Prosperity’s Test

Life presents us with many tests—many opportunities to determine what is in us, and many opportunities for us to sink to the lowest or to rise to the highest.    

Life presented Abram with many tests.  When he faced the test of scarcity, with a severe famine in the land, his trust in God floundered, and he fled to Egypt.  When he faced the test of fear, his integrity floundered, and he passed his wife off as his sister.  In Genesis 13 and 14, Abram faces tests of prosperity (abundance).  Genesis 13:2 tells us that when Abram came back to Canaan from Egypt, he “was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.”  Verses 5-6 add, “Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together.”  How will Abram handle himself in this test?

A student once sent a letter to Jay Kesler.  In the letter he asked, “I have been told that money is the root of all evil…. Is it all right for Christians to have money?  What attitude should a Christian have toward wealth?”

Kesler answered, “First of all, it’s the love of money, not money itself, that is a root of all kinds of evil.  People sometimes toss around a little slogan: Love people; use things.  Unfortunately, we often turn that around: we use people and love things.  The Bible suggests a word that has helped me: ‘stewardship.’  Nothing we have—time, money, talents, resources—belongs exclusively to us.  The resources belong to God and are merely loaned to us.  We are stewards, managers.  The Bible does not make an issue of how much money we have so much as our use of it and our attitude toward it.

“God allows some people to acquire a large amount of money.  They are responsible to use it wisely according to Christian values.  Others have less.  But certainly by global standards, most Americans are wealthy.  Sin comes when one is selfish or irresponsible in the use of income or accumulated wealth, regardless of degree.  Wealth should be used to help others, particularly those in need….

“It is not hard to see, then, where both communism and capitalism conflict with Christianity.  Communism assumes that wealth itself is bad.  And capitalism allows wealth to be used selfishly.  Christianity, on the other hand, calls for a compassionate use of what we have.  But when 10 percent of the world’s population uses 90 percent of the world’s resources, something is out of focus.”    

When the love of money consumes us, we close our hearts to others; we set aside compassion and we set aside ethics; we love things and use others; we step on others to get the things we want.

We see a bit of this attitude in Lot.  When choosing what land to take, Lot made careful consideration of the economic factors but overlooked the moral and spiritual factors.  Though Abram was his elder and should have had first choice of the land, and though Lot should have at least offered to share the good land with his uncle, Lot “chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan.”  Lot then turned a blind eye on the corruption of Sodom and kept moving closer and closer until he took up residence in the wicked city.    

But Abram did not become consumed by the love of money.  In the midst of conflict with his nephew over desired grazing land, Abram approached Lot with gentleness and consideration.  His priority was peace with his nephew rather than profit.  He was willing to suffer loss for the sake of his relationship with Lot.  When a foreign army attacked Sodom and carried Lot away as a slave, Abram did not gloat self-righteously that Lot got what he deserved, nor did he hide himself away to protect himself and his goods.  He risked his life in battle to rescue Lot.  When the king of the wicked city of Sodom offered to reward Abram, with the possible obligation of being beholding to him, Abram turned it down.  Abram’s integrity mattered more to him than the accumulation of wealth.  Instead, Abram tithed a tenth of everything to Melchizedek, priest of God Most High.

Abram passed this test.  Integrity, faithfulness, and concern for others mattered more to Abram than wealth. 

The Need for Trust & Integrity

Trust and integrity.  Over and over again, I have seen in my life and in the lives of others that when trust goes down integrity tends to decline as well, but when trust holds strong integrity also holds firm. 

That’s what we see in Abram in Genesis 12.

When God called Abram away from Ur and Haran, promising to make a great name for Abram, and promising to bless Abram and to make his name great, and promising to bless those who bless Abram and to curse the one who curses him, and promising to bless all the families of the earth through Abram, Abram traveled forth to Canaan building altars to the Lord along the way.  But then a severe famine comes upon the land, and Abram’s trust in God begins to falter.  Though God had promised Abram that he would give the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring, Abram doubts that God can get him through the famine.  God had led Abram to Canaan and promised the land there to him, but Abram decides to take himself down to Egypt instead.  Upon arriving in Egypt, Abram doubts that God can protect him from Egyptians who may want his wife, so he says to her, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife;’ then they will kill me, but thy will let you live.  Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account” (Genesis 12:11-13).  This is where we see a tragic collapse in Abram’s integrity—passing his wife off as his sister, “so that it may go well with me because of you.”

