Christian Economics: Conservative and Liberal

One of the frustrating things about American political debates these days is the division that is created among Christians over various matters of economy.  Certainly the handling of money has always been a challenge for every culture since the dawn of time; we all have greedy streaks within us that kick in at some level or another.  And yes, some governments and economic systems have been worse than others.  But for Christians in this country, today, to insist that “economic conservatism” is more biblical than “liberal economics,” or the other way around, is patently ridiculous.  The Bible does not give us a political approach to making policies about money, much less does it describe an economic theory that translates to the running of countries.  The closest it gets to these is the Law of Moses, a particular set of laws for a particular country that was conquered roughly 2,500 years ago.

And so, when you look at the history of Christian thought and practice, in conversation with the Bible’s witness of God’s will concerning the handling of money and wealth, you find a number of “liberal” notions and a number of “conservative” notions.  To think that we can contain the whole of biblical teaching into a single political party or economic policy is historically untenable (not to mention theologically unreasonable).  Here are four interesting quotes from various Early Church leaders and theologians on the topic of money and wealth.

From St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on 1 Corinthians:

It is folly, it is madness, to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard with indifference a human being, a being made in the image and likeness of God, who is naked, trembling with cold and almost unable to stand.

You say: ‘But that fellow there is pretending to tremble and not to have any strength.’  So what?  If that poor fellow is putting it on, he is doing it because he is trapped between his own wretchedness and your cruelty.  Yes, you are cruel and guilty of inhumanity.  You would not have opened your heart to his destitution without his play-acting.

If it were not necessity compelling him, why should he behave in such a humiliating way just to get a bit of bread?

The made-up tale of the beggar is evidence of your inhumanity.  His prayers, his begging, his complaints, his tears, his wandering all day long round the city did not secure for him the smallest amount to live on.

That perhaps is the reason why he thought of acting a part.  But the shame and the blame for his made-up tale falls less on him than on you.

He has in fact a right to be pitied, finding himself in such an abyss of destitution.  You, on the other hand, deserve a thousand punishments for having brought him to such humiliation.

Notice the lack of phrases like “why doesn’t he get a job?” and “we should hold him accountable for his lies.”  No, here is the annoyingly “liberal” argument that a person is a person and if you have what another person needs, it is your duty to give it to them.

From St. Basil the Great’s commentary on Psalm 15:

If you help a poor person in the name of the Lord, you are making a gift and at the same time granting a loan.

You are making a gift because you have no expectation of being reimbursed by that poor person.  You are granting a loan because the Lord will settle the account.  It is not much that the Lord receives by means of the poor, but he will pay a great deal on their behalf.

“They who are kind to the poor lend to the Lord” (Proverbs 19:17).  Do you not want the master of all to be on your side, especially as he is prepared to settle your debt?  If a rich person were to promise to pay on behalf of others, would you not be happy to accept the pledge?  Why then do you not accept the Lord as surety for the poor?

Make a present of the money you have to spare without asking for interest: it will benefit you and others.

It will benefit you insofar as you have made your money safe.  It will benefit the others insofar as they are able to use it.

If all the same you are looking for some profit, be content with what the Lord will give you.  he will also give the interest on your gift to the poor.  So wait for the benevolence of the one who is truly benevolent.

The profit that you gain from the poor surpasses all bounds of cruelty.  You are profiting from misfortune, you are squeezing money out of tears, you are persecuting a defenceless being, you are belabouring someone who is starving.

You think the profit you make out of the poor is just.  But “Woe to those who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).  “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16), or kindly relationships from usury?

Now there’s a scathing rebuke of practically all of current Western civilization’s banking practices!

More from St. Basil, still meditating on Psalm 15:

Dogs are pacified if you give them a bone.  The money-lender becomes fiercer than ever when you pay him back his money.  He keeps on barking, demanding ever higher interest rates.  He won’t believe your sworn statement.  He tracks down what you have at home, he investigates all your business affairs.  If you go out of your house he drags you by force to his office.  If you stay in hiding at home, he stands in front of your door and knocks and knocks.

In the presence of your wife he makes you blush, he molests you in the presence of your friends, he attacks you in public.  He makes your life intolerable by repeating to you: ‘I need money urgently and the only possibility of my obtaining it is to secure from you the interest on my loan.’

If he then allows you a deferment, do you hope to derive any advantage from it?  Poverty is like a galloping horse.  It catches up with you quickly, it begins to chase you again and you find yourself in trouble as before, only further in debt than at first.  A loan in fact does not do away with poverty: it only postpones it.  Because that is so, put up with the hardships of poverty today and don’t put them off till tomorrow.

If you don’t ask the money-lender for help, while you are poor today, tomorrow you will be equally poor, but certainly no poorer.  If you ask the money-lender, tomorrow you will be worse off than today, because the interest payments will increase your poverty.

