For Prophet

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Numbers 16:36-50, Romans 4:13-25, Matthew 20:1-16


Several years ago my boss asked me to implement a survey of our board members and executives. When the due date for responses had passed, and only eight percent of the people had responded, he extended the due date. This happened twice more, and each time I grew increasingly frustrated and felt we were coddling the late respondents. When I asked why we were rewarding bad behavior, my boss explained: “The goal of this project is not to hold people to a schedule. It is to maximize participation so we have the best and most complete result.” His explanation changed my whole perception of the project.

One imagines people might have felt much the same way after Jesus told the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In that story, the owner of a vineyard hired men at various times of day, from early morning until just before evening, to work the remainder of the day. Regardless of when they started, all the men agreed to work for a denarius, roughly a day’s wages. The men who worked all day cried “unfair!” when the men who worked for an hour received the same compensation. The vineyard owner reminded them they’d all been paid what they’d agreed to and it was his money to distribute as he saw fit.

The full day’s wages represent the grace of God, which is available to us in full no matter when we receive it. Those who receive it later in the day – or in life – receive the same as those who arrive early.

The goal of this divine project is not to hold people to a schedule, but to maximize participation for the best and most complete result.

In a kingdom where the last are first, we may need to adjust our concepts of “fair” and “just.” Christ seems less concerned with efficiently doling out wages, than with extravagantly meeting needs. Having that vineyard owner for a boss might chafe our sense of fairness, but the business of the Kingdom is not business. Grace and mercy are not limited currency for us to earn and divide, but infinite light for us to reflect and multiply.

Comfort: We don’t have to keep track of each other’s spiritual debits and credits.

Challenge: We are asked to keep track of each other’s needs.

Prayer: God of grace and mercy, teach me to love abundantly and generously. Amen.

Discussion: In what situations does a seeming lack of fairness bother you most?

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Just Because

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Job 38:1-11; 42:1-6, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34


Some questions have no answers, or at least none we can understand. Job was a righteous man who’d been greatly blessed by God; he had a large family, lands and livestock, and good health. When Satan (not the devil we think of, but a member of God’s court known as The Accuser) claimed Job would lose faith if God revoked his favor, God took the bet. He killed Job’s family and livestock, struck him down with terrible disease, and left him a ruined man sitting on a dung heap.

Job’s friends tried to explain why these terrible things happened to him. Saying he must have sinned, they blamed Job for his own ills, but he knew he was innocent. Like well-meaning people at a funeral who tell bereaved family members “it’s part of God’s plan,” Job’s well-meaning friends didn’t manage to offer one comforting word. We all desperately want things to make sense, but sometimes they just don’t.

When Job finally gets to confront God, God’s response is pretty unsatisfying: “Where were you when I created the earth, the seas, and the heavens?” In other words: “know your place.” God doesn’t even feel obligated to disclose the wager. Sure God gives Job a new family and restores his fortunes, but can that ever make up for what was lost?

Is there any comfort to be found in this story? If we can let go of our need to explain everything, there is the comfort of a certain harsh wisdom. Sometimes disaster will rain down on you for no apparent reason. It won’t be your fault, and honestly there may not be a silver lining. Trying to assign it a purpose may leave you looking and feeling as ignorant as Job’s friends.

We. Don’t. Always. Get. To. Know.

However, we can know that in the midst of our worst times, and God is with us and rooting for us not to lose faith. If there’s a lesson to be learned, learn it. But don’t let your need to find one be more important than your need to trust God anyway.

Comfort: When bad things happen to you, sometimes it is the unknowable nature of the world, not a reason to believe you are being punished.

Challenge: When you can’t find meaning in tragedy, you may be called to make meaning from it.

Prayer: God, I will trust you always. Amen.

Discussion: What in your life doesn’t seem fair? If you stop insisting that it make sense, does that make it easier or more difficult to accept?

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Fair or Foul

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, 2 Kings 5:19-27, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, Matthew 5:27-37


Do you ever second-guess God?

Gehazi, the servant of the prophet Elishah, was not happy when Elijah accepted no gifts or payment for curing Naaman of leprosy.  “My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” Gehazi followed Naaman and pretended his master had asked for a tenant of silver and two sets of clothes to give to visiting prophets. A grateful Naaman threw in an extra talent and two servants. Gehazi hid away his loot, but Elishah knew what had happened. The displeased prophet declared Gehazi and his descendants would carry forever the leprosy that had afflicted Naaman.

We can become disgruntled when we think someone has gotten off too lightly. When success comes to someone who hasn’t paid the same dues we have, when punishment for wrongdoing is not as severe as we’d like, or when it feels like someone has “jumped line” and gotten something we “deserved” more, we may resent them, disparage them, or even try to sabotage them. Like Gehazi, we don’t always like the way our master shows mercy, and also like Gehazi we often think it’s our job to even the score when God has dropped the ball. Fair is fair, right?

