Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Poverty of Jesus

From the book Poverty of Spirit by Johannes Baptist Metz

To become human as Christ did is to practice poverty of spirit, to obediently accept our innate poverty as human beings.  This acceptance can take place in many of life's circumstances where the very possibility of being human is challenged and open to question.  The inevitable summons to surrender to the truth of our Being suggests itself in many ways.  Here we want to highlight the most important forms that our poverty takes, to show how our daily experiences point us toward the desert wastes of poverty.

Poverty of the commonplace
There is the poverty of the average person's life, whose life goes unnoticed by the world.  It is the poverty of the commonplace.  There is nothing heroic about it; it is the poverty of the common lot, devoid of ecstasy.

Jesus was poor in this way.  He was no model figure for humanists, no great artist or statesman, no diffident genius.  He was a frighteningly simple man, whose only talent was to do good. His one great passion in his life was his "Abba."  Yet it was precisely in this way that he deomonstraed "the wonder of empty hands" (Bernanos), the great potential of the person on the street, whose radical dependence on God is not different from anyone else's.  Such a person has no talent but that of one's own heart, no contribution to make except self-abandonment, no consolation save God alone.

Poverty of neediness
Related to this poverty is the poverty of misery and neediness.  Jesus was no stranger to this poverty either.  He was a beggar, knocking on people's doors.  He knew hunger, exile and the loneliness of the outcast (so much that he will judge us on these things).  He had no place to lay his head, not even in death-- except a gibbet on which to stretch his body.

Christ did not "identify" with misery or "choose" it; it was his lot.  That is the only way we really taste misery, for it has its own inscrutable laws.  His life tells us that such neediness can become a blessed sacrament of "poverty of spirit."  With nothing of one's own to provide security, the wretched person has only hope-- the virtue so quickly misunderstood by the secure and the rich. The latter confuse it with shallow optimism and a childish trust in life, whereas hope emerges in the shattering experience of living "despite all hope".  We really hope when we no longer have anything of our own.  Any possession or personal strength tempts us to a vain self-reliance, just as material wealth easily becomes a temptation to "spiritual opulence." 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Consider Him Who Endured...

The images are engravings by Georges Rouault, from his series called Miserere.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Did Jesus Declare that He was the Messiah?

"Blessed are the cheesemakers?"
Scholars have debated whether Jesus actually declared himself as Messiah or not.  The words of Jesus are difficult, or vague or declared by scholars to be inadequate proof.

And why shouldn't they be questioning this fact?  John reports that the crowds who listened to Jesus were confused as to what he was saying.  There were debates both about what he was saying and about his qualifications to be the Messiah.

Jesus talked much about "the Son of Man", but that title could mean many things and it wasn't completely clear that he was speaking about himself.

Peter called Jesus "the Messiah", which Jesus didn't directly affirm in the book of Mark, and told the disciples not to speak about this.

Demons openly proclaimed him "the son of God" a messianic title, but Jesus told them to shut up.

Jesus accepted titles that declared his Lordship, like "Son of David" or "the Son of God" but he never affirmed them.  Was he just being polite?

All of this is quite confusing, really.  And many other indications, from a critical standpoint aren't absolute, such as later declarations by disciples or claims of fulfilled prophecies which could be interpreted many ways.

I think that the problem is that such scholars limit their scope to what Jesus said and aren't looking at what he did.  Jesus purposefully made his speech confusing, so that it might only be understood in combination with his actions.  What did his actions say?  There are four items that, from a scholarly standpoint, seem affirmed about Jesus' life.

1. Jesus healed
John the Baptist asked Jesus through messengers whether he was the "one" they waited for or not.  Jesus only demonstrated who he was, he didn't speak it.  "They blind can see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the poor have the gospel preached to them."  These are actions that should happen at the center of God's kingdom, the temple.  Instead, Jesus himself was acting like a mobile temple, leaving healing and salvation in his wake.  This is again vague, but to heal is to claim to have the center of God's power on earth, to be the center of God's kingdom.

2. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt
This action wasn't just some strange ritual but was a clear declaration of Jesus' intentions that the leaders and people of Jerusalem clearly understood.  They knew that to enter Jerusalem on a colt with a number of disciples declaring his victory was a clear reference to Zechariah 9-- "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey."  This does not mean that the inhabitants of Jerusalem believed in Jesus because of this fulfillment.  Rather, they would see this Galilean woodworker as an upstart.  However, this action clearly speaks to Jesus' intention-- that he is the king of Jerusalem, the Messiah.

3. Jesus cleansed the Temple
In the first century there were multiple, even contrary, ideas of what the Messiah was.  The term means "anointed one" and there were three offices in ancient Israel in which one could be anointed: King, prophet or priest.  Some declared that the Messiah already arrived in the person of the High Priest, who, for all purposes, acted like a king over the Jewish people.  The real target of Jesus wasn't Herod or the Romans, but the High Priest and his power base-- the Sanhedrin and their representatives through the synagogue system. It was this well-organized, structured theocracy that Rome feared.
          When Jesus entered Jerusalem the day after his colt declaration, he re-ordered the Temple according to love.  The High Priest had approved of money exchange agents to set up their tables within the temple, in the only place where women and Gentiles could worship YHWH.  Jesus got rid of them, making room for true worship.  In changing the High Priest's policy, Jesus was declaring himself the replacement High Priest, the one who can order the temple.  Thus Jesus declared himself the anointed King of Jerusalem and the anointed Priest of Jerusalem.

