AND TO GOD WHAT IS HIS!

“Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’ You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!” [Malachi 3:8-10 (NLT)]

blue flag irisWhen I was a little girl, I once went to mass with my Roman Catholic cousins. Before leaving for church, my mother pressed two shiny quarters into my hand. “For the offering,” she reminded me. Part way through the service, long-handled offering baskets were extended down each row and people dropped their offering envelopes and money into them. “Who will know?” I thought as I reached into my pocket and pulled out just one quarter for the offering. Almost immediately, another basket came down our row. “God saw me!” I thought in a panic. “God knows I was holding out on Him and now the priest has sent the basket back.” I quickly reached into my pocket for the second quarter. As I dropped it into the basket, I heaved a great sigh of relief; I was safe from Hell for at least one more day. My only consolation was that I clearly wasn’t the only sinner; other people had dropped money into that second basket. Looking back, I think the second basket probably was for a special offering of some kind. To my child’s mind, however, that second basket was for those of us who hadn’t given God what belonged to Him.

Yesterday, I wrote about Jesus’s response to the Pharisees that we should “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” [Matthew 22:21] Sometimes we forget that there was more to His response. Jesus added that we should “give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus was speaking of more than our tithes and offerings or little girls who hide quarters in their pockets.

Since Caesar had minted those silver coins with his name and picture on them, Jesus said they were Caesar’s. Let us never forget that God created us in His image and His mark is on us. By Jesus’s reasoning, that would seem to mean that we are God’s! His words were a not so subtle reminder that God wants our lives used for Him and for His glory. It’s not just our finances, but also our time, talent, hearts, worship and obedience that belong to God. Do we truly give God all that is His? Does He have all of us or are we keeping something hidden in a pocket?

Giving is more than a responsibility—it is a privilege; more than an act of obedience—it is evidence of our faith. [William Arthur Ward]

The heavens are yours, and the earth is yours; everything in the world is yours—you created it all. [Psalm 89:11 (NLT)]

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” [2 Corinthians 9:7 (NLT)]

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RENDER UNTO CAESAR

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21b (NCV)]

green heronSome things never change and, aside from death, it’s said that taxes are the only other sure thing in our lives. Along with a poll (or head) tax, the Romans had a variety of other taxes including customs taxes, property taxes, import and export taxes, crop taxes, toll bridges, sales tax, and special taxes when there was a war or building project to finance. Sounds a bit like nowadays! Yesterday was April 15, the day the IRS demanded what is theirs. When you put “the” and “IRS” together you get the word “theirs” and, once we’ve filed our taxes, it sure feels like the government considers most of what’s ours to be theirs!

When the Pharisees joined with the Herodians and asked Jesus if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, they weren’t asking for accounting advice. Both groups wanted to trap Jesus into saying something that would get Him into trouble either with Rome or the people of Judea. Since paying taxes was a painful and costly reminder of their subjection to Rome, saying yes would anger his own people. If he said no, he’d infuriate the Herodians (Jews who supported Rome), be reported as an insurrectionist, and could be executed for treason. There was no good answer.

It’s foolish to try to outsmart God and Jesus gave the perfect answer. He asked whose portrait was on the coin. Caesar’s picture was on the denarius, the coin of the day, along with these words: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” With Caesar’s picture and title on it, the coin that deified the emperor clearly belonged to him. Jesus told the people to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God the things that were His.

Jesus told us we should pay the government what rightfully belongs to it; like it or not, our obligations to the government and the services it provides must be met. Following good and honest accounting advice is wise and no one wants to pay more than his due. There is, however, a fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion. While there are some people who would never describe themselves as thieves, they think nothing of cheating on their taxes. They don’t call it theft but theft it is. Unfortunately, some of us dishonor God when preparing our taxes by fudging, misreporting, manipulating, or conveniently forgetting income. The term “creative accounting” doesn’t change what it is: stealing.

Some citizens justify tax cheating by saying they don’t approve of the way the government spends tax money. That’s a convenient excuse. Something tells me, no matter which party is in power and how the government spends, as long as they were expected to pay taxes, they’d never approve of the government’s expenditures. So, as much as we disliked doing it, yesterday we rendered unto to Caesar the things that are his. While we didn’t enjoying doing it, let us remember that laws and taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society.

