Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 3 May 2023. Today’s topic: Pray in Private

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.   Matthew 6:5-6

Prayer is a gift.   It’s a gift from God that He created a real, personal way for each of us to directly talk with Him, to bridge the gaps between the temporal and eternal.   And it’s a gift to Him, when we open our hearts to Him in prayer, inviting Him in to lead us, clean us, inspire us, heal and comfort us.

So, what about ‘prayers by the flagpole?’   You know, the move to have high schoolers meet at the school flagpole to pray.   Are those things hypocritical?   Aren’t they vain?  Or prayers in a stadium?  What about when someone leads a long, flowery prayer that just…won’t…end?

It’s the heart of the matter that matters.  Does the prayer come from the praying person’s heart?   Jesus knows us, and He knows that, when things matter to us, we treat them as important.  We think of them as personal, private matters.   That’s what Jesus wants prayer to be for us:   a personal, private, important matter.   Why?   Because prayer is a gift.  It’s why He tells us to usually pray privately.

In Luke 18, Jesus said, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”   That’s another way of saying what He said here in Matthew 6.   Jesus tells us to humble ourselves in prayer, praying in secluded places where we can focus on God.   He wants us to have those regular conversations with God in ways that crowd out the rest of the world so that we can fully open up to Him.  In this way, we can be honest and candid with Him.

And we can do it in ways that don’t mock Him.   If you think about it, those flowery prayers don’t seem very real.  They might just be for show and not the glory of God.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that some would mock God’s gift because, as sinners, we all do that in various ways.   Yet this is pretty tender.  We shouldn’t judge others harshly, but we also must not let ourselves be played for fools.  If something seems phony, it might be.   Best to steer clear of it.   Maybe even pray for the person doing it, as a gift to them and to God, but in private.

For more reading: 2 Kings 4:33, Mark 11:25, Luke 18:10-14, Matthew 6:7

Lord, I don’t ever want to abuse this gift of prayer You gave us.   Give me opportunities to pray in private for others, with You, and to not do it for my selfish gain.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 2 May 2023. Today’s topic: More Than Wordplay

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.   Matthew 6:3-4

I like the wordplay Jesus uses here…”do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”   You know, the only way to keep a secret so well is to make it part of you.   Not in a malicious way; not in a deceitful way.   Instead, if you want to keep the confidence trusted to you, ingrain it into your memory, even your sub-consciousness, and keep it there.  In that way, your left hand can do one thing while your right does another.

This isn’t to be deceptive.   This isn’t because we’re so trustworthy and keep secrets so well.   And this isn’t because we are so physically coordinated.   It’s so that God sees what we do and others don’t, so that He may share His blessings with us.

Again, it isn’t to be deceitful.   It’s to be genuine.   If we keep our giving quiet, the way Jesus and Bob Dole and Keanu Reeves and Elvis Presley and most people who have ever tithed did, then it demonstrates true generosity.   It isn’t all for show; it isn’t phony or selfish or just for the free publicity.  If we give because we know it pleases God, because we know He will work through our gift to bless other people, because we know it will help someone else, then it will warm God’s heart.  God rewards those who do such things in ways that warm their hearts, too.

And, if we give just to be seen?   We get what we deserve.

A word about ‘the reward system.’  It isn’t inherently sinful to want God to reward us.  Jesus PROMISED that God would reward us for right-minded giving (giving done to glorify God, not self).  The ultimate reward is eternal life in Him, and that’s guaranteed by having faith in Him.   Yet is that the only reward?   Satisfaction, love, peace, honor; all those come with doing what Jesus says here.   Financial gain, prosperity, status, more:  those might happen too, but circumstances differ as do tangible blessings.  That’s up to the Lord; ask Him, not me.

The best reward?   Knowing it makes the Lord happy.   That WILL result in a reward of blessing that can change your life for good as well as those around you.  Jesus promises God will reward us in such ways, so it’s reasonable and proper to expect it will happen.

Try it out for yourself.   Ask God to show you someone to whom you can give, then do it.   Watch what happens when your heart fills with the understanding of what God does through you.  It will be much more than a play on words.

For more reading: Colossians 3:23-24, Matthew 6:5

Tell me today, Lord, who I may serve with Your help.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 1 May 2023. Today’s topic: It Shows

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.   Matthew 6:2

If you’re doing what you’re doing for ‘the show,’ don’t be disappointed when ‘the show’ is all you get.   I hope you prosper, and I hope it’s satisfying for you.   But don’t be disappointed, or angry, or vengeful if that doesn’t happen.  Indeed, though I don’t want to antagonize someone in their hour of despair, if ‘the show’ was the only reason people did things, then they got what they selfishly wanted and shouldn’t expect more.

