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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CORRECTION

An open rebuke is better than hidden love! Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. … As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. [Proverbs 27:5-6,17 (NLT)]

bougainvillaWhen I was asked if I’d ever been hurt by a fellow believer, I had to reply that in my seventy plus years, I’ve been hurt (both intentionally and unintentionally) by all sorts of people, including the most devout of Christians. When asked if any Bible verse helped guide my response to the hurt, Ephesians 4:32 came to mind: “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” I was then asked what I’d learned from my experiences. The first take-away, learned the hard way, was to immediately ask God to put His arm around my shoulder and His hand over my mouth before I said something stupid or nasty. The second was that, as tactless, unkind, petty, and rude that both Christians and non-Christians can be, they also can be right!

It’s been said that the truth hurts and, indeed, it often does. Every now and then, we’re on the receiving end of judgment, criticism, rejection, condemnation, or disdain. While words of correction should always come out of love, sometimes they’re delivered out of anger, jealousy, or spite. Nevertheless, we need to distance ourselves from the circumstances, personalities, and hurt feelings to ask ourselves a simple question. Is there any truth to what was said? No wiser or smarter than the next guy, we’re not always the ones who should be giving critiques, suggestions, or instruction. Sometimes (perhaps more often than not), we’re the ones who should be on the receiving end.

Occasionally, we get so committed to a plan that we fail to see there may be a better way or are so vested in being right that we ignore the possibility of being wrong. As a result, we become so tenacious in our defense that we fail to see the validity of any criticism or so determined to claim victory that we fail to see resolution or compromise. As unpleasant as it may be, we need to stop and prayerfully examine the message. The delivery doesn’t have to be pleasant or welcome for the criticism or comment to be valid.

God doesn’t want us living in error; He wants to turn our weakness into strength, our faults into attributes, our falseness into truth, our confusion into clarity, and our messes into messages. God’s correction is always good but it rarely appears printed on a sweet candy heart. Just because it doesn’t come wrapped in a polite loving package, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be heeded. Although I would prefer correction from the comforting voice of someone who truly cares for me, some of the best advice I ever received came seasoned with a little spite and rancor. God used a talking donkey to give His message to Balaam and He will use both sensitive and thoughtless believers and unbelievers to send His correction to us. Just because the truth sometimes hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. [Proverbs 3:11-12 (NLT)]

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BIBLE BRACKETS

Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” [Luke 5:31-32 (NLT)]

March brought more than basketball brackets. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, the Today show pitted 16 Irish favorites like U-2, Irish whiskey, step dancing, and soda bread against one another. The final bracket was a showdown between Guinness and corned beef and cabbage with the Irish beer winning. Since I don’t Twitter (Tweet?), I missed Bible Gateway’s March madness tournament pitting favorite Bible stories against one another.  

I can understand why some stories didn’t make the top sixteen. Gruesome ones like those of Jael pounding a tent peg through Sisera’s head (Judges 4); Dinah’s rape and the vengeful massacre of Shechem (Genesis 34); and the trickery of Ehud who assassinated the fat King Eglon (Judges 3) aren’t exactly Sunday school fare. Entirely missing from the competition, however, were Sunday school favorites like the Christmas story, the feeding of the multitude, and Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moses.

In actuality, there are far more than sixteen great stories in the Bible and, while my brackets would have differed from Bible Gateway’s, I can’t argue with theirs. Nevertheless, it was no surprise that Jericho’s walls collapsing (Joshua 6) beat the lesser known story of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). While the prophet’s vision is a beautiful illustration of Israel’s restoration and spiritual rebirth, picturing those dried bones reattaching, muscles and skin forming over them, and coming to life as a great army is unsettling. The story of the exodus easily beat the lesser known one of Balaam’s donkey. The visual of Moses raising his hand, the Red Sea parting, and the Israelites walking across the dry sea bed with walls of water on each side beats a talking donkey any day!

