Washing Our Hands of Mercy


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ecclesiastes 5:8-20, Galatians 3:23-4:11, Matthew 15:1-20

Christianity has existed for almost two thousand years. Over the centuries it has evolved in some ways into something Jesus might barely recognize. Or maybe it evolved into something he would find all too familiar: an institution whose highest priority is too often its own preservation;  an institution that claims a scriptural basis but predictably twists that scripture to justify human preferences and biases. If that criticism sounds harsh, consider today’s reading from Matthew.

The Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus and his disciples for not performing the traditional hand-washing before meals. Jesus countered by condemning them for using man-made conventions to help people shelter their money through the temple when they didn’t want to “waste” it taking care of their aging parents. The letter of the law permitted this practice, but undermined the spirit of the commandment to “honor thy father and mother.” When the disciples later expressed concern he’d offended the Pharisees, he said:

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions […] These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

Twenty centuries have accumulated a lot of traditions which obscure the message of Christ. Many of them were intended to guide us, but often we have let them come to define us. Rules and practices specific to a time or culture are revered like commandments not because they honor God, but because they honor our self-righteousness.

“We take communion the proper way. We baptize the proper way. We say the proper Sinner’s Prayer. We don’t do X, Y and Z…” Jesus does not ask us only to avoid sin, he asks us to love proactively. What good is not taking the Lord’s name in vain if we don’t speak that same glorious name in love to others? How well do we serve God by condemning abortion but neglecting the hungry children of single mothers?

Law and ethics are separate fields of study partly because you can observe the first without having any concern for the second. Our duty as Christians is to love God and our neighbors. Often our disagreements about how to execute that duty are based more in traditions and biases than in love. When we are quick to discipline or enforce in God’s name, but slower to demonstrate mercy, we disrespect God’s character. As Psalm 103:8 tells us, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

Let’s demonstrate our love for God – and by extension each other – with both our lips and our hearts.

Comfort: God’s love is bigger than our traditions.

Challenge: Sometimes to love, we must unlearn.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me the humility necessary to follow your will instead of human laws.

Discussion: Have you had to discard any traditions or customs to better follow your faith?

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Civil Disobedience


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Proverbs 8:1-21, 2 John 1-13, Matthew 12:1-14

The Gospels contain several examples of Christ breaking the Law to serve a greater good. In today’s reading from Matthew he hits the Pharisees with a double whammy. First, he and his hungry disciples pick heads of grain to eat while they are walking through a field, though the Law forbid harvesting on the Sabbath. Then Jesus heals a man with a withered hand (also work forbidden on the Sabbath) and justifies it by asking his critics if, had they only one sheep and it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, would they lift it out?

As followers of Christ we understand God “desires mercy and not sacrifice” yet many civil and religious laws attempt to bind us to legalism over mercy. When are we called to civil disobedience – that is, disobeying the law out of Christian conscience? Without respect to their merit, some examples include conscientious objectors during wartime, refusal to sign marriage certificates for gay couples, and passing out food to homeless people despite local ordinances forbidding it. Further complicating the matter, Paul tells us in many scriptures to obey the civil authorities because they have been appointed by God.

What can we learn from Jesus’s examples of lawbreaking? Jesus breaks the law to show mercy to others – the sick, the hungry, and the outcast. He doesn’t do it to benefit himself, or to make a show of his piety. To the contrary, his actions compelled religious leaders to seek his destruction. Even when he cleansed the temple by driving out the money changers and livestock dealers, he was confronting a system that was technically legal but exploiting the disadvantaged. That’s the flip side of the coin: pretending our adherence to the law excuses our unmerciful behaviors.

We can’t opt out of society’s laws altogether – that’s simply anarchy – but when the law compels us to do something contrary to God’s desire for mercy, we must stand for God. Like Jesus we must be willing to suffer the consequences of obeying that higher law. And we must do it with the humility of a king whose only crown was thorns.

Comfort: You don’t have to fight every little aspect of society that doesn’t dovetail with your faith…

Challenge: …but you should be willing to stand up in the face of injustice.

Prayer: God of wisdom, teach me when to humbly respect authority, and when to humbly confront it. Amen.

Discussion: Have you broken the law – or the rules – to show mercy?

