Proverbs 30:1-10 – Live Wisely and without Envy

These are the solemn words of Agur son of Jakeh:

    “God is not with me, God is not with me,
    and I am helpless.
I am more like an animal than a human being;
    I do not have the sense we humans should have.
I have never learned any wisdom,
    and I know nothing at all about God.
Have any ever mastered heavenly knowledge?
    Have any ever caught the wind in their hands?
    Or wrapped up water in a piece of cloth?
    Or fixed the boundaries of the earth?
Who are they, if you know? Who are their children?

“God keeps every promise he makes. He is like a shield for all who seek his protection. If you claim that he said something that he never said, he will reprimand you and show that you are a liar.”

I ask you, God, to let me have two things before I die: keep me from lying and let me be neither rich nor poor. So, give me only as much food as I need. If I have more, I might say that I do not need you. But if I am poor, I might steal and bring disgrace on my God.

Never criticize servants to their master. You will be cursed and suffer for it. (Good News Translation)

These are the raw expressions of a man who has awareness of his own envious nature. He realizes his profound lack of wisdom. The man, Agur, discerns how helpless and pathetic he really is, apart from wise living.

The wise person knows that a heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. Possessing too much or too little tends to awaken the eye of envy within us. Agur wants to avoid thinking that people, even God, owes him. He is concerned he might slip into the disposition of what the Lord and others can do for him, rather than vice versa.

“The secret of success is that it is not the absence of failure, but the absence of envy.”

Herodotus

Today, envy manifests itself in moving-on to another church, or friendship, or marriage, or job when perceived needs and wants are not met. Certainly, ties need to be severed in the case of abusive treatment. Yet, when we simply do not like something, and aspire to more and more hoarding of emotional and spiritual resources, there is little to no awareness of the shadowy places in our hearts.

Perhaps, through the difficulty, the Lord was attempting to reveal something important to us or working to bring about positive transformation. However, we bailed from the situation too quickly, not wanting to deal with the pain or inconvenience of it all. And, all the while, our real motivations remain hidden and unaddressed.

It is necessary to see envy for what it is – not just a common predilection everyone has – but a malady of believing I deserve things no one is giving me. It’s the age old endemic problem, much like Adam and Eve’s original sin, of grabbing a forbidden fruit in the belief G-d is not providing everything I need. And we then cannot, or will not, see all the vast resources and blessings already possessed.

Gratitude is a spiritual practice, when engrafted into a daily spiritual walk, provides a strong antidote to keeping envy at bay. Instead of wondering why G-d is not blessing my life and work in ways I think it should happen, perhaps we ought to identify and count the blessings we already possess and enjoy. 

Some of the greatest joys around us are the simple pleasures of everyday life – holding and sipping a hot cup of coffee; a quick kiss good-bye to my spouse on the way out the door; the opportunity to curl up with a good book on a rainy day; these and many more are blessings given to us by a heavenly Father who cares for us deeply.

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”

Aesop

It might be a good thing to spend some intentional time saying and/or writing out many of the blessings currently existing in your life. 

For example, rather than wishing a loved one would not have to endure disease or surgery and envying healthy people, rejoice that he/she is with you, that you enjoy one another’s love and companionship, whether it is in times of health or in seasons of illness.

And instead of envying the rich or worrying about becoming poor, give thanks for this current place in your life. Simple thanksgiving to G-d for every meal, each possession obtained, and even all things lost forever, fortifies the spirit for resilience over the long haul of life.

Much of our life on this earth comes down to mystery. We simply do not know, and are not privy, to the myriad ways G-d is working in the world. We may never know why we must face and deal with our particular and personal pains, disappointments, and sorrows.

So, when we pray, much like Agur, it might be wise to ask for continual help with never-ending problems, rather than constantly praying for deliverance from unwanted situations. It is best we pray as Jesus taught us saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11)

“I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”

The Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:11-13, MSG)

Wise persons know the frailty of their own hearts. Prayer, for them, is an organic practice arising from vulnerable and forthright discussions with G-d about doubt and disbelief. Indeed, people come to know the Lord not through speculating or imposing their own personality on G-d but by daily calling upon the Divine Being for practical help at the neediest points of life.

Blessed Lord, take me to the place where I am saved from my pride and arrogance and humility takes center stage, where I’m lifting up clean hands and a pure heart to you. Take me to the place where I’m no longer looking at the mountains I face but looking down upon them, where I can clearly see, and my decisions are flooded with your light, truth and justice. I bend my knee and receive your truth. I open my ears to receive your counsel. I open my heart to receive your eternal wisdom. Amen.

