What Belongs to God? Matthew 22:15-22

Burned by all their previous encounters with Jesus, the Pharisees send others to do their bidding in this week’s gospel passage. They send “their disciples to him, along with the Herodians” (v. 15). You’ve got to love the subtle irony of the relationship this verse implies.
 
By rights, Pharisees and Herodians should not have been having anything to do with each other. The Herodians, Herod’s people, indicates the rich and powerful centrist group in Jerusalem holding on to the reigns of power from the palace by cooperating fully with the pax Romana, the rule of the Roman Emperor enforced through heavy taxes, soldiers, and other compromising forms of homage. The Pharisees, by contrast, were a conservative, religious, very Jewish, “back to God” resistance movement that had been formed in opposition to the kind of compromise with Rome that the Herodians represented. Politically, they were sworn enemies. But, in this passage, they are willing to “reach across the aisle” in order to deal with what they perceived as a common threat: Jesus of Nazareth, the people’s Messiah.
 
Like smug reporters, hiding their real agenda behind a veil of objectivity, they ask Jesus a question that they suppose is their ace-in-the-hole: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” And, the question we might need to ask as contemporary readers at this point is: Why would this question trap anyone? What’s really at stake in the question?
If any contemporary politician were asked this question, they would surely answer quickly: Of course it’s lawful to pay taxes. Why would you even ask? The only question we ask is how much the government should ask of individuals and households versus corporations.
 
So why didn’t Jesus just say that? For one, it is a different political and religious climate than our own. Ancient Judaism tended to take idolatry a lot more seriously than we do. Furthermore, Jesus is not a politician (they know this about him). In their eyes, he has already demonstrated sympathy towards the Pharisees’ philosophical/religious concern about Roman idolatry and the oppression of Jewish “values” that Roman taxes represent. He might even be in Jerusalem to incite a rebellion against Roman rule, for all they know, which could play right into their hands when (not if) the rebellion was squashed by Rome’s ample forces. They are definitely laying their cards on the table. 
 
But, to their surprise, Jesus knows just what to do with their question. As we have come to expect, he answers their question with a question. He asks to see a “coin used for the tax” (v. 19). In context, this is a very important moment in the narrative, pregnant with significance. It is safe to assume that Jesus didn’t have such a coin in his “pocket.” Not just because he was poor, from a certain point of view, but because of the imagery
stamped all over the coin that was flagrantly offensive to Jewish sensibilities. Not just the face of the Emperor on one side, and a high priestess on the other, but the inscription on the coin which read: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Jesus’ request seems to imply a silent critique, as if he were saying: You tell me. Have you seen what’s on your coins that you are using in your idolatrous “lawful” exchange with Rome?
 
You know the rest of the story. “Whose image and inscription are on this?” he asks them. “Caesar’s,” they must respond. Then comes Jesus’ enigmatic saying that confounds them all: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (v. 21). Jesus’ answer is not just a fancy way of saying, “Pay your taxes.” Jesus’ answer begs another question that the Pharisees and Herodians are way too scared and cautious to answer: What really belongs to Caesar, and what really belongs to God? Now Jesus has hinted at a question that has the power to explode the fragile alliance between the Herodians and the Pharisees.
 
So, what does all that mean for us? I suppose that depends on our interpretation of history and who we identify with in this story. Obviously, the social and political dynamics in this story come from an ancient world different from our own. But just how different? And, are these kinds of power relationships and dynamics not evident in nearly every epoch of our history?
 

Evangelist Billy Graham and President Nixon wave to a crowd of 12,500 at ceremonies honoring Graham at Charlotte, North Carolina on Friday, Oct. 16, 1971. (AP Photo)

There is no Roman Empire left today, but are there no global superpowers that require taxes, homage, or compromise of our values? No Pharisees, but are there no conservative religious parties with powerful, if mostly secret, political affiliations? We seem to tell ourselves that idolatry is no longer a problem for us. It’s a thing of the past like animal sacrifice or theocracy. But, it is also possible to read world history in exactly the opposite way. It’s possible to see the emergence of the stock market and the global marketplace, a universal currency and economy based on inflation, as the greatest and most widespread system of idolatry ever conceived of by the human race. As money plays more of a role in human history, not less, it may be possible to see Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question as more relevant today than ever.
 
