Stones

The Morning Drive: Stones

The leaders bring her to Jesus and remind Him of the Law of Moses and the command to stone those guilty of adultery. They want to know what Jesus thinks should be done. They are trying to place Him in a moral, ethical, spiritual, and legal juxtaposition.  Would Jesus agree with the Law of Moses or would He speak against the Law? Would Jesus show compassion to the sinful woman or would He condemn her based on their accusations?

You remember Jesus’ reply in John 8:7, “Let him who without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Wow! He cuts to the heart of the issue. He cuts to the heart of the leaders. His statement cuts to the heart of those who read His words even today. They get the point. They drop their stones and walk away. Jesus turns to the woman and refuses to condemn her, even though as the Son of God He has that right, but instead tells her, “Go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11).

The challenge is for us all. How much are we willing to intercept stones rather than throw stones?

The Dangerous Assumption

I was reading a church bulletin lately that contained one of those stereotypical articles about a contentious point of doctrine, and it ended with a declaration: “Those who love the Lord will honor His Word!” And it’s one of those phrases that always leaves me a bit uncomfortable. It contains the same dangerous assumption as the oft repeated refrain: “If someone really loves God, then they’ll…” fill in the blank.

Indirect Self-Praise

It boils down to this: “The struggles you have are different or more obvious than mine. Therefore you can’t possibly love God as much as me.” It’s a way we collectively pat ourselves on the back. When we say things like this, the unspoken part is, “I’m doing the right thing, so I’m showing love for God better than this other person.” We aren’t admitting it, but we’re practicing comparative spirituality. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not worshipping with a piano like some folks I could mention. Isn’t God lucky to have someone like me on His side?

Isn’t this the error Jesus was addressing in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector? Two go up to pray, and the Pharisee prays to himself like this:

God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.

Isn’t the Pharisee comparing the evidences of love between himself and this tax collector he has probably never met before? “I evidently love you because I do these things…unlike some tax collectors I could mention.” We think we’re making the point about God, but it’s not. We’re putting ourselves up front. We’re placing ourselves on a pedestal.

The Conversation Ender

In my head, what comes out of my mouth (or gets typed by my fingers) is measured by this one metric: how would someone outside of Christ respond? If someone who does not believe as I do sits in on a Bible class I’m facilitating or in which I’m participating, what will the words said in that class do to and for them? Will they be brought closer to Christ or driven farther away? Condescending comments divide, and they serve to end a conversation before any meaningful dialogue can occur.

Seriously, try a similar approach with your husband or wife: “You know, if you really loved our children, you’d do the laundry more often.” “You’d get that garage clean if you’re really dedicated to being a good spouse.” How do you think that would go? What about other settings? “If you respect your boss, you will put in more overtime.” “If you love your country, you’ll vote the way I want you to.” In none of these cases do I see the conversation ending well. How can we then think the “If you really love God” line of reasoning will go any better?

Equal Footing

Now, do I believe God has a definite plan laid out for us? Yes. Do I believe that, to be truly pleasing to God, we must follow His blueprint? Of course. Do I believe godly love leads to obedience? Absolutely. But I’m not going to judge your heart based on our disagreements. In your daily life, your love for God may even shine more brightly than mine. I’d ask my fellow Christians to consider doing the same: drop the dangerous assumption that, because someone views God’s will differently than you or me, their love is inferior. That’s one of the mistakes made by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and I’d rather us not be guilty of the same fault.

If we see error, yes we should correct, but we should do so with the love and patience we see in the Scriptures. Critical assumptions get in the way of love. They get in the way of patience. We are less forgiving of those upon whom we look down, and we are looking down when we say things like, “If they really loved God,” even if we aren’t admitting it. We’ve all fallen short of God’s expectations. We all need His love. We all need His mercy. We’re all on equal footing before Him. Let’s be sure to treat each other equitably as a result.

Generalizing

Most people I know would not be happy if they heard something like…

  • Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites.
  • White people think they’re better than everyone else.
  • Women think with their hearts not with their minds.
  • Republicans don’t care about anything but their money.

