Seen By Men Or God?

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 6:1 New Living Translation

As Jesus moves to the next major section of His Sermon on the Mount, He focuses on how the heart is involved in acts of religious piety. He looks specifically at three acts of piety: charity to those in need, prayer, and fasting. The specific challenge given in each situation points to where a person focuses their attention when practicing these acts of piety. Is the person focussed on gaining the approval of other humans? Or are they most concerned with gaining the attention of God? The person who is seeking the attention of humanity will receive their reward in the praise of people as they make a show of their acts of piety. The person who is focused on the approval of God will not be concerned with the response of other people regardless of the location or method used to carry out acts of piety. The focus here is not so much a legalistic formula to follow in order to gain God’s approval as much as it is a prescription for radical treatment to cure us of the addiction to human praise. If your heart motive in your piety is completely driven by human praise, then go to great lengths to hide your personal piety from the view of others.

The narrative of the Gospels shows that this was a common issue in the days of Jesus. Certain religious sects were known for making a show of their acts of devotion. These people would place themselves in the most visible places and use instruments to gain attention while they were giving an offering or saying a prayer. They had the appearance of piety but Jesus makes clear that God could see through their facade and knew what was actually in their hearts. If their motive was to seek the praise of people that is all they would receive. The person who focused on bringing honor to God would receive honor in return from Him. In other places, Jesus even affirmed being seen by others in carrying out good deeds in order to bring honor to the Father. The key was having a heart that focused on glorifying God and not ourselves.

We see the same thing happening in our day. The advent of social media makes it even easier to draw attention to oneself in carrying out acts of charity. We face the same temptation and dilemma today that the people of Jesus’s day face. If our goal is to receive likes and shares on our Facebook page, then we may need to look at our motives. At the same time, though, sometimes social media is a way to motivate others to get involved in a cause that is important to us and God. So, sharing our passion for the things that God values can have a positive impact on our world. For the person whose heart is focused on the glory and Kingdom of God, there will always be a pause when sharing about something important to us. This is a good thing because it gives us time to check our motives. If our hope is to be seen and praised by our friends, then it is best to leave something unshared. If our heart is focused on motivating others to glorify our Heavenly Father and get involved in His Kingdom’s work, then we should feel free to share.

Prayer:
God help us to keep our motives pure in how we live out our acts of devotion to You. Help us to remember that your approval is more important than the approval of people.

Responding To Enemies

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 5:43-45 New Living Translation

In the second half of Matthew 5, Jesus gets beyond the surface issues of the Law many of His hearers had grown up with and looks at the heart issues behind the Law. He makes it clear that He is not on Earth to destroy the Law but to accomplish its purposes and point people to the values of God’s Kingdom that are the basis for the Law. The Law was about outward actions while Jesus wanted to see hearts changed into the image of God that they were originally designed for.

The greatest test of the image of God being realized in the hearts of humanity was demonstrated in how people responded to their enemies. Apparently, by the time that Jesus walked the land of Israel, the commandment to love your neighbor had been attached to a corollary that it was right to hate your enemy. As Jesus pointed out, though, there was nothing spectacular about loving those who love you. Even the despised tax collectors and pagans could do that. The thing that showed godly character was to love and even pray for those who hated and persecuted you. This was the character that God showed in letting the sun rise on the evil and they good. This is the character that Jesus challenged His disciples to imitate as the sought to live out the image of God in their lives.

We live in an age of great divisiveness. People seem quick to make enemies and disregard the humanity of anyone who is not on their chosen side. As followers of Jesus, we are called to live above the din of our day. By showing love and compassion for those who persecute and mistreat us we demonstrate the Kingdom of Heaven to those around us. In our own way, we can bring the presence of Heaven into the dark world around us by demonstrating the type of love that only the Spirit of God could create in us.

Prayer:
Father, it is not easy to love our enemies. Still, this is what You ask us to do. Give us the strength and compassion to live out Your perfect character that loves even an enemy.

Turning The World Upside Down

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
    for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble,
    for they will inherit the whole earth.”

Matthew 5:3-5 New Living Translation

The Sermon on the Mount may give us the best picture of what a world where God Space and Human Space (i.e. Heaven and Earth) become one again. In this teaching, Jesus defines many of the values that are key to the Kingdom of Heaven as compared to the ways of humanity. The opening statements of blessing may well be the foundation for what this Kingdom looks like. Instead of a kingdom based on pride and arrogance found through personal achievement, God values the people the world would most often look past. Jesus points to the poor, those who mourn, and the humble as the ones God truly blesses.

It would take a lot of faith for the people in His day to believe what Jesus was saying here. The reality they lived in painted the picture of a very different world. Israel was now under the control of its 4th successive empire (5th for the northern tribes). Rome was a harsh empire that rewarded violence and treachery over peace and justice. Their religious system was filled with corruption that focused on preserving their institutions and keeping themselves safe from Roman intervention more than they cared about justice for the people they were supposed to serve. In that type of world, it sounds nice to believe that humble people will inherit the earth, but reality seemed to say the humble simply were kicked around by the powers of the day.