Today, no one will blame you for being poor.  It is a misfortune, not your fault.  But tomorrow, if you become a slave of the money-lender because of the interest payments, everyone will accuse you of folly.

Basil has something for everyone!  First of all he rips apart money-lenders, again putting up a major rebuke against the way we tend to do banking these days.  The way the rich exploit the poor through charging interest is utterly despicable.  But then he turns around and asserts that the poor should avoid putting themselves into debt, lest they be guilty of making their situation worse than it is.

Last, let’s return to St. John Chrysostom, this time commenting on the epistle to the Romans.

It is not enough to help the poor.  We must help them with generosity and without grumbling.  And it is not enough to help them without grumbling.  We must help them gladly and happily.  When the poor are helped there ought to be these two conditions: generosity and joy.

Why do you complain of giving something to the poor?  Why do you display bad temper in the practice of almsgiving?  If they see you in that frame of mind, the poor would prefer to refuse your gift.  If you give with a brusque demeanor, you are not being generous but lacking gentleness and courtesy.  If your face reveals a feeling of hostility, you cannot bring comfort to your brother or sister who is living in the midst of hostility.

Afterwards, you will be happy to see that they do not feel ashamed or humiliated just because you have helped them joyfully.  Nothing actually causes shame so much as having to receive something from someone else.

By showing your great joyfulness you will succeed in enabling your brother or sister to overcome their sensitivity.  They will understand that in your opinion receiving is just as beautiful as giving.

By showing bad temper, on the other hand, far from cheering them up you will be depressing them even further.

If you give gladly, even if you give only a little, it is a big gift.  If you give unwillingly, even if you give a big gift, you turn it into a small one.

Talk about an attitude check, huh?  Plenty of scriptural teachings pepper this commentary: it is more blessed to give than to receive, the Lord loves a cheerful giver, even the principle of the “widow’s mite” being greater than a thoughtless gift.

It is my hope and prayer that Christians in this (and every) country will start thinking more about their money and wealth from biblical standpoints rather than looking solely to what the Republicans, Democrats, Keyenesians, Socialists, or another ideological group asserts.

Posted in Devotional | Tagged | Leave a comment

Frequently Misused Verses: call no man Father

And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. – Matthew 23:9

Ah, yes, here’s the classic Protestant prooftext to show that all those silly Roman Catholics are committing idolatry in revering their clergy as if equal to God!  If only they’d read their Bibles, they’d see how simple it is: don’t call anyone ‘Father.’  But, of course, there is more to the story.

Misuse: blind literalism & eisegesis

The problem here is that people try to take this verse at face value without discerning its purpose.  It is good to read the Bible literally, but “literalism” is what happens when you take it too far.

For example, the Song of Songs are poetry, so when we read them, we don’t expect their romantic images to be taken to be physical descriptions.  When they say “Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,” we don’t immediately worry that the bride has a bad case of breast cancer, but recognize that the literal meaning of this verse is a description of beauty.  It’s a simile, not a direct description.

Similarly, what Jesus is doing in this week’s Frequently Misused Verse is making a classic style of argument based on exaggeration.  “Call no man father.”  Really?  What about your own biological father?  Are we to cease calling our fathers ‘father?’  Should we tell our dads that our real dad is God?  There is no evidence in Scripture (let alone the history of Christian practice) to support such a literalistic reading of this verse.

The other problem going on here is eisegesis, or “reading one’s own agenda into the text.”  When a Protestant reads this verse with an anti-Catholic bias, he or she will quickly jump to a strange application of the text.  There’s a quest to debunk someone else’s tradition going on, rather than a quest to understand the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Context is Key

As usual, it’s critical to look at the verses around this quote to get a better sense of what it’s saying.  Verses 8 and 10 say:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. – Matthew 23:8

Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. – Matthew 23:10

Do we have teachers and call them teachers?  Yes.  Does that mean we’re violating these verses too?  No.  Why?  Take a look at the whole section where these verses come from.  There, Jesus is dealing with the hypocrisy of the scribes and pharisees of his day.  He’s pointing out that they don’t ‘practice what they preach,’ and that they love the honorifics afforded to them.  They fail to understand that leadership is service, and that the greatest leader therefore must be the greatest servant.  The final verse of the paragraph says it all:

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. – Matthew 23:12

So what about people calling priests ‘father?’

Now that we’ve got the main point of the verse worked out, let’s go back to the classic issue that many people like to raise with it: why do many Catholics (and a number of Anglicans) refer to their clergy as ‘father?’

