FROM TAX MAN TO SAINT – Part 1

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. [Matthew 9:9 (NLT)]

St. MatthewAlthough Mark and Luke call him Levi, there is no doubt that Levi and Matthew are the same man. He may have had two names, as did John Mark or was known by two different names as were Peter (Simon), Thomas (Didymus), Jude (Thaddeus), and Nathanael (Bartholomew). It simply may be that, like the Apostle Paul (Saul), he was known both by his Greek name of Matthew as well as his Hebrew one of Levi.

When considering how Jesus can change a life, I think of Matthew as the poster boy for rebirth and change! It’s in Capernaum that we first meet the man who would become the writer of the gospel bearing his name. Sitting in his tax booth, he is known as Levi the tax collector. In 1st century Judah, tax collectors (called publicans) were the lowest of the low and fiercely hated by their countrymen. Acting as revenue agents for Rome, Jewish tax collectors were considered collaborators. Since they could demand more than what was required, they also were thought of as thieves! Some even accepted bribes from rich businessmen to overtax their competitors and drive them out of business. Their decisions were backed up by Roman soldiers and the people were at their mercy.

Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BC-50 AD) vividly described why Jews hated their countrymen who became publicans. Philo explained that the Romans “deliberately choose as tax collectors men who are absolutely ruthless and savage, and give them the means of satisfying their greed. These people…leave undone no cruelty of any kind and recognize no equity or gentleness…as they collect the taxes they spread confusion and chaos everywhere. They exact money not only from people’s property but also from their bodies by means of personal injuries, assault and completely unheard of forms of torture.”

Even though the Torah prohibited borrowing, lending, or being a party to a transaction that involved charging another Jew interest, a favorite device of the tax-collectors was to advance money to people unable to pay their tax and charge exorbitant interest. The publican became a loan shark and the tax became a private debt to him, which may explain Philo’s mention of the injuries they inflicted.

While none of us like the internal revenue, put in the context of 1st century Judah, we can understand why publicans were despised in Jesus’ day. The Babylonian Talmud ranked them alongside “murderers and robbers.” Tax collectors weren’t allowed to exchange their money at the Temple treasury and were excommunicated from the synagogues. The rabbis taught that tax collectors were disqualified witnesses in court, society outcasts, and disgraces to their own family. They even considered it lawful for a Jew to lie in almost any conceivable way to avoid paying the tax collector! It’s no wonder that the religious leaders were outraged by Jesus’ association with publicans.

Nevertheless, in spite of (or because of) Matthew’s unsavory reputation and unpopularity, Jesus called the publican to follow Him and that’s exactly what the tax man did! This was such a scandal that the 2nd-century anti-Christian philosopher Celsus actually used the fact that Jesus had “scum” like Matthew among his disciples as evidence against His divinity.

We don’t know if Matthew was as evil as some tax collectors; at the same time, we can’t reconcile his choice of career with being upstanding and righteous before meeting Jesus! While we’d love to know why he so readily deserted his tax booth, we don’t. We do know that by abandoning his business to follow Jesus, Matthew gave up wealth, job security, and his few friends and co-workers. The disciples who’d been fishermen could always return to fishing if following Jesus didn’t work out for them but Matthew had no Plan B. If he returned to Capernaum, he would be jobless and penniless. Already a pariah in the community, the publican couldn’t expect a warm welcome home from the people he once exploited! When Matthew recorded Jesus’ words about releasing our grasp on earthly things, losing our old lives, and picking up the cross, he knew exactly what our Lord meant by those words.

Jesus says, “Follow me!” to everyone. Are we as willing as Matthew to do just that?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” [Matthew 16:24-25 (NLT)]

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KEEP IT ON THE ISLAND

A gossip goes around telling secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence. [Proverbs 11:13 (NLT)]

aftermath of fireWhile attending a spiritual retreat, three ministers decided to share their gravest ethical lapses with one another. After a little hesitation, Pastor Jones started the ball rolling and confessed to having an affair with his beautiful (and married) church secretary. After admitting to a gambling problem, Pastor Smith owned up to embezzling thousands of dollars from his church. Pastor Brown, however, was reluctant to share his moral failings. Telling him that “confession is good for the soul,” the other two ministers urged him to speak, especially since his transgression couldn’t be any worse than theirs. Nervously, Pastor Brown answered, “I’m sorry to tell you fellows, but I’m a compulsive gossip!”

Because secrets often get shared in faith-based small groups, the church is a dangerous place when it comes to gossip. When two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, God will hear their prayer. When those same people are gathered together, He also might hear some gossip. When we’re asked to pray for someone, we often learn details about their lives that are intensely private. Through prayer requests, small groups, friendships, and counseling, we often gain knowledge of addicted children, attempted suicides, abusive spouses, abortions, adultery, medical conditions, and more—information that is not ours to share with anyone.

