BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 3)

If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. [Proverbs 25:21 (NLT)]

rabbit foot cloverWhen the ten northern tribes refused to submit to Rehoboam, they revolted and, by 930 BC, there were two political states: Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern one. Both kingdoms suffered from inept, disobedient, and often corrupt leadership but Judah’s king Ahaz (743-728 BC) was one of weakest and most corrupt of all the southern kingdom’s leaders. Because of his apostasy (which included sacrificing some of his sons to Baal), the Lord allowed Judah’s defeat at the hands of Rezin (king of Aram) and Pekah (king of Israel). By the end of the battle, Ahaz lost a son and two of his close advisors and Judah lost 120,000 seasoned warriors. The Arameans took captives to Damascus and Israel’s warriors returned to Samaria with a huge amount of plunder and 200,000 captured women and children they intended to enslave (in spite of its prohibition in Leviticus 25:39-43).

As Israel’s victorious army returned to Samaria with their captives and plunder, they were met by a prophet named Oded. Protesting Israel’s brutal treatment of Judah, Oded told them that it was God who permitted them to wage war and defeat Judah but that Israel went too far in their merciless massacre and their plan to enslave their Judean brethren. After asking, “What about your own sins against the Lord?” the prophet warned that that God’s anger had been turned toward Israel and urged the soldiers to return their prisoners to Judah.

God had allowed Judah’s defeat but, in their rage and frenzy, Israel’s army went too far. Merciless in their slaughter, they’d stepped out of God’s will and Oded told them their rage had disturbed heaven. Perhaps they’d slain men who had surrendered, raped women, burned the crops, or massacred innocent children. We don’t know for sure but we do know that, by the time they reached Samaria, some of their captives were naked and without footwear. Whatever they’d done was beyond what was necessary for a battle victory. This story is often cited by those advocating the Just War Theory—a philosophy that sets forth the conditions required for justly going to war and for the right conduct in a war, one of which is the prohibition of using unnecessary force to attain the objective.

We know nothing about Oded and this is the only mention of him in Scripture and yet, in a rare Old Testament occurrence, people actually listened and took a prophet’s message to heart. Agreeing with Oded, four of Israel’s leaders confronted the returning warriors. Warning them that they couldn’t afford to add to their guilt, they told the soldiers to release their captives. That they willingly gave up the spoils of war tells us they knew their vicious behavior had been reprehensible. Their plunder and prisoners were handed over to the four leaders who then provided them with clothing, sandals, food and drink and applied balm and oil to their wounds. After putting the weak and injured on donkeys, they returned their Judean captives safely to Jericho.

Through the years, both Israel and Judah were guilty of wronging one another but, in this amazing act of mercy, Israel tried to right one terrible wrong. Perhaps it was Oded’s reminder that the captives were their brethren. All descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at one time, they’d been twelve brothers! How had they fallen so low as to think of enslaving members of their own family?

While this story is not well known to 21st century Christians, it probably was familiar to Jesus’ listeners when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan—the Judean who was mercilessly attacked and the Samaritan who dressed his wounds with oil and wine, provided him with clothing, put him on a donkey, took him to an inn, and provided for his food, drink, and care. Was Jesus’ story a not-so-subtle reminder that, in spite of all that had transpired between the two territories, the Samaritans weren’t just their neighbors—they were their brethren? Was this a reminder that it’s never too late to right a wrong?

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. … God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:7,9 (NLT)]

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JUST DO IT (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 2)

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (RSV)]

brown pelicanWhen writing about the Good Samaritan yesterday, I recalled being asked who represents Jesus in the parable. The most obvious answer appears to be the Samaritan. After all, love that unlimited and sacrificial had to have been supernatural. The parallels are somewhat obvious—both men were merciful, compassionate, paid another man’s debt, promised to return, and were despised and rejected by the Jews. In fact, early commentators like Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, and Origen found all sorts of allegorical meaning in the story with the injured man representing Adam, the bandits Satan, the loss of clothing as man’s loss of innocence, the wine given the man as Christ’s atoning blood, the inn as the Church, the innkeeper as Paul (or the Pope), and the two coins given to the innkeeper as the Law and the Prophets or the two testaments. While some of Jesus’ parables (like the Sower and the Soils, the Wheat and the Weeds, and the Evil Tenants) clearly are allegories, other are not.