What belongs to God? Well, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), but more specifically, just as Caesar had presumptively stamped his own image on tribute penny, God has stamped his image on the earth in us. We humans are uniquely privileged to be made in “the image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:27). And Jesus shows us, par excellence, what we are supposed to be, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). The most important tribute that we ought to be worried about paying is, like Jesus, to God. Jesus paid that tribute for us, but also as an example: not with coins, but with the entirety of his life and death on the cross. We are likewise called to make a living and spiritual sacrifice of ourselves to God our first obligation in life, above and beyond, in and through whatever other responsibilities we feel led to take on for love’s sake (i.e. tithes and taxes). After all, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” (St. Irenaeus). 
 
Discussion Questions
1. Who could we identify with in this story? Jesus and his disciples, the Pharisees/Herodians, or both?
2. What belongs to us, the church, or the state? What belongs to God? How do we practice faithful stewardship in our world today?
3. Can a Christian live in the “real world” today without their faith or life being compromised? How?


The Wedding Crashers, Matthew 22:1-14

In act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s most ambitious play, Hamlet announces a sudden flash of insight: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” He will produce a short play for the King (his murderous uncle) and Queen to watch that closely mirrors the King’s own treacherous actions, and see how he reacts.

Near the end of Matthew’s gospel, the parables of Jesus have a similar effect. The chief scribes, elders, and Pharisees realize that these stories Jesus tells are about them, and they don’t seem to be very happy about it. We as contemporary readers do not really mind these parables, but maybe that’s because we have not yet realized that Jesus might also be talking about us.

In the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14), Jesus speaks of a “human” king throwing a wedding feast for his son. The parable brings together two prominent figures in Jesus’ parables, that of the King and that of the Father, into one…which also is the way Jesus speaks in many places about God. Thus, the fact that this parable is really about God and God’s kingdom seems pretty clear. But who are the others in this story? The “servants/slaves,” the “called/invited,” and the “chosen”?

First of all, it’s a story and these categories are not mutually exclusive, but the language of “sent” (Gk. apostello) seems to suggest that the “servants” (Gk. diakonos) and “slaves” in this story could symbolize the prophets of old and the apostles, though we certainly share their responsibility to be witnesses today. Then again, John Wesley observed, those “troops/soldiers” whom the king sends (v. 7) seem to represent those Roman soldiers who would destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D., burning much of the city and the temple to the ground. These figures in the story could refer to others (in truth, there are a number of cities destroyed and burned down to talk about in scripture), but in any case, it’s important to observe that in Jesus’ story, the soldiers are also non-Christian servants of the same King/Christ…in some way under the command of the same God as the prophets!

Then, there’s the “called/invited” (Gk. kletoi), “gathered” (Gk. synagogos), and “chosen” (Gk. eklektoi)–which are all ways the scriptures also speak of Israel and we who call ourselves the “church” (Gk. ekklesia). Jesus makes a major distinction in this story between the many called and the few chosen. This and several other parables communicate the idea of a mixed church of good and bad, true and false Christians who can only be sorted out by the King at the final judgment. As such, it is interesting to note that only one man in this wedding hall filled with ragamuffin guests is here singled out as unworthy, not for being “bad,” but simply for not wearing the garment that was probably provided. The chosen “few” would still seem to be a pretty large number in this story, just not quite as large as the “many” who were called.

So where does that leave us? Who am I in this story? I should probably admit that, sometimes, I kind of look like the “called but unworthy” in this story: those blessed to be born and raised into the Kingdom who were too busy with their own business to pay attention to their King. As such, I’d better start paying attention to the living word of God as if my life depended on it. On the other hand, I am the “unworthy but called” who was picked up from nowhere and invited to the table of our Lord. As such, I’d better make sure to clothe myself with the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14), the wedding garments of justice, true faith, and holiness, and at least try to act my new surprising part at God’s table.

