THE RICH YOUNG MAN

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:26-27 (NLT)]

great blue heronThe book of Daniel makes reference to the resurrection of both the wicked and righteous, with the destiny of the one being shame and disgrace and the other being everlasting life. By the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in some sort of eternal life and that it would come by obedience to the Law. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell of the rich young man who asked Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. He wanted Jesus to check his resume of good works and, if found lacking, to give him a task that would assure his immortality.

Before answering, Jesus clarified that goodness only comes from God rather than things or actions and then told the man to keep the commandments. As if some were more important than others, the man asked which ones. After listing several commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man, Jesus summarized with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The man proudly responded that he obeyed them all. Had he been truly honest about himself, he would have admitted his inability to keep the law perfectly and acknowledged that he couldn’t attain eternal life on his own merit. But, sure his ticket to eternity was safe in hand, the man asked what else he should do. When Jesus told him what needed to be done to be “perfect,” He didn’t mean faultless; the Greek word translated as “perfect” means goal or end. So, to achieve or perfect his goal of eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. Hearing this, the rich young man departed. In spite of his claims, he clearly didn’t love his neighbor as himself.

At first, it seems odd that Jesus didn’t mention the first four commandments—the ones having to do with man’s relationship to God. But Jesus could see into the man’s heart and knew the man loved his wealth far more than God or his neighbor. So, after he claimed to love his neighbor, Jesus asked him to put his money where his mouth was by giving his wealth to his neighbor!

That Jesus gave the rich man a requirement wasn’t unusual for a rabbi. When prospective students came to study with rabbis, the teachers often gave them a condition as a way of weeding out those students who really weren’t serious. The young man, however, hadn’t come to our Lord to learn; he’d come to be commended for his righteousness!

When people read this story, they often fear that it means Christians must live a life of poverty, but Jesus wasn’t setting financial requirements for salvation. His demand merely revealed what was in that rich man’s heart. He loved himself and his possessions far more than God or his neighbor. Although this encounter demonstrates the implications of discipleship, it never demands that we sell our possessions or live a life of asceticism. Jesus wasn’t teaching salvation through philanthropy; He was demanding that God be first place in our hearts.

Obedience to the commandments does not qualify any of us for eternal life; there is nothing we can do to merit the gift of salvation and eternal life. That only comes by grace through faith. Nevertheless, obedience to the commandments—loving God and loving our neighbor—is evidence of our faith. Is there something more important to you than loving God? What would Jesus ask you to relinquish? Do you love Him enough to do it?

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-39 (NLT)]

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GOATS AND SHEEP

Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other. [John 13:34-35 (MSG)]

goatsIn Matthew 25, Jesus uses a long simile to describe the final judgment. As for whether this occurs at the beginning or the end of Christ’s millennial kingdom, is unclear; that it will occur, is not! When it happens, God will separate people the way a shepherd does his goats and sheep.

Sheep are known to be docile, quiet, gentle and easily handled by the shepherd. Throughout Scripture, we find them representing God’s people: the righteous. While sheep will follow the shepherd, goats are far more independent and tend to wander off. With a tendency to be unruly, aggressive, and poor followers, they represent those who are not true disciples of Christ. During the day, both kinds of animals intermingled in the pasture, as do believers and unbelievers (and pretenders) in the world. At night, the shepherd separated his flock. Less tolerant of the cool night air and having a tendency to stray and butt heads, goats were herded tightly behind a secure fence. Sheep, with their heavy coats of wool, welcomed chilly nights and, less belligerent than their horned relatives, weren’t crowded into their sheepfold. Like the shepherd, God will separate his flock—the righteous from the unrighteous—at Judgment.

The shepherd easily separates his herd by looking at their tails: a sheep’s tail hangs down and a goat’s points up. The King uses a different criteria; he looks at our tales: how we have treated our neighbors! The people to His right, the sheep, are those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners. The people on His left, the goats, did none of that! The King informs them that by doing (or failing to do) any of those things for those who suffered, they had done (or failed to do) those same things for Him! Those who did for the least will inherit the Kingdom and those who refused will face eternal punishment.

At first reading, this begins to sound like salvation through works rather than by grace through faith. A closer look, however, tells us otherwise. The righteous weren’t surprised by the King’s reward but rather by His reason. Their behavior hadn’t been motivated by ulterior motives as a way to buy their way into the Kingdom; their behavior was the natural result of their love for the King. Works aren’t necessary for salvation and won’t earn the keys to the Kingdom; works, however, are evidence of that salvation and confirmation that the person holds the key!

Rather than looking at our tails, God looks at our works—not because they produce righteousness, but because they are proof of that righteousness. We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t love God and, if we truly love God, loving our neighbor naturally follows! How we treat others reveals whether our tails humbly hang down or self-righteously point up!

With an estimated 2.5 billion people who claim to be Christians [Fact & Trends], I wonder why the world isn’t a kinder gentler place. Perhaps it’s because there are way too many goats who think they are sheep!