Sometimes a parable is just a parable and The Good Samaritan meets the traditional definition of a parable: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Rather than preaching about Himself, Jesus was giving a straightforward answer to the question of who is our neighbor and He did it in an easily remembered story that makes its point in a striking way. While the parallels between the Good Samaritan’s compassionate acts and Jesus’ sacrificial love for us are remarkable, we should be cautious of complicating the parable or adding extra meaning where there is none. After all, unlike many of his parables, Jesus didn’t seem to think this one required additional explanation. He simply said, “Go and do likewise!”

If, however, we went looking for a Jesus figure in this parable, perhaps we should consider the Samaritan as an ordinary person and the injured man as Jesus. He was beaten, stripped, abandoned, and left to die, as was our Lord and, like Jesus, after being ignored by the pious Jews, He was accepted by the outcast Gentiles. In this light, perhaps, in a roundabout way, Jesus did answer the lawyer’s question about attaining eternal life. Eternal life isn’t defined by good works—although we can try, none of us can love as lavishly and perfectly as did the Samaritan. But, just as the Samaritan responded to the injured Jew, we can respond to Jesus. And, when we do, we will be given divine empowerment to love God and others.

Reverend Amy Reumann tells of a sermon her grandfather preached to his small congregation; at a mere ten words, it might be the shortest sermon known! After reading Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as his sermon’s text, her grandfather said, “We all know what this means. Just go do it.” With those ten words, the sermon was over and the pastor sat down. Perhaps we try to complicate this simple parable because we know exactly what it means and we don’t want to do it! Preferring not to get involved, interrupted, or inconvenienced, we don’t want the obligation of addressing the pain, poverty, hunger, hurt, injustice, oppression, loss, affliction, and abuse found in this broken world. Although we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone, let us always remember the Apostle James’ words that faith without works is dead!

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [James 2:14-17 (RSV)]

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OUR NEIGHBOR (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 1)

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” [Luke 10:25 (RSV)]

zebra longwing butterflyOperating on a salvation by works mentality, the lawyer/expert in Mosaic law asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus asked what the law said, the man cited Deuteronomy 6:5, about total devotion to God, and Leviticus 19:18, about loving his neighbor as himself. When Jesus told him, “Do this, and you will live,” the man realized that perfect obedience to loving everyone wasn’t possible. Hoping to limit the commandment to something more attainable, he searched for a loophole and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps he was thinking of the words found in the book of Sirach (a collection of moral counsel and maxims well known in Jesus’ time), “If you do a kindness, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds. … Give to the godly man, but do not help the sinner.” [12:1,4] These words reflected the prevailing view of the time that kindheartedness and aid were mainly for family, friends, or a righteous deserving person, but certainly not to one’s enemies.

To help define “neighbor,” Jesus told the parable about the Good Samaritan. While travelling the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a Jew was attacked by bandits, stripped of his clothes, beaten, and left half-dead beside the road. First a priest and then a Levite pass by. Although they both clearly see the wounded man, each man ignores him. They may have been in a rush or afraid that they might be set upon by bandits if they lingered. Not sure whether the man was dead or alive, perhaps they feared that, by touching a corpse, they’d become ceremonially unclean and unable to fulfill their Temple duties. The priest, however, wasn’t going “up” to serve in the Temple; he was going “down” the road to Jericho. Even if the Levite was on his way to the Temple, the oral tradition overrode the prohibition of defilement in the case of an abandoned corpse and commanded that any corpse be given a proper burial. Maybe the priest and Levite remembered the words in Sirach—they didn’t know the man, couldn’t expect a proper thank you and, for all they knew, the man was a sinner and deserved the beating. In any case, they clearly forgot the commandment about loving their neighbor as themselves!

While Jesus’ audience may have been scandalized by the behavior of the priest and Levite, Jesus often was tough on the religious leaders in His parables. I suspect His listeners expected a Jewish lay person to be the hero of the story, in which case they could go home and feel good about themselves. Rather than a fellow Jew, however, the hero of the story was a hated Samaritan, which must have shocked and perplexed Jesus’ audience. Even though Jews and Samaritans detested one another, where the devout Jews had ignored the law, a Samaritan fulfilled it! When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbor, unable to say, “The Samaritan,” he answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise!” Few believed in doing good to one’s enemies until Jesus taught us that there are no religious, ethnic, economic, racial, political, or cultural lines in God’s Kingdom.

Although Jesus clearly defined “neighbor” as everyone—friend and foe alike—let’s not forget the original question was what the lawyer needed to do to inherit eternal life—something left unanswered in the parable. There is nothing we can do to work our way to heaven because we can’t obey the law as perfectly as God demands it be obeyed. None of us are capable of living as selflessly as did Jesus or even the fictitious Good Samaritan. Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to live a life of compassion with no boundaries. We can’t do it perfectly and we can’t meet every need but, by the grace of God and with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be His instruments of compassion. That is how we love our neighbor.

