Monday, October 26, 2015

Where Is the Treasure

Where Is the Treasure?
Matthew 13:44
            Jesus tells an interesting parable about the kingdom of heaven.  A man, for some reason, is poking around in a field he doesn’t own.  He finds a buried treasure.  Without telling anyone of his discovery, he sells everything he has, buys the field, and takes possession of both the land and the treasure.
            Putting aside the man’s sneakiness—perhaps unethical behavior—we get the point Jesus was making.  God’s kingdom is worth everything we have—and then some.  If we give up all we have and all we are to obtain the kingdom, we’re way ahead. 
            Recently I came across a story told by Rev. Russell Conwell that presents another view of treasure hunting, one that also has implications for us in our search for heavenly treasure.
            There was a wealthy farmer in Africa whose name was Hafid.  He owned a huge, fertile tract of land, large herds of camels and goats, and orchards full of date and fig trees.  He had more than enough of worldly goods.
            One day a wandering holy man came to Hafid’s farm, and told him that huge fields of diamonds were being discovered.  The distinguishing geographical features of these fields were rivers with white sands that flowed out of valleys lying between V-shaped mountains.
            Hafid was so eager for greater wealth that he sold everything he had—land, herds, orchards—and went in search of this fortune.  He never found it.  Search as he might he was not able to find such a valley.  Finally, he died, a poor, broken, disillusioned man.
            Meanwhile, the man who had bought Hafid’s farm found a pretty rock in the river as he watered his camels.  He admired it for its sparkle, picked it up and took it home, where he put it on a shelf.  The sun reflecting through it made pretty rainbow patterns across the room. 
            Sometime later, the same wandering holy man came back to the farm.  Seeing the rock and its rainbow colors he asked the new owner where he had found it.  When they got to the river the holy man looked up and saw that it flowed into the valley from between V-shaped mountains.  As they walked along they found more and more of the pretty rocks, which the holy man identified as diamonds.  Eventually they found that the land contained acres and acres of diamonds. 
The farm became the Kimberly Diamond Mine, the richest in all South Africa.  Hafid, in his haste to gain more wealth, didn’t bother to look around him.  If he had, he would never have sold his property.  He would have discovered the diamonds, and become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams instead of dying far from home in poverty.
Psalm 121 begins with the words, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.”  If Hafid had looked up he would have seen the V-shape of the mountains which identified the valley as a source of diamonds.  Had he looked down when he was watering his flocks he would have seen the diamonds.  Instead he looked far away, and as a result lost not only his chance at greater wealth, but the wealth he already had.
We too should look for treasure where we live.  The man in Jesus’ parable was near his home.  He was not on some exotic journey, but close to his own village. 
Our treasure will be found in our service to God.  Most of us will not be called to go adventuring far away, but will serve where we live.  That’s where we’ll find our field of diamonds.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Gender Equality

 Gender Equality
Ephesians 5:22-33
            One of the most profound documents ever written is the United States Constitution.  The framers of the Constitution were in many ways wise beyond their time.  Nothing like this had ever been tried before.  There was no model for creating this kind of government, nor for a document that would guide the fledgling country into the future.
            The wisdom of these men can be seen in the endurance of both the democracy and its guiding star.  Not only has the Constitution stood the test of time (more than 200 years in existence), but the number of amendments remains amazingly low.  Our founding fathers couldn’t think of everything (it says nothing, for instance, about the internet), but they gave us a framework which we have used to successfully solve the problems of an ever-changing nation. 
When we think of how much the culture has changed in the past 200 years, we can understand that our founders could not have anticipated everything that has occurred.  Thanks to their wisdom we haven’t had to throw the document out and start over; but we must constantly reinterpret it to meet the needs of our country as we continue to move into the future.  Documents such as our Constitution are written within the confines of a particular time, place, and cultural orientation.  Its genius is that its construction makes reinterpretation possible and avoids the need to replace or drastically modify it.
So it is with the Bible.  The major difference is that it was composed over a much longer time, in many more places, and in a very different culture.  It is impossible to completely understand the Bible without understanding the culture (actually cultures) from which it comes.  How can we accomplish this?  How can we understand enough about biblical cultures to catch even a glimpse of what it meant to those people—and what it might mean to us today?
Gender relations provide a good example.  In the early days of humanity, the important quality for survival was strength—strength to ward off enemies, both human and animal; strength to do the major work of the farm or shop; strength to build the structures for living and working.  To a great extent, that quality is not as necessary as it once was.  With machines to do much of the heavy lifting, women can perform as well as men in such fields as factory work, auto mechanics, flying planes, driving trucks—even soldiering.  As long as a woman can use her brain as well as a man (some would say that’s not difficult), she can do the same work.
Sexual ethics have also changed drastically.  In the days before DNA testing it was necessary for a woman to remain her father’s daughter until she became her husband’s wife.  It was necessary for her to stay at home unless accompanied by a male relative.  This was primarily for economic reasons.  If a woman could not prove that she was a virgin when she married, and then remain faithful to her husband, the inheritance of his property was subject to challenge.  She had to be able to assure everyone that she could not possibly have given birth to another man’s child.  To insure this she had to be virtually imprisoned in her own home.  She was always under male domination, with no possibility of equality.

When we read injunctions such as Paul’s to the Corinthians (or Peter’s in 1 Peter 2:1-7) we must remember the cultural setting in which they were written.  Compare their words with Genesis 2:24.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  There doesn’t seem to be any domination here.  This sounds like pure equality.  It seems to me that God ordained both members of a couple to be equal partners in the union, both with the same rights and responsibilities—and benefits.  Perhaps we should look carefully at these passages to see what they might mean for us in light of new scientific knowledge.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Helpers or Stumbling Blocks?