Trust and integrity are both essential qualities in the life of a believer, but both qualities slip away from Abram.    

In his book In Two Minds, Os Guinness points out that the Latin word for doubt, dubitare, comes from an Aryan root meaning “two.”  Guinness writes, “To believe is to be ‘in one mind’ about accepting something as true; to disbelieve is to be ‘in one mind’ about rejecting it.  To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe and doubt at once, and so to be ‘in two minds.’”    

That’s what happened to Abram, and he did not do well when he was in two minds.

John C. Maxwell writes, “William H. Hinson tells us why animal trainers carry a stool when they go into a cage of lions.  They have their whips, of course, and their pistols are at their sides.  But invariably they also carry a stool.  Hinson says it is the most important tool of the trainer.  He holds the stool by the back and thrusts the legs toward the face of the wild animal.  Those who know maintain that the animal tries to focus on all four legs at once.  In the attempt to focus on all four, a kind of paralysis overwhelms the animal, and it becomes tame, weak, and disabled because its attention is fragmented.”

Sadly, that’s what becomes of Abram.  Torn between trust and distrust, he becomes weak, and his integrity crumbles. 

Frederick Buechner observes, “Doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with things that nourish it.  If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.”

Life, by its very nature, provides plentiful opportunities for us to be put in touch with reality.  How will we respond?  In the midst of troubling circumstances, will our faith hold firm, and will our integrity hold strong?  Or will our trust decline and our integrity deteriorate? 

The Mathematics of the Hungry Dog

Spiritually and emotionally, we can all trace our roots back to Abram.  We all come from someone who left his and/or her home and homeland looking for or being dragged to a new life in a new land.  The reasons vary.  On my father’s side, my great great grandfather fled England in shame after killing a fellow boxer in a bare knuckle boxing match.  On my mother’s side, more than two centuries ago, my ancestors were forcibly moved from Scotland to Ireland, then they left poverty in Ireland seeking greater promise in the North American colonies.

No matter one’s race or ethnicity, everyone in this country can trace our origins back to someone who came here from somewhere else.    

Scripture provides a small but important part of the reason why Abram left Ur of the Chaldeans for a new life in a new land.  Archaeology and history fill in a bit more of the story of what Abram left and why.    

Ur, located 140 miles south of Babylon, at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, was among the greatest cities in the world at the time of Abram.  The city was dedicated to Nannar, the moon god, who was looked upon as the king and the landlord of the people.  The farms and shops and wealth of the people of Ur were considered to be owned by Nannar.  An entire quarter of the city of Ur was set apart for Nannar.  One of the temples in Ur was called “The House of Great Plenty,” which housed Nannar’s sacred harem and was the site of temple prostitution.  In some of the royal tombs in Ur, archaeologists found as many as 60 to 80 skeletal remains of escorts, guards, musicians and servants who were marched into the royal tombs with the deceased ruler so as to accompany the king or queen into the afterlife.

Though Ur was a center of commerce, culture and wealth, it was a city dedicated to a god who claimed ownership over everything the people had, where temple prostitution was a sacred part of worship, where human sacrifice was practiced, and where subjects of the king were expected to march into a tomb so as to be sealed in to their deaths as gifts to their monarch. 

According to the “Law of Mathematics for a Hungry Dog,” if you see a dog with a rotten, poisonous bone in its mouth, and if you want to rescue that dog from the dangerous bone, the best thing to do is not to grab the bone and try to pull it away.  That will only cause the dog to snarl and growl at you and bite into the toxic bone even tighter.  If you are wise, you will throw a big, juice lamb chop to the dog.  He will drop the poisonous bone immediately to grab the lamb chop.  That’s where the mathematics comes in: To grab the lamb chop, he must let go of the deadly bone.  To add the new, he must subtract the old. 

