Matthew 18:1-5 – On Humility

At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (NIV)

God’s benevolent, gracious, and ethical realm is accessed and rests upon humility. Wherever there are humble hearts, there is change, transformation, and new life. Where there is the presence of pride, there you will find posturing, positioning, and peacocking – nothing changes.

Humility enables a person to see beyond the end of their nose. A humble posture allows an individual to observe the wounds and pains of those with little power and low societal status. A preoccupation with being great and believing we are indispensable is to amble down a blind path.

In the ancient world, children were on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They were mostly looked upon as potential adults – little people who would someday contribute to the welfare of the family business and the community. Until then, kids were expected to begin learning their future trade with full submission and obedience. They had no power or leverage over others.

So, when Jesus told his disciples to take the lowly position of a child, he was not talking about innocence or cuteness. Christ meant for his followers to divest themselves of prideful positioning for greatness and embrace the helplessness and vulnerability of children. For Jesus, a child was closer to God’s rule and reign because they existed in truly humble circumstances, whereas an adult had too much concern with looking good and seeking every advantage possible.

Life is more upside-down than we sometimes realize. Adults have more to learn from kids than kids do from adults. To listen to a child is about as near to hearing the voice of God as you will get.

Let us consider how pride and humility work out in our daily lives. For example, when down and hurting, maybe you have had the experience of another person trying to one-up your pain, as if what they experienced was worse than you. In their pride, they ignore that pain is personal, as if it’s a one-size-fits-all. 

Invalidating a person’s state of being or feelings does no one any good.  It happens because of pride and a lack of humility. Imagine going to see a doctor who turns out to be arrogant in his approach. He fails to really listen to you. He just gives a quick exam and offers his diagnosis with a regimen of more pills to take. You are left sitting there while he is off to another patient, colonizing another person’s mind and emotions with his expertise.

I am not giving doctors a hard knock. I work in a hospital and have great respect for medical professionals who provide wise care plans. Yet, it is likely that you, like me, have had that occasional experience of the doctor full of him/herself with all the right answers on your pain and situation.

You may have also had the unfortunate experience of having a pastor, therapist, or counselor assess your situation with little information and even smaller compassion.  Like writing a script for pills, they give you a few Bible verses and tell you to quit sinning and live obediently.

If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is humility. No matter who we are – whether doctors, pastors, laypersons, patients, or whomever – we are meant and designed by our Creator God to live a humble life.  That means we are to both give and receive humility-based care.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility.

The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow his Master Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human interaction with one another is grounded in humility. The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is humility-based.

Therefore, caring for another person is not a simple linear matter of offering your opinion or expertise; it is believing that the one needing care is the expert on herself.  The caregiver has as much to learn from the care-seeker. The beauty of humility-based care is that two people discover together how to grow, thrive, and flourish in a situation where it is not currently happening.

Breakthroughs occur in the soil of humility when the care-seeker comes out of the darkness and into the light through mutual discovery and insight.

We live with the confidence of the Psalmist:

“God leads humble people to do what is right and teaches them the way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end, God saves and heals, not you or me.  That God chooses to use us to bring care to others ought to elicit the utmost of humility within us.

Lord God let me have too deep a sense of humor to be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly. Let me realize that when I am humble, I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your serious consideration. Amen.

Romans 16:17-20 – Remove the Negative Influence

Snidely Whiplash, villain from the TV show Dudley Do-Right (1959-1964)

I urge you, brothers, and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery, they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.

The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s original writing of these verses was packed with an exceptionally large punch.  Almost every word he used was in the strongest possible language. For example:

“Urge” has the force of “beg,” as in the blind man crying out and begging Jesus to heal him. (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43) 

“Watch out” has the meaning of marking someone as if to keep constant eyes on them.

“Divisions” are human created arbitrary lines, and acts of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:19-20) 

“Obstacles” comes from a word in which we get our English word “scandal,” which is caused by judging another person. (Romans 14:13) 

“Keep away” is not a passive avoidance, but literally means to fling yourself away from a danger, like Joseph running out of Potiphar’s house and away from his wife. (Genesis 39:11-12)

Paul was begging his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to identify people who contrive human divisions between others and create offensive scandals and get as far away from them as you can.

If this were a professional wrestling match, the Apostle Paul would be in a cage match against the Jewish Christian Bruiser who has been talking trash for months about the Gentile Christians. In the church at Rome, there were three primary groups of people: 

  1. Gentile Christians who had come to faith in Christ from their pagan backgrounds and were delighting in their newfound change of life.
  2. Jewish Christians who had come to faith in Christ and liked their old religious traditions yet were willing to change to accommodate new believers.
  3. Jewish Christians who had made professions of faith in Christ, and not only wanted to keep their centuries old traditions but were unwilling to change and sought to make Jews of the Gentiles, using every ounce of influence, power, manipulation, and negativity to do it.
Professional wrestling star Dick the Bruiser (career 1954-1986)

Paul, as a Jewish Christian himself, clearly understood what they wanted and what was at stake. Paul’s insistence throughout his letter to the Romans was to argue for the priority of the good news that sinners find forgiveness based in grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ, apart from circumcision, Sabbath observance, liturgical traditions, feast days, and ritual observances. Paul had no problem with the practices themselves; what he had an issue with is making them mandatory alongside the gospel. 

