Jesus and the Roman Legions

According to a recent Gallup poll, the US military is highly respected.  The poll measures seventeen areas of American life, the environment, the economy, education, etc., and the military finished at the top of the list with 74% of Americans having a positive feeling about it.  In another poll, when presented with a list of sixteen institutions, 75% placed the military at the top of the list with small business at 63%, police at 56%, and organized religion at 44%.  Congress came in last at 13%.

What does it say about our country that fewer than half respect churches but three-fourths like the military?  More importantly, what would Jesus say?

A Gallup poll taken in first century Rome would have given similar results.  Even in those regions conquered by Rome, the army was respected because it was an easy way to gain status and security for many of the newly conquered.  Most of the soldiers Jesus would have met were from Greece and Persia.  Only a few officers were actually Roman.

Jesus never spoke against Rome or its military.  But neither did he say anything about Roman or Greek religions, schools, medical care, or dozens of other details of life.  He criticized one group, the leaders of the Jewish religion.  He stayed on target, on task, sought one goal.

Jesus was a prophet and like all prophets before him, he brought a message from God.  The message was simple, is simple, live close to God, turn to God, face God, be true to God, accept God.  Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming that he brought Good News, or as John put it, he brought the Light of God, the Word of God.  The Good News is that God loves every one of us and wants us to stay close to him.

Where does that message fit with the military?  In God’s Kingdom where God protects us, it doesn’t fit at all.  But we live in a world where the military is necessary.  Countries attack one another and defense is obligatory.  People commit crimes and police powers are necessary.  The Roman Legions preformed both duties.  We have to live in a world of evil and Jesus apparently agreed, or did not disagree, that someone needs to crack heads occasionally.

But I’m not sure he would be happy with the 75% approval rating.  I can only guess based on his overall message.  I think he would see Americans trusting the sword more than God.  That is the great danger for us in this context.  If we, most of us, live close to God, trusting Him in all things, the military would hardly be considered one way or the other.  It’s there when we need it, otherwise why think about it?

I personally respect the military and always have, even in the dark times surrounding Vietnam.  I believe Congress made a big mistake when they eliminated the draft.  That was a perfect time to institute universal public service.  Everyone at some time from 18 to 25 should serve for two years in the military, peace corps, education corps, medical corps, etc.  Each could choose the area of service full time for two years.

I doubt that it will ever happen here, though many countries do it.  It would give us more exposure to service and service is at the root of the message of Jesus.

So, what about Christians serving in the military?  Nothing can be proven from reading the words of Jesus on this question.  All we can do is understand his whole message and then apply it as best we can to a subject on which he never spoke.  He spoke of love and peace, but he also spoke of justice.  Most importantly, he said his Kingdom was not of this world.

In this world, we have to settle for a sliding scale of values.  Love on one end of the scale and hate on the other, for example.  Or justice v. no justice.  As Christians we try to stay close to the love side and the justice side, but we are never completely there.  God is Love, absolutely and always.  He, always, without exception, provides perfect justice.  We work at it, strive for it, but never achieve it.  The best we can do in this world is to love more than we hate, hopefully much more.

A Christian soldier would go to Guadalcanal in 1942 and kill as many Japanese soldiers as possible.  While doing that, he would probably hate them.  But he would also hate having to do it.  He would live the rest of his life with blood on his hands, crying, “Out, out, damned spot.”  Recruiters never tell anyone that their lives will never be the same after killing other humans.  Only in heaven will the spots be washed away.

Bottom line: war is ugly and un-Godly, but Christians have to do it sometimes because the alternative is even worse.  We should nonetheless work hard to avoid it.

Keep your eyes on the True Kingdom.

Mike Lawrence

On Broken Cisterns

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

 were in important element of life in the dryer parts of the country as they were throughout the dry parts of the world.  They are found in all sizes and shapes, but in the US were generally the size of a bedroom in a farm house.  To make a cistern, you need to dig a hole six to ten feet deep and about the same on all sides.  The walls have to be covered with concrete or something else that will hold the water in.  It’s a little like building a small swimming pool, except the top has to be covered as well.  Every roof needs gutters feeding rain water into pipes that run into the cistern.

You may know that the Temple platform in Jerusalem has a number of cisterns dug into the solid rock of the mountain.  They were used to store water for two purposes: to wash the sacrificial area and to supply the people with water if they were under siege, as they were in 70 CE.  But before you envision ten foot holes, the Temple cisterns could supply a million people water for months.

You may be wondering why this history lesson.  Jeremiah was told by God, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

If, a century ago, you were lucky enough to live close to a brook, stream, or river, you had no use for a cistern.  If you choose to live next to God, you have a constant stream of living water, but if you don’t want to live near God, you have to build a cistern because living water does not flow anywhere else.