Before I tell you the winner of the contest, consider your favorite Bible stories. What would you include in your “sweet sixteen” – the wise men, the miracle at Cana, the faith of the woman with the bleeding disorder, Solomon suggesting a baby be cut in half, Zacchaeus climbing a tree, Elijah’s smack down with the prophets of Baal, Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, Paul and Silas singing in prison, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace? They’re all wonderful stories and well worth reading and re-reading over and over again.

The final match-up pitted the story of David and Goliath against the parable of The Prodigal (or Lost) Son. Everyone loves a story about an underdog hero and the boy shepherd who felled the Philistine warrior with a single shot was a sure favorite. It tells us that, even against insurmountable odds, when we trust in God, we can emerge victorious.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why the parable of the lost son won. Described by the Expositor’s Bible Commentary as “the crown and flower of all the parables,” it reassures us that no matter how far we stray, how low we fall, or how much we squander or misuse God’s gifts, His unconditional love is waiting for us when we return to Him. By focusing on the father’s love and forgiveness, however, we often miss an important part of that story—the son’s repentance! This was the last of three parables about the lost—a sheep, a coin, and a son—and the celebration when they are found. Jesus finished them all by tying repentance to the celebration. Let us never forget that we have to repent before we can attend the party!

In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! … In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. … We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found! [Luke 15:7,10,32 (NLT)]

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SAINT OR SINNER?

Human pride will be brought down, and human arrogance will be humbled. Only the Lord will be exalted on that day of judgment. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has a day of reckoning. He will punish the proud and mighty and bring down everything that is exalted. [Isaiah 2:11-12 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronJesus’ Parable of Two Men Who Prayed contrasts pride with humility, self-righteousness with repentance, and how not to pray with how to pray. In it, both Pharisee and publican (tax collector) go to pray in the Temple. The Pharisee boldly thanks God that he’s not a sinner like everyone else and then self-righteously singles out the sinful publican. Then, just to make sure God understands how good he really is, the man brags of his tithing; rather than giving a tenth of what he earns, he tithes a tenth of all that he acquires. Even though fasting was only required on the Day of Atonement, Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays as well, so the self-satisfied man finishes his prayer by boasting of his twice weekly fasts.

In stark contrast to the proud Pharisee is the second man: a detested tax collector. Considered traitors and thieves by their fellow Jews, tax collectors paid the Romans for the privilege of collecting taxes and then overcharged their countrymen while lining their pockets with the excess. The despised man stands meekly before God with his head bowed and eyes down. Beating his breast in sorrow, he humbly confesses his sinfulness and begs for God’s mercy.

Although Jesus’ listeners would have anticipated the Pharisee’s commendation and the thieving publican’s condemnation, Jesus turns their expectations upside down when He says it was the publican who was considered righteous by God. He explains: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 18:14] These were the same words Jesus used when, at a dinner party, He took the guests to task for their lack of humility as they jockeyed for the best seats around the table. [Luke 14:7-11]

We’re familiar enough with this parable not to identify with the Pharisee’s ostentatious display of piety but I suspect we’re more like the Pharisee than we care to admit. Although the Pharisee addressed God at the beginning of his prayer, the rest of it was all about him and seems more like a business contract than a prayer. Listing his good works, he seems to expect God’s commendation and favor in return for them. In theory, we know we’re justified by faith not works, that none of us are saved by our own merits, and that no human righteousness is enough for a God who demands perfection. In reality, however, we’re often more self-absorbed than self-examining, more likely to extol our virtues than admit our sins, and more interested in justifying our actions than being justified by God. Like the Pharisee, do we ever commend ourselves or justify our failings by pointing out the sins of others? How often do we actually take an inventory of our failings and honestly and humbly admit them to the Lord?

Sinners all, let us never forget how completely undeserving and unworthy we are of God’s grace.

