Giving with Christ at the Center | Matthew 6:2-4

Having directed his followers to practice kingdom righteousness with the heavenly Father and his glory as their center of motivation rather than their self-glorification, Jesus moves to elaborate through specific examples, the first of which is giving.

He says “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men.”

It is doubtful people literally blew trumpets as they gave offerings. This is more likely a reference to the noise of the coins clinking into the money chest, some of which were actually sculpted in the shape of trumpets. By dropping large handfuls or bagfuls of clanking coins into the chest, they were essentially turning their giving into an act of show. The word hypocrite literally means actor, one who pretends to be someone he’s not in order to please onlookers and garner their praise. Jesus incorporates this imagery many times in calling out people whose piety is duplicitous; here he applies it to those who give.

Whereas charitable giving was an inherent part of Jewish piety, in Greek culture it was utilized as a means to magnify one’s social status to be known as a benefactor. It was apparently a practice that had taken root amongst Jewish culture.

The twisted heart of hypocrisy beats for the recognition and acknowledgment of spectators. It makes giving about getting. It twists giving into a self-revolving indulgence instead of a loving benefit to one in need. It turns service into self-gratification. It’s a self-at-the-center sentiment that warps Jesus’ words to believe it is more blessed to receive than to give. Hypocrisy diminishes the holiness God has purposed for the hearts of humanity.

Jesus would not have this hypocrisy. Charitable giving was not for incurring applause, honor, esteem, or respect from men. In fact, if that is our motive in ministry or Christian living, we should beware; Jesus says bluntly “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full”.

If we give “to be noticed” or to “be honored by men”, it reveals our driving conviction that the esteem of humans is the highest and most valued appraisal we can receive and is worth spending our lives and energy in its pursuit. While exposing an idolatrous regard for man’s affirmation, it also reveals a very low regard for God’s glory. An intent so bent on getting man’s glory has no room and no need for God’s blessedness. Indeed, since it was not sought, it should not be expected.

Jesus continues “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

With the imagery of hands hiding from each other Jesus illustrates a generosity that is maintained in secrecy. This is the first of what will be three times Jesus stresses secrecy in this conversation. Why is secrecy so emphasized in this giving context?

Secrecy is the functioning framework of humility. A donor’s willingness to maintain secrecy in their generosity reveals a heart satisfied in the Father. They see the Father, are contentedly captivated by His wondrous glory and immeasurable goodness poured upon the people of Earth, and simply reflect His generosity in their lives knowing He sees and is pleased. They know there is no need to pine for people’s pleasure when their lives and love hold the delightful attention of the Father. Self-aggrandizing hinders how others perceive God’s glory. Giving that is done with the humility of this secrecy and simplicity moves the giver out of the way so the recipient beholds God alone and rejoices in His demonstrated goodness.

Giving is both an act of proclamation and participation.

In giving we proclaim the Father’s concern and care for His creation to those in need. When people receive the gift, they receive kingdom reality; the redemption of God is laid before them in gift form.

In giving, we participate in the character of Christ. Giving is a way we follow Jesus. The person of Jesus, who most clearly expresses the fullness of the Father’s goodness, is formed in us.

Our giving is kingdom dynamics at work. By giving with God’s glory at our motivational center, we both participate in and proclaim the redemptive reality God is establishing. As the Father’s most glorious gift was Christ, our gifts are redemptive reflections of Christ. When disciples give, it is Jesus being received; truly “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

 

 

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Following Jesus in our everyday roles

For the past few months I have been studying and writing through the Book of Matthew with a specific focus on discipleship.  I recently examined the moment Jesus called his first disciples.  He is walking along the Sea of Galilee and he sees two fishermen, Simon and Andrew.

Watching them work, I think Jesus recognized several qualities in them well suited for the life he would prepare them for.  So with a reference to their role, he calls them “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

In Jesus’ “fishers of men” phrase, he takes the role they have spent their lives playing out and adaptively applies it to function redemptively for his kingdom purposes.

What about the role of a fisherman might be formative for the life of a disciple?

