Hard Choices


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first thing Jesus did after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem was drive merchants and customers out of the temple, and turn over the tables of the money changers. Matthew tells this story quickly and makes it clear Jesus is upset because: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” Once the temple was cleared, blind and lame people came to Jesus there, and he healed them.

Notice that Jesus didn’t kick out just the sellers, but also the buyers. The sellers and money changers may have been exploiting religious pilgrims, but the buyers were also participating in the corruption of the temple. Surely many of the customers, if asked, would have said they had no choice; without offerings they could not enter the temple. But when their practices finally caught up with them, they were driven from the temple anyway.

Often when we say we don’t have a choice, what we really mean is we don’t have an attractive choice. “If I say something about this unethical practice, I’ll lose my job.” That’s a choice. “I know this business treats its employees more fairly, but their prices are too high so I shop elsewhere.” Also a choice. “I know this song-sharing site is illegal, but money is tight right now.” Choice (and theft). Principles are  not cheap. They can cost us money, respect, and friendships. If we aren’t willing to risk these things, we don’t have principles, we have preferences – and not even strong ones.

Of course these are examples of choices available to the reasonably comfortable. Sometimes our choices actually are restricted by circumstances such as poverty and ability.  Many of us are crowded out by the “buyers and sellers” going about their daily, unexamined business. It is on the shoulders of people who have many options to consider how they are impacting those with fewer options. Luke 12:48 tells us: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”

When a system is corrupt or unjust, we have the choice to opt out, even if it causes us inconvenience or harm. Jesus opted out all the way to the cross.

It’s never too late to start behaving more ethically. We might need to jump-start that change with a purging of our inner temple, a ruthless examination of our own participation in evils small and large. Clearing them out makes room for the healing spirit of God. There is nothing more valuable in the world.

Comfort: You will always have a choice.

Challenge: You won’t always like the choices you have.

Prayer: God of wisdom, grant me the discernment to make good choices, and the courage to follow through on them. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like you didn’t have a choice? Was that really the case?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Ephesians 2:1-10, Matthew 7:22-27

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, brothers Ivan and Aloysha engage in long and compelling arguments about the nature of God, faith, and the problem of evil. At one point Ivan asks his brother if, to create a utopia where humanity was eternally happy and at peace, he could justify torturing a blameless infant to death.

Of course Aloysha says no. In the context of the novel his answer has many meanings, but let us consider it in light of Christ’s parable in Matthew about the man who built his house on a foundation of stone, versus the man who built his house on a foundation of sand. Naturally the house built on sand crumbled, while the one on the stone foundation endured. The strong foundation results from following Christ’s teachings, the weak foundation from ignoring them.

Foundations matter. The ends do not always justify the means. When we build lives, families, churches, and communities our intentions mean nothing if our methods are corrupt. Houses built on sand and stone may appear equally grand for a short while, but eventually the underpinnings will be revealed. If we have sacrificed the least among us to build monuments, no matter how grand, they magnify not the Lord but our weakness.

Also in Matthew Christ said:

[M]any will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

History is full of innocents sacrificed in the name of religion. Many monuments but not a single utopia has sprung from their “unavenged tears” (to quote Dostoevsky). But the one innocent who sacrificed himself willingly ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is our model for a foundation of stone: a willingness to sacrifice ourselves to serve the kingdom. According to psalmists and prophets, God measures us not by how many we have persecuted on His behalf but by the holy sacrifice we have made of our own lives.

Comfort: Christ was the sacrifice that assures us the Kingdom.

Challenge: If what you desire requires someone else to make a sacrifice you do not have to make, you are very likely desiring the wrong thing.

Prayer: God of strength, teach me to build on the firm foundation of Christ, that my efforts may be lasting testaments to your glory. Amen.

Discussion: What clubs, associations, teams, or other groups do you belong to? Have you ever let them persuade you to accept a questionable means to justify a desirable end?

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Eat Your Vegetables

DCF 1.0

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Daniel 1:1-21, 1 John 1:1-10, John 17:1-11

The Babylonians routinely took captives from the lands they conquered and trained them for civil service in the empire. Daniel of Judah and his friends were captives of this sort. While they could serve the king without betraying their faith, they couldn’t eat food from his table because it had been sacrificed to foreign Gods. One of their jailors took pity on them and agreed to bring them nothing but vegetables and water – as long as they did not become obviously thinner and weaker than the other captives. Daniel and his friends flourished and outperformed their fellows.

It’s tempting to sacrifice our principles under duress. Unlike Daniel and friends, when layoffs start happening at work, or we are the victim of a crime, or we feel like the culture around us is pressuring us to change, we may not feel the same assurance that God will help us endure and thrive. Though faith is on our minds and lips, it may falter in our hearts. At those moments, it’s easy to say, “I know this is wrong, but I have to do it to survive.”

The Book of Daniel tells us Judah fell into captivity because it did not faithfully follow God. While God eventually restored Judah, it seems that, to God, surviving may be secondary to thriving. 1 John declares: “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Whether we are true to God, ourselves, and each other during hard times is an indicator of whether we will thrive spiritually when those hard times pass, or if they endure.

Accepting Christ is the moment we step into the light. Each step we take is a decision whether to stay in the light or stray from it. God’s love never falters, but whether we  thrive or merely survive is up to us.

Comfort: Staying true to God and yourself gives you inner peace.

Challenge: When times get tough, double down on your commitment to doing the right thing.

Prayer: Heavenly Creator, I will walk in your light and love. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel when you have not lived up to your own principles?

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