In verses 2-3, God tells Abram the wonderful things He wants to add to Abram’s life: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  But the mathematics of faith are like the mathematics for a hungry dog.  It would be impossible for Abram to take hold of the blessings God was promising him if he continued to hold onto the gods and the practices and the poisonous mindsets he had lived with in Ur of the Chaldeans for seventy five years.  To receive the blessings of the God who called him, Abram needed to let go of the things that stood in the way.  He had to turn away from a false god who claimed ownership over everything that would come to Abram.  He had to turn away from temple prostitution as a means of trying to activate the attention of the goddess of fertility.  He had to turn away from the custom of human sacrifice—even child sacrifice—as the ultimate way of proving one’s devotion to a god. 

What is it that we need to let go of to be able to take hold of the good God would give to us?

A study of the ensuing chapters of Genesis will reveal that God’s promised blessings will not come to Abram according to the time table Abram hopes for.  A famine will drive Abram to Egypt.  It will take another two and a half decades before the birth of the child which he and Sarai long for.  But in the midst of it all, Abram’s intimacy with the living and loving God grows, and he becomes a great nation, and in him all the families of the earth are blessed.    

 Can we be patient enough and trusting enough to get through the tough times while waiting for the good that God will bring?

Love that Restores

When we do something that hurts another, one of two things happens within us: Either our conscience bothers us or our conscience dies. 

If our soul has not died, if our conscience is troubled by the wrong we have done, the guilt we feel goes in one of two directions: Either in the direction of unhealthy guilt or in the direction of heathy guilt. 

Unhealthy guilt goes beyond convicting us of the wrong we have done.  It fills us with shame and despair and self-loathing.  It drives us to hide, to run away, to give up.

Healthy guilt faces the truth of what we have done and prompts us to set things right and to do better next time. 

The devil is in the business of unhealthy guilt.  He delights in filling us with shame, despair and self-loathing.  It pleases him when he succeeds in getting us to hide or run away or give up. 

Jesus, on the other hand, is in the business of healthy guilt.  He is delighted when we face the truth about the wrong we have done and turn in the right direction.

To deny knowing a friend—three times—in their darkest moment is a deep disloyalty to and injustice to one’s friend.  That’s what Peter did to Jesus. 

After that, a battle began to take place in Peter between unhealthy guilt and healthy guilt.  The unhealthy guilt stirred up within Peter a sense of shame and despair and self-loathing.  Thinking himself no longer worthy to be a disciple—thinking himself to be incapable of being a credible witness on behalf of the one whom he denied—Peter runs away.  He returns to his fishing.  The devil must have been delighted with that! 

But Jesus enters into the battle—and I love the way Jesus fights for Peter.  Jesus fights for Peter without shaming Peter for going back to his fishing.  He fights for Peter with a blessing, with a meal, with perseverance, with restoration, and with affirmation.    

While Peter is fishing unsuccessfully, Jesus tells him to put the nets down on the right side of the boat.  Suddenly, the nets fill with fish!  Though Jesus wants Peter to leave his fishing, Jesus does not force Peter into a change of careers by putting a hole in his boat.  Instead, Jesus pours out blessings on Peter. 

Then they sit down to a meal together.  Even after disowning Jesus, Jesus does not require Peter to do something first to re-earn the company of Jesus.  Jesus simply sits down with Peter, gently and graciously meeting the needs of a hungry and estranged friend.  This is all a part of Jesus’ strategy of moving Peter from unhealthy guilt to healthy guilt.  It begins with loving and valuing Peter right where he is. 

It’s what Jesus does with us, too.  He comes to us.  He meets us where we are.  He loves and cares for us before we do anything to earn or re-earn his favor.

After the meal, Jesus tackles the elephant in the room: the wall of unaddressed sin and unhealthy guilt that stands in the way between Jesus and Peter.  Jesus asks Peter—three times—“Do you love me?”

Some have argued that Jesus asked the question three times to match the number of times Peter denied knowing Jesus, as though Peter must make up for each sinful denial with a matching declaration of love for Jesus.  But such reasoning goes against all of Biblical teaching on grace and forgiveness.  According to Scripture, we are not forgiven because of penance we do to earn God’s forgiveness, but because of what Jesus did on the cross for us. 

Part of the reason Jesus asks Peter three times has to do with the progression of the way the question is asked.  First Jesus asks whether Peter loves him “more than these,” using the highest word for love in the Greek language.  Next Jesus leaves off the comparison while still using the highest word for love.  Finally, Jesus moves from agapao to phileo, a lighter word for love, more akin to “brotherly love.”

