James 3:17-18 – Be Wise

The wisdom that comes from heaven is, first, pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (New International Version)

All New Testament epistles are letters written by Apostles to problems and situations within certain churches. When James sat down to pen a letter to the Jewish Christian churches in Gentile dominated countries, it was to address the state of their fellowship, their Christian lives, and an unhealthy church dynamic.

The believers faced lots of adversity as Christians. Sometimes, they responded well, and sometimes, they did not. They wavered between faith in Jesus and relying on other things to deal with their problems. James labeled this kind of inconsistent approach as double-minded or duplicitous. (James 1:5-8).

The church vacillated between knowing God loves them and wondering where God was in all their trouble. They investigated Holy Scripture, but then did not do what it says. (James 1:22-25) The church claimed faith in Christ, then schemed about ways to cozy-up to the wealthy so they could have a healthy budget. (James 2:1-4)

People professed faith, then sat on the fence, straddling the sacred and secular, doing nothing. The church was between two worlds of heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom. James sought to knock them off the fence, to quit being in two worlds with one foot in each. He wanted them on a path of authentic faith and true wisdom which would support them in a difficult world. 

James provides a way to navigate this troublesome world. He highlights seven characteristics of godly wisdom needed to face adversity and live well….

Pure

Purity is holiness. It’s morality and ethics. The pure person has a singular devotion to Jesus Christ – they pursue God’s will and seek to follow God’s way in everything, without exception. Purity means there are no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, no secret self-serving desires. 

Those who are pure have experienced spiritual cleansing. The pure know this is a foolish messed-up world; living in it means facing envy and selfish ambition. So, they jump the fence into God’s big meadow of grace. They joyously roll in the green grass of forgiveness. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, Jesus said, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8, NIV)

Peace-loving

Someone once asked a gentleman married for fifty years the secret to his marital bliss. He said, “The wife and I had this agreement when we first got married: When she was bothered about something, she would just tell me and get it off her chest. And if I was mad at her about something, I was able to take a long walk. I suppose you could attribute our happy marriage to the fact that I have largely led an outdoor life.”

That’s typically how we think about peace – the absence of conflict. But biblical peace is more than not fighting. Peace is harmony, working well together, and enjoying our relationships. Wise and godly people not only possess peace; they promote peace in all they do and say. Peace-lovers long for a real peace, which is more than keeping people from one another’s throats.

Just because there is no appearance of strife, doesn’t mean there is peace. Avoiding conflict is unhelpful. Jesus said:

“Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9, NIV) 

To enjoy the green pastures on God’s side of the fence means there are fences which have been mended….

“It is better to correct someone openly than to have love and not show it.” (Proverbs 27:5, NCV)

“Avoid saying anything hurtful,
    and never let a lie come out of your mouth.
Stop doing anything evil, and do good.
    Look for peace, and do all you can to help people live peacefully.” (Psalm 34:13-14, ERV)

“Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near.” (Ephesians 2:14-17, NLT)

Considerate

Consideration of others means to be flexible, open to reason, level-headed in anxious situations, gentle, non-combative, non-retaliatory, and generally understanding of another’s point of view. The considerate person puts themselves in another person’s shoes. It’s the opposite of being judgmental and going-off with partial information and quick interpretations. 

To be considerate is to make allowances for the weaknesses and shortcomings of others. It takes the kindest possible perspective. The considerate person avoids jumping to conclusions. I wonder, do you know how another person thinks to the degree you could state their opinions or positions accurately in a way they would say, “Yes that is exactly what I think!” 

The opposite of being considerate is to have a critical spirit. Constant criticism is a clue that godly wisdom will not be coming from the other side of the fence.

Submissive

Submission is a good thing. It’s a choice. If a person is coerced into submission, that’s slavery, not submission.  To submit is to place oneself under someone else’s authority. The submissive person listens and obeys authority. Submissive people are teachable – not concerned with gaining authority so they can call the shots. They humbly receive correction and do what is right. 

“Submit to each other out of respect for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21, CEB)

Full of Mercy and Good Fruit

Mercy is compassion in action. It empathizes with the needs of other, then, does something about it. Goodness results from mercy. Withholding mercy is a tactic of worldly wisdom, not godly wisdom. To believe we are letting someone off the hook or encouraging their bad behavior by showing mercy is completely foreign to Holy Scripture. Jesus said:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7, NIV)

Merciful people scan the horizon to see whom they can show mercy. King David did this with Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth. While worldly kings on the other side of the fence were killing their rivals, David did the opposite by being merciful. He gave Mephibosheth a permanent seat at his dinner table (2 Samuel 9). David used his position and power to extend mercy. That’s why David was a man after God’s own heart. 

Impartial

To be impartial is to have no favoritism, to be the same person toward everyone. The impartial person is steady, consistent, and not swayed by the crowd. They don’t act one way with a certain group of people and different with another group. The person who sticks their finger to the wind to see which way it is blowing is unwise.

An impartial person is predictable – you never have to wonder if they are going to blow up at you, or not. Genuine wisdom is equitable in meeting needs. Impartiality doesn’t ask all kinds of qualifying questions to discern whether someone should get their needs met.