That’s easy for me to say because I’m not not famous; I’m not wealthy; I’m not glamourous.  But I am proud, and I like the warmth of the spotlight, and those are two qualities possessed by the people who crave ‘the show’.  Boil away all the self-justification and you find idolatry at the core of why such people do what they do.  That and a heavy bag of insecurities.   That’s a ripe combination for the deceiver to mess with our minds.

Our greatest emotional need here on the Third Rock is to be known, to be relevant, to be ‘seen.’  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it isn’t even sinful.  I bet if you asked any celebrity or social influencer why they do what they do, at the end of the discussion, you’d find that they want to be seen and known.   After all, we all want to live lives that mean something so that, a hundred years from now, our lives mean more than gravestones in a field.  We want to be remembered.  Yet, think back one hundred years and we could probably list only several hundred movie stars worldwide whose performances are still recorded in some book, or in old films, or available on Google even though many, many thousands of people worked in the silent film industry.   And what were the names of the workers who built the Jewish Temples, or the pyramids?  Lost in obscurity.   Sobering?

Here’s a way to be seen, to be known, to be remembered:  share your faith in Jesus.   Do it today.   Do it with just one person and mean it.   Share what you believe with someone and invest your time in them.  Cultivate a relationship; nurture a friendship; build a life and help someone build theirs.   Do these things because we were made by God to live in community.   Share faith in Jesus, even without saying His name.  Share it in what you do.  Help someone else on their way through life.   Do it today, then rinse and repeat.   That faith in Jesus is the only thing that can save us from living unremembered, anonymous lives because God sees us and remembers us and always will.   More than anything, it shows.

For more reading: Matthew 6:3

Lord Jesus, help me to share You.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 27 April 2023. Today’s topic: Bob Dole Humility

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Matthew 6:1

One of the best examples of public service I can think of, from my lifetime, was Bob Dole.   The former senator, presidential and vice-presidential candidate, and political icon was a Purple Heart-decorated World War II veteran.  His right arm was severely injured during his time as an Army officer in Italy, in 1945.   For the rest of his life, he lived with a largely useless and painful limb, and he lived almost another eighty years.   Yet, during all his time in Washington DC, he volunteered, weekly, at US Army hospitals in the area and other military-related service organizations.   I recall a rare interview he gave about this in which he downplayed it and said he preferred to keep quiet this kind of service to his fellow veterans.

That’s doing what Jesus said.  Bob Dole believed in Jesus, and he’s with Him now.

When Jesus said today’s verse, He was talking to a large group of strangers, on a hill (probably in Galilee).  It’s reasonable to assume that, among that group, there were Pharisees.   The Pharisees where a social, religious, even political group of Jews who believed in strict interpretation of the Old Testament scrolls.  They were (largely) wealthy, at the top of the social ladder, and self-conscious of that fact.   Repeatedly in His ministry (at least 77 times), Jesus either referred to or chastised the Pharisees for how they worshipped God.   He denounced their self-serving and judgmental ways, disciplining them for their hypocrisy.

In today’s verse, it’s understandable to think of the Pharisees as the foil for Jesus’ command.   In public, many of the Pharisees would make a show of their worship, or donating to others, or doing good works so that they would be noticed.  Jesus’ response to them is, as you can see, to tell them that the Father ignores them.   The Pharisees didn’t seem to have much of Bob Dole’s attitude.

But we need to be careful that we don’t judge them harshly because they’re us.  It’s GOOD to judge what others do and how it applies to our own thoughts and deeds.   “I shouldn’t do what X is doing.”   “That’s wrong.”   “That’s the kind of thing I want to do.”   Those are healthy judgments of the world around us and how we should live our God-led lives in conducting ourselves.

The flip side of that, however, is not boasting.  We are not to be “judgy” of others; we are not to think of ourselves as superior to anyone.   Instead, we are to be humble, as Jesus is humble, and do good works because they glorify God, not us.  Let God take care of the rest.  Bob Dole might have agreed.