The Jewish Christian Bruisers felt justified in doing whatever they could to stand against a change in their traditions. They tried to negatively influence everyone they could. And if they could not get anywhere with Paul, they would go underground and be as subversive against him as they could. Yet, Paul remained consistent in all the churches about the reality of God’s grace in Christ.

Paul understood that negative people only create more negative people – which is why he said to Titus, after having talked to him about the priority of being justified by grace: 

After a first and second warning, have nothing more to do with a person who causes conflict, because you know that someone like this is twisted and sinful—so they condemn themselves. (Titus 3:10-11, CEB).

Whenever a passion for power and tradition prevails over a desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ, then we have an issue of character. Stirring up antagonism against biblically-oriented, Spirit-directed change is demonic – and the real test of it is a constant stream of negativism which is secretive, remains in the shadows, relies on gossip and slander for its fuel, and hates being in the light.

Jesus said to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves because there are wolves among the sheep (Matthew 10:16). You will know them by their fruit. We are called not to participate in negative influences!  Thus, individuals must be called-out for their chronic negative spirits. So, how do we do it?  How do we shut-out the negativity?

Refuse it.

Name it. Call it what it is: fighting against the Holy Spirit and attributing evil to the work of God (Matthew 12:30-32). When someone comes to you and wants to dish up a little sumthin’-sumthin’ on someone or something, refuse to take the bait. Reject the deprecation like the big man in the middle of the defense in basketball, rejecting the shot, with announcer Marv Albert shouting, “Ree-jected!”

Keeping a group of friends who are positive, encouraging, helpful, and steering clear of antagonistic attitudes is extremely beneficial to both physical and spiritual health.  In a recent study at Stanford University, a pair of researchers reviewed over 200 studies on group therapy and concluded that group members “develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their positive acceptance and feedback.”  In other words, negative thinking keeps people in bondage, whereas the positive encouragement of others brings freedom and life.

Rebuke it.

Someone might be speaking to you, start talking around some issue slowly, but eventually comes around to carving up another person like a Thanksgiving turkey. What do you do?  Rebuke it. We can say something like, “When you continue to speak with such negativity about ______ I feel upset because I need to be in a place which helps me to spiritually grow. Will you please stop being so negative?”

I once had a person come to me not knowing how to deal with a negative person. I walked him through some biblical ways about confronting the negativity when it comes. He simply hung his head and said he could not do that. He was miserable, which is why he came and talked to me. And he walked away with that same misery because he was not willing to call out a person on their destructive negativity.

You and I are in control of our own happiness. If another person causes us anger; if some politician drives us nuts; if a television program or radio show is upsetting me; then, it is our responsibility to keep away. If we have a chronic negative person in our life, and have tried to deal with that person, and they refuse to listen, we can say something like this when they start their rant: “I don’t want to hear it. And if you keep bringing it up and being negative, I will walk out of the room.”  The principle here is that we control our own behavior, not somebody else’s.

Redirect it.

Satan is the author of negative antagonism. He talked trash about God in the garden to Adam and Eve. So, avoid getting caught up in trying to dialogue with a negative person. Redirect the negativity by calling the person to change their ways, because truth be told, the negativity is really rebellion against God. It is not uncivil to put the focus on the life-giving positive effects of God’s gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and insist on repentance.

If you are wondering, “I could never do that” then you likely have been telling yourself a lot of negative thoughts. God calls us to stamp-out the negativity before it can get started, even within our own brains. In some cases, we need to re-train our minds to focus on the positive, and not the negative.

It takes two to tango. Negativity cannot survive if there is no one to listen to it. We are to stop being negative and stop listening to negative people because it creates divisions and scandals. If there are people who chronically have negative speech and can never seem to say anything good about someone or something, Paul said to stay away from them. Have nothing to do with them. Do not participate in the divisive speech. Refuse it.  Rebuke it. Redirect it. God wants us righteous and robust, holy, and happy – not walking around like a grump who was baptized in pickle juice.