Psalm 73:21-28 – God Is Near

When my thoughts were bitter
    and my feelings were hurt,
I was as stupid as an animal;
    I did not understand you.
Yet I always stay close to you,
    and you hold me by the hand.
You guide me with your instruction
    and at the end you will receive me with honor.
What else do I have in heaven but you?
    Since I have you, what else could I want on earth?
My mind and my body may grow weak,
    but God is my strength;
    he is all I ever need.

Those who abandon you will certainly perish;
    you will destroy those who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, how wonderful to be near God,
    to find protection with the Sovereign Lord
    and to proclaim all that he has done! (Good News Translation)

Sometimes we put our foot in our mouth. We know how it feels saying rash words that we later regret. And we also know what it feels like to get dumped on by another who has some choice words for us.

The psalmist, Asaph, records an encounter with God. Asaph was upset. He gave God a piece of his mind. Then later, after reflecting on the experience, Asaph admitted that his soul was embittered and let his base nature take over.

The human brain is a complicated organ. We process information in different parts of the brain. The neo-cortex (the rational part of the brain) allows us to engage in logical analysis and complex decision making. 

Another part, the limbic system (sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain”) processes information very quickly, largely by instinct. When we become scared, surprised, upset, or angry, adrenaline gets pumped into our limbic system so that we can quickly react to the perceived threat, danger, or injustice.

Having our brains flooded with adrenaline when there is real danger is necessary. There are life-threatening circumstances in which we need that quick response. Yet, if our brains remain on high alert and are continually fearful and upset, even when there is no real problem, we don’t calm down, and the result is less than stellar behavior. 

So, what is the answer to this situation? Asaph said God holds his right hand and guides him with wise counsel. Being near to God brings the brain chemistry to appropriate levels so that we can relax and trust.

God is with us always in the person of the Holy Spirit. There is never a time, place, or situation where God is absent. As we learn to rely on God’s presence, and remind ourselves of it on a daily basis, we can restore more rational thoughts to our lives. We can live knowing God is in control and continually vigilant to watch over us.

Gracious God, I have no one in my life like you. My flesh and my heart may fail, my brain might become overwhelmed with irrational fears, but you are my strength and the Rock of my salvation. Thank you for your continual provision and help each day through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.

Luke 11:5-13 – Pray

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So, I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (New International Version)

Jesus, in his teaching ministry on earth, often used the lesser-to-greater argument in getting his point across. And that is precisely what he was doing with his disciples in today’s Gospel lesson, instructing them about the nature and motivation of prayer.

The lesser-to-greater argument implies a comparison of values. It’s grounded on a common sense and logical convention that if this lesser thing is true, then, of course, how much more is this greater thing! If something less likely to happen is true, then something more likely to happen will probably be true as well. The technical phrase for this is the a fortiori argument. It is a Latin term meaning, “for a still stronger reason.”

So, then, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that prayer has value because God is a loving Father, not a begrudging friend. Whereas the friend in the story was badgered just so the person could get some real necessities, God needs no badgering to generously give good gifts that may or may not be considered as necessities by us.

Jesus desired to highlight that prayer has veracity because of whom those prayers are directed.

”Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.” 

Max Lucado

In the ancient world, it was common understanding you needed to get the local gods attention if you wanted something. Which is why, for example, in the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, that Baal’s worshipers were yelling, gesticulating, and even cutting themselves for hours. They fully expected to put a lot of work into getting Baal’s attention, maybe even needing to convince him of intervening in their ancient version of a wild West shootout.

In contrast to four-hundred prophets of Baal, a single prophet of the Lord utters one simple prayer, then fire comes rushing down from heaven. Much like the person who badgered the friend for bread, the prophets pestered Baal for hours.

It all comes down to who really cares. The friend? Not enough to jump out of bed right away and meet a need. Baal? Not so much. God? Now we’re talking.

We typically don’t ask, seek, or knock, if we believe we will not get a response – or if it will take a lot of energy, time, and effort we don’t have. Yet, if we are confident of being heard and our requests taken seriously with care, then we are likely to have a habit of asking, seeking, and knocking.

If a friend begrudgingly gives to you because of persistent knocking, how much more will God graciously, generously, and with gaiety give you goodness when you ask? Because God is good, God gives. The largess of the Lord is willing and ready to dispense grace from an infinite storehouse of mercy.

This is why Jesus encouraged people to not pray like those who don’t know God, babbling on because they think they’ll be heard because of the sheer volume of words. (Matthew 6:7-8)

Two misconceptions of prayer which existed in Christ’s day, and even today, come from non-Christian sources:

  1. There must be a lot of prayer before prayer “works.” Although I believe repetition is important for forming good habits, praying the same prayers over and over again so as to be heard betrays an ignorance of God, not to mention an actual lack of faith. Many ancient religions were based in learning how to manipulate the spiritual forces out there to get what we need. It’s kind of like a divine version of hustling for love in all the wrong places. Christians need to know they don’t need to have thousands of people praying in order to get God’s attention to answer prayer.
  2. I must convince God of the need to answer my prayer. God is not a reluctant listener. The reason the Lord already knows what we need before we ask is because God has been paying close attention to us well before we got around to asking, seeking, and knocking on the divine door. God’s ear is already inclined to hear us – expectantly and anxiously awaiting our petitions. This is a tremendously freeing idea, that I can come to God openly and honestly, without drudgery, and without wondering if I am heard, or not.