For more reading: Luke 18:10-14, Matthew 6:2

Heavenly Father today, keep me humble.   Let me live in ways that are humble to glorify only You.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 26 April 2023. Today’s topic: Do It Now

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  Matthew 5:48

In perfect Jesus-style, Yoda said, “do or do not.   There is no try.”   In perfect Godly-style, Jesus said, “be perfect.”  Take that, Yoda.  In concluding Matthew 5, this most consequential of all the chapters in the Bible, Jesus tells us to be perfect:   something we are blatantly incapable of being; I mean, duh!  But that’s where you’d be wrong.

Jesus isn’t telling us to be God:  He’s telling us to fully set our minds on God in everything we do.  To radically shift our focus from ourselves and this world to the one who made both and to be as He is:  focused only on love, holiness, righteousness, and serving.   In other words, to be like Him (while not actually being Him).   In other words, Jesus is telling us to be perfect because our Father is perfect.

This isn’t anything new.  It goes back to the time of Moses, when God dictated (what became) Leviticus to him.   Leviticus, as a whole, is a basic guide to living a holy life.   It told the Israelites how  to live in ways that were holy so as to reflect God’s holiness.   In Leviticus 19, God said, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”  That same God spoke through His Son, part of the holy Trinity, in giving that same command thousands of years later.

And thousands of years after that, He’s still speaking it to us.  Be holy.   Be perfect.   Be perfect because our Father in heaven is perfect and holy.  Not tomorrow; don’t try.   Be.   Be perfect and holy now.

But but but that’s a tall order!   “We’re sinners and we can’t be holy!”   That’s true.   On our own, without Christ, we can’t be righteous, holy, or perfect.  Without Christ, we have zero chance because we are sinful, we do sin, we have sinned.   With Christ, however, we can live in His perfection.   Our sins aren’t held against us; our life inclination can change.   Again, remember that Jesus isn’t telling us to be Him (as if we could).   Instead, He’s telling us to be perfect LIKE Him.   Stop giving in to the temptations; refocus our thoughts; repent and live humbly; share forgiveness and love.   Jesus was perfect and lived in these ways.  Our being perfect requires us the same.

Why not do it today?   We don’t have to try to be perfect:   we get to be perfect because our Father is perfect and gave us His perfect Son.   Jesus opened the way to be with Him; why not take the first steps today?   To paraphrase the little green guy (who sort of echoed Jesus), in this, there is no try.   Do.  Do it now.

For more reading: Leviticus 19:2, 1 Peter 1:16, Matthew 6:1

Lord Jesus, on my own I can’t be perfect.   With You living through me, I can be perfect.   Teach me and live in me today.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 25 April 2023. Today’s topic: Duh!

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Matthew 5:46-47

“DUH!”   When my grandkids get old enough to be aware & communicative of obvious things, I’ll sometimes say “duh” to them when we are kidding around and they say something with an obvious conclusion.   More often than not, they’ll already have said that to me about the same subject or something else.   That usually elicits “duh” being the response to everything I say.

Get this:   in a way, that’s what Jesus was saying to those listening to this part of the Sermon on the Mount.  “Duh!   I mean, really? Even the people you look down on do the things you want to pat yourself on the back for.   Don’t you get it?”  

There’s so much packed into Jesus’ line of reasoning here.   First, He is reasoning.   He isn’t overtly convicting people of their sins; He’s content to let His words do that (so that said people might repent).   Jesus is presenting common-sense arguments to support a radical idea.   Nobody had ever proposed “love your enemies” and Jesus’ words here say, “I’m not talking about loving the folks you know.   I’m talking about loving “them.””   That same argument is still persuasive, even to us several thousand years later.

And, He asks the question, “what is the reward for love?”   The crowd knew what it felt like to have someone love them, but, here, Jesus was asking them if that was reward enough.   Just before this, He had said that we should love our enemies so that God the Father might better persuade us of His forgiving love.   What is the real reward for love?   God.   God is the reward because God is the ultimate love, the source of all love, the only real love in the universe.

What’s more, Jesus is employing a little bit of shaming here.   He specifically mentions tax collectors and pagans:   people who were at the lowest social and political strata in Judean Jewish culture.   The Jews looked down on tax collectors and unbelievers.   Where possible, they would have nothing to do with them.  Tell me:   was Jesus talking to the people on the hillside around Him, or was He talking to you and me?  Duh!

After all, His words appeal to us through reason.   The love of God is still ultimately the thing for which we all yearn.  And we still look down on others not like us.   Jesus’ timeless questions were designed to be that way, and thank (Him) that He did this.   Otherwise, we might miss the most obvious things.   Duh!

