Complacently Pleased

Have you ever met someone who “thought more highly of themselves than they ought”? We all know someone who is conceited, arrogant, braggadocios, and perhaps even narcissistic. They are in our family, in our workplaces, and in our church. On the one hand, it is good to have a certain measure of self-confidence and a healthy dose of self-esteem. But folks who carry that to a new level and think they are better than everyone else are hard to take.

Jesus had the same problem. In a wonderful parable told in the book of Luke, Jesus calls out the showy and self-absorbed Pharisees:

Luke 18 (The Message)

9-12 He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

First, we have to admire Eugene Peterson’s choice of words in The Message. I laughed out loud at the phrases, “complacently pleased,” “looked down their noses,” and the notion that the Pharisee “posed” to pray. What vivid pictures these words conjure up! We get an image of a totally insufferable religious hypocrite.

Next, Jesus introduced a tax man as the foil to the puffed-up Pharisee. This meant a lot to the hearers of this story, because tax men of the time were the lowest form of humanity, the dredge of society, and the dirtiest scoundrels around. Like politicians, some might say.

13 “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”

14 Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

So, the folks listening to the story were shocked that the tax man was the hero of the tale, and the religious man was the villain.

Jesus’ point here was the level of humble sincerity we must bring to the altar. When the tax man asked for mercy and forgiveness, acknowledging that he was a sinner, he was speaking for all of us. We are that man slumped in the shadows with our faces in our hands. That is where God meets us with his saving grace.

The show-off went home not being made right with God because the show-off couldn’t be honest about his sin. Even though he ticked the boxes of tithing and praying, his heart was insincere, and his offering was shallow.

God desires more from us. He invites us to “simply be ourselves.” What does that say to you today? We can boldly come to his throne just as we are, without one plea, and be forgiven. That level of honesty with God is all that is required to be made right. Where is God calling you to come clean and be real? It’s time to come home.

Looking for a new devotional book? Psalms by the Sea makes a great Christmas present.

Coming Home by Michelle Robertson

Come to the Table

Several decades ago, I had an interesting conversation with an older gentleman who was leaving my church. I respected the fact that he set an appointment with me to give his reasons. I wasn’t prepared for the answer, though.

A young couple had joined the church the Sunday prior. As was our custom, we printed their names and address in the bulletin for people to add them to their church directories. This gentleman was leaving because we allowed them to join. He said that the fact that they had two different last names and one address was an indication that they were “living in sin” and he was shocked that the church allowed them to join. He saw that as the downfall of the church, the denomination, and Western civilization as we know it.

I carefully explained that the church did not have a policy that prevented anyone from joining. I mentioned that everyone who joins comes with some measure of sin, as “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I even tried joking with him that “you have to catch the fish before you clean the fish” and assured him that every member has come to church to be cleansed of their sins and grow closer in their understanding of God.

As I expected, my explanations fell on deaf ears and he and his wife left the church.

Jesus’ teaching is very clear that there is no hierarchy of sin and that the mission of the church is to make disciples of everyone. He had to explain this to the Pharisees at one point:

Matthew 9 (Common English Bible)

10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.

11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.”

The Pharisees were well known for making the public sacrifices that their religious rituals called for, but for harboring hate toward others in their heart. Jesus was radicalizing a new idea here: drop the meaningless rituals and offer mercy toward your fellow man instead.

They couldn’t do it.

Can we?

Look around. There are people in your community who live on the margins who need to be invited to Christ’s table, and maybe even to yours. Christ welcomes all to his table: the immigrants, the homeless, the kings, the addicts, the LGBTQ community, the prostitutes, the CEOs, the unwed mothers, the prisoners … he would not turn a single one of them away.

Neither should we.

Come by Alice Rogers

Wash Up

Today’s passage is an interesting read in the midst of a pandemic. I don’t know about you, but hand-washing has become almost an obsession with me since this whole thing began. In a ‘Romans 8:28 way’, where God can use ALL things for our good, our nation’s practice of being more fastidious about washing our hands has been a small positive coming out of a plethora of negatives.

It is also interesting to think about some of the modifications we have made along the way in this world-wide health crisis. Remember back in the beginning when we shopped for groceries in sweaty gloves and came home and bleached our purchases before putting them away? I was grateful when science discovered that this horrific virus is airborne and we could relax just a tiny bit about contacting the germs by touching objects.

