JUST DOING OUR DUTY

When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, “Come in and eat with me”? No, he says, “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.” And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, “We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.” [Luke 17:7-10 (NLT)]

swamp lilyWhen one of his congregation suddenly stopped coming to church, a pastor friend asked him about his absence. The man angrily explained that he’d stopped attending because the pastor hadn’t suitably (and publicly) recognized his large donation to the church’s building fund. My friend assured the miffed man that, had the money been given to the pastor for his personal use, he would have thanked him profusely. But, he added, the money hadn’t been given to him; it was given to God! While the church truly appreciated it (and had acknowledged it in his contribution statement), the issue of both the donation and any recognition or thanks really was between the donor and God. A similar experience was shared by a friend who is in charge of the care ministry for her church. One of her volunteers quit because she felt the church had failed to sufficiently appreciate and publicize her service.

To avoid such complaints, perhaps, along with official greeters, we need official “thankers” in our churches. Of course, if the church had members whose official job was to thank everyone for their service, who would they get to thank the thankers? I can see the makings of a Dr. Seuss book in which the last little Thankaroo, whose job is to thank you and you, after asking who’d thank him, gets in a snit and declares he’s through! Who will thank the last Thankaroo?

It’s only human to want to feel appreciated and acknowledged but, if we’re looking for recognition and honor from people, we’re bound to become disappointed and disillusioned. Let’s remember that we don’t serve mankind; we serve God. Our service does not put Him in our debt because we are saved by grace not works.

Jesus addressed this very issue in His parable about the master and the servant. At first His words seem somewhat harsh, but He wasn’t demeaning the work of a servant; He was emphasizing the correct servant attitude. Servants of Jesus are believers who willingly live under His authority. A good servant knows it’s an honor to serve, willingly does one task after another, and doesn’t expect thanks, praise, or recognition for doing his duty. His obedience to his master is not commendable; it is expected!

We serve God out of love, not out of expectation of public recognition or reward. We certainly should not feel self-righteous about anything we’ve done in His name because all we’ve done is what is expected of us!

As God’s servants, we serve inconspicuously, willingly, and joyfully. Humbly admitting we’ve done no more than is our duty, we don’t serve to get thanks but rather to give thanks to God for the blessings of this world. Not expecting to be singled out for praise by our fellow man, we are thankful to serve. Hearing the Lord say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant!” will be far better than any other recognition given to us in the here and now!

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. [Matthew 6:1-4 (NLT)

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE CAMEL AND THE NEEDLE (Part 2)

Jesus said to his disciples, “I’m telling you the truth: it’s very hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. Let me say it again: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” [Matthew 19:23-24 (NTE)

camel-GCParadegrounds2wAfter the rich young ruler departed, Jesus compared the difficulty of a rich man entering heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. Because of its impossibility, people find this metaphor troubling. To rationalize it, some scholars speculate that a narrow gate called “The Needle” was located in the wall surrounding Jerusalem. Supposedly used after dark when the main gates were closed, it was so small that a camel had to be unburdened of rider and cargo before getting down on its knees to pass through the gate. They interpret the metaphor as meaning that people must leave behind their baggage, repent, and humble themselves to get through the gate to God’s kingdom. While that’s correct and their explanation makes an excellent Sunday school lesson, no historical or archeological evidence exists that such a gate existed.

Other scholars conjecture that the original word was kamêlos, meaning cable or rope, and a copying error caused it to be written kamilos, meaning camel. They prefer an interpretation that, while it may be extremely difficult to get a rope through a needle, it wouldn’t be impossible, especially if Jesus meant a large carpet needle. Be that as it may, it seems improbable that three gospels would have the same transcribing error.

Rather than trying to reason away the difficulty of getting a camel through a needle, perhaps we should take this hyperbole at face value and accept it for what it is—an impossibility! In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud, there is a Persian metaphor about the impossibility of an elephant going through the eye of a needle. Jesus’ listeners may well have been aware of the Persian saying and, since a camel was the largest animal known in Palestine, it would make more sense to Judeans than would an elephant! If we stopped at this verse, it really would seem that the wealthy are automatically barred from God’s Kingdom. But, if wealth blocked us from God, why would He return twice his original wealth to Job? When Zacchaeus gave away half of his wealth, why didn’t Jesus tell him to give away all of it?

The disciples would have been incredulous at Jesus’ metaphor. In their 1st century Jewish world, if anyone could enter God’s Kingdom, it would be a rich man. After all, he could buy all the sacrificial lambs he needed to atone for his sins, easily pay his Temple tax, freely drop money into one of the many Temple receptacles, and even give alms to the poor. If a rich man couldn’t enter the Kingdom, they asked who could.

It is in Jesus’ answer that we begin to understand the fullness of God’s grace: “Humanly speaking, it’s impossible. But everything’s possible with God.” [Matthew 19:26] What the rich young ruler couldn’t understand and the disciples needed to know was that, rich or poor, there is nothing any of us can do to buy our ticket to the Kingdom because God’s Kingdom doesn’t operate on a works or financial system. Salvation on our own terms is impossible.

