Power and Greatness Reimagined

Image result for drawing looks different when upside down

The drawing above is a classic “upside-down illusion”. The image on the top shows a giant bird clutching a man in it’s beak. However, turn the drawing around and it is an image of a man in a canoe observing a great fish. One of the important features of Jesus’ teachings is that he has persistently turned our pictures upside-down – not to be a contrarian jerk – but in order to show us how the world was really meant to be seen.

The passage we’ll be reading this Sunday are another one of Jesus’ image flips. We’ll be reading Matthew 20:17-28.

In v17-19, Jesus gives his third prediction of what fate awaits him in Jerusalem. This forecast is the most explicit, even including the detail of flogging and crucifixion. Based on the section that is coming up, we know that the disciples don’t get what he’s talking about. They are still assuming Jesus will be taking up a sword, assembling an army and overthrowing the powers that be. Instead of that, Jesus predicts his own death. Based on that, what do we understand the greatest expression of God’s power to be? From Sydney Carton to Harry Potter, humanity seems to intuit the power of self-sacrificial love. How does this impact the mission of the church? How should it define our main activity?

After Jesus gives this revelation, two of his disciples, Jimmy and Jack, get their mom to ask for special privileges when Jesus ascends his throne. Given what he’s just described his throne to look like, they really have no clue what they are asking for.

Jesus uses this as an opportunity to describe how authority is expressed and greatness is revealed in God’s kingdom. Again, he’s turning the picture upside-down and showing the image we were intended to see all along. What do you think it looks like when the greatest among us are the servants? How can a person exercise authority by serving? In what ways does this go against the grain of our normal understanding and aspirations for status and significance in life?

I won’t kid you – this will be a challenging study, but one that I believe is vitally important to our Christian maturation. Hope to see you Sunday!

 

 

Grace and Rewards

Image result for fox huntingN.T. Wright, in his “Everyone” commentary on Matthew, shares a story, in typical British fashion, about a fox hunt he had witnessed as a boy (this is not to endorse such a thing, just his account). He described the riders in red coats atop of fine brown horses that blew trumpets and led the way for hunting dogs and riders who were less dashing on more humble horses. As they charged around chasing the fox, the clever animal hid in the bushes and back-tracked after the riders had all passed him. Suddenly, those at the back of the procession looked back to the hill they had just come from and saw the fox behind them. They blew their own trumpet to turn the group around, and suddenly those who were on humble mounts were at the front of the pack, while those on the fine horses were bringing up the rear.

He used that as an illustration of how God, in a very fox-like way, turns the pursuits of life and faith around so that the ones we assumed had it all are suddenly the ones needing to catch up. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. That’s going to be a concept we’ll be considering in our study this weekend.

This Sunday we’ll be reading Matthew 19:27-20:16 – which includes a parable that is unique to Matthew’s gospel. It is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

In chapter 19, Pete asks the question that is basically “after sacrificing all we had to follow you, what’s in it for us?”. Jesus does promise a reward to him, but where is it centered, according to v28? Some believe Jesus is speaking literally in his promise of a hundred-fold return of lands and…mothers, etc. What is missing from that list he gives? How does that fit with those who promise a 100 times greater return on your offerings to their ministry? Given the context of v28, what do you think the first/last dynamic is intended to teach us?

In chapter 20 Jesus tells a story about a rich landowner who hires day laborers to pick grapes during the vineyard’s harvest. The story is unsettling in it’s economic implications – but what about it’s spiritual ones? What reason does the landowner give for paying everyone the same amount? What do you believe that is teaching us about our pursuit of spiritual and eternal rewards and the actual source of it?

In v12, what is the chief complaint about the identical pay-stubs everyone had? What does this tell us about the self-perception of the complainers? In v 15 when it says “Or do you begrudge my generosity?”, it literally is asking “why do you give my generosity the evil eye?” Many, if not most, translations read a variation on “are you envious because I’m generous?”. What would the complainers be envious of? They received what they agreed on as a wage. Justice was done…but something else was added – what? Some think its hard to tell from the transcript what the object of the envy is. Some think that they are envious and angry at the landowner. What would they be envying about him?

I find this whole story to be fascinating…hope you do too! See yez’ on Sunday!