So as you read the following, try to dismiss your pandemic-cautions and go back to a time when hand-washing wasn’t as life or death as it feels right now. It is also very important to notice how
The Message emphasizes “ritual hand-washing.” We are meant to understand that the practice of the Pharisees had nothing to do with hygiene, and everything to do with keeping up appearances:

Mark 7 (The Message)

1-4 The Pharisees, along with some religion scholars who had come from Jerusalem, gathered around him. They noticed that some of his disciples weren’t being careful with ritual washings before meals. The Pharisees—Jews in general, in fact—would never eat a meal without going through the motions of a ritual hand-washing, with an especially vigorous scrubbing if they had just come from the market (to say nothing of the scourings they’d give jugs and pots and pans).

Friends, this may be the first and only time in my life that I could relate to the practices of the Pharisees! Scour away, my brothers!

The Pharisees and religion scholars asked, “Why do your disciples brush off the rules, showing up at meals without washing their hands?”

6-8 Jesus answered, “Isaiah was right about frauds like you, hit the bull’s-eye in fact:

These people make a big show of saying the right thing,
    but their heart isn’t in it.
They act like they are worshiping me,
    but they don’t mean it.
They just use me as a cover
    for teaching whatever suits their fancy,
Ditching God’s command
    and taking up the latest fads.”

Jesus, as was his way, immediately gets to the heart of the matter. He calls out the Pharisees for making a big show of maintaining the appearance of cleanliness when their hearts were rotten to the core. Their rituals were empty and meaningless, and worse yet, they were hiding behind their pious facades whilst undermining the very word of God. They taught whatever they wanted, ignored the commandments, and catered to the whims of what caught people’s attention in the moment.

This teaching stings. We need to critically evaluate our own rituals against this scripture and see if we as individuals, and we as the church, aren’t guilty of doing exactly the same thing. It is easy for me to see where the Creflo Dollars and the Joel Olsteens don’t measure up to Jesus’ teachings, with their multi-million dollar estates and private jets. But how about our local churches? How about you? How about me?

If we are “doing Christianity” just to get a check in the box and impress the members of the PTO with our piety, we are no better than the Pharisees. If church becomes just another country club to join for the status and the chance to rub elbows with the community big wigs, we, too, are guilty of making a big show of saying the right thing when our hearts aren’t in it.

Following Jesus is an active choice we make every day. It is a choice we make with our hearts, not our appearance. What’s in your heart?

Tranquil Waters by Steve Hanf

Preach What You Practice

We’ve all heard the phrase “Practice what you preach.” That ranks up there with “Walk the walk and talk the talk.” These phrases have always struck me as backwards. What would it mean to preach what you practice and walk what you talk?

That puts the burden on you to authentically live out your Jesus-called life based on standards that will preach. That puts action before words. That puts do over hear. That’s a pretty good challenge, wouldn’t you agree? How are you doing with that? Are you more walk, or talk? More preach, or practice?

In yet another instance of Jesus vs. the Pharisees, we see Sassy Jesus enter the ring with his boxing gloves on. The crowd has gathered and is breathlessly waiting for the first verbal punch to be thrown.

Jesus does not disappoint.

Matthew 22 (Common English Bible)

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’

“But don’t do what they do.” Upper-cut! “They are unwilling to lift a finger.” Jab! “They only do things to be noticed by others.” Right cross! “They love to sit in places of honor.” Left hook!

Time is called, and Jesus and The Pharisee return to their respective corners. From there, Jesus turns his head to address the crowd again:

“But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. 10 Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher.

At this point the medic has been called to check on The Pharisee.

 11 But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who lift themselves up will be brought low.

Knock out!

But all who make themselves low will be lifted up.

Ding, ding, ding! The first round goes to Jesus. Of course we know that his boxing matches with the Pharisees will continue for many more rounds, just as our own struggles continue as we fight to turn our self-interest and pride into humble service and tangible action.

Our challenge today is to be genuine in love, humble in service, gracious in the face of hostility, and real in our approach to our neighbors…even when they are throwing punches at us.

So glove up! Let’s show the world that we are Team Jesus.

Day’s End by Michelle Robertson

Sassy Jesus

I like Sassy Jesus. When Jesus was confronted by the ever-irritating Pharisees, he often returned a sassy response. I think he had just so much patience to give to these conversations and preferred to be out doing important things like healing blind folks and feeding the 5,000. Yet to his credit, he gave them his attention anyway.