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. [Romans 9:30-32 (RSV)]

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BROKEN-DOWN WALLS

An evil man is held captive by his own sins; they are ropes that catch and hold him. He will die for lack of self-control; he will be lost because of his great foolishness. … A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls. [Proverbs 5:22-23, 25:28 (NLT)]

Stagecoach Rd GalenaThe book of Nehemiah opens with Nehemiah’s distress at learning that Jerusalem’s walls remained in shambles even though decades had passed since the first Jewish exiles returned to the city. Broken walls and no gates meant Jerusalem (and the Temple) were defenseless against enemies and wild animals. Just as a city is defenseless against its enemies’ attacks, a person without self-control is defenseless against the Satan’s attacks.

The story is told of Raynald III, a 14th century duke in what now is Belgium. After his younger brother Edward led a successful revolt against him, the duke was captured. Rather than kill his elder brother, Edward built a room around him in the castle. Hardly an ordinary prison cell, it had several un-barred windows and a nearly normal-sized unlocked door. All Raynald had to do to regain both his title and property was to leave his room.

While walking out an unlocked door sounds easy to us, it wasn’t for Raynald. With the nickname of “Crassus” (Latin for “fat, gross, plump”), the deposed duke was grossly overweight. To gain his freedom, Raynald just needed to lose some of his girth so he could fit through the door. Rather than dieting his way out of prison, however, the obese man grew even fatter as he feasted on the delicious rich foods his brother sent to him each day. When Edward was accused of cruelly imprisoning his brother, he justified his actions by saying, “My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so will.” Indeed, Raynald wasn’t Edward’s prisoner; he was a prisoner of his appetite. With no self-control, he gorged himself in that room for ten years until the door was widened after Edward’s death.

Just as a city with broken walls and no gates is vulnerable to attack, a person with no self-control, like Raynald, is equally vulnerable. Because of his brother’s insatiable appetite and self-indulgence, Edward knew how to defeat Raynald. Like Edward, Satan knows what tempts us—be it gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, laziness, envy, pride or any other sin. Self-control is the last (but not the least) characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit mentioned by the Apostle Paul. Indeed, without the power of the Holy Spirit, we are as defenseless as an ancient city with broken-down walls. Nevertheless, in the end, we are the ones responsible for patrolling our gates and judging what will enter into our lives. Although empowered by the Spirit with the self-control to refuse entry, we are the ones who must close the gates.

Nehemiah’s concern for Jerusalem, however, was about more than safety. Although their broken walls and burnt gates made them vulnerable to enemies, to the ancient pagan world, the strength of a city’s walls represented the strength of the people’s gods. Nehemiah knew those wrecked walls dishonored Jehovah’s name; to the rest of the world, they meant a powerless God and a disgraced and defeated people.

When we can’t control our passions, anger, conversation, spending, appetite or any other behavior, what does that say about us? Are we a disgraced and defeated people? When we, as followers of Christ, fail to exercise self-control, what does that say about our God? Because of his lack of self-control, Raynald was held captive by his appetite and dishonored his own name. Without self-control, we become captives to sin and dishonor Jesus’ name.

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. [1 Corinthians 6:12 (NLT)]

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:7 (NLT)]

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INCLUSIVE IN AN EXCLUSIVE WAY

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

Since no man is excluded from calling upon God the gate of salvation is open to all. There is nothing else to hinder us from entering, but our own unbelief. [John Calvin]

hibiscusGod’s plan for salvation was all inclusive; He made that clear in Genesis when He said that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. In announcing Jesus’ birth, the angels said it was good news for all nations. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, it became clear that He came not just for the Jews but for all people. Jesus invited all who were weary and heavy-laden, not just a select few. He healed the Roman centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman’s daughter and ministered in Samaria and the Gentile city of Gerasenes. In what is called the “great commission,” Jesus instructed his disciples to spread the good news to all the nations. The Gospel’s message of salvation is offered to both Gentile and Jew, women and men, slave and slave holder, the destitute and rich, the merchant and beggar, the tradesperson and day laborer, the able and infirm, the demon-possessed and rational, and both the upright and those with sullied pasts. No one is turned away when they repent and come to Jesus and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Indeed, the Christian church is all-inclusive in its love for mankind and its invitation to all the people of the world.