Either way, it’s not my job to judge who is not chosen or worthy. St. Paul seems to suggest that we can know if someone’s name is written in the book of life (Philippians 4:1-9), but not that we can know for certain that someone is not. That’s for the King, and only the King who is Jesus Christ to decide in the end.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways are we distracted by PROPERTY (what we “own”) and BUSINESS (acquiring more) rather than the Word of God, like the first invitees in Jesus’ parable?
  2. Are we too “choosy” about the way we call/invite others to the table of the Lord? Who should we be calling/inviting to discipleship, the church?
  3. Do I know God as both my Father and King? Do I treat Jesus as both my Savior and my Lord? Do I treat all others as called to be God’s children?


Listening for God, Matthew 21:33-46

This week’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel begins with a word loaded with significance for its original Jewish audience: “Listen” or “Hear” (v. 33). 
It echoes God’s command to Israel in Deuteronomy 6 (a.k.a. the Shema), a word oft recited in Jewish prayer and custom, “Hear, O Israel.” In other words, listen, really listen, to what God has to say. The implication, of course, is not just physical hearing or basic comprehension of the words, but spiritual/intellectual listening and faithful attention/obedience to the deeper meaning of God’s word. “Hear/listen,” Jesus says, “to another parable/story.” Even if you’ve heard this story a thousand times before, I’d ask you to do the same and trust that God still has something to say to us today.
 
The parable/story introduces a man, in this case a head of household, followed by a number of action verbs. The man “plants” a vineyard, “fences” it around, “digs” a wine press, “builds” a watchtower, “lets/leases” it to groundskeepers, and “goes away” for a while. So far, this parable follows the structure of the prophet Isaiah’s ancient parable almost exactly
(Isaiah 5:1-7). It is an example of Jesus himself interpreting “the Bible.”  
The parable portrays a lot of work that, really, only a head of household, landowner or other master-figure in the ancient world would have been in a position to do. No wonder, when he “sends” his servants merely to collect his share of the produce (which would have been an assumed part of the lease agreement between himself and the groundskeeper-farmer-tenants), and gets nothing but beatings, murder, and trouble in return, there is a certain amount of outrage, as there is in Isaiah 5. But the similarities stop there. Whereas Isaiah blames the vineyard itself for this inexplicable outrage, Jesus’ parable adds a number of intermediary figures: including tenants, servants, and a son. In so doing, Jesus seems to be taking the blame away from the vineyard. Also, what’s mind boggling in Jesus’ version of the story is how much patience, and little outrage, the owner shows toward the farmer-tenants. Three chances? And even after sending two waves of servants to the vineyard, the father risks the life of his own son? Strange behavior for a master-father, back then or today. 
 
The Pharisee’s answer suggests that they would not have been so forgiving. They would “put those wretches to a miserable death” (v. 41, NRSV). Notice Jesus never says that’s what he or the father in this parable would do. 
Methinks the chief priests and Pharisees do protest too much. At least their anger and their outrage suggests they were paying attention to the story. It turns out, in typical prophetic style (see the story of the prophet Nathan and David in 2 Samuel 12), Jesus uses the parable to turn the Pharisee’s anger and outrage against themselves: to demonstrate that the behavior they most fiercely condemn is the lack they can’t see (or confront) within themselves. But the Pharisees’ inexplicable, paradoxical outrage continues. Even though the Pharisees “realized he was talking about them” (v. 45), this only increases their outrage and desire to put someone to a miserable death. So they end up, after all, just like the bad guys in this story. Speaking for God, Jesus has never threatened to treat them the same way, only that the Kingdom would be taken away from them (suggesting that it presently belonged to them?) and given to others who would do the job faithfully. 
 