When Jesus gave His “Sermon on the Mount,” He said, “Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.” [5:3] He wasn’t speaking of those who were penniless. Jesus was speaking of those who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy—those who know they have nothing of their own to offer God—those who know how poor they are regardless of their bank balances or investment portfolios.

No man can purchase or earn God’s favor—the most we can do is receive God’s grace with a humble and contrite heart! Thinking that we are rich, however, will keep us from reaching out for that grace.

For you know the grace of our Lord, King Jesus: he was rich, but because of you he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9 (NTE)]

 You say, ‘I’m rich! I’ve done well! I don’t need anything!’ – but you don’t know that you are miserable, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. [Revelation 3:17 (NTE)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE RICH YOUNG RULER (Part 1)

Someone came to Jesus with this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” [Matthew 19:16 (NLT)]

Most of the Jews in Jesus’ day believed that God would never bestow wealth on a sinner so the rich young ruler presumed he’d inherit eternal life. Nevertheless, he asked Jesus what good deed was needed to guarantee it. While we might expect Jesus to give an answer about faith in Him, He tells the man to obey the commandments. When the man wants to know which ones, Jesus lists several of the commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man. The man, unable to recognize his own sinfulness, proudly claims to have obeyed every one since childhood. Assuming Jesus will tell him he’s done all that is necessary, he asks if there is anything else he needs to do. Thinking his prosperity is evidence of God’s favor, he’s stunned when Jesus tells him to sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and then come follow Him. Unwilling to part with his possessions, the rich young man sadly departs.

Jesus, however, isn’t establishing a universal principle that, to be saved, we must all be penniless. After all, God never told Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, or Solomon to give away their wealth. Martha, Mary and Lazarus appeared to be people of means and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy, but Jesus never told them to sell their possession and give everything away.

Although the rich man’s wealth obstructed his discipleship, the issue wasn’t his wealth: it was his heart! He loved and trusted in money more than God. Without even realizing it, this man who claimed to obey the commandments had violated the first and greatest one of all: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The man couldn’t put his faith in God and follow Jesus until he stopped having faith in and following his money! We can have only one God and He must take precedence over everything else in our lives!

While it was wealth that deterred the young man from following Jesus, their exchange was about more than wealth and applies to every one of us. Indeed, wealth can be a hindrance to our salvation, but so can a number of other things—things like reputation, appearance, status, security, family, education, profession, comfort, drink or drugs, science, sex, or self. Like the rich young ruler, do we love something more than God? What would He ask you to give away?

You must not have any other god but me. [Exodus 20:3 (NLT)]

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Matthew 6:24 (NLT)]

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RENDER UNTO GOD (PART 2)

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (ESV)]

Yesterday was tax day: the day we rendered unto Washington what is theirs. In case we weren’t sure how much that was, we had 1099s, W-2s, 1040s, TurboTax, various receipts, H & R Block, and accountants to help us figure it out. Since Jesus told us to give God what is His, how much is that? God doesn’t send out W-2s listing our year’s many blessings, supply us with 1040s to fill out, or give us deductions for medical expenses, charitable donations, mortgage interest, property taxes, or gambling losses. Rather than a CPA or the IRS, we need to consult our Bibles for the answer to that question.

“Tithe” is an Old Testament term for the 10% gifts the Israelites were required to pay to support the Levites, provide for the Temple, and relieve the poor. A series of complicated rules regarding which tithes were made in what year and the amount tithed ended up making the tithe more like 23.3%. Although the New Testament never commands (or even recommends) a tithing system, Christians often refer to a tithe (or 10% of one’s earnings) as being the right donation to the church. In reality, for some, 10% would be unwise and for others, 10% is hardly enough!

Rather than a fixed percentage, the New Testament calls us to give regularly, according to our means, generously and joyously (even sacrificially at times), and out of love for God and others. While this requirement is vague about the actual amount, it actually is stricter than a fixed 10% because it is a matter of obedience and trust. What we give is a matter of prayer. It is an issue between God and us and we must be willing to give whatever it is He asks—be it time, talents, or finances—in the amount he desires.

Because Caesar’s image was on the coin, it belonged to him. Let’s not forget that we are made in God’s image and it is His face that is stamped upon us. We belong to Him and whatever we give to God already is His. We simply are returning it to the rightful owner. Moreover, the list of what we should render unto God goes far beyond money. We should give Him our worship, service, obedience, praise, love, respect, gratitude, and fidelity. In short, we owe Him everything and not just on Sundays—we owe Him everything all of the time.

As John Wesley said, the question isn’t “how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?” Although there is no need to worry about a letter from God questioning our deductions or demanding an audit, we must remember that one day we will be called in for an accounting of how we used His gifts.

Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. [Matthew 25:34-36 (ESV)]

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12: 2 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2021 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

RENDERING UNTO CAESAR (Part 1)

And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. [Matthew 22:20-22 (ESV)]

The Pharisees and Herodians set out to trap Jesus into saying something that would offend either the people or Rome. By prefacing their question with flattery about His impartiality and integrity, they pressured Him into giving an answer to their politically charged question—was it right to pay taxes to Caesar. The tax about which they were asking was the tributum capitis, a sort of head tax that had to be paid by every male over fourteen and every female over twelve. Already heavily taxed by Rome, this tax was especially hated by the Judeans because they saw it as a symbol of their servitude and submission to their foreign rulers. 

Jesus’ questioners were sure they’d backed Him into a corner where He’d offend people regardless of His answer. If He said to pay taxes to Caesar, He would be denying God’s sovereign reign over Israel, supporting the hated Roman rulers, and alienating his fellow Jews. On the other hand, if He said not to pay taxes, Jesus would offend Rome and lay himself open to a charge of treason. Requesting to see a denarius, Jesus exposed his questioners’ hypocrisy when they had one. No truly devout Jew would carry a Roman coin with its idolatrous portrait of Tiberius Caesar and inscription that called him the “son of the divine Augustus.” Instead of falling into their trap, Jesus then employed a typical rabbinical technique by answering their question with one of his own. He asked whose picture was on the coin. They had to admit it was the emperor’s. Since, in the ancient world, an image on an object indicated ownership, it clearly belonged to Caesar. “Therefore,” said Jesus, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Caught in their own trap, they didn’t yet understand that we can’t outsmart God!

On the surface, Jesus’ answer points out the obligations of dual citizenship—that obligations to both government and God must be fulfilled. Like Jesus’ questioners, we have a dual citizenship and, as citizens of both the Kingdom of God and our nation, we must fulfill our obligations to both. We are to render to whatever Caesar is in power that which is his without turning from our obligations to God. Hidden in Jesus’ answer, however, is the idea that Caesar is only entitled to what is his; he cannot claim what belongs to God! In both Jewish and Christian theology, however, God has dominion and authority over everything. In short, all things belong to God!

Nevertheless, when loyalty to government is not incompatible with loyalty to God, it appears that support of the state is part of being obedient to the Lord. Like it or not, today is tax day and, unless you filed for an extension, today is the last day to do your rendering unto Washington!

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. [Romans 13:6-7 (ESV)]

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WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. [James 1:13-15 (NLT)]

Super Ghost Orchid (by R.J. Wiley)

Once they start collecting orchids, many seemingly normal people become obsessed with them—something the Victorians called orchidelirium. In spite of the threat of federal and state prosecution, some collectors cannot resist the temptation to possess one of the rare orchids found at Corkscrew Swamp and other Florida parks. Because it’s located 50 feet up on a cypress tree, Corkscrew’s super ghost orchid seems safe from poachers but many of Florida’s exotic orchids are stolen from parks, preserves, and homes every year! This summer, a woman was arrested for stealing $4,000 worth of orchids from homes in a town not far from us. As much as I enjoy flowers, it would take far more than an exotic orchid to make me steal from a neighbor’s yard or trudge through the snake and alligator infested waters of a swamp. But, if not an orchid, what would entice me to do such a thing—to do what I clearly know is wrong?

I thought of the old joke in which a man in a bar asks an attractive woman if she’d have sex with him for a million dollars. After she accepts his offer, He then asks if she’d consider it for ten dollars. “What do you take me for?” she asks indignantly. “My dear,” the man replies, “We’ve already established what you are with your first answer. Now we’re just trying to negotiate the price!” What does it take to tempt any of us to step into sin?

At Corkscrew, the Audubon Society has built a boardwalk to keep visitors where they belong. While it helps protect the park’s flora and fauna, its true purpose is to protect the people from the dangers of the swamp. It is, however, a matter of choice as the whether or not a visitor stays on the trail (and not all of them do). In our daily lives, the Bible tells us how to behave and shows us the way we should go. God’s word isn’t there to keep us from enjoying ourselves—it’s there to keep us on the path of righteousness and protect us from sinking in the swamp of sin. But, just like the orchid hunters, we can choose to succumb to temptation, climb over the railings, and walk where we shouldn’t.

“What would you do for a Klondike bar?” was the question asked in the old commercials for the ice cream treat. Their ad campaign was re-launched last year when actress Anna Faris went undercover as a marketing director. She asked a group of expecting couples if any would sign over the naming rights to their baby for a lifetime supply of Klondike bars. For most of us, it would take more than the promise of a rare orchid or an endless supply of ice cream to succumb to Satan and step off God’s path. Satan, however, is no fool; he knows exactly what would tempt us each and every one of us. The question isn’t what we’d do for a rare flower or a frozen treat, but we better know our answer if we were asked what we’d be willing to do for things like wealth, happiness, beauty, fame, youth, health, security, love, or position.

Satan, like a fisher, baits his hook according to the appetite of the fish. [Thomas Adams]

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. [Romans 8:5-6,9 (NLT)]

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