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

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. [James 4:7-10 (NLT)]

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EXCUSES – Matthew 15:14-30 (Part 1)

Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.” For God understands all hearts, and he sees you. He who guards your soul knows you knew. He will repay all people as their actions deserve. … People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy. [Proverbs 24:12, 28:13 (NLT)]

Excuses—we all make them but I don’t think God much likes them.

giant swallowtail butterflyIn 1 Samuel 15, after Samuel confronts Saul for disobeying God’s clear commands regarding the Amalekites, Saul makes excuses—first by denying his sin, then by justifying his disobedience, and finally by blaming others. It is only after Samuel tells him the consequences of his sin—the loss of his kingship—that Saul reluctantly admits the truth. In contrast, we have Nathan confronting David regarding his sinful behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah. Immediately after the rebuke, David confesses. It would have been easy for David to blame Bathsheba for seducing him, Uriah for hampering his cover-up scheme, or Joab for his part in Uriah’s death, but he didn’t. Acknowledging his guilt, the repentant David confessed.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Three Servants (told in Matthew 15:14-30), the master entrusts each servant with a share of his wealth proportionate to their abilities. When the master returns, he asks them for an accounting. In my NLT Bible, the reports from the two servants who faithfully fulfilled their responsibilities take only sixteen words each. The third servant, the one who buried his master’s money, uses forty words to make excuses for his failings. In fact, by calling his master a harsh man, the servant tries to cast some of the blame back on him. Nothing in the parable, however, leads us to think the master was overly demanding, hard to please, or cruel. The negligent servant was just making excuses. I wonder what would have happened if he’d simply echoed David’s words to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.” [2 Samuel 13:13]

One of the hardest things for us to do is admit our sins without making any excuses. We frequently deny, minimize, refuse responsibility, cast blame, defend our motives, justify our actions, or even rationalize that it couldn’t be wrong since everyone else does the same thing. Whether we call it a momentary lapse or an error of judgment, wrong is wrong and a sin is still a sin. A sincere confession takes only six words but most excuses take forty or more! Remember—when we honestly confess, it’s not as if we’re telling God anything He doesn’t know. We confess so that we know! It’s only when we honestly acknowledge our sins as sins that we can repent of them and get right with God.

In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide you from myself, not myself from you. [Augustine]

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [I John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

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SECOND CHANCES

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.” [Matthew 21:31b-32 (NLT)]

“It’s all about getting a second chance!” said the back of the man’s T-shirt. I then saw the dog paws printed on both sides of the message and realized his shirt was advertising a dog rescue organization. Nevertheless, the shirt’s words made me think of the parable Jesus told the Pharisees about two sons. The vineyard owner told his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son rudely refused but the second son respectfully promised he’d do the work. As it turned out, the defiant son had a change of heart and went to work in the vineyard while the second seemingly dutiful son never did. Jesus then asked the Pharisees which of the two sons had done his father’s will. Of course, they had to say that the first son, in spite of his initial rebellion, was the obedient one.

The purpose of the parable was to convict the religious leaders of their phoniness. Claiming obedience and righteousness, they’d refused God’s invitation to repent delivered by John the Baptist. While saying they wanted to do God’s will, the Pharisees hadn’t. The scum of society, however, had believed and repented. When Jesus claimed that repentant sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes would get into the Kingdom of Heaven long before the Pharisees, they were shocked. You see, in God’s world, performance takes precedence over promise!

While immediate obedience is preferable, delayed obedience always beats phony obedience. Like the first son, some people prove to be far better than initially expected. Before we accepted Jesus, most of us didn’t show much potential. Truth be told, we probably were willful, selfish, mean, hypocritical and possibly immoral. Like the first son, however, we repented, mended our ways, and now work for our Father in Heaven. Unfortunately, like the second son, others prove false to their initial promise. There is, however, good news for those people whose intentions and promises haven’t materialized. Like the first brother, they too can repent, change their ways, and start working for their Father. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees tell them that the door to His Kingdom is closed to religious pretenders but open to even the vilest of repentant sinners.

The parables of the Two Sons and the Prodigal Son tell us that our God is a God of Second Chances! If there had been a cross on that man’s T-shirt instead of dog paws, the same words would have promoted Christianity! Indeed, “It’s all about getting a second chance!” in Jesus’ rescue organization! Best of all, He doesn’t stop at second chances. Our God is the God of Endless Second Chances, which is good news since it’s pretty much a guarantee that most of us will mess up our second chance and need several more!

So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. … If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:6,8-9 (NLT)]

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