Romans 2:1-11 – Against Condemning Others

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So, when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in an election season, like the one in the United States. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness. As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop doing something, get with it, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of judgment. Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, offers helpful encouragement and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we. God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy, no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental. Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way.  No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace.  Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

Judgmentalism, favoritism, and cronyism all begin to melt away when we pick up the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance – using them to forge connections and supportive encouragement. It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion. The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.

Psalm 128 – Blessed

The Lord will bless you 
    if you respect him 
    and obey his laws. 
Your fields will produce, 
    and you will be happy 
    and all will go well. 
Your wife will be as fruitful 
    as a grapevine, 
and just as an olive tree 
    is rich with olives, 
    your home will be rich 
    with healthy children. 
That is how the Lord will bless 
    everyone who respects him. 

I pray that the Lord 
    will bless you from Zion 
    and let Jerusalem prosper 
    as long as you live. 
May you live long enough 
    to see your grandchildren. 
    Let’s pray for peace in Israel! (CEV) 

There is a consistent connection between obedience and blessing. That is, in observing God’s ways, one will typically enjoy divine favor and approval.  

Keep in mind, however, this is not a math equation. Like 2+2=4 there are folks who expect a neat linear connection between their obedience and their blessing. In math theology, when a woman is unable to have children, or a child goes astray from their heritage, the parent concludes that they themselves must have been unfaithful to God’s law or are being punished. Conversely, with children who grow to be good citizens and respectful persons, the parents might conclude it was because of their superior observance to the spiritual life. 

In both cases, parents take too much credit, either for a child’s wandering or success. As for kids going astray, even God had prodigal children, so cut ourselves some slack. As for children who maintain faithfulness, a lot of factors went into who they are. I suppose it is only natural to quickly assume we have far more control of than we really do. 

This all cuts to the heart of biblical interpretation. If all Scripture is read literally, then we will likely see the Bible as a math equation where doing and saying the right things gets a predictable result of blessing. Yet, this mistakenly views promise and proverb as the same thing, and divine work with one person or group will be precisely the same for another. The wisdom literature of Scripture, which includes the psalms, were never designed as prescriptive decree but rather as the sage approach for work, worship, and family. 

Today’s psalm communicates the path of happiness coming through love and respect for God. It neither promises lots of kids, ensures money, nor guarantees smooth sailing. Rather, when one lives each day being cognizant and observant to center everything around the divine, then blessing and happiness will tend to follow. 

Blessings and benedictions are given to sustain us in hope and confidence. The best things in life usually come through faith and family. So, when we choose to walk with God and travel down the ethical road, then life becomes full of peace and prosperity – perhaps not always in the manner we expect, yet blessing, nonetheless. 

Humanity is hard-wired for blessing, for a steady diet of encouragement, acceptance, and approval from God and others. When this is withheld from us, unhappiness, even despair begins to settle. Giving and receiving blessing is at the heart of being fully human and alive. Our work and family life will likely be miserable if blessing is absent. Yet, with blessing, we have a sustainable form of happiness and enjoyment. 

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed, guide, strengthen, and bless us through your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Following Jesus

Walking with Jesus

The disciple and evangelist Matthew, the former tax collector, purposefully arranged his Gospel of Jesus to emphasize what it means to truly follow Christ. Matthew knew a thing or two about discipleship and following Jesus, having walked away from a lucrative business because Jesus called him. However, the hardest thing for Matthew was likely not giving up the money, as it was daily facing people who knew his past and many who held it over his head – except Jesus. Only grace has the power to change our lives and make us willing to face anything, for good or for ill.

For Matthew, the first sermon of Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), was meant to move the massive crowd of people physically following Christ to spiritually, ethically, and with heartfelt devotion following Jesus as committed disciples embracing the true way of righteousness – mercy, purity, and peacemaking.

In chapters 8-10 of his Gospel, Matthew narrates amazing events of miracles and healing including: the blind receiving sight; the lame getting on their own two feet and walking; those with leprosy being cured; the deaf hearing; the dead raised to life; and, the good news of God’s benevolent reign preached to the poor. Jesus was not only inviting people to be disciples; he was developing disciples through the sheer force of mercy. This was no sign-up sheet Christianity. This was deliverance from physical and spiritual oppression to a life of walking in the gracious way of Christ, no matter what the cost.

