterday I was still submerged in something which had taken away what peace and joy I had, for days. I thought I needed to get back to the basics in the book the Lord seemed to tell me I need to be in: James. So I went back to this passage. And instead of proceeding like I normally do, through the entire passage and context, I dwelled for hours, really the rest of the day just on the words quoted above. And not long after I began to do this, it really began to sink into my heart. Yes, I’m to consider whatever trials I’m facing nothing but joy. Consider, yes, as it likely is not at all the experience. But a peace and joy began to settle in again.

I was well aware of the rest of the passage (click link above) and that’s good. But I needed for the health of my soul to settle into this one part. And hopefully that will make a difference the rest of my life. Whatever the trial, to seek to grow through it, perhaps do better, and certainly trust the Lord more.

So again let’s slow down as we read Scripture. Stopping more often in prayerful meditation. So that God and God’s word might get through to us much more. In and through Jesus.

what is God like?

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

John 14:8-9

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…

Hebrews 1:1-3a

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

1 Corinthians 2:2

When we think of God, what comes to mind? Do we think of a God of judgment, ready to catch us in our latest misstep or sin? Do we think of God as an angry wrath-full God, with whom sinners should be on more than edge, even shuddering? Or maybe we think of God as something like a complacent Teddy Bear who doesn’t care and with whom everything is fine. Or maybe God is just something we haven’t given that much thought to. Perhaps we chalk it down to mystery, and just don’t know.

We find out that Jesus is not only the promised Messiah, but that he fulfills time and time again prophecies which are attributed to God as if he were God or God was in him. And we find out that indeed it’s all of the above.

Jesus spoke about the Father again and again, particularly so in John’s gospel account. So for Thomas to inquire about just who this Father really is in a way is not surprising. I can picture myself doing the same, and in my imagination see myself in Thomas at least to some extent. But Jesus seems surprised and makes it clear that when Thomas and the others, and all of us see him, they see the Father.

We might well say that Jesus is God’s final word. He is after all “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14).

That doesn’t mean we don’t take into account all of what Scripture says about God. But it also means that we interpret all of that in light of Christ, who comes both to fulfill it, and as its fulfillment. And how he did that was more than a surprise, not anticipated at all. They expected God to send the Deliverer to a faithful Israel who would overthrow the Romans, the pagans, the godless, and set up a kingdom which would rule with an iron rod over all the nations, all of this according to the Pharisees, and one of their own, Saul of Tarsus (later to become Paul) with resurrection power.* So it should be no surprise at all when Christ comes and does completely different than that, that people wondered. Yes, there was no way to ignore him and what followed, but it just didn’t add up with their understanding, their interpretation of Scripture.

And then at the end, Jesus is hung on a Roman cross, thus under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So there was no doubt that something was amiss here.

Oddly enough though, I believe that’s where we understand at least the heart of God and I believe who God is by looking at the cross and Jesus hanging there. God shows God’s self by becoming one of us in the Incarnation, faithfully lives and teaches and acts to help us, and then suffers the worst death of that time, the death of the cross. Suffering physically in an excruciating way, emotionally and spiritually over the feeling of being rejected by humans and abandoned by God. And all out of love. And all who put their faith in him are forgiven and receive new life, because in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are taken into a new existence by the Spirit, into the new creation beginning even here and now in and among us in Christ. A life for us now which paradoxically in resurrection power means taking the way of the cross, becoming more and more like Jesus in his death, and therefore more like God was and is and forever will be (Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 13:8).

And the last book of the Bible, Revelation, is the climax of all of this. Jesus is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, thus “lion” once in that book, and how? By being a lamb (28 or 29 times) right up to the end, on the throne with God. Coming with his robe dipped in his own blood with his faithful, the victory through his own death and the sword coming out of his mouth, in other words the word of his mouth, what he says. That’s how he unexpectedly fulfills God’s promises (Revelation 19:11-16).**

How do we understand God? Who is God? I believe we see it in a man hanging on a Roman cross some 2,000 years ago. And all else must be interpreted and seen in that light. Otherwise just like the Jews of old, we’ll indeed miss it, as I believe many are today.

In and through Jesus.

*See Tim Gombis’s most helpful book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry.     

**See Michael J. Gorman’s most helpful book, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation.

when do we really “get it”?

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

James 1:22-25

It’s interesting, the wonderful experience we can have when some light of truth among the many truths found in Scripture, dawns on us. It’s just as interesting how short-lived most experiences are. That doesn’t mean they don’t have value, but that in and of themselves they are only a good means to the good end.

We must act on what we see from Scripture, from God’s word to us. We have to put it into practice to really “get it” in having the understanding God wants to give us. That is where the rubber meets the road, when we not only understand an insight given, whether as in like a light shining in our hearts or just rationally in our heads, but when we also prayerfully determine to act on it, so that our lives can begin to be changed.

In and through Jesus.

reading Scripture differently

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Luke 24:25-27

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:32

There is no doubt that we need the Spirit of God, Christ himself to give us clarity and understanding when we’re reading Scripture. Otherwise we won’t get it the way God wants us to get it. Something of that was going on here, no doubt. But also Jesus was surely teaching his disciples what the church has learned at least in the best of its tradition to do: Read Scripture, specifically the Old Testament, but all of Scripture in light of Christ and the fulfillment he brings. Otherwise we’ll tend to see it primarily through our own cultural lens. First and foremost we must see all of Scripture through the revelation which Christ brings.