  • First century fishermen had to be out on long fishing trips, roughing it out in dangerous sea conditions, with the sunshine burning their face, salty air and water drying their skin, the stinky messiness of fish guts and sweat. They possessed a tenacity the life of discipleship would also require.
  • Fishermen were well acquainted with repetitive work patterns: throw the net in, wait, pull the net out, sift through the catch, throw some back, clean the ones they kept, then repeat. They knew how to do a job, day in and day out. That’s how commitment is formed.
  • Fishermen understood the fish wouldn’t come to them; just like Jesus actively approached them, they knew the responsibility of making the first move was on them.
  • Fishermen understood patience. Much of their job depended on waiting for the fish schools to amass in their nets, or waiting for the right fishing hour or season. The life of discipleship often requires even more patience.
  • Fishermen dealt with disappointment and frustration. Though their nets went empty at times, they knew that was part of the job. Sometimes they’re up, sometimes they’re down. That’s why discipleship is not about numbers, but essence.
  • Fishermen were responsible for what was theirs. In v21, they were mending their nets, repairing their equipment, respecting the work by caring for their stuff. A part of following Jesus with excellence means respecting what we have.
  • Fishermen knew the importance of teamwork. The nets were big, the fish were heavy, and it often required a few boats to complete the work. It couldn’t be done alone. These fishermen were brothers and partners in the trade. Following Jesus doesn’t bring us into a private relationship with him, but a communal one that is blessed by the Body.
  • Fishermen understood the reality of their role. Knowing they would never be rich or famous, they were content with their context and lived and worked responsibly.

I’m not implying these characteristics qualified them to follow Jesus, but only that Jesus saw value where many religious experts in his time (and ours) did not; value he would endow with redemptive reality, forming them to function redemptively.

I believe how Jesus frames his call for them to follow reveals or suggests how our roles in life can serve redemptive functions.

It makes me think back to many of the jobs I have held.  I’ve been a fast food worker, a dish washer, a store cashier; I’ve cleaned out city sewers, was a cemetery groundskeeper, did a little grave digging.  One summer I supervised a team of high school students as we cleaned six different camp bathhouses every day.  I’ve also been a teacher in South Korea.  When I think back on each of those roles I’ve played, I can recall numerous moments and conversations that became centered on Jesus and the redemptive life he brings.

Others come to mind as well.  I know athletic coaches who are ministers in their own way.  I once met a restaurant owner who helped advise his pastor on how to make his congregation more welcoming and service-oriented.  Another friend turned a coffee shop he managed into something of a community haven.

Many times I think we take a look around at where we are in life or at the roles we play and doubt we really have anything to offer God or humanity.  Those doubts often come with the presumption that our roles must be exciting or resourceful in order to make any difference.  But I think of Paul’s comment to the Corinthians: “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and…by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the LORD’.”

Put another way, God is bringing the world into his redemptive reality by working out his salvation in the ordinary, everyday details.  I believe the way Jesus phrased his call to the fishermen frames an intention for ordinary roles to serve in redemptive functions.  Christ abides in the common so that what is common may reveal Christ.  That means as a follower of Jesus, you have the ability to reveal and make much of Jesus through the role you play every day right where you are at.  Christ in you is what you have to offer.

Parting question: how could the redeeming character of Jesus be revealed in the roles you play every day?

 

 

The grace of Christ’s call | Matthew 4:18-22

Having moved to the Galilean town of Capernaum, Jesus now begins his ministry.  Taking up where John had left off, he starts to preach “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Though the message was similar, Jesus would emphatically fulfill what John’s ministry had framed by personifying the reality of God’s redemptive reign he was to usher in as Messiah.  And that this reality would actually be experienced as redemptive, right from the beginning Jesus required the good news he preached to not only have presentation, but also participation.  God’s kingdom reality isn’t merely a spectacle; it must be shared in.

Around the time Jesus had started preaching, he was walking along the Sea of Galilee one day and saw two fishermen brothers casting their nets out.  Their names were Simon and Andrew.  Jesus may have already met and interacted with these men (John 1:35-42) or demonstrated his unique power and presence to them (Luke 5:1-11); Matthew doesn’t bother with their relationship details because his main concern is Jesus’ call.  Jesus said to them “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Traditionally, Jewish students had to apply to study under a certain rabbi and wait for his acceptance if he thought they showed potential and were worth his time.  To actually be called by a rabbi was a highly unconventional honor.  Jesus’ ministry has only just begun and he is already reordering a discipleship tradition in order to reveal God’s grace embedded in the good news he proclaimed.  The grace of Jesus’ call then consequently elicits from Simon and Andrew a response worthy of the grace extended to them: “Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.”

After a short walk, Jesus came upon James and John, two other fishermen brothers mending nets in the boat with their father, and he called them to follow; in the upending of another tradition, they also immediately left their boat and father and followed Jesus.  By leaving their trade, these four fishermen are setting aside familial responsibilities in order to participate with Jesus in the good life he is beginning to proclaim.  What they were as fishermen will now grow to function redemptively as their lives begin to bear witness to the reality being shaped in them with every step they take with Jesus.

The call of Jesus is where discipleship begins.

Jesus’ call to follow is an offering of grace; the disciples’ response to follow is the receiving of that grace.  Following Jesus is grace-saturated fellowship with Jesus.  His words prepare a path for us to follow; his actions pave that path with the power of his presence.  Every faith-filled step we take upon his path brings us further into the reality of his redemptive reign and conforms our character to the wholeness of his holiness.