Withholding needs from others is unjust. God is just and impartial and expects people to reflect this basic approach to others. 

“The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, powerful, and awe-inspiring God. He never plays favorites and never takes a bribe.” (Deuteronomy 10:17, GW) 

“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Leviticus 19:15, NIV) 

“Judge people fairly and honestly. Don’t twist the law. Don’t play favorites. Don’t take a bribe—a bribe blinds even a wise person; it undermines the intentions of the best of people.” (Deuteronomy 16:19, MSG)

Sincere

Sincerity means to be without hypocrisy. The sincere person is the same both inside and out; what you see is what you get. They are real, vulnerable, and willing to say what is needed – not what they think others want to hear. 

There are no ulterior motives and no skeletons in the closet with the sincere person. That’s because everything they say and do is above board. 

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22, NIV)

Sincerity creates true biblical fellowship, openness, and honesty in the church.

Conclusion

People dwelling with godly wisdom produce a harvest of righteousness. The sure signs of true wisdom are good deeds done from a devoted heart to God. The source is humility. Conversely, the telltale signs of false wisdom are envy and selfishness. They result in disorder and evil practices.

We must go hard after these seven characteristics of being pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. If we desire unity, harmony, and righteousness, then it’s imperative we pursue godly wisdom.

Be wise, my friends, without being wise guys.

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.

James 2:8-13 – On Mercy and Against Favoritism

“Benevolent Mercy” by Iowa artist William Butler

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (NIV)

One of my bedrock foundational unshakable beliefs is that God’s big world spins on the axis of grace. Without grace we would all be living in some nightmarish dystopian novel just trying to survive. Grace is the force which overwhelms and overcomes everything. 

When I was growing up, we had a dog named Sam. Sam loved being on the farm. More than once he tussled with a skunk. In those times, I could barely get close enough to clean him up because he stunk so badly.  Favoritism stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. God is going to clean us up when smelling the stench of discrimination on us.

Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence the dog is running away from the bath of grace. To develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice. Favoring the rich over the poor stinks because God cares about those trapped in poverty. When Jesus began his ministry, he lifted-up the importance of poor folk by placing himself in the position of extending grace to them:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18, NIV)

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor” because poverty was a pervasive reality (and still is!). The various reasons for poverty range from being born into poverty, being lazy, or being oppressed and/or in slavery. The types of poor persons run the gamut from simple beggars to the pious and humble poor.  These spiritual poor persons were called in biblical times the anawim” (Hebrew עֲנָוִ֣ים). The anawim are humble and gentle folk caught in grinding poverty with no other option but to put their trust in God.

The mistreatment, exploitation, and inattention to the needs of the poor are a chief reason why Holy Scripture is filled with references about how to treat them. The anawim are dear and near to the heart of God:

“Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, CEB)

“If you hire poor people to work for you, don’t hold back their pay whether they are Israelites or foreigners who live in your town. Pay them their wages at the end of each day because they live in poverty and need the money to survive. If you do not pay them on time, they will complain about you to the Lord, and he will punish you.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, CEV)

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.

Now the Lord has sworn this oath
    by his own name, the Pride of Israel:
“I will never forget
    the wicked things you have done!” (Amos 8:4-7, NLT)

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Unknown Dutch artist, 1580.

Nothing gets God’s hackles up more than unjust and unfair favoritism which is devoid of mercy and grace toward the poor. It all stinks to high heaven, and when God smells it, divine egalitarian power is not far behind.

It is the poor in spirit with no trust in stuff and ingenuity who will enter the kingdom of heaven. The humble person gives grace to another even though the person cannot offer something in return. It is easy to be merciful to people who have a deal with you about scratching each other’s backs. However, it is altogether a different thing to be gracious simply because it is the right thing to do and pleases the heart of God. 

God cares about the condition of our souls and not the balance of our bank accounts. Inattention to the poor and needy only betrays a heart of unjust favoritism – a materialistic heart full of greed. A 2012 Boston Globe article asked the following question: Does money change you?

The Globe article stated, “most people are convinced that gaining a lot of money … wouldn’t change who they are as people. Yet, a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you would behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you are probably wrong: These are not just inherited traits but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.”

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found in their research that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to view some groups of people as inferior to others.  Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds. Their research concluded, “If you win the lottery and you want to avoid becoming an insensitive jerk, there is a simple solution: Give at least half the money away.” 

Some poor people, as in the days of the Apostle James, are willing to put up with being treated unfairly so they might get a piece of the rich person’s pie. Favoritism ignores the sin in others to gain something from them. God says that is stinking thinking.

Favoritism is flat out a violation of God’s law. The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God and love neighbor. Favoritism violates our neighbor, and therefore, is sinful disobedience of God. Any needy human we encounter is our neighbor – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, or anything that identifies them as different. They are to be helped when we can do so.