Income tax returns are the most imaginative fiction being written today. [Herman Wouk]

So you must yield to the government, not only because you might be punished, but because you know it is right. This is also why you pay taxes. Rulers are working for God and give their time to their work. Pay everyone, then, what you owe. If you owe any kind of tax, pay it. Show respect and honor to them all. [Romans 13:5-7 (NCV)]

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BRIBERY

Don’t take bribes. Bribes blind perfectly good eyes and twist the speech of good people. [Exodus 23:8 (MSG)]

Don’t twist the law. Don’t play favorites. Don’t take a bribe—a bribe blinds even a wise person; it undermines the intentions of the best of people. [Deuteronomy 16:19 (MSG)]

wrong wayA college admissions conspiracy is in the news and we’re learning about parents bribing test takers, proctors to correct answers, and coaches to recommend college acceptances. There have been allegations of false references, fake ethnicity, made-up athletic credentials, Photoshopped pictures, sham charities, and bribes disguised as charitable donations!

I’m reminded of King Ahab and his infamous wife, Jezebel. Wanting a vegetable garden next to the palace, Ahab offered to buy the vineyard of his neighbor Naboth. Because God had commanded that ancestral land was not to be sold permanently, Naboth refused the king’s offer. Unaccustomed to not getting what he wanted, Ahab pouted and even refused to eat. Jezebel, like her husband, was used to having her own way. Plotting to get Ahab what he coveted, she hatched a devious scheme and bribed false witnesses; as a result, the righteous landowner was stoned to death and the king got his property.

Like Ahab and Jezebel, the indicted parents are powerful, wealthy, and accustomed to acquiring whatever they desire. Believing that everything and everyone has a price, they wanted their children accepted by the most prestigious schools. Like Ahab and Jezebel, they resorted to bribery and deception to attain that goal. As I looked at the names of those indicted—including CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers, realtors, physicians, and entertainers—I couldn’t help but wonder what other illegal or unethical shortcuts they may have taken through the years.

On the other hand, we have the coaches, proctors, administrators, and others who accepted those bribes and carried out the scam. They’re not much different than the two men Jezebel bribed to falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy or even Elisha’s money-hungry servant Gehazi. In gratitude for Elisha’s curing him of leprosy, Namaan offered gifts to the prophet. Since it was God’s hand that healed the man, Elisha refused the payment. Like Jezebel’s false witnesses and some of those indicted, Gehazi coveted a piece of that wealth and the servant hatched a plan to defraud Namaan. Gehazi got the gifts for himself and lied about them to Elisha.

Like those who coveted college admission for their children and bribed people to attain it, Ahab, Jezebel, and Gehazi stole what wasn’t theirs to take. Unlike those who accepted bribes and payoffs, however, both Naboth and Elisha refused to disobey God by selling what wasn’t theirs to sell. In the end, God avenged Naboth with the deaths of Ahab, Jezebel and their family; the deceitful Gehazi lost honor, position, and even his health. Right now, things don’t look too promising for those fifty people named in the indictment, either.

Few of us can afford to bribe our children’s way into top universities and few, if any, of us are in a position to facilitate such improprieties. Nevertheless, the enemy is an equal opportunity tempter. He continually offers opportunities to covet, steal, deceive, abuse our position, or sell our honor; it’s just that he does it on a much smaller scale with most of us. Encouraging us to think we’re more deserving than someone else, he tempts us to push our way ahead of others or grab a little of what isn’t ours to take. When God gave the law to Moses, he made it clear that bearing false witness, coveting, and bribery were prohibited and I’m pretty sure He hasn’t changed His mind in the 3,400 years since then. Call it what you want: taking a short cut, using influence, fixing, taking advantage, doing a special favor, greasing the wheels, a sweetheart deal, a gift, or a bribe; whether we offer or accept one, it’s always wrong.