Discipleship never begins on our own initiative.  It is ignited by the grace of his call.  As the reality of the good news echoes throughout the world, “Follow Me” resonates in its every hearing and aligns our course.  If we have the ears to hear, the grace of his call forms in us the faith to follow him upon the way where his reality is revealed, his redemption is received, and his reign means our rejoicing rest.

 

 

The Reality of Repentance | Matthew 3:1-12

With the birth narrative complete, Matthew now starts to set up the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry.  Several years have passed.  Due to several factors—increased Roman occupation and control, Herod Antipas’ filthy rule, religious hermits escaping to the desert, religious radicals disrupting the region, pontificating religious experts presiding in Jerusalem, and an entire land of frustrated, downcast, oppressed people faintly hoping for something—the land was thick with tension.  But into such a boiling melting pot good news would come.

It would not begin with Jesus, however, but with “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the LORD, make His paths straight!’”

Described as a desert-dweller, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey, John was more than a preacher; he was a herald of what was coming, and who was bringing it.  The good news he summarily proclaimed was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

It’s a rather vague statement.  Matthew is content with that.  No list of rules is included, no mold to measure up to, no expert to supervise or control; just a simple imperative—Repent.

It’s not a new direction John is calling them to, but an old one; a return to the holy heart of God.  John’s ministry mainly presented a course correction for the people, his words signaling “You people are going the wrong way!”  He remained mum, however, on what the right way was; framing it only as “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, these words would carve a path into the people’s minds and hearts, readying them for Messiah’s arrival and subsequent paving of the right “way of the LORD” upon that path John had prepared.  John’s role was not to effect transformation but to prepare the people for the transformation approaching in the redemptive reality of God’s kingdom.  Like Elijah, he was there to re-call the people, to reappoint them to their holy purpose, to redirect them.  Return.  Repent.

As John carried out his ministry of repentance, the responses varied.  People from everywhere—Jerusalem, all Judea, the Jordan River regions—went out to him, to listen, to let his words form kingdom reality in their hearts.  Convicted to return to the Lord, they confessed to John their sins and would then be baptized to mark their return.  Our common word for this event is revival, a movement characterized by the renewal of religious or spiritual fervor.  Revival can be very exciting.  It can pull us out of the throes of idolatry, clear away the cobwebs of indifference, call people’s hearts forward into God’s sanctifying presence, give people a sense of help for today and hope for tomorrow, energize obedience.  These reliefs were no doubt experienced by the people here.  But revival can be tricky; sometimes it becomes about the excitement and experience itself.  John’s ministry was no exception.

Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees began coming for baptism.  Unimpressed, John calls them out: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  Knowing their habits of hypocrisy, politicizing, revising and circumventing the Law, dominating the people, and showing off, John knew they were only there to get in on the party; repentance may have been trendy then, but John would not tolerate such pretentiousness.  So he instructs them “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Forget the butterflies and goose bumps, the adrenaline and the tears, the resolutions you make at retreats.  Revival is not about the revelry, but returning to the holiness of God.  Revival may seem romantic, but that fades away quickly as we discover repentance means living out the way of holiness, very slowly, but very surely, through the everyday details of life.

When faced with the reality of what repentance requires of us, we may here begin to backtrack, thinking we may not have been that bad after all.  Anticipating this attitude, John then tells them “And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.”

The Pharisees and Sadducees often relied on their Abrahamic legacy to justify themselves; John says if legacy was only what God was interested in, God could raise up dumb rocks for that dead purpose.  God is interested in legacy, but a legacy of holiness.  Holiness has no substitute and holiness has no shortcut.  Holiness is the substance of God’s call on their lives.  And so John warns “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  His point is succinct: time is of the essence; be holy or become worthless.

Not only did John know the danger of trendiness in religious movements, he also knew such trendiness often fed off the personalities of religious celebrities, so he takes care to diminish and minimize himself while making much of the imminent Messiah: “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

What is coming will be purifying and sanctifying.  The reality of what that will be will soon be clarified for the people, but John won’t be the one to clarify it.  Its reality belongs to the one who reigns over it and shall be revealed upon his arrival.  Until then, the reality of John’s message permeates the wilderness and all who catch the wind of his words “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Repentance is not a “one and done” action; it’s a decision that must be followed up.  It’s the first step in a lifetime of following Jesus and being formed in his fellowship.  As Eugene Peterson writes, repentance is “a long obedience in the same direction”.  We cannot follow what we are not facing; I pray that as you meditate on this story, John’s words will convince and compel you to the holy heart of Christ, to faithfully follow in his fruitful fellowship.