against greed

Then [Jesus] said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

Luke 12:15

Jesus’s words here are followed by what is called, “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” But it’s assumed in our society that a lot of money is good, so that for many people careers are successful more or less depending on how much money is made.

Jesus warns against that. We have to consider all of Scripture as well. Wisdom books tells us it’s good to avoid debt, to not try to hit the jackpot but save little by little, to work hard. And we’re told that money itself is not the sin, but the love of money. That those who are rich should be generous with their wealth. And that helping the poor is a priority to God.

It seems like just to make a living one gets sucked into a vortex predicated on profit. Wall Street lives on that, it’s all about profit. God’s provision for many of us will involve being a participant in that. It’s the way of the world, but we live in the world, and there’s surely no escape for most of us. That means minimum wage jobs for too many, or wages not much better, sometimes for long work hours, and with next to no benefits, dependent on whatever government might provide, or government and volunteer services.

What Jews lived in during Jesus’s day was probably not much better. Roman taxation, not to mention occupation, along with the greed that all too characterized religious leaders made life hard for many. So it’s not like we can expect to find something better in what Scripture calls “the world” as in the world’s system. It seems like it will always be a struggle. In the society in which I live, the rich seem to be getting richer, arguably and I think often plausibly at the expense of the poor. Supposedly the rich will take care of the poor through jobs made and fair wages. Yet the gap between the rich and the poor increases.

What does this have to do with Scripture, or the passage above? We need to understand the times in which we live, so that in light of what God tells us, we will know what to do. That’s an ongoing project, needing all who are interested. As for me, I’m more dependent myself on those who would want to work through that. But I think it’s plain enough for us to see through what many see as the dream to aspire to, looking up to those who seem to be doing well in living it.

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:13-21

 

 

blessed are you poor

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.

“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Luke 6:20-26

Jesus’s words have to be understood in the context of their times, and the gospel accounts. Not a few times he got after religious leaders who loved money and even took advantage of poor widows. The calling to his disciples was to follow Jesus, which meant total trust in the Father for their provisions. But in terms of the world, relative poverty. Not that many in Jesus’s day didn’t struggle to make ends meet. Roman taxation imposed a heavy burden and most of the Jews were not considered wealthy.

A close reading of the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John along with the rest of the New Testament indicates that having wealth is not really the issue. It seems more like an issue of everything being at God’s disposal, and doing good with the wealth one has. And a big part of that is helping the poor, which when we turn the pages of all of Scripture, we’ll find again and again is one of God’s major concerns, and especially how the rich treat the poor, God often leveling judgment because of their mistreatment in being pillaged by the rich, or not helped.

It does seem to be a common theme that Jesus’s disciples are to live simply, not at all to accumulate material possessions, but in view of God’s coming kingdom in Jesus, and the true riches that are essentially spiritual. In terms of one’s relationship with God and others in the communion and community of Jesus. In following Jesus, people find that their true life is in God, and want to share that same life with others.

But that doesn’t mean material things don’t matter. Humans are not just spiritual, but physical beings as well. Food, clothing, and shelter are considered the basic essentials it seems, according to Jesus’s words. And yet Jesus had no home of his own. And Paul tells us that poverty can’t separate us from God’s love. It seems like this period of time in between Christ’s first and second coming is one that isn’t normal. God’s kingdom is present, but not fully in place, one might say. So that now, followers of Christ who are part of that kingdom live in a world that is at odds with it. Which is why we see Christians living in relative poverty in countries where they are more or less persecuted, and indeed marginalized.

Jesus’s woes are to those who fail to help the poor, who have not obeyed his call. It’s essentially a gospel, good news mission for all, particularly for those who see their needs ultimately fulfilled in and by God. Who are not sufficient in themselves, and see themselves as completely God’s both in terms of devotion and mission. Who can enjoy God’s provisions, but are generous in sharing that wealth with others, particularly those in need, and in so doing are rich toward God. In and through Jesus.

the wonderful story of Zacchaeus

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:1-10

It is interesting how Jesus approached different people. There was the rich young man whom Jesus told to sell his possessions and give to the poor and he would have treasure in heaven. Then to follow Jesus. Although this man had taken the initiative by asking Jesus what he must to do inherit eternal life, Jesus’s answer left him despondent. He would not because in his mind evidently he could not. His possessions were so much a part of his life, who he was. He was after all quite wealthy. The Lord knew what was in his heart and what he needed. Just perhaps he repented later, though sadly, as far as I know, and certainly from scripture itself we have no indication of such (Luke 18:18-30; Matthew 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30).

Zacchaeus is a different case. A chief tax-collector, wealthy. Curious when he heard Jesus was passing through Jericho, of course we know on Jesus’s way to the cross. He happened to be short in stature, and so he had to maneuver in some way to hopefully see the Master. And what did he do but run ahead and climb up a sycamore fig tree. And as if on cue, the Lord stops and looks up at Zacchaeus in the tree, and calls him by name, telling him that he must come to his house that day.

