Abraham and Sarah and Hagar
Genesis 16: You’re the God who sees me!
The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar is such a sad one. While I know that I’m reading an event from long ago that took place in a culture very different than mine, the way Hagar is treated is pitiful. Sarah, who’s childless, sees that those in the culture around her have a sort of solution for the problem. They use a slave girl as a surrogate. Apparently, giving one’s servant to one’s husband is less humiliating in that culture than being childless. Hagar has no say in the matter and Abraham docilely goes along Sarah’s foolish plan. When the girl gets pregnant by Abraham the already horrible situation begins to unravel further. Hagar, who has never had much of a chance in life, decides to run away from the people who’ve abused her. My belief is that her choice to run is probably the right one. However in this case and in this day and culture, there are extenuating circumstances. As she flees, she encounters the God she’s heard Abraham and Sarah talk about. To her amazement, God not only knows about Abraham and Sarah, he knows her name too. This God cares about her and gives her a promise similar to the one he gave Abraham years earlier. Hagar connects with the Lord and calls him El Roi – the “God who sees.” As I read this incident and then of Hagar’s second encounter with El Roi a few pages over, I’m reminded that God sees the plight of the outcasts of the world. He sees and he cares about their lives. Since I’m a worshiper of this seeing God my values ought to reflect his values. I’m to show compassion on those who are mistreated by society. As I’m able, I’m to help lift their burden. Whether I can do that or not, I’m to value them as people the God I worship, El Roi, sees and cares about.
Take away: God cares about the abused and the outcasts. I’m to do the same.
1Peter 3: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble.
The original readers of this letter are under pressure, suffering for their faith. Not only that but they’re in the first generation of Christianity. In this passage Peter describes the general disposition of a believer. Christians are to be agreeable, sympathetic people. We’re to be known for our compassion on others and our humility concerning ourselves. We’re not to advance the cause of Christianity by force and people aren’t to have to worry about watching their “P’s & Q’s” when they’re around us. Even non-Christians are to feel comfortable and it should go without saying that we’re to treat one another in kind, agreeable ways. Sad to say, some believers haven’t gotten this memo. They think that they’re doing God a favor by forcing their moral code down people’s throats. They think they’re being good soldiers in his army by creating lots of collateral damage on fellow believers with whom they have a few differences of opinion. The question I need to ask myself is how do I score on this “agreeable, sympathetic, loving, compassionate, humble” test? Peter, it seems, can almost hear people’s self-justification at this point, so he adds: “That goes for all of you, no exceptions.” He continues, “That’s your job, to bless.” Of course, my non-Christian friends are to know that I believe there’s a superior way for them to live. At the same time, they’re to conclude an encounter with me feeling that they’ve been blessed and not cursed.
Take Away: Do people think of time with us as a blessing or a curse?
1Timothy 5: Take care of widows who are destitute.
It’s a different culture and time so I need to be careful to find principles rather than try to apply specifics to passages like this. Paul instructs Timothy, first of all, to differentiate between younger widows, widows with family, and, what he calls “legitimate widows.” He thinks it’s best for younger widows to marry and get on with life. Families of widows are to take care of their own and not expect the church to do their job for them. However, the destitute widow, without means or family, is the responsibility of the church. Again, I need to look for principles here and not get mired down in specifics. For instance, family responsibility trumps church responsibility. Also, if my need can be handled through “more conventional” means, I’m to follow that route first. The church, I understand, has responsibilities to care for its people but it’s not to be the first solution. Paul gives Timothy a written policy to be followed here. If it’s followed, the energies and resources of the church won’t be hijacked by concerns that are best addressed elsewhere. On one hand, then, I have a fairly straightforward principle here. On the other hand, I have to admit that the practical application is quite challenging.
Take Away: The church has a role to play in social issues, but it generally isn’t the primary support organization.
It’s the awful night before the crucifixion of Christ. Not long ago Peter and the other disciples promised their loyalty to Jesus. Now, though, he stands before the Chief Priest, alone. The disciples have fled in fear but Luke tells us Peter, under cover of darkness has followed. He’s close enough to see what’s going on but far enough back as to not be identified as a follower of Jesus. I fear that this describes many Christians and at certain times, maybe most of us. We’re following, but not “that” close. After all, sometimes being a follower of Jesus is just plain unhandy, not to mention possibly dangerous for some. For instance, someone who doesn’t smell very good needs some personal, up close attention. If I’m not careful, my revulsion will win out over my discipleship and I won’t even offer a cup of water in Jesus’ Name. Or, say someone at work isn’t a very nice person. People tend to give them a wide berth. Will I get close enough to show them Jesus? Because of the danger Peter follows, but at a safe distance. The thing is, before long he isn’t following at all.
Take Away: I want to follow Jesus closely enough that there’s no doubt that I’m with him.
Luke 15: A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus.
One problem the religious leaders have with Jesus is the type of people he attracts. He gets along with prostitutes and tax collectors, the very ones they use in their sermons as the kind of people who should be avoided at all cost. Jesus, though, welcomes them. He doesn’t tell them to go clean up their acts and then come back. Rather, he welcomes them just as they are. When the religious leaders complain about this, Jesus tells three “lost and found” stories. In each story that which is lost is of real value and in each there’s great rejoicing when it’s found. The religious leaders might think of these folks of doubtful reputation as worthless fodder for the fires of hell. Jesus, however, places great value on them and when one of them comes and listens and then chooses to be a friend of his he thinks a celebration is in order. As I read these lost and found stories I fear I’m less like Jesus and more like the religious leaders who are represented as the elder son in the final parable. In our society a Christian can pretty much saturate his or her life with “Christian stuff.” If I handle things right, I can avoid these people of “doubtful reputation” and not have to deal with them at all. If I do that, though, I have more in common with the religious leaders than I do with Jesus.