In St. Paul’s shortest letter, he spoke of Philemon’s slave as follows: “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.”  From the context of the letter, it seems that while Onesimus was on the run from his master, Paul converted him to the Christian faith, and on that basis now has a relationship with him as a sort of spiritual father.  And, despite Jesus’ warnings about entitlement in Matthew 23, Paul isn’t afraid to call himself a father.  After all, he isn’t boasting; he’s pointing out the familial relationship that he has with this new disciple in Christ.

St. Peter did something similar.  At the end of his first letter, he wrote, “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.”  Mark, here, is commonly understood to be John Mark, the author of the second Gospel book, who had traveled with Paul for part of his first church-planting tour in Acts 13 or so.  Unlike Paul and Onesimus, Peter did not lead Mark to Christ; Mark was likely one of the many disciples of Jesus outside the number of the Twelve.  Nevertheless, Peter calls Mark his son, again likely referring to an “in Christ” familial relationship wherein Peter is an elder, (or bishop, or apostle), and Mark is his student, or assistant.

In addition, St. John at least twice referred to his readers as his “children.”  Even “little children” sometimes, which is not a term intended to belittle them, but to be a term of endearment.

No matter what denomination, all pastors have a sort of fatherly role in their congregation.  In many ways it is a more personal and love-driven attitude than thinking of ourselves as Shepherds.  After all, ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd.’  Would you rather think of your pastor as a shepherd or a spiritual father?  Different situations perhaps tend toward different relational needs, but in general it is more endearing to think of one’s pastor as a Father than a Shepherd.  It is also a classic way of showing respect.  When Elijah was taken up into heaven, Elisha cried out after him “my father, my father!”

It is my prayer this day that all Christian pastors would love their congregations with a fatherly love, and that all Christians would be able to love their pastors as spiritual fathers.

Posted in Biblical | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Psalm 119: Meditations on the Bible

These are some brief reflections on verses 9-16 of Psalm 119, as they explore the place and role of God’s Word in the Christian life.

How can a young man keep his way pure?  By guarding it according to thy word.

The Bible teaches us how to live holy lives.  As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, the Scriptures are useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness.  Let the Bible be your ethical and moral training ground.

With my whole heart I seek thee; let me not wander from thy commandments!

Wholeheartedly seeking God does not conflict with dutiful obedience.  Too often and too easily, we split them apart as if loving God equates to freedom from obedience and duty, or as if someone who focuses on obeying God somehow loves Him less.  No, this verse holds both hearty love and steadfast obedience together as one thing.

I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.

Storing up (hiding in our hearts, memorizing, internalizing) the Bible strengthens us in the fight against sin.  We do not have the will or the strength to become holy on our own; the Bible is the Holy Spirit’s primary tool in the work of sanctifying us.

Blessed be thou, O LORD; teach me thy statutes!

Worship and discipleship go together.  Again, this is something we often divide up unnecessarily.  Many churches today conceive of the Sunday morning service as “worship,” then “teaching.”  Although this may be a useful summary of different parts of a worship service, the division between worship and teaching is not a biblical concept.  This verse expresses a heart of worship toward God and a request for increased learning in one breath.

With my lips I declare all the ordinances of thy mouth.

Recitation and oral repetition is a valuable discipline.  I recently read in a “worship leader” (aka, music leader) magazine that worship is not about “recitation” but about honest expressions to God about who He is.  This is another false dichotomy.  Worship must include repetition and recitation as we speak and declare God’s words back to Him.  This is also useful in our individual lives: reading the Bible out loud and speaking of God’s teachings to others is valuable for training others and strengthening ourselves in God’s way.

In the way of thy testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.

A holy life is at least as valuable as earthly wealth.  This is challenging to believe and accept, in many cases, but ultimately we’ve got to submit to this truth.  The fruit of the spiritual labor is much longer-lasting than the fruit of earthly labors.

I will meditate on thy precepts, and fix my eyes on thy ways.

Attending to the Bible takes concentration.  This, too, is challenging in today’s world where a quick Google search or look-up on Youtube can explain almost everything we need to know in a matter of seconds.  But God has given us a book, as old-fashioned as that seems, and it takes a lot of meditation, contemplation, pondering, study, and attention to take in its message and teachings.  Listening to sermons and attending Bible studies and talking to other Christians about the Bible also helps us to learn and process the Bible’s contents.

I will delight in thy statutes; I will not forget thy word.

Don’t think that you can love God without loving His Word.  We aren’t just called to “love God” in isolation.  Just as you can’t love Jesus without loving his Bride, the Church, neither can you claim to love God while rejecting the Bible.  For, since the Bible is our primary source of knowledge about God, if you reject the Bible you reject God also.