Zacchaeus received him gladly, and others were present with them that day. But people were taken back, muttering that Jesus was going to be a guest of a sinner. Zacchaeus’s response is so refreshing. He tells the Lord that he’s going to give half of his possessions to the poor, and if he has cheated anyone, he will pay them back four times the amount. Zacchaeus’s heart is made evident by his words and then the actions which backed them up. Jesus affirmed and confirmed that, when he said that salvation had come to that house that day since he was a true son of Abraham. And that this all figured into what Jesus had come to do: to seek and save what was lost.

Such a wonderful story. In line with scripture’s passion, really God’s passion and priority of helping the poor. I am looking forward to meeting Zacchaeus someday, and hearing more of his story. It brings joy to the heart, just what God can do in our hearts and lives in and through Jesus.

blessed routine

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

There is something it seems like our society wants to get away from, to escape as much as possible, which I actually should be appreciated, if it was recognized for the blessing it is. That is, routine. I’m thinking in terms of regular responsibility, which actually is a privilege to be involved in, and carry on. Instead nowadays, it seems like people want as much freedom and free time as possible. I’m not at all suggesting that there might be better ways to do work, or that we always have to do things the same way. Or that we should work long hours and long weeks, with little time off. No. And there may be new approaches to work that are different and fresh, indeed, helpful.

Usually trouble follows us wherever we go, not just because we’re creating it ourselves hopefully, though that reality exists from which we can learn, even if just from being finite beings. But simply because we live in a broken, fallen world. It seems like if something can “so south,” it will, being hard to keep everything pointed to “the true north” (these sayings from the compass). Due to imperfections everywhere, from nearly every direction, there will be trouble. And that simply becomes a part of the normal routine we have to work on, and live with.

We’re to find satisfaction in all of that, no less, and even, no more. Ecclesiastes suggests that if wealth is added to that, then that’s all well and good, people occupied with gladness of heart, I suppose being able to do this and that, to enjoy life. Whereas those financially strapped, or living in relative poverty may be limited, yet hopefully blessed with a job to make ends meet. Though sadly here in the United States, a living wage is not guaranteed for any forty hour job. One should be able to live in humble quarters, and provide well enough for themselves with a full time job. Life isn’t easy, although some pieces are dropping in to many places, for example in Africa, to help societies and families have work, and provide for their own. The free enterprise system and capitalism are regularly beaten up by many progressives, but in my opinion, are not evil in and of themselves. Any system can become wrong, or more accurately have many wrongs because of the people who are in charge and in place in them.

Continuing on in the blessed routine, in whatever God gives us, should be something we learn to appreciate. For some of us, retirement age is approaching. If God gives us health, that can be a step into another blessed routine, of day in and day out, doing much the same things, hopefully to our own enjoyment, and even delight, and for the blessing of others. As we continue on as witnesses in all of this, to the truth and power of the good news of God in Jesus.

 

finding the wealth in poverty

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

Scripture and especially in the way of Jesus is full of paradox in which the normal order of things seems upside down. What works in the world isn’t at all what works in the way of the Lord. Unless somehow the world’s values are imposed on the church, which all too often is the case, and which we need to guard against both in our personal lives, and together, in the life and witness of the church. Of course that’s not to say that somehow we don’t try to connect with others in following Paul’s example of being all things to all people to by all possible means save as many as possible (1 Corinthians 9).

The way Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount is especially near and dear to me, since most all of my life I’ve really struggled internally. And scripture and especially the gospel does answer much of that struggle, for example the Lord gives us his peace in his presence in the Father’s love by the Spirit which is for all of us, for all who believe.

I find over and over again that accepting the struggle and hard places of life, instead of trying to find an answer past or around them is key for me. I find the Lord in those places, his strength in my weakness. I also have found again and again that the Lord meets me in the depths, in the hardest places. And that I shouldn’t be afraid of either pressure or even controversy, both inevitable even as simple followers of Jesus. But I am more than happy for those times which are relaxing and in which there doesn’t seem to be a care in the world.

The poor in spirit is an apt description of myself and my own spirit and spiritual state. But I find that’s where faith is born, and grows, and even thrives. Not in a world in which everything is awesome with high fives. But in a place of struggle which encourages humility so that we’re cast upon God.

