THE WRONG MASTER (Part 2)

You cannot be the slave of two masters! You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24 (CEV)

black vultureWhen writing about serving only one master, I thought of Gehazi, the scoundrel who tried serving both God and mammon. A servant to the prophet Elisha, Gehazi’s story is found in 2 Kings 5. When Naaman offered Elisha great riches in gratitude for being healed of leprosy, Elisha refused. It was God’s power, not his, that healed Naaman and, knowing that the only master he served was God, Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve. I will not accept any gifts.”

It must have irked Gehazi to see his master refuse Naaman’s offerings of gold, silver and clothing (worth around $750 million today). After eyeing those riches, the servant pictured the life of luxury he could enjoy with some of Naaman’s treasure. It seemed foolish to send all that wealth back to Aram. Wanting some for himself and thinking Elisha would never know, Gehazi secretly followed after Naaman’s chariot.

After catching up with Naaman, the servant explained that his master had sent him. His master, however, wasn’t Elisha; it was mammon! The deceitful servant concocted a story that Elisha would like a talent of silver (about 75 pounds) and two sets of clothing for two young prophets who had just arrived. Granted, the servant’s request was somewhat modest considering the size of Naaman’s initial offer; nevertheless, it was the equivalent of 300 years’ worth of wages! I suspect Gehazi was afraid a larger request might have aroused suspicion. Nevertheless, more than happy to find a way to repay the prophet, Naaman offered twice that amount of silver and Gehazi returned home with his ill-gotten gains.

When Elisha asked where he’d been, the servant foolishly lied to his master. The prophet, however, was not deceived and told his servant that it was a time for worship, not a time for financial gain. As a result of his greed and deceit, Naaman’s leprosy became Gehazi’s and would afflict his descendants forever. The exact nature of his disease is unknown since leprosy in the Bible referred to Hansen’s disease (leprosy) as well as any other skin disease like psoriasis, alopecia, impetigo or dermatitis. Although his punishment didn’t threaten Gehazi’s life, such a skin disease condemned him to life as an outcast. Having served mammon instead of God, Gehazi expected the power, comfort and luxury promised by riches; what he got was life as an untouchable pariah.

There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men. [Billy Graham]

People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain. [1 Timothy 6:9-10 (CEV)]

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THE MONEY TREE (Part 1)

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. [Matthew 6:24 (RSV)]

money tree - pachira acquaticaWhile walking through the botanic garden recently, I looked up to see the showy flowers of the Money Tree (Pachira aquatica). Although the tree is said to bring good fortune and prosperity, no money was hanging from its branches. Nevertheless, its name reminded me of my father’s frequent caution that money didn’t grow on trees! Perhaps it’s because money doesn’t grow on trees that we frequently seem so obsessed by it.

I’ve read claims that Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. His mention of money, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that was His topic. Although the parable’s good Samaritan gave the innkeeper two coins and promised to pay the injured man’s debt, the parable isn’t about money any more than the Hidden Treasure parable is about investing in real estate or the parable of the Loaned Money about loan sharking! Even though Jesus may have mentioned money when speaking, it seems that He was far more interested in the topics of God’s Kingdom, faith, salvation, and forgiveness than money.

Jesus, however, did tell us that we can’t serve two masters—we can’t serve both God and wealth. The word translated as serve was douleuō, which meant to serve as a slave or one in bondage, and the word translated as master was kuriois, which meant one who possesses uncontested power and absolute ownership and authority over another. In Jesus’ world, the slave had no rights and the master had complete control over him. The master owned both the slave and all of the slave’s possessions including every minute of his time!

Because Jesus’ words make it clear He was speaking of servitude, we mustn’t make the mistake of substituting “work” for douleuō or “employer” for kuriois. For example, as a consultant, my daughter works for several employers at once. Unlike a slave, however, she is free to pick and choose for whom she works and how she divides her time between them. One who serves a master, however, has no such choice because a master demands total commitment and allegiance.

The two masters of which Jesus was speaking are God and mammon (often translated as money or wealth). Nowadays, mammon has the negative connotation of filthy riches or ill-gotten gains but, to Jesus’ listeners, it didn’t. The word used was mamōna, a neutral word encompassing money, possessions, property, earnings, and riches of all kinds. The rabbis even had a saying, “Let the mammon of thy neighbor be as dear to thee as thine own,” which meant we should care for others’ possessions as carefully as our own. Like many things in life, mammon is neither inherently good or bad; how it is regarded and used is what makes it good or bad. Rather than saying wealth is inherently evil, Jesus is telling us that we can’t serve both wealth and God; at some point, the two masters’ interests will diverge.

There is nothing wrong with having a home, car, job, business, fine jewelry, or investment accounts—what is wrong is allowing any of those things (or the desire for them) to own us! We can enjoy them as long as we understand that God alone is our master and all of our possessions and time belong to Him. Although He’s loaned them to us for the time being, we are to serve God with them. When we set our hearts on money or things, however, we’re serving another master. We must never crave wealth more than we desire God, put our trust in money rather Him, love possessions more than we love Him, or choose to serve mammon rather than serve God. We cannot claim Jesus as Lord if our allegiance is to anything or anyone other than Him. He, alone, is our master and He is the one we serve!

Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master. [P. T. Barnum]

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. [Matthew 6:19-21 (RSV)]

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MAKING THE MOST OF IT

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. [Genesis 50:20 (NLT)]

purple cone flowerOne morning, the self-assured Joseph went out to check on his brothers’ flocks and, by nightfall, Jacob’s favorite son had been stripped of his beautiful robe, thrown in a pit, betrayed by his brothers, and sold to Ishmaelite traders. That day seventeen-year-old Joseph found out how capricious life could be. For the next month, he journeyed through the desert before ending up in Egypt. Imagine how alone, frightened, and lost the young shepherd from Canaan was when, unable to speak, read or write the language, he found himself in the most advanced civilization of the time—one with monumental architecture, centralized government, papyrus, ship building, and a military force.

Rather than give up all hope, the wealthy man’s son adapted to the role of servant. As Potiphar’s slave, Joseph worked hard and became so essential to his master that he ran the man’s entire household. Loyal both to Potiphar and God, the youth rejected Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances. When she falsely accused him of rape, however, life threw another curve ball and the trusted overseer of Potiphar’s estate was tossed into prison.

Once again, the youth’s life turned upside down through no fault of his own, but Joseph adapted by becoming a model prisoner and serving as the warden’s administrator. Nevertheless, he still was a slave in prison, away from family and friends, without any rights, and considered guilty until proven innocent. Joseph had a glimmer of hope when Pharaoh’s cup-bearer was restored to his position, but it was two more years before the man remembered Joseph’s kindness and ability to interpret dreams.

When Pharaoh summoned the young man to interpret his dreams, another transition began. After giving Pharaoh a survival plan for the next fourteen years (and crediting God with his wisdom), the boy from Canaan moved from prison to palace and from slave to prime minister of Egypt. Joseph had been released from a cell but he wasn’t free. He served at the whim of Pharaoh, a capricious man who thought nothing of expressing his displeasure in the chief baker by impaling the man on a pole!

Joseph didn’t cause his life to crash at seventeen. Over the span of at least thirteen years, he was betrayed, mistreated, sexually harassed, falsely accused, punished unjustly, and forgotten. In spite of that, Joseph never gave up because he knew he was not alone. Because he knew God was with him, Joseph made the most of every situation. Throughout his story, we are told that the Lord’s presence was the reason for Joseph’s success.

Although we know the happy ending of Joseph’s story, Joseph didn’t know any of that when he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery! He didn’t know that he’d eventually be reunited with his family or that what his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. Nevertheless, he faithfully served God and others by adapting, adjusting, and making the most of every situation into which he was thrown. Let’s not forget that Joseph did more than save the lives of the entire population of Egypt. He saved Jacob’s family—the sons of Israel who were the seed of Abraham and the ancestors of Jesus.

Like Joseph, our lives are filled with upsets, shocks, setbacks, and disruptions; author Bruce Feiler calls these events “lifequakes.” While their purpose probably isn’t to save whole nations from starvation as did Joseph, they have a God-ordained purpose. We get no choice in experiencing “lifequakes,” but we can choose how we deal with them. The challenge comes with navigating our way through these upsets into the new normal of our lives. Do we resist, throw a pity party, complain, grow resentful, or give up? Or, like Joseph, do we take on the burden of climbing out of the pit and making the most of wherever life takes us? We won’t have to do it alone. Scripture tells us that God was with Joseph from pit to palace because, when serving Potiphar, the prison warden, and Pharaoh, Joseph always was serving God!

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord. Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. [Colossians 3:22-24 (NLT)]

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IN THE FIRE – Polycarp (Part 1)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. [Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)]

athabasca falls - canadaHaving refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bravely stood before the king. Even when offered a second opportunity to save themselves from incineration in the blazing furnace, the young men were confident the Lord they loved more than life itself would save them. “But, even if he doesn’t,” they added in what are some of the most heroic words in Scripture, “We will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Furious at their refusal, the king had them tied up and tossed like logs into the fiery furnace—a fire so hot that the soldiers who threw the men into the furnace were killed. The men’s faith was well-founded; in spite of their bindings, they could be seen walking about freely in the flames (with an angel of the Lord) and the three emerged unscathed from the inferno.

Because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, Christians were considered disloyal to Rome. Moreover, Romans feared that the Christians’ refusal to make sacrifices to their various gods would cause disaster to fall upon the nation. Hated by the Romans, Christianity was considered an “illegal superstition” until 313 AD. Polycarp (ca. 69-155 AD), who was said to have been taught by the Apostle John, was appointed by some of the original apostles as bishop of Smyrna. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the bishop was arrested and faced a choice between God and incineration.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Proconsul offered his prisoner a second chance and promised to set Polycarp free if he would curse Christ, declare Caesar as Lord, and offer a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue. Even though Polycarp knew his refusal to deny Jesus meant he’d be burned at the stake, he said, “86 years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, the old man stopped them by saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Did the bishop think he might escape death as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? If so, he was seriously mistaken. Unlike them, he died a martyr’s death.

