LOVING OUR NEIGHBOR

Then they took the man who had been blind to the Pharisees, because it was on the Sabbath that Jesus had made the mud and healed him. The Pharisees asked the man all about it. So he told them, “He put the mud over my eyes, and when I washed it away, I could see!” [John 9:13-15 (NLT)]

great blue heronIt’s easy to assume the Pharisees were irate just because Jesus had worked on the Sabbath but, for these sticklers for the law, it was as much about how He healed the man! Spitting on the ground on the Sabbath was forbidden because plowing was one of the 39 types of work prohibited on the Sabbath! Using their convoluted logic, that meant that digging any hole was prohibited and, when spittle landed on soil, it might cause a small dent in the ground (which would be digging a hole) and dislocate a small amount of dirt (which would be plowing)! Compounding Jesus’ violation of the law by both healing and plowing, He made mud. Kneading, defined as joining small particles into a mass using any liquid, was another of the 39 kinds work prohibited on the Sabbath. Jesus broke this law the moment his spittle wet the dust; the mixing of his spittle and the dirt together to make mud was an additional offense! To them, the restoration of sight meant nothing when compared to His many transgressions of the law!

When Jesus healed a man who’d been lame for thirty-eight years, it also was on the Sabbath. [John 5] Once healed, Jesus specifically told the man to pick up his mat and walk. Carrying anything more than six feet in a public place, however, was prohibited on the Sabbath. When the Jewish leaders accosted the man for carrying a burden, he explained that Jesus told him to do so after healing him! Again, the Pharisees were more concerned about work being done on the Sabbath than the miraculous healing that occurred!

In all, seven Sabbath healings are mentioned in the gospels. Although Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law in private, the rest of His Sabbath healings were done right in front of His critics. When He healed the man with the withered hand, the crippled woman, and the man possessed by evil spirits, Jesus was in the synagogue and He was having dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee (possibly a member of the Sanhedrin) when he healed a man suffering from dropsy (edema).

Like His other Sabbath healings, this didn’t appear to be a life-or-death situation and, for all we know, the man was there as a way of entrapping Jesus into another violation of the law. Nevertheless, after asking the Pharisees if it was right to heal on the Sabbath and not receiving an answer, Jesus healed the man and sent him on his way. He then exposed His critics’ hypocrisy by asking which of them wouldn’t rescue his son or cow if they were to fall in a pit? His question exposed their convoluted thinking since rescuing an animal from a pit on the Sabbath was acceptable even to the Pharisees! In fact, a primary principle in Jewish law is preventing tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the suffering of living creatures, and the Talmud specifically permitted rescuing an animal in pain or at risk of death and even permitted moving prohibited objects to relieve their pain. Yet, the Pharisees seemed unwilling to have compassion on their fellow man!

Once again, when it comes to the law, Jesus made it abundantly clear that every other law is subordinate to the greatest one of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The next time we see someone in need, along with asking, “What would Jesus do?” we might also ask, “What would I want done for me in a similar situation?”

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. [Matthew 7:12 (NLT)]

Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. [Matthew 5:17 (NLT)]

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FENCES

Stay away from every kind of evil. [1 Thessalonians 5:22 (NLT)]

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. [Misnha (Pirke Avot)]

tigerLast December, after breaching the barrier surrounding the tiger enclosure at our local zoo, a man stuck his hand into the tiger’s cage. A similar incident occurred a few months later at a nearby airboat attraction when a man improperly went through the first enclosure and put his arms into the tiger’s cage. Although both men survived, they suffered serious injuries to their hands and arms. Fences are placed to protect us and keep us from getting too close to danger but you can’t protect people from their own stupidity.

Just as those fences around the tigers’ cages were meant to protect people from the tigers (and the tigers from people), many of the Rabbinic innovations were designed to protect the commandments of the Torah. It is in the Mishnah (the oldest collection of post-biblical Jewish laws) that we find the phrase “make a fence around the Torah.” It is this fence, not the Bible, that explains the hundreds of prohibitions we find in Judaism.

