The Influence of Presence

Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”
Matthew 13:33 New Living Translation

We have done our share of bread making in our house since buying a bread machine at a garage sale a few years ago. I have always been fascinated by the work of the yeast. I’ve learned you have to be careful with yeast, though. When I first attempted to make bread in our machine, I didn’t concern myself with the order I used to put the ingredients in. The yeast and the salt ended up touching each other and the salt killed the yeast. The end result was a hard and dense lump of cooked dough that had very little resemblance to bread. When used properly, though, the yeast permeates the flour mixture and creates a lighter, larger, and more airy loaf that is a pleasure to eat.

Throughout His time on earth, Jesus used many everyday illustrations to explain to His followers what the Kingdom of God was like. In the verse quoted above, He uses yeast as His illustration. This image points to how people who are living by the principles of the Kingdom of God can change the environment around them through influence. In a way, it contrasts the harsh religious system of the Pharisees seen in Chapter 12. The Pharisees tried to control behavior through external controls. The way of Jesus was to change hearts from the inside out. His approach would create healthier growth for people in an environment that nurtures and doesn’t crush.

We have the opportunity to bring the presence of the Kingdom of God to a variety of environments every day. The call of the followers of Jesus is to change environments from the inside out, not to control outcomes through external pressure. When we are faithfully present in people’s lives and follow the example of Jesus, we have the opportunity to influence positive change in the lives around us.

Jesus, help us to be people who influence others for good the way You do.

Guarding The Weak

He will not fight or shout
    or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
    or put out a flickering candle.
    Finally he will cause justice to be victorious.
And his name will be the hope
    of all the world.

Matthew 12:19-21 New Living Translation

In Matthew 12, we see the contrast between the gentle ways of the Kingdom of God and the harsh judgments of the ways of religion. We are brought through a series of encounters where Jesus finds himself at odds with the legalism of the Pharisees. First, they chide Jesus for not stopping His disciples from plucking off a few grains of wheat to eat while walking through a field on the Sabbath. Then He challenges their worldview by healing a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. They test Jesus by questioning the lawfulness of healing on the Sabbath but He responds by questioning their opinion that it would be unlawful to do good on the Sabbath. The Pharisees later accuse Jesus of casting out demons with the power of the devil, which is obviously ludicrous.

In the midst of these challenges, the Pharisees begin to plan how to kill Jesus. Instead of challenging the Pharisees at this moment He withdraws from the conflict and continues to minister to those who follow Him.  He continues to heal people but does His best not to draw attention to attention to Himself in the process. Matthew saw Jesus’s actions as fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 42 about the servant of the Lord. In contrast to the harsh judgments of the Pharisees, Jesus shows Himself as being gentle. so that He does not harm weak and fragile people. His concern is justice and restoration for those who have been weakened by injustice. If He responded violently to the plans of the Pharisees, He would have risked damaging the very ones He came to serve and save.

How we respond to different situations says a lot about the way in which the Spirit of God is working in our lives. If we respond with the harsh judgmentalism of the Pharisees we run the risk of damaging the tender faith of someone who is struggling. If we fight back against legalism in a harsh manner, we run the risk of doing the same thing. The way of Jesus is a way of humility and gentleness. It watches out for and protects the weakest among us. Jesus has shown us a great amount of gentleness in our weakness. We have the opportunity to do the same to the fragile among us.

Jesus, thank You that You protect the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. Help us to demonstrate the same spirit to those around us who struggle and are weak.

Letting Go Of Self-Reliance

“Don’t take any money in your money belts—no gold, silver, or even copper coins. Don’t carry a traveler’s bag with a change of clothes and sandals or even a walking stick. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve to be fed.”
Matthew 10:9-10 New Living Translation

In Matthew 10, we see a scene where Jesus sends the 12 men he would appoint as His first messengers on a mission to various towns in Israel to spread the news of the Kingdom of God coming. As Jesus went about the work of training up others to live in His Kingdom, he didn’t just sit them down in a circle and give them a lot of information to learn. He included them in the work. This was their first mission to go without Him and practice some of what they had learned.

As Jesus sends His first team of disciples out, He gives them instructions on how to conduct themselves as they travel. Interestingly enough, they are told not to bring the usual traveling provisions they may have been accustomed to bringing. They weren’t supposed to bring money, food, or a change of clothes with them. They were even told not to bring a walking stick, which was commonly used for protection along the road. Instead, they were instructed to rely on God and the hospitality of others along the way. They were supposed to find a host in whatever town they visited and stay with that person. The host would receive a blessing from God for their care for the traveling disciples. If they did not find a favorable host in a town, they were supposed to wipe the dust of that town from their feet and move along. This whole process was an opportunity for the first apostles to learn to leave behind their ways of self-reliance and trust their care in the hands of God and others.