The World Turned Upside Down

Image result for the world turned upside down

I remember once finding a track of a live version of a song that I really like by one of my favorite bands. Live versions of songs aren’t always that enjoyable to me, but they do carry an intensity that is never fully captured in a recording session. Anyway, as I played the recording I found myself immediately disoriented. Instead of the opening I was accustomed to, the drum started hammering out a strange and unfamiliar syncopation. I assumed this was the end of another song and the one I expected would start soon, but to my great surprise, I realized that it was in fact the song I was looking for. The band had simply changed the rhythm which had the effect of reforming the melody. The lyrics, instead of being their normal staccato were drawn out in harmonies. It was the same song but it was presented completely differently that what I anticipated and had come to expect. The band had turned the song upside down for me and it was like hearing it all with fresh ears.

One thing that has characterized Jesus’ ministry as we’ve read about it in the gospel of Matthew is the unexpected way in which he takes the world and turns it upside down. Or, we really should say, right side up. Where all of the expectations and norms have pointed in one direction, Jesus comes along and turns the signs completely around. Like the band I mentioned – he played the right song, but in ways that nobody could have anticipated.

In the section we’ll be reading this Sunday, Jesus does this yet again. We’ll be reading Matthew 19:13-26.

As the section opens, Matthew once again has children at the center stage. We mentioned back in chapter 18 what the attitudes were concerning children in the ancient world. Jesus overturns those attitudes and grants person-hood status to those who weren’t afforded that by the surrounding culture. What does that tell us about our own personal value as it concerns God’s view of us?

On the heels of that we are introduced to a young man who has everything going on in his life. He’s young, rich, powerful (according to the parallel passage in Luke 18:18 he’s called a ruler) and according to his own testimony, he’s a decent guy who cares about the law of Moses. He is the picture of success in any culture, including our own. We’ll go into more detail on Sunday about the interaction between Jesus and this dude – but let’s focus on what Jesus tells him. The young man has everything going on for him by the world’s standards, and that is the very place where Jesus places the ax in his response. “Here’s what you lack – here’s what you could do to be complete – sell all your stuff and give it to the poor and you’ll have riches in heaven and you can follow me.” That was a bridge too far for that young man. The Bible has a lot of negative things to say about wealth and the eagerness for riches. Why do you suppose the young man walked away from Jesus at this point? What would you be afraid of losing when it comes to following Jesus?

This is a heavy lesson and one that wasn’t lost on the disciples. They sort of wig out asking who can actually be saved, if this guy who seemed so blessed didn’t earn a spot. That gives Jesus one more opportunity to turn the world upside down as it touches religion. The Broken world’s ideas about religion always center on our ability to earn our salvation by how well we can perform religious duties. Jesus explodes that concept. What do you interpret the impossible for man but possible with God dynamic to mean, given the context of salvation? How does this effect your understanding of what Jesus told the young man to do?

I’m really looking forward to digging into this together – see you Sunday, all you Upside-downzies!

Closer Circles

Image result for overlapping wedding ringsHey – I totally spaced updating Wonderwhat this week! Sorry! Actually, this section is not a fun one to deal with at all, and in all honesty, since I’ve already covered it twice before, we’re going to be taking a different tack tomorrow. We’ll be reading Matthew 19:1-12.  If you would like a more in-depth study on this section and the parallel one found in Mark 10 – please follow these links to my earlier teachings on this subject: Matthew 19:1-12  Mark 10:1-16.

In this  section, Jesus moves from the larger circle of community interaction and responsibility to the closer circle of marriage. Jesus, in countering a test posed to him by the Pharisees, reveals his heart concerning the theology of marriage. It’s original purpose and intent and our responsibilities to that purpose.

Hang in there….we’ll get through this.

Family Conflicts and Forgiveness

Image result for family conflict

One thing that I’ve learned about church over the last 20 years is that it’s full of humans. Now that I’ve impressed you with my observational skills, let me just point out that whenever you get a group of humans together, you will inevitably find conflict. The church is no different.  “Conflict in church? Meh, there you go, the church is full of hypocrites!”  “No…it’s not full, there’s room for one more, c’mon in!”

Here’s the thing. Jesus seemed to anticipate our propensity for conflict, which prompted him to give the instructions we’ll be reading this Sunday in our study through Matthew: Ch 18:15-35.