But I believe the more significant reason Jesus asks Peter three times is because he gently perseveres until he gets Peter to give more than a trite answer to a critical question.  At first, Peter answers off the top.  His answer does not penetrate deeply into his heart.  But after gently, graciously and persistently pressing on with his questions, Jesus gets past the veneer to the deep, hurting places in Peter’s soul.  The words Peter uses to answer the question are the same, “You know that I love you,” but now they come from the heart—the deep, aching part of Peter’s heart.  That’s what Jesus wanted all along.  That’s why he persevered with the questions.  He pressed on to get to the deep and genuine place in Peter’s heart.

That is what God does with us as well, and that is the blessing of an aching conscience.  An aching conscience is God’s way of getting us to the place where our hearts break over the wrong we have done.  This is the beginning of repentance; it is the beginning of a changed life. 

All the way through, Jesus kept reaffirming his call to Peter, for that was part of his battle plan against unhealthy guilt.  The aim of healthy guilt is to move us from despair to restoration, and from giving up to re-engagement in the work of God. 

As a result of Peter’s healthy guilt and restoration, Peter becomes a better person.  He becomes a more humble person, more aware of his own weaknesses, more reliant on Christ to help him through each day, and better equipped to shepherd God’s people lovingly. 

Grieve, Hope & Wait

Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus beside the tomb on the day of his resurrection matches well with the complex mix of emotions Christians continue to experience in the face of death.  We find in this encounter the deep grief of death, the exhilarating hope of resurrection, and the agonizing wait for the joy of resurrection to reach fulfillment. 

Grief: Out of the sleeplessness of grief, Mary hurries to Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark.”  At the tomb, we find her weeping and so distraught that she fails to recognize Jesus when first she sees him.  She is in the morass of grief—the heartbreaking, pain-filled, despairing sorrow of losing one whom she loved. 

What I love about John’s report of this incident (in John 20:11-18) is that we can find no trace of Mary being corrected for her behavior.  There is never a suggestion that Mary should not have cried or that she should have trusted God more fully.  John reports, with full acceptance, the depth of Mary’s bereavement because that’s what the death of a loved one does to us.  Mary did what every sane person does in the face of death.

Earl Grollman stresses, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness.  It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love.  The only cure for grief is to grieve.” 

Washington Irving adds, “There is a sacredness in tears.  They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.  They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.  They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”    

Hope: Suddenly, Jesus stands before her—or suddenly Mary recognizes Jesus as he stands before her—and Mary is overcome with the exhilaration of his resurrection.  Never has such good news been shared with our world as when Jesus appeared before Mary with the announcement that death had been overcome.

Many years ago, Dr. Robert Hughes of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia illustrated the significance of Jesus’ resurrection with a story about his father, who had been a coal-miner in northeastern Pennsylvania.  Dr. Hughes’ father had the job of going down into the mines every morning before the other miners, to check the mines for methane gas.  Every morning he would descend alone into the mines, taking with him the safety lamp, and he would begin to go through the darkened tunnels, checking each of the tunnels and shafts to make sure there was no deadly methane gas present.  If the light of the safety lamp would begin to flicker, he would have to run for his life, because it would signal the presence of deadly gas.  After checking the mine, he would rise to the surface, where all the miners gathered around waiting expectantly, and he would announce, “It’s okay; it’s safe.  You can go down into the mine now.”

Dr. Hughes would explain, “That’s what Christ did for us.  He came up out of the depths of death and announced to all who are gathered on earth, ‘It’s okay; it’s safe now.  You can enter into death, into the darkness and the unknown.  It is safe because I have made it safe.  I have been there, and I have come back.  It has not been victorious over me, but I have overcome it, and I will be with you in death, even as I have been with you in life!’”

Wait: In the midst of her excitement, Mary grabs hold of Jesus, but he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” 

Jesus rose from the dead, but he was not going to remain on the earth, so she could not cling to him.  Death was been conquered, but we do not yet get to enjoy the resurrection of our loved ones. 

When our loved ones die, they go to heaven.  That is great news!  But we still miss them.  All of us on earth are stuck waiting for the experience of the joy of the resurrection, and we will remain stuck in our waiting until we are called to heaven or until Christ returns.  Between now and then, when we deal with the death of a loved one, we live in the complex mix of deep grief, exhilarating hope, and an agonizing wait for the joy of resurrection to reach fulfillment. 