The image in Jeremiah is of building a cistern to catch the occasional drops of life that God allows everyone to have.  Those drops have to be stored and held because they are so precious, thus the hole in the ground.  But, as God says, “they are broken and cannot hold water.”  It is a futile exercise, yet another human delusion.  We think we can get along without God.

The Scriptures are filled with opposing images to represent God and not God.  Light and dark, loving God and loving self, being righteous and being greedy; they all yield the same message: life only exists with God.

Let’s look back at the first sin God listed: “They have forsaken me.”  Jesus explains that to the Pharisees at the Sabbath dinner.  “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”  If you live next to the living water, offer some of it to others.  It is a river that can never run dry.

God wants to share with us and he wants us to share with others, especially those who are outside the range of the living water.  The author of Hebrews writes, “Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”  “Keep on loving each other.  Do not forget to entertain strangers.”

So, what do I do Monday?  How do I live my life close to God when I spend most of my waking hours taking care of the kids, going to work, keeping up the house, the car, etc.  All those things seem to leave no time for God.

Take God with you.  Yes, it’s that simple, and that easy.  OK, maybe not easy at first.  Work at it day after day.  Accept your failures as learning experiences and strive to do better.  It cannot be done overnight, but it can be done.  Take God with you wherever you go.  The really Good News is that you will have help every step of the way.  Remember that some of those strangers are angles.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Second Chances

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Luke has done something very interesting by placing this event immediately after the fig tree parable which starts in verse 6.  Farmers understand the idea that a fig tree, or any other plant, that does not yield fruit has to be eliminated to make room for those that do yield.  Yet, in the parable, the tree was given another chance.  The main point being that God gives Israel and each of us second chances.
Now Luke places Jesus in a synagogue on the Sabbath with a woman.  Picture a room perhaps the size of the average Seven-Eleven.  There are benches along the sides, but most of the men are standing or sitting on the floor.  The elders use the benches.  At the very back, or if it is a well-to-do synagogue, in the balcony are the women.  Jesus, as a visiting rabbi, has been invited to read the scripture and comment on it, so he is near the front of the room where the ark is positioned.  The ark is the cabinet containing the Holy Scrolls.
So, Jesus is teaching and people are either enthralled or repealed by his words, when he spots the woman who can barely lift her eyes high enough to see him.  Jesus did the unthinkable.  No other Jewish man on earth that day would have done what he did.  His Twelve Apostles probably gasped out loud.  He asked the woman to come forward.
You have to understand that in the synagogue on Saturday, a man would not even look at his wife, even if she went into labor.  The other women would take care of her.  He probably wouldn’t even turn around for fear of catching a glimpse of her or any other woman.  And that was not just the Pharisees.  Even Jews who seldom went to synagogue would have known the rule.
I’m sure men were suddenly interested in the floor.  Let’s hope it has a beautiful mosaic to help them focus their attention away from the woman.  We wouldn’t want them to be defiled. Jesus, on the other hand, ignored all decorum.  He first spoke to her, then touched her.  I imagine some men hurried away at that point.  This was not a small infraction.  Jesus chose to do something that hit people between the eyes. He worked on the Sabbath by healing the woman.  He brought a woman to the front of the synagogue.  He spoke to a woman in the synagogue.  He touched a woman in the synagogue.  Tisk, tisk.
What was going on?  Why did Jesus make such a public display?  He had the power to heal the woman without even pausing in his teaching.  No one would have known the woman could now walk upright because of Jesus.
Which is the point; the people needed to know that Jesus had that power.  Psalms reads, “Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness.”  In Jeremiah, a pre-Messiah, God says, “I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  The author of Hebrews writes of God saying, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” The Messiah is the power of God on earth to heal and fulfill.  The Messiah can take a bent, unfruitful fig tree and nourish it until it is as good as new.  He can un-bend a woman and give her new life.  He can untie her and lead her to living water.
The word “set free” in the NIV literally means “untie” which is instructive in verse 15 where the animals are untied to be watered. Two more notes about the healing.  Even the synagogue ruler believed that Jesus could heal the woman.  He simply wanted him to do it tomorrow, and not in his synagogue, thank you.  Which brings us to the last point I will make here; nothing is said about faith.  Many of the healing accounts have Jesus mentioning that faith healed the person, but not here.
Why?  I think the woman’s response tells us.  The woman already understood what had happened.  She praised God.  Not Jesus.  Healing comes from God as she knew.  We Christians sometimes forget God in our passion for Jesus.  Jesus never did.  He always gave God the credit, even when he hinted at or accepted the possibility that he might be God or the Son of God.  God is the source of all, period.
Be righteous and do good.
Mike Lawrence

On Judgment

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

None of these passages are warm and fuzzy.  Hot, yes, but destructively so.  Psalms is a good place to start the lesson.  We like to think of Psalm 23 when we talk of the Psalms, but Psalm 80 is about burning the grape vine in the fire.  It describes what happens to those who turn away from God.

