TRYING TO SERVE TWO (Part 3)

You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. [Deuteronomy 5:7-9a (NLT)]

campionAlthough Elisha once worked his land with a plow and oxen, after he accepted Elijah’s cloak, he burnt his plow and oxen, left home, and joined Elijah as an itinerant prophet who depended on others for food and shelter. We know that every time Elisha passed through Shunem, he was fed and sheltered by a family there and Scripture tells us that pious Israelites commonly brought gifts to the prophets they consulted. So why wouldn’t Elisha accept any of Naaman’s generous gifts?

As a pagan Aramean who was ignorant of Jehovah, Naaman was used to priests and prophets who greedily demanded rewards for their services. As a servant of God, however, Elisha knew it was wrong to accept payment for Naaman’s healing. After all, he’d done nothing but tell the man to wash himself in the Jordan seven times. Elisha’s refusal of payment made it clear to Naaman that Israel’s powerful God alone had done the healing and God’s grace and miracles are not for sale. When Jehovah made Himself known to the pagan warrior, Naaman realized that, rather than being one of many gods, the God of Israel was the only God. Saying, “There is no God in all the world except in Israel,” the Aramean vowed never again to worship another god.

Naaman then made a rather strange request—that he be allowed to load two mules with some of Israel’s dirt to take back home. While that seems a bizarre sort of souvenir to us, it made perfect sense to Elisha. The pagan people of the ancient Near East believed that gods were tied to the lands they ruled and that a deity only could be worshiped on the soil of the nation to which he was bound. If Naaman wanted to worship Israel’s God, he thought it necessary to use some of Israel’s dirt to make a brick altar on which to make sacrifices. The man who once undervalued and scorned Israel’s Jordan River now overvalued its dirt and wanted to take some back to Damascus! The pagan didn’t understand that all of earth’s soil is God’s!

Having converted to the God of Israel, Naaman made one more request of Elisha. Even though his heart was committed to Jehovah, Naaman knew there would be occasions when he would be required to enter the pagan temple with his master the king. The warrior requested Elisha’s permission and God’s forgiveness when he bowed to the Aramean god Rimmon. Although we’d expect Elisha to respond with the first commandment, the prophet didn’t address Naaman’s dilemma. He simply encouraged the man’s desire to be faithful to God while serving a pagan king with these words, “Go in peace.”

Elisha’s words were ones of grace acknowledging that the world is filled with difficult decisions for people of faith. Unlike Naaman, we may not be expected to bow down to an idol to please the king, but we regularly face both big and small moral dilemmas when we’re asked to bow to the idols of position, appearance, popularity, success, status, fashion, fame, wealth, reputation, or sex. We must ask ourselves who is our master and to what will we bow.

We don’t know what happened to Naaman but I wonder how serving two masters worked for him! I suspect one of them was not pleased.

So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. [Joshua 24:14 (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” [Luke 4:8 (NLT)]

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THE WRONG MASTER (Part 2)

You cannot be the slave of two masters! You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24 (CEV)

black vultureWhen writing about serving only one master, I thought of Gehazi, the scoundrel who tried serving both God and mammon. A servant to the prophet Elisha, Gehazi’s story is found in 2 Kings 5. When Naaman offered Elisha great riches in gratitude for being healed of leprosy, Elisha refused. It was God’s power, not his, that healed Naaman and, knowing that the only master he served was God, Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve. I will not accept any gifts.”

It must have irked Gehazi to see his master refuse Naaman’s offerings of gold, silver and clothing (worth around $750 million today). After eyeing those riches, the servant pictured the life of luxury he could enjoy with some of Naaman’s treasure. It seemed foolish to send all that wealth back to Aram. Wanting some for himself and thinking Elisha would never know, Gehazi secretly followed after Naaman’s chariot.

After catching up with Naaman, the servant explained that his master had sent him. His master, however, wasn’t Elisha; it was mammon! The deceitful servant concocted a story that Elisha would like a talent of silver (about 75 pounds) and two sets of clothing for two young prophets who had just arrived. Granted, the servant’s request was somewhat modest considering the size of Naaman’s initial offer; nevertheless, it was the equivalent of 300 years’ worth of wages! I suspect Gehazi was afraid a larger request might have aroused suspicion. Nevertheless, more than happy to find a way to repay the prophet, Naaman offered twice that amount of silver and Gehazi returned home with his ill-gotten gains.