Why did Jesus come to earth?

When Jesus stood on trial before Pilate, he said to Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  That statement intrigues me because elsewhere Jesus gave other reasons for why he came into our world.   In John 10:10, Jesus declared, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  In Mark 10:45 he stated, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

Which is it?  Did Jesus come into our world to testify to the truth?  Or to give us abundant life?  Or to give his life as a ransom for many?  Or do all three go together?

When Jesus stood before Pilate on trial for his life, Pilate thought that the truth of the matter was that Pilate was in charge of Jesus’ destiny.  Indeed, Pilate said so.  In John 19:10, Pilate asked Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”  But Pilate was wrong.  Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).  Pilate was not actually in charge of Jesus’ destiny; God was.  The reason Jesus was born—the reason he came into our world—was to give his life as a ransom for many so as to bring to us abundant life.  This is the truth that Jesus testified to.  

Jesus stressed to Pilate, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over” (John 18:36).  What followers is Jesus referring to?  His motley band of disciples?  What good would they be against the soldiers of Rome?  If that’s what Jesus had in mind, he would have been delusional.  But the truth is that Jesus had a much greater army at hand.  When soldiers arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, he announced, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53)  And when Jesus calmed a storm at sea, his disciples asked each other, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41)  If Jesus wished to prevent his crucifixion, he could have called forth the armies of heaven and/or the forces of nature to protect him.  But he didn’t come here to save himself; he came here to give his life as a ransom for many so as to bring to us abundant life.  This is the truth that Jesus testified to.

The truth is that death is a calamity that no one is history has been able to overcome.  But Jesus came into our world to do just that.  He came to overcome death by giving his life as a ransom for many so as to give us abundant life.

Before the Second World War, a grave in Germany had been sealed with a granite slab and bound with strong chains.  On the slab an atheist had inscribed, “Not to be opened throughout eternity.”  But, somehow, a little acorn had fallen into a crack, and its outer shell had ‘died.’  Years later, everyone who passed by could see a huge oak tree growing up out of that crack, having completely broken apart the granite slab.  The arrogant words upon the slab still declared, “Not to be opened throughout eternity,” but a ‘resurrected’ acorn had proven it wrong.  Jesus did the same to death.

One of the early church fathers, St. John Chrysostom, expressed it powerfully: “By accepting the body of Christ Death made a great mistake. It thought that it was an ordinary body: a sinful body and mortal just as the others held under its tyrannical authority. But as those who take food that cannot be digested by their stomach, will vomit not only the indigestible food, but whatever else they have eaten, so also with death. Death swallowed the all-pure and immortal body of the Lord, but immortal life was a bitter victual and indigestible for the gluttonous and insatiable Hades. It could not digest it and, therefore, vomited it! Together with the body of Christ, Hades ejected also all the dead held in its stomach from the beginning. The only appropriate and digestible food for death is sin. The sinless body of the Lord was inappropriate food for Hades. It resembled a stone that not only cannot be digested but also, if it remains in the stomach, will destroy it and breach it. When death swallowed the Cornerstone, the all-holy body of the Savior, it was in pain and distress, and lost all of its strength.”

Jesus came into our world to testify to the truth and to give his life as a ransom for many so as to bring to us abundant life.

A Critical Choice

Over and over again throughout each day, we face the critical question: Will I trust in the values and ways of this world?  Or will I trust in the values and ways of Jesus Christ? 

Almost 50 years ago, Robert J. Ringer wrote a best-selling book that continues to portray the common mindset of modern American culture.  His book, Winning Through Intimidation, grew out of his own experience.  He explains, “I did one altruistic good deed after another—concentrating on the other person’s best interest—naively believing that my good deed would be appreciated and that I’d be commensurately rewarded.  At best I ended up with a handful of air; at worst I got a slap in the face.”

Ringer gave up on altruism.  He states, “From now on I would have to be the intimidator and maneuver others into the role of intimidatee…for the first time, I had experienced the thrill of winning through intimidation…. There was no longer the slightest doubt in my mind that intimidation was the key to winning.”  

J.B. Phillips suggests that a different set of ‘Beatitudes’ might match better the values and ways of our world:

“Happy are the ‘pushers’: for they get on in the world.

