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We return to our occasional reading from beginning to end through the Gospel of Matthew, which emphasizes Jesus' divine nature and his status as the Messiah—as the Son of David, the Son of Man, and the Son of God. For a few weeks, we'll read from The Message.
One Sabbath, Jesus was strolling with his disciples through a field of ripe grain. Hungry, the disciples were pulling off the heads of grain and munching on them. Some Pharisees reported them to Jesus: "Your disciples are breaking the Sabbath rules!"
Jesus said, "Really? Didn't you ever read what David and his companions did when they were hungry, how they entered the sanctuary and ate fresh bread off the altar, bread that no one but priests were allowed to eat? And didn't you ever read in God's Law that priests carrying out their Temple duties break Sabbath rules all the time and it's not held against them?
"There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—'I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual'—you wouldn't be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he's in charge."
Like trained hunting dogs, these Pharisees seem to spend much of their time on point for their prey—Jesus' disciples—to make what they consider the slightest slipup in following the Pharisees' rules, many of which were self-imposed. If this took place today, they might be the sort of people who walk around with their cell phone video cameras constantly running and aimed in the direction of the disciples, just knowing they'd catch one if they were persistent enough and end up with a coveted viral video among the followers of the Pharisees’ YouTube channel.
Jesus' response is to call the Pharisees nitpickers and to quote to them the Old Testament prophet Hosea: "I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual." How does this statement rebuke the Pharisees' actions? How might it guide you in living a life that's less "religious" and more a pursuit of "The Son of Man," Jesus?
On Saturdays we'll worship God through a selection from the Psalms. For a few weeks, we'll read from The Message.
No doubt about it! God is good—
good to good people, good to the good-hearted.
But I nearly missed it,
missed seeing his goodness.
I was looking the other way,
looking up to the people
At the top,
envying the wicked who have it made,
Who have nothing to worry about,
not a care in the whole wide world.
Pretentious with arrogance,
they wear the latest fashions in violence,
Pampered and overfed,
decked out in silk bows of silliness.
They jeer, using words to kill;
they bully their way with words.
They're full of hot air,
loudmouths disturbing the peace.
People actually listen to them—can you believe it?
Like thirsty puppies, they lap up their words.
In the second stanza of this passage, how does the psalmist describe those who are pretentious and arrogant? Consider each phrase that's used, and picture the sort of person who fits that description, whether it's more literally or more figuratively.
What is it about the people described here that makes others—and yes, even sometimes us—want to listen to and follow them? What can you do to avoid that temptation?
Relying heavily on the teachings of Jesus and especially drawing from the Sermon on the Mount, James asserts that true faith is more than an intellectual pursuit of ideas. Instead, real faith results in action. James writes a stream of wise teachings that can easily seem like a bucket of ice water in your face. Watch for the Holy Spirit to call you to take next steps in activating your faith. On this second trip through the book in this series, we'll read from The Message.
Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That's just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?
Wasn't our ancestor Abraham "made right with God by works" when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn't it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are "works of faith"? The full meaning of "believe" in the Scripture sentence, "Abraham believed God and was set right with God," includes his action. It's that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named "God's friend." Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?
The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn't her action in hiding God's spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.
James provides two dramatic examples of ordinary believers taking extraordinary actions because of their faith. They believed, and they responded. They responded, and their belief grew. The thrum of God pulses in this intertwining dance of faith and works.
You may have grown up in a church or a family that leaned, either overtly or subtly, on either side of faith or works. Is it time for a grown-up reexamination, where you bring that leaning into the light of the truth in this passage? Not one—faith; not the other—works; but both—inseparable.
Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, "Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I'll handle the works department."
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
Ouch—who doesn't recognize their own guilt in the hurried, tied-up-with-a-bow response to someone in need? And most of us have been on the other end, having been tossed a quick bone by someone we thought was a friend, while life continued to pummel us. True friendship rolls up its sleeves. True faith, James writes, does too.
Don't think you have to wait for your faith to gain muscle in order to act. Act, and watch God use it to strengthen those fibers. And start today in your own stomping grounds of family, friends, and coworkers.
You do well when you complete the Royal Rule of the Scriptures: "Love others as you love yourself." But if you play up to these so-called important people, you go against the Rule and stand convicted by it. You can't pick and choose in these things, specializing in keeping one or two things in God's law and ignoring others. The same God who said, "Don't commit adultery," also said, "Don't murder." If you don't commit adultery but go ahead and murder, do you think your non-adultery will cancel out your murder? No, you're a murderer, period.
Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free. For if you refuse to act kindly, you can hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every time.
Just in case we secretly pride ourselves in our ability to dodge certain sin-potholes, James reminds us of our sorry state. Is this posture of humility hard for you to hold? Could it be the key to looking upon your sisters and brothers with more compassion and less judgment?
Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Note the nonspecific, universal aspect of this simple but powerful prayer. Repeat this verse a few times and observe what comes to your mind and heart. Where do you need the cover of God's mercy? Who might you need to ask for forgiveness?
My dear friends, don't let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, "Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!" and either ignore the street person or say, "Better sit here in the back row," haven't you segregated God's children and proved that you are judges who can't be trusted?
Listen, dear friends. Isn't it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world's down-and-out as the kingdom's first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens! Isn't it the high and mighty who exploit you, who use the courts to rob you blind? Aren't they the ones who scorn the new name—"Christian"—used in your baptisms?
In or out, rich or poor, blessed or not so fortunate. With our scales on autopilot, we weigh each other's worthiness according to externals. But the Lord's table has no saved seats. He ushers in all who believe and promises his kingdom.
In light of God never playing favorites, imagine for a moment this global table scene, and who could potentially be seated at your elbow. Might your feelings of concern or conviction reveal a prejudice you need to address?
Don't fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don't act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.
But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.
Anyone who sets himself up as "religious" by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.
We're whizzes at recognizing and judging religious blowhards: those whose behaviors don't align with their proclaimed allegiance with God. But James isn't writing only about them, but about us, too. Is your love of God supported by the indisputable evidence of your actions?
In order to begin to act on what we hear, we need to take honest stock of what we're tuning into in the first place. We have noisy lives, and truth be told, we like it that way. Today, quiet yourself. Invite the still, small voice of God to speak with you. Receive God's love, and if he nudges you to move, do it.
Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: "Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You've concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that's the way you like to work."
Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. "The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I'm not keeping it to myself; I'm ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen.
"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."
Elsewhere Jesus tells us that the way to God "is vigorous and requires total attention" and that each of his followers must take up their cross and let him lead. But here he speaks to some very different themes: "how to take a real rest," not needing to bear a heavy burden on our shoulders, and how "to live freely and lightly." How might you reconcile these two seemingly disparate sets of ideas?
Read the whole last paragraph of the passage again, or maybe two or three times. Jesus isn't contradicting his statements elsewhere that following him is a hard road. Instead he says, "Come with me, and I'll show you how it's done. And when it gets especially hard, I'll show you how you can rely on me to get through that, too. But you have to emulate me in my 'unforced rhythms of grace.'"
Let me shout God's name with a praising song,
Let me tell his greatness in a prayer of thanks.
For God, this is better than oxen on the altar,
Far better than blue-ribbon bulls.
The poor in spirit see and are glad—
Oh, you God-seekers, take heart!
For God listens to the poor,
He doesn't walk out on the wretched.
You heavens, praise him; praise him, earth;
Also ocean and all things that swim in it.
For God is out to help Zion,
Rebuilding the wrecked towns of Judah.
Guess who will live there—
The proud owners of the land?
No, the children of his servants will get it,
The lovers of his name will live in it.
Perhaps again with a mysterious glimpse hundreds of years into the future, the psalmist echoes a number of themes from Jesus, this time from the Beatitudes. Or might Jesus have been looking back to this psalm? In any case, both of them speak of the poor in spirit, at the end of their rope; and of those who seek God, out of pure spiritual hunger and thirst.
When's the last time you were at the end of your rope, thinking of giving up the fight? When you felt that, did you have emotions of self-pity or futility? Or did you tell God how thirsty you were to taste of the pure water of his grace and his intervention? How can you make yourself more ready to do the latter, not the former, the next time you feel like you don't have anything left to do?
Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God's righteousness doesn't grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.
Anger multiplies rapidly—like cancer. Once we're angry, it's hard to go back to peacefulness. Once we commit one sin, it’s easy to move ahead to another. James urges us to toss our anger, our sin, and our self-righteousness out the window, for which we need God's Word. When we read the Bible, we give God a chance to transform us.
Spending time in Scripture allows God to grow and change our hearts. Take 15 minutes today for some Bible-reading that's more intensive. Read this passage again, but this time, ask God to show you the "spoiled virtue and cancerous evil" you need to treat as rubbish.
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