JUDGING THE PUDDING 

sheep goatsAnd the King will say, “I tell you [the sheep] the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” … Then he will answer them [the goats] saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [Matthew 25:40,45-46 (ESV)]

“The proof is in the pudding” is the shortened version of the original proverb: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, rather than what something claims to be, it must be judged by trying it yourself or seeing it in action. Regardless of its outward appearance or what the label states, the value, authenticity, and quality of something can only be determined by experiencing it or seeing the results!

Jesus probably never tasted the pudding to which the original proverb refers but we know that He frequently told parables illustrating its point. Rather than talking about a seasoned minced meat and grain dish boiled in a bag, He was telling us that the true evidence of our declaration of faith is not found in our words; it is seen in our actions. In His parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the King separated the sheep from the goats. After doing so, he said to the sheep, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” [25:35] The goats, however, got a vastly different message: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” [25:41]

Since both species are Bovines in the subfamily Caprinae, roughly the same size, have cloven hooves, and chew the cud, the King couldn’t determine their identity with a quick look. Their difference, however, had nothing to do with their appearance: whether they had a groove in their upper lip or wool instead of hair. He wasn’t concerned with the shape of their horns or whether their tails hung down or pointed up.

The King judged the animals’ breed by their actions. While sheep graze and goats browse, their eating habits weren’t what determined their destination because Jesus really wasn’t talking about sheep or goats. He was speaking of the final judgment, specifically of those who claimed to be one of His flock. The parable’s sheep (like true followers of Jesus) fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner—the very people Jesus called “the least of these.” The goats, however, hadn’t. With His parable, the Lord made it abundantly clear that the way we love one another shows the way we love Him and that our actions have eternal significance.

Jesus wasn’t preaching salvation through works; He was telling us that our actions are evidence of the faith we proclaim! It’s not enough to hear or even to profess; we must obey! We can dress up as sheep and claim to be Christians, but, as the old proverb goes: the proof is in the pudding!

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds. You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? [James 2:14-20 (NLT)]

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SOWING

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of heaven is alike a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.” [Matthew 13:14-16 (NLT)]

p0rairie rose - rose hip
Our brief return north last June meant we again enjoyed walking among the Midwest’s summer wildflowers. I only stepped a few feet off the path for a photo and yet my pants were covered with sticky seedpods from the Tick-Trefoil. Sometimes called sticktights or beggar’s lice, their seed pods are covered with fine hooked hair that catches on anything it contacts—whether clothing or a passing squirrel. I spent the rest of the walk picking off the pods and scattering them along the trail. After carefully stepping over a pile of seed-studded raccoon poop, I was reminded that a flower’s purpose isn’t merely to look pretty; it’s to spread its seeds any way it can.

Like the Tick-Trefoil, some flowers have pods that attach to clothes and animals and ride through the forest on pants’ legs and fur until they find a good home. Flowers like the False Solomon’s Seal and Pokeweed, however, produce fruit that is eaten by animals and, like that raccoon, leave the seeds behind in their waste. Other wildflowers, like the Asters and Milkweed, have seeds attached to a feathery sort of “parachute” that is blown away by the wind to (hopefully) land on fertile soil. That the flowers are rooted into the ground doesn’t seem to keep them from spreading their seeds every which way to make more of their kind.

Looking at the colorful blossoms throughout the park, I saw that the native wildflowers have done their seed-spreading job well. Unfortunately, undesirable invasive species like Canadian Thistle and Purple Loosestrife also have been expanding their territory. The seeds of these invasive weeds are trying to defeat the native wildflowers in the same way Satan is trying to defeat us by planting his seeds of evil. So far, the flowers are ahead of the game; are we?

Jesus also told a parable about a farmer who planted seeds and the various kinds of soil on which his seeds fell. Types of soil, however, make no difference if the farmer fails to sow any seeds! Unsown seeds will never germinate! Would that we Christians were as determined to spread God’s word as the flowers are to scatter their seeds. As pretty as it is, the Prairie Rose knows that its job isn’t finished when it blooms into a beautiful flower. Its real purpose is to bear fruit (the rose hip) and spread its seeds far and wide. Unlike the rose, however, many Christians are quite content just looking good and give little thought to bearing fruit, let alone enlarging God’s garden by sowing His word.