Posted in Biblical, Devotional | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Frequently Misused Verses: In Memory of Me

Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” – 1 Corinthians 11:23-24

This and its companion verses in three of the Gospel books are known as the “Words of Institution,” referring to the moment during the Last Supper in which Jesus instituted the practice of the Lord’s Supper, also called Holy Communion or the Eucharist.  A quick tour of various traditions of Christianity out there today will yield a vast range of theological perspectives on Communion, including various interpretations of these words in the Bible.  Much ink has been spilled on this subject, especially centering around the words “this is my body.”  A blog post certainly will not suffice to tackle that issue.  Instead, I intend to narrow in on a different phrase in verse 24 that is frequently misused: “Do this in remembrance of me.

Remember Jesus

For most readers, the command “do this in memory of me” is pretty straightforward.  Even when some translations render it as “in remembrance of me,” the message seems the same: when you take Communion, remember Jesus.  Absolutely, yes, we must “remember Jesus” when we participate in Holy Communion.  It almost definitely is connected to St. Paul’s admonition a few verses later about “discerning the body,” which also is understood differently by different Christian traditions today.

In the original Greek, the phrase in question is: “τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν.”  To give a translation in the exact same word order, it comes out to: “This do in/for the my remembrance/memorial.”  Let’s look at how some other translations have handled this:

  • Do this as a memorial to me.” – Complete Jewish Bible
  • this do ye — to the remembrance of me.” – Young’s Literal Translation
  • this do for the commemoration of me.” – Douay-Rheims (American edition)

I picked these three translations because they’re apart from the mainstream translation families that generally copy each other, and they each represent a different bias.  The Jewish Bible has Messianic-Jewish angle to it, attentive to the connections between the Old & New Testaments.  Young’s Translation is a by a Calvinist Protestant.  The Douay-Rheims is like the Roman Catholic equivalent of the King James Bible.  Each of these translations point to the deeper and richer meaning of the phrase “in memory of me.”

What is a memorial?

As I have explored once or twice before, a “memorial” or “remembrance” in the Bible is more than just something that we remember.  Drawing upon the work of a fellow clergyman, I wrote a blog post about this topic three years ago.  In short, a memorial or remembrance in the Bible is an act of worship (often a ritual sacrifice) that serves as a plea to God for Him to remember His promises to us.  When Jesus instituted Holy Communion, he set it into the context of the Passover meal and the Passover sacrifice.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, was about to make the self-sacrifice that would atone for the sins of all, and thus at the Last Supper he said “This is the New Covenant in my blood” and “This is my body broken for you.”  “This,” he said, “do for my memorial.”

Taking this biblical context into account rules out a number of translations that have come out recently:

  • Eat this and remember me.” – Contemporary English Version
  • Do this to remember me.” – The Message
  • “Do this to remember me.” – New Living Translation
  • “Do this to remember me.” – New Century Version

All of these renderings make the assumption that this phrase only means that we are the ones doing the remembering.  In actuality, the “memorial” that Jesus is talking about is a mutual memorial: we are to remember Jesus to God the Father (in a sense remind Him), and He is to remember Jesus in return on our behalf.  It is an act of worship that brings us and God together in unity, centered upon the death of Christ.

Applying this in prayer

Perhaps the best way to make sense of this is to see it in action.  A contemporary translation of the traditional Anglican prayers during Holy Communion do an excellent job of describing this memorial.  I’ll only quote the relevant parts so it’s easier to spot:

All praise and glory is yours, God our heavenly Father, because of your tender mercy, you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; whoinstituted, and in his Holy Gospel commanded us to continue a perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.

Notice here, Jesus instituted a perpetual memory of his death and sacrifice.  He didn’t just do something that we now remember, he instituted something to be that memory (or memorial) for the Church.

O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of your dearly beloved Son…, we your humble servants celebrate and make here before your divine Majesty, with [this bread & wine], the memorial which your Son commanded us to make; remembering his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension and his promise to come again: and offering our wholehearted thanks to you for the countless benefits given to us by the same.

Right after reading Jesus’ words of instution, we continue with this prayer, noting that what we are doing with this bread & wine in Holy Communion is the memorial that Jesus commanded us to make.  So as we remember his passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and promise to return, we are not just reminding ourselves of these Gospel events, but reminding God of them, and thanking him for the countless benefits that they have procured for us.

The prayers go on to ask God for the forgiveness of our sins and for union with Him, and asking him to accept our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving on the merits of our union with Jesus (rather than upon any worthiness of our own).  It is in this way (and this way alone) that we are able to offer ourselves as “a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God.”  Proper sacrifices, after all, are killed or burned or otherwise destroyed.  We can only be living sacrifices if we’re united to the One Who Died, that is, Christ.

Anyway, it’s easy for me to get carried away on a topic like this.  The point is that we are very prone, these days, to oversimplify the words “in memory of me” to an unbiblical scope.  It’s not just about us, it’s about God himself!