The way Jesus tells this story, it isn’t simply a repetition of Isaiah’s old familiar tale. It’s a traditional story played in an entirely new key, both to meet the interpretive needs of the present situation and, above all, to reveal the truth of the gospel of God: especially the patience and long-suffering of the Father and the Son for our salvation. We must do the same with our traditions, stories, situation, and the help of the Spirit’s inspiration today. We must so listen as to be able to reinterpret the traditions and the stories we have received, with the Spirit’s help, for different circumstances, in order to reveal the gospel of the steadfast love of God the Father and the Son who created us all and longs to give and for us to receive the gift of the Kingdom.
 
Finally, just as Jesus’ telling of the gospel story takes an inward turn, and the listener’s pointy fingers are turned in upon themselves, so should we pay careful attention in our hearing of God’s word to its meaning for our own inward life and spiritual journey. The culture of outrage and finger pointing in the news and social media is not so different form the world the Pharisees were building. If we are not careful, we may very well end up like the worst of them: always hearing these words of God, but never listening, never producing real fruit for the Kingdom, verbally beating each other to death with gossip, wanting to do something about our problem, but doing nothing for fear of other’s opinions.
 
 
 
 
 
Discussion Questions
  1. What part or parts do we play in Jesus’ parable? What does it have to do with us? How?
  2. What is the vineyard, gift, or stewardship God has given us to care for? What responsibilities are implied? What fruits does God expect of us? 
  3. How good do you think you/we are at listening/communicating? Do we hear, understand, and obey? Or are we too busy talking?


Letter to Exiles

“By the rivers of Babylon,” the old Psalm goes, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (137:1). It is one of the saddest (and angriest) songs of lament recorded in scripture, depicting the people of God as a defeated group of exiles commiserating on the outskirts of Babylon, complaining, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (137:4)
 
But, for all their weeping and wailing, the Bible says this was God’s will for Israel. Centuries earlier, the prophet Amos had warned, “Israel will surely go into exile” (Amos 7:11). Similarly, the Spirit spoke through other prophets: “They will not stay in the land of the Lord” (Hosea 9:3), “Your children will go from you into exile” (Micah 1:16), “My people will go into exile” (Isaiah 5:13), and “They shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:11).
 
And, as it turns out, this exile would end up being for the good of Israel. In his famous letter to the exiles, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11). It wasn’t all bad news. Israel would grow and prosper, albeit in a different way. They would plant gardens and build households, instead of building temples. They would adapt, promote the welfare of the cities they inhabited, and spread their way of life and faith around the world. Some of the best of biblical literature would come out of their painful experience in exile: including the books of Esther, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and many of the Psalms.
 
In the Bible’s treatment of Israel’s exile, I am finding rich spiritual resources for thinking, preaching, praying, and working through our life together here in Hemet today. In some ways, exile speaks to the present and apparent future of our local church. We really are in a time of transition and disequilibrium, rather than stability–a time for moving forward, if possible, but not for standing still. We continue to try to move forward on the sale of our property, for example, with the awareness that our situation is likely soon to change. In any case, it could take some time before we feel at home again.
 
But, exile also speaks in a wider way to the situation of the church and Christianity in our culture. Church is no longer the only show in town on Sunday mornings. Competing with all sorts of other special interest groups for people’s time, resources, and attention,
 
Evangelicals have lost and are still losing their dominant “market share” in the American economy. So it’s not just us; it seems like Evangelicals everywhere, and the Church of the Nazarene in particular, has a long way to go if we will ever feel at home in our communities again.
 
Insofar as exile describes and speaks to our situation as Christians in the world today, I take some comfort in knowing that we, as the people of God, have been here before. Nobody goes into exile whistling and smiling, but at least we can do so with our heads and hopes held high if we know we are still within God’s will to give us new hope and a future. Recently, I challenged our church board to start reading Scott Daniels’ newer book, Embracing Exile, with me. My hope is that, by embracing rather than avoiding the subject of our contemporary “exile” spiritually, like the Hebrew prophets, we might be all the more resilient and free to overcome, with our Lord’s help, whatever challenges we may face tomorrow–to live and grow to preach the gospel to another generation. 
 