I can almost feel you getting upset from over here. Or is that just the unseasonably warm weather? It’s hard to tell sometimes. Still, chances are, if you read this blog regularly, you may fall into one or more of the categories above, and chances are that you wouldn’t like any of those things said about you. We don’t like to be generalized. I’m a white, marginally conservative Christian with a background in education, and I consider myself a bit of an environmentalist. You could go to town with generalizations based on those facts, but most would be incorrect, for most generalizations are based on, not the majority of people in a category or demographic, but a very loud and noticeable minority.

You and I aren’t okay with generalizations being applied to us. I don’t like the way Christians are sometimes categorized as ignorant, anti-science, hate-filled, self-righteous hypocrites any more than you do. Why then do we feel its okay to call “Mexicans” (and by “Mexicans” I’m of course referring to our propensity to apply this label to anyone whose native language looks like it may be a dialect of Spanish or Portugese) lazy or immoral? Why is it okay to generalize Muslims as dangerous? Why is it okay to call an atheist immoral? Why is it okay to call an environmentalist an Earth worshipper? Why is it okay to assume a homosexual is also promiscuous? Why is it okay to generalize the unemployed as lazy and unmotivated?

I’ll make this easy for you. It’s not okay. But we justify it to ourselves by saying that labels applied to us are unfair over-generalizations while assumptions made about others are just “hard truths.” Such justifications are worthless. Take a few examples:

  • Paul and Peter both spent time in and out of prisons (Acts 12 and 16, for instance). Paul was once a Pharisee. What generalizations could we make about them if judged by purely superficial standards?
  • David was “just a kid” who wanted to face down an unrealistic challenge, and some around him wanted to generalize him as foolish and vain (I Samuel 17). How well did that work out for them?
  • Moses came from an upper-class Egyptian society upbringing (Exodus 1). How easily could he have been entirely shunned by his people based off of generalizations?
  • Matthew was a tax-collector according to Matthew 9:9. Would Jesus have ever accepted such a one if He only listened to popular propaganda?

Take Jesus Himself as a final example. Here is a man who freely associated with tax collectors, with prostitutes, and with open sinners (Luke 5:30). Here is a supposed Savior who is unemployed. (At least, we have no record of Him holding a steady job outside of his ministry). He is also homeless according to His own words in Luke 9:58. Would you or I have associated with such an obvious deadbeat and drifter as this? Would we have listened to someone with so many unsavory companions? Would we have heard a man from Nazareth? After all, nothing good comes from a place like that (John 1:46).

If we had been around to judge Jesus the way we judge others, think what we may have missed. Think what we might have rejected. Let’s be slow to judge. Let’s be reluctant to justify ourselves, and let’s avoid adhering to broad and uninformed generalizations. People can surprise you. We just have to get over our own prejudices to give them the chance.

Watch and Pray

“But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. It is as when a man, sojourning in another country, having left his house, and given authority to his servants, to each one his work, commanded also the porter to watch. Watch therefore: for ye know not when the lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:32-37).

Humans have a preoccupation with the prospect of the end of the world – or, if nothing else, the end of their particular world. People who would not otherwise consider religious messages eagerly watch shows speculating on the end of the world based upon all kinds of different predictions and the like. There always seems to be some cause or another for such speculation. Not long ago it was the turn of the millennium. Presently many are focused on the end of 2012. After that, there will most assuredly be some other time.

This type of speculation is not foreign to Christianity, and it is certainly not foreign to interpretations of the so-called “Olivet Discourse,” presented in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. All kinds of postulates are made about exactly when the world will end and how based, at least in part, on Jesus’ words in this discussion.

If there is ever a time when it is good for us to be good Bible students, it is certainly when so much speculation is at hand. Mark’s version makes the context very clear: Jesus has declared that all the stones of the Temple will be toppled (Mark 13:2). Some of His disciples utter the same questions that haunt people to this very day – “when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

In context, “these things” represent the Temple and its destruction. And here we have the ultimate irony of this whole discussion: Jesus’ answer to the questions is not really what the disciples wanted to know. And it goes a long way to show us that the questions that people most often ask today cannot be answered to their satisfaction!

Jesus goes on to say that there will be false Christs deceiving the people, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against one another, earthquakes, and famines (Mark 13:6-8). Our immediate impulse is to look into the history books and find the precise events concerning which Jesus speaks, and, no doubt, we can find such things. And that, of course, is Jesus’ point – at what point in human history have there not been false teachers, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against each other, earthquakes, and famines? They are always happening somewhere!