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove. [James 2:18 (MSG)]

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ADMIT IT

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:11-13 (NIV)]

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes that he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

snowy egretA.W. Tozer’s words remind me of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and tax collector who prayed in the Temple. Acting as if God should feel grateful to receive his prayers, the Pharisee didn’t understand that he should be grateful that God listens! Rather than express thanks for God’s righteousness, power and majesty, the proud Pharisee thanked God for his own righteousness and then listed his virtues! Although it wasn’t required, he fasted twice weekly and was so fastidious about tithing that he tithed not just what was earned but also anything he acquired. If he were unsure that a farmer had tithed his produce, the Pharisee would tithe it again! Standing before God and proclaiming both his good works and his contempt for others (like the tax collector), the Pharisee is a perfect illustration of a man “who believes that he is worthy of heaven.” How wrong he was! Perhaps the Pharisee’s refusal to recognize his own self-righteousness was his biggest sin of all.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector. Standing apart, beating his breast in repentance, and feeling so contemptible that he couldn’t even look up, we find a man who clearly knew he was a sinner. Recognizing exactly who and what he was, the tax collector humbly came before God and, with a repentant heart, admitted his sin and begged for mercy.

When Jesus told this parable, He must have shocked his listeners. The Pharisee was considered the epitome of pious living and the tax collector of sinfulness. Jesus turned that comparison upside down when He said that it was the humble tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home with his sins forgiven.

It’s only when we’re sick that we see the need for a physician and only when we see our sinfulness that we see the need for a Savior. We must approach God as did the tax collector: by understanding our wickedness and the need for His mercy. The Pharisee didn’t understand that nobody deserves salvation and it can’t be secured by fasting, tithing or other good deeds. It is out of God’s love for his children that He generously saves those who repent of their sins. It is only when we know we’re sinners, deserving of hell and undeserving of God’s grace, that we are likely to find our way to heaven.

Don’t say that a loving God is going to send you to hell – He’s not. The thing that’s going to send you to hell is that you’re a sinner and you don’t want to admit it. [J. Vernon McGee]

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:14 (NIV)]

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AT WHAT COST?

Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” [John 11:49-50 (NLT)]

southern fRecently, I read a novel that blurred the lines between fiction and fact. Considered fiction, it was heavily based on the memories of two Auschwitz survivors and included people and events that actually occurred. A determination to stay alive at any cost was one of its themes. As I read how some people managed to survive the camp, I had to wonder how I might react in a similar situation. When does cooperation with the enemy, which can allow survival (not just of oneself but also of others) become collaboration or complicity? Following the war, the two main characters feared being labeled as collaborators for their actions and another person in the story actually was charged as a Nazi collaborator. After three years in Auschwitz’s hell, she was sentenced to fifteen years in the Soviet gulag. Yet, because of what was called collaboration, she saved not just her life but also the lives of others. Which is more right or less wrong: survival at all costs or refusal to compromise and death? That is not a choice I ever want to make.

Peter Black, a former historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that prisoners who “were in a position to help people, were also in a position to hurt people.” To keep their positions, he added, “They had to accept that duality.” The truth of his statement was brutally evident when the hero’s smuggling activity was discovered by his captors. Refusing to name the others involved, he was transported to the punishment and torture block where his torturer was a man whose life he’d saved. The man confided that his job was to get names, explaining, “Like you…I do what I have to do to survive.” He then told the prisoner that he would kill him before allowing him to name any of those names: “If I must kill one Jew to save ten others, then I will.”

The man’s explanation is in contrast to another recurring theme in the book: “To save one is to save the world.” This phrase originally comes from the Mishnah (the written version of Jewish oral law and part of the Talmud). It reads: “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”  [Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9, Jerusalem Talmud] “To save the one,” is repeated throughout the story.

Some reviewers have criticized the novel as inauthentic while others have praised it; I can’t vouch for its accuracy. Nevertheless, I know that many in Nazi concentration camps were faced with moral choices that meant the difference between life and death. Without a doubt, there are people facing similar quandaries today. It’s easy to see the world in black and white from the safety of my home in Florida—not so easy in a place like Auschwitz. We know we are to do good and not to do evil but there is a great deal of gray area between those two extremes.

The Christian has no fear of death but what if, by choosing to live in circumstances that come at a moral cost, more people could survive and possibly come to know Christ? What then? Christian ethics have three elements: the act we choose, our intentions behind the act, and the circumstances surrounding it. We have a merciful God and the circumstances of a concentration camp or battlefield are not the same as those of an insurance office or grocery store. As for intentions, we know they should always line up with loving God and loving our neighbor. When considering any act, we also must consider its consequences and whether they would please God. Do the means justify the end even if the means are wrong but the end result would glorify God? I can’t pretend to know the answer but, since reading this book, it is a question I’ve been pondering.

The basis of Christian ethics is the character of God and God is love. That love is seen in the life of Christ. While prayer, Scripture, and the Spirit’s guidance can direct us in our ethical dilemmas, in the end, we must ask ourselves what Jesus would do and then do it. He is the one who died, not to save just ten, but to save the world!

