Fig Trees, Fruit Bearing, and Juggling

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” – Matthew 21:18‭-‬22

Merry Christ Mass! Today’s post has nothing to do with Christmas, but it does contain a reference to water, so off we go.

I confess this passage has always puzzled me a bit. The image of Jesus rebuking the fig tree for failing to bare fruit is somewhat shocking and dissonant with what I know of the character of Jesus.

I think the real target of Jesus here was not the tree, but rather his disciples who were apparently in danger of appearing like the fig tree, all leaves and no fruit. I think there is some deep water here that Jesus is attempting to convey to the disciples so let’s dive in!

The disciples are understandably amazed by the withered fig tree. I think if they were being honest they would also admit to a hint of fear. This miracle was different. The fig tree was not helped or healed – it was destroyed. They ask “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”

This seems like kind of dumb question as Jesus just verbally rebuked the tree with the statement “May you never bear fruit again!” Now I suppose one could argue that never bearing fruit is not the same as withering and dying, but Jesus seems to be equating these two states.

Jesus tells the disciples that not only can they do similar miracles, but they are capable of much more. They will be able to say to a mountain “Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”

The prerequisites for this power are prayer and believing “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” I think order is important. First we must believe, then we must pray, then it will be done for us.

So a valid follow up question might be if all it takes is belief and prayer are followers of Christ capable of miracles on a regular basis? If not, why not? Short answer, I do not know. I suspect it has something to do with our ability to believe with the same confidence that Jesus and the disciples had.

I am not saying that this confluence of belief and prayer does not happen. I think it is just harder than it looks. Kind of like when we see someone juggling five balls in the air at once. I can attest as a juggler that this is really hard and requires many hours of practice. It also requires a lot of dropped balls.

Perhaps the belief and prayer that Jesus is alluding to here is equally hard and also requires many hours of practice, including “dropped balls”. It seems harder to accept unanswered prayers than dropped juggling balls, but maybe they are not so different in the greater scheme of things.

Prayer: God help us to believe and ask for what we need with confidence.

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Like Little Children

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Matthew 18:1‭-‬6

Happy Christmas Eve day! It seems proper to spend some time contemplating the child whose birth we celebrate tomorrow and puzzling over how we can become lime current too.

Jesus in this passage is asked an interesting question by the disciples “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”. I get the sense that some of the disciples (Peter, James, and John perhaps) were expecting Jesus to say something like “my followers are the greatest, and especially you Peter”.

Jesus upended this thinking, and their vanity, by inviting a child into their midst and saying “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This passage reminds me of an interesting riffle I passed over back in the Psalms (Psalm 8:1-9). In that passage the praise of children and infants reminded me of this passage in Matthew. So what do children possess that Jesus’ learned and faithful disciples lacked? What about a child’s posture and perspective is different?

If I were to pick the top three attributes that all children possess throughout the world I would say: 1) humility; 2) innocence; and 3) curiosity. Let’s explore each of these.

Humility is all about knowing who you are and how important you are relative to others. Children know what they do not know and they are not afraid to admit it. Jesus says “takes the lowly position of this child”. Children are not CEOs or presidents yet apparently if we are to be “big” in God’s Kingdom we must learn to be humble like a child.

Innocence is typically viewed as an attribute of someone unspoiled by the evils of the world. Unfortunately, the news is full of evil people willing to take advantage of the lowly position of children to do incredibly evil things. Since Jesus is telling us here that we are to become as children He has strong words for anyone who takes advantage of us “children”.

He says “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” A millstone is a really big rock with a hole in the middle, kind of an anti-life preserver.

The idea of being tossed into the sea with a heavy weight attached to one’s body is a potent word picture. Descending to the cold, lonely, lightless depths of the sea, drowning along the way, to be eternally separated from warmth and light. In many ways this seems a more fitting vision of hell than fire and brimstone – quiet, lightless, separation from God.

The third attribute, curiosity, is not specifically called out here , but I believe it is implicit. Children want to know, they are curious. They seek and knock on doors constantly to learn about the world. Jesus wants His followers to do this too. Or to quote a famous movie…”it’s the question that drives us Neo”.

So what are the take home points here: 1) hang out with, and learn from, children. This may mean unlearning some of our adult ways; 2) fiercely protect our own innocence and the innocence of other “children” trying to faithfully follow God; and 3) always be curious. Seek answers and knock on all the “doors”.

Prayer: God help us to become like little children and protect those seeking to do the same.