Later Jesus will provide some specific conditions that will be met, and to “get out of Dodge” when the Roman army comes to town (cf. Mark 13:9-23), and predicts the establishment of the Kingdom and the end of the covenant between God and Israel (Mark 13:24-31).

But when? We have the classic statement: only the Father knows (Mark 13:32). Much has been made of this statement in terms of Christology, but that is quite separate from the point. Jesus tells the disciples, point-blank, that they will not know exactly when these things will take place (Mark 13:33). There is no watering down of this idea, no concept that at the last-minute a revelation will be given to them. They simply will not know.

Attempting to ascertain the precise set of conditions and circumstances that will lead to Jesus’ return, therefore, is utterly futile. If the disciples were not going to know precisely when Jerusalem would be destroyed, why should we believe that anyone is going to know precisely when Jesus will return?

It may seem unbelievable to many, but Jesus’ main point in the “Olivet Discourse” is not to lay out a road map to the apocalypse. As Peter will say, all things will continue as “normal” until the moment comes (cf. 2 Peter 3:2-12). True, Jesus does give His disciples some things concerning which they need to be considering and for which they must prepare. And that, in the end, is the real message.

In declaring that no one will know precisely when these things will take place, He exhorts the disciples to take heed, watch, and pray (Mark 13:33). He presents the image of the master leaving the house and instructing the doorkeeper to remain awake, since the master’s return may be at any time (Mark 13:34-36). And Jesus’ universal message, to first century disciples awaiting the judgment on Jerusalem to twenty-first century disciples anxious for His return, is to “stay awake” (Mark 13:37)!

This is the thread that runs throughout the whole discourse (Mark 13:5, 9, 13, 23, 33-37). In the extended version that Matthew provides, the theme is just as evident (Matthew 24:36-25:30). This is, in fact, the theme that runs throughout all of New Testament eschatology (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 Peter 4:7-11, 2 Peter 3:11-12, Revelation 2-3, 22:7, 11-12).

As long as God shows patience toward mankind there will be people who will speculate regarding the times and conditions of the Lord’s return. Do not be deceived into believing any of them. The “Olivet Discourse” does pave the way, but not in the expected sense. It is not for us to know when the Lord will return, but the Lord has made many things evident. He will return. There will be judgment. It will happen in God’s good time. It is not for us to doubt these things or to speculate regarding them. Instead, we need to be ready. We must stay awake. We must live our lives serving God, ready if the Lord returns tomorrow or after another two thousand years. We must always be ready for the challenges that come with our walk with God, and to stand firm and endure despite them. Let us avoid the frenzy of folly, and always be on guard for the Lord’s return!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

The Beam & the Mote

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how canst thou say to thy brother, ‘Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye,’ when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

For those who do not think that Jesus has a sense of humor, we provide exhibit A: beams and motes, or, as in other versions, logs and specks. A man with a log/beam in his eye, trying to take a speck/mote out of the eye of his brother. That is a very funny picture indeed!

But why does Jesus present this image? It is not just to get a quick laugh – it is a very pointed example. We all can see how ridiculous it is for a man with a big stick of wood in his eye to try to take a small speck out of his brother’s eye – but are we willing to see how ridiculous we often look on the basis of the meaning of this picture?

The context is a guide to meaning. The declaration to “judge not” is made in Luke 6:37-38, and the image of the blind leading the blind and how they will fall into a pit follows (Luke 6:39). After the image, Jesus speaks of how trees are known for their fruit, the good and the bad, and how good people bring forth good and evil people bring forth evil (Luke 6:43-45).

Beams and motes, therefore, have to do with judgment and goodness or evil. We are all a lot better at discovering the sins and deficiencies of others than we are of our own. That does not mean that we do not have deficiencies – far from it (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8)! It is just a lot more difficult to come to grips with that uncomfortable truth. It is always easier to see ourselves as better than we really are– either by conveniently “forgetting” how they look, like the “natural man” of James 1:22-25, or focusing on their intentions and aspirations and not their actual conduct. That is why people walk around with beams in their eyes – and they are generally blissfully attempting to forget about it.

