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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IN THE FIRE – Polycarp (Part 1)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. [Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)]

athabasca falls - canadaHaving refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bravely stood before the king. Even when offered a second opportunity to save themselves from incineration in the blazing furnace, the young men were confident the Lord they loved more than life itself would save them. “But, even if he doesn’t,” they added in what are some of the most heroic words in Scripture, “We will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Furious at their refusal, the king had them tied up and tossed like logs into the fiery furnace—a fire so hot that the soldiers who threw the men into the furnace were killed. The men’s faith was well-founded; in spite of their bindings, they could be seen walking about freely in the flames (with an angel of the Lord) and the three emerged unscathed from the inferno.

Because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, Christians were considered disloyal to Rome. Moreover, Romans feared that the Christians’ refusal to make sacrifices to their various gods would cause disaster to fall upon the nation. Hated by the Romans, Christianity was considered an “illegal superstition” until 313 AD. Polycarp (ca. 69-155 AD), who was said to have been taught by the Apostle John, was appointed by some of the original apostles as bishop of Smyrna. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the bishop was arrested and faced a choice between God and incineration.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Proconsul offered his prisoner a second chance and promised to set Polycarp free if he would curse Christ, declare Caesar as Lord, and offer a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue. Even though Polycarp knew his refusal to deny Jesus meant he’d be burned at the stake, he said, “86 years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, the old man stopped them by saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Did the bishop think he might escape death as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? If so, he was seriously mistaken. Unlike them, he died a martyr’s death.

In the first story, three men walked out of a furnace untouched by fire and, in the second, an equally righteous man, died at the stake. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate faith—people’s faith in God and God’s faithfulness to His people and both stories are a call for all of God’s people to be faithful witnesses to Him. All four men clearly exhibited their faith in God by refusing to bow down to anything or anyone but God and all four men are examples of being faithful witnesses to God. Obviously, in the case of the fiery furnace, God showed his faith in His people with the men’s supernatural escape from death; even Nebuchadnezzar recognized that God’s angel had rescued the men. But, since no angel saved Polycarp from the flames, how can his story demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people?

God showed his faith in His people more than a century earlier when He offered His one and only son so that all who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Polycarp knew God already had demonstrated His love and faith through Jesus; whether he lived or died, Polycarp knew there was nothing to fear. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly,” warned the bishop before courageously adding, “Bring on whatever you want.” Could we do the same?

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us. [Justin Martyr]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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THE PATIENCE OF JOB (Job – part 1)

For examples of patience in suffering, dear brothers and sisters, look at the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We give great honor to those who endure under suffering. For instance, you know about Job, a man of great endurance. You can see how the Lord was kind to him at the end, for the Lord is full of tenderness and mercy. [James 5:10-11 (NLT)]

campionWithin the first two chapters of the book of Job, a man whose life had been blessed with health, wealth and family loses his livestock (meaning his livelihood), along with his servants, ten children, and health. Although James cited Job as an example of patience and endurance through suffering, we really don’t know how long Job’s pain and anguish lasted.

We do know Job’s friends sat and mourned in silence with him for seven days but we don’t know how long it took for the news of his loss to reach them or for them to travel to Job. Once Job’s friends start talking, we have thirty-five chapters of dialogue followed by four more chapters of God questioning him but no way to know if it all took place in a day, several days, or even months. The only clue to the length of Job’s suffering is when he complains of being assigned “months of futility” and “long and weary nights of misery.” [7:3] Those sound like the words of someone suffering from a chronic illness but he could have been speaking figuratively—that it felt like he’d been in agony for months. Whether days or months of misery, Job maintained his faith the entire time.

In Chapter 38, God finally appears. Rather than answer Job’s questions, God asks questions of His own and Job realizes how limited his knowledge of God is. Accepting that God alone knows what is best, the man finally understands that he can’t judge God’s actions or question His reasons. Submitting to God’s authority, he repents and says, “I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” [42:6] After God rebukes Job’s friends, demands a sacrifice, and has Job pray for them, Job’s life is restored. God blesses him with health, a long life, twice his original wealth, and ten new children. It’s a real “happily-ever-after” ending!

What if Job’s story ended another way? What if Chapter 42 ended at verse 6 with Job’s repentance for questioning God? What if his health, wealth and family had not been restored? Instead of Job’s misery dragging on for several months, what if it dragged on for years? As Job continued to suffer from pus-filled boils all over his body, insomnia, nightmares, fever, and pain, how would Job’s next chapter read? After all, fairy tale endings are few and far between. Would Job remain faithful if his adversity lasted his lifetime or would he turn bitter? Would he still be able to say, “Praise the name of the Lord!” as he did in Chapter 1?