4. Jesus was crucified
You couldn't just steal something in the Roman empire and get crucified.  When modern translations declare some of those crucified to be "thieves", they give a wrong impression.  You had to be a non-citizen in open rebellion against Rome to be crucified.  These "thieves" weren't just robbers, but they saw themselves as Robin Hood-- bandits in opposition to an oppressive government, targeting wealthy Romans, or Roman supporters.
       For Jesus to be crucified, it means that he was seen to be a rebel against Rome.  None of his actions would seem to be worthy of that.  Teaching, healing, discussing interpretation of the law, even rebuking priests and elders are nothing to be crucified over.  But to declare oneself a king in direct opposition to Caesar's rule is certainly a rebellious act.
      If Jesus' act of entering Jerusalem on a colt is seen as declaring messiahship, if Jesus did make a statement about coming in the clouds of heaven to the Sanhedrin, if he claimed to replace the high priest though his actions in the temple, then there is enough evidence for him to be declared a rebel, and to be crucified.   Certainly it is evidence that Jesus' enemies felt they could say he was declaring himself to be Caesar's replacement.

Once scholars accept these four actions as declarations of messiahship, the rest of the story of the gospels falls into place and all the details make sense, not just as a story but as history.

The Silent Declaration of Jesus

When God announced to Jesus that Jesus was to be the Messiah, the king of Jerusalem, the only ones who heard this announcement was Jesus, John and the spirit world.  No other human knew of God’s announcement, and Jesus did all he could to keep it secret.  Finally, Peter figured it out, and Jesus told them his plans to take over Jerusalem: He would be rejected by the priests, killed and then risen from the dead.  The disciples never understood this part, but they were interested in letting people know that Jesus was the king.  Finally, they got their opportunity at the beginning of Passover week—a Jewish festival.  At the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, the Jesus began to give Jerusalem hints at God’s call for him.

In ancient societies, if a king or emperor went out to war, and then came back to his city victorious, those in the city would spread their coats in front of him and palm branches, giving him honor as he came into the city.  In the prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures, it says that when the Messiah comes to Jerusalem, that he would come on a colt, and everyone would be proclaiming, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

While staying at Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s house one morning, Jesus approached his disciples and said, “Today we are going to enter Jerusalem.”  He turned to two disciples specifically and said, “In the next village we pass by, you will see a young donkey tied up.  Take that donkey, and there will be someone who asks you what you are doing.  Tell him, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and he will let you take it.”  The disciples did as he said, and someone did approach them and he did let them take the donkey after they had said what Jesus told them to.

            Just outside of Jerusalem, the large group of Jesus’ disciples gathered around him.  Many of them placed their coats on the donkey, and Jesus sat upon the donkey, showing his authority over his disciples.  Then he rode the colt into Jerusalem, and the disciples placed coats and palm leaves onto the road in front of him.  All the while, the disciples were shouting out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and “Hosanna in the highest!”

           Some of the Pharisees saw all this, and felt that Jesus’ disciples were claiming too much for him. They came to Jesus and told him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”  Jesus turned to them and said, “If these disciples remained silent, the rocks would cry out instead of them.”

            After the victory parade, Jesus and his disciples went directly to the temple area.  Jesus looked closely at all that was happening in the temple—some were offering sacrifices, some were praying, and in the outer court (where the Gentiles and women could worship) some were buying and selling animals for sacrifices and exchanging Roman money for temple money, so visitors could buy the sacrifices.  After looking at all this, Jesus said nothing, but went back to Bethany that night.

            The next day, Jesus and his disciples returned back to Jerusalem.  Jesus went immediately to the temple, and began knocking down the tables in the outer court, where people were exchanging money. Then he gathered some cords of rope and started whipping the places where people were selling animals for sacrifice.  He shouted out, “This is my Father’s house—a place of prayer for the nations!  But you have made it a gathering place for rebels!”  Many people in Jerusalem saw this and were pleased, and they listened to his teaching.

            This action angered many people.  The ruling priests were upset because they arranged for the selling to go on in the temple court.  Others were upset at the implication that Jesus had the right to enter Jerusalem as a victorious king and then to make decisions about how the temple was ruled.  “Who does he think he is?” they said.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why Did Jesus Weep?

Jesus was heading to the tomb of Lazarus, and he wept.  It's one of the most famous verses in the Bible, mostly because of an accident of publishing-- it's the only verse that has two words.  Easiest verse to memorize, "Jesus wept."

But why did he weep?  Well, it made sense to the people around him that he wept.  After all, his good friend had just died.  Of course he wept.  He had just lost a loved one.

But he knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead.  He hadn't lost him at all, and he knew it.

Some say that Jesus was sympathizing with those who were mourning.  He understood their grief.

But if that was the case, Jesus was just faking it.  He wasn't really grieving at all.  And didn't he rebuke people for faking grief, telling them they had no reason to mourn because the girl was only sleeping, not dead at all?  Why should he weep here?

The key here is that Jesus had just been told the same thing by both of Lazarus' sisters: "Lord, if you had been here, he wouldn't have died."  What did they imply?  That Lazarus was dead now.  They had lost him.  He wasn't coming back.  Jesus had come too late.

Jesus wept because Mary and Martha-- both strong followers of Jesus-- didn't understand the truth.  That it wasn't too late.  That it was NEVER too late.  They assumed that once Death got his grimy paws on Lazarus, that no one could make him give their brother back up.  Jesus wept because they assumed that Death was stronger than Jesus.  That there was a limit on Jesus' ability to command spirits.