As Christians, however, we’ve found a gossip loophole. Instead of telling others about someone, we can ask them to pray for that person by name and then give the juicy details of their problems. Some people seem to think passing along information about the life of someone not present isn’t gossip if a “Bless her/his heart” is added to the end of the conversation. They’re wrong! When requesting prayers, God already knows all the names and particulars so specifics aren’t necessary. When given a person’s deepest secrets, we should treasure them, lock them in a safe place, and toss away the key.

Right now, New Mexico is experiencing the second largest wildfire in their history. For more than a month, firefighters have tried to tame this ferocious megafire but, as of Saturday, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire stretched across 169,000 acres and was only 20% contained. That fire, however, is only one of six wildfires burning throughout the state. Altogether, over 300,000 acres have burned just this year! More than trees, wildlife, and homes are being destroyed. Not only have those fires claimed lives but they also threaten an Indo-Hispano culture that has endured since long before the United States came into existence. A way of life that has lasted for centuries is being destroyed by those flames.

Whether carelessly or deliberately spoken, the Apostle James likens our words to a spark that can cause another kind of fire. Like New Mexico’s fires, gossip spreads rapidly, is as hard to stop, and can be just as destructive! While buildings will remain, homes may not; trees will survive but reputations probably won’t. People may not die but their lives may be destroyed. Once started, ill-spoken words are as difficult to contain as a megafire and their smoke and ash can darken a life forever.

Years ago, when we vacationed with friends on Grand Cayman, we agreed to keep any personal information we shared “on the island.” We continue to keep things “on the island” whether we’re on an island, in the living room, at small group, praying for someone, or anywhere else. Forgive me for mixing metaphors but it is only by keeping it “on the island” that we can prevent forest fires!

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire.  And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. [James 3:5-6 (NLT)]

Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord? Who may enter your presence on your holy hill? … Those who refuse to gossip or harm their neighbors or speak evil of their friends. [Psalm 15:1,3 (NLT)]

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THE ADULTEROUS WOMAN

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NIV)]

Rocky Mountain National ParkThe Torah made it abundantly clear that adultery was punishable by death and, since adultery involves more than one party, laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy required the condemnation of both parties involved. Jesus was speaking to a crowd when some scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Him. Insisting that the law required her to be stoned, they asked Jesus what to do.

Rather than being concerned about a sin, this was another attempt to trap Jesus into saying something for which they could condemn Him. If He said to let her go, that would be a clear violation of Mosaic law. On the other hand, if He said to stone her, Jesus could be reported to the Romans for violating their law prohibiting Jews from carrying out their own executions. Moreover, if He condemned her, Jesus lay Himself open to accusations of hypocrisy since He spoke so often of forgiveness and mercy.

Before answering, Jesus stooped down and wrote something in the dust with His finger. He then stood and told them, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” He stooped again and wrote some more in the dust. Although He’d upheld the law, not one of the men could claim to be sinless and the woman’s accusers slowly slunk away. The condemned woman remained with the only sinless man who could, but wouldn’t, cast a stone.

All who read this story wonder what Jesus wrote in the dust. He may have been writing the exact words from the Torah that imposed the death penalty for adultery—words that demanded death for both the man and woman! If this woman actually was caught in the act, where was the man with whom she supposedly committed adultery? It was the scribes and Pharisees who sinned by only condemning her. Moreover, Mosaic law required a trial in which at least two witnesses testified before anyone could be put to death by stoning. There doesn’t seem to have been a trial and where were the witnesses? They were supposed to be the first ones to throw their stones! When Jesus asked for the first stone to be cast, was He asking for the witnesses to step forward? Perhaps there were none or the witnesses knew they were as guilty of sin as was the woman.

Perhaps Jesus was writing the names and secret sins of those present. Even though He walked in human flesh, Jesus also was God and knew what was in people’s hearts. Perhaps, seeing their names written in the dust, these scribes and Pharisees were reminded of the words of Jeremiah that, “all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” [17:13] Had they forsaken God by their abysmal behavior? Let us remember that the finger writing in the dust that day was the same finger that wrote the law on Moses’ stone tablets. Whatever they said, those words in the dust were powerful ones written by the hand of God!

In the end, while the only one without sin did not condemn the woman, He did not condone her sin either. In fact, we know that Jesus had a far narrower definition of adultery that did the scribes and Pharisees. While Jesus is gracious and merciful, He also is holy and calls us to a life of obedience and righteousness. Although He did not condemn her, He did tell her, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus tells us the same thing every time He forgives us; may we go and sin no more!