Posted in Biblical, Theological | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How Many Gods?

How many gods do you worship?

This may seem like a silly question at first pass. I serve only one God, revealed through Jesus Christ, as the Bible tells me so. But when you stop to think about, how true is that, really? When I’m working out the family budget, is my decision-making completely attentive to what God wants me to do with the money he gave me? When I’m talking politics, is the Bill of Rights just as sacred as the Bible? When I’m at work, or on vacation, am I attentive to how I am serving God at those times?

When we’re honest with ourselves, there are in fact many gods that we try to appease throughout our lives. Of course there’s Yahweh, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom we worship on Sundays and to whom we pray from day to day, whose Bible we read and study. But there’s also Mammon, the god of money – gotta make sure we’re investing and saving wisely for the future, after all. There’s Lady Liberty, the goddess of freedom who protects our sacred rights as Americans. There’s Apatheos, the god of rest, as we fiercely protect what little free time we get. And of course there’s the god of business, often referred to as “The Man,” against whom it is popular to rebel, but at the end of the day we end up returning to him and his cool new products. Life is just too inconvenient without the next best thing on the market.

All these other gods have something good to offer us. Mammon promises us wealth and financial security and a legacy for our children. Lady Liberty promises a life undisturbed by tyrranous government intervention. Apatheos promises us a care-free vacation. The Man promises us popularity and trinkets. Now, you might be thinking that I’m about to preach against the sin of idolatry. In a way you’d be right, but actually there’s a different underlying issue that I want to point out here: covetousness.

The Tenth Commandment

The Decalogue ends with perhaps the weirdest-named sin of them all. Coveting is not a concept spoken about outside religious circles. It stands between jealousy and greed; jealousy is focused on other people, greed is focused on increasing what you have. Covetousness is the sin of wanting what other people have instead of accepting what you already do have. On the subject of covetousness, our new Catechism states “I am not to let envy make me want what others have, but in humility should be content with what I have.” Pointing to the example of Jesus, it says, “In contentment, Jesus took on the form of a servant without wealth or possessions, and in his earthly life loved and trusted his Father in all things.” It describes the danger of covetousness as beginning “with discontent in mind and spirit, and as it grows in the heart, it can lead to sins such as idolatry, adultery, and theft.”

There you go: idolatry, adultery, and theft. These are classic fruits of covetousness. When you serve Mammon, the god of money, you’re committing idolatry and moving toward theft. Same with serving Lady Liberty, or Apatheos, or The Man.

But, surely, money and freedom and rest and popularity are all good things, you might protest? We can’t demonize people for being rich, free, rested, or popular, can we? That is quite true. The challenge with those things, however, lies in how we treat them. Our Gospel reading this morning contains some of Jesus’ most famous teachings about how rightly to order our concerns.

 Rightly Ordering Our Concerns

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus gives us the bottom line right away: it is impossible to serve two masters. When there is competition in your heart between God and some other god like money (or Mammon), one will take priority over the other. Our sinful nature drives us toward Mammon, the god of money, or Lady Liberty, or Apatheos, or The Man, or any number of other gods we might invent. We’re very creative people, after all! But the Holy Spirit in the hearts of every baptized believer witnesses to us that we are to serve God, and God alone.

Recall the words of our Lord. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” The point is abundantly simple: if you believe God to be God, you can trust God to be God. If you can see that he cares for birds and lilies and grass, then you should know that he can care for you.

Why is this so very difficult for us? It’s because Mammon and Lady Liberty and Apatheos and The Man have been taking such good care of us for all these years that we’ve forgotten that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is actually more powerful and more caring than all of them put together. Why does it seem so much easier for the poor, the destitute, the broken, and the sinners to put such radical trust in God? It’s because they’ve witnessed the lies of those other false gods; they’ve seen through their deceptions and figured out that “what they’re selling ain’t it.” The better we know the truth of the false gods, the more heartily we can cling to the True God.

How do I get there from here?

Jesus gives us an immediate answer to this challenge. First, he says, “For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” First of all, he’s pointing out that it’s non-believers who anxiously seek after the needs and comforts of life. But God already knows what we need! Therefore we don’t have to run around trying appease the gods of money and rest and so forth, but go straight to God Himself. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Go to God first, seek what really matters: the Kingdom of Heaven in which we are invited to live forever, and the righteousness that he offers to us which enables us to enter into that Kingdom. With those as our first concerns in mind, we can then beseech him for our temporary earthly needs in addition. So, you see, money and freedom and rest are not bad things. But in the grand scheme of things, they’re extras.