In the first story, three men walked out of a furnace untouched by fire and, in the second, an equally righteous man, died at the stake. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate faith—people’s faith in God and God’s faithfulness to His people and both stories are a call for all of God’s people to be faithful witnesses to Him. All four men clearly exhibited their faith in God by refusing to bow down to anything or anyone but God and all four men are examples of being faithful witnesses to God. Obviously, in the case of the fiery furnace, God showed his faith in His people with the men’s supernatural escape from death; even Nebuchadnezzar recognized that God’s angel had rescued the men. But, since no angel saved Polycarp from the flames, how can his story demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people?

God showed his faith in His people more than a century earlier when He offered His one and only son so that all who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Polycarp knew God already had demonstrated His love and faith through Jesus; whether he lived or died, Polycarp knew there was nothing to fear. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly,” warned the bishop before courageously adding, “Bring on whatever you want.” Could we do the same?

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us. [Justin Martyr]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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LOOK FOR IT!

Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. Hymenaeus and Alexander are two examples. I threw them out and handed them over to Satan so they might learn not to blaspheme God. [1 Timothy 1:19-20 (NLT)]

mimosa1 Timothy doesn’t tell us much about Hymenaeus or Alexander—the men whose faith was shipwrecked. From Paul’s other references to the men, we do know that Hymenaeus denied the doctrine of the resurrection and that Alexander did “much harm” to Paul, but we don’t know the details. Whatever these men said or did, by accusing them of blasphemy and handing them “over to Satan,” Paul seemed to be excommunicating them from the church.

In theological terms, Paul was writing about apostasy, coming from the Greek apostanai meaning “to stand away.” When someone commits apostasy or becomes apostate, they renounce or abandon their faith in Christ. Like Hymenaeus and Alexander, believers can lose their way and even fall. After all, Peter denied Jesus three times and Thomas had his moments of doubt. Every fall, however, doesn’t mean apostasy. Unlike Hymenaeus and Alexander, Peter and Thomas never fell beyond the point of no return. When Peter repented and Thomas’ doubts were assuaged, their relationship with Jesus was fully restored. But, what of those who don’t repent or whose doubt turns to unbelief? Is it possible to lose our faith?

Recently, my husband lost his wedding ring. As soon as he noticed his empty finger, we revisited every place he’d been and searched high and low in every store and parking lot. At home, we sifted through our waste baskets, carefully inspected the car, looked in every nook and cranny in house and garage, and even checked the garbage disposal. There’s not a spot we haven’t examined and more than one prayer was said but, alas, the ring has disappeared. My husband feels awful about the loss but I reminded him that it’s just a piece of metal that can be replaced. Although it symbolized our marriage, he didn’t lose that; we still have what’s important—each other. Be that as it may, I admit searching for it again today!

If we’re willing to turn our house upside down, rifle through the trash can, and drive all over town in search of a ring, I don’t understand the person whose excuse for no longer attending church is that he simply lost his faith. “Go look for it!” is my response. “Where were you when you last had it? Go back there and start looking!” I’d suggest starting in church, the Bible, in prayer with God, and in conversation with mature Christians. Unlike a wedding ring, which is a mere symbol of a relationship (and a replaceable one at that), faith in Jesus is an irreplaceable relationship.

At one time or another, we all will have crises of faith. There will be times we are overwhelmed with troubling questions about things like evil, pain, and suffering; the world of the Old Testament; or the truth of Scripture. There certainly are times we’re disappointed in God and want to know “why?” Like Thomas, it’s only normal to have doubts but doubt is not disbelief. The real issue isn’t doubt, it’s what we do with that doubt. Do we call out to God and seek the answers to our questions or do we simply give up and say we’ve lost our faith?

Scripture seems to make the case that once we’re saved (by God’s grace through our faith), we remain saved—we can’t lose our salvation. When people claim to have lost their faith, I wonder if they ever truly had it—whether they were true believers in the first place. After all, calling oneself a Ford and sitting in the garage doesn’t make you a car any more than calling oneself a Christian and sitting in a pew on Sundays makes you a believer! I can’t know if a person who’s “lost” his faith is an apostate like Hymenaeus and Alexander, is having a crisis of faith, or if he ever truly had faith. I can’t see into a person’s soul and only God truly knows the status of anyone’s salvation. What I do know is that God isn’t playing hide-and-seek; unlike my husband’s ring, He’s right in front of us and waiting to be found! Let us never stop seeking Him!

Faith is not the complete absence of doubts. Faith is trusting even in the presence of doubt – even when I don’t understand. [Chris Goswami]

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.” [Isaiah 65:1a (NLT)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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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