Perhaps the answer is found earlier in Job’s story, in Chapter 19. Even though he doesn’t know why he’s suffering, Job expresses confidence that God would vindicate him from his friends’ false accusations. Moreover, Job is certain that death would not be the end of his existence and that he eventually would see God—if not in his lifetime, then when resurrected in the next. After speaking with God in Chapter 42, Job knew that God had not abandoned him and had heard his prayers. He understood that God’s infinite wisdom was behind the unpredictable and arbitrary nature of life, and he no longer questioned the why of his misfortune. Even if health, wealth, and family had never been restored, by Job 42:6 the most important thing Job had was restored—his relationship with God. The lesson found in the book of Job is the same whether or not his suffering came to an end. Had his suffering continued, I think Job would have endured—would we?

But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God! I will see him for myself. Yes, I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought! [Job 19:25-27 (NLT)]

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EXTRA BIBLICAL EVIDENCE

We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy [1 John 1:1-4 (NLT)]

hibiscus“The luckiest traitor ever,” are the words historian Mary Beard used to describe Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish general who ended up allying himself with the Romans—the very people who destroyed his homeland and demolished the Temple during the Great Revolt (66-70 AD). Born in 37 AD, Josephus grew up in Jerusalem and studied with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes before serving as a general during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. According to Josephus, when fleeing the Roman army, he led his troop of 40 men into a cave. Rather than surrender, they agreed to commit suicide and drew lots to determine the order in which they would die. Either Josephus was incredibly lucky or he’d fixed the lottery but, when only he and another man remained, he convinced him to join in surrender to the Romans. In support of his story, excavations at Jotapata in the 1990s revealed the remains of 30 to 40 men assumed to have been Josephus’ men.

As an enemy general, Josephus was taken to the Roman general Vespasian. Presenting himself as a prophet, he used Balaam’s Messianic prophecy [Numbers 24:17] to predict that Vespasian would become emperor (which he did two years later). Shrewdly, Josephus then allied himself with the Romans by advising and translating for Vespasian and his son Titus.

Following the Judean war, Josephus returned to Rome with the victorious Titus where he was provided with an apartment in Vespasian’s house, given an annual pension, and made a Roman citizen. Josephus volunteered to write a history of the war for the Romans, The Jewish War, that provides an eye-witness account of the Great Revolt and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. His second work was a twenty-volume Jewish history called Jewish Antiquities.

In his Antiquities, Josephus wrote of Herod’s fear of, “John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” [18:5] Josephus also made the earliest existing non-Christian referral to Christ. Since many scholars believe Christian copyists later may have added to Josephus’ words by calling Jesus the Messiah and mentioning his resurrection, I am only including what is believed by most to have been the ancient historian’s original account, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” [18:63-64]

Josephus also reported the trial and death in 62 AD of James: “But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent … assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” [20:9.1]

The Bible doesn’t require outside sources to prove its truth and, as followers of Christ, we don’t need an ancient Jewish historian to tell us that Jesus actually existed. Nevertheless, it’s good to know that it isn’t just believers like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, and Peter who attest to His existence. We have Josephus’s account along with the Greek historian Thallus who wrote of the darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion, Pliny the Younger who wrote of dealing with Christians who sang hymns “to Christ as if to a god,” Tacitus who wrote of the “pernicious superstition” (Christ’s resurrection) that broke out in Judea following Jesus’ crucifixion, and the Greek historian Mara bar Serapion, who referred to Jesus as the “wise king” of the Jews.

For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. [2 Peter 1:16 (NLT)]

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THE SKINK

Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! I would fly far away to the quiet of the wilderness. How quickly I would escape—far from this wild storm of hatred. [Psalm 55:6-8 (NLT)]

five-lined southwestern skinkThe skink is a reptile that looks as if it can’t decide whether it’s a lizard or a snake. As one scampered away down the boardwalk, it looked more lizard-like than usual because it was missing the pointed end of his long tail. Like many lizards, if a predator manages to catch a skink by the tail, the tail will break off. Since the detached tail continues to wiggle, the predator gets distracted which allows the lizard to escape.  Even though a raccoon, snake, or hawk had appropriated its tail, that skink escaped to see another day. Although skinks don’t have much with which to defend themselves, with their detachable tails (caudal autonomy), God provided them with an effective mode of escaping trouble!

Like the skink, we all want to be able to escape when disaster occurs. The Department of Transportation designates evacuation routes in case of a hurricane and public buildings mark exits and stairwells so we can flee in case of fire, but we wish to escape from more than storms and burning buildings. We want to flee from things like chronic pain, stage-4 cancer, paralysis, Parkinson’s, or MS. We wonder where the emergency exit is when caregiving for a spouse disabled by stroke, an elderly parent with dementia, or a child with cerebral palsy. Where do we go to flee from a loved one’s addiction, the loneliness of widowhood, overwhelming debt, a troubled marriage, or the consequences of our failings? There are, however, no detachable tails or specially marked exits for those situations.