God, who gets invited to dinner at your place? How do we get on your guest list? “Walk straight, act right, tell the truth. Don’t hurt your friend, don’t blame your neighbor; despise the despicable. Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe. You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.” [Psalm 15 (MSG)]

The answer’s simple: Live right, speak the truth, despise exploitation, refuse bribes, reject violence, avoid evil amusements. This is how you raise your standard of living! A safe and stable way to live. A nourishing, satisfying way to live. [Isaiah 33:15-16 (MSG)]

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TRAPPED

Then he said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” [Luke 12:15 (NLT)]

You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!” And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. [Revelation 3:17 (NLT)]

grey squirrel in bird feederI looked at the greedy squirrel caught in the bird feeder. He’d managed to get himself in but couldn’t get out and wasn’t even able to enjoy the seeds that enticed him there in the first place. Other squirrels, however, were gathered beneath the feeder feasting on the seeds he knocked out of the feeder with his frantic movements. That silly squirrel lives in a bird sanctuary where there is more than enough food in the way of fungi, nuts, seeds, fruit, caterpillars and insects (along with the bird seed that frequently spills from the bird feeders) to keep him plump and happy all year long. Nevertheless, unsatisfied with enough, he hungered for more. We’re not much different.

I thought about King Solomon; while best known for his wisdom, like the squirrel, he was greedy. Although God had warned against a king amassing great amounts of gold, Solomon collected 25 tons of it every year and, unlike those bird seeds, his wealth didn’t even scatter down to his people. After Solomon’s death, they begged King Rehoboam for relief from their labors and heavy taxes. Perhaps hungry for an even more extravagant lifestyle than his father’s, Rehoboam refused and lost it all to the king of Egypt within five years.

Some say wealth brings happiness but, if anyone should know about wealth and happiness, it would be wise King Solomon. His words in Ecclesiastes, however, are not those of a happy man: “Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness!” [5:10] Amassing money and possessions is like running on a treadmill: a never ending journey. We think that bigger, better or more will bring contentment but what once seemed a luxury soon becomes commonplace and a mere necessity. So, wanting something even more extravagant, we get back on the treadmill of acquisition. So rich that he considered silver worthless, Solomon got rid of his silver goblets and utensils and replaced them with gold. Had platinum been discovered in his time, I imagine he would have replaced the gold with it.

Wealth is not evil; in fact, it can do wonderful things. Wealth, however, is dangerous because loving it and all that comes with it can lead us into temptation and trap us in spots far worse than a bird feeder.

Don’t feel sorry for the squirrel; a naturalist freed him that afternoon. But, chances are, many of us are still on a treadmill of acquisition, foolishly striving for that elusive place over the rainbow where dreams come true, “troubles melt like lemon drops,” and that pot of gold is hidden. The squirrel’s desire for more held him hostage; we mustn’t let our craving for more do the same to us!

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Spurgeon]

After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.  But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. 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 6:7-10 (NLT)]

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NUMBERED, WEIGHED AND DIVIDED

Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. [Romans 14:12 (NLT)]

yellow-crowned night heronIn 539 BC, thousands of Medes and Persians were digging outside Babylon’s walls. Thinking they were futilely trying to undermine the city’s impregnable walls, Babylon’s King Belshazzar was unconcerned. While carousing with 1,000 of his nobles, he gave orders to bring out the gold and silver cups that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from Jerusalem’s temple 47 years earlier. The revelers were drinking to their false Babylonian gods with vessels dedicated to the one true God when a human hand appeared and started writing on the plaster wall. No longer so arrogant, the frightened Belshazzar called for his astrologers and diviners but, when the pagans were incapable of deciphering God’s message, Daniel was called to interpret the words.

The three words on the wall were MENE, meaning numbered, TEKEL, meaning weighed, and PARSIN, meaning divided. The words meant Belshazzar’s days as king were coming to an end, his reign had been weighed and found deficient, and that Babylon would fall and be divided. Even though I don’t rule an empire, I wondered if those three words might apply to me, as well.

Numbered—yes, our days are numbered. That we don’t know how many days are allocated to us doesn’t mean they are limitless. While Belshazzar’s number was up (he died that very night), he wasted his last day in blasphemy, idolatry, and drunken revelry. How will we choose to spend our remaining days?