Take Away: Jesus loves lost people and so should I.
I don’t think the stories of the response of Jesus to the Pharisees and his response to the hungry people out in the wilderness are necessarily intentionally placed as they are, but they do provide an interesting study in contrasts. For three days Jesus has ministered to people in a “deserted place.” Near the conclusion, the physical hunger of the people is obvious to Jesus, who has had his own intense hunger experience at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus remarks to the disciples that he hurts for them and then performs the miracle of the feeding of the four thousand. Earlier, though, Jesus has an encounter with the Pharisees and religion scholars who travel all the way from Jerusalem to check out his ministry. They immediately complain that the disciples don’t properly follow the rules concerning religious practice that they’ve set up. Jesus, in just a few words, puts them in their place and the disciples are somewhat concerned that Jesus has upset these powerful people. In this case, Jesus just shrugs his shoulders and says in so many words that what these people say or think doesn’t matter. Here’s our Lord dealing with different sets of people. Some, he says aren’t worth our time. Their words and opinions will be “pulled up by their roots” so we might as well just “forget them.” Others though are people who are hurting. They may not be important in the eyes of society, but they matter to God and should matter to us. In Jesus’ day, his priorities are upside down as far as the world is concerned. They still are. I’m a follower of Jesus and I want my priorities to reflect that. God help me to brush off that which isn’t worth a hill of beans and to figure out what really matters.
Take Away: Some things that others worry about aren’t worth our time and effort. Some things no one else worries about are.
God’s priority list
Zechariah 7: The message hasn’t changed.
The question asked concerning the day of fasting in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem opens the way for the Lord to restate what he requires of his people. Through Zechariah the Lord reminds them that his requirements are unchanged. He isn’t very interested in their traditions but he’s very interested in how they treat one another. He’s always called for them to love their neighbors and be compassionate in their dealings with one another. Also, the Lord still has a special concern for widows, orphans, outsiders, and the poor. If these Jews want to please the Lord, they’ll focus on these things more and on their traditions less. Zechariah goes on to describe how, when their ancestors ignored these things that the Lord became angry with them and scattered them throughout the world. Is it possible that we spend too much time worrying about doing church properly and too little time pursuing the things the Lord lists here? When all is said and done, is the Lord more interested in how capably I can do church than he is in how I treat the poor? This passage ought to serve as a compass for all who consider themselves to be a people of God. Here we find a description of how God’s people ought to live.
Take Away: When all is said and done, the Lord is more interested in how we treat others than in how we do church.
What God expects of us
Micah 6: He’s already made it plain how to live, what to do.
This passage is one of the gems of the Old Testament. Micah asks the rhetorical question: “How can I…show proper respect to the high God?” He wonders if bigger offerings will do it: lots of rams and barrels of oil. He wonders if following the practice of the pagans and offering his child as a sacrifice will satisfy the Lord. Having asked the question he then states the answer. God has already made his desires for the human race abundantly clear. Micah says, “It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.” Micah’s insight into God’s purposes for people is breathtaking. Some have called this the “John 3:16” of the Old Testament. I do well to take this dusty old statement of God’s purpose for humanity and use it as a guide to my life. How am I doing on the “fair and just, compassionate and love” standard set here? Do I have a handle on not taking myself too seriously while taking God very seriously? There’s nothing in the Bible any more “contemporary” than this statement.
Take Away: Am I living up to the standard of the Lord?
The measure of my religion
Micah 2: Don’t preach such stuff.
The prophet preaches a message of destruction. Judah, he says, will be “wounded with no healing in sight.” Of course, this kind of preaching isn’t welcome. Some preachers proclaim another “gospel.” They say “nothing bad will happen to us” because God is “on the side of good people.” Micah finds this laughable. These very people mistreat the poor, ignoring God’s command to show compassion on them. They might know how to have a rousing worship service but their day to day lives have nothing God-like in them. Passages like this might be from the depths of the Old Testament and addressed to people who lived 2700 years ago but they ought to get our attention. Think of it, God isn’t impressed with our church services. He doesn’t care much about whether I raise my hands and shut my eyes and sing praise to him…well, at least he doesn’t care unless I go out the door and treat people with a love and compassion that reflects his concern for them. I know that it’s possible for me to sell out to a “social religion” and forget that God wants to have a personal relationship with me. However, it’s just as possible for me to think my religion is all about “God and me” while forgetting it’s just as much about “me and thee.”
Take Away: How we relate to one another is just as important to the Lord as how we relate to him.
Puns that aren’t intended to be “punny”
Micah 1: God’s Message as it came to Micah of Moresheth.
Micah is a contemporary of Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea and his message is similar to theirs. Some suggest that he’s a student of Isaiah because of their similarities. However, Isaiah lives in Jerusalem and has some strong connections there. Micah (like Amos) lives away from Jerusalem in a farming community. His focus, as is that of Amos, is on how the poor are treated by so-called religious people who tend to divorce their religious activities from how they actually live their lives. Micah is a witty guy who likes to use puns to make his points. Sadly, these puns are lost outside the original language. As we read from The Message we find them restored, but they’re almost lost from the other direction. When Micah says “Glorytown has seen its last of glory” he’s using a play on words. He’s named a real town whose name sounds like “glory.” The best modern example of this I’ve seen is the suggestion that it would be like Micah to say “Wiscon-sin needs to give up its sin.” Anyway, the early portion this little book is full of such plays on words. Still, there’s nothing light hearted about his message. Both Israel and Judah are going through the actions of serving God but in reality they’re missing the boat. If things continue as they are judgment is coming. History tells us that Micah is right on target.
Take Away: Having a good commentary is handy sometimes and absolutely necessary at others.