To be sure, God’s people have grown in Spirit through difficult days of exile before. And we may have a lot to learn from carrying our cross in these challenging times, singing the Lord’s song in what can seem sometimes like a foreign land. But we must remember, nothing compares to the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus, who “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), 
 
Bearing patiently with us in the great wilderness of our human exile from Eden, making a way for us back to paradise through his death and resurrection. Considering Jesus, the Nazarene, and his perfect love revealed for us, my prayer for our church in these times is that our “momentary, light affliction” will prepare us all the more for an “eternal kind of glory” beyond our greatest expectations (2 Corinthians 4:17). After all, the good news is: God is with us!


Authority Refigured

Matthew 21:23-32

Every now and then, I catch myself sounding an awful lot like my parents. In particular, I’ve noticed that I’m always talking to my kids about their “attitude.” When did I become so obsessed with attitudes as opposed to actions? Probably about the same time I became convinced of my own parental authority. “But why?” they ask me; and I reply, “because I said so.” Human authority figures like me rarely put up with too many questions, I’m afraid. And yet, somehow, we demand no less than total obedience with a positive attitude and a happy heart, which is quite a tall order when you stop and think
about it.  
 
In this week’s gospel passage, Matthew 21:23-32, Jesus deals with the question of human and divine authority and the problem of credibility. The political and religious authorities of the day, the “chief priests and the elders of the people,” approach Jesus in the temple and ask him the loaded question, “By what authority are you doing (Greek verb:

poieo) these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23)

 
Now, if this were a Sunday School class, some kids’ hands would be waving in the air as they pleaded, “Please, pick me! I know this one! I know the answer! Pick me!” The correct Sunday School answer to the elders’ question is, of course, God. God was and is the authority behind the words and actions of Jesus Christ, as he himself testifies in several other places. But, it’s very important and significant, I think, that Jesus does not answer the question in this manner. He is aware that the elders are not really asking a sincere question, but setting a trap. And Jesus is sensitive to the fact that the problem of authority and credibility in this world is not easily solved by playing the “God” card.
If you stop and think about it, there are at least two sides to almost every issue of importance, and authority figures speaking in the name of God on both sides. Both Confederates and Union soldiers in the Civil War insisted the Bible said that God was on their side. Despite their opposite stances on the Vietnam War, both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., claimed to speak for God. The problem of human credibility has everybody looking for a source of divine, absolute authority, but still, we can only look at anything from our own human point of view.
 
That’s why Jesus’ response to the elders’ question is so unique and still surprising today. He answers their question with a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven (that is, from God), or from men?” (21:25) I suppose this is one of those questions that is better than any answer we could give. First, it confounds the elders, who are not really interested in learning from Jesus but entangled in the politics of language. Then, it raises, but does not finally answer the question of where true authority comes from. Jesus, who is the only Son of God and God incarnate, surely does not need to cite any authority but himself. And yet, he chooses to cite the authority of the mortal man, John the baptist, to help us understand the source of his own authority! On the one hand, all human authority comes from humans in all-too-human situations, like the questionable prophet, John, eating locusts on the banks of the Jordan. On the other hand, the source of all true authority in heaven and earth is God. The all-too-humanness of the prophet is no excuse for not recognizing in him the true authority of the Word of God, Jesus seems to be saying. All true authority, wherever and in whomever it may be found, has one and the same source in God.
 
Next, Jesus compares this kind of authority that comes from God to the authority of a father figure in a parable about two sons (21:28-30). Rather than argue about the authority of the father figure, Jesus’ parable shifts the question with this parable to the subject of a child’s obedient faith, or trust. Apparently, these elders need to learn what it means to be a child of God before they go on worrying about the nature of authority. In this story, one child stubbornly defies his parents at first, but later changes his mind and does what he knows is right. The second one answers, “Yes, sir,” but forgets or fails to do his duty. Jesus poses another question to the elders: “which one did (Greek verb again: poieo) his father’s will?” Obviously, the first one, even though he had a real bad attitude about it at first.
 