“You brought a vine out of Egypt,” that great Exodus with its saving Passover.  The vine, Israel, was planted and produced some good fruit, including, “the son of man you have raised up for yourself.”  Yet, the next verse reads, “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire.”

Isaiah explains why God has to send the fire.  “When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?”  And, “He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”   God can be difficult, He expects the best.  We produce good fruit or we burn.

The author of Hebrews eases the pain of this message by stressing the positive.  We need the faith Moses and the Hebrews had at the Red Sea, the faith Joshua, Rahab, Gideon, and all the others who have shown us the way.  But mostly, we need to, “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”  Jesus is that very Son of Man Psalm 80 spoke of.  He is the Vine.

The vine was such an important symbol for Judeans in Jesus time that they sculpted a vine growing all around the entrance to the Holy Place of the Temple.  The vine was made entirely of gold and the grapes on the vine were as large as a human head.  We need to take a lesson from the fact that the gold ended up in Rome, probably to help pay for the construction of the Coliseum.  God expected His people to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, visit the lonely, in short, do good.  God wants justice, not our gold.  Of course, our gold can often bring justice, that is, to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, etc.

Now for the difficult passage:  “I have come to bring fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  Throughout the Tanak, the Christian Old Testament, fire is used to describe the Word of God and the Judgment of God.  All of chapter 12 is loaded with Tanak images and many of them deal with the end times, that is, with judgment.

But let’s consider the other meaning of fire first.  “I have come to bring fire on earth.”  Jesus spent his ministry delivering God’s Word to Abraham’s people; the Words of justice and love.  “How I wish it were already kindled!”  And why not?  Imagine a world filled with the Love and Justice of God.

At the beginning of his ministry, Luke records the visit Jesus made to his home in Nazareth where he read the passage from Isaiah about preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom, giving sight to the blind, and proclaiming the Year of Jubilee.  He made it clear that he was here to fulfill God’s promise.

But that promise is the Word and the Word of God is fire.  It is not possible to speak of Love without speaking of burning away sin.  The Word burns.  Love is not a squishy feeling, all loaded with chocolate and sprinkles.  Love is a fire that consumes our old ways.  Love demands giving up everything that is not like God.  We are made in his image, not the image of the Liar.  When we return to God and live the life of His Love, the darkness of the Liar will be burned away.

Love demands that we think of others before ourselves and that we think of God before others.  Anything less comes from the Liar.  If I give to the poor, but only after I’ve made sure they’re good people who really deserve it and I only give from my extra money, I’m not practicing Love.  Love is full time, no reservations.

So, what does all this have to do with Judgment?  Think of two people going through the airport security.  One has no belt, no shoes, no pockets.  He walks through with hardly a pause.  The other is weighted down with “stuff” and he makes jokes about bombs.  He will have plenty of time to get to know the TSA staff.  That’s Judgment.  If I practice Love and trust in God, it will be of little notice.  If I follow the Liar….

 

Be righteous and do good.

 

Mike Lawrence

On Choosing the Right Banker

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

In ancient times kings, and other wealthy people, found it necessary to appoint at least one person to keep track of all their money.  In England, the title came to be Keeper of the Privy Purse; privy meaning private.  Today, Queen Elizabeth does not need to carry any form of money; her Keeper pays all her private debts.

Clearly, the Queen needs to have absolute confidence in her Keeper.  After all, she goes through more than $10 million a year.  Since history is filled with examples of theft by keepers at all levels, the Queen’s Keeper cannot spend any money without approval by others.

Most governments and larger businesses use some variation of that watchful backup system.  When I taught school, my paycheck always had three signatures.  Some government expenditures require five.  The reason?  We have learned never to trust humans.

Jesus said, “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  God is the only banker we can rely on.

If only it were that simple; collect our goods and deposit them in the Only Bank of Yahweh.  The problem we humans have with God’s Bank is His definition of treasures.  As Isaiah has it, “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!   Seek justice,encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

The Bible’s idea of wealth doesn’t sell well on Wall Street.  We need to invest in the poor, the hungry, the sick, the illiterate, the wrongly accused.  There are no other treasures to be stored in God’s Bank.

Did you know that less than ten percent of all charity money in the US actually goes to the needy?  Over half goes to universities, mostly to build buildings and sports facilities.  Less than ten percent of the money given to churches, synagogues, etc., is used for the needy.  We like to give money; by doing so we feel we have satisfied God’s demands.

Psalm 50 tells us a different story, taken from The Message.  “Spread for me a banquet of praise, serve High God a feast of kept promises.”  Yes, give money, but give much more.  Give yourself.  Find people in need and help them.  They may live next door or in Timbuktoo, Mali.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence