Saturday, January 17, 2009

01/16 - A Business Model for the Spiritual Life

Matthew 6:16-24

Humans are economic amphibians, living in two very different economic systems at the same time.

Jesus said a person could invest in and build up treasures in either the earthly or the spiritual economic system. Because earthly treasures are easily damaged or lost, he said to only collect them in the spiritual economy. As economic amphibians, we might assume we can strive for treasures in both systems, but this is not possible. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and Money.”

Although Jesus did not say exactly what spiritual treasures are, he taught in other parts of the sermon how to invest to get them: be faithful in marriage, even in the heart; keep promises; treat everyone well, including those who are not kind in return; and give gifts, pray, and fast to please God, not others.

From Jesus’ economic concepts, we get two strategies for how a person can change his heart. He said “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, a person can change his heart by changing the location of his treasure.

Sometimes this passage is interpreted as if Jesus said, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be,” which is probably true. However, in this passage, Jesus said the heart follows the treasure.

Another strategy for changing the heart is to change what the eyes look for.

Financial talk has a lot of vision-related language: An investment sage is on the lookout for a good buy and looks over financial records of a company to decide its value. A sales rep takes a look at a car or piece of property to decide its worth. An antique collector spots a priceless heirloom.

Likewise, the spiritual investor can be on the lookout for spiritual opportunities. He can look over a situation to determine its spiritual potential. He can spot the opportunity to do a good deed.

Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body,” meaning that what we search for determines our spiritual condition. If a person only looks for bargains in the earthly economy, his inner being “will be full of darkness.”

The spiritual investor is on the lookout for spiritual opportunities, and Jesus said his “whole body will be full of light.”

Thursday, January 15, 2009

01/15 - Prayer For the Masses

Matthew 6:9-15

The most extraordinary thing about the prayer Jesus gave is that it is so ordinary.

Most of us have read and recited what we call The Lord’s Prayer so many times that we no longer know how unusual it sounded to Jesus’ listeners that day.

For his model prayer, Jesus could have chosen a more complex, longer one in use at the time. He could have chosen one of the Psalms, which he loved. Instead, Jesus gave this eloquently simple prayer.

In most of our modern translations, it is a little over fifty words long, and according to how it is punctuated, it is five or six sentences. Its language style is simple, perhaps what one would call generic. Even at a leisurely pace, it only takes a little over 15 seconds to say it.

The prayer briefly touched on perhaps ten topics; about half of them dealt with God and his plans and about half dealt with the one saying the prayer. Jesus had just said, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling” (Matt. 6:7), and this prayer is starkly different from a babbling prayer.

Two aspects of the prayer are curious. First, there is no thanksgiving.

Jesus certainly emphasized giving thanks to God in his teaching. Maybe he assumed that because God already knows everything about us (consider Matt. 6:8), every important topic did not have to be included in every prayer. On the other hand, he may have been giving a model of praying and not a model prayer; in other words, he was telling how to talk to God, not what to say.

Second, all the first-person pronouns were plural: not my and I but our and we. He may have been giving a model prayer for public use, which connected to his earlier discussion about hypocrites praying in public. Perhaps, if he was giving a model for how to talk to God, the plural pronouns are not important.

In giving this model, Jesus took prayer out of the hands of experts and distributed the right to pray to the masses. His model is one almost anyone can use—just say simply what is on the heart and do not worry about leaving something out.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

01/14 - Recovery from Addiction to Praise

Matthew 6:1-8

Jesus knew that getting praise from others could be addictive.

He had seen prominent people giving gifts out in public with great fanfare and pray-ing flowery prayers, not only in the synagogues but even on the street corners. He, like many listening to him that day, could see through the apparent good actions. Those giving the gifts and offering the prayers were more interested in being adored, and perhaps even envied, than in doing good. Outwardly they made their motives seem like the glorifying of God, but Jesus knew otherwise.

At least one time, Jesus himself was tempted to do something just to get the praise of people. In the desert, Satan challenged him to leap from the Temple and let the angels rescue him, getting attention from the gathered crowds and proving he was God’s Son. He well understood this temptation.

He also knew the only solution for it—abstinence. Like any addiction, the only way to way to recover from cravings for praise is take away the opportunity, to “go cold turkey.” Jesus said to the person addicted to the praise of men, “Go into your room, close the door.” He even said, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

Jesus wanted people doing good deeds. In fact, he wanted them done so they could be seen. This is what he meant by “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

How do we know when to do the good deeds “before men, that they may see,” and when to “go into [our] room, close the door”? We will have to deeply search our hearts to be sure our motivation is the praise of God and not the praise of men. Perhaps, as we learn to think like Jesus and our hearts grow more like his, the decision becomes trivial—we will just know.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

01/13 - A Martial Arts Response to Evil

Matthew 5:38-48

“Is he crazy!?” was probably the main thought in the minds of Jesus’ listeners that day. Surely some of them thought, “Well, it’s fine and good for God to be nice to people who are not nice to Him, but He gets to stay in heaven above the fray and doesn’t have to take anything off them.”

With the sending of Jesus, God was no longer “above the fray.” Jesus was there living everyday by these very principles. In fact, what Jesus gave in this teaching was his battle plan for defeating evil. The whole drama of his crucifixion can be summarized in his statement, “Do not resist an evil person.”