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Temptation Situation


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 20:1-21, Colossians 1:24-2:7, Matthew 4:1-11

A friend once said no matter how obviously stupid a behavior is, if there’s a law against it someone has tried it. So the Baltimore, Maryland law against taking a lion to the movies really gives one pause. A more sobering example, child labor laws exist because not enough people found it otherwise important not to exploit children. My friend also said if we passed a law against drinking bleach, Clorox speakeasies would pop up everywhere. It can be hard to tell whether rules were made to be broken, or  made for the broken.

After God announced the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the people of Israel fled from the foot of the mountain and begged Moses not to let God speak to them directly. They said they feared hearing God’s voice would kill them, but it probably also shamed them. Indirectly God was saying: “I know what’s in your hearts: murder, adultery, theft. Just don’t.” When Moses said God was trying to put fear into them so they would not sin, he really meant fear. Sometimes it’s all that keeps us in line.

Whether or not we are optimistic about human nature, Jesus demonstrates we can be better. Preceding his ministry, he fasted in the desert for forty days. Afterward, when he was at his weakest, the devil tried to tempt him.

Turn the stones to bread?
Man lives on every word from the mouth of God. 

Prove yourself by leaping off this cliff and letting angels save you?
Don’t test the Lord.

Worship me and rule all you see?
Worship no one but God.

Jesus said these things were written, and they were, but except for the third they weren’t hard and fast rules. There was no law about turning stones to bread, no specific definition of testing the Lord. Christ consistently showed us obedience to the law was only the beginning of being faithful to God. He tells us love is stronger than fear. He invites us to be more than followers of law, but lovers of God and humankind. When love trumps fear, obedience is not a burden but a joy.

Comfort: Everyone is tempted. We can depend on Christ to help us resist.

Challenge: We like to believe willpower should be enough to handle temptation, and can be pretty hard on ourselves when we feel we’ve failed. Read this article on the limitations of willpower and how to make real change.

Prayer: Gracious God, thank you for loving me enough to set rules, and trusting me enough to live beyond them. Teach me to rely on your love to make good and just choices. Amen.

Discussion: How can you implement the principles you read about in the challenge link?

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Hearts Of Stone


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Exodus 7:25-8:19, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Mark 10:17-31

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tells the people the law under Moses (which he calls the “ministry of death”) was chiseled in stone, while the ministry of the Spirit is written on their hearts. He also distinguishes them as the ministry of condemnation and the ministry of justification.  For people who were used to having all of God’s requirements written down in an agreed-upon format, this was an understandably difficult transition.

The New Testament wasn’t compiled until well after Paul’s death. When he preached about Christ, Paul wasn’t beholden to specific texts, a situation with both challenges and advantages. He had to constantly meditate on what the will of Christ might be, since he was the first person bringing this message to most of the people he encountered. On the other hand, not being bound by chapter and verse, he was free to speak the language of the heart, which created opportunities for mercy often unthinkable under the restrictions of pure law.

The New Testament is a collection of testimony and letters of advice and encouragement, not a basis for hard and fast laws, no matter how much some might like it to be. So how do we know what to do? The challenge of the ministry of justification is that we can’t actually read what is written on anyone else’s heart. Because it’s our nature to prefer defined expectations, we tend to assume it matches what is written on our own, and build our expectations for them on that basis. If we begin to judge people for not meeting our own self-imposed limits and rules, we are back to the ministry of condemnation, and the living words written on our hearts harden like stone tablets.

Our job is to understand what God has written on our own hearts, and live accordingly. Paul’s ministry of justification assumes the law is on our hearts, and encourages us to assume the same of others. Christ invites and trusts us to fulfill the law of love, and encourages us to allow others the freedom to do the same.

Comfort: The ministry of death has passed. Christ offers us new life.

Challenge: We are responsible for discerning, through our relationship with Christ, what is right and what is wrong.

Prayers: Merciful God, thank you for the ministry of life made possible through Jesus Christ. I pray for the wisdom and discernment to follow your will, not my own. Spare me from judgment as I spare my neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: What hard and fast rules do you cling to that may be more yours than God’s?