Jesus wept because they had faith, but not the full faith he wanted them to have.  That the kingdom is here, now.  That we can ask and Jesus will do greater things than we had ever thought possible.  That God's power goes beyond the power of possibility.

And we often act the same way.  Somehow, we think that the norm applies to Jesus.  That Jesus can't overcome what is always the case.  That Jesus can't do miracles.  I've heard many teach that miracles can't happen today.  Others say that miracles do happen, but we can't expect them to happen.  Others say that God doesn't operate that way anymore, now we have God's word (as if they didn't have God's word in Jesus' day).  Many don't bother to pray for their sick, or for pained communities, because there's nothing they can do.

And Jesus weeps.

Raising the Dead

The way the people in Jesus’ day understood healings is different from today.  Today, we see an illness as caused by germs or a problem in the body, and if you fix the body, the sickness goes away.  In ancient times, illness was caused by spirits and these spirits attacked the person, causing them to be sick.  Thus, when Jesus healed people, most of the time, people just saw him as getting rid of the spirit that was attacking them, which is why Jesus could command fevers and illnesses to be gone.

            But death was something else.  Again, today we see death as being a person’s body being unfunctional enough that it just stops and no one is able to revive it.  In ancient times, however, death is seen as a person being put under the control of one of the most powerful spirits of all—Sheol, or the power of Death.  And when one is handed over to Death, there is no human who could bring that person back.  Death is a kind of slavery—a person is being handed over to such a powerful Master that no one could call them back.  No one, until Jesus.

* * *

            Jesus and his disciples were travelling through a town called Nain.  In the city, near the gate, there was a funeral.  A widow was mourning the departure of her only son.  Having no men left in her family, the widow was now destitute, with no where to go.  Jesus saw this, and told her, “Do not weep.”  The people around thought he was crazy.  Then Jesus placed his hand upon the cot on which the body was carried and said, “Young man, get up!”  Immediately, the man sat up and began to speak.  All the people were stunned and said, “God has come to visit us!”

            As Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem, he got word that his good friend, Lazarus, was terribly sick.  Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha and they all lived in Bethany, an easy walk from Jerusalem.  
The messenger who told Jesus the news added, “Please come, Lord.”  
Jesus replied, “This sickness will not end in death, but God will be glorified through it.”  Even so, Jesus did not go to Lazarus, but remained where he was, ministering to people. 

           Two days later, Jesus said, “Come, let us go to Jerusalem.” 
His disciples said, “The people in Judea will want to kill you, Lord. Perhaps now isn’t the time.”  
Jesus replied, “My friend Lazarus is asleep, and I must go to wake him.”  
One of the disciples said to Jesus, “But if he’s asleep, Lord, then he might get better.  You shouldn’t wake him!”  
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand.  Lazarus is dead.  But I am glad he died, so that you might see God’s works and so believe. Let’s go to Bethany.”  
Another disciple, mourning Lazarus, said, “Yes, let’s go, so we can die with him.”

            Many from Jerusalem were there mourning with Mary and Martha, when Jesus arrived, for Lazarus had been in the tomb four days by the time Jesus arrived.  
Martha came out to meet Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.” 
Jesus said, “Your brother will rise from the dead.”  
Martha replied, “Yes, I know, Lord.  On the final day, we will all rise.”  
Jesus said, “Do you believe that I am the resurrection right now?  That whoever is faithful in me will rise again, even though he dies? That whoever believes in me will never die?”  
Martha said, “Yes, Lord.  You are the Son of God.” 

            Martha then got her sister Mary and said, “The Teacher wishes to see you.”  
Mary went to Jesus and also said, “If you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”  
Jesus saw her crying deeply and all those from Jerusalem were also weeping.  He saw their love for Lazarus and their unbelief and he also wept.  
Those from Jerusalem said, “See how much he loved Lazarus!”  And some also asked, “Jesus is such a powerful healer—if only he had come here soon enough so that Lazarus wouldn’t have died.”

            Jesus asked Mary, “Where is the tomb?”  
So Mary led him to the tomb where Lazarus was.  It was a cave with a stone in front of the entrance.  
Jesus said, “Roll back the stone.”  
Martha complained, “But Lord, the stench would be awful!”  
Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory?  Do as I say!.”  So the stone was rolled back.  Then Jesus prayed “Father thank you for hearing me.”  Then he shouted to the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!”  
And Lazarus, wrapped in linen, walked out of the tomb. 
Jesus said, “Unwrap him and let him go.” 

            Many believed in Jesus that day, and word spread throughout the area what Jesus did.  Even the high priest heard of this miracle and was stunned.  But instead of believing in Jesus, he saw Jesus as a powerful rival—one that must be done away with.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

What Jesus Says About Judgement

"Do not judge according to appearances, but judge with a right judgment" John 7:24

None of us want to be judged. We don’t want people to think that we are bad people, or to assume we have evil motivations. At the same time, we often judge others in the very way we do not want to be judged. We make assumptions of others and think badly of others, sometimes even if we do not have evidence for it. And every time we make a negative assumption about someone, we are placing ourselves over them as judge and jury—and we might even sentence them if we have the chance. Of course, Jesus has much to say about judging, but some of it may be surprising to us.