Helpers or Stumbling Blocks?
Luke 17:1-2
            In his letter to the Romans, Paul takes the matter of helping fellow Christians very seriously.  He spends all of chapter fourteen and the first part of chapter fifteen on the subject.  “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.”
            Too often we are guilty of doing just that.  We love to get ahold of new believers and indoctrinate them into our version of Christianity.  Some even go so far as to claim, “If you don’t believe exactly as I believe, you have no hope of ending up in heaven.”  Jesus addressed this issue (Matthew 23:4) directly when he said, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders.” 
            Paul doesn’t stop there.  He speaks about judgmentalism, one of humanity’s greatest sins.  Oh how we love to tell other people how they should live!  How we love to sit in our chairs by the side of life’s road and criticize those who live differently than we do.  We may not understand the reasons for the differences, but that hardly matters.  If they don’t meet our standards we (verbally/mentally) cut them to ribbons.
            “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” Paul says.  “It is before his own master that he stands or falls.”  In other words, God is the judge, not us—and a lucky thing for the majority of the human race it is, for most people wouldn’t make it out of our court unpunished.
            Paul’s two topics of concern seem to be celebrating or not celebrating certain festival days, and what people choose to eat.  Usually when Paul addresses food, the issue is eating meat that has been first offered to idols.  While these issues are of no importance to most of us today, there are many other ways we judge our fellow humans—all of them wrong.
            “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block in the way of a brother.”  Or sister.  The word Paul uses means brother and sister.  We must be careful not to cause anyone to err.  Paul adds, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
            Lest you think Paul is alone in criticizing our actions, we have the words of Jesus Christ to chide us.  “Temptations to sin are sure to come,” Jesus says, “but woe to the one through whom they come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”
            This is a double condemnation.  People living in the first century had no idea what lay beneath the surface of the sea.  For all they knew, horrible monsters lived in its impenetrable depths.  The very mention of the sea sent shivers down most spines.
            Coupled with the fear of the sea was the size of millstones.  They measured about four feet across.  They were large and heavy because they were used to grind grain.  The hard-shelled grain was placed between two stones.  The bottom one remained stationary while the top one was turned, usually by a donkey, since it would be heavy for a man to move.  For a person to have one of these stones fastened to his neck and thrown into the sea meant there would be no escape for the horrors that awaited him below.  He was twice doomed.

            Which are we:  helpful brothers and sisters, or stumbling blocks?  Paul and Jesus give us only these two choices.  If by our judgmentalism and our insistence on making people follow our standards we cause them to sin, we suffer God’s punishment.  Better—far better—to follow Paul’s guiding words:  “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by people.  So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What Does the Lord Expect?

What Does the Lord Expect?
Luke 17:7-10
            Many of us have become hooked on Downton Abby—so much so that we can’t get enough.  We watch the original broadcasts.  We buy each season’s DVD’s.  We watch the background shows about the program:  the one about the castle that is used for the setting, and anything else they think will sell—even reruns.  I even remember a political cartoon based on the show right after they killed off Matthew.
            This show has given us a good look at British aristocracy in the first third of the 20th century.  We have gained insights into how they relate to each other, to the “lower classes,” and especially to the servant class.  The family with whom we have become so acquainted treats their servants well, but we are left with no doubt as to the presence of class distinction.  We know who the masters are and who the servants are, and (except in one case) there is no socializing between them. 
            This is also the cultural situation which is the setting for Jesus’ parable of the obedient servant.  The usual translation of the parable’s opening phrase is, “Will any one of you who has a servant…?”  Sometimes it will read, “Which of you, having a servant…?”  Kenneth Bailey, a man long acquainted with the Middle East and several Middle Eastern languages (he taught there for almost thirty years) says there is a better, more accurate translation.  He begins his version with the words, “Can you imagine having a servant…?”
            For him, this translation makes more sense because the answer from the audience would be a resounding, “No!”  No one listening to Jesus could imagine any master rewarding a servant in this way.  Everyone in the crowd would have understood the master/servant relationship as surely as does every character in Downton Abby.  There would be no question as to who gets to eat first.  The master is the master and the servant is the servant.  The servant serves the master then eats.
            Bailey says we shouldn’t feel sorry for the servant.  It’s not that he’s been plowing the field or tending sheep since sunup.  The servant has had what to us would seem a rather short work day—certainly not the eight (perhaps eight plus) hours that constitute our normal load.  The servant has not been worked nearly to death.  Instead, he has put in what we would think of as about a half-day’s work.
            The truth is that no servant would expect special consideration for doing a day’s labor.  He did what was expected of him in the fields; now it’s time to do the household chores.  It is also true that, unlike our culture, where servants are rare, Middle Eastern families, except for the very poor, would likely have at least one hired person to do the more menial chores.  It is even possible that the master in this story would have put in as much work as the servant.  This certainly would be the case in, for instance, fishing families like that of Zebedee, who, even though he himself worked and had two sons in the business, still had “hired hands” to help with the load.
            The point Jesus is trying to make is that the master owed his servant no special consideration for completing his work.  The servant had merely done what was expected of him during the day.  Now he is expected to prepare the evening meal and serve it. 

            Just so should we not, when we have done everything God requires of us, expect any special consideration.  God owes us nothing for our labor.  There is no such thing as “work righteousness.”  We have done what was expected of us.  Therefore, we should say with the servant in the parable, “Nothing is owed us.  We have only done what was our duty.”