Then Jesus adds this almost comical statement: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” You see, he knows that there is a lot of anxiety to deal with in this life. He lived it too! And so he gives us the deceptively simple (and perhaps annoyingly simple) reminder that it’s best just to take it one day at a time. This doesn’t mean he is forbidding any long-term planning. Elsewhere he tells us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The point is about our anxiety and concern and worry. These are emotional expressions that can lead us toward the sin of covetousness, and if we’re more worried about money than about righteousness, there’s a conflict of gods in our heart, and the wrong one has the upper hand.

The Judaizers, against whom St. Paul was writing in his letter to the Galatians, had a similar issue. They were worshiping the Law of Moses as a god. They “boasted in the flesh,” so to speak. They were more interested in how well-behaved they could be, and how well-behaved they could get their disciples to be. True righteousness, from Christ, was not on their minds at all. Instead of boasting “in the flesh” like the Judaizers, we are to boast “in the Cross of Christ.” Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Or, as Joshua said, a couple thousand years earlier, “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” This is exactly what Jesus said too; you cannot serve God and Mammon; you must pick one or the other.

Help me, O Lord!

How can we make this choice? How can we change? Far be it from us to boast in the flesh! These are not changes we can make ourselves. John Calvin famously wrote that the human heart is a factory of idols. Left to our own devices we constantly invent and reinvent our own gods to serve whatever desires we fancy at the time. If we are to lay them aside and focus upon God alone, we need his help.

Let us begin with prayer. The prayer that Jesus himself taught us is always the best place to start. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” it begins. In prayer are first drawn toward God himself – who he is and the worship he deserves. Then we seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness by praying “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Once we have those priorities in mind, we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Recognizing this order, and taking it to heart, is so very important. That’s why not one but two of the Gospel writers recorded this prayer for us. That’s why the Church to this day includes the Lord’s Prayer in every public worship service, and recommends it for your private devotions as well. Furthermore, we are to pray for “our daily bread.” Technically this means “our bread for this day.” So even the Lord’s Prayer expresses what Jesus taught shortly thereafter: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.

Another prayer strategy that we might undertake in this fight to rid ourselves of all those other gods is to pay attention to our needs even when we don’t feel the crunch of those needs. Think about it – our tendency is to ask God for things only after we have become anxious about them. We should be praying for our daily bread every day, whether we have enough money for next week’s groceries or not. We must remember the words in this morning’s Collect: we can’t “help but fall” without God, and so we need his “perpetual mercy.” Whether we’re rich or poor, employed or unemployed, rested or exhausted, we all need God’s mercy, help, and provision. As we pray to him for these things whether we feed the need or not, we train our hearts seek God instead of those other gods.

One Final Word of Advice

Finally, as we wrap this up, I want to direct your attention to one more quote from the Catechism. As we combat the sin of covetousness, we should “think often of the inheritance that Jesus has prepared for us, meditate upon his care for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, be generous with what God has entrusted to us, and help others to keep what is rightfully theirs.” This meditation upon God’s provision, similar to the prayer we already discussed, helps us build trust in God as our true provider. Similarly, being generous with our own things and protecting the property of others enables us to “put the money where the mouth is,” so to speak.

After all, how many times have you seem people who say they believe in God and love Jesus, but lead horrifically unfaithful lives? The hypocrisy is simply dreadful. On the other side, consider people who do strive to “live well,” but don’t really believe in Jesus. They, like the Judaizers of old, have merely the appearance of holiness, but at the end of the day they have nothing to show for it because they have been serving gods other than the True God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

So, as the classic Christian songs go, “set your eyes upon Jesus, behold his wonderful face.” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Meditate on the promises that God makes throughout the Bible; He promises never to leave us or forsake us. He promises eternal life in perfect health, cleansing, and sinlessness. Recall the contentment and joy expressed by St. Paul and the others: despite the outward hardships and sufferings they experienced from time to time, there was a peace which surpassed all human understanding that kept their hearts and minds fixed upon the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. That same peace is yours. The less distracted you become by the various gods of this world, the fully and completely that peace will be known to you; yes, even in this life, today.

Posted in Biblical, Devotional | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Blessed Mary’s Birthday

This is a devotional in observance of the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, September 8th.

Nativity of Mary

Call to Worship (Revelation 4:11)

Worthy is the Lord our God; to receive glory and honor and power!

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.  Cleanse the thoughts of my heart by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that I may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Collect of the Day & Scripture Readings

We beseech you, O Lord, pour into our hearts the abundance of your heavenly grace; that, just as the child-bearing of the Blessed Virgin Mary was unto us your servants the beginning of salvation, so the devout observance of her nativity may avail for the increase of our peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

Read Micah 5:2-5a…

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth; then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel.  And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.  And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.  And this shall be peace.