Jesus says that by whatever standard we judge, we will be judged by God. (Matthew 7:1-2)
We are all being judged by God, but unlike us, God is completely just. To be just to us, God will judge us not only by His standard, but by the standard that we think is right or wrong. If we live against the measure of right and wrong we use on others, then we are hypocrites. This means that whatever principles we use to judge other people, God will make us stand against as well. If we judge other’s because they interrupt or are sarcastic, then we will be judged if we interrupt or are sarcastic.

Jesus says that we should not judge by our own standard, but God’s. (Mark 7:6-8)
To prevent us from being judged unnecessarily, we should not think that another is evil, unless they break God’s standard, not our own, or even our society’s. A person might be rude or difficult to be around, but we cannot determine that they are a “bad person” unless they rebel against God’s standard. (To see what God’s standard is, read the post "A Complete List of NT Sins")

Jesus says to be aware of our own misconceptions. (John 5:39)
We think we know what is true and right all the time. But our minds are weak—sometimes we remember things that didn’t happen and sometimes we forget important things about another person. We don’t often understand why someone did something inconceivable to us, although we are often ready to put a negative spin on it. We need to recognize our weaknesses and double check what we think we know, especially if what a person said or did doesn’t make sense to us.

Jesus says to get our facts straight. (Matthew 18:15-16)
Rather than assume why a person did what they did, we need to talk to them and ask. We cannot assume that a person is a bad person or has done something evil unless we have seen it or heard it from their own lips. If we still have a problem with someone, we should bring someone who is objective before the Lord and ask them for their perspective. But we should never take action based on our own (mis)conceptions or assumptions.

Jesus says to accept people, even if they responded wrongly in the past. (Luke 17:3-4)
If someone says that they repent from their actions, we must accept them. If someone says that we are assuming wrong motivations for their actions, we must accept their statement, unless it is a clear lie. If someone has done us wrong in the past and it seems as if they are doing it again, but we have no clear evidence and they say they are not doing it, we must not assume they are lying. Paul says that to act in love is to “keep no record of wrongs.” We must be a people who accepts openly those who have repented—not those looking for a reason to blame or attack another.

Jesus says to not make assumptions about a person based on their group. (Matthew 8:11-12)
We must not determine what someone is like based on their race, the neighborhood they live in, their family or their social group. Every person is different, and we cannot paint a whole group as evil based on the actions of one or two. Rather, we have to determine who each person is by his or her own actions and words.

Jesus says to let mercy rule over judgement. (Matthew 12:7)
There is a time to determine that someone’s action is evil. But if there is no clear evidence for it, then we are to allow mercy to make a decision. We shouldn’t judge someone based on circumstantial evidence. Nor should we see a contradiction and assume that someone is lying—let us do the work of trying to find out how they are telling the truth. Making negative judgements of others is easy, a cop out. Having mercy on others’ is hard work, but it will help us receive mercy from God.

Jesus says that anyone can change with God’s power. (Luke 15)
Jesus says that we are never to determine who someone will be in eternity. We just don’t know. If Paul, one who hated Jesus and Jesus’ people changed to be one who allowed himself to die for others’, then anyone can change and become a person who lives in God. Instead of thinking evil against those who do evil to us, we should pray for them and ask God to give them grace to repent.

Jesus said all judgment is in God’s hands.(Matthew 12:36)
If someone seems to be doing something wrong, but we can’t prove it, we must recognize that all wrongs will be judged in the final day. We do not need to search and discover every wrong every person does, for it is in God’s hands. (I Timothy 5:24)

Judge not by our own ideas or assumptions, 
but on God’s word and the truth.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What Does the Prodigal Son Mean?

Jesus didn’t tell the story of the prodigal son to represent everyone. Some people have always been a part of church, and have always been faithful to God. But Jesus told this story about people who rejected God, rejected the church, and began to live a life that was totally opposed to God, and would even be considered insulting to God by His people.

In Hebrew, there are three kinds of sin. One is unintentional sin, that which you did against God, but didn’t really know it. Another is sin that is done on purpose, but the person is so weak-willed that he couldn’t help but do it. But the third category is sin done on purpose, to spite God and his people. This is the kind of sin that Jesus is talking about. People who have totally rebelled against God and against his people, but then they realized their loss and want to come back.

Jesus main message here is the acceptance of these sinners. The father is God. This is a father who was constantly watching for his son to return, even though he gave him up for dead. And even though the son recognized— rightly— that he didn’t deserve to be his son, the father was ready to accept him back fully, without any hesitation. The father didn’t just take him back grudgingly or with conditions— he fully accepted him right then and there. And then he had a great party to celebrate his return (and this wasn’t a man who usually had parties). God is this man, who has a party every time one of his rebellious, lost children return to him.  

Who are sinners? 
Of course, we know what sin is, but who are sinners? A sinner is not just a person who sins, but a person who has rejected God’s ways and has decided to live for him or herself or for the world. They have purposely chosen a life that is in opposition to God’s life, and they know that they can’t be right with God as long as they pursue this life. These are people who can’t go to church because they “know” the church won’t receive them. They are the people excluded from God, by their own actions, their own choice.  

How are sinners brought back? 
These people who, by their own choice, have separated themselves from God, is it even possible for them to come back to God? Many people believe that they can’t. They would say that they were too hardened, too far gone. But Jesus rejects this, saying that every sinner has the possibility of return.

We can see the pattern of return here in this story. First, the sinner realizes how much he or she has lost by separating themselves from God. They realize that their way of life has given them nothing but sorrow and so they determine to seek help. So they come to God for help— perhaps through a prayer, perhaps through seeking assistance at a church or through pastoral counseling. Then, once they seek something— anything— from God, then God shows them his full grace and full acceptance. The smallest amount of repentance, and God springs forgiveness on them like a lion.  

