Saturday, March 23, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 16

Scripture Reading: Matthew 12:1-32 (NRSV)

What rules are okay to break and when is it okay to break them?

A lot of the time, this is what we want to know when you get down to it.  As I am raising two teenagers, I find that they want to know how much leniency will be shown.  If they do get into trouble, what is the penalty?

I suppose at some level, we all want to know whether or not it is worth it to break the rule.

Are the benefits (to breaking the rule) greater than the cost?

Jesus begins this chapter with breaking the laws about work on the Sabbath.  It starts out with his disciples picking grain and then Jesus cures a man with a withered hand in the synagogue.  He does so to make a point about priorities.

We see the juxtaposition of Jesus and the Pharisees who both seek to teach the people about the observance of God's law.  Jesus is offering life and the Pharisees conspire in death.

They even try to excuse the miraculous healing of Jesus by declaring that his power comes from the devil.  Their slander looks foolish in comparison because Jesus is healing people who are broken.  Why would an evil being provide life, goodness and wholeness?

Their attempt to paint Jesus in a bad light stems from his breaking their interpretation of Sabbath rules.  He's making their interpretation look bad.

Then we see Jesus providing his own rules for what you shouldn't do when he declares that speaking against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable.  For the rule-oriented among us, this has caused more than a little stress.  What if I speak against the Holy Spirit accidentally or unknowingly?  What if I slip up in a moment of weakness?  And exactly how do you do this in the first place (so I know exactly what not to do)?

I think we can all calm down when we read this in context.  Jesus is declaring this as a contrast to what is getting the Pharisees up in arms - breaking the Sabbath laws.  Jesus quotes from Hosea for the second time in Matthew reminding us of the priority of God.  This should tell us something about where our own behavior needs to focus if Jesus is emphasizing this verse on mercy.

The Pharisees don't seem to care if their strict observance hurts people as verse seven points out their condemnation of the guiltless.  Jesus is healing through the Holy Spirit.  If they are slandering the giving of life, they are the ones in need of forgiveness rather than Jesus.  This reminds us that providing life and wholeness to people is larger than our rules.

Where is a place in your life when the rules worked against you?

Which laws of God do you find yourself prioritizing?

Do these match up with this text today?

Prayer for the day:

God, we want to do the right thing.
We want others to know and follow what is just as well.
We believe that we should help people walk with you in righteousness.
And we also acknowledge that there are times when we haven't maintained our own walk.
Help us to be sure we are following in the path just as we invite others to walk with us.
In this way, we see that you are smiling at us.

Photo by Leticia Bertin via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 15

Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:1-30 (NRSV)

As I read today's passage, I am reminded that Matthew is writing from a later perspective than when these events actually took place.

We see this no more so than in verse 12:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (NRSV)
Jesus and John the Baptist are still conversing by message at the beginning of this chapter but verse twelve implies a great time between John and the present.  Matthew wrote his Gospel following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 which would have greatly impacted how he wrote it and how people received it.

Matthew seems to be regretting how people could be witnesses to all of the miracles of Jesus and still not embrace him as the Messiah.  The "wise and intelligent" refuse to see.  Has God really hidden these things from them or is it more likely that they had the most to lose?  Those in power would not have appreciated Jesus leveling the playing field in regard to healing and acceptance of sinners.  This would diminish their own hold on the top of the social food chain.  They also apparently didn't appreciate John's asceticism either as he called them to repentance!
What do infants or children see 
that adults often miss?

Jesus offers rest to the weary.  We see this at the beginning of the chapter when he reminds John's disciples of what they see and hear.  His yoke or teaching is something that will give us life if we would only set down our need to lord it over our fellows.

How do we emulate Jesus by developing gentleness and humility in our hearts?

If I am honest, my own sense of self-importance gets in the way of this all too often.

I find that I am like the wise and intelligent.  I can see the things going on all around me but I am unable to perceive the miracles that are right in front of me.

How would it look if we stepped back from our own sense of being and tried to see with new eyes?

Prayer for the day:

God, we find that we are often weary.
We are carrying heavy burdens.
We don't even realize that we are carrying them and yet they weigh us down.
Help us to set them aside, even if just for a little while.
And as we practice walking without them, may this help us to find rest.
It may be that we become accustomed to it.

Photo by Jay Hsu via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 14

Scripture Reading: Matthew 10:1-42 (NRSV)

The words of Jesus in today's reading reflect the conflict that his followers were experiencing at the time of Matthew's writing.  This would have been the time in history when the Christian presence in synagogues was transitioning throughout the world into separate church communities.

