Overturning our sense of what makes sense

From today’s reading of Matthew 19, Mark 10

Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them. Mark 10: 15-16 (ESV)

. . .

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. – Mark 10:21-22 (ESV)

. . .

But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” – Mark 10:31 (ESV)

. . .

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45 (ESV)

. . .

And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way. – Mark 10:51-52 (ESV)

Jesus overturns our sense of what makes sense, doesn’t he? The natural self want to grow out of the powerlessness of childhood into the power of well-integrated adulthood. The natural self pursues possessions as a divine right. The natural self see a lot of good in being first in line (who doesn’t love that?). Boss or servant? Which seems more appealing?

Jesus keeps repeating this theme, because we need to have it repeated: pursue dependency on God and simplicity in spirit. Pursue generosity versus things. Pursue service rather than lordship.

Jesus always, always lived what he taught. Though he was God, he did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped (Philippians 2). He lived a life marked by absolute dependency upon God. He left heaven and all its riches to become the riches of God toward us. He gave himself to the poor. He associated with and befriended the “lasts” and “leasts”, the ones, like the beggar, blind Bartimaeus, that no one else had time for. They weren’t nuisances to Jesus.

I love the last part of the passage quoted above: And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

Jesus said “go your way”. No-longer-blind Bartimaeus saw his way very clearly; following Jesus. What other way could he choose but to follow the Master who willingly made himself Servant and lavished upon him the riches, the healing, the love of his Father?

No brainer.

“Yes, Lord; I believe”

From today’s reading of John 11

Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” – John 11:17-27 (ESV)

I once went to an evening session at my church featuring a guest speaker who had fashioned an entire study around the basic idea “Mary good. Martha bad”. His talk included a humorous and surly rendition of Martha’s “rebuke” to Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Throughout his talk he repeated this refrain, “Jesus doesn’t have favorites, but he does have intimates.”

In other words, be Mary, not Martha. This sentiment is based on Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha in Luke 10:41-42; I get it. What I don’t get is how anyone can read John 11 and come away with a negative opinion of Martha.

The beauty of God’s word is that it is written about real people, not paper cut-outs. In this passage, Martha and Mary are both the same. They are both distressed and grieving, and both believe that if Jesus had just come sooner their brother would not have died. When Jesus finally arrives, only Martha goes to him.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

This is not a statement of rebuke. It is a statement of faith. Yes, Martha’s has a more “get-er-done” personality than Mary. Mary is a more contemplative person, Martha tends to practicalities. In Luke 10 Mary chose the better way, seated at the feet of the Master. But keep reading.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

This is what is known as “hitting it out of the park”. It is a statement of faith from someone who knows Jesus, loves him and is loved by him.

I’ll never make fun of or be critical of Martha. Ever. (On a side note, there’s John 11:16 for those of you who think your faith is stronger than Thomas’s).

These people knew and loved Jesus, were known and loved by him, and were changed. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is only the more dramatic and physical sign and wonder demonstrating what Jesus, our compassionate Savior, does for everyone whom he calls.

Watching but not seeing

From today’s reading of Luke 14-15

One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things. – Luke 14:1-6 (ESV)

Scenes like this happen quite a few times in the gospels. There is consternation among the religious leaders because Jesus keeps breaking their sabbath laws. Specifically, he keeps healing people on the sabbath.

They’ve never really dealt with someone like Jesus. They know that what he’s doing is wrong, according to the traditions and fence laws that they have built through the centuries in interpreting “you shall do no work on the sabbath”. But they can’t really say why. As Jesus points out to them, in different circumstances, with someone they care about more like a son or an ox, they would do the exact same thing.

It’s a problem of love. In Jesus they are confronted with a love they don’t understand. For their entire lives, the blind, the lame, the deaf, those who have dropsy or a flow of blood or withered hands were simply living examples of how God punishes sin. Yet here is a man who is willing to take political and religious heat from them, to jeopardize both his own standing and even his own physical safety on behalf of those on the outs who in the past have always stayed on the outs; lame, blind, deaf, withered, bleeding. Here is a man who can’t even wait one day to heal them.