How should the repentant sinners be received? 
So how should the sinner be received by the church? Even as God does, with a lot of grace and understanding, with forgiveness and acceptance. However, this isn’t how the sinner is usually received. Usually there is some measure of distrust, or some hoops they need to go through before they can be fully accepted. And, on occasion, there is basic rejection of the sinner, out of a church’s sense of propriety and fear. But, as much as this is often the church’s way, this is not God’s way.  

How did Jesus receive sinners? 
First of all, Jesus sought sinners out, letting them know that he sought their company, not just grudgingly accepted them. He taught them God’s truth, but not in a churchy way— rather he made the word alive to the outsider, the one who hasn’t been in the church or a part of it for a long time. And, most importantly, Jesus had parties of acceptance. When Matthew and Zaccheus were saved, Jesus organized parties in their own houses, arranging to have their friends— sinners and tax collectors all— welcome to the party. Jesus had the heart of an evangelist, and make sure that it was the outsiders who were welcome into the ultimate party— God’s kingdom. (Mark 2: 14-17; Luke 19: 1-10; Luke 15: 1-10)  

As Jesus did, so should the church. The church seems to not be an open community for sinners. Rather, each church is a cultural box, and each doorway is itself a box and if one does not fit into the box, then that one is just never welcome. Does this mean that the church should be a cultural amoeba, without cultural form or shape, able to accept anyone? No, because that is not possible, nor does it make anyone else comfortable. But the church needs to be ready to accept some kind of outsider, the ones that most churches don’t accept. Perhaps one church focuses on ministry to homosexuals, another to the homeless, another to addicts and another to sex offenders. But EVERY church needs to be accepting sinners, prodigals and ex-God-haters. This is a basic part of Jesus’ mission, thus it should be the church’s as well.  

The ministry of Jesus is to receive and restore sinners.

Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 500-504).  . Kindle Edition. 

Prodigal Revisited

Jesus told them this story: “There was a father with two sons.

"The younger son said to his father, ‘Dad, I can’t wait for you to die to get my inheritance, so give it to me now.’ So the father divided all of his wealth and gave the two sons their own share.

"A few days later, the younger son collected his belongings and traveled to a godless nation and wasted the money, living by his impulses. After all his money was gone, an economic depression came upon the nation and he was in desperate need. After begging for a job, someone hired him to clean up rooms in a brothel, picking up needles and cleaning soiled sheets. No one actually ever paid him, so he began to starve, finding the crumbs left in the rooms to be appetizing.  

"Finally, he came to his senses and said to himself, ‘Even the laziest of my father’s farmhands eat to their fill, and here I am starving to death? I know what I’ll do, I’ll go back to my father and tell him how evil I have been and then ask him to hire me. After all, I’m not worthy to be his son.’  

“So he left that place, traveled back home and came to his father. His father saw him from a distance and felt his heart leap within him and he ran to his son, grabbing him and hugging him desperately. Once he could catch his breath, he said to his father, ‘Father, I have done evil before God and yourself. Don’t take me as a son— I don’t deserve it.’

"His father, though, called his workers and said, ‘You— go into my room and get out my best clothes and shoes and give them to my son. You— get the necklace with the family crest on it and bring it here, and put it on him. You— get into the kitchen and prepare a feast with steak for everyone. Because this is my son the one who died. Now his come back to us from the dead— he was lost, but now he is returned.’”

Paraphrase of Luke 15: 11-24

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Riff Raff in the Church

Okay, so we know that Jesus hung out with tax collectors, but do we have to go so far as to say he hung out with drugies and child pornographers?

Oh, yes, these are exactly the kind of folks Jesus hung out with.

He welcomed those whom the Standard Religious Society (SRS, or, if you please,the church) didn’t want to have anything to do with.

There were the ones that the SRS called “sinners”, but many of them really weren’t, or at least no more than anyone else. The tax collectors were folks who worked for the Romans to collect tolls for their roads. While some tax collectors DID cheat the Romans and others (like Zaccheus in Luke 19), but these toll collectors did no such thing. They didn’t make much, but they didn’t collect enough to cheat the Romans. So they had a job, just a job. But because they worked for the Romans they were automatically rejected by the SRS (i.e. the church).

So Jesus, were he here today, he would hang out with those who were “unacceptable” in the church’s eyes today. He would hang out with the homeless who are often excluded from the church simply because they don’t have good enough hygiene. He would hang out with those who belonged to cult groups like Samaritans (or like Jehovah’s Witnesses today) and explain to them the heart of God’s truth.

Jesus also hung out with those who really, seriously sinned.  People like Zaccheus, but also prostitutes and betrayers.  If Jesus were here today, He would hang out with the homosexuals and drunks who are unsure of their reception, even if they repent. He would hang out with the druggies and tell them about the gospel, welcoming them, eating with them, hoping to bring them— or to keep them— in God.      

Who are the Riff-Raff? 
Jesus targeted three groups that were set outside of the church. He welcomed the ones who were just not good enough to be in a “proper” church— Samaritans, the lame, the blind, women, the Gentiles. All of these groups were people who could be in right standing with God, but they were set out of the Temple for one reason or another. The church, like the Temple of old, has a pretty strict idea of who belongs to it. No, they don’t set up rules for it, but they set boundaries through their subtle but negative reactions to those who are poor, of different beliefs, or of a different culture.