Those Rabbinic rules were supposed to prevent people from being tempted to break the law or unintentionally doing so. For example, items like hammers and scissors that were associated with prohibited work like building or cutting, were not even to be picked up lest handling them led to their use. Although the Sabbath officially begins at sunset Friday, a few minutes were added before its beginning and after its end to make sure no one accidentally worked too late or resumed work too early. Even today, for my Jewish friend, the Shabbat candles are lit and all work has stopped no later than 18 minutes before the sun officially sets. His Sabbath ends when three stars are visible, which can be about 30 minutes after sunset. Rather than additions to the Mosaic law, these fences were seen as a way of helping people remain obedient to the law; they were erected to keep people from giving into temptation or just cutting it too close! Sadly, through the years, the rules became increasingly complicated and, by Jesus’ time, they were the heavy yoke about which He spoke.

Nevertheless, Jesus gave us a New Testament version of building a fence when He equated the emotion of anger with the act of murder and the attitude of lust with adultery. Anger and lust are like stepping too close to the tiger’s cage—they’re dangerous territory! Just as picking up his cell phone on Saturday might lead my Jewish friend to break the Sabbath by using it, lust and anger can lead to something far worse! Sticking your arm in a tiger’s cage or stepping into sin never ends well and, rather than gouging out our eyes or cutting off our hands, we can erect spiritual boundaries to keep us and our loved ones safe. We may restrict our youngsters to G or PG movies or set specific rules about dating for our teens. We might use internet filters to screen out inappropriate content on our computers, abstain from alcohol, or avoid the appearance of inappropriate behavior by following the “Billy Graham rule” of never being alone with a person of the opposite sex except for one’s spouse. We each have our own spiritual fences.

Unless they’re found in Scripture, however, those fences are not doctrine. They are our personal rules and, as such, other people may have different ones, some of which may be closer or further from the tiger’s cage than ours. We are not in a position to judge other people’s spiritual barriers any more than they are to judge ours. Unfortunately, for the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the fence around the Torah became more important than the law itself. We must never do that. Every fence we erect must comply with God’s simple law that we love Him with our entire being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

…he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” [Mark 12:28-31 (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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GIVING WHAT IS DUE – TAX DAY

“This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said.… “He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the Lord will not help you.” [1 Samuel 8: 11,14-18 (NLT)]

cardinalWhen the people of Israel demanded a king, Samuel cautioned them about the price they would pay. In spite of his warnings, they wanted a king and got the taxation that came with the government they wanted. Even without a king, government continues to reach its hand into our pockets and today is the deadline for filing our 2021 income taxes! We actually got three extra days this year because Emancipation Day, a public holiday in the District of Columbia, fell on the 15th. Security, protection, administration, infrastructure, and a legal system all come at a cost and taxes are the price we pay for the government we have chosen.

Although Ben Franklin said that nothing is certain except for death and taxes, some people actually do a pretty good job of dodging taxes. There is a fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion and, as Christians, we must be careful not to cross it. Legally minimizing our taxes by taking all allowed deductions is fine. Hiding income, embellishing deductions, or outright deceit are not. We are called to be ethical and honest and that means no “creative accounting”! People who’d never pinch sneakers from Walmart, embezzle from their employer, or stick-up a 7-Eleven, often think nothing of stealing from the government (and their fellow citizens). Not paying our taxes is no less wrong than shop lifting, misappropriating funds, or armed robbery! A white lie is still a lie, petty theft is still theft and, no matter what we call it, a sin is still a sin.

We may not like the government or agree with the way they spend our money; nevertheless, because we are citizens of this nation, we’re obliged to pay for the services and benefits we receive. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, He responded that we must give to the government that which belongs to it. While rendering unto Washington, let’s not forget that there was more to Jesus’ answer. We may be citizens of this nation but we also are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. As citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are to give to God that which belongs to Him—our lives, allegiance, and obedience.

Like the IRS, the rabbis of old established an elaborate system of tithing. The Levites received the first tithe—a tenth of all agricultural products (with each crop counted separately). In turn, the Levites gave a tenth of what they received to the priests. Rather than tithing goods, people could tithe with a product’s cash equivalent plus a 20% penalty. This, however, was not allowed with livestock which were counted singly with every tenth one becoming part of the tithe. The second tithe, taken from what remained after the first one, was to be taken to Jerusalem to be consumed there during festivals. The third tithe, taken after the first two, was to be given to the poor. While no tithes were taken in the seventh year, the first two tithes were taken in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years and the first and third tithes were taken in the third and sixth years. Depending on the year, the total tithe ran anywhere from 19 to 27%!