When Elisha asked where he’d been, the servant foolishly lied to his master. The prophet, however, was not deceived and told his servant that it was a time for worship, not a time for financial gain. As a result of his greed and deceit, Naaman’s leprosy became Gehazi’s and would afflict his descendants forever. The exact nature of his disease is unknown since leprosy in the Bible referred to Hansen’s disease (leprosy) as well as any other skin disease like psoriasis, alopecia, impetigo or dermatitis. Although his punishment didn’t threaten Gehazi’s life, such a skin disease condemned him to life as an outcast. Having served mammon instead of God, Gehazi expected the power, comfort and luxury promised by riches; what he got was life as an untouchable pariah.

There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men. [Billy Graham]

People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain. [1 Timothy 6:9-10 (CEV)]

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THE MONEY TREE (Part 1)

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. [Matthew 6:24 (RSV)]

money tree - pachira acquaticaWhile walking through the botanic garden recently, I looked up to see the showy flowers of the Money Tree (Pachira aquatica). Although the tree is said to bring good fortune and prosperity, no money was hanging from its branches. Nevertheless, its name reminded me of my father’s frequent caution that money didn’t grow on trees! Perhaps it’s because money doesn’t grow on trees that we frequently seem so obsessed by it.

I’ve read claims that Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. His mention of money, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that was His topic. Although the parable’s good Samaritan gave the innkeeper two coins and promised to pay the injured man’s debt, the parable isn’t about money any more than the Hidden Treasure parable is about investing in real estate or the parable of the Loaned Money about loan sharking! Even though Jesus may have mentioned money when speaking, it seems that He was far more interested in the topics of God’s Kingdom, faith, salvation, and forgiveness than money.

Jesus, however, did tell us that we can’t serve two masters—we can’t serve both God and wealth. The word translated as serve was douleuō, which meant to serve as a slave or one in bondage, and the word translated as master was kuriois, which meant one who possesses uncontested power and absolute ownership and authority over another. In Jesus’ world, the slave had no rights and the master had complete control over him. The master owned both the slave and all of the slave’s possessions including every minute of his time!

Because Jesus’ words make it clear He was speaking of servitude, we mustn’t make the mistake of substituting “work” for douleuō or “employer” for kuriois. For example, as a consultant, my daughter works for several employers at once. Unlike a slave, however, she is free to pick and choose for whom she works and how she divides her time between them. One who serves a master, however, has no such choice because a master demands total commitment and allegiance.

The two masters of which Jesus was speaking are God and mammon (often translated as money or wealth). Nowadays, mammon has the negative connotation of filthy riches or ill-gotten gains but, to Jesus’ listeners, it didn’t. The word used was mamōna, a neutral word encompassing money, possessions, property, earnings, and riches of all kinds. The rabbis even had a saying, “Let the mammon of thy neighbor be as dear to thee as thine own,” which meant we should care for others’ possessions as carefully as our own. Like many things in life, mammon is neither inherently good or bad; how it is regarded and used is what makes it good or bad. Rather than saying wealth is inherently evil, Jesus is telling us that we can’t serve both wealth and God; at some point, the two masters’ interests will diverge.

There is nothing wrong with having a home, car, job, business, fine jewelry, or investment accounts—what is wrong is allowing any of those things (or the desire for them) to own us! We can enjoy them as long as we understand that God alone is our master and all of our possessions and time belong to Him. Although He’s loaned them to us for the time being, we are to serve God with them. When we set our hearts on money or things, however, we’re serving another master. We must never crave wealth more than we desire God, put our trust in money rather Him, love possessions more than we love Him, or choose to serve mammon rather than serve God. We cannot claim Jesus as Lord if our allegiance is to anything or anyone other than Him. He, alone, is our master and He is the one we serve!

Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master. [P. T. Barnum]

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. [Matthew 6:19-21 (RSV)]

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HERESIES – Polycarp (Part 2)

So, then, just as you received King Jesus the Lord, you must continue your journey in him. You must put down healthy roots in him, being built up brick by brick in him, and established strongly in the faith, just as you were taught, with overflowing thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6 (NTE)]

cross in ZermattAlthough many Christian writings refer to Polycarp, only one of his letters remains. Written to the church at Philippi sometime before 150 AD. Polycarp addressed the behavior of a greedy bishop named Valens, explained that true righteousness sprang from true belief, and warned against false teachings. Containing 12 quotes from the Old Testament and 100 quotes or paraphrases from the New, this epistle has been described as a “mosaic of quotations” from the Bible. Using language from what now are known as the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 and 3 John, his letter is testimony both to the existence of these texts by mid-2nd century and that the early church already believed them to be inspired Scripture.