Jesus’ final words in this passage tie it all together, and make it clear that this parable is about the unlikely but true authority of God that works through unlikely, all-too-human vessels (i.e. Jesus and the unlicensed John the baptist) and is credible, believable, and actionable to all, even “tax collectors and prostitutes” (21:32) who probably ought not to be the only ones recognizing the authority of God in Jesus.
 
In the end, this passage makes it clear that the true and spiritual authority of God’s Word can be known on earth today as it is in heaven, as surely as John the baptist and Jesus spoke on earth for God. God’s kingdom authority may not be found in the first places we would naturally look, however. Humans easily misunderstand authority and misplace our trust for all sorts of wrong reasons. We confuse pledges of allegiance and outward shows of unquestioning loyalty, for example, with truly heroic actions that spring from mature faith and the obedience of love.
 
God doesn’t. To be sure, our heavenly Father, the ultimate authority figure Jesus represents, wants true loyalty, mature faith, and heartfelt loving obedience as least as much as we do from our own children: what John Wesley so often referred to as, “the faith of a son.” But, the reason he gets it from us in the end is not just because God demands it, but because in Jesus he comes down to our level, forgives our protests, listens to our questions, and patiently waits for us to act on what we say we want and believe.
 
Lord, forgive us who presume to be mothers and fathers but need to learn again how to be your children. Give me the courage to ask sincere questions and allow myself to be search today by your loving Spirit. Help me to change my mind if I am found in the wrong and so be an example of the obedience of faith for others. Christ, have mercy and incline our hearts again to do your will.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Why does Jesus refer to the authority of John the baptist, rather than to God, the Bible, Moses, or David to defend his own credibility?

 

  1. What’s the crucial difference between the two sons in Jesus’ parable? Does this story sound familiar in any way to you?

 

  1. What has been your attitude or actions toward all kinds of authority? Your parents? Are they consistent with who you know yourself to be?

 

  1. What are you like in any position of authority? What would others say about you? Does this reflect something of God’s loving authority?

 



Eternal Life–What are we waiting for?

In the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul gets real with us Christians. “If our hope in Christ is for this life only,” he writes, “we are most of all to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). On the other hand, “if the dead are not raised,” Paul says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (15:32). #yolo
 
Perhaps we need to be reminded today that Christians do not live the way we do for this life only. An understanding of that simple truth changes the way we read scripture, treat others, and live this Christian life. The cross doesn’t stand there to make your life a little sweeter. It stands there to point the way to a world to come. Church isn’t meant to be a pleasure cruise, but more like a life raft here for our eternal salvation. We don’t sing hymns or share communion just to lift our spirits, but to invest our lives in the Spirit of Jesus who will raise us from the dead.
 
In the same chapter, Paul deals with difficult questions about the life to come, like “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (15:35) Paul’s answer to that question, which probes deeply into the mystery of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection, will hardly satisfy most modern readers–partially because it is loaded with Greek philosophical language that is difficult to translate into English, and partially because it leaves a lot to the imagination. Paul seems to be aware of his own limitations to understand and express the great ineffable mysteries of the life to come, but in this passage, at least he makes a few things clear: (1) It is a change and resurrection of the body (15:44), not a ghostly, or merely spiritual existence we are looking forward to. (2) It is about conforming to the humanity revealed to us in Jesus Christ (15:49). (3) This resurrection is for everyone (15:22), not just believers, though it goes hand in hand with the theme of judgment and the renewal of creation until “God is all in all” (15:28).
 
Many more related questions have been raised since Paul wrote these words. Notice there’s no mention in this passage of heaven or hell. Until resurrection, are souls in some kind of “sleep mode” or some other intermediate state? What, for Paul, was the difference between the “spirit” (Gk. pneuma) and the “soul” (Gk. psyche)? How does that relate to our modern view of the human person? These are all very interesting questions, which we may delve into in tonight’s bible study, but perhaps Paul himself might even say we are getting beside the point: as Christ is, so we are in part, and may hope to be evermore as we grow in his Spirit.
 