The church today is as cultural as it is spiritual— sometimes it is more culture than Spirit. And those who do not belong to the culture are outcast.

Another group that Jesus targeted is the sinner. Some of these are professional sinners, such as prostitutes and tax collectors— those whose very profession excluded them from good graces in God’s community. Some are sinners by what they did— adultery, theft, rebellion— and they are painted as such for the rest of their life for one sin. These are like those who are in jail or prison for crimes done. While some churches might accept them, they certainly don’t allow them near their children. Again, the welcome is only partial

The other group Jesus specifically targeted is the judged. These are people who were judged by God or by people and they have the mark of judgment against them. In Jesus’ day they are the demon possessed or the lepers. Today, they may be sufferers of AIDS or those going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol or some other addiction. They may be people who have chronic mental illnesses. At first they might be welcome into today’s church, but then they would be rejected because they are “too difficult” or “cause too many disruptions.”  

Should the church welcome the Riff Raff?
Absolutely. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for the church. If God sees sinners repenting as more important than a bunch of people who go to church regularly, then maybe we need to stop growing our churches and getting out on the street.

Jesus didn’t just sit in the temple, looking for the riff raff to come to him. He didn’t just have a seeker’s service. Rather, he went out and established a party in every village he went to, and shared the gospel at the party. He attracted the riff raff with the kind of gathering they liked, in their area, and then spoke a message that wasn’t easy for them to hear, but it was the truth. Not everyone believed, but it was important.

So the church doesn’t just need to welcome the riff raff, they need to go out where they live and give them a party.

Why should we do this? Because these riff raff— even if they’ve been following Jesus for years, they feel that they are second class Christians, or that they have no chance of being right with God at all. They think that their lives are apart from God and there is no acceptance for them. How is this? Because the church has separated themselves from the riff raff. As long as the church will have nothing to do with the riff raff, the riff raff figure that they don’t need God, either. Yet Jesus focused his ministry on the riff raff. Jesus loves the riff raff. And Jesus’ first church was full of the riff raff— more than the “normal” folks.  

How are the Riff Raff saved?
This is the easiest question to ask, but the hardest one to live out. We know that everyone is saved by faith in Jesus, by their devotion to God, their repentance from sin and their reliance on the Holy Spirit. That’s how everyone is saved, without exception, forever and ever, amen.

But the church doesn’t act that way.

Rather they act like the homeless are saved by pushing through paperwork to gain homes. They act like the addict is saved by going to some anonymous group and never relapsing. They act like the homosexual is saved by getting married to someone of the opposite sex. They act like the mentally ill person is saved by taking medication.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with these things by themselves. But they aren’t the answers for people with these problems. The only way anyone is saved is through Jesus and reliance on the Holy Spirit. And Jesus and the Spirit will lead the outcast person to the things they need for their lives.

Sometimes the answer will be homes, marriage, medication and dishwashers and everything that makes up a middle class life. But for many people, it won’t.

Jesus, in calling the riff raff, chose to be homeless himself. He chose to be rejected. He chose to be without a family. And many of his followers went the same way. Jesus became homeless to welcome the homeless. He became family-less to welcome the family-less. He became penniless to welcome the penniless. He became rejected to welcome the rejected. And so we cannot insist that the outcast— or even the middle class— to be a part of the church must have homes, families, money and acceptance.  

If the Riff Raff aren’t in the church, the church isn’t of Jesus

Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 422-432).  . Kindle Edition. 

Jesus and the Riff Raff

All the homosexuals and the homeless and the drug dealers and sex workers and meth addicts and convicted child pornographers came to Jesus to listen to him. And the conservative evangelicals and the Bible scholars denounced him, “He is opening the door of the church to the wicked.”  

But Jesus told them this story, “Look, if you had a hundred cars and one of them was stolen, wouldn’t you forget about all the other ninety nine and just focus on the one until it was found? You’d call the police, call your neighbors and be generally freaked out— not about the ninety nine, but for the one that was lost. Then, when it is found, you would drive it home proudly and happily. And you’d call your neighbors and the police and say, ‘Praise God! My stolen car was found!'

"It is this very joy that God has when a single sinner repents and comes back to God, away from his sins. He loves that one more than ninety nine church-goers who only ever say the right things.  

"Suppose there was a woman with ten coins, worth a thousand dollars each and one of them came up missing. Wouldn’t she take out her flashlight and turn all the furniture upside down until it was found? Then, once it’s found then she calls up her neighbors and say, ‘Yeah, I had lost this expensive coin, but praise God, now I’ve found it.’

"Even so does God rejoice over one sinner who turns back to God away from his sin.”

Paraphrase of Luke 15: 1-10

Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 367-379).  . Kindle Edition. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Pushed and the Grabbers

Jesus went to a lot of parties. Wherever he went there was a party, and all the best of the town were gathered to hear this famous bright star of Galilee. And Jesus gave these teachings at a party that he was invited to. In all probability, he insulted his hosts, as well as everyone who was invited. He saw people trying to get the best seats, and he unmasked their hidden agendas and told them that they were going about being the best in the room all the wrong way. Then he targeted his hosts and told them that they invited the wrong people. Yet, somehow, Jesus was still popular at these gatherings. You’d think that he would have preached in the wilderness more often.