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn! [Adrian Rogers]

He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” [Matthew 9:37-38 (NLT)]

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.” [Mark 16:15 (NLT)]

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DO NO HARM

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]


Rather than in the Hippocratic Oath, “To do no harm” is found in Hippocrates’ History of Epidemics. “First, do no harm” actually dates to medical texts from the mid-19th century, and is attributed to the 17th century English physician Thomas Sydenham. Whoever said it first, I’m relieved those words weren’t the only ones recited by my doctors when they graduated from medical school. Simply doing no harm seems to set the bar too low. I want my physicians to do more than not harm me; I want them to help!

It’s never enough to stop at doing no harm; as Christians, we are to do what is right and good. Remaining on the sidelines may do no harm, but it rarely does any good either. We can’t stand idly by while people are in need nor can we ignore the plight of our neighbor, whether he lives right around the corner or half-way around the world. Rather than Hippocrates’ “do no harm,” I prefer the words of St. Ambrose in a 391 AD treatise setting forth the duties of the clergy: “It is not enough just to wish well; we must also do well. Nor, again, is it enough to do well, unless this springs from a good source even from a good will. … It is thus a glorious thing to wish well, and to give freely, with the one desire to do good and not to do harm.”

Of course, “to do good and not to do harm” requires determining what is good and what is harmful. In medicine that line often is blurred. Take chemotherapy—while it kills dividing cancer cells, it also kills dividing healthy cells like hair, skin, bone marrow, and the lining of the digestive tract. Nevertheless, it is used to treat cancer because it does more good than harm and the damage done to those healthy cells usually doesn’t last.

In everyday life, the line between doing good or harm also can be blurry. After he advised clergy to be generous in giving, Ambrose explained that generosity didn’t mean they should give an extravagant man the means to continue living extravagantly, facilitate an adulterer in his adultery, or aid someone plotting against his country because, in those cases, giving would do more harm than good. While his examples seem pretty straightforward, determining whether we’re helping or hurting others rarely is so clear-cut.

As Christians, we have the desire to help others, especially our loved ones. We must prayerfully determine whether we are empowering people to achieve something they couldn’t do by themselves or simply enabling them to perpetuate a problem. While empowering helps, enabling harms. There are certain battles that are not ours to fight, debts that belong solely to the debtor, and work that must be done without our help. There are consequences that others must face—things that will be lost, disappointments that will occur, hardships that must be endured, tears that must be shed, restitution that needs to be made, and even time that must be served. We do more harm than good when we deny our loved ones those life experiences that rightfully are theirs. Sometimes denying help is the best way to do good for someone.

Father God, guide us in our efforts to do your good works. Keep us from ignoring the many needs around us but don’t let our efforts to be helpful to those we love do more harm than good. Give us the means and desire to do good and the discernment to know the difference between doing good and doing harm. Show us the path you want us to take so that we always do the right thing.

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. [Romans 14:10 (NLT)]

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MEGA MILLIONS

For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. [1 Timothy 6:10 (NLT)]

Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time. [Proverbs 13:11 (NLT)]

St. Abune Teklehaimanot, I pray You help me win the Lottery today. I beseech, entreat and beg you who stood upon one leg that you may grant my fervent plea and the winner of the jackpot will be me! [Pete Crowther]

mountain bluebirdKnown for his extreme piety and for sprouting wings when he fell off a mountain, some people regard St. Abune Teklehaimanot as the patron saint of gamblers. The last years of his life, he chose to live in small deep cave that had spears sticking out of all the walls and remained standing the entire time, even after breaking a leg. While the wing sprouting and ability to remain standing seem to be lucky breaks, I find him an odd saint from whom to request help at winning the lottery. Nevertheless, some people do. Considering the size of tonight’s Mega Millions lottery (at least $530 million and counting), I imagine several ticket purchasers have been calling on God (and even Saint Abune).