There were persecutions not only on this front as the Christians would have been the minority view among the Jewish societies of the day, but also within the wider Roman world where Christianity was beginning to take hold among the Gentiles.

This is not the theology of the Church.
The initial instructions to go nowhere among the Samaritans or Gentiles was not because Jesus had no compassion for them.  It was not to exclude them from the Good News.  It was because he was sending out his disciples who were counting on the recipients to know the hospitality of Abraham.  The judgment comes to the places who will not offer it as they have been taught.

This harkens back to the idea that those who hear the word but are not active in pursuing it have built a house on sand rather than a firm foundation.

Our passage today ends with the reward for those who offer a welcome.  You'll notice that those places who received the disciples in those towns at the beginning found that their sick were cured, the dead were raised, their lepers were cleansed and their demons troubled them no more.  Those who offer the welcome receive life.  Those that are stingy with their hospitality remain sick, dead, cut-off and possessed.

What does this say about the church today?

How can we offer a cup of cold water to the thirsty?

What does it look like in our household?  Is there a way that we can be more hospitable to one another?

What does it look like personally for me?  How do I welcome Jesus into my life?

We will find that Jesus later identifies in Matthew as the stranger among us.  Maybe we need to adopt a sense of welcome so that strangers quickly become friends.  I hope that people will comment about us, "They never met a stranger!"

Prayer for the day:

God, we are thankful for a sense of belonging.
When we are connected with family and friends, 
we recognize that blessings abound.
We pray for those who are cut-off.  We also know
what it feels like to stand outside the door while it remains shut.
May we find ourselves opening the door more often until 
we leave it open.  And may our joy come quickly as we realize
that you are the one we receive!

Photo by Flood G. via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 13

Scripture Reading: Matthew 9:2-38 (NRSV)

Is there a connection between sin and sickness?

For people living in first century Judea, this certainly seemed to be the case.

Similar to the leper asking to be made clean, Jesus forgives the paralytic of his sins.

In contrast to the spirit of mercy, the scribes thought ill of Jesus for this action.

Jesus then states that the evil in the room is not in the paralytic or in the friends who brought him before Jesus or even in Jesus for taking this authority.  The evil was in the hearts of those who thought ill of Jesus for making a declaration of forgiveness.

Jesus then doubles down on the restoration of human beings as he calls a tax collector to be a disciple.  He quotes from Hosea which reminds the people of God's deep mercy in the midst of their unfaithfulness.  Hosea was the prophet who married a prostitute as a sign-act to remind Israel of God's faithful devotion to them even in the midst of their idolatry.

We all need resurrection.
But we may be the ones Jesus needs to awaken.
Jesus is challenging the fabric of society.  All societies have caste systems.  Some are overt like in India but most are less obvious.  When those lines get blurred, people get nervous.  And so we see the Pharisees declare that his powers are demonic rather than divine.  When we feel our social structures threatened, we move to assume that God is not happy about it.  However, if Jesus is breaking these down, we may need to reexamine our own assumptions about insiders and outsiders.

This is necessary for us because Jesus calls us in the last section to begin to go out into the world.

The harvest may be riper than ever.

God, may it begin with me.

Prayer for the day:

God, we may be blind to your grace.
It is often easy enough to see in our lives, but...
we may not identify it as readily in others.
Jesus, open our eyes.
And as we begin to see, 
may you also loosen our tongues that we might witness to the world.

Photo by Pedro Ribiero Simões via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 12

Scripture Reading: Matthew 8:1-9:1 (NRSV)

There's a new sheriff in town!

We can all identify with what this dog is feeling.
Jesus begins to show what living out the Sermon on the Mount looks like today in chapter eight.  He is doing more than providing healing physically.  Jesus is restoring people relationally.

In the first miraculous healing, Jesus encounters a leper.  Notice that the man doesn't ask to be made well but to be made clean.  In that day, lepers would have been removed from society.  In fact, approaching a non-leper like this could have gotten him stoned to death.  The Law was very clear on the matter:

  The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.”  He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
                                                                      Leviticus 13:45-46 (NRSV)

So this is why Jesus tells him to show himself to the priests.  This is part of the Law.  Jesus has come to fulfill the Law as in Matthew 5:17.  It was the duty of the priests to declare a person clean again and fit to rejoin society.

Within the very next segment, Jesus heals a foreigner.  Not only is this a foreigner, it is a centurion.  He is a leader of soldiers that are occupying their country!  So when Jesus says to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, he puts his money where his mouth is.