Adam and Eve ran from God after eating the forbidden fruit, the pregnant Hagar ran away from Sarai’s harsh treatment of her, Jonah ran the opposite way when God told him to go to Nineveh, and Elijah tried to escape Jezebel’s wrath by fleeing to Beersheba. Running and hiding, however, didn’t keep God from finding them and setting them back on the path He set for them. Unlike the skink, they couldn’t turn tail (or leave their tails behind) and run away; neither can we. Although some people try to flee their difficulties through abandonment, denial, addiction, or emotional detachment, their troubles eventually catch up with them. Instead of escaping like a skink, we have to turn around and face our troubles head on as did Adam, Eve, Hagar, Jonah, and Elijah.

While God doesn’t promise to fix our problems, He does promise we’ll not face them alone. Unlike the skink whose only defense is a detachable tail, God has provided us with His armor, the power of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Heavenly Father, when we want to flee, please give us the strength and courage to meet our challenges face to face. We know we can’t do it alone but, with you, all things are possible.

Don’t pray to escape trouble. Don’t pray to be comfortable in your emotions. Pray to do the will of God in every situation. Nothing else is worth praying for. [Samuel M. Shoemaker]

But I will call on God, and the Lord will rescue me. Morning, noon, and night I cry out in my distress, and the Lord hears my voice. He ransoms me and keeps me safe from the battle waged against me, though many still oppose me. … Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. [Psalm 55:16-18,22 (NLT)]

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THE UNDERCOVER BOSS

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges, he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:5-8 (NLT)]

swamp lilyEvery employee wants to have a good boss. Unfortunately, the CEOs of some large firms can be out-of-touch with many of their employees; the executive suite is a world away from the mail room or warehouse. While they may understand the bottom line, many CEOs have no idea how their businesses function on a day-to-day basis. In its 10th season, Undercover Boss is a television show in which high-ranking executives disguise themselves, assume an alias and cover story, and then work undercover in their own companies. Taking such jobs as cashier, line cook, delivery person, or maintenance man, the bosses learn what it is like for the rank and file in their large corporations. Later, they reveal their identities to the workers with whom they interacted during the week. Their experience usually results in better training and improved working conditions for the employees and a change of attitude for the executives. Reality TV, however, is a carefully planned and edited version of events and I wonder if that one week really makes a lasting impact on the bosses.

As the first undercover boss, Jesus didn’t give up the executive suite for the stock room; He gave up His heavenly home to live as a man on earth. He didn’t relinquish the privileges of divinity for just a week but for thirty-three years. He willingly lived with all of humanity’s limitations and the aches, pains, indignities and death that come with flesh and blood. Fully experiencing human emotions, He loved and toiled, taught and learned, laughed and cried, rejoiced and grieved. He was tempted, challenged, demeaned, dishonored, doubted, denied, accused, betrayed, tortured, and executed.

Glassdoor, a site that allows employees to anonymously rank companies, also rates top CEOs based on their employees’ evaluations. The qualities in a CEO most valued by employees appear to be accessibility, dedication, a well-defined and clearly communicated vision for the business, and guidance as to how employees can achieve those goals. Because of the unique challenges posed by the pandemic, employees responding to 2020’s survey added the importance of having bosses who prioritize their employees’ welfare and listen to their needs.

Although Mark Aslett of Mercury Systems (an aerospace and defense company) won top CEO honors with a 95% approval rating in 2020, I think we all agree that God gets a 100% every year! Readily accessible, we can call on Him anytime and His door is open to even the lowliest of sinners. Scripture testifies to His dedication—for thousands of years, He’s been working toward filling the earth with the glory of the Lord. He never gave up on the Israelites and He hasn’t given up on us. He clearly stated what He expects of us—to glorify Him by living our lives in relationship with and faithful service to Him. Moreover, the Bible is better than any employee handbook in telling us how to achieve His goal. Evidence that God puts our welfare above His own in found in Jesus willingly going to the cross to save us! Moreover, when Jesus ascended into Heaven, He didn’t leave us floundering around on our own—instead of better training or nicer working conditions, He gave us the Holy Spirit who teaches, guides, empowers, strengthens, comforts, corrects and even intercedes for us!

I doubt that we’ll ever see JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon take on the role of bank teller or Jeff Bezos packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse, but that was God Himself who became a poor working man from a little Galilean village just for us! He was, indeed, the first (and best) undercover boss!

God knows what each one of us is dealing with. He knows our pressures. He knows our conflicts. And He has made a provision for each and every one of them. That provision is Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit, indwelling us and empowering us to respond rightly. [Kay Arthur]

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. [John 14:26 (NLT)]

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