As the passage above states, “they were watching him carefully”. But they were not really seeing. They were missing everything.

“You have seen him”

From today’s reading of John 9-10:21

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. – John 9:35-41 (ESV)

There are so many things to love about the events recorded in John 9. The chapter begins with the disciples engaging Jesus in a theological debate about a man born blind; was it the man’s sin, or his parents’ sin, that caused the blindness?

This is a picture of us: they were more interested in the theological ramifications of another man’s misfortune than in the other man. They were also, by the way, completely wrong in their theological conclusions. Good theology is, of course, very important. Their theology of sin and cause/effect wasn’t good theology. It was very bad theology. And as Erwin McManus has pointed out, the man was born blind not deaf, so he had to endure their detached theological musings.

Jesus heals him, and a scandal is born. The man was healed on the Sabbath! In a fascinating exchange that exposes both the religious leader’s arrogant obtuseness and the healed man’s growing sense of frustration leading to justifiable sarcasm and near mockery of them, he is cast out.

This brings us to the passage quoted above. It is interesting to note that most likely the man has not yet seen Jesus, who healed him. Jesus anointed his eyes and told him to go wash in the pool and when he washed he was healed but probably no longer in Jesus’ vicinity.

This adds special poignancy to Jesus encounter with the now-seeing man:

“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”

You have seen him! I picture the smile playing on Jesus lips as he says these words. The man had never before in his life heard the words “you have seen” directed at him.

Healed! Seeing!

Jesus has come into the world to bring the low high and the high low, to bring sight to the blind and blindness to those who think they see just fine.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. – Matthew 5:8


From today’s reading of Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9:28-62

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astonished at the majesty of God. – Luke 9:37-43 (ESV)

In the parallel passage in Matthew 17 the disciples ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast out the demon. His explanation to them is very simple: “Because of your little faith”. This is as good an explanation as any for almost every failure and misstep in my life. Oh, this great puzzle of faith!

Have you ever thought that Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples here, and in many other places, is harsh? It reads that way, doesn’t it? “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you?” He seems exasperated, and there’s no doubt he is. But why?

I don’t know about the disciples, but I do know about me. Perhaps my problem is similar to theirs. I think I often get faith wrong. I see it as a work, as something to conjure. After all, if I need more of something, I need to work for it, right? I often see faith as currency, and the more the better so that I can buy God’s successes.

It’s illustrative that just a few verses later in Luke 9 Jesus places a child in front of the disciples as an example of what it means to be great in the Kingdom. And in the next chapter of the Matthew passage he says this:

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3-4 (ESV)

One of the great shocks of being a parent is realizing how much faith your little ones have in you. It is a pure faith. They know you have what they need, and they aren’t shy about asking for it, smiling and eyes wide with expectation. In a healthy family there is no fear in the asking, and there is acceptance (albeit with some drama inevitably) of the answer, yes or no. Most importantly, there is no sense of work in the asking. The child knows she has no money on her own to buy the toy, so she goes to the only one who does have the money and might be willing to buy it, her mom or dad. A child’s faith is bold, because the focus of a child’s faith is squarely on her mom or dad. This faith is also wise; placing faith in the one with the resources is the only thing that makes any logical sense.

I think this simplicity of faith is often lost as we grow older and begin to take on resources of our own. The focus begins to shift from the Lord to ourselves, and this begets the effort, the work, the mental gymnastics that masquerade as faith so often, not to mention the caution, the hedging of the bets that accompany these wolves of work wrapped in the sheep’s hide of faith.

Jesus is exasperated by his disciples’ lack of faith, I believe, because they had, for quite some time, been physically with the Incarnate Faithful One, Jesus himself. Jesus was engaged in living a faith-filled life before his Father and pointing them to the same life of dependency and childlike trust. They had seen the results of this true, pure, golden faith over and over again.