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The Law, Weakened By The Flesh


Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 84; 150, Genesis 44:1-17, Romans 8:1-10, John 5:25-29

Paul’s letter to the Romans builds a complex theological argument slowly and at length, so examining a small piece of it doesn’t give us a flavor of the whole text. That disclaimer aside, let’s consider the following (half) verse: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” Paul was talking about Christ fulfilling the law in a spiritual way that no mere human ever could. Notice Paul does not judge the law itself, which was given by God, but on how humans managed to corrupt it.

If human beings can corrupt God’s law, imagine what we’ve done with man-made ones.

How many laws and institutions have we elevated to nearly sacred status, only to abuse them from the inside out? Most major Christian denominations we know today exist because people insisted agreement on a specific human interpretation of God’s will was more important than learning to live as Christ’s one body. History has borne bloody witness to the corruption and danger of religions seeking to govern rather than serve.

For many Americans the ideas of democracy and capitalism have mingled with Christianity in an unhealthy way, much like divine right of kings and feudalism have been rationalized in the past. Faith has been used to justify democracy and tyranny, capitalism and socialism. God’s law – fulfilled in Christ – is beyond limited political and economic definitions.

We want Jesus to be on our “side” and can’t imagine that he’s not, but whenever we splice the flesh of  political and economic philosophies onto our faith, we weaken it. When we conflate human laws, constitutions, authorities, and systems with faith in Christ, we tend to mold our Christianity to fit our politics – liberal or conservative – when we should be doing just the opposite. Christian faith must stand outside any government or economy, because we are called to challenge them when they are unjust – and they are all eventually unjust.

All human laws and institutions will fade. The ones we support right now are no exception. If we are going to campaign for something, let it be God’s eternal Kingdom.

Comfort: Jesus has freed us from the obligations of perfection.

Challenge: Work hard to read the Gospel for what it is, not what you’d like it to be.

Prayer: God of justice, I dedicate myself to you before any human institution. Guide my thoughts and actions to serve you and not my own limited perspective. Thank your for the eternal gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What political, economic, legal, or other beliefs have you spliced onto your faith? In what ways does that keep you from being open to God’s larger law of love?

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Technical Difficulties


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window): 
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Genesis 42:29-38, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Mark 4:21-34

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial.

Paul wrote these words to the Corinthian church because its members were twisting his message. They believed they were permitted to sin with abandon because Christ had paid the price to free them from the law, and Corinth was the place to sin big – think New Orleans during Mardi Gras, minus the restraint. Paul had painted himself into a bit of a theological corner; he couldn’t reprimand the people for breaking the law, but would be remiss to let them off on that technicality. So when the Corinthians claimed “all things are lawful” Paul countered with “not all things are beneficial.” If the driving force in our choices is not Christ, we are lost.

We face the same moral perils if we think of salvation in purely personal terms. Right belief does not excuse wrong behavior, even when that behavior is within the law. Throughout history, many legal but immoral things have been practiced by Christians: spousal abuse, genocide, child exploitation, Jim Crow, reparative therapy, etc. We may try to excuse terrible legalities by claiming they were a product of ignorance and era, but Christ’s teachings are timeless. For example, while neither Paul nor Jesus condemned slavery, both spoke against mistreating slaves, who were equally beloved children of God.

And there’s the key: salvation is not just about me, but about Christ’s love for everyone. I may be within my legal rights to exploit a vulnerable person or community. I may call it good business and pat myself on the back for my savvy. I may even sleep soundly in the blanket of my salvation … but have I served Christ as he has commanded me to? Have I willingly sacrificed my own wealth and comfort to serve those who have less than I do – even those I despise? Have I let civil law excuse vice and suppress virtue?

Christ did not have kind words for people who built their faith around legal technicalities. Let’s concentrate on what we can give, and not what we can get away with.

Comfort: Christ has freed us from the law so we can better love.

Challenge: The golden rule is “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” The platinum rule is “Do unto others as they’d have you do unto them.” Let’s follow the priceless rule: “Do unto others as Christ would have you do unto them.”

Prayers: God of grace, thank you for the priceless gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Make me strong enough to live beyond the law, and to love as you have asked me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever gotten away with something on a technicality? How did it feel?