But add to this, we as Christians can differ in how we read Scripture in another basic way. We can fall into what I think is the error of practically seeing Scripture as an end in itself, and miss out to a significant extent on its main point: the gospel, the good news fulfilled in Christ. Some make such an important matter out of an inerrant view of Scripture that they think Scripture depends on that being the case. But what Scripture actually depends on is the truth and reality centered in Jesus, in the gospel, in the truth of the resurrection. All hinges on that. Of course there’s much we can and should glean from the parts of Scripture, without losing sight of the whole, and the point of it.

We also need to read Scripture in the light God gives us elsewhere: in science, culture, from wherever that light may come. That doesn’t nullify a word in Scripture one iota. But it does help us understand its own historical context. And to see how Scripture points us to something which is above and beyond such contexts, yet can still be played out within any setting.

What is most important for us is that we seek to remain in Scripture, intent in believing and obeying God, intent in following Christ with others through the gospel.

the dangers and possibilities of each new day

Listen to my words, Lord,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.

Psalm 5:1-3

Listen, God! Please, pay attention!
Can you make sense of these ramblings,
my groans and cries?
King-God, I need your help.
Every morning
you’ll hear me at it again.
Every morning
I lay out the pieces of my life
on your altar
and watch for fire to descend.

Psalm 5:1-3; MSG

We as humans are very experiential creatures. And the psalms are lock stocked with the language and sentiment of experience. We often go from lows to highs and then back to lows. Some of us experience this quite pronounced, others of us not that much variation, and probably most of the rest of us somewhere in between.

Psalm 5 is a good passage to remind us how to start each day. I think both the evening before we go to sleep, and the morning when we arise are important in how we do this. To read Scripture, maybe a liturgical prayer book for night (Compline) is good. To arise and be in Scripture and prayer, morning prayer and reading is good. We can’t take for granted that a good day at least in how it worked out will carry over into the next day.

It’s not about us having a good time, and that’s it. Instead it’s about living in God’s grace and all that means in terms of forgiveness of sins and new life, and having the vision to see what God might have us do, or be pleased to help us do in the new day. And even if it’s just filled with the routines of what we have to do, to do that in the breath and love of God.

At any rate, for some of us this is a matter almost of survival, at least of experiencing and living out this salvation from God well. Growing in that. So we have to take this seriously. Every day is God’s and for us that’s a good and ultimately happy prospect. We bring ourselves to God each new day, and look to God for his answer and help to us. In and through Jesus.

losing one’s focus (and one’s mind)

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:34-38

The call to follow Jesus is singularly one of focus and then acting accordingly. Certainly within the entire picture is all of Scripture, sorting out what is Jesus-like and in accord with the fulfillment Jesus brought from that which is not. Just because some person of God did something in Scripture does not make it right, or at least not right for us today. Remember Elijah calling down fire from heaven, and Jesus rebuking his disciples for wanting to do the same?

How Jesus’s words to his disciples during that time translate into our day is no small order, though I think there’s surely some direct corollary. We don’t have crosses now, but we must embrace the path of suffering for following Christ, and not just in some kind of western religious, salvation kind of way where nowadays so much about that at least expressed is about religious freedom. No, the way of Jesus can often strike right in the face of religious leaders, and certainly runs against the grain of the world’s way of thinking and action. Might doesn’t make right in God’s kingdom in King Jesus, nor lording it over others. Sacrificial, even suffering servant love wins the day in God’s eyes.

I have to ask when I see the mess today: “Are we losing our collective minds?” It’s so easy for us to lose our focus. And then go off on all sorts of directions other than where the Lord is going.

If we’re going to be true followers of Jesus, we need to learn to put first things first, get back to basics in what we’re focusing on, thinking about, and then practicing. It’s a matter of unswerving devotion to Christ, nothing else having that same place. It is also about being changed by the renewing of our minds so that we do not live in the ways of the world. We are called to follow Christ with the difference God’s kingdom brings- into our world, into all the world. In and through Jesus.

self-care

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Mark 6:30-31

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.

Mark 7:24

These two incidents in Mark’s gospel account were unsuccessful attempts by Jesus to withdraw and rest with his disciples, even perhaps by himself, as we see in the second instance. Surely this was a practice, something he had his disciples do with him on a regular basis interspersed between all the activity in their full days.

Self-care has never been high on my list of things I actually cared about. At least not explicitly, in my thinking, though really most of us do it to some degree automatically, somewhat like moving your finger off something that’s too hot.

I am finding for myself that self-care actually is helping me come around and get my bearings in ways I previously haven’t.

Self-care doesn’t mean self-indulgence or laziness. Taking care of oneself physically and spiritually, of course mentally and socially in that mix as well. The physical part can be underrated. We surely see something of that in the two passages above. We as humans are physical. You can’t disconnect that part from who we are. That affects everything else. If I don’t get enough sleep, then I’ll likely suffer the consequences later on, being dog tired at work, or irritable, not feeling good, whatever. So we have to take care of ourselves. Eating well, also.

And it definitely means taking care of myself spiritually. I want to do so in communion and participation with others of God’s people. We miss church meeting now, though we’ve met outdoors with our small group, socially distanced in the warm breezy summer air. And seeking to shore up on the basics: Scripture reading and meditation, and prayer.

Self-care has its place. Otherwise it’s replaced with all kinds of things which may not be good. Better to get back to square one and see this as nothing less than a responsibility.

Jesus was fully human, so needed it himself. How much more do we? God will help us; Jesus understand fully, and will help us.

In and through Jesus.