This was beautiful and wonderful ministry. It was life-changing and earth-shattering. However, most of the crowd who followed Jesus around observing the divine interventions were unfazed. In my mind, I picture the crowd like a bunch of social media followers who troll through others stuff and offer little except criticism when they see something that they do not like or agree with.

Jesus had his own comparison. He asked the crowd: To what can I compare this generation? Christ was angling for his listeners to consider the current state of the people and the society. He answered his own question with a saying that the people were familiar with: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” (Matthew 11:17)

The saying Jesus quoted pertains to weddings and funerals. He was saying that the crowd standing right in front of him, seeing him and seeing his works up close and personal, are like people who have their backs against the wall during a celebration dance at weddings. They are also like people who show no grief and don’t cry at funerals.  In other words, they are dull. They have Jesus right in front of their faces, and they do not see him because they are expecting someone else.

Most of the people could not get over the fact that Jesus hung-out with people who were not like them and kept focusing his ministry on folks who need it the most. Jesus was giving a stinging rebuke – and they knew it. Jesus was essentially calling the unmoved crowd a bunch of bratty little kids who sit around waiting for their idea of Messiah to come along.

Bottom line: Jesus had no acceptance for them simply because they were not willing to accept him on his terms and in his way. So, Jesus then clearly communicated who is accepted with him: Those who need him. They are accepted because the Father has revealed Jesus and truth to the least and the lost. Little children were always overlooked and forgotten people in the ancient world – low on the totem pole of human hierarchy and viewed mostly as potential adults who would someday contribute to society.

Kids need to be cared for. And that is the key to why Jesus spoke of becoming like little children: kids need the care of others or they will not make it. They know it. The plan of God is to bless those who are poor in spirit, not those who think they “already know all that stuff” and have no need for a Messiah who only meets the needs of immigrants, people of color, the aged and the infirm. Those who know their need for a Savior come to Jesus asking for help and find the open arms of God. Those who only know their spiritual pedigree and how much others need them, are glad they are not like people beneath them, and ask for nothing – these are the people who will find themselves looking at God’s back.

The needy are accepted because they humble themselves and come to Jesus and exchange their yokes. Christ’s invitation goes out to all those for whom religion and church has become a grind, for whom trying to always be a good Christian is like carrying a heavy burden. We are invited to replace our heavy yoke with the yoke of Jesus.

Simon and Jesus by Nicholas Mynheer
Jesus and Simon by Nicholas Mynheer

A “yoke” was a rabbi’s set of rules based in his interpretation of the Law. The disciples of a rabbi would follow him around everywhere and continually listen to his view of how to live the Scripture in everyday life. There were rabbis whose yoke weighed people down with endless rules on every detail of life. Jesus would later say about such teachers:

“They tell you to do things, but they themselves don’t do them. They make strict rules and try to force people to obey them, but they are unwilling to help those who struggle under the weight of their rules. They do good things so that other people will see them.” (Matthew 23:3-5)

Jesus, contrary to other rabbis, taught the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount as his yoke, which was a form of living from the heart, and not just to put on a good show for others.

Jesus said “learn from me” because he is gentle and humble in heart. Jesus is not going to turn us away when we sincerely and humbly come to him; in fact, he invites us to come so we might bask in God’s acceptance:

“Come to me, all of you who are tired and have heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Accept my teachings and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit, and you will find rest for your lives. The burden that I ask you to accept is easy; the load I give you to carry is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NCV)

If faith has become all too familiar, if you have lost your sense of awe and wonder about God, if you desire something more than just keeping up with the Christian Jones’s and fulfilling a checklist of Christian duty, then there is an invitation for you to come to Jesus – offered by Christ himself. We get to walk with Jesus.

3374b-thetable

For Christians everywhere throughout the world for two millennia the Table is the place to come in remembrance, communion, and hope. We remember the once for all sacrifice of Christ which unburdened us of our heavy load of sin. We commune with this same Christ now in the present. We anticipate our future hope with confident expectation that Christ is coming again. The Table is an invitation for us to eat and drink of Christ. The words of Keith and Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townsend’s “Communion Hymn” capture Christ’s acceptance of us and our need to receive such grace:

Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away,
Slain for us – and we remember
The promise made that all who come in faith
Find forgiveness at the cross.
So we share in this bread of life,
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of peace
Around the table of the King.