Weighed—like Belshazzar, our lives will be weighed (on God’s scales, not ours). Of course, no mortal can ever balance on His perfect scales. Nevertheless, God will hold us accountable at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Have we been good stewards of His gifts? Have we served selflessly or selfishly? Belshazzar dishonored God with gold and silver goblets; have we dishonored Him with our own form of idolatry? Do we love fame, wealth, home, career, possessions or beauty more than Him? Would God find us wanting because we’ve been short on grace, forgiveness and love?

Divided—like Belshazzar’s, our personal kingdom will be divided when we’re gone. After the government and bill collectors get their share, our heirs will divide the rest. All of those possessions we worked so hard to obtain and thought so important in this life will be divided among those we leave behind. Much of what we thought so valuable will end up at flea markets, resale shops, on eBay or in a landfill.

I’m not a pagan king, hosting a drunken orgy and committing sacrilege while his nation is under attack but those three words—numbered, weighed, and divided—hit home when I read them this morning. They are a vivid reminder to look carefully at my priorities. Much of my life can be described as stuff and nonsense. How about yours? Are our days spent wisely? Do we appreciate every day with which we are blessed? Will we be found lacking? Do we honor God with our words and actions? What will remain of us when we’re gone? While things are meaningless and will disappear, memories of us and the influence we’ve had on others will continue. Will the kingdom we leave to others consist of stuff that’s divided or love that multiplies?

Numbered, weighed, and divided: what do they mean to you?

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (NLT)]

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SACRIFICES

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

monarch butterfly - butterfly weedIf you ever visited the Mayan ruins near Cancun, Mexico, chances are you saw the remains of a stone ball court with sloping walls. Nowhere near as impressive as the Mayan pyramids, I didn’t even take a picture when I saw one. Two stone rings hang about 20 feet up the walls. A ball game called pok-ta-pok was played there. As in volleyball, players passed a solid rubber ball around by hitting it with various parts of their bodies. Unlike volleyball, however, they could not touch the ball with their hands. The goal was to get the ball through one of the rings.

This game was a reenactment of the Mayan creation story and had ritual significance. When prisoners of war were forced to play the game, it became a prelude to their sacrifice by decapitation, heart removal, or disembowelment. Since blood was considered nourishment for the gods, the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful one and the sacrifice of a human was the most powerful.

When we hear the word sacrifice, we tend to picture something as brutal and gruesome as the Mayans, satanic cults, King Manasseh sacrificing his son to Molech, or even Abraham placing his son on an altar and bringing a knife to his throat. We think of sacrifice as suffering terrible loss: the destruction or surrender of something precious to us. Having a negative connotation, we tend to see sacrifice as unpleasant, involuntary, or punishing.

There was, however, another scenario to that Mayan ball game. In some cases, it was the winners who were sacrificed. Teams willingly played in the hopes of winning and being sacrificed to the gods. This sacrifice was a privilege that gave great honor to the player and his family. Although the game’s losers lived, they were disgraced and may have become slaves. While it still seems barbaric to us, rather than a giving up of something, that sacrifice was seen as a gain.

God clearly prohibited human sacrifice when he gave the law to the Israelites, yet Paul tells the Romans to be living sacrifices! This is neither a forced sacrifice nor one of punishment; we are not defeated warriors being sacrificed in shame. This is an enthusiastic sacrifice, like that of the Mayan warriors who chose to compete in that sacrificial game. Like them, we are victors but, unlike them, ours is not a one-time sacrifice resulting in death but rather a constant placement of our lives at God’s disposal. It is a joyful and willing sacrifice of worship—a consecration of our lives to Him.

Sunday, we sang these words from Frances Havergal’s hymn: “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” As we sang, we offered Him our time, hands, feet, voices, lips, money, intellect, will, heart, and love. That is what it means to be a living sacrifice to God. Four years after writing her hymn, Havergal responded to her own words, “Take my silver and my gold,” by giving away all of her jewelry (nearly fifty items) to a missionary society. About this sacrifice, she wrote a friend of her “extreme delight” and said, “I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.” Her words, actions, and joyful attitude are an example of what it means to be a living and holy sacrifice,

Take my love, my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
[Frances R. Havergal (1874)]

Give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. [Romans 6:13b (NLT)]

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