In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). We would do well to heed these words. Jesus himself is the image we have of the eternal life we are waiting and living for. If we lose sight of Jesus arguing about the description of heaven or the temperature of hell, we have lost sight of everything we know about our eternal life and our salvation. If we keep him always before us, then we have a sure hope today that is not for this life only, and we will know “in the Lord that our labor is not in vain” (15:58).


What’s Your Calling?

“You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.” (Psalm 128:2)

A young man was at work in the desert, just beyond the middle of nowhere, when, as the old story goes, God called out to him from a bush. A burning bush, not all that uncommon a sight to see in the desert, except that this bush kept on burning and was not consumed. Lucky this young man paid attention (or perhaps it was known that he would), for it wasn’t until he turned aside to investigate this thing that God called him by name: “Moses, Moses…come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet…I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 3:1-6).

Without any further introductions or friendly chit-chat, God quickly changes subject and declares: “I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings…and I have come down to deliver them.” Then (no pause for questions), God says, “I am sending you” (3:7-10). No wonder the young man immediately protests! After all, what is wrong with this picture? How about a job application, some interview questions, a background check at least? What kind of relevant experience or education does a shepherd have for this new line of work? The God who calls him doesn’t even seem to take into account his past sins or spiritual fitness, just throws him right into on-the-job training: Deliverance from Slavery 101.
 
In hindsight, I don’t think God didn’t know or care about Moses. On the contrary, I suppose God knew exactly what Moses needed in life: to do something great and become the leader he was born to be. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt
is also the story of Moses’ salvation. The young man, Moses, would not be saved apart from the work God had given him to do, even though it was God, of course, doing all the saving. Likewise, I don’t suppose any of us are just “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12) all alone in a prayer closet. To be called is to be blessed with the gift of good and meaningful work to do in the world.
           
As I look around at my community and think about my friends, young and old, I sense not only a common search for meaning, but also a search for meaningful work to do. It’s not just about finding a job that pays the bills. The Bible speaks of “finding enjoyment in toil” (Ecclesiastes 5:19) and in “the labor of your hands” (Psalm 128). Meanwhile, we find much more reason to complain at work while we watch others enjoy the fruits or end-product of our labor. Like most of the ranch “hands” in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men many end up feeling like they’ve spent the best years of their lives working on someone else’s ranch with too little to show for it. This, as the scripture says, “is vanity,” not the way it’s supposed to be. Rather than working because the work is good, or because we enjoy the result, we work for money to compensate for doing what we don’t believe in. And thus, at work, we feel more and more estranged from who we really are.
 
If God called the first people to eat and till the garden, and Abraham was blessed by God in order to bless others–if Moses was delivered in delivering God’s people, and Jesus was raised up to do God’s greatest work of all, then I think it’s safe to say God can provide us all with good and meaningful work, if not “greater works” (John 14:12) to do. Work that will not leave us finally feeling empty or distant from ourselves.
 
There’s lots of talk about jobs in America, but I think our need runs deeper. We don’t just work to eat; we hunger for good work to do. It’s one thing to be employed, and another to find your life’s calling. Discerning God’s call is not just for clergy, and not just for a few. What kind of work do you profoundly enjoy or, in the end, feel good about doing? What are your gifts? What could be your life’s work, your Magnum Opus, with God’s help? There’s nothing wrong, of course, with fair compensation, but I understand many of history’s finest didn’t do their greatest works for money. And yet, how much richer were they, and are we as a result!
 
You may not be gifted like Beethoven, the great musician and composer. But, did you know he lost his hearing in the middle of his prime? Still, he went on to compose some of his greatest works: including
Symphony no. 9 and Missa Solemnis. So, where does that leave us with our gifts and list of excuses? You don’t even have to quit your day job to listen for your calling, to be on the lookout for your
burning bush.