The body of our Savior Jesus Christ,
Torn for you – eat and remember
The wounds that heal, the death that brings us life
Paid the price to make us one.
So we share in this bread of life,
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of love
Around the table of the King.

The blood that cleanses every stain of sin,
Shed for you – drink and remember
He drained death’s cup that all may enter in
To receive the life of God.
So we share in this bread of life,
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of grace
Around the table of the King.

And so with thankfulness and faith we rise
To respond, – and to remember
Our call to follow in the steps of Christ
As His body here on earth.
As we share in His suffering
We proclaim Christ will come again!
And we’ll join in the feast of heaven
Around the table of the King.

Amen.

Accepting the True Self

walking with a cane

I live with chronic low back issues.  Twelve years ago I was in a car accident, and my back has never quite been the same.  On most days I can function well enough to do most of the things I need to do.  The pain is typically minimal.  But there are days when the pain spikes and my mobility is so limited that I can barely walk across the room.  After my initial injury, the stubborn German heritage thing kicked-in to my inner dialogue and I refused to admit how debilitated I really was.  One day, in a determination to go shopping at Target with my wife, I opted for not using a cane to walk because, dad gum it, “I’m not an invalid.”  But I could barely walk from the car into the store.  Walking very slowly, some obnoxious dude in his car became impatient with my parking lot slowness and honked, yelled at me to hurry the f**k up, and angrily flipped the bird at me when he was able to finally get moving.

In such situations it is more than tempting to just focus on the jerks around us and, so, never take a look at ourselves.  Although Mr. Jerk was a first-class detriment to me and his behavior cannot be excused, he obviously did not know that I was only moving as fast as I could, which was a snail’s pace.  He did not know my situation, and maybe he wouldn’t have cared.  Yet, here is my takeaway from the experience, because I can’t change Mr. Jerk; I can only change myself:  I was not accepting my real condition and was not being true to who I was.  I was posturing and pretending to be okay when I was not.  And, it turns out, once I embraced my limitations and started using a cane in public, people were quite sympathetic and the parking lot jerks disappeared.  In fact, I noticed parents instructing their kids to be careful around me, cars began patiently waiting, and I even had lots of interesting conversations with other hurting people – all because I stopped putting up a false image of myself.

Most people are just trying to do the best they can under the circumstances they find themselves in.  They want to carry their own weight without being dependent on others.  They desire to contribute, and not to leech off others.  Yes, there are real jerks out there; we all know a few.  But we’re all in this human condition together, and must learn to negotiate our relations with each other based on truth, not falsehood.  I was doing no one any favors, especially my own self, by putting up a faux exterior on how I was really doing.  I drove my poor wife nuts.  She shares neither my gender nor my barbarian ancestry and had no sympathy for my denial of disability.  I wasn’t winning any Academy Awards for my portrayal of a got-it-all-under-control-don’t-need-anybody’s-help Mr. Macho Healthy Guy.  By the way, just so you know, Chuck Norris has never won an Academy Award, because the dude wasn’t acting.  No false front, man.  I don’t think anybody else could be Walker, Texas Ranger.  Stare down.  Roundhouse kick.  Badass.  It’s not really a character.  It’s Chuck Norris just being Chuck Norris.  If I tried to be Chuck Norris I would probably look like my sister’s pathetic attempts at being Billy Jack when we were kids.  Not gonna work.

Chuck Norris

We have a word for people who try to act one way but are really another:  hypocrite.  This is exactly why the Pharisees in the New Testament Gospels were vilified by Jesus.  They put up a plastic image of themselves.  They did not take a good hard look at their insides.  They kept up appearances, kind of like when families pull into the church parking lot fighting like cats and dogs, but enter the church building all smiles and looking fine.  That kind of stuff is soul-draining and keeps us at arms-length from people who could accept us for who we really are, warts and all.  Maybe I have a thing about parking lots, or maybe parking lots just end up being dens of iniquity for all the pretenders of the world.  Anyway, whatever the case, I think you get my drift.  Mr. Jerk isn’t always the insensitive guy freely exposing his middle finger.  Whenever we deny our authentic and real selves and try to hide from others through air-brushing our weaknesses and sins, we become what we most hate in other people.

So, keep it real, man.  Use the cane, for God’s sake.  Let’s stop trying to be someone we are not, and discover the person God created us to be.  The best people to be around are the people who are the most comfortable in their own skin, kind of like Chuck Norris.  Give that false self a roundhouse kick.