What’s wrong with wanting to be noticed? 
Absolutely nothing. Jesus wanted to be noticed himself. He wasn’t saying that getting the best seats is a bad thing. He was saying that pushing to be noticed is the wrong way to go about it. If you want to get someone’s attention, Jesus says, just whisper. In other words, the way to be important is to put yourself in a ridiculously humiliating position. Most people go straight for the jugular and if they want to be noticed, they do something to get noticed. They hang out with the “right” people, they grease palms, they do favors for those who will do them back. These are the people who figure the way to get up the ladder of success, you need to do something significant so those above you would pull you up. Again, Jesus didn’t say that achieving success isn’t a good goal. But he is articulating his principle about how to achieve success— If you want to be successful, be a failure first. If you want to be famous, look to be anonymous. If you want to be wealthy, give away everything you have.

Is this some sort of mystic principle, or is it actually practical? Jesus actually understands everyone’s sense of justice. If someone is unjustly lowered by society, many within society wishes to bring them up to where they “should” be, or even higher to make up for the low position. But if someone strives for the heights, everyone says, “Who does this guy think he is?” and they push him down.  

Getting God’s attention 
And this isn’t just a human principle. It is the same with God. God has established a system of justice on the earth, and he wants everyone to get what they deserve. The hard working and righteous should get the best, while the immoral and cheaters should get the worst in life. But what happens when the innocent get the worst out of life? This happens all too often, of course. The best, the brightest of humanity are never heard from. The most talented and most self-sacrificial aren’t ever paid attention to because they didn’t do what the world says and “push themselves.” And many who are innocent and righteous receive the worst treatment from people. But God doesn’t accept this. In fact, He says that He pays more attention to those who don’t get what they deserve. The rest of the world settles itself, but God settles injustice (Exodus 22: 21-27; I Samuel 2: 8-10; Psalm 37). So what does God see as His most important work on earth? To pull up the deserving lowly, and to push down the undeserving significant. To welcome the righteous poor and to trip up the self-righteous rich. God doesn’t do miracles for those who don’t need it— he reserves them for people who are desperate and dependent on Him. God doesn’t judge the mediocre bad— he reserves judgment for those who claim to be His but destroy His lowly and His reputation.  

Raised, Humbled 
Jesus stated the basic principle like this: The lowly get raised and the raised gets lowered. The first shall be last and the last first. When he made these statements, he applied it in very many different contexts:

 •  The repentant receive God’s welcome, while the self-righteous receive God’s rejection. (Luke 18: 9-12)

•  The sinners get an opportunity for afresh start with God, while the already righteous don’t need Jesus. (Mark 2: 15-17)

•  The down and out get welcomed into the kingdom, while the invited are out in the cold. (Luke 14: 16-24)

•  Those who seem unrighteous now may get God’s reward (just under the wire) and get the same reward as those who have served God for a long time (Matthew 20: 1-16)

•  The one who surrenders all he has to the poor will get God’s kingdom, while God reserves the worst punishments for those who take away from the needy for their own gain. (Luke 12: 33; Luke 16: 19-26)

•  The one who wants political importance must suffer and possibly die at the hands of the powerful and God will replace the government with the ones who were oppressed (Mark 12: 1-11)  

 I’m on the Top— What do I do? 
Jesus gives three suggestions to those who are on the top of the heap, the head of the party, the famous, rich and healthy. He says, first of all, welcome the lowly to the club. Make sure that you have the needy people you know welcomed as people who are your equals— invite them to your parties, give them the best seats, let them be your friends. Secondly, Jesus says that those who have greater resources must give their resources to the needy. If you’ve got extra, don’t give it to people who can give you more now, but give it to people who can’t repay you— that way God will do the repayment. Thirdly, Jesus said that to receive God’s full blessing, you must be the lowly. You must accept persecution, suffering, and even poverty, crying out only to God for release. He may or may not release you immediately, but if you stick with God, he will give you the greater reward.  

I’m On the Bottom, and it Sucks! 
But the good thing about being the insignificant, the poor, the outcast, the persecuted is that you are already (at least) halfway to where God wants you to be! If now you can just dependably cry out to Him, seeking his help and never turning your back on Him— even if it means that you have to suffer more for sticking up for God— then God will give you more than you could ever ask for. He will give you a family to replace the one that rejected you. He will give you a home to replace the one you lost. He will give you an income that will replace your lost employment. He will give you peace where yours is all gone.  

Allow yourself to be humiliated and depend on God and God will give you more than you ever asked!

Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 343-352).  . Kindle Edition. 

Jesus Goes to the Christian Conference

Jesus went to the Christian Conference, and he saw that many were trying to get the attention of their acquaintances on or behind the stage to let them in. Jesus turned to those with him and said, “When you go to an event, don’t try to get up on stage, or else a security person might come and throw you out because you are being disruptive. Instead, stand back, waiting, until your friend behind the stage sees you and says, ‘Hey, you want to come back here?’ and you will be escorted into the stage area. Even so, where God rules, everyone who grabs for what they want will be pushed back, and everyone who humiliates themselves will be welcomed up.”

 Then Jesus said to the one who invited him, “If you go to a concert or have a party, don’t invite your friends or relatives or coworkers, who can pay to go. Because they will just invite you to the next event, and so pay you back. Instead, invite the homeless and the handicapped, the impoverished, and people with social and mental disorders. Because they will never be able to pay you back and instead you will gain your repayment from God on the last day.”

(Paraphrase of Luke 14: 7-14)

Kimes, Steven (2012-04-04). Long Live the Riff Raff: Jesus' Social Revolution (Kindle Locations 287-296).  . Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Happy are the Miserable: Thoughts on the Beatitudes

What does “poor in spirit” really mean? Or the “pure in heart”? Frankly, what does “blessed” mean? Let’s examine the context and see if we can find it out.  