The last story of the demoniacs may be a kind of play of Matthew's on the admonition not to cast your pearls before swine lest they turn and maul you.  Jesus is in foreign territory and shows that just as has power over the sea prior to this, he also retains power outside of Judea.  He casts his power (pearls) before swine and they ask him to leave.  At least they don't turn and maul him but they are not interested in the disruption.  This rebuke may be indicative of his own people who will later crucify him.

The story shows that reconciliation is often costly (a whole herd of swine meant the loss of a lot of wealth).

To be in relationship has been shown by Jesus to sometimes be expensive.  But what is it worth in human lives saved?

What kind of relational healing do you need in your life today?

What do you think it would cost?

Prayer for the day:
God, we sometimes feel separated from our friends and family.
It is as if we've been yelling, "Unclean, unclean!"
And there are other times we've been doing the ostracizing.
Sometimes it has been accidental and sometimes we were quite conscious of what we were doing.
We pray to you in Christ that Jesus might heal the brokenness among us - that of our own making and that which has visited us without cause.  Amen.

Photo by Will Lin via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 11

Scripture Reading: Matthew 7:13-29 (NRSV)

Jesus brings us to the end of the Sermon on the Mount today.

Matthew's Gospel has much more of a tone of works righteousness over that of righteousness by faith.  It finishes by reminding everyone that those who merely hear the word without following up with action are lacking in the transformation needed by each Christian.

It reminds one of the epistle of James (2:17) stating, "Faith without works is dead."

As the sermon takes a judgmental turn we see this in the following:

  • The narrow gate and few find it
  • The tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire
  • Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will make it into heaven
  • Not following through is like building your house on sand

Castles made of sand fall into the sea eventually.
Some Christians point to these passages and declare that Jesus has high expectations for us and that we shouldn't try to water down God's word.  The only trouble is that those who point this out are often not paying attention to the first part of the sermon.

As I read over the parts leading up to this, I see Jesus trying to shape us in humility, peacemaking, doing what is right no matter the cost, foregoing anger and lust, loving our enemies, sharing our light with the world, not amassing wealth for ourselves, praying, fasting and giving alms for the right reasons, trusting and relying on God, not judging others and following the golden rule.  

These are the foundations for building our house on rock.  So it is quite ironic that the very Christians pointing out how bad you are doing are missing the point!

This doesn't mean that we can't call out behavior that is sinful and causing harm.  But it does mean that we need to ask ourselves if we are communicating the message in a way that will be heard.  If we are sharing judgment with a world where transformation can never take hold, we are the ones saying, "Lord, Lord!"

When have you found life on the hard road?

Prayer for the day:

God, we get nervous about hearing you say that you might reject us.  It sounds awful to live outside of your grace.  And yet, if we choose to hold onto bitterness, wrath and malice, we seem to be already doing that.  Forgive us for hearing your instruction and promptly ignoring it.  We know that the times we listened and acted were times of blessing.  Help us to find these more often.  Amen.

Photo by Gary J. Wood via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Second Sunday in Lent

Scripture Reading: Matthew 7:1-12 (NRSV)

The Sermon on the Mount can seem contradicting at times - no more so than in today's reading.  We begin with "Do not judge..." and then in verse six we move to calling people dogs and swine.

This Portland art piece by Andy Rosen
gives a better view of how first century 
Middle Easterners looked at dogs.
Since a pig was an unclean animal and dogs were associated with eating the dead (which would make them unclean in a secondary sense), these were not terms conveying admiration.  The structure of the sentence reads contempt.

Jesus is referencing holiness and wisdom.

While the first verses on judgment could reference "Blessed are the meek" we could see verse six refer to being persecuted for righteousness' sake.  Or maybe this advice is how to avoid being persecuted for righteousness' sake.

While verses 1-5 and 6 are often broken by a heading, maybe they are meant to flow together.  I've heard verse six quoted in the singular but maybe Matthew structures it to follow as it does so that we do not take this bit of wisdom lightly.

Isn't the outcome of verse six exactly what happens to Jesus on the cross?

God has given what is holy to the dogs and thrown pearls before swine and has been crucified for the effort.

So as we are having difficulty with discernment - is this a dog or a child of God? - we must remember to ask God as in the continued instruction.  We are not asking for something for ourselves as we often imagine but we are asking for clarity on human relations.  Is this person a pig?  What would God's response be?

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Maybe this is not so contradictory after all.

Prayer for the day:

God, human relationships can be difficult.
Often when we extend an olive branch, we are rebuked for our good faith.
It is easy to feel trampled under foot.
So we ask for your grace to heal us.
We search for a way to extend forgiveness.
We knock on the door of reconciliation.
And we believe that you will give us these good gifts.

Photo by Don Shall via Used under the Creative Commons license.