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. … And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. [Colossians 3:14,17 (NLT)]

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THE VIRTUE FARM

But I did find this: God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path. [Ecclesiastes 7:29 (NLT)]

When living in rural Illinois, I loved walking along the country roads, passing by fields of soy beans and corn, and seeing the horses, cows, goats, and sheep grazing in the fields. Virtue was a common name in the community and I often passed by the Virtue Farm. Thinking Virtue a noble name, I wondered if the Virtue family lived up to its promise of good character and moral excellence.

After Pope Gregory listed what came to be known as the seven deadly sins in 590 AD, he also listed seven virtues considered fundamental to Christian ethics: prudence (care and moderation with money), temperance (moderation in needed things and abstinence from unneeded ones), fortitude (never giving up), justice (being fair and equitable with others), faith, hope, and love. While it’s easy to recognize those last three virtues as coming from the Apostle Paul, the Pope’s list isn’t explicitly Biblical and the first four come from the Greek philosophers. When Peter listed the attributes of a Christian’s character, he included faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, patient endurance, godliness, brotherly affection, and love for everyone. [2 Peter 1:5-7] Paul listed the fruit of the spirit in Galatians as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control [5:22-23]. Looking at all of these lists, we can get a good idea of what qualities determine virtue. Unfortunately, we seem to have lowered the bar a bit since the time of Aristotle, Peter, Paul, and Pope Gregory. Nowadays, someone usually is considered of good character if they’re honest (most of the time), work hard, and don’t cheat on their spouse. While that’s a start, it hardly defines moral excellence.

With virtue in short supply these days, it would be nice if the Virtue Farm actually planted and harvested virtue as they do beans and corn. Of course, once it got to market, would there be any buyers? From what I see in the media, people aren’t much interested in things like chastity, modesty, self-respect, or fairness and good sportsmanship. Words like temperance, industry, and thrift are rarely used and the qualities of humility, courtesy, and self-control aren’t held in high regard.

We’re not born with virtue; it’s not like the blue eyes or musical talent we might have at birth. Moreover, virtue doesn’t grow on trees and can’t be purchased at the local farmers’ market or grocery. Virtue is something we choose; while the Holy Spirit provides us with His fruit, it is up to us to develop those virtues into good habits. While the Virtue Farm continues planting soy beans and corn, we must cultivate the seeds of virtue in our own lives. The Apostle Peter assures us that it can be done: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life.” [2 Peter 1:3]

Father, we are faced with moral choices every day. Teach us with your word, guide us by your example, and strengthen us with your Holy Spirit so that we always choose the virtuous path.

Throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:22-24 (NLT)] 

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NONDESCRIPT NOBODY BIRDS

Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. [Isaiah 58:10 (NLT)]

clark's nutcrackerA few weeks ago, in Charles Schultz’s classic comic Peanuts, Snoopy sat on his doghouse and decided not to tell his little bird friend Woodstock about Santa Claus. “He’ll never get any presents anyway. Santa Claus never brings presents to tiny, nondescript, nobody birds,” he thought before concluding, “It’s kind of sad at Christmastime to be a nobody bird.” I wasn’t so sure about Santa ignoring the “nobody birds.” The previous day, several from our church had participated in a project that demonstrated just how much “Santa” really does care.

Those “tiny, nondescript, nobody” birds live in a nearby town where more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty level. Their parents, many of whom don’t speak English, are the working poor: the people who quietly bus our tables, pick our tomatoes and lettuce, mow our lawns, trim our trees, clean our hotels, and re-tile our roofs. A beautiful ray of hope exists for them in a center dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through early childhood education, after-school tutoring, summer enrichment, and a tutoring corps. For five nights in mid-December, the Center offered a “shopping” event for families in need while volunteers served as stockers, Santa’s elves, and gift wrappers. Qualified shoppers were assigned a day and time to arrive and browse through a beautifully appointed and organized “store.” A personal Santa’s elf accompanied parents as they selected three gifts for each of their children along with stocking gifts, stuffed animals, and clothing. Parents were able to shop with dignity as they selected presents for each of their children and Santa’s own workshop couldn’t have been better stocked! At checkout, their selections were gift-wrapped in colorful holiday paper. The only difference between this store and a regular one was that the gift-wrapping was complimentary and money never exchanged hands! The store’s entire inventory had been donated by individuals, organizations and stores in neighboring communities.

People’s hearts grow bigger around Christmas and nearly one-third of all giving occurs in December. During the holidays, we see a generous outpouring of love in the Salvation Army’s red kettles, Fill the Truck and Angel Tree programs, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, Trees for Troops, assorted wishing and giving trees, and both toy and food drives sponsored by churches and other groups. The need, however, doesn’t disappear when the tree comes down. Loving, giving, sharing and caring shouldn’t be boxed up with the ornaments for the next eleven months.

I remember one father whose gifts I wrapped. Although he was thrilled to select presents for his children, tears of joy came to his eyes upon learning he also could select new shoes for them. When those two pairs of new sneakers are outgrown in a matter of months, what then? Will the family have to choose between new shoes, milk, school supplies or a visit to the dentist? Poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, lack of medical care, and the other challenges facing the “tiny, nondescript, nobody birds” in our communities remain long past December. Instead of being Santa Claus just in December, let us be the hands and feet of Jesus, generous in thought, word and deed, all year long.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. [spoken by Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens]

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

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