We are, indeed, an eclectic group of people of different backgrounds, races, traditions, languages, and politics but, as inclusive as we are in our love and message, the followers of Christ have a shared creed that unites us into an exclusive group. Christians are diverse and inclusive but Christianity is not.

While we may find wisdom and inspiration in Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita, the Buddha’s words in the Dhammapada, the Chinese philosophy of the Tao Te-Ching, and even in the rabbis’ discourse in the Talmud, we know those texts are not sacred and the words in them are man’s, not God’s. Christianity doesn’t allow for a mingling of faith in other philosophies or gods.

We don’t get to pick and choose from a variety of beliefs as if we were at a smorgasbord. We can’t start with Jesus and add a bit of reincarnation, dollop on some karma, sprinkle on one’s own spiritual authority, ladle on a bit of astrology, add a side of Zen, and then top it off with some channeling. If it’s not in the Bible, it doesn’t get put on our plates! Our God is a jealous God and he won’t share His position or Word with anything or anyone. Jesus made it clear that he was not one of the ways but, rather, the only way to salvation.

It’s been said that all roads lead to Rome, meaning that there are many different ways to accomplish the same goal. While that may be true when it comes to such things as cooking, painting, gardening, and possibly even getting to Rome, it’s not true with salvation. Let’s never make the mistake of thinking that all roads lead to heaven!

Jesus is not one of many ways to approach God, nor is he the best of several ways; he is the only way. [A.W. Tozer]

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. [John 14:6 (NLT)]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. [John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

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CHAPTER 43 (Job – part 2)

Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God. [Job 1:20-22 (NLT)]

mountain blue birdEven though all that he lost was restored to Job at the end of Chapter 42, did the ten new children remove Job’s memory of his first ten or his sorrow at their deaths? While the new ones may have filled Job’s home with laughter again, there still would be an empty place in his heart from his loss. Although Job’s health was restored, would the scars from his boils be a daily reminder of his past afflictions? Would double his livestock be enough to make him forget the original herds and servants who had perished? How would experiencing the precariousness of life—the inexplicable randomness of misfortune—affect Job’s next chapter, the Chapter 43 of his life? Would he be more affectionate, patient, or protective of his children? Would he better appreciate and cherish every precious moment with which he was blessed?

Even though he questioned God, Job is Scripture’s model for patience and endurance. I know some people who could give Job a run for his money if their stories were compared. People of faith, like Job, they have experienced more than their share of life’s tragedies first-hand—things like catastrophic loss, chronic disease, severe disability, heartache, betrayal, grief, poverty, divorce, addiction, abuse, disfigurement, ever-present pain, or the loss of spouse or children. Some have moved through their Job-like experiences while others are still in the midst of them. Like Job, their story didn’t end at Chapter 42 but unlike him, their next chapter wasn’t necessarily a fairy tale ending of complete restoration. I admire them—not because of their suffering but because of what they’ve made of it—because of how they’ve written the next chapter of their lives.

I think of one couple, both of whom lost their beloved first spouses to the ravages of cancer.  Perhaps because they know the fragility of life and the pain of loss, in their Chapter 43, they seem to listen better, cherish each other more, and complain less than do most couples. I think of a friend who was nearly destroyed by mental illness and came out the other side of her darkness stronger and wiser. Having experienced the depths of despair, she makes it a point to find joy and thanksgiving on each page of her Chapter 43. The mother who lost a child seems to grumble less about the tears, temper tantrums, mess and teen-age angst of her living children. The man who who once flat-lined values each moment more than those who never have been on the brink of death. I think of a friend, suffering from Parkinson’s, who enthusiastically seizes every today because she knows that she’ll be just a little worse tomorrow. I remember a couple who lost three of their children to drugs and yet they never lost their trust in the Lord and confidence in His goodness. I think of other friends whose Chapter 43 is a continuing battle with metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s, MS, and chronic pain yet they still bravely face each day with courage, faith, and even joy. Does their experience of what truly defines a “bad day” give them a new perspective and help them know how little is necessary to make any day a great one?

I don’t admire these people simply because they are survivors of tragedy. Anyone can survive tragedy. I admire them because they managed not just to survive but to thrive, to become better not bitter, all while keeping their faith intact. I admire them because they are examples not just of faith, but also of determination, strength, wisdom, generosity, love, joy, and even optimism. I admire them because they are making the most of the 43rd chapter of their lives. Their examples remind me to thank God for every circumstance He throws at me and to savor every breath with which I am blessed!

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. [Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)]

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