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Following The Recipe


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3, 5-18, Revelation 18:21-24, Matthew 15:29-39

There’s an old joke about a new bride who wants to make her husband happy by learning to prepare a roast – his favorite meal – just the way his mother did. She spends time with her mother-in-law and memorizes every step of the recipe. One night she surprises her husband with a beautifully prepared roast. He enjoys it immensely but asks why she cut the ends of the roast. “That’s what your mother does,” she replies. “That,” he says, “is because she can’t find the bigger pan.”

We’ve gotten mileage out of this joke before, but this time let’s consider it in the context of today’s passage from Nehemiah.

After the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem after decades in Babylonian exile, they rededicated themselves to their Lord and their Law. The priests wanted to help the people understand the law, so while all the people were gathered “they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

They didn’t just read verbatim, they provided context. Part of God’s previous displeasure with the people, which had culminated in the exile they had just concluded, was their tendency to follow the letter of the law without valuing or considering the principles of mercy and justice behind it. Nobody wanted to that to happen again.

Yet a little less than five hundred years later when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem many people had forgotten the lesson and repeated the mistakes of the past. It seems we are much better at following and enforcing rules, even misunderstood or twisted versions of them, than looking at what’s behind them.

Christians seem to be caught in the tension between following a savior who fulfilled and freed us from the law and defining Christianity through a whole new set of rules grown from tradition and interpretation. We should not abandon our principles and values simply because they fall out of fashion, but we also benefit from regular examination of what principles determine why we do what we do – in everything from the arrangement of the sanctuary, to decisions about which sins to condemn most loudly, to daily personal practices – and from asking whether what we do and proclaim actually conforms to the Spirit rather than the letter. Biblical literacy is about more than knowing what the Bible says; we should always strive to deepen our understanding of why it says what it does. A faith that doesn’t stand up to examination and challenges isn’t a faith; it’s a tissue of superstitions.

Before you cut the ends off the roast, think about who that means you won’t be feeding.

Comfort: Our faith has rich history and tradition.

Challenge: Some of them have outlived their usefulness.

Prayer: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety. (Psalm 4:9)

Discussion: Have you ever realized something you did regularly was pointless or counterproductive?

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Dual Citizenship


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, 2 Samuel 4:1-12, Acts 16:25-40, Mark 7:1-23

Paul had the uncommon fortune of being both a Roman citizen and a Jew. When his jailers and the magistrates above them realized he was a citizen, they immediately regretted the public beatings and unfair imprisonment they had heaped upon him, as it was illegal to treat citizens that way.

What if Paul hadn’t been a citizen? Would we feel differently about the injustice of his treatment? Should we feel differently? If it was wrong for him, how could it be less wrong for someone who didn’t share the same accident of birth? After all, the Jewish people didn’t set up camp inside Roman territory; the avalanche of empire left them aliens in their own homes. They weren’t immigrants; they were immigrated upon.

Immigration and citizenship continue to be thorny issues. Many nations, the United States included, have different sets of laws for citizens and non-citizens. Yet in our formation, we too spread like the Roman empire, alienating , dislocating, and slaughtering native peoples. Their story is not so different from the story of Paul’s people, yet because it’s now our territory and we’ve established our laws we don’t think of it the same way at all. Do we believe God is persuaded to accept this double standard by the lines we draw (and redraw) on His borderless globe?

We convince ourselves of our own compassion by saying the “good” immigrants follow the law, but the rules for entering – or staying in – a nation change a lot once the inhabitants decide they are civilized enough to lock the doors, even with someone else’s belongings still in their living room. Immigration regulations are often no more than a matter of timing – of our current cultural prejudices codified into law.

Christians don’t have to agree on how to handle something as complex as immigration and citizenship, but our views should be shaped more by the teachings of Christ than by nationalism, fear, or politics. The law cannot become our refuge from inconvenient mercy. None of us are born or even naturalized to the Kingdom of Heaven; we are admitted by God’s grace.

Additional Reading:
Read more about today’s scripture from Acts in Surrender.
For thoughts on today’s passage from Mark, see Not the heart but the stomach.

Comfort: No matter where we go, willingly or unwilling, we are home in Christ.

Challenge: Read about the history of immigration in America. Chances are you belong to some group that was once considered undesirable.

Prayer: O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. (Psalm 88:1-2)

Discussion: Immigration is a very politicized topic. Is your faith ever at odds with your politics?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!