I wonder what God thinks of the lottery. We’re told to be good stewards of our blessings, so does He approve of spending hard-earned money on a game of chance? I understand the odds of winning this lottery are 1 in 302,575,350 and, compared to those odds, getting struck by lightning (1 in 12,000) seems a near certainty! Since purchasing a lottery ticket is little better than tossing money out the window, I’m not sure God approves.

Moreover, because the ones who buy the most lottery tickets are the people who can least afford them, many believe the lottery actually exploits the poor. God, who tells us to care for the less fortunate, might disapprove for that reason alone. He also might object simply because the sole purpose of purchasing a lottery ticket is to win money. Jesus cautioned about the danger of riches getting in the way of faith and it’s in 1 Timothy that we’re warned about the love of money being the root of evil. Proverbs warns us about “get rich quick” schemes which certainly describes the lottery. I really don’t know where God stands on the lottery and, while I suspect He doesn’t much like it, I doubt that buying a lottery ticket occasionally is a sin. Nevertheless, we better remember that greed always is a sin!

Now we come to the question of praying to win the lottery. Personally, I think that’s not the kind of prayer God wants to hear and it will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, what if we promise to give it to God? What if we promise to build Habitat homes, Family Life Centers for churches, and schools and hospitals in third-world countries? What if we promise to fund church missions and missionaries, medical care for the indigent, mental health services, shelters for the homeless, day care facilities, food pantries, and seminary costs for aspiring pastors? Would asking God for the winning ticket be the right prayer then? Will God listen if we promise every cent to His work? As much as God wants us to do good works, I don’t think a winning lottery ticket is how He wants them done.

God promises to provide for our needs but He expects us to do the work and make some sacrifices along the way. Let’s face it—giving away money that hasn’t been earned is hardly a sacrifice. God expects us to appreciate His blessings and, if there’s been no effort on our part, there usually is little or no appreciation of the blessing. That’s why groups like Habitat for Humanity require some sweat equity from the families who receive a home. It is up to every one of us, not just the lottery winners, to have altruistic and unselfish goals and it is up to every one of us to do something about achieving them. Rich and poor alike, we all must do our part to fund those worthy causes, feed the hungry, and build those needed homes, hospitals, schools, and churches and all without lotto winnings.

If you win the Mega Millions tonight, I pray you use your money wisely and remember that the more we are blessed by God, the more He expects us to bless others. A word of caution for the winner—according the New York Daily News, nearly 70% of lottery winners end up broke or bankrupt within seven years!

Don’t love money; be satisfied with what you have. For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” [Hebrews 13:5 (NLT)]

And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. [Hebrews 13:16 (NLT)]

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THIS JAMES WAS KILLED WITH A SWORD

A little farther up the shore he saw two other brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, repairing their nets. And he called them to come, too. They immediately followed him, leaving the boat and their father behind. [Matthew 4:21-22 (NLT)]
blue jay

The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were among the first to follow Jesus. Along with Simon Peter, they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. The three men knew Jesus the longest, saw Him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, were witnesses at the Transfiguration, and went with Jesus to Gethsemane. It was these brash brothers who wanted to rain down fire from heaven upon an inhospitable Samaritan village. Because of their impetuous tempers and fiery zeal, Jesus gave them their nickname: “sons of Boanerges” (meaning sons of thunder). It even may have been at their urging that their mother brazenly asked Jesus to grant special places for her boys in His kingdom.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus around 33 AD, the first followers of Jesus were tolerated by the Jewish leaders. They considered Jesus’ believers to be a minor sect that would die out in time. But, instead of diminishing, the Christian movement rapidly grew with its acceptance of Gentiles. By the time of Herod Agrippa I (41 to 44), Jewish leaders became alarmed at the number of Christ’s followers. Rather than a minor sect, they were becoming a religion—something the Jews considered apostasy. Like the Herods before him, Agrippa ruled over Palestine on behalf of Rome and his main purpose was to keep the peace for the emperor. Knowing the importance of currying favor with the Jewish leaders, the king began to persecute some of Christ’s followers and James, the brother of John, was the first of the disciples to die.