We are to speak and act with mercy because we will eventually have to face the Judge. God is always watching us – every word and every action. Judge Jesus will respond to how we have treated each person we encountered and how we talked about other people when they were not around. We will all appear before Christ at the end of the age and must give an account of ourselves. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Words are important, so they ought to be full of grace, seasoned with salt. Showing mercy instead of favoritism is the way love expresses itself.  Mercy is best given when we have first received it ourselves from God. A heart touched by the grace of the Lord Jesus is one which will stand in the judgment.

We rid ourselves of favoritism’s stench through the cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.  There is grace available if we will receive it. God is the expert in transforming lives, renewing minds, and putting to death the pride of favoritism. The work is done with needed grace and compassionate mercy.

So, we are to make it our goal to be a grace-givers, to have willing hearts which seek to emulate the mercy of Christ. The bath of mercy and grace takes away the stank of prideful favoritism and leaves us with the sweet aroma of love, justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

May it be so to the glory of God.

Romans 11:13-29 – Pruning and Grafting

olive tree

I [Apostle Paul] am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, if you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:

“The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. (NIV)

The letter to the Romans reminds me of two siblings going at it, always at odds with each other. Gentile and Jew both together in one church and constantly arguing, bickering, and never stopping to listen to the other. The Apostle Paul, their spiritual parent, had enough of it. So, he wrote a lengthy tome, often alternating between speaking directly to Brother Gentile and then to Brother Jew.

Wisely, Paul never took sides and avoided favoritism even though he himself was Jewish. In today’s New Testament lesson, Paul speaks forthrightly to the Gentiles in the church. He gets to the issue of Brother Gentile’s attitude and view toward Brother Jew. Father Paul’s instruction to Brother Gentile is also instructive for us, as we navigate a pluralistic world and diverse church.

Brother Gentile tended to look down on Brother Jew as stuck in the past, too concerned for tradition, and unwilling to change. Brother Gentile thought it was high time Brother Jew understood that all that Jewish stuff is no longer needed and that the Gentiles were the future of the church. For Brother Gentile, God has accepted him, and Brother Jew has been rejected. But Father Paul would have none of that kind of talk; he was not going to allow Brother Gentile to eviscerate Brother Jew of his identity.

Notice Father Paul’s reasoning to his son, Brother Gentile, utilizing the lesser to the greater argument:

  • Brother Jew’s stumbling and bumbling has already caused Brother Gentile to come to faith in Christ.
  • Brother Gentile’s deliverance and acceptance will cause Brother Jew’s jealousy to kick in.
  • Brother Jew’s response will bring even greater spiritual blessing to the world.

Paul insisted that Brother Jew still has a prominent place in the family, and that a time is coming when the entire human family will have their socks blessed off because of him. Just as an olive tree can and does experience pruning and grafting of branches, so Brother Gentile needs to understand he was not originally part of the tree but was grafted in later. There is no place for arrogant pride. Grafted branches can and do get broken off and pruned; and, pruned branches can and do get grafted back on the tree, too.

brothers

So, Father Paul wanted his sons to understand and appreciate one another as the one tree in God’s family. There is room for neither Brother Gentile’s complacency nor Brother Jew’s despair. Both brothers share together in one equitable tree of life, enjoying the blessings of renewal and restoration.

It is imperative we take these lessons to heart in our interactions with folks who are different from ourselves. There is no room in God’s rule and reign for simpletons who fail to see beyond the end of their noses. Instead, we are to appreciate our brother who looks, thinks, and lives differently. It seems the only things God does not tolerate is intolerance and injustice toward those distinctly offbeat from our own path. Just because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, this does not give any follower of Christ a license to misinterpret, misrepresent, and mistreat another group of people who subscribe to various jots and tittles other than me.

Neither you nor I are the Gardener. We do not get to do the pruning and grafting. That is God’s job, not ours. Love is our business, while the Lord will show both his kindness and sternness when and to whom he will. Simply assuming we are always on the right side of things only produces a lack of listening, a lack of like-mindedness, and a lack of love. It creates a worldly system of demagoguery, inattention to suffering, and narrow policies, procedures, and laws which benefit only one brother, not all the siblings.

As Father Paul said earlier in his letter, “God doesn’t have any favorites!” (Romans 2:11, CEV)

As Father James said in his letter, “Don’t treat some people better than others.” (James 2:1, ERV)

As Father Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35, CEB)

As the witness of the Old Testament says, “Cut away the thick calluses from your heart and stop being so willfully hardheaded. God, your God, is the God of all gods, he is the Master of all masters, a God immense and powerful and awesome. He doesn’t play favorites, takes no bribes, makes sure orphans and widows are treated fairly, takes loving care of foreigners by seeing that they get food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18, MSG)

For our failure to realize that the whole world is a family, that Christ is all and in all: O Lord, forgive.

For our prejudice and self-consciousness of race, color, or language: O Lord, forgive.

For our indifference and lack of concern for our neighbors living in poverty and unemployment and for children who are ill-clothed, illiterate, and ill: O Lord, forgive.

For our unwillingness to understand the needs and problems of other people, the bitterness of those without power, and the groans of the oppressed: O Lord, forgive.

For our readiness to acquiesce in the ways of the majority, to seek the path of least resistance, and to prefer popularity to fairness: O Lord, forgive. Christ have mercy on us all. Amen.