As we seek to follow Jesus in His mission, we will have times when we need to learn to let go of our desire for self-sufficiency and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit for how we are supposed to find resources for the work we are doing. Our natural tendency may be to map out a plan with every detail taken care of. In our preparation, we may want to make sure we have every possibility covered before we set out on mission. There is a place for good stewardship and preparation. There are times, though, when we need to step out in obedience without having all our t’s crossed and i’s dotted. Those are the times that God calls us to a special reliance on HIm to be our provider. This keeps us humble in the work of the mission and opens us up to the possibility of miraculous provision to see something happen that goes beyond our own abilities. It also takes the attention off of us and puts it on Jesus, who is the one truly doing the work.

Lord, help us to put aside our need for self-reliance to enter a place where we learn to trust You and the other people You put in our lives.

Unrecognized Disease

When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”
Matthew 9:12-13

Right now, the world is in a panic over COVID-19 (the Corona Virus). We’ve heard about the death tolls in Asian countries and the total quarantine of one country in Europe. Many people in the United States respond with either a fear of what will happen as we begin to see cases in our country or a smug response that it will never be that bad here because we are better than that.

The second response reminds me of how the religious teachers responded to many of the people like Matthew that Jesus spent time with and ate with. They had a hard time understanding why someone who many people thought was the Messiah or a prophet would waste His time with such a religiously lower class of people. The people Jesus hung out with were the people that the religious ones learned to avoid so that they would not be infected by the disease of their sin. Eating a meal with someone in their culture was a sign of affirmation. Obviously, the Messiah wouldn’t affirm people given over to such corruption, right?

What Jesus was affirming, though, was not the corruption (a.k.a. sin) of Matthew and his associates. Jesus was affirming the image of God in each of them as He sought to bring that out and remove the corrupted behaviors. This is what the Pharisees had difficulty seeing. They were so focused on their own righteousness, that they failed to see the image of God in others. Ironically, this may have covered over a more dangerous condition in their own hearts, the opinion that they were not in need of someone to heal them. In Jesus’ statement at the end of this discussion, He isn’t saying “don’t worry, you’re already righteous and these ‘sinners’ need me more” as much as He is saying to the Pharisees that they act as if they don’t need His help. Therefore, He is focusing on the people who realize they need Him and leaving the ones who think they have it all figured out to their own outcomes.

We face the same choice in our own lives. Will we see ourselves as totally righteous through our own merit and in need of no help from God? Or will we recognize our own vulnerability to the same corruption we point out in others and come to Jesus to heal our hearts? Also, as we seek to fulfill the mission of God in our world, will we affirm the image of God in others and spend enough time with them to help them realize the image of God in themselves?

Jesus, thank you that you came for those of us who know we need You. Help us to never become so self-confident that we see ourselves without need. Help us to also recognize the image of God in others around us, as well.

(A poem inspired by this passage)
A More Deadly Disease
Have you no time for me?
Not that I need you
I know all I need to do
to keep me safe from disease

Have you no time for me?
Not that I need you
But I’m offended by the time
You give the least of these

Have you no time for me?
Not that I need you
Still, I wonder if a more
deadly disease has entered me

Good and Bad Trees

“Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit.
Matthew 7:15-17 New Living Translation

As Jesus nears the end of His Sermon on the Mount, He turns His attention to how actions will be the sign of someone’s heart attitude toward the things He has said and the values of God’s Kingdom. Jesus is fully aware that there are some who will claim allegiance to His name but the fruit of their lives will demonstrate something different. The entirety of the Sermon on the Mount gives us a good picture of what a person whose heart is committed to the values of the Kingdom of God will look like. It is a fuller picture of what God challenged the Israelites to remember through the prophet Micah centuries before this. The Sermon on the Mount demonstrates what it means to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah6:8). The person whose actions do not demonstrate this type of heart runs the risk of finding themselves on the outside looking in at the Kingdom of God, regardless of the other works they do in the name of Jesus.

The history of Western Christianity is filled with examples of people who acted in the name of Jesus but the fruit they produced demonstrates values that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God. Whether it be the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the forced conversion of conquered people groups, or the Salem witch trials (and many more examples like this); all these activities demonstrate the bad fruit of those who claim to act on behalf of Jesus but their hearts have not been formed by His values. Even those whose overall fruit is good often have moments in their lives when they demonstrated the bad fruit of the values of the world instead of the values of the Kingdom of God. It is in these times, that the Holy Spirit will work to prune out whatever is not of the Kingdom of God while seeking to preserve the overall life of a soul that is leaning toward His Kingdom.

Healthy self-examination is always a good practice for those of us who seek to follow Jesus. As we do our actions in the name of Christ, do we take the time to examine if our plans are motivated by Kingdom values or another set of values? If our heart is committed to acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly, we have the opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to prune off all actions that are not motivated by the things that Jesus values.

Holy Spirit, examine my heart. If there is anything that does not reflect the values of the Kingdom of God prune the bad fruit from my life to make more room for the good fruit of God’s Kingdom.