Acts 12 tells us he was “killed with a sword” which is just a polite way of saying James was beheaded. According to the Talmud, people were to die of the sword when found guilty of communal apostasy and James may have been accused of convincing the Jews to forsake Yahweh and Mosaic law for the “false teachings” of Christianity. Given what we know of James—outspoken, zealous, impulsive, and quick to anger—the apostle easily could have offended both Pharisees and king. Although the Sanhedrin lacked the right to execute without Roman permission, as king, Agrippa could execute at will, which he did!

We know little about this fisherman from Galilee who was among the first to be called and the first of the apostles to die. When Jesus called the brothers to come to him, they responded without hesitating, analyzing their options, or asking questions. The men immediately left their father and livelihood to follow an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus asked them if they could drink from the same bitter cup of suffering from which He would drink. Again, without hesitation or asking what that might entail, John and James said they could.

James died more than a decade after Jesus’ ascension and Scripture is silent as to what he did during those years. Although legend has it that James evangelized in Spain for several years before returning to Jerusalem, it took eight centuries before that legend took hold and there is no historical basis for it. In all likelihood, James probably limited his preaching to Judea and Samaria but we don’t know. All we really need to know, however, is that James was an ordinary person, like you and me. Although his life was cut short and his brother John lived more than one hundred years, both apostles lived for Jesus and always said, “Yes!” to Him. Can we say the same?

But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” [Mark 10:38-39 (NLT)]

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COUNTING THE COST

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? [Luke 14:27-28 (RSV)]

orchard swallowtail butterflyHaving witnessed the condemned walk to their tortuous deaths while carrying their crosses, the people of Judea knew exactly what it meant to carry a cross. The cross meant humiliation, indescribable pain, grief, anguish, and death! When Jesus spoke of cross bearing and cautioned His followers to count the cost of discipleship, it was clear He wasn’t offering a ticket to Easy Street. While He was offering a ticket to eternal life, it came with a price: the giving up of self and all that might come to mean—be it loss of status, relationships, family, possessions, or even life. Rather than an abstract ideal, discipleship was a hard reality that included denial of self and promised to be a challenge.

Some of us, when looking at the cost, would prefer a watered-down gospel. We want to be Christians without Jesus having any effect on our lives. We want the blessings of a new life without giving up the pleasures of the old. We’re happy to bear His name, celebrate both His birth and resurrection, and wear a cross, but we’re not that anxious to bear one! Wanting to guarantee our final destination, we want salvation without the sacrifice. Unwilling to surrender to God’s will, we figure a few good deeds can make up for our lack of faith and obedience. We want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

While free, God’s grace is not cheap. Jesus was the gift of God’s grace by which all of mankind could be saved, but it cost God His only son. Accepting Jesus’ name means far more than taking a spot in a church pew. God’s grace expects us to follow Jesus wherever He leads us and to do whatever He asks. We can’t just listen to a preacher; we must practice what Jesus preached! God’s grace expects us to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, reach the unreachable, and do what often seems impossible. God’s grace demands that we grow smaller while He grows greater—that we take up our cross and lose our lives in complete commitment to Him. For many, that loss is figurative but, for some like Bonhoeffer and most of the disciples, that loss of life was literal!

Costly grace…is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

Jesus knew the price He’d pay when He threw the money changers out of the temple, healed on the Sabbath, and confronted the Pharisees; nevertheless, He did His Father’s will. Over 2,000 years later, He still calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. Even though a Roman cross doesn’t await us as it did Jesus, Peter, and Andrew, taking up the cross for us today means that we willingly bear the cost of Christian discipleship as we sacrifice ourselves, our time, and talents in serving God and others. That cross doesn’t necessarily mean life will be easier, but it definitely will be better!

And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10:38-39 (RSV)]

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. [Titus 2:11-12 (RSV)]

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