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? [Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)]

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JOHN THE BAPTIST – Part 1

And he [John] will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly. [Luke 1:16-17 (NLT)]

blue flag irisWhen the angel promised John’s birth to Zechariah, it was ordained that the child would be named John, that he would be a Nazarite, and that he would prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. After that, other than his circumcision, the only thing we know about John’s youth is that he “grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.” [Luke 1:80] We know that Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea and church tradition places his home in Ein Karem near Jerusalem. Considering Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s advanced ages, they probably didn’t live to see their boy become a man. Nevertheless, they would have been sure their son knew of his divine calling and made provisions for his care.

The word translated as wilderness or desert is erémos, meaning a barren place, it typically was used to describe the desert to the east and south of Palestine. It is speculated that John may have resided in the erémos with a community of Essenes who lived in the Judean desert near Qumran. This Jewish sect studied and copied Hebrew scripture and practiced various forms of asceticism like fasting, prayer, and celibacy. 1st century historian Josephus tells us they often took in children who were dedicated by their parents to such a lifestyle and the Dead Sea scrolls tell us they often recruited members from priestly families.

There are similarities between John and the Essenes. They both strived for holiness through a demanding ascetic lifestyle, practiced a baptism ritual requiring a change in heart, and described themselves as voices in the wilderness. Like John, Essenes had a special diet and members vowed never to eat food prepared outside the community. There was, however, a loophole and anything eatable found in nature that didn’t require preparation was allowed so John’s strange diet of wild honey and locusts would have been acceptable for an Essene.

There are, however, significant differences between the Essenes and John. Essenes interpreted Isaiah’s words, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland” to mean they should separate themselves from Judah and civilization and live in the wilderness to await redemption. The Essenes lived in almost total isolation but John did just the opposite and became a very public voice by the banks of the Jordan as he called the nation to repent. The Essenes’ doctrine expected two Messianic figures along with a prophetic figure. The Dead Sea scrolls make it clear they did not believe Jesus to be a messianic figure but John recognized Jesus as the one and only Messiah.

With his call for the nation’s repentance, John is far more like an Old Testament prophet than an Essene. Just as Elijah confronted King Ahab about his sins, John confronted Herod. Like Elijah, he wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt and his attire, while seeming strange to us, would have made perfect sense to a 1st century Jew. Jesus made the connection when he told John’s disciples that John was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy that a prophet would come in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the Lord.

John the Baptist is the connection between the Old and New Testaments—between the old covenant of the law and the new covenant of grace. We may not know much about John before his thirtieth year but we do know that he fulfilled the task God set before him: “to prepare the way for the Lord. …to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.”

And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins. Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” [Luke 1:76-79 (NLT)]

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TEND THE GARDEN – EARTH DAY 2022

Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” … The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. [Genesis 1:28,2:15 (NLT)]

It is terrible to hear the young birds calling for food after the old ones have been killed to get the feathers for rich women to wear. I am not going to have my birds sacrificed that way. [Rhett Green (Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Warden from 1912 – 1917)]

great egret - snowy egret - corkscrew sanctuaryThe wading birds of southwest Florida are absolutely beautiful, especially this time of year when they’re wearing their mating plumage. We’ve lived here eleven years and I still haven’t tired of their beauty as I encounter them daily in our ponds. 115 years ago, however, I would have been hard put to see any of these beautiful creatures anywhere. In the late 1800s, bird feathers became the fashion craze in women’s hats. Along with a plethora of plumes, some hats even featured an entire exotic bird! By 1900, more than five million birds were being killed every year and plume hunters had nearly wiped out the entire egret population. It wasn’t just the egrets with their white mating plumes—herons, roseate spoonbills, flamingoes, and peacocks were among the fifty North American species being killed for their plumage. No bird was safe.

After killing the birds and stripping them of their plumage, poachers would leave their carcasses to rot. They also left abandoned nests with eggs that would never hatch or baby birds unable to fend for themselves. For the hunters, poaching was profitable; they could easily bag 100 birds on a good day and the plumes sold for as much as $32 dollars an ounce. Merely for the sake of fashion, the bird population in rookeries was decimated throughout Florida and the southeast U.S. Fortunately, because of a grass roots campaign by two Boston socialites, organizations like the Audubon Society, and both state and national legislation, the carnage of these beautiful creatures has stopped.

