Matthew 26.6-13 – Loving in the here and now
Posted: 20 July 2010 in Matthew

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.

In this passage Jesus reminds his disciples that not everything in life can be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis, nor to any other form of crass pragmatism. Such an attitude is especially inappropriate in the presence of God, to whom we can offer nothing except our worship and adoration (cf Mary & Martha).

Even worse, the disciples appeared to be devaluing Jesus, the flesh and blood person they had there in front of them, in favour of some hazy concept such as “the poor”. Abstract concepts such as “the poor” make no demands upon us, unlike real people, and they are easy to manipulate (consciously or unconsciously) for our own ends. Coupled to the fact of original sin, that is why every movement which sets out to create heaven on earth creates hell on earth instead.

It is also why the two great commandments are about loving in the concrete, and in the here and now – not about creating the future paradise which only God can bring about.

It is inevitable, I suppose, that government sponsored welfare systems will reduce people to numbers, but it is an evil, and one which wouldn’t be necessary if we all observed the two great commandments.

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Numbers 23.4-11
The Immutability of God’s Words
Posted: 19 July 2010 in Numbers

And God met Balaam…. And the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak.

And he returned unto him, and, lo, he stood by his burnt sacrifice, he, and all the princes of Moab. And he took up his parable, and said, Balak the king of Moab hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel. How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his! And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.

Anybody familiar with this story will know that Balak makes several attempts to have Balaam curse Israel, and he fails each time. He is having trouble accommodating himself to what God has decreed, and after the second attempt Balak is reminded that God is not much given to changing his mind:

“God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?”

The narrative ends with Balaam affirming, in even more explicit terms, that Israel has been blessed by God. The point of the story is obviously that God’s eternal purposes cannot be frustrated by the machinations of men, and known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world (to quote Acts 15.18).

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1 Kings 17.23-24 & John 9.7-16
Responding to signs of God’s activity
Posted: 16 July 2010 in 1 Kings, John

“And Elijah took the child, and brought him down out of the chamber into the house, and delivered him unto his mother: and Elijah said, See, thy son liveth. And the woman said to Elijah, Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in thy mouth is truth.”

“And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing…. And it was the sabbath day when Jesus made the clay, and opened his eyes…. Then again the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. He said unto them, He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see. Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day.”

In the above passages the response of the woman, after witnessing the miracle performed by Elijah, could hardly stand in more marked contrast to the attitude of the Pharisees, when confronted with the miraculous healing performed healing by Jesus.

At one level the reason for the difference is that had one been chosen for salvation by God, whereas the other had not. But on another level the difference may be that the woman had recently experienced the kind of suffering which removes any sense of self sufficiency, or of being in control, and opens people up to God. The Pharisees, however, had not undergone the woman’s experience. Instead they were still wrapped up in their cocoon of social respectability, and jealous of their reputation for meticulous observance of the Sabbath. They were (they thought) in control of their own salvation.

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Matthew 20.1-12 – Rewards & Service of God
Posted: 15 July 2010 in Matthew

Clicking on this italicised passage will open the full text in a new window.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard…..

……And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

In this passage God, of course, is the vineyard owner, and we are the labourers. But if we try to push the parable too far, it immediately breaks down. Real labourers working in a real vineyard would, naturally, have a right to expect that their labours would be duly rewarded at the end of the day. However, the situation is different when God is the vineyard owner and we are the labourers. In the latter case we, the labourers, are already infinitely in the vineyard owner’s debt. He created us, in order that we could serve him, and we owe our very existence to him.

Therefore we can do nothing to pay off our debt, and still less can we put God in our debt. At the end of his/her life, somebody who had spent the last fifty years doing missionary work in some run down slums in India, would still be as much in God’s debt as somebody who underwent a deathbed conversion just hours before their death. Neither of them have the right to expect that they will receive any reward from God, and, if they are both brought to salvation, they must both equally receive it as an unmerited free gift.

If a Christian’s service of God is going to be motivated by anything at all, it has to be motivated by love, and not by any expectation of reward.

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Jeremiah 29.8-12 – Waiting Upon God
Posted: 14 July 2010 in Jeremiah

For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed. For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith the LORD. For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.

In this passage, the captives whom Nebuchadnezzar deported from Judea have God’s plans set out before them. It is made clear to them that there will be no swift return to their homeland, although it is God’s intention that their descendants will return eventually.

Inevitably these words from God do not meet with a glad reception. Human beings like things to happen on a human timescale, and ten or twenty years are the most they are normally prepared to contemplate. Just as inevitable, therefore, is the arrival of false prophets on the scene. They tell people what they want to hear, and they get listened to in preference to the words of Jeremiah.

These people were not exceptionally sinful. At one time or another, we all have been guilty of trying to put our own plans into effect – even when we half suspect that God’s will for us may be quite other than our own will for ourselves. Only after we have had our plans repeatedly thwarted does God reduce us (finally) to the state of obedience which should have been ours all along. It then turns out that doing God’s will is a whole lot easier than our repeated attempts to do our own.