We don’t have an elaborate tithing requirement in the Christian church but that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to render unto God His share. What we render unto God, however, isn’t a matter determined by the calculator; it’s a matter determined by our hearts. Moreover, it’s not just our material things that should be given to the Lord. Even if we’re penniless, we still have our time, talents, love, thanks, praise, worship, and testimony. If we wonder what or how much to give, all we have to do is ask Him. Whatever He lays on our hearts is what it should be—nothing more and nothing less. But, since we are to render unto God that which is His, let us remember that it all belongs to Him!

“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” [Matthew 22:21 (NLT)]

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SLEEPING ON THE JOB – HOLY WEEK 2022

Jesus told them, “Tonight all of you will desert me. … Peter declared, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, Peter—this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” “No!” Peter insisted. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” And all the other disciples vowed the same. [Matthew 26:31,33-35 (NLT)]

prairie false indigoApparently, coffee was not served after dinner in the upper room that Thursday night. Granted, a nap is welcome after a big meal but that evening’s Passover meal was like no other and Jesus had predicted that the disciples would desert Him. After such a warning, you’d think the men would have been extra cautious. Scripture tells us Jesus was troubled and grief-stricken when He asked Peter, James, and John to keep watch with Him. Surely, that should have motivated His closest friends to keep awake, but it didn’t. Three times Jesus went to pray and three times he returned to find the men asleep. It was Jewish custom on Passover night to stay up late and talk of God’s acts of redemption so staying awake this night was something they’d all done on other Passover nights. Nevertheless, even after Peter specifically was cautioned to stay awake while praying to stand strong against temptation, the men slumbered. Shouldn’t the warning that he’d deny Jesus three times before morning been enough at least to keep Peter alert and deep in prayer? While the Lord was in anguish and prayed so intently that He sweat drops of blood, His most trusted friends took an after-dinner snooze. They were asleep on the job.

Perhaps the disciples’ biggest mistake was in their self-confidence. When told they’d abandon their beloved leader, they all protested that could never happen. Unfortunately, not one of them took the possibility of their deserting Jesus to God in prayer. Instead, they slept! They didn’t set out to deliberately desert Him but, by not praying, they failed the test before it began. Even the best of intentions won’t protect us in time of trial; for that we need prayer. Moreover, they failed a friend in need. Had the disciples stayed awake with Jesus, while they couldn’t have taken away the bitter cup He’d been given, they could have shared His pain. Sharing our prayers and strength with those in distress is what the community of faith is supposed to do.

The Jewish custom in Jesus’ day was to forgive someone for the same sin only three times. How fortunate for Peter that Jesus said we should forgive seventy times seven. Otherwise, with his three naps and three denials, he would have used his forgiveness allotment twice in just one night. Following Jesus’ resurrection, He didn’t berate the disciples for deserting Him, chastise Thomas for doubting, or rebuke Peter for his denials. In fact, He reinstated Peter and told the man to feed His sheep! From Jesus’ example we learn to love and forgive the human failings of those who disappoint us.

Like Jesus, we’ve all had friends fail us at one time or another and probably more than three times. Perhaps, like Jesus, we should come to expect them to disappoint us from time to time. After all, in spite of our good intentions, we flawed beings can be selfish, self-centered, inconsiderate, callous, inattentive, and worse. Thinking we’re invulnerable to the enemy’s attack is one of his favorite tactics and, like the disciples, we’ve been overly confident in our own abilities and self-control and, like the disciples, we frequently fail our Christian brothers and sisters. When comfortable, content, and well fed, like the disciples that night, we often become oblivious to the needs of others and stop being vigilant and prayerful. Do we pray with and keep watch over our friends during their times of suffering and difficulty or are we asleep on the job?

Why grow we weary when asked to watch with our Lord? Up, sluggish heart, Jesus calls thee! Rise and go forth to meet the Heavenly Friend in the place where He manifests Himself. [E.M. Bounds]

Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” [Mark 14:38 (NLT)]

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