We were called to be good stewards of the earth, but we still show little regard for God’s creation. Last fall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted 11 species of birds from the endangered species list—not because they no longer were at risk but because they had become extinct! In 2021, Birdlife International reported that nearly 1,500 of the 11,000 species of birds face the threat of extinction with another 1,000 species considered “vulnerable.” We’re not wearing fancy feathered hats but loss of habitat, climate change, wind farms, cell towers, pesticides, cats, and even windows pose threats to them. It’s not just birds that are in danger; our local papers are filled with reports of blue-green algae, red tide, fish kills, Florida panther loss, starving manatees, diminishing wetlands, and endangered sea turtles! Worldwide, we face plenty of other pressing environmental issues including oil spills, water pollution, global warming, fossil fuel dependency, a diminishing rain forest, and the loss of open land (to name just a few).

When I look at the birds with their beautiful plumage, I thank God for their creation and for the people who took action to save them. Although God did the creating, it is up to us to do the maintaining. In Genesis, we read that God gave mankind permission to govern the earth and reign over all the animals along with the responsibility of tending and watching over His garden. The Hebrew word used for “tend” was shamar and it means more than keeping the land cultivated and free of weeds. It means keeping watch, preserving, guarding, and protecting. Have we tended God’s beautiful garden and made it thrive or have we run roughshod over it without regard for His creation?

Today is Earth Day. Observed by over a billion people every year, it has become the largest secular observance in the world. Concern for our environment, however, is not a secular concern—it is a sacred responsibility given to us by God. Let us remember that every day is Earth Day!

Lord, grant us the wisdom to care for the earth and till it. Help us to act now for the good of future generations and all your creatures. Help us to become instruments of a new creation, Founded on the covenant of your love. [The Cry of the Earth]

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him. [Psalm 24:1 (NLT)]

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PRAYING FOR OUR ENEMY

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. [Matthew 5:43-45 (ESV)]

Of him that hopes to be forgiven it is indispensably required that he forgive. It is therefore superfluous to urge any other motive. On this great duty eternity is suspended, and to him that refuses to practise it the throne of mercy is inaccessible, and the Saviour of the world has been born in vain. [Samuel Johnson (1751)]

water lilyThe friend said, “I hate to admit it, but every night I pray that Putin will be dead by morning.” As we witness the genocide, violence, and horror in Ukraine on the morning news, I suspect he’s not the only Christian who is saddened to learn that Vladimir Putin didn’t die last night or that bombs didn’t destroy the Kremlin and the entire Russian army!

Like many, I struggle with what and how to pray regarding Russia, Putin, and this horrific war. More than 80 years ago, C.S. Lewis had the same dilemma regarding Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—the tyrants and murderers of World War II who, like Putin, were Godless merciless dictators who attacked human rights at all levels. The parable of the unforgiving servant, however, reminds us that if we expect God’s mercy and forgiveness, we are to extend that same mercy and forgiveness to others. That’s a hard pill to swallow when it comes to people like Vladimer Putin but Jesus didn’t mince his words when he commanded that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Believing that praying for others was obligatory for a Christian, Lewis wrote the following to his dear friend Dom Bede Griffiths in spring of 1940: “The practical problem about charity (in one’s prayer) is very hard work, isn’t it? When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real?” After pondering the problem, Lewis wrote to his brother about a month later and began his letter with Samuel Johnson’s words about forgiveness and mercy. After listing Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and three men he considered his nemeses at university, Lewis said he prayed “every night for the people I am most tempted to despise or hate. In the effort to make this real I have had to do a good deal of thinking.”

How do we pray for evil people in the first place let alone make the prayer real, rather than obligatory empty words?

Praying for our enemies doesn’t mean that we pray for their happiness, that we like the kind of people they are, or that we approve or excuse their behavior. As Lewis pointed out in his letters, praying for them is remembering that they are made of the same stuff we are, that Jesus died for them as much as He died for us, and that we are no more deserving of God’s sacrifice, grace, or mercy than are they. Assuming that these evil people can still be rescued, Lewis believed we can and should pray for their salvation.

As much as we hate the actions of evil people, we mustn’t hate the people. Nevertheless, we often do. Lewis admitted to his brother that he “tends to give free reign to hatred and to regard it as virtuous or normal.”  Reflecting on his own moments of cruelty, the theologian pointed out that his inclination to hate “might have blossomed, under different conditions, into something terrible. You and I are not, at bottom, so different from these ghastly creatures.” Indeed, as much as I hate to admit it, I know I’m not!

As we pray for our enemies (whether they’re our nemeses at work or people like Putin), there is no need to tell God what’s wrong with them or instruct God on the way to deal with such people. As for me, after simply asking Him to change the person’s heart, I leave the rest up to Him. In the same way, I can’t presume to know how this tragic situation can be resolved so I simply lift the people of Ukraine and Russia up to God—He already knows their names and their needs.

We must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves— to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not. I admit that this means loving people who have nothing lovable about them. [C.S. Lewis]

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Romans 12:14,19,21 (ESV)]

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