I get in trouble when I am trying to find the spiritual secret to getting out of my mess. But when I accept the poverty, then ironically I find the Lord’s hand to help me to a place that seems more like Jesus, in him. Paul’s thought in Philippians comes to mind here:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

Philippians 3

Over and over again, we find this to be true in the witness of scripture, and in life. With that comes the danger of caving in, and not having the right attitude in the midst of difficulty. Instead we need to press on in faith, and learn to rest in Jesus and the Father’s love in him. Accepting poverty so that we might find true riches in and through Jesus.

a lazy faith

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Revelation 3

I often find, sadly, that when things are going well, I can have a quite lazy faith. One might even say this can be a first world problem, because relatively speaking compared to many in the world, life is good for most of us. Although hard trials can barge in to any person or family, to be sure. What I don’t like are the very issues and problems through which I might end up much closer to God, and more like Jesus, than I would have been without them.

In the case of the Laodicean church, there was nothing the matter, and life was good. They were living it up in the lap of luxury. Thankfully for them, the Lord was not going to let them go. He stepped in to discipline them in love. He was longing for their communion with him, no less. This isn’t really a passage for salvation, though I’m sure God has used it that way to bring sinners into the fold. But it’s aimed at a church of at least professing believers, surely some of them born of the Spirit, but lazy in their faith to the point that faith was not something really needed for this life.

I can imagine that for some, the way they’ve been mistaught, faith is more or less about getting to heaven someday when they die, akin to what Dallas Willard used to call a “bar code” Christianity. But if we open our Bibles and keep turning the pages, we will see all the many ways that faith is for this life. And particularly when we’re up against it, our faith is awakened to possibilities which before were not needed. And we can grow in our faith, and from that in our development as mature people in a way we otherwise would not (James 1).

The Lord didn’t leave the believers who thought they had it all together alone, and he won’t leave us alone either. He loves us too much for that. Let’s respond to that love, and open the door, and let the Lord have his way in every part of our lives.

making the most of what is

It is easy for me to think of what might have been if I had done this or that, or not done something else. It’s all too easy for me to dwell on that. “What if?” might be an interesting exercise, but it ends up being more like a game than a player in reality, not helpful at all. Probably I would have been quite different, at least in what I do had I made this or that choice. I certainly wouldn’t have ended up writing this.

We do well to make the most of what is, rather than wasting any time over what might have been. We actually can ill afford any luxury of dreaming of what might have been, which in itself is perhaps rather a fool’s errand anyhow, since there is enough trouble in this world to go around for all. Some might indeed be better set in some ways, and devoted to all kinds of good works for others, though none of us are excused from doing good works out of faith and love. But all face difficulties at the least, and tragedy along with pitfalls are no respecter of persons or status. And we who seem on the short end of life in some ways should be glad for the blessing of others. And like Paul said (1 Timothy 6), encourage the rich to do good with the resources and opportunities they have.

But we need to see the good in our situation as well, including what is not ideal. God works through weakness and in difficulties in ways God may not have worked otherwise. Need often brings about a faith which otherwise would not have come. I think of some of the accounts in the gospel, quite a few of them, actually, where people appealed to Jesus out of great need. And the Laodicean church which was rich and prosperous in the eyes of the world was poor and impoverished in Christ’s eyes.

But we need also to get away from comparing, period, somehow imagining our situation is better than that of others. We ultimately are in this all together anyhow, as those in Jesus. Our lot is what it is, and we need to find God’s will and Jesus in the midst of it. To mind our own business, so to speak, and seek to do well where we’re at. To grow there through the gospel in and through Jesus.

getting uncluttered in life

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

Matthew 13

When you get older you start to think about getting rid of all the things in your house or garage that you haven’t used for years and years. Paring down, before others end up having to do that for you, or after you’re gone. I think something similar applies for all of us as followers of Jesus. We need to be unencumbered, free from what can weigh us down, and essentially knock us out, or at least greatly impair and hinder our walk in Jesus.

For me more than anything else, this involves the spiritual discipline if you want to call it that, of being in the word regularly. I feel it if for a prolonged time I’m not in the word, in scripture. And being in the word is nothing scintillating or entertaining, as a rule. Actually it goes much deeper than that, right to the heart, to the very core of one’s being, and out of that forming one’s character and what one does, over time.

There are any number of things, indeed no shortage of them, which can very much distract and burden us, yes, unnecessarily. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of responsibilities in place and challenges that come our way that we can simply ignore and forget about. It’s more like how we address those issues, what we do when we’re doing so. Are we endeavoring to walk with Jesus, to be in scripture in whatever situation we’re in? Are we active in the fellowship of the church, in a Jesus community? This is all an essential part of us being those who hear the word, understand it, and find God at work in our lives for ourselves and others in and through Jesus.

blessed are the poor in spirit

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

The NET Bible‘s note on Matthew 5:3 reflects something I believe of a scholarly consensus on this passage, seeing it as Matthew’s version of Luke’s words about the poor being happy, or blessed:

The poor in spirit is a reference to the “pious poor” for whom God especially cares. See Ps 14:6; 22:24; 25:16; 34:6; 40:17; 69:29.