For more reading: Luke 6:32, Matthew 5:48

Lord, thank You for pointing out these things in teaching us of how the Father loves.   And how we should love others.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 24 April 2023. Today’s topic: Father

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Matthew 5:43-45

God provides for us, and one person in His Trinity is the Father.   He is the maker of heaven and Earth, and each of us.   Our Father:   that’s Him.  Provider, creator, eternal parent, mentor, friend:   that is the Father.

Back here on Earth, I loved my Dad.   I really did.   I know he loved me, and that he did the best he could in nearly all things.  Yet, as a child, I struggled with his affections.   I was a boisterous, skinny, uncoordinated and overactive kid, and my Dad didn’t know how to deal with it.   He had a great many problems on his mind at the time, in those late 1960s, and dealing with a son to whom he had difficulty relating only made his burden seem heavier.  I wanted him as a Dad, but he didn’t seem to want me as his son.  Years later, we had a great peer relationship.   I respected him more when I understood him more, and I think you could say that he reciprocated that.   When he died, it left a giant hole in my heart because it was only then, in my early thirties, that I started to deal with my perceptions of why I thought my dad didn’t really want me for most of my first ten years.

Those misplaced perceptions have clouded my ability to get close to the Father.   Sometimes, I think of God the Father as a lot like my earthly father.   I wasn’t good enough for the dad I had here, so why would He think I was good enough for Him?  He’s perfect and I’m so blatantly not; He’s totally out of my league, and my constant sins must be a huge disappointment to Him.  To be fully honest, on my own, I don’t understand much at all about God the Father.  Why would the Father want me?

Why?   Because He made me to be me, and I’m always more than enough for Him because of His perfect Son.  That’s the message Jesus was teaching us.  God the Father provides everything to every one of us out of His unending love, even to our so-called enemies, even to us in our insecurities.   We are special because He made us and loves us more than we could ever understand here.   If we want to know just a little of what that love looks like, we can learn it from His Son, Jesus, who loves us in the same way.  It’s a lesson I know Dad learned before he went to be with Jesus in person.

For more reading: 1 John 4:8, Matthew 5:46

Father, I love You.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 20 April 2023. Today’s topic: The Center of God’s Heart

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  Matthew 5:43-44

In my opinion, aside from Genesis 1, Matthew 5 may be the most impactful chapter in the entire Bible.   In it, Jesus reveals large swaths of the Father’s heart and the ways we can let Him remold our lives to cleave closer to Him.

Several of the verses referenced to today’s refer to Jesus’ command to ‘love God and love your neighbor.’  In reality, “love your enemy” is a natural consequence of that one.  In the ‘love your neighbor’ statement, Jesus was responding to a question from a self-serving ‘expert’ about what was the greatest commandment. He said, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ’The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”.  

Knowing that, if you read today’s verses again, it makes sense that Jesus saying, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is a part of “love your neighbor.”   Face it:  our enemies are our neighbors.   If you have political disagreements with the people in your neighborhood, whether you (all) like it or not, you’re still neighbors and still need to maintain harmony.   If you don’t agree with things done by some family and friends, they’re still family and friends.   If you are at war, your enemies are still human beings like you (and me).

The way to de-fuse anger and hatred is through love.   That doesn’t mean you don’t defend yourself if attacked.   And, it doesn’t mean you become some linguine-spined flop who lets people walk all over you.   There is strength in love, maybe the only real, lasting strength and power in the universe.   It takes courage and determination to love people who hate, hurt, or persecute you.   Their actions are based on emotion, or lack of it; they’re based on a lack of love.  They’re based on sin-filled hearts.

The only constructive response to that?   Love.   Love our enemies.   Love those who hurt us.   The breakup, the firing manager, the person on the opposite side of the aisle, the mortal enemy?   Pray for them.   Even if your response requires force, pray for them before and after.   The person who you’re supposedly against is a child of God as well.  Jesus loves them too and wants to show them grace.   Through us; through love; through prayer. 

Praying for them, showing them Godly love is one way to do that.   Love, because love is at the center of God’s heart.

For more reading:  Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 6:27, Luke 10:27, John 15:20, Acts 7:60, Romans 13:9, 1 Corinthians 4:12, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8, 1 Peter 2:23, Matthew 5:45

Lord, help me to pray for my enemies, to love them and those who persecute me.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 19 April 2023. Today’s topic: Because, the Heart

And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  Matthew 5:40-42

Why would Jesus tell us for “yes” to mean “yes” (and “no” to mean “no”), and then tell us to offer up ourselves if evil attacks us?   Because, the heart. 

Notice, too, that Jesus makes the leap from “when evil confronts us” to “when someone asks you for something.”   That seems strange, until I think that, whenever someone asks me to do something for them, or to borrow something, I usually feel a twinge of selfishness, maybe even victimhood.   Oh, woe is me!   Someone wants to borrow my lawnmower!   Someone is asking me to get out of my (fearful) comfort zone!

What do evil and selfishness have to do with each other?   Actually, quite a lot.   Maybe personal selfishness is just a petty form of evil, a personalized, in-dwelt nugget of evil instead of a giant, Maleficent-the-dragon kind.  In a way, that selfish nugget is actually more dangerous, and has more long-term lethality than the short-term dragon attack.  That selfishness is like a corrosion that eats away at us from inside, taking years to etch away the health of our hearts until, like corrupted pieces of metal, they become irreparably broken.   Then, we’re left just being selfish, mean old people who are hard to love and harder to be around.

Because, again, the heart.

We should mean what we say and trust Jesus at all times and in all ways, even when evil is brought upon us.  Even when people want to borrow our nearest and dearest possessions.  That becomes possible when we let Jesus scour the selfishness and sin-tendencies out of our hearts.  He replaces them with patience, love, and a willingness to serve Him in whatever we do.   That heart-attitude made Maximilian Kolbe willingly exchange his life for someone else’s (and for a crown of victory from the Lord).   It makes parents willingly sacrifice anything for their kids.   It makes the heart of giving beat and the attitude of serving overwhelming. 

Jesus asks us to put off our sinful ways and pick up His ways.   When we do, it becomes easier to give a stranger your coat, or maybe a meal, or a ride home.   It becomes possible for us to go into tough situations with a heart to serve and the courage to back it up.   When we do, other people see Jesus through us, and that’s how the world begins to change.   Because, you know, the heart.   It’s how evil is vanquished one little act of love at a time.

For more reading:  Deuteronomy 15:8, Luke 6:30, Matthew 5:43

Lord, let me act as You would:  with a heart to give and serve from You.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 18 April 2023. Today’s topic: Kolbe’s Heart

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’   But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.   Matthew 5:38-39

Let’s tackle the first thing Jesus says in this section.   We’ll tackle it this way because, if we don’t, you might walk away thinking Jesus is simply talking about revenge, and that simply isn’t the case.  And, no, Jesus isn’t telling us to do stupid things.  In these first two verses, Jesus is talking about when evil is done to us. 

Have you heard of Maximilian Kolbe?   He was a Polish, Catholic priest who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1941.   Kolbe volunteered to die in the place of another Polish prisoner, who had a wife and children.   Kolbe and nine other men were starved in prison cells for several weeks as punishment for another inmate’s attempted escape.  When he was one of the last inmates still alive, the guards on his cellblock murdered him with an injection of carbolic acid.   When the guards came to execute him, Father Kolbe was found in prayer; he calmly, willingly offered his arm to receive the injection without struggle or resistance.

Did Maximilian Kolbe simply volunteer to die so another might live?  Or, more importantly, did he offer up his heart in submission to God no matter what the consequences would be?

Make no mistake:  in meting out justice, in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, God commanded Israel to take an eye for an eye as recompense for legal crimes.   In Exodus, it concerned a pregnant woman and her unborn child; in Leviticus, murder; in Deuteronomy, malicious or false testimony.  This was not only an edict for ancient Israel.   This was the harsh custom in most ancient cultures (and more than a few in today’s world, especially in Islamic culture).

Yet Jesus spoke of going beyond this.   Instead of pursuing savage legal justice, Jesus urged His followers to act from the heart in submitting to even the most evil of people.   When evil is done to us, we are to trust God that He is the ultimate source of justice, that He will work this for our good (and even the good of the perpetrator), and that His love is both stronger and victorious over even the most heinous evil.  It’s that attitude of the heart that Jesus wanted to inculcate in His followers, and in us.   After all, the best way to defeat evil is through love.

Like Maximilian Kolbe did.   The man he saved survived the camps.  After World War II, he dedicated his life to ministry and making sure people knew about the Godly sacrifice Father Kolbe had made.  Our hearts must be the same.

For more reading:  Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21, Luke 6:29, Romans 12:17-19, 1 Peter 3:9, Matthew 5:40

Lord Jesus, when evil is done to me, help me to act only from Your heart.