May we be encouraged to pray, to truly connect with God, because the Lord is available without appointment, and is waiting for us to ask with bended ear.

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed: Guide and strengthen us by your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today and every day in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mark 8:14-21 – Adventures in Missing the Point

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

They answered, “Seven.”

He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” (New International Version)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses yeast as a metaphor for corrupting influences. It only takes a little bit of yeast to work through the whole batch of dough. Christ, upholding the teachings of Old Testament law, didn’t just want people to avoid eating actual unleavened bread. He desired his disciples to be unleavened themselves, a holy people, free of all crookedness and malevolent motives.

Christ’s disciples, bless their pea-pickin’ literal interpreting hearts, were too dense to pick up on the metaphor. They began anxiously chattering about how Jesus might be disappointed with them in having no actual bread to eat. Although they had just witnessed an amazing miracle of literally feeding thousands of people, the disciples did not discern what that miracle meant beyond just filling bodily stomachs.

Had Christ’s disciples been able to see beyond the literal to the metaphorical, they would have likely understood several lessons Rabbi Jesus was teaching them:

  • The provision of bread pointed to who Jesus truly is: Living Bread from heaven. Just like the miraculous provision of manna in the desert to the ancient Israelites, so God was graciously meeting the total needs of people through Jesus. Conversely, the yeast of corruption saps the life out of people.
  • The presence of bread doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all good. There’s leavened bread and unleavened bread. That is, there is the healthy bread of God’s Word to eat, and there are other words to eat which is unhealthy bread. A life set apart for goodness and mercy in the world brings life to others. A person with mixed motives and personal agendas of power and privilege brings no nourishment to others – only inedible bread.
  • The puny amount of bread became a huge feast. A little bit of Jesus is enough to feed thousands and satisfy empty stomachs. A little bit of false teaching and hypocrisy is enough to corrupt thousands of people and make them sick.
  • The prosperity of bread multiplied by Jesus was so much that there were leftovers. In the kingdom of God, there is abundance. The disciples served the bread to the throng of people, and they received bread for themselves with twelve basketfuls of bread pieces – enough bread to feed their families, as well. The leavened bread of corruption doesn’t satisfy; it only decreases health.

But the disciples didn’t get it. So, Jesus chided them for their profound lack of spiritual awareness. By this time, the disciples had been following Jesus for a while – watching him do miraculous works of healing and meeting people’s needs, as well as being on the inside track of receiving his gracious teaching. If anyone ought to get what’s going on, it was them.

If we continually possess only a one-dimensional interpretation of Holy Scripture, a literal one, we are most certainly going to miss most of what’s really happening with Jesus. Rigid and narrow hermeneutical approaches aren’t just inadequate; they’re a corrupting influence. It is an adventure in missing the point because there is only a dim awareness of self, others, God, and God’s Word. It doesn’t nourish anybody. In fact, it makes people sick.

That sad situation makes such people, along with disciples at the time, no better than those on the outside of God’s kingdom.

“You will listen and listen,
    but never understand.
You will look and look,
    but never see.” (Isaiah 6:9, CEV)

Spiritual blindness and deafness are the symptoms of an unexamined and unaware life. And the lack of awareness is a malady from the bread of corruption.

Jesus Christ has a mission, along with the authority to make it happen. He was hoping for a more adequate understanding of this from his disciples, instead of getting the obtuse deer-in-the-headlights response.

Although, in some ways, today’s Gospel story is downer, it is also hopeful. The disciples ultimately do not remain stuck. They illustrate for us the nature of faith. Faith is not a one and done event of praying a sinner’s prayer or accepting Jesus. Rather, faith is an unfolding drama of redemption.

We grow in and into faith. Faith is much more a gradual awareness of God’s character and working in the world, with maybe a few dramatic epiphanies along the way. It is piecemeal, rather than wholesale. It’s more like taking small bites of delicious bread and savoring it with friends, instead of ravenously devouring an entire loaf alone.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51, NKJV)

Lord Jesus, as you came to serve us living bread, fill us with the compassion and insight to respond to human need by loving service. Let the fire of your goodness and justice burn into us and through us, that we may seek to transform the unjust structures of society. As you come into our lives to redeem all that is good, guide to renew and sustain the life of your creation. Let your glory fill our lives. Let your glory fill this world. Amen.