Bridging the Generational Gaps

All families have their problems. More than a century ago, Thoreau wrote, “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” I’m sure you’ve also seen such shortsightedness in youth. But, I have also seen as much generational prejudice among those of us who ought to be mature. Many despair about the future that will be in the hands of our youth. Such pessimism is, for me, an even greater cause for concern.

Some say our problem is that the family unit isn’t what it used to be. They point to the rising number of single parent households, or the changing portraits of the American family in popular media between the days of

Leave it to Beaver (1957) and Modern Family

(2009). But, I think that story is a little overdone. In fact, the rate of change in the makeup of American households has been decreasing now for years, and among America’s fictional fathers, from Ward Cleaver and Archie Bunker to Phil Dunphy, etc., one could find at least as many similarities as differences. Some change is inevitable, but I don’t think our generational problem has changed as much in the last century as some would have us believe.
 
I think the truth is harder: our real families have never  quite lived up to our ideals. Not in the 1950s, 70s, or today. Even though it is a fact we often try to hide in public, real families of all shapes and sizes only get along with their fair share of difficulty and dysfunction, no matter how hard we try as individuals. And, if I’m not mistaken, this is the way it’s always been.
 
The Bible speaks of “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But, that simple phrase glosses over a number of important details. Like the fact that Abraham tied his son Isaac up with ropes and laid him on an altar, apparently to perform some kind of sacrificial ritual (Genesis 21). Not exactly normal father-son bonding time in the mountains. Or, the time Jacob conspired with his mother, betrayed his brother, and tricked his father into giving him a fatherly blessing (Genesis 25). I trust my own kids will never resort to such extremes! That’s to say nothing of Jacob’s son Joseph and his notoriously jealous brothers. In the Bible, the first family of faith is portrayed in a surprisingly real and honest comedy of errors. It seems a miracle the faith was ever passed down through these generations.
           
But maybe that’s just the point: though well aware of who we really are, including all our generational and relational dysfunction, God is not ready to give up on us or our ever-changing families. On the contrary, God instructs his people to “recite [God’s words] to your children” and “write them on the doorposts of your home” (Deuteronomy 6). And, in just about the last words recorded in the final book of the Hebrew prophets, God exhorts his people to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6a).
 
Since our future does not belong to any single culture, era, or generation, the faith we hold dear must be handed down through changing times and handled (to our horror or delight) in new, surprising ways. Sometimes, that means education for our young and inexperienced. Other times, it means surrender, a shift in perspective or position for the elders to embrace. Like Moses, one generation can intentionally make room for another to take the lead. Or the twelve apostles, who not only laid hands, but taught and gifted others to take the torch from them. It shouldn’t have to be a violent takeover, but it always requires courage and wisdom for one generation to decide how to hold on and  let go of God’s greatest gift: a faith that was never ours alone in the first place, in order to entrust it to a hope that was never ours to possess.

Families are hard work, and when I say that, I mean all kinds of families: not just taxable households, but extended families, neighborhoods, churches, and the communities they support. But, I believe our families are worth every effort. Part of what makes them difficult or sometimes disappointing is all the differences in perspective, the language barriers, and gaps between the generations. Nevertheless, it is possible, worthwhile, and a most rewarding thing for us to invest our time, resources, and prayers in overcoming the considerable obstacles between our generations, patiently participating in all their messy, discordant, and beautiful hopes for the future. In them, but not without them, as in the story of Abraham’s family, I believe we can begin to understand something of God’s love for us and boundless optimism.

Verse

“Turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6a)




 
 

2 Responses to “Pastor’s Page”

  1. Diana says:

    In the past, I really struggled with separating what my “call” was and “punching my time card.” Sometimes I feel like they are closely related, and then sometimes they couldn’t be farther apart. Interesting perspective coming from Moses’ POV. Good blog Pastor Michael! Keep them coming!!

    • Michael says:

      I still struggle with this… and maybe it is just a matter of perspective. I suppose the same work (of any kind) could be looked at “from above,” like a calling to cooperate with God, or “from below,” as a mere job. Thanks, Diana!

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