In his letter, Polycarp addressed the heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism that had found their way into the early church. Probably a greater threat to the early church than persecution, Gnosticism was a combination of religion and philosophy taken from Babylonian beliefs, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and assorted cults, along with the philosophies of Greeks like Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. In a nutshell, early Gnostics believed in dual realities — essence/spirit/light (considered good) and material/body/dark (considered evil) — much like the Chinese yin and yang. They also believed in the secret knowledge or gnosis of salvation. Of course, such a philosophy can’t really be put in a nutshell. Polycarp’s student Irenaeus (who later became bishop of Lyons) said this about Gnostics, “Since their teachings and traditions are different, and the newer ones among them claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before, it is hard to describe their views.” According to Gnosticism, since God is a spirit (which is good) and the world is made of matter (which is evil), the world couldn’t have been created by a good God; rather, it was created by a lesser deity named Demiurge. Believing flesh evil, they rejected the incarnation; rather than Christ coming as flesh, Gnostics believed He took possession of the man Jesus’ body at his baptism and departed his body before the crucifixion. Believing salvation came through secret knowledge to a select few contradicted Christianity’s promise of salvation to all by grace through faith.

Marcion (85-160 AD) was an influential Gnostic who tried to create a “new brand” of Christianity (Marcionism). In a nutshell, Marcionism redefined God. Rejecting Old Testament teachings, Marcion claimed the God of the Old Testament was not the same deity as the God of the New, Jesus was the son only of the New Testament God, and the prophecies of the Old Testament predicted a yet-to-come earthly messiah for the Jews. Marcion discarded the entire Old Testament and, believing the Apostles misunderstood Jesus, cut the New Testament down to heavily edited versions of Luke’s gospel and just ten of Paul’s letters.

In his letter, Polycarp warned the Philippians that “whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning.” May we do the same!

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. [Augustine]

Watch out that nobody uses philosophy and hollow trickery to take you captive! These are in line with human tradition, and with the ‘elements of the world’ – not the king. In him, you see, all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence. What’s more, you are fulfilled in him, since he’s the head of all rule and authority. [Colossians 2:8-10 (NTE)]

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BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 3)

If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. [Proverbs 25:21 (NLT)]

rabbit foot cloverWhen the ten northern tribes refused to submit to Rehoboam, they revolted and, by 930 BC, there were two political states: Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern one. Both kingdoms suffered from inept, disobedient, and often corrupt leadership but Judah’s king Ahaz (743-728 BC) was one of weakest and most corrupt of all the southern kingdom’s leaders. Because of his apostasy (which included sacrificing some of his sons to Baal), the Lord allowed Judah’s defeat at the hands of Rezin (king of Aram) and Pekah (king of Israel). By the end of the battle, Ahaz lost a son and two of his close advisors and Judah lost 120,000 seasoned warriors. The Arameans took captives to Damascus and Israel’s warriors returned to Samaria with a huge amount of plunder and 200,000 captured women and children they intended to enslave (in spite of its prohibition in Leviticus 25:39-43).

As Israel’s victorious army returned to Samaria with their captives and plunder, they were met by a prophet named Oded. Protesting Israel’s brutal treatment of Judah, Oded told them that it was God who permitted them to wage war and defeat Judah but that Israel went too far in their merciless massacre and their plan to enslave their Judean brethren. After asking, “What about your own sins against the Lord?” the prophet warned that that God’s anger had been turned toward Israel and urged the soldiers to return their prisoners to Judah.

God had allowed Judah’s defeat but, in their rage and frenzy, Israel’s army went too far. Merciless in their slaughter, they’d stepped out of God’s will and Oded told them their rage had disturbed heaven. Perhaps they’d slain men who had surrendered, raped women, burned the crops, or massacred innocent children. We don’t know for sure but we do know that, by the time they reached Samaria, some of their captives were naked and without footwear. Whatever they’d done was beyond what was necessary for a battle victory. This story is often cited by those advocating the Just War Theory—a philosophy that sets forth the conditions required for justly going to war and for the right conduct in a war, one of which is the prohibition of using unnecessary force to attain the objective.

