PROFILING

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT)]

We know that four of the disciples were fisherman and one was a despised tax collector but have no idea what careers the others left behind to follow Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t carpentering, the fishermen weren’t fishing, the tax collector wasn’t collecting, and others weren’t doing whatever it was they did, how did these men support themselves? For the most part, they probably depended on the hospitality of strangers or friends like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus but we also know that the disciples were in Sychar purchasing food when Jesus had a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. Like any ministry, the group needed money for everyday expenses and Scripture tells us that people like Joanna, Susanna, and Mary Magdalene provided for them out of their resources.

Accepting money, pooling resources, paying expenses, and giving to the poor necessitated the need for a common purse and someone to act as the group’s treasurer. At first, it would seem that the former publican, Matthew, with his bookkeeping experience, would have been the logical choice to carry the group’s moneybag, but it was Judas who carried the purse. It also was Judas who stole from it and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver!

We don’t know if it was Jesus or the disciples who gave Judas the position as the group’s banker. I suspect Jesus let the disciples work it out among themselves—it seems the sort of thing He would do. That Jesus allowed a thief like Judas to handle the money appears to be a poor example of stewardship but Jesus’ relationship with Judas may have been an example of another kind. Judas certainly proves Jesus’ point that one can’t serve both God and money. Moreover, in His relationship with Judas, Jesus lived out His words that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us!

Jesus could look into Judas’ heart and see the deceit but the disciples looked at appearances and Judas didn’t come to them with a tarnished reputation as did Matthew. The disciples probably were cautious about a tax collector in their midst and unwilling to give their money to Matthew—a man once considered an unscrupulous thief. They may have been afraid that their supporters would hesitate to place their money in the hands of a man who once collected their taxes. People may not have trusted Matthew but they never suspected Judas. That last night, when Jesus said someone sitting at the table would betray Him, they asked one another who it possibly could be. They never even questioned Judas’ abrupt departure from the upper room because they thought he was leaving to pay for their food or give money to the poor.

The people of Nazareth weren’t much better at assessing people than were the disciples. In spite of Jesus’ wisdom and miracles, His fellow Nazarenes disparaged the man who was just the son of a carpenter and whose family still lived in their obscure little village. Before meeting the Lord, even Nathanael scoffed at Jesus’ hometown and asked Andrew if anything good could come from Nazareth.

One of my Lenten fasts was profiling—the underestimating of people, especially when I might be dismissing people who would be welcomed by Jesus. I can’t help but wonder if I’m as guilty as were Nathanael and the people of Nazareth of dismissing people because of their background, upbringing, or family. Am I as guilty as I suspect the disciples were of holding people’s past mistakes against them? Jesus loved and welcomed flawed people like Matthew, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, and even Judas. Do I? Will you?

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. … So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. [James 2:8-9, 12-13 (NLT)]

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MATTHEW – Part 2

Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” [Matthew 9:10-11 (NLT)]

great blue heronWhen Jesus brought Matthew into the inner circles of disciples, it was as shocking as if someone like Billy Graham brought a loan shark, heroin trafficker, money launderer, or embezzler onto his worship team. But, along with his questionable reputation and his devotion to Jesus, Matthew brought a unique set of skills to the Lord and to countless generations of Christ’s followers.

Without benefit of calculator or computers, as a tax collector, Matthew was good with numbers and a meticulous record keeper. To do his job, a publican had to have been reasonably fluent and literate in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, Latin. It’s likely that he knew a form of shorthand commonly used in the ancient world since the 4th century BC. A man like Matthew was uniquely qualified to record the events surrounding Jesus’ ministry. Along with his skills and reputation, perhaps the only other thing Matthew brought with him when he followed Jesus was his pen.

The book of Matthew, like the other gospels, never explicitly names its author but ancient church tradition is unanimous in attributing it to Matthew the Apostle. Perhaps the best argument for Matthew’s authorship is the unlikelihood that a man with his skills, who responded to Jesus’ call the way he did, and became one of the disciples, would not have kept a careful record of the Lord’s words and ministry! Matthew had the skills, opportunity, means, and motivation. This is a man who showed such early concern for evangelism that one of the first things he did after leaving his tax booth was to invite his former friends and colleagues to dinner to meet and hear Jesus. When Matthew was honing his record keeping and language skills as a publican, little did he know that God had a far higher and better use for him than collecting money for Rome. Let his story be a reminder that no experience is wasted and God has a unique plan for each and every one of us.