Do you suppose his compassion for them made him want to respond in the hope that one or two of them would see him for who he was? Did he look at them as lost sheep in need of his shepherding? I can say that in times that I have been attacked, I did not look so graciously upon my attackers. There is a lesson in this.

In any case, every time they came at him thinking that they could trip him up, their efforts fell flat each time. You can’t trick the Son of God, boys.

Matthew 22 (The Message)

34-36 When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault. One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: “Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?”

37-40 Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

When Jesus takes the Ten Commandments and consolidates them into two overriding commands, he effectively puts the Pharisees in their place yet again. Notice the care he takes to explain that these two great commands are the pegs upon which all ten hang…and not only all the commandments, but EVERYTHING in God’s law AND the Prophets hangs from these two statements. Remember that eventually the priests and scribes developed a system of 613 laws. Sassy Jesus was making a statement about what was really important in contrast with what was minutiae.

These two rules for living are as relevant for us today as they were 2,000 years ago. Think of your life and your actions and ask yourself:

Do you love God with all your passion, prayer and intelligence?

Do you love others as much as you love yourself?

Is your life a reflection of these two things?

We need to own the fact that there is a little Pharisee in all of us. If the things we say, post, share, and think are different than what God intends for us, we are just as flawed as the Pharisees.

Today is a new day. Hold these commandments close to your heart and do everything you can to reflect them in your behavior. You are the only Jesus someone may see today. Act like it.

New Day by Michelle Robertson

Standard of Giving

TAXES. The old joke goes that there are only two things guaranteed in life: death and taxes. It is no wonder that a politician’s campaign and career can be made or broken by the promises he or she makes about taxes. We all understand the necessity of paying them but that doesn’t mean we have to like it!

Taxes are the subject in this passage in the book of Matthew. The Pharisees (it’s ALWAYS the Pharisees!) were trying to trap Jesus into speaking out against the Roman government. They hoped to be able to make a case for sedition and treason and so they asked him about paying taxes. Notice how they buttered him up first with false flattery:

Matthew 22 (Common English Bible)

15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Silly Pharisees. Jesus can read your hearts and minds, so of course he is wise to what you are trying to do. His response is epic:

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

All Pharisees (including us) should take this to heart. When Jesus reminds them that we should give unto God what belongs to God, he is referring to a very well known standard of giving set forth in Malachi that refers to tithing:

Malachi 3 (New International Version)

10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.

Perhaps the better question is about tithing. God’s word instructs us to bring the whole tithe of ten percent into his storehouse. How are you doing with that? If you’re not there yet are you working toward it?

God throws open the floodgates of heaven to those who read and heed his word in all things. He loves to pour out blessings on his people. This is something you can absolutely count on! Taxes, death, and blessings…all of life’s guarantees.

Floodgates of Blessings by Becca Ziegler

Smart Socks

Socks have now become smarter than parents. And grandparents. There is a smart sock on the market that wraps around a baby’s foot and tracks the heart rate, oxygen level, and sleep/wakefulness. Smart socks use a technology called pulse oximetry. The sock comes with a base station that glows green to let you know everything is okay. If the baby’s heart rate or oxygen levels go below preset zones, the light changes and an alert is sounded. And OF COURSE there is a phone app for remote monitoring.

This new generation of babies is probably the most observed generation. With monitors, over-the-crib cameras, and smart socks, parents can watch their babies on their phones all day long.

Back in the old days we used to just stand at the nursery door and listen.

Observation is an interesting thing. Where once observation of infants took place from two floors down solely by listening and running up the stairs to peek through the door, now observation comes by smart phone.

Jesus was a master of observation. He didn’t even need an app.

Matthew 23  (The Message)

1-3 Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

His observations on the Pharisees were on point, and he sounded the alarm. God’s people were being ruled by the minutiae of the law by men who weren’t living out the spirit of it.

4-7 “Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’

In the kingdom of God, there is no hierarchy. Jesus is our only Teacher, and God is our only authority. We have one Life-Leader who will show us the way.

8-10 “Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.

His observations on the hypocrisy of the leaders of his day led him to call them out, and challenge the people to return to God and seek a direct relationship with him. Where is God calling you to return to his heart? As he is monitoring your pulse rate, is your heart beating in concert with his?

11-12 “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.

Little Toes by Jamie Mathis