“Happy are the hard-boiled; for they never let life hurt them.

“Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end

“Happy are the blasé: for they never worry over their sins.

“Happy are the slave-drivers: for they get results

“Happy are the knowledgeable of the world: for they know their way around.

“Happy are the trouble-makers: for they make people take notice of them.”

But the values and the ways of Jesus Christ…? 

John tells us (in John 13:1-15) that a night or two before his crucifixion, Jesus got up from the dinner table, “took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”  When he finished washing their feet, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

By washing the disciples’ feet and commanding us to do likewise, Jesus sets before us a choice: Will we trust in the values and ways of this world?  Or will we trust in his values and ways?

M. Scott Peck comments, “Until that moment the whole point of things had been for someone to get on top, and once he had gotten on top to stay on top or else attempt to get farther up.  But here this man already on top—who was rabbi, teacher, master—suddenly got down on the bottom and began to wash the feet of his followers.  In that one act Jesus symbolically overturned the whole social order.  Hardly comprehending what was happening, even his own disciples were almost horrified by his behavior.”

            The values and ways of this world may include intimidating others, pushing others, and climbing over others, but Jesus calls us to follow a different set of values and to live a different way of life. 

            Jesus calls us to love and to serve unconditionally.  Jesus did not withhold the washing of John’s and James’ feet though they had been arguing over who was the greatest.  He did not withhold the washing of Thomas’ feet though Thomas would doubt his resurrection.  He did not withhold the washing of Peter’s feet though Peter would deny knowing him.  And he did not withhold the washing of Judas’ feet though he knew that Judas would betray him.  To Jesus, love is not something that is given or withheld on the basis of what a person has earned, but is given purely on the basis of God’s never-ending love for us.  Can we seek to love others purely on the basis of God’s love for them?

            Jesus calls us to love and to serve sacrificially.  He took off his robe.  He humbled himself.  Shortly after this, he would give his very life for us.  What are we willing to give up for the sake of caring for another?  How far are we willing to humble ourselves for the sake of serving another?

            Jesus calls us to love and serve actively.  Jesus did not simply wish his disciples well.  He got up from the table; he poured water into a basin; he washed their feet; he dried their feet with a towel.  He took action to meet their needs.  Are we willing to get up, to get involved, to lend a hand, to do something practical?

Over and over again throughout each day, we face the critical question: Will I trust in the values and ways of this world?  Or will I trust in the values and ways of Jesus Christ? 

What Fragrance Will I Bring?

The apostle John tells us (in John 12:1-2), “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him.” 

Take a deep breath and imagine the aromas that would have filled the house that day.  There would have been the smell of freshly baked unleavened bread for this was within seven days of the Passover.  There would have been the aroma of wine, and the smells of dates and figs and fresh grapes and cooked onions and Jerusalem cheese and pickled herrings and honey pie.  For a dinner like this, there may have been the smell of barbecued goat or lamb.

How did these wonderful aromas get into the home?  John tells us concisely, “Martha served.”  

Martha, honored by Catholics as a patron saint of cooking and of serving, had the magnificent gift of hospitality.  She brought love and joy into a home and into the lives of others in the way in which she fed and cared for people. 

Max Lucado shares his own experience with someone like Martha: “The best example of love that I can think of occurred at the death of my own father.  I remember a lady who was a distant relative of our family.  She drove six hours to get to the funeral.  She walked in the house and went immediately into the kitchen and began washing dishes.  I didn’t even know she was there.  She straightened up everything and helped prepare for the meal.  She came to the funeral.  After the funeral, she came back and did the dishes again, got in her car and went home.  As far as I know, she never said a word.  She never introduced herself. But when I looked around, I realized that love had been in our house.” (quoted by Gene Getz in The Walk, p. 74)

In John 12, we find out that Martha’s house became filled with another aroma, the fragrance of perfume.  Martha’s sister Mary “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”

This, too, was a marvelous aroma.  It was the aroma of personal devotion and generosity.  Ann Kiemel writes, “Grandfather was in the backyard, and it was midmorning.  His small grandson kept begging him, ‘Gramps, can I fix you a hamburger?’

            “‘No, honey, gramps is full.  He just had breakfast.’