After witnessing Jesus’ ascension, Matthew and the apostles returned to their room in Jerusalem and prayed. Scripture is silent about Matthew after that and, other than writing the gospel that bears his name, we don’t know what became of him. The earliest church records say he carried out his ministry in Persia, Macedonia, Syria, and/or the region south of Egypt known as Ethiopia. Those records also claim Matthew was martyred but they don’t agree on how or where it happened. All we know for sure is that Matthew didn’t just reform; he transformed! When he accepted Jesus’ call to follow Him, the despised and dishonest tax collector named Levi transformed into the beloved apostle and gospel writer named Matthew—a saved sinner who accepted the Great Commission and served as Christ’s witness “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The same Jesus who turned water into wine can transform your home, your life, your family, and your future. He is still in the miracle-working business, and His business is the business of transformation. [Adrian Rogers]

And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. [Acts 1:8 (NLT)]

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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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LOOKING FOR “LOVE”

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

cardinalNormally, the Internet would be one of the worst places to search for love but, according to my favorite online Bible resource site, some people went looking for love on line and were successful. Of course, they were looking for it in one of the right places—the Bible. With nearly 3 million searches a day (which, in case you wondered, is more than 2,000 per minute 24/7), “love” was the keyword most commonly searched for by the 160 million visitors to their site in 2021. Appearing 759 times in the NLT Bible, “love” was easily found (even in the King James that only uses it 442 times)!

“Love” tops the keyword search every year and “peace” (appearing 362 times in the NLT) retained its second-place position. As expected, hope, joy, and faith rounded out 2021’s top five most popular word searches. With “hope“ used 190 times, 333 appearances for “joy,” and “faith” mentioned 507 times in the NLT, the Bible was the right place to find them all. Although the number of occurrences depend on the version searched, these favorite words are found in every translation.

The Bible certainly is the place to look for love, peace, hope, joy, and faith but, with nearly 7,000 mentions of “Lord,” almost 5,000 of “God,” and nearly 1,500 of “Jesus” in the NLT, the Bible is a good place to go looking for them, as well! Those names, however, were missing from the most popular searches, as were words like prayer, humility, righteousness, repentance, servanthood, surrender, worship, sanctification, sacrifice, justification, judgment, sin, obedience, and atonement.

2021’s most searched for Bible verse remained John 3:16: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The perennial runner-up continued to be Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” As two of the most encouraging and heartening verses in the Bible, it’s easy to see why they are favorites.

Indeed, God’s Word is filled with words of comfort and reassurance, but limiting our Bible knowledge to only positive and uplifting words and verses is a bit like eating the croutons but not the salad beneath them, tasting only the crispy fried onions on top of the green bean casserole, or having dessert while skipping the main course! Some of those unsearched for words may be less tasty, but they are just as important as love, peace, hope, joy, and faith. It seems that many of us come to the Bible more interested in comfort than truth, affirmation than obedience, reassurance rather than correction, and inspiration rather than salvation. When we come to Scripture looking only for words of encouragement, we might miss the bigger message of salvation, redemption, and rebirth found in Jesus Christ. Let’s never settle for Scripture “Lite.”

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]

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. [Hebrews 4:12 (NLT)]

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do. [Joshua 1:8 (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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THROWING STONES

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity. [Luke 6:37-38 (MSG)]

mimosaYesterday, when writing about the adulterous woman, I wondered what became of the stones that had been gathered in anticipation of stoning her. We know the Pharisees were quick to condemn people for the smallest infraction of the Law. Did they drop those stones in the road or did they put them in the pockets of their robes for another time when they could catch someone else sinning?

My husband was at the Fed Ex store when the woman in front of him dropped several packages and papers. He stooped down and helped the flustered woman gather up her scattered papers and boxes. As she departed, the man behind my husband loudly asked, “Did she even thank you?” and then, without waiting for an answer, angrily continued, “I don’t think she did and she should have. People just don’t say thank you anymore!” I agree with him that good manners seem to be in short supply nowadays; nevertheless, I wondered why he got so angry and felt the need to point out the woman’s faux pas to all around him.

How ready we are to criticize the failures of others while overlooking ours! We all set standards for others and, like that man, get peeved when they’re not met. Yet, when our hearts are filled with criticism and judgment rather than mercy, we’ll go through life picking up stones and looking for opportunities to throw them. Although the critical man cast only a pebble at the woman, it wasn’t necessary. I’m not much different than he and I suspect neither are you. In fact, I might have tossed a small stone at the man in the Fed Ex store! After all, we easily see the failings of others while being blind to ours.

Granted, common courtesy isn’t common anymore and we frequently encounter people who clearly haven’t heard of Emily Post or Miss Manners. But, if Jesus could show mercy to the woman caught in adultery, wash the feet of the men who would betray, deny, or abandon Him, and manage to ask forgiveness for the people who crucified Him, we should be able to cut a little slack for those who commit the petty offenses of everyday life! We certainly don’t need to keep stones in our pockets in case someone offends our sensibilities or look for opportunities to throw them! Maybe people would be nicer if we simply smiled more and grumbled less!

I don’t know why the woman was so frazzled that day or what really was upsetting that man. There’s wise advice in the old proverb: “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Another old proverb reminds people who live in glass houses not to throw stones—and all of us live in glass houses of some kind or another. If we want God’s mercy, grace, and understanding, we must offer those same things to others.

Our days are happier when we give people a bit of our heart instead of a piece of our mind. [Anonymous bit of Internet wisdom]

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, “Let me wash your face for you,” when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor. [Matthew 7:1-5 (MSG)]

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