By Linda Rex
September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.
The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.
God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.
What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?
Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.
When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.
The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.
For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.
As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.
Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?
Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?
Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” Psalm 145:8 NASB
“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB
See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.
By Linda Rex
August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.
The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.
The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.
Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.
Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”
Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”
Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.
The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.
Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.
Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.
Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.
What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?
Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB
“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.” Psalm 67:2-4 NASB
See also Matthew 15:21–28.
Yesterday I tried to reach someone at business by phone, but was put on hold. I waited and waited for someone to take me off of hold and to answer what I thought was an important question, but they took a very long time to respond. As I tried to wait patiently, I listened reluctantly to the voice on the line telling me all the positive attributes of the organization and why I should be doing business with them rather than with someone else.
There were a lot of good things said by the recording I was hearing, but after waiting on the line for quite literally an hour, all I really heard was their indifference to their customers. In fact, every couple minutes they would remind me someone would be with me “shortly”. I remarked to my daughter, who was tempering my impatience with reminders to be calm, that apparently their definition of “shortly” was a lot different than my definition of “shortly”.
After another phone call put in a little later during which I was hung up on and then called back and apologized to, I finally got the answer I needed. And I didn’t even think to mention my concern about their definition of “shortly”. I was just happy to have my concerns taken care of.
However, today when I got put on hold with another company, after about 10 minutes of waiting for tech support, I was beginning to wonder about what the word “momentarily” was supposed to mean. The recording told me someone would be with me “momentarily”. I thought “momentarily” meant in just a moment something would happen. I’m beginning to see that I might need to adjust my use of the English language to fit a culture where time has become very relative for some people.
But then again, maybe the problem isn’t with them, but rather with my inner need to have what I want done, done right now and at my convenience rather than theirs. Maybe what needs to change is my view of time and what is really most important in each moment. For me it is the task at hand. But for God, I’m beginning to believe it is instead the relationship I am encountering in that moment.
When I slow down enough to create space in a circumstance for Christ to enter in by the Spirit, I find the capacity to be patient when I have no reason to be patient, and to be gracious when I have every reason to be frustrated and angry. I’ve noticed lately I need to pay closer attention to my response to the situation in which I find myself, and to detach enough I am no longer reacting but am being proactive instead.
I first learned about dealing with inter-relational issues proactively when my children were little and they knew just how to push my buttons. I learned the time to deal with a problem behavior was not after it had occurred and my temper was hot, but before it ever occurred.
Being proactive meant I set a healthy, safe boundary and let them know ahead of time what it was, why it was in place and what the consequence would be for choosing to violate it. And when they pushed the boundary, the consequence was immediate though compassionate and gracious. In this way they could not blame anyone but themselves for having brought the unpleasant result upon themselves by their behavior.
Handling such issues in that order saved all of us from a lot of anger, yelling, and other unhealthy ways of dealing with the problem. And the result was healthier and more pleasant relationships, I believe, and a greater sense of security in my children. They didn’t have to guess at how I was going to respond, nor could they manipulate me into responding the way they wanted me to in order to get their way.
And a lot of times it only took one or two times standing my ground on important issues in this way, and it ceased to be an issue. They just needed to know what it meant to be a part of the family with regards to that particular issue, whatever it was—honoring bedtime rules and being honest and caring with others, for example.
Now at this late juncture in my life I am learning I need to treat myself in the same way—proactively rather than reactively. It works so much better when I plan ahead of time what my response is going to be in a difficult situation instead of allowing it to cause me to be upset, frustrated and angry.
When I make a phone call expecting to be answered immediately, I am put out when I have to sit on hold for an hour before getting the information I need. I could have hung up and called back, but I still would have been on hold. The issue isn’t with the phone call, but with my expectations and my response—I am reacting to the situation, not proactively following the way of love. I am allowing the circumstance, the person on the other line, the poor customer service, to define me and how I am going to respond.
But what really defines me is not that phone call. Nor is it the person who answers or doesn’t answer. What defines me is the Who in whose image I was made. It is the love of God in Christ which I am filled with, led by, and surrounded by. I, and every other person, am made in the image of God Who is love, and Who created us to love and be loved.
So proactively, I respond to this irritating life situation with the love of God in Christ—making space for Jesus to rest between me and the other person I am interacting with. If I just react instead, there is an immediate response directly to the person and to the situation, which leaves very little room for the Spirit to work. God is a whole lot more concerned about us loving him and loving others than he is about us getting our way in one particular instance in our lives. So we need to proactively create space for the Spirit, to allow the Spirit to go to work in every situation.
My daughter and I were talking about the phone call yesterday, and I was reminded again that stress is never the issue—stress does and will happen. It is our response to the stress which happens in our lives which can be the issue rather than the stress itself. Do we make space for God to work? Do we rest in him and seek to build the relationships of love in our lives, or are we merely focused on the task at hand?
How we respond to and deal with stress impacts our mental, emotional and physical health, as well as our spiritual health. I can see I have a new way to put what I have learned into practice in my relationships with God and others by proactively living in love with those who can be and are irritating, thoughtless or indifferent.
I will face challenges to my self-control and my patience and peace of mind, just as everyone else does. But Christ has already provided what is needed in these situations and he lives in you and me by his Spirit. As we invite him into these situations, and slow down in the moment and realize what is most important to him—living in love—we will find the capacity to create space for the Spirit and the ability to be patient, gracious and understanding instead of frustrated, irritated and angry. It is the work he is doing in us and in our lives, and by making room for him to work, we participate with him in the process.
Lord, thank you for your faithful love and grace, and for living in love in us, with us and for us. May we open space up in all our relationships and encounters in daily life for you to do your perfect work, so we may all grow up into the fullness of Christ. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Ephesians 5:1–2