            “‘Hmmm.  Can I fix you a hot dog?’

            “‘I don’t think a hot dog would mix well with the eggs inside.’

            “The child tugged on his grandfather’s arms, and burst into an enormous smile.  ‘I know, Gramps . . . a glass of water?’

            “Grandfather looked into the dirt-smeared face.  He wasn’t thirsty, but he could see the boy’s desire to do something special for the man he most admired.  ‘Yep, I think Gramps could use a drink.’

            “The child ran into the kitchen.  He happened to pick up a dirty glass from the sink instead of a clean one.  He turned on the hot water tap, instead of the cold.  As he ran out the door with the water, the mud from his hands smeared over the outside of the glass, dribbled inside, and clouded the hot water.  ‘Here you are, Gramps.’  (Oh, his enthusiasm.)

            “Gramps looked at the awful glass of water, and caught the sparkle in the small face.  He drank it all, and wrapped his arms around the lad.  ‘You know, that was the best glass of water Gramps ever had.’” (I Love the Word ‘Impossible,’ pp. 92-93)

There is no greater taste and no greater fragrance than that of genuine love for another.

But another smell filled Martha’s and Mary’s home that day as well—not the delicious smell of Martha’s cooking or the delightful fragrance of Mary’s devotion, but the stench of Judas’ hypocrisy, greed, and condescending judgment. 

In her book The Sense of Smell in the Middle Ages, Katelynn Robinson comments, “Just as the odor of good fame reflects good actions and is healing to others through its good example, the stench of infamy reflects bad actions that have putrefied the soul, and infects others.  Sometimes wicked people can hide their bad deeds with ‘insincere good words and virtues’ and pious actions such as penance in the same way that stenches can be hidden under good odors…. The wicked person might even seem to have the odor of good fame.  However, the ability of a bad person to hide the stench of his true nature is only temporary…. The stench of spiritual corruption thus cannot be long disguised with pious actions.”

It strikes me that in my dealings with others, I have the opportunity to bring the beautiful aroma of service and hospitality, or the delightful fragrance of devotion and generosity, or the stench of insincerity and condescension.  Many years ago, Henry David Thoreau advised, “Behave so the aroma of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere.”

A Weeping Savior

Greek and Roman mythology believed in gods who were heartless, who had no care for humans.  William Barclay points out that, in Greek thinking, one of the greatest attributes of the gods was the Greek word apatheia, from which we get the English word apathy—the lack of care.  Indeed, heartfelt concern by the gods for people was punished harshly.   When Prometheus took pity on people and gave to them the gift of fire, Zeus—the chief of the gods—punished Prometheus harshly, binding him to a rock in the Caucuses where an eagle would descend upon him daily to eat Prometheus’ liver, only to have it grow back again each night so the punishment could be repeated each new day.  There was no place in the courts of Zeus for such a thing as pity toward humans.

But when God revealed Himself to the world in Jesus, what the world saw was a very different kind of God than what the Greeks and Romans expected.  When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus who had died four days earlier, and when he saw the people weeping, John 11:33 records that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  

The Greek word used here to describe Jesus as being greatly disturbed in spirit is enebrimasato (from the verb embrimaomai).  The word was used in classical Greek to describe the snorting of an angry horse.  When John got around to recording this miracle, he recalled that Jesus was so moved by Mary’s grief and the tears of the others that he snorted like an angry horse.

In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures) this word is used in Daniel 11:30 to express violent displeasure.  John recalls that Jesus was so deeply moved in spirit that he showed violent displeasure over the grief that surrounded him.

Jesus does not reveal a God who is apathetic toward our sorrows but one is passionately moved by our grief. 

John 11:35 goes on to report, “Jesus began to weep.”  Even though he knew that he would raise Lazarus back to life, Jesus felt their sorrow so fully that he joined the mourners in their grieving. 

Ken Gire asks the question, “Which is most amazing?  To have a God who raises the dead?  Or to have a God who weeps?”

It is no surprise to me that Jesus could raise the dead.  If Jesus is God, and if God is all powerful, then I can expect God to do miraculous things.

But who would expect to meet a God who feels our pain so deeply with us that he cries?

In his book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.  It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one can see his splendor and live.  A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live.  Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.” 