Lucky Bloke! 
First of all, the term “blessed.” In the Greek, it literally means “happy” and its root in Hebrew literally means “to walk straight”. However, in most contexts this phrase means, “You lucky dog!” It means that the person is fortunate, is lucky in some way. This doesn’t mean that they are blessed by “luck”. All of the promises Jesus offers are actually blessings that God would grant. So the object of Jesus acclaim is the lucky receiver of God’s grace, God’s blessing, the good fortune that comes directly from God.

What kind of rewards are these folks promised? The coming kingdom of God. Of having all of their needs met. Of being in a close relationship with God. Of being content with their lot. This is really good stuff, these promises. Especially if you don’t have your needs met— and who does?

But these folks aren’t just lucky because they are getting good stuff in the future. Also, they are essential to the present. Jesus says that these folks are essential for the world as it is. Without these folks, the world is lacking something necessary for survival. These people of God are like your daily nutrition intake— without them, the world would starve spiritually. The world would be empty, lifeless, hopeless, merciless.  

The Uncommon Christian 
So just who are these important folks? Essential for life today, and the recipients of tomorrow’s hope? Jesus describes them in detail. First, let’s find out what Jesus thinks are the basics of discipleship.

If we are going to follow Jesus, what should we look like?
 Pure in heart— We should be ready not just to look good on Sundays, to claim to believe the right things and to avoid the really bad sins that makes us bad people. Actually, Jesus wants us to be inwardly right with God— confessing our sin and devoted to God in all of our ways. Our prayer and religious deeds are just outward show, but we sincerely are seeking a relationship with God.  

Merciful— Jesus expects us to be compassionate as He was compassionate on earth. His disciples need to be loving to everyone, even those who bug us! He wants us ready to help anyone and everyone in need, even when inconvenient.  

Peacemakers— Jesus expects us to be active in reconciling people to God, to each other and to life. He expect us to be a part of creating a society that is just and right with God, even if that society has to be apart from the world.   We don’t see many Christians like this today. But the church keeps producing folks like this, and these are the heart of the church— heck, they are the heart of the entire world! And they will receive God’s promises for the future.  

The Big Surprise 
But in the Beatitudes, we are still skipping one part— the most amazing, fantastic, mind-blowing concept of Jesus. He saved it for the very beginning of his teaching, to emphasize its importance. Nevertheless, it is something we have a hard time getting a grasp of. These lucky folks, these fortunate few, these salt-of-the-earth, these essential daily vitamins are also the rejects of society.  

Poor in spirit— These are the ones who are anguished due to their poverty, and suffer greatly because of their lack of normal life.  

Mourning— These are those who have suffered great loss and so mourn due to it.

Meek— These are the ones who have nothing in this life to depend on and don’t have a leg to stand on to get justice in their lives.  

Hungering and Thirsting for Justice— These are the ones who are desperately seeking justice because all they have received is injustice and rejection.  

Persecuted— These are the ones who have been rejected and hated and beaten and despised and treated as outcasts.  

Why are these great folks treated so poorly? Why do they suffer so? Some of them suffer because they just aren’t accepted. But most of them aren’t accepted because they stand with Jesus. Because they insist on being right with God in their heart more than their social standing. Because they insist on being merciful, even when it hurts themselves. Because to reconcile people when they want to continue in hatred is dangerous and a hated profession. Because the one who talks about Jesus is readily accepted— but the one who acts like Jesus is easily rejected.  

No Big Surprise 
Although we have great shock at first that the very folks God accepts are those the world rejects, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, look at who God chooses:  

  • He chose Noah who was rejected by his neighbors because he did what God told him to.   
  • He chose Abraham, but only after Abraham set aside the inheritance of his father’s house.   
  • He chose Joseph, but the man had to suffer hatred, slavery, jail time and people forgetting him before he received God’s promise.
  • He chose the children of Israel, but they had to endure years of slavery and genocide and desert-wandering before they were ready for God’s promise.   
  • He chose David, but the future king had to be threatened and chased all over the wilderness before he received God’s promise.   
  • He chose Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but they had to be ignored and rejected their whole lives, only to not receive the promise.   
  • He chose Jesus, who had to be condemned, judged and crucified before he was vindicated.   

Honesty, if we look at the Bible as a whole, we can finally understand that God’s people always have to face the worst difficulties before receiving what God has in store for them. In Hebrew there is a special name for these folks— people who suffer rejection and poverty, but still expect God to deliver them— they are called Anawim.

God has always— without exception— given his promise of blessing to the Anawim. And it is the Anawim who are God’s chosen.  

Psalm 22: 24— God has not abhorred the oppression of the Anawim, nor has he hidden his face from them; But when they cried to Him for help, he listened to them.

 I Samuel 2: 8— He raises the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with nobles.  

Psalm 37: 11— The Anawim will receive the land and live in abundant prosperity

God has always focused on the needy who live for him, and He always will.   So how should we treat God’s special chosen? How should we treat the homeless who are standing with God? How should we act toward the working poor, crying out to God for justice? We should treat them as God does— with honor, with respect, with assistance. We should listen not only to their needs, but their counsel. After all, how we treat these folks is how we will be treated on the final day!  

The lowly and poor are chosen by God to be His people.

This is a chapter of the book Long Live the Riff Raff! by Steven Kimes.  You can purchase it for the Amazon Kindle, on your PC or your Kindle.