Mark 9 records this interaction between Jesus and the demoniac boy’s father:

“if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9:22-24 (ESV)

Amen brother. Lord help my unbelief.

I think Jesus is exasperated with me because faith is, in ways I still need to fully grasp, very simple. I’m the one who’s making it hard. I need to put my faith in Jesus. Because he can do it. He can do anything.

“O woman, great is your faith!”

From today’s reading of Matthew 15 and Mark 7

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. – Matthew 15:21-28 (ESV)

I have always found this passage to be a little hard to read. It seems out of character for Jesus, doesn’t it? At least up until that last verse.

But there are clues here into the heart of Jesus and the heart of his mission. A question one might ask: what was Jesus doing in the district of Tyre and Sidon anyway? According to commentaries I’ve consulted, there aren’t any other records of his acts in Tyre and Sidon except for this one act of blessing on behalf of this Gentile woman.

Have you ever noticed how many examples of the prayer of desperation in the Gospels come from the lips of parents interceding for their children? This woman comes to Jesus desperate, with no resources in herself to deal with the oppression and suffering a demon has wreaked upon her daughter.

I don’t know all the nuances behind the term “dogs” to refer to Gentiles, although I know that was a common epithet used by the Jews of that time. I don’t know if Jesus smiled at her when he said it, as an encouragement to her to continue to press into him for this blessing, although that is how I imagine the scene playing out.

Here’s what I do know: the needs of women in the culture of the time were not considered important, and it was hard to get lower in the eyes of a Jewish man than to be a Gentile woman. The disciples seemed to consider her a nuisance, and wanted her sent away. As Jesus said himself, she wasn’t even in the people-group that he had been sent to minister to. But in all the district of Tyre and Sidon, she is the only one who’s blessing at the hands of Jesus made the record of the Gospels.

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

This woman of great faith and courage entreats the Lord for just a crumb of his grace and mercy. She, a parent with a desperately oppressed child seeks healing from the one our heavenly Father has sent to redeem his wayward, oppressed, and desperately lost children. And for her audacious, humble courage in approaching the Lord she receives not only instant healing for her daughter but honor throughout the ages from the Lord himself:

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”

Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but I like to think, and believe that the evidence supports, that he went all the way to the region of Tyre and Sidon just to minister to this woman of Gentile race. He did this to show that there really are no “dogs” under the table; all are welcome to come and feast at the table of his grace.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 (ESV)

“Feed my sheep”

From today’s reading of Matthew 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9:1-17

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.

– Mark 6:34-44 (ESV)

This is our Lord, our great Shepherd.

If you’ve been a Christian for any time at all you have probably heard about how dumb sheep are, how lost they are on their own. It’s an apt comparison to the human condition, and that’s probably the reason God employs the sheep metaphor so much in scripture. I’m no expert on sheep, but I’m pretty sure that without a shepherd sheep are dead. They don’t survive very long on their own.

Humankind had been so lost for so long when Jesus arrived; Lost and alone and wandering, like sheep without a shepherd. God had compassion on us, and sent Jesus, who is the compassion of God. The relentless nature of this compassion can be seen in the surrounding context of the passage above. Jesus’ disciples are back from the mission he has sent them on, tired and needing rest, yet no rest is to be found. This comes hard on the heels of the execution of John the Baptist, which was most likely foremost on everyone’s mind, and an ominous portent for the future of this little band.

Jesus and the disciples are looking for somewhere to be alone, to no doubt decompress and debrief and take a small break, but the desolate place that they were heading to turns out to be overrun by people seeking Jesus.

Compassion is not just a feeling. It is costly. It changes plans. Jesus has compassion on the crowd and begins to teach them until it grows late. They are in the middle of nowhere and people are hungry. The pragmatists think it’s time to bring today’s ministry to an end and send the crowds away so they can buy their own food.

Jesus reply to them is basically “No, you feed my sheep”. And they do, bringing the little they have and placing it into the wonderful, compassionate, blessing, multiplying hands of the Lord. Everyone ate and was satisfied.