That quote stirs my soul.  Perhaps the most incredible aspect of God’s character is his willingness to take unto himself all of our sorrow!  How can any mortal look upon the fullness of sorrow that God takes upon Himself and survive?  Jesus can do it because he is all-powerful; he does do it because he is full of love for us!

A Disgusting Question

John 9:1-2 tells us, “As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’”    

What a disgusting question this is!  What a disgusting thing it is to approach life from the viewpoint that a birth defect or a health challenge is because of one’s sin or the sin of one’s parents! 

Consider the repercussions of either option:

If this man and his parents and their friends and relatives believed that his blindness from birth was the result of the man’s sin at birth or even before birth, how would they have treated him as a baby?  Would they have cooed over him as a “sweet little gift from God” whom they delighted in?  Or would they have withdrawn from him as a sinner who brought on his own disability?  As he grew and reached that inevitable milestone when young people begin to question their own worth and potential, would he be able to look beyond the oft repeated judgment that he is a sinner, justly cursed by God.  Throughout his life, those who looked upon him as having deserved blindness had dismissed him or pitied him as the object of God’s displeasure. 

If, on the other hand, it was believed that it was his parents’ sin that caused his blindness, what depth of guilt and shame that would have inflicted on the parents!  After listening to a lecture about “how fear inflicts illness and love cures it,” Dr. Jen Gunter, a gynecologist and blogger, wrote to the lecturer in anguish, “Can you explain how fear killed my son who died after 3 minutes of life?  After hearing you speak…I was left thinking his death was because I didn’t love him enough.”  How cruel to suggest that a newborn’s death or a newborn’s blindness is because of a parent’s sin!

The problem is that the people of Jesus’ day were influenced by an ancient version of the prosperity gospel—the idea that God rewards “good” people with blessings while visiting sickness and misfortune on those who are “bad.”  On top of that, the hearts of people in Jesus’ day were weighted down with a suffocating sense of fatalism—being resigned to the despair that whatever is going to happen to us is just going to happen.

The Japanese poet Issa provides the tragic epitome of fatalistic despair.  All five of Issa’s children died before he turned 30, then his young wife died as well.  Seeking consolation, Issa visited a Zen master, a Buddhist priest, who told him that the world is like a dew drop.  The sun rises and the dew evaporates.  That is all there is to life.  So Issa wrote this poem:

This Dewdrop world—

a dewdrop world it is, and still,

although it is….

There remained in Issa an unsatisfied longing for something more than fatalism.

Fortunately, in John 9, Jesus offered something in sharp contrast to both the prosperity gospel and fatalism: Grace and Opportunity.

Jesus cast aside the prosperity gospel and its idea that misfortune and illness are the result of sin when he announced to his disciples, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”  He replaced the lie of the prosperity gospel with the good news of God’s grace.  He saw this man not as a philosophical talking point but as a man in need of Christ’s touch, a man loved by God.

And Jesus cast aside fatalism when he declared, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  He replaced the despair of fatalism with the hope of new opportunities.  I appreciate that Jesus did not say, “He was born blind so that I could do a miracle,” but said, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  A miracle is a singular event that is over in a matter of minutes.  Jesus focuses instead on the man’s life, and on the works (plural) that would reveal God to others.  It has to do with far more than the proper functioning of a pair of eyes, for the chapter goes on to address the blindness of the Pharisees whose physical eyes worked fine. 

Verse 6 tells us that Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.” 

Other times, Jesus simply spoke and a person was healed.  Why does he go through such a strange procedure to heal this man?

I can think of two reasons:

1: Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath by mixing a formula, knowing full well that what he did was looked upon as illegal work for a Sabbath.  Jesus was making a point to the man (and to all who had written this man off as disdained by God): “You are worth the effort.  You are worth the work—even if it gets me in trouble with the legalists.  Those who misunderstood God’s ways will keep on misunderstanding, but you matter to me!”

2: In mixing the mud from his spit and spreading it on his eyes, Jesus was mixing the very essence of his being with this man.  When I wanted to discover my ancestry, I spat into a vial and mailed it in for analysis.  It told me who I am.  Jesus gave his very self to this man.  Remember that others had withdrawn from this one whom they considered punished by God.  But Jesus made intimate connection with him.  He didn’t heal the man from a distance but close up and hands on.