We know nothing about Oded and this is the only mention of him in Scripture and yet, in a rare Old Testament occurrence, people actually listened and took a prophet’s message to heart. Agreeing with Oded, four of Israel’s leaders confronted the returning warriors. Warning them that they couldn’t afford to add to their guilt, they told the soldiers to release their captives. That they willingly gave up the spoils of war tells us they knew their vicious behavior had been reprehensible. Their plunder and prisoners were handed over to the four leaders who then provided them with clothing, sandals, food and drink and applied balm and oil to their wounds. After putting the weak and injured on donkeys, they returned their Judean captives safely to Jericho.

Through the years, both Israel and Judah were guilty of wronging one another but, in this amazing act of mercy, Israel tried to right one terrible wrong. Perhaps it was Oded’s reminder that the captives were their brethren. All descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at one time, they’d been twelve brothers! How had they fallen so low as to think of enslaving members of their own family?

While this story is not well known to 21st century Christians, it probably was familiar to Jesus’ listeners when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan—the Judean who was mercilessly attacked and the Samaritan who dressed his wounds with oil and wine, provided him with clothing, put him on a donkey, took him to an inn, and provided for his food, drink, and care. Was Jesus’ story a not-so-subtle reminder that, in spite of all that had transpired between the two territories, the Samaritans weren’t just their neighbors—they were their brethren? Was this a reminder that it’s never too late to right a wrong?

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. … God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:7,9 (NLT)]

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BROKEN-DOWN WALLS

An evil man is held captive by his own sins; they are ropes that catch and hold him. He will die for lack of self-control; he will be lost because of his great foolishness. … A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls. [Proverbs 5:22-23, 25:28 (NLT)]

Stagecoach Rd GalenaThe book of Nehemiah opens with Nehemiah’s distress at learning that Jerusalem’s walls remained in shambles even though decades had passed since the first Jewish exiles returned to the city. Broken walls and no gates meant Jerusalem (and the Temple) were defenseless against enemies and wild animals. Just as a city is defenseless against its enemies’ attacks, a person without self-control is defenseless against the Satan’s attacks.

The story is told of Raynald III, a 14th century duke in what now is Belgium. After his younger brother Edward led a successful revolt against him, the duke was captured. Rather than kill his elder brother, Edward built a room around him in the castle. Hardly an ordinary prison cell, it had several un-barred windows and a nearly normal-sized unlocked door. All Raynald had to do to regain both his title and property was to leave his room.

While walking out an unlocked door sounds easy to us, it wasn’t for Raynald. With the nickname of “Crassus” (Latin for “fat, gross, plump”), the deposed duke was grossly overweight. To gain his freedom, Raynald just needed to lose some of his girth so he could fit through the door. Rather than dieting his way out of prison, however, the obese man grew even fatter as he feasted on the delicious rich foods his brother sent to him each day. When Edward was accused of cruelly imprisoning his brother, he justified his actions by saying, “My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so will.” Indeed, Raynald wasn’t Edward’s prisoner; he was a prisoner of his appetite. With no self-control, he gorged himself in that room for ten years until the door was widened after Edward’s death.

Just as a city with broken walls and no gates is vulnerable to attack, a person with no self-control, like Raynald, is equally vulnerable. Because of his brother’s insatiable appetite and self-indulgence, Edward knew how to defeat Raynald. Like Edward, Satan knows what tempts us—be it gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, laziness, envy, pride or any other sin. Self-control is the last (but not the least) characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit mentioned by the Apostle Paul. Indeed, without the power of the Holy Spirit, we are as defenseless as an ancient city with broken-down walls. Nevertheless, in the end, we are the ones responsible for patrolling our gates and judging what will enter into our lives. Although empowered by the Spirit with the self-control to refuse entry, we are the ones who must close the gates.

Nehemiah’s concern for Jerusalem, however, was about more than safety. Although their broken walls and burnt gates made them vulnerable to enemies, to the ancient pagan world, the strength of a city’s walls represented the strength of the people’s gods. Nehemiah knew those wrecked walls dishonored Jehovah’s name; to the rest of the world, they meant a powerless God and a disgraced and defeated people.

When we can’t control our passions, anger, conversation, spending, appetite or any other behavior, what does that say about us? Are we a disgraced and defeated people? When we, as followers of Christ, fail to exercise self-control, what does that say about our God? Because of his lack of self-control, Raynald was held captive by his appetite and dishonored his own name. Without self-control, we become captives to sin and dishonor Jesus’ name.

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. [1 Corinthians 6:12 (NLT)]

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:7 (NLT)]

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