They didn’t have a lot, but they had Jesus, their Great Shepherd, who has compassion on his sheep and prepares for them a feast in the wilderness.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

Psalm 23 (ESV)

Talitha cumi

From today’s reading of Matthew 8:14-34 and Mark 4-5

While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. – Mark 5:35-43 (ESV)

“. . . they laughed at him. But he put them all outside . . .” may be my favorite line from this narrative. It comes shortly on the heels of Jesus’ tender exhortation to a grieving father: “Do not fear, only believe.” Words to live by. To really live by.

Jesus has no time in this narrative for the pragmatists, the cynics, those who laugh (literally) in the Face of faith, hope and love. He puts them all outside.

The miracle of the raising of this little girl is not for show; indeed, Jesus allows only a very small audience for it and strictly charges them to tell no one afterwards. As with all of Jesus’ signs, there is both a near and far impact. The “near” is, of course, the joy-drenched raising of a beloved daughter, not to mention the effect this would have had on Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus gently called her back from death and she immediately responds to him. There is Jesus’ thoughtful request that she be fed. We are witnesses here to a wonderful and wondrous, gracious gift of life from Jesus to this family.

It prefigures the farther, wider impact of Jesus’ gracious gift of life to us. As the pragmatists thought that the little girl was too far gone, so were we. She was dead, after all. So were we.

No. After all the despair and destruction that the curse of death wreaks on us, there is Jesus to call us back. He calls us when we are dead in our trespasses and sins, enemies of God, pragmatically without hope or a future, with no way to rise to him. In a moment, from dead to immediately – I love Mark’s repeated use of that word throughout his gospel – alive, walking, being fed. This is what Jesus has done for those who are in Christ, for those who have heard his call.

Talitha cumi.

Greater than Jonah

From today’s reading of Matthew 12:22-50 and Luke 11

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. – Matthew 12:38-42 (ESV)

The Lord Jesus refused to do signs to gain position with the powers that be. He simply wouldn’t do it. The signs and wonders Jesus performed were for the good of those healed and set free, and for the glory of God. They were not for those well-integrated into the upper echelons of power and self-sufficiency, but for those who had come to the end of themselves and had no resources left but to call on the name of Jesus. While Jesus’ fame spread early in his ministry because of the signs, the signs weren’t the point; this is one reason why Jesus would often tell those healed and set free to not broadcast the event.

The signs weren’t the point. Jesus was, and is. That’s why in this passage he so fervently refuses the request of the scribes and Pharisees to do a carnival trick for them. They are only going to get one sign out of him: the sign of Jonah.

You probably are familiar with Jonah, that famously reluctant Old Testament prophet who sailed as far away from the Lord’s calling for him as was possible and still ended up fulfilling the mission of God after a three day come-to-Jesus meeting in the belly of a whale. Jesus here asserts that he is the greater, the better Jonah.

Here is the sign that the scribes and Pharisees will receive, the greatest sign in history: like Jonah, Jesus will spend three days in the heart of the earth, dead and buried.

But he will be there only three days! On the third day he will rise again, alive and glorified forever, our great Cornerstone, but the great rock of stumbling and offense to those who seek salvation in political power and their own righteousness. He will be exalted to the right hand of the Father and every knee will bow and tongue will confess that he is Lord!

How much greater is that sign than what they requested of him! It is the only sign an evil and adulterous generation will receive, and it is the only sign they really need. In Jesus death, burial and resurrection is everything needed to cleanse away the evil in our souls and replace it with Christ’s righteousness, and to take away the idolatry of our spiritually adulterous hearts and replace it with the faith, hope and love that are themselves gifts of the risen Savior.

It’s the greatest sign of the greatest and only Savior of the world!

As many of us often do, the scribes and Pharisees seriously undershot and under-asked when making their request of the Lord because they were seeking the thrill of a sign, rather than Jesus.