That could well be. But I think that Matthew applies this, and in so doing reflects the Lord’s application or meaning here, in referring to those who know their need of God (see the NLT translation in the Matthew 5 link above). Or more accurately, simply those who are poor in spirit, the spiritually poor. In the Hebrew mindset which is reflected in Jesus’s disciples’ thinking, to be poor materially was not far removed in their eyes as failing to be under God’s blessing, indeed perhaps under God’s curse. We can see some good reason for that application with reference to Israel as a nation (the blessings and the cursings named in the Pentateuch). But God’s care for the poor, who in many cases were at least open to God in contrast to the rich, who in not a few cases victimized the poor and came under God’s judgment, is a theme in the Old/First Testament, carried over into the gospel accounts (Matthew through John) and especially a prominent theme in the book of James.

So to be poor materially would lend itself to one better understanding their need for God, which in fact is another theme of scripture, with the contrast that the wealthy oftentimes rely on their wealth, in fact make it their god, and imagine themselves to be in no need of God. For one to be poor materially, and realize that, could help one to realize their inner poverty as well, since they are not benefiting from some other source apart from God. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that receiving help from other sources, such as the government is intrinsically bad, because that indeed can be the secondary source from the true source, God.

But now to cut to the chase, or more precisely, make the point I wanted to make in this post all along. I so readily identify with the idea of being “poor in spirit.” Oftentimes in my lifetime, inwardly I have been anything but rich. I see other Christians around me who seems joyful, or profess some kind of inner peace or spiritual bearing which I completely lack. Not that I’m saying my experience is good, because in and of itself, it’s not. Such experience could amount to any number of things in the present day assessment. One might be clinically depressed, or something physical affecting the emotional and psychological might be going on, which needs to be addressed. At any rate, I’ve felt not only an inner emptiness, but a desolation that can seem heavy and nearly suffocating at times.

And so I’m more than happy to hear our Lord’s words, that the poor in spirit are blessed, the very first “beatitude” of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. That helps me be able to relax in my abject inward poverty, and by faith not let it move me from seeking to fulfill God’s will in Jesus as for example, in loving others. When one doesn’t feel well physically, it’s hard to hang in there, even sometimes impossible to carry on the normal responsibilities of life. And the same holds true spiritually as well. We can’t give out what we don’t have within, and we can spew out what is not good within, no doubt.

And so our Lord’s words here are quite encouraging and even uplifting to me in calling the likes of me along with others who are poor in spirit, blessed. In that word, in my weakness, I can find God’s strength. And in my spiritual destitution, I have no where else to turn to but God. Aside from some of the other help I might receive, which could be a part of the help I would receive from God.

And so I’m not concerned about being a spiritual pauper, because I know to whom to turn for the true riches which for us in Jesus are spiritual, rather than material. The true and eternal life that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

the error of chasing or living according to the American dream (part two of two)

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34

In his Parable of the Sower, Jesus mentions “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth [choking] the word, making it unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22).  We do well to carefully (and prayerfully) consider his words quoted above from his Sermon on the Mount, which follow the words quoted yesterday subtitled in the NIV “Treasures in Heaven,” today’s words subtitled “Do Not Worry.”

What seems to drive people to make money besides the pleasures of this life, is the thought that if they don’t take care of themselves, no one else will. And even Paul says that if anyone fails to provide for their family, they have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8). So there is responsibility. The question becomes just how we face that responsibility.

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount make it clear that we shouldn’t be driven like the pagans are, in our society to work and work and work to provide the basic necessities of life. That we’re not to worry over whether or not we’ll get those things. That our Father knows we need them, and wants to provide them for us. Instead we’re to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and justice, knowing that as we do, God will supply all of our needs.

We live in a debtor society, in fact the American economy is based to a significant extent on the precarious foundation of ongoing debt, which in some ways can be remedied, or at least the pressure alleviated, but in itself not only causes problems for the nation: federal, state and local, but also big problems for individuals and families, which can end up tearing the fabric of the family apart. Certainly one of the hardest, if not the hardest problem in marriages.

The problem in our society is at least two-fold: We buy into the American lie of borrowing, thinking it to be the only way to meet our obligations and fulfill our wishes, some wishes perhaps quite legitimate, such as a college education. And we fall into the default of thinking it all depends on us. I know this all too well from my own experience.

Jesus’ words concerning this are both simple and profound. We’re not to worry, but instead we’re to trust the Father to meet our needs. And we’re to be preoccupied with seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness, which amounts to God’s will in and through Jesus. That will end up involving how we face the situation we’re in, the troubles that come our way, which Jesus doesn’t deny. What is needed is an interactive relationship with God by the Spirit and the word in the fellowship of the church. And we must not lose sight of the simplicity and directness of Jesus’s words here concerning how we’re to face this basic part of life.