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.
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.
Jesus had an unsettling way of answering people obliquely. In Luke, we read, “be careful to guard against all forms of greed,” when a man wanted him to tell his brother to share the inheritance. Now, sharing is a good thing and Jesus encouraged all of us to do just that. What was at issue, though, was the man’s focus. He was not looking at God but at the property.
In Hosea we read God’s words, “I taught Efrayim to walk…they did not know that it was I who was healing them.” Chosen by God, saved in Egypt, delivered from Egypt, yet they could not remember any of it.
To look like Tom or George.
To win the lottery.
To own a BMW.
To have perfect children.
To have my share of my older brother’s inheritance that I should have gotten anyway because everyone knows my brother is a looser.
If I focus on God, I will be happy for my brother’s good fortune and if he is focused on God, he will share that wealth with me and many others. Jesus was right to refuse to take sides in the dispute because in God’s eyes, neither brother was right.
God went on in Hosea, “for I am God, not a human being, the Holy One among you, so I will not come in fury.” That is the Good News. God does not punish us for our sins, He forgives us in a way that is not human.
In Colossians we read, “The new self allows no room for discriminating between Gentile and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, foreigner, savage, slave, free man; on the contrary, in all, the Messiah is everything.” That is also the Good News. The Messiah gathers us all up and brings us before God to receive his forgiveness.
Give up greed in all things, especially the greed of believing that I alone know the mind of God.