We can choose to fill our minds with the gospel of Jesus; pray positively about everything; and find the good in all things. We can continually choose to cultivate unity, purity, peace, and love. In doing so, we enjoy life together.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Psalm 119:97-104 – God the Teacher

I deeply love your Law!
    I think about it all day.
Your laws never leave my mind,
    and they make me much wiser
    than my enemies.
Thinking about your teachings
    gives me better understanding
    than my teachers,
and obeying your laws
makes me wiser
    than those
    who have lived a long time.
I obey your word
    instead of following a way
    that leads to trouble.
You have been my teacher,
    and I won’t reject
    your instructions.
Your teachings are sweeter
    than honey.
    They give me understanding
    and make me hate all lies. (CEV)

We live in a wonderful, complex, beautiful, broken, and upside-down world. The information we access, the choices we make, and the networking we engage in all require a great deal of wisdom.  Throw into the mix the reality that most things rarely go as we plan, and you have a recipe for disappointment and/or frustrating anger.  So, is there a path, a way of approaching this world that can help us navigate all its twists and trials?  Yes, there is a light through it all. Today’s psalm informs us how to proceed.

Wisdom in the Old Testament is the ability to take revealed truth and put it into concrete daily practice. So then, a life marked by the love and study of God’s Word brings both right living and enjoyment. God is our teacher and faithfully guides us into grateful living through his promises and commands. We can put ourselves in a position to sit at the master’s feet and receive gracious instruction for life.

Lectio Divina is one way of doing just that: allowing God to teach us through his Holy Word. Lectio Divina is an ancient Latin term which means “spiritual reading.”  It means to read Holy Scripture not just to know its contents, but to experience its power to restore, heal, transform, provide wisdom, and draw close to God. 

Lectio Divina is a simple way to prayerfully read the Bible, meditate on its message, and listen for what God may be saying for us to do.  It can be done privately, or with a small group of people.  The goal for the Christian is to become more Christ-like.

Lectio Divina is based upon reading a selected text of Scripture three times. Each reading is followed by a period of silence after which each person is given the opportunity to briefly share what they are hearing as they listen to God (if done in a group).

First Reading

During the first reading, read the text aloud twice. Read slowly and carefully. The purpose of the first reading is for each person to hear the text and to listen for a word, phrase or idea that captures their attention. As group members recognize a word, phrase, or idea, they are to focus their attention on it, repeating it within their minds several times.

Second Reading

During the second reading, read the text again. This time, listeners are to focus their attention on how the selected word, phrase or idea speaks to their life that day. What does it mean for you today? How is Christ, the Word, speaking to you about your life through this word, phrase, or idea? What is Christ, the Word, speaking to you about your life through this word, phrase, or idea? After the reading, a brief period of silence is observed and then group members share briefly what they have heard.

Third Reading

Read the text again. This time, listeners are to focus on what God is calling them to do or to become. Experiencing God’s presence changes us. It calls us to something. During this final reading, focus on what God is calling you to do or to be.  After the third reading, there is a period of silence, then group members share what they are being called to do or to be.

The psalms, especially Psalm 119, are meant to be read over-and-over again, to be used for prayer, worship, and study. Devoting ourselves to the psalms and grafting them into our lives is one of the best practices we can do to live a healthy and happy spiritual life.

Almighty God extend your goodness to me according to your Holy Word. Teach me knowledge and good judgment because I trust your commands. I seek to obey your wondrous Word. You are good, and what you do is always good. Teach me your decrees through Jesus Christ my Lord in the wisdom of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 20:1-16 – The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So, when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NIV)

We as humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We want life to be fair. It disturbs us when there is favoritism, discrimination, and preferential treatment. When things seem askew and others seem more privileged, envy can creep in and settle in our bones.

The envy can go even deeper. For example, is it fair that any child should struggle with health issues like cancer, epilepsy, and mental disorders?  Is it fair to have healthcare disparities? Is it fair to have a spouse taken from you before their time?  Is it fair to lose your job because of a pandemic? Is it ever fair to be treated like a second-class citizen?

Pat answers to people’s genuine struggles will not do, such as “Well, you just need to work hard and hope for the best;” “We have to take what is given us and accept these things;” “Think of all those starving children in India;” or the more crass, “Suck it up buttercup; life was never meant to be a rose garden.”  Those statements simply do not help.

At the heart of envy is the belief that others are getting something that I deserve.

Plenty of jerks have healthy grandkids, grow old with their spouses, and retire in comfort with plenty of money. “It isn’t fair!” we cry.

God does not always operate according to our standards of fairness. God’s very nature is to be generous and full of grace. The parable which Jesus told about the vineyard workers is a story not of unfairness, but a story of generosity and grace. It is all in how you look at it.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Rembrandt, 1637

A normal workday in the ancient world was ten hours, not counting breaks. The workday began at 6:00am. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for laborers. The landowner went out at the third hour, 9:00am; the sixth hour, noon, etc. He kept returning to hire more workers even up to the last hour of the workday. Laborers were always paid at the end of the day. In this parable, the last workers were paid first, which prompted the first workers hired to think they would be getting more, even though they had been promised a denarius. So, they grumbled about not getting more. They thought the landowner was not being fair.

Grumbling. Complaining. Murmuring. It is the bane of our existence. Decades ago, when gas station attendants still filled tanks for customers, I was working at a station and had a lady go berserk on me for not checking her oil and cleaning her windshield, because I did it for the car in front of her. Even though there was a sign right in front of her that said checking oil and cleaning windshields is only done upon request, the lady thought she was getting gypped. 

In truth, the landowner did not cheat or defraud the workers in any way. He paid the agreed upon wage, just like he promised. Should he want to pay everyone the same even though the amount of work was different was his own business. The problem was not with the owner, it was with the worker’s envy of the owner’s generosity toward the others. God distributes gifts because he is gracious, not because we have earned anything.

Our standard of fairness is not the rule of the kingdom of God – grace is.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was physically thrown out of a church one Sunday because of a sermon he was preaching on the grace of God. Afterwards, when Wesley wrote about this to a friend, he said, “There is no Christian Doctrine more repugnant than the affirmation that we are saved by the grace of God through faith.”

Deep down many believe we control our destiny, and that we save ourselves by what we do. We discern that if we serve God all our lives, in the end, God will reward us. We believe that our pious activities, our acts of service and our work for the Lord, will bring us salvation, or, at least a leg up in the kingdom of God over others who have not worked as hard or as long as we have. After all, we do the right thing.

So, what about those who have not figured out Christianity… those who do not have the correct or proper beliefs… or those who have not straightened out their lives? According to a worldview of human fairness, they are out of luck. They should be in church. They should work harder, faster, and better. Then, they could get their lives in order. If they would only understand fairness, we reason, then all would be well.

Parable of the Vineyard Workers from unknown artist in the Middle Ages

But there is a problem, because the parable of the workers told by Jesus seems to be saying that is not how it works, at all.  Jesus seems to be saying that grace and grace alone saves, that God’s amazingly naive and irresponsible grace is available to anyone and everybody. And that troubles the workers to no end. 

Whenever we run headlong into God’s unfair grace and see that God’s way of doing things is so far removed from our way, there is bound to be grumbling.  After all, if God is going to run a vineyard like the one in the gospel lesson and give everybody the same pay regardless of their actual work hours, then what’s the use of getting up early in the morning to work? 

What is the good of sitting in church, listening to sermons from a crazy preacher who is no better than us, if these outsiders, these Johnny-and Jane-come-lately’s can waltz in at the last minute and receive the same treatment as the rest of us?  For many church folks who diligently serve, it is not fair to pay so much attention to outsiders and build ministry around people who aren’t even here, who don’t yet know Jesus.

The conclusion and point of the parable: The last will be first, and the first will be last. In Luke’s prodigal story, the elder brother grumbles and gripes: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf!”  It is the firstborn son that complains. (Luke 15:11-32)

In both the parable of the prodigal son and the parable in today’s lesson, “good” people are the ones who fail to see the heart of the Father and of the landowner. The “firsts” got off track because, over time, they forgot the kingdom hinges on grace, not effort, on not simply doing the right things over a long period of time.

God controls the flow of mercy, not us. 

We will likely be surprised in heaven with those already sitting at God’s banquet table, and equally surprised with who is not there. Resentment can move us away from the table of mercy God is preparing. The problem comes whenever we think we are above other people.  We might be sinners, but we are not as bad as some other people are!  We commit ordinary sins, not mass murder!

Here is the unvarnished truth: God does not owe you or I a thing, and God cares about all kinds of people, not just us and people who think and live like we do. Our hearts need to be big enough to center ministry around other people who are different than us.

If our hearts are small, we easily get jealous when God pays attention to prodigals and profligates. Grace becomes too repugnant a doctrine for us.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about grace. Life is not all about being decent. It is not all about morality, and it is certainly not about our own goodness. The gospel is about being steeped in and surrounded by the grace of God in Christ, so that we, in turn, can show others grace. Grace is the way God deals with us beyond what we deserve or feel we have earned. 

Grace is unfair; we get what we do not deserve. 

May we allow God’s grace to so permeate our hearts and lives so that we will give it to others as freely as we have received.Praise be to you, almighty and everlasting Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, you have given us every spiritual blessing in heaven. In Christ, you chose us before the world was made. You chose us in love to be your holy people—people who could stand before you without any fault. And before the world was made, you decided to make us your own children through Jesus Christ. It pleased you to do it. And this brings praise from us because of your wonderful grace, given to us freely, in Christ, the one you love. We have forgiveness of sins because of this lavishly rich grace. Thank you, O my Father, for your grace extending to me in Christ! Amen