Jesus didn’t ignore this reality. These statements of blessing end with an acknowledgment that when you live this way, persecution will happen. When you stand against the corruption of the world, the world will respond with accusations and persecution. People who live by the values Jesus calls for will stand out. Their very way of life will point to the corruption existing around them and it will make people nervous about their possible loss of power. Jesus told His disciples to expect persecution and to be glad when it comes because they were walking in the tradition of the prophets of old who stood against corruption in their day. These were the people that God was going to bless from an eternal perspective even if they saw nothing but persecution on this side of eternity.

We also live in an age of political corruption and oppression of the humble. Even our religious institutions often appear corrupted as we see the name of Jesus used to endorse values on both ends of the political spectrum that are opposed to the things He taught in the Sermon on the Mount. It can be hard to still believe that things like humility and peacemaking are ever rewarded. Still, we can look back through the lens of history and see the many times that corrupt empires have eventually fallen under their own weight. In that we can see that God is still purifying His creation from the corruption brought on it by Satan and the fall. Those who have held onto the values Jesus taught had a strength within them that caused them to believe in the reality of God’s Kingdom in spite of what they were seeing around them. We have the opportunity to walk in this same tradition and trust that God is still in the process of turning the corrupt systems of the world upside down.

Prayer:
Jesus, you promise that the humble will some day inherit the earth. We live in a world that doesn’t always look that way. Help us to keep the faith in Your promise that the world can be changed.

Happy Calves

The Lord of Heaven’s Armies says, “The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. They will be consumed—roots, branches, and all.

“But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture. On the day when I act, you will tread upon the wicked as if they were dust under your feet,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.

Malachi 4:1-3 New Living Translation

In times of corruption, it is often hard for the oppressed and the righteous to find hope. The people in Malachi’s time felt this. As if He was reading their thoughts, God had speculated that the people were saying what’s the point of following Him (3:15). From their perspective, it appeared that the arrogant people were blessed. They persisted in their evil and disregard for God, yet they continued to prosper and gain wealth from their exploitation of others. If God wasn’t going to intervene, what was the point of trying to honor Him?

God made it clear that a day of judgment was coming. There was a day coming when the arrogant would be consumed by the fire of God’s holiness and they would no longer oppress the weak and vulnerable. For those who revere His name, though, there is also a promise in these words. As the day of judgment comes, God also promises that one He calls the Sun of Righteousness will come. This Sun of Righteousness will bring healing for the oppressed and righteous ones. They will throw off their oppression and be as carefree as a calf playfully romping through the pasture. All the deeds of the arrogant ones who defy God will be trampled underfoot to be remembered no more.

In our world, we can often see cruelty and injustice being done by those who arrogantly thumb their nose at God with no regard for His just ways. It can appear that there is no consequence for their actions as they continue to amass wealth from their unjust ways. God takes the long view on these things, though. He knows that a day of righteous judgment is coming and those who arrogantly oppress others will meet the consequences of their injustice. Those of us who seek justice and righteousness can find hope in this day. Healing will come through Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness, and we will know what it means to be carefree again. God assures us that on that day we will see the difference between the righteous and the wicked people again.

Prayer:
God, thank You that You are righteous and that You will balance the scales of justice in the end. Help us to trust You to make your justice known and bring healing to our wounds through Your Son, Jesus.

A Fire That Purifies

“At that time I will put you on trial. I am eager to witness against all sorcerers and adulterers and liars. I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.

“I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.

Malachi 3:5-7a New Living Translation

As we transition to chapter three in our reading of Malachi, God reminds the people of the promise of the Messiah to come. The promise begins with a messenger that will precede the appearance of the Messiah. This messenger most likely points to John, who came prior to Jesus. In spite of the corruption of their society, the people still look forward to the coming of the Messiah. What they fail to remember is that the Messiah will also come as a judge to remove the corruption in their land. Malachi uses the imagery of precious metal being purified in a fire to show how God will remove the corruption from Israel on the day of the Lord.

The list of the corruption that God will judge shows how seriously He takes the concern of those oppressed by the wealthy people of society. Sorcery, adultery, and lying are mentioned, but God goes on to include those who do not pay their employees fairly, those who oppress the most vulnerable members of society (i.e. the widows and orphans), and those who deprive foreigners of justice. God sees the treatment of the poor and the outsider as evidence of their reverence for Him. If all humanity is created in the image of God, then taking advantage of the most vulnerable members of society demonstrates a lack of respect for the image of God in the people we neglect and oppress. A person who does not fear God will not fear the consequences of their actions toward the poor until it is too late.

While God is not pleased with the corruption of this generation, He reminds them of His covenant and His unchanging nature. He will always be faithful to their ancestors and will not completely destroy them even as He seeks to remove the corruption from their society. He offers them the opportunity to return to Him and follow His ways. He will continue to preserve those who are committed to His ways and seek to raise up a generation that is more committed to Him.

The unchangeable nature of God can be a comfort to us. God is committed to the restoration of His creation and the death of Jesus shows that He will stop at nothing to undo the effects of the Fall and the corruption that has resulted from it. His desire is a people who will live according to His ways and honor others as fellow beings created in the image of God. He desires a world where justice and righteousness reign. Sometimes we will experience the fire of trials in our journey through this world. Those fires are for our purification to burn away the unjust influences of society and to reveal the glorious image of our Creator in us more and more.

Prayer:
God, thank You for Your faithfulness to Your mission of restoring Your creation to its intended purpose. Help us to never take Your faithfulness for granted and to resist the corruption of our society.