Pray Psalm 45:13-17…

The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
in many-colored robes she is led to the king,
with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train.
With joy and gladness they are led along
as they enter the palace of the king.
Instead of your fathers shall be your sons;
you will make them princes in all the earth.
I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you for ever and ever.

Read 1 John 5:1-12…

Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child.

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.  For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.

And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth.  There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has borne witness to his Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne to his Son.  And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life.

Pray Psalm 131:1-4…

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.

Read Matthew 1:1-23…

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Ammin’adab, and Ammin’adab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Bo’az by Rahab, and Bo’az the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.  And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uri’ah, and Solomon the father of Rehobo’am, and Rehobo’am the father of Abi’jah, and Abi’jah the father of Asa, and Asa the father of Jehosh’aphat, and Jehosh’aphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzzi’ah, and Uzzi’ah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezeki’ah, and Hezeki’ah the father of Manas’seh, and Manas’seh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josi’ah, and Josi’ah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.  And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoni’ah was the father of She-al’ti-el, and She-al’ti-el the father of Zerub’babel, and Zerub’babel the father of Abi’ud, and Abi’ud the father of Eli’akim, and Eli’akim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eli’ud, and Eli’ud the father of Elea’zar, and Elea’zar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us).


As with most people in the Bible, we know very little about the life of Mary before she was visited by the Archangel Gabriel on the day of the Annunciation.  Fragments of history survive that give us stories of her parents, her childhood and upbringing.  It is likely that she was presented to the Temple in Jerusalem as a very young child, where she would study and be raised in a particular order of virgins who dedicated their lives to prayer at the Temple – perhaps similar to the life of Anna the Prophetess whom Mary would meet when bringing baby Jesus to the Temple for the first time.

Whatever the circumstances of Mary’s birth and childhood, we know it is important in the history of salvation.  For many generations, as the Gospel of Matthew begins by pointing out, God’s people had been awaiting the Christ – an “anointed one” who would deliver Israel from all her troubles.  God had promised Abraham that an offspring of his seed would bring blessing to all the world.  God had promised David that a descendant of his royal line would keep the throne forever.  Mary was the last generation in that long line leading at last to Jesus.  If Jesus is “the light of the world,” perhaps that makes Mary’s birth the dawn of morning from which the Sun was about to rise.

St. John, in his Gospel and Epistles, emphasizes that Christians are a family.  We have become children of God by adoption.  He wrote “Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child.”  Although this primarily points us toward loving God in his triune personhood (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), it also draws us into the reality of loving the entirety of God’s family across the generations.  Mary, as the mother of Jesus is in a unique position of being an adopted child of God like us, but also the natural mother of God the Son.  We who are called sons of God receive Jesus as our spiritual elder brother, and also receive Mary as our spiritual mother.

If nothing else, holidays in commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as today, are reminders that the profound love that is supposed to characterize our unity and identity as Christians is not limited simply to the local “church family” that we see on Sunday mornings, but also apply to the whole family of God’s people.  Our love for our earthly neighbors and our love for our heavenly neighbors go hand-in-hand!  The only thing that divides us from Mary and the rest of the departed saints is “the narrow stream of death,” as one hymn puts it; that and the completion of our salvation: the glorification of the resurrection life.

May the reality of her life, past and present, be an encouragement to us as we continue to run the race.  May the reality of her love, past and present, be an encouragement to us as continue to learn how to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  May the reality of God’s family throughout countless generations be an encouragement to us as we realize just how great this great cloud of witnesses really is.  Amen!

Creed & Prayers

Let us profess our faith:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.  We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

Let us profess our thanks:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and especially on this festival of Blessed Mary that we should praise, bless, and tell forth Your wonders: in that by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, she conceived Your only-begotten Son and brought forth for mankind the light eternal, namely Jesus Christ our Lord.  Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.  Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!

We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.  For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world.  In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you.  In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon us. Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all your Saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our salvation.  Amen!

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever.  Amen.


Let us bless the Lord: thanks to be God!

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore.  Amen.

Posted in Biblical, Devotional, Theological | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Frequently Misused Verses: Not many of you should be teachers

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. – James 3:1

Like many of these Frequently Misused Verses, this quote sounds pretty easy to understand.  What could we possibly have misunderstood about this one?

Here’s the catch: it isn’t misunderstood, it’s ignored.

Poke around the internet blogs, scroll through your Facebook feed, and look at how many Christians out there are sharing their opinions on all sorts of matters of biblical interpretation, theology and doctrine, Christian living, not to mention a plethora of other subjects.  So many of us are eager to share “what we know” with others – perhaps in the hopes that they’ll affirm our views, perhaps in the hopes that they’ll come to agree with us, or whatever the motivation.