In v 15-19, Jesus lays out a pretty straightforward outline of how to manage a dispute within the church family. What would you consider the theme of this approach to be? How important do you think communication and listening is when it comes to conflict resolution? The last part of his instructions in v17 sound harsh, but how did Jesus treat gentiles and tax collectors? Read that verse in the Message version. How do you think this would look in a real life application? V 20 gives us hope that as a community we’ll have the right discernment concerning these issues. How can remembering that Jesus is present in our gathering together help us to better deal with our conflicts?

Peter asks a bold question in v21-22. What do you believe Jesus’ answer means – give a person 490 chances but at 491, lower the boom? If not that, what do you think he means? How does forgiveness tie in with the previous issue of conflict resolution?

The story Jesus tells us has a ring of comedic irony to it. It’s possible the listeners were chuckling…right up until v 35. How do you interpret this parable? What is the major theme and the source of the conflict? If this is addressing our motives and impetus, what is our motive for forgiving others?

There is some hefty stuff to dig into this Sunday! Hope to see you there!

 

Represent!

Image result for humility trophy

“When it comes to humility, I’m the BEST!”

“Really?”

“Yes, in fact, if it weren’t for my great humility I would go on.”

A conversation like that would ultimately reveal that the words don’t really represent the reality of the speaker’s attitude. Receiving an award for being most humble is sort of self-contradictory. Yet, how often do we find it difficult not to go out of our way to make sure the people around us have taken note of our gracious and humble attitudes? That’s the rub when it comes to human nature – we just want to be recognized in one way or another. We are a very lonely and insecure species.

We’re coming to a section in our study of Matthew where Jesus is going to give us some instruction as to how to handle ourselves in community. We’ll be reading Matthew 18:1-14.

The scene opens with Jesus’ disciples vying for the number one spot in terms of God’s kingdom and His fantasy team ranking. In response, Jesus puts a child in front of them and commands that we follow that example. In what ways do children embody the concept of humility on a societal level? If we think about ancient attitudes towards children, it expands that idea even further. Have you ever been upset when someone was treating you like a child? Why was that offensive?  How is Jesus’ call to intentional humility distinct from the way our normal societal patterns work? If we’re not getting our validation from our fellow humans, where will we get it from – to Whom do we look?

Jesus warns us not to put a scandalon – a stumbling block in front of someone who is a humble believer in Jesus. Given the context of not seeking to advance ourselves over each other, how do you think this translates to our community interaction? Based on what Jesus says, how important do you think this is to him?

The final section has a parable about a shepherd who leaves his ninety nine sheep to search for one lost lamb. He was pointing out how all the sheep are valuable to God. No one is unimportant, including you and I. Realizing that, what do you think Jesus’ point is concerning how we interact with each other in community? How can we better embody these traits as a church? If we could do that, what effect do you think it would have on the world around us?

Hope to see you Sunday!

 

The Kids are Free

Related imageHey – late post, but hopefully you’ll still have time to take a peek at our upcoming passage.

We’ll be reading Matthew 17:22-27 this Sunday. It’s a highly unusual story. One that’s unique to Matthew’s gospel, but understandable considering his tax-collector background.

The story opens in v22-23 where Jesus once again announces his upcoming arrest and execution, as well as his resurrection. Again, the disciples are puzzled. What reason can you imagine for this repeated message to his disciples?

When they get to home to Capernaum, they are confronted by “collectors of the two-drachma tax”. This was a tax instituted in Exodus 30 as a census tax that went to support the temple operations. The priests would go to outlying areas up in Galilee and collect it from the Jewish people. When the collectors corner Peter, they assume Jesus isn’t going to pay that tax. Why do you think they would assume that? Interestingly, a sect within Israel, who was contemporary to Jesus, the Essenes, openly opposed the temple tax. As cited in the dead seas scrolls, they believed the proper application of Exodus 30 was a once in a lifetime tax, not an annual one.

Peter answers in the affirmative, but when he sits down with Jesus, he gets a different perspective. He gives a parable about the kings of earth and how they operate a tax. Who do you think the “children” are in his story? What do you think his point is concerning the temple tax?

When Jesus capitulates, he does so not to offend. Who do you think might be offended? What can we learn about Jesus’ attitude and our calling here? What do you think is worth offending people over when it comes to our faith?

The fish story at the end…that’s something, huh? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever found? The text doesn’t tell us whether Peter went and did this or if it was meant as just a story for Peter – but either way, there is a plain point being made. Who is it that provides our ability to navigate through this world of ever present cultural expectations? Let’s trust him for the wisdom to live well.

See you Sunday!