The parallels between Jesus’ teaching in this passage and specific events before and during his crucifixion are uncanny: He was slapped during his trial (Matthew 26:67). The soldiers who crucified him cast lots for his clothing (Math 27:35). He was compelled not only to walk to the place of crucifixion but also to carrying his own cross part of the way (John 19:17). While on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).

What Jesus already knew to be true the day of the sermon, and later proved with his crucifixion, is this: ultimately, evil collapses in on itself when allowed to run its course in the presence of kindness and goodness.

This idea is not as farfetched as it first appears. Consider how some martial arts teach a defender to turn the strength, weight, and momentum of an attacker against himself. The faster the attack, the more power the defender has to turn back against the attacker. The taller and heavier the attacker, the harder he falls.

Similarly, in the crucifixion, Jesus’ submission to evil and his goodness and love tripped up evil. All the forces of evil took a mighty run at Jesus and at first seemed to have won. However, he turned evil’s momentum back against itself, which rendered it a death blow.

Our natural response in the situations Jesus taught about is to defend our rights and our safety. However, he is inviting us to join him in redeeming our own little corner of the universe. When we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and pray for people who abuse us, we will eventually see evil collapse in on itself and good come.

Most importantly, by returning good for evil, we act like the God of this universe who rains down blessings on everyone. We begin to resemble Jesus and in more than just title can call our self a son or daughter of God.

Monday, January 12, 2009

01/12 - Three Facets of Commitment

Matthew 5:27-37

Jesus’ was audacious in these teachings.

Three times (as he had just done with murder), he said something like “You have heard it said” and quoted a teaching from the Law. Each time he followed with “but I say” and expanded the teaching to a broader meaning. In other words, he presumed to take what God directly revealed in the Law and enlarge on it. Astounding!

A closer look at these three teachings on adultery, divorce, and vows reveals they were linked by a common principle: keeping commitments requires an alignment of a person’s heart, intentions, and actions. It may be easier to see this by analyzing the three teachings in reverse order.

The custom then was to make promises and contracts by swearing on something great; the more important the commitment, the greater the thing chosen to swear on. However, a variety of “loopholes,” which people used to excuse themselves from commitments, had also become part of the custom. Jesus simplified the whole matter of commitments by saying, “Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'.” No embellishment. No exaggeration. No loopholes. No mental reservation tricks.

Similarly, Jesus addressed divorce. Many had found “loopholes” in the Law to allow divorce for about any trivial reason. Jesus taught to keep the marriage commitment except under the most extraordinary circumstance of adultery. He seemed to apply the principle of “Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes'” here too. A person in a marriage should have every intention to keep the commitment

In teaching about lust, Jesus used excellent hyperbole and some of his strongest language to describe how damaging lust is, as damaging to a person as committing the act of adultery. He said the marriage commitment was to be kept not only with intentions and actions, but even in the workings of the heart.

At first glance, Jesus seemed to be giving new rules to replace those in the Law, but he was not. He knew rules only go so far in making a person righteous. He was describing a spiritual health, which is unattainable through rules, where a person’s heart, intentions, and actions are aligned to keep commitments. Such a person can simply say “yes” or “no” to a commitment without embellishment. Once a commitment is made, the person can keep it in heart and in actions. Jesus was such a person.

These teachings seem overwhelming at first, but fortunately, they are not the whole story. Jesus is willing to heal us from the inside out, leading us to a spiritual health level where we can live up to these standards. He says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” and we can trust ourselves to him.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

01/11 - Salt and Light and Reductionism

Matthew 5:13-26

Jesus paid his listeners a great compliment.

He thought they, ordinary people, could be salt-like preserving power and guiding light in the culture and by this power and light in their everyday lives, they could lead people to praise God.

Jesus knew that just as salt can mix with other minerals and lose its power and lanterns can be hidden, his listeners could lose or hide their good influence. He hoped this would not happen so they could join him in changing the world.

Naturally, many of them thought, “How does what he says fit into the Law and the Prophets?” To many of them, he seemed to be straying from their current religious system.

Jesus, knowing their question, said he did not intend to abolish any parts of the Law and Prophets, but instead, he wanted “to fulfill them.” By “fulfill,” Jesus certainly meant to obey them, which he did perfectly. But “fulfill” can have another meaning.

By Jesus’ time the Law and the Prophets had been transformed into an intricate system of religious rules and traditions. This reductionism (the dividing of a complex system into component parts) dominated their theology, and people spent considerable time and effort trying to follow the rules and traditions.

Jesus knew parts of the Law and the Prophets were shadows of great principles that were lost in reductionism, and he refused to be bound by it. Instead, he intended to “fulfill” the Law and Prophets, that is, to bring them to completion by showing everyone those great principles. For the rest of his teaching in this section of the sermon, the remainder of chapter five, he takes teachings from the Law and the Prophets and shows the principles they shadow.

Consider Jesus’ teaching about the command, Do not murder. Rather than reduce it to a group of rules and traditions, he does the opposite and shows that the command is a shadow of higher principles: think well of your brother and seek peace with him (by the way, principles related to several of the Beatitudes).

Reductionism is an innate human tendency. People in Jesus’ time did it to Moses’ Law; we tend to do it to Jesus and his teachings. If we are to have the full advantage from what he did and taught and to be salt and light in our world, we will have to fight this tendency, and we will have to let him transform our hearts and minds so we can think like he did.