Walk around the church classrooms during the Sunday School hour.  Tour the Bible Studies and the Womens’ groups and the Men’s fellowships, and however many other programs out there.  Every classroom has a teacher, every study group has a leader (or more than one!), every fellowship group has a speaker (or, most of them do).  Sure, there are probably a lot of repeats when you count up the teachers, but there are still a lot of them out there.

Now, the fact that there are a lot of teachers around is not necessarily a bad thing.  The issue isn’t with numbers, but with training.  As our verse from James’ epistle explains, the number of teachers is not a problem in itself, but rather, the fact that “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Teachers will be judged

What this means is a tricky question.  Does it mean that on the Last Day, teachers who mess up too much might find themselves going to Hell even though they believed in Christ?  Not exactly; there is an aspect of final judgment that has to do with our works, and although different traditions of Christianity explain that in different ways, we can all agree that James’ warning of a heavier judgment on teachers is akin to Jesus’ warning, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).  A number of his parables repeat this message: the more a steward is entrusted with, the more they have to answer for.

Teaching the faith is serious business.  If you make a mistake in teaching theology, it’s not like you just got a math problem wrong.  When we accidentally call a sin acceptable, or condemn something acceptable as sinful, we are injuring our students’ ability to know and approach God Himself.  Some mistakes are worse than others, of course.  If your church teaches that drinking alcohol is sinful, that’s a pretty lame mistake compared to a church that teaches that Jesus wasn’t really God.  In the first case, the Christian faith survives, only slightly hampered by unnecessary rules.  In the second case, the Christian faith completely falls apart and turns into a different religion entirely.

Elitism or Anarchy

There seems to be a great push, in many churches today, of encouraging more and more of their members to speak in front of groups, lead Bible Studies, teach Sunday School to the kids, or otherwise ‘try out’ leadership and teaching roles.  There is a very good intention behind this: giving people opportunities to lead and teach are excellent ways to help people grow and deepen in faith and knowledge and love of the Lord.  This is how new leaders are born.  The downside is training – or lack thereof.

A number of churches, including the one in which I grew up, have a yearly tradition of a ‘Youth Sunday’ in which various High School or College -age students lead every aspect of the worship service.  There is a youth band for the music, various students lead the prayers, read the Scriptures, and so forth, and one student preaches a sermon.  This is a great idea in many ways, providing young adults with the chance to “own” the regular worship service in a special way.  And because it happens every year, everyone expects it, and knows that things are going to feel and sound a little different, so if anything goes wrong, it’s not a huge deal.

For special days and events like that, I don’t think that’s violating the idea that James is warning us about.  Rather, it’s when you take those untrained young adults (or older adults!) and say “good job on your first-ever sermon, let’s get you on the preaching rotation!” that problems arise.  Unless a new teacher is trained in how to be a teacher (or preacher, or group leader, etc), you are putting that person (and their students) in spiritual danger.

Part of the motivation to push new people into leadership positions is a larger cultural movement that is rejecting a previous generation’s tendency toward elitism.  There, only a seminary-trained individual is qualified to preach and teach, and everyone should hang on everything he says and never question him.  This is a caricature, admittedly, but the tendency toward over-professionalism (or clericalism) has given way to an under-appreciation for academic training and education.  In our efforts to get away from elitism, we push dangerously close to anarchy, where nobody is effectively in charge.

Striking the balance

Obviously some sort of balance between these extremes is needed here.  Not every Bible Study leader, Sunday School teacher, or small group speaker needs a full MDiv degree from an accredited seminary.  And while (I believe) it is desirable that regular preachers and large-scale teachers should have an education along those lines, it still is not absolutely necessary.

But there are other ways to train up teachers and leaders.  The best way, probably, is for people who have received such education and training to invest in the lives of a few individuals at a time to give them particular leadership training.  St. Paul’s letters reveal that he did this especially with Timothy and Titus, and we can infer from the book of Acts that he did so with a number of other nameless people throughout Asia Minor and Greece.  Even our Lord Himself, despite having hundreds of disciples throughout his ministry, invested in twelve of them specially.

One example that I’ve seen in action is an informal program called “Priestcraft.”  The various clergy of one church would have a monthly meeting with a group of people who were interested in the ministry of the Church and getting more involved, and/or discerning a call to ordained ministry.  Each month they’d focus on a different topic of ministry or church life, and share their knowledge and experience.  There was a general curriculum of topics to cover, and it rotated through them every couple years or so.

However we do it, we should be careful to heed the warning of St. James, “not many of you should be teachers,” and be sure that we pursue proper training for the roles we are given.  As for the realm of de facto teachers on the internet, we need to re-learn a spirit of humility, and learn when and what we are able to teach, versus in what cases we should allow those who are duly qualified and called to speak instead.

For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. – 1 Corinthians 14:33a

Posted in Biblical, Theological | Tagged , | Leave a comment