Except Christ never teaches us to insist on fairness for ourselves, and certainly not to exact it at the expense of someone else. How God works in another person’s life is not the benchmark to which we should compare how God works in our lives. After all, some people have it worse than we do too, and we never seem to think fairness might involve moving downward toward those we believe have it worse instead of upward toward those we think have it better.

Mercy, by definition, is not fair. But if we claim to follow Christ, we must believe mercy is just – not only the mercy offered to us, but also the mercy offered to others, even mercy we would not ourselves bestow. When we accept that Christ has already redeemed us through the ultimate act of mercy, it becomes something we seek more to share than to acquire.

Comfort: You have been offered the ultimate mercy.

Challenge: When in doubt, ask.

Prayer: O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react to being treated unfairly?

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Buck Passing

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, 2 Samuel 23:1-7, 13-17, Acts 25:13-27, Mark 13:1-13


“The buck stops here.”
– Popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman

For two years Governor Felix let Paul languish in prison. On his way out he left him there as a favor to the Jews and as a problem for his successor, Festus. Festus didn’t know what to do with Paul. The charges against him were not Roman crimes, but Jewish conflicts.  To avoid an unfair trial in Jerusalem, Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to the Emperor. Yet, with no clear charges, Festus didn’t know how to explain to Rome why Paul had been sent for trial.

No one, it seems, was both willing and able to take ownership of this problem.

We see this kind of buck-passing in modern government as well. Lots of complaining, but few actual solutions – or proposed solutions which, while of questionable merit, conveniently don’t take effect until after the next election cycle. In our civic lives, we eagerly point fingers at those people who we believe (correctly or incorrectly) cause problems, but rarely do we look at ourselves to consider how we contribute to the very problems we condemn. For example, we don’t like the presence of illegal migrant farm workers, but our insistence on artificially low prices for produce makes them necessary for the agricultural industry. In our personal lives, we can be quick to blame others for our own shortcomings. Think of feuding siblings who blame each other for the years they’ve spent not speaking.

We need to stop passing the buck, and take ownership of our problems.

One of the first steps is realizing a solution often means moving past what seems “fair” to us and onto what makes things right.  If it seems unfair to be the sibling who offers an olive branch when we believe the other person has wronged us, maybe we could ask Jesus if he complained about fairness on the cross. Christ teaches us not to condemn or demand, but to love sacrificially. If we must pass a buck, let it be to someone who needs it more.


Comfort: With God’s help, you have more solutions inside you thank you think you do.

Challenge: Don’t complain about things you’re not willing to help change.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to be a healing presence in the world. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever realized you were contributing to a problem you blamed on other people?

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Getting What We Deserve

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Job 6:1-4, 8-15, 21, Acts 9:32-43, John 6:60-71


Our culture finds a certain satisfaction in seeing people get what they deserve. When we say “justice has been served” we are usually referring to the sentencing of a guilty person, or the acquittal of an innocent one. We romanticize the myth that anyone with a strong enough work ethic can “pull himself up by his bootstraps” and become a success. What we can’t quite wrap our heads around is when good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.

Job’s insistence that his suffering is unjust by such standards makes his friend Eliphaz uncomfortable. Like many of us, Eliphaz wants to believe people get what they deserve. He so desperately clings to a worldview threatened by Job’s situation that he can’t admit the reality that would comfort his friend: suffering is not always deserved. Job archly observes: “you see my calamity, and are afraid.”

Maybe questions that ask why people don’t get what they deserve are the wrong kinds of questions. Paul hunted Christians up to the moment of his conversion. What did he deserve? Jesus asks us to love and forgive our enemies. What do they deserve? What do we deserve? While most of the world works on a merit system, Jesus works with grace. “Good” people don’t need success, but spiritual growth. “Bad” people don’t need punishment, but healing. Deep down, we know this. We describe our criminal justice system as rehabilitative, though the reality is very different. Our worldly form of justice too often trumps the justice of Christ and the prophets.

What if Christian justice isn’t a focus on what we personally deserve, but on the act of providing bread and love and wholeness where none of these things are found? What if we are to temper accountability with mercy? Fairness with charity? Law with love? Suffering can’t be explained away in one or a thousand daily devotionals, but if our highest value is a life based on faith in Christ, that value is neither increased by prosperity nor decreased by suffering. In both joy and hardship we can find God.

Comfort: Grace is not earned, but given freely.

Challenge: When you read, listen to or watch this week’s news, note when worldly and Christian justice are they same and when they differ.

Prayer: God of justice, teach me its meaning. Amen.

Discussion: When are you tempted to promote worldly justice over Christ-like justice?

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