The mote in our brother’s eye represents his sin or deficiency in a given situation. There is a difficulty there – Jesus does not deny this. The mote needs to be removed (Galatians 6:1)!

This can be done in one of two ways. Most people keep the beam in their own eye and attempt to remove the mote in their brother’s eye. You can imagine how well that goes! The brother tends to be offended and the one with the beam does not understand why they are so unwilling to come to grips with their sin! The whole time the brother just sees the big old beam in the eye – the unrepentant hypocrisy – and they are easily turned off or turned away.

But Jesus intends for people to follow a different path. We all have those beams, and we all, when appropriate, need to help our brethren with their motes. But we need to first take the beam out of our own eye – recognize our deficiencies, prove our own work, remain humble servants of the Lord – and then we can look more carefully to help our brother with his difficulties. When he realizes that we do not feel that we are better than him, that we are fellow servants of God trying to obtain the Kingdom, and are willing to admit when we are wrong, our attempt to assist him will go much better.

The action itself – removing the mote – is not different. The difference is within us – we either are willing to recognize our failings or we are not. When we refuse to recognize our failures, we deceive ourselves, and it is easier for us to treat other people contemptuously. That is precisely why we must recognize our failures, even though it is very uncomfortable – it forces us into humility, perceiving that we are really no better than anyone else, and that will allow us to show compassion and mercy to others – which is exactly the point!

It is a silly picture– someone with a log in their eye trying to take the speck out of his brother’s eye. And yet how many of us try to do the same by pointing out the failures of others while attempting to cover up or hide our own? Let us not look foolish – instead, let us recognize our failings, maintain humility, and help others in love and with compassion – and show good fruit!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

The Outward Man

We all know the expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s not an old expression, dating back to around 1944 when the journal American Speech used the expression, “You can’t judge a book by its binding,” but similar expressions can be found as far back as the first century when Juvenal writes, “Never have faith in the front,” in his Satires. It’s an expression that reminds us not to judge on appearances.

God expresses this idea to Samuel in I Samuel 16:7 when he says:

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

We often express this by saying God looks at the inward man rather than the outward, but the message is the same as judging a book by its cover. We cannot truly know the contents of a person based on appearance alone.

Often, we apply this to physical appearances, and rightfully so. A tattoo, body piercings, nontraditional clothing, dyed hair, etc. – these outward appearances are not necessarily indicative of the individual’s heart. I think we do ourselves and God’s word a disservice, however, when we stop there. More than appearances are involved in that “outer man,” or the cover of the proverbial book.

What conclusions do we draw based on cursory facts about an individual? What assumptions do we make when see a single mom or dad; a homeless person or family; an AIDs victim; a supporter of healthcare reform; a war protestor; someone with serious weight issues; a lawyer; a “liberal;” a beggar on the street; an animal-rights advocate; an ACORN worker; someone walking into a Planned Parenthood location? What do we see based on outward appearances? Are our own biases and projected stereotypes so strong and so entrenched that we are unwilling to see the book behind the cover?

Think of Rahab, David, the Philippian jailer, Matthew, Paul, even Jesus – how many of these could be rejected based solely on the appearance of their cover? How many of us would be quick to reject the aid of a prostitute; spurn the teachings of a tax collector; eternally begrudge a former Pharisee his past; ignore the words of a carpenter who doesn’t know his place? Would we view any of these as people worth our time, or would we blind ourselves to them because of the situations and issues surrounding their lives?

Speaking of God’s mind in I Corinthians 2:11, Paul writes:

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

The same is true of our fellow man. We cannot cast blanket judgements on those around us because of the situations or issues that create the cover of their book. We cannot know the inward person until we make the effort to know them, and then, if their inward person is not who they should be, we can be a good influence that helps them change their stories.

Unlike a poorly written book, our life stories are fluid. We aren’t typeset and bound, unchangeable with all of our flaws and errors forever intact. We can change our stories, and we can help others change theirs. Like God instructs Samuel, we should be looking past the physical, so we have a hope of understanding the inner person. As for ourselves, we should be working to demonstrate Christ’s love and mercy in our lives, so we ourselves can avoid similar unfair judgment.