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Transactional or Transformational?

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” – Mathew 17:24-27

It has been a while since I have posted to this blog. No good reason, I think I just allowed myself to become distracted by the “waves” of life. I sank quietly into the sea while Jesus’ hand was reaching out to me the entire time. It is time for me to grab it and get back in the boat.

I have been reading a book lately called Twelve Ordinary Men about the 12 apostles by John MacArthur. Peter, my namesake was given the name Peter by Jesus, although his name at birth was Simon. In the book the author points out that the name used by Jesus often reflects a spiritual dimension. For example in this passage Jesus asks a question of “Simon” giving Peter a chance to demonstrate his spiritual sagacity. Apparently Peter answered wisely as the account uses “Peter” for the response.

The issue here is taxes, a subject right up there with root canals and rheumatism. I am not sure anyone really likes paying taxes, but most of us recognize that it is a necessary evil. The issue here is a “temple tax”. This was a tax outlined in the old testament (Nehemiah) to be paid by Jewish males over the age of 20 each year to help maintain the temple. Interestingly, the reference in Nehemiah talks about the “tax” money being necessary to pay “for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, at the New Moon feasts and at the appointed festivals; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God.”

So the temple is collecting money to provide the atonement being freely offered by this young upstart from Galilee, Jesus. Jesus is essentially saying that is like taxing your own children. Members of a family are supposed to provide for one another out of love, no taxes should be necessary. The temple has become transactional rather than transformational. Jesus is seeking transformational change in both the temple and his followers.

Peter’s answer that “the children are exempt” was apparently the correct answer. It acknowledged that the followers of Jesus were both children of the temple (Jewish people) and redeemed (exempted) by the One that they followed, Jesus. Rather than rock the boat Jesus chose to pay the temple tax through a miraculous means. Through this miracle Jesus both provided the temple the support it needed and demonstrated to Peter the true source of the temple’s support.

The take home message for me is that we should support churches and organizations that facilitate transformational change. We should not allow the services these entities provide to become transactional. These places should be more like a home where people gather for something like a family reunion. A place where God’s children gather to reconnect and build relationships.

Prayer: God help us to build transformational structures that provide more than transactions

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Mustard Seeds and Miracles

When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:14‭-‬20

In this passage Jesus is again mesmerizing the crowd with a miracle. In this case it is a miraculous healing of a demon-possessed young man who apparently has lost some of his ability to navigate the world safely, “He often falls into the fire or into the water”. This must have been a rather painful and scarring thing for the young man to be controlled in this way.

The meeting between Jesus and the young man’s father begins in a rather strange way. The man brings his son to Jesus and in effect complains that Jesus’ disciples were unable to heal him. Jesus reacts in a way that resembles frustration. He says “You unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” It is not entirely clear if Jesus is talking to his disciples or the man. Based on the later dialogue it seems He was talking to His disciples, and indirectly, to all of us who sometimes struggle with faithful following.

Jesus rebukes the demon which is possessing the young man and drives it out of him. The disciples looking on were probably thinking something like “He makes it look so easy” They hold their tongues until they can get Jesus off by Himself and ask Him “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus explains that it was fundamentally a faith problem. They did not truly believe God could work through them to accomplish this miracle. They lacked faith. Interesting, it was not the size of their faith, but rather the form that it was taking that seems to be the problem.

Jesus explains that they failed because “you have so little faith.” Jesus goes on to say that even a “little” faith can do amazing things. He uses the example of a mustard seed, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

So it is not the size of their faith that was lacking, it was something about the purpose and place in their soul of that faith that seems to be the problem. Let’s dig into this mustard seed metaphor for a minute and see where it takes us.

The mustard seed is a small seed. Yet is grows into a very large and productive plant. How does it do this? All the knowledge and machinery required to form and produce a huge mustard plant resides in the small seed. All that is required to transform it from seed to bush is water, soil, sun, and time. Jesus is frustrated because the disciples have been given all the Living Water, Soil, Son, and time they need to flourish and grow into productive plants, but they are not doing so. Why not? It think it is because the disciples have their own ideas about what they are supposed to be growing into and it does not always line up with what God intends for them. They are not alone in this.

One thing I have learned as I have floated through the old testament is that we are all flawed followers and we will struggle to discern God’s plan for us. This is a feature not a flaw. God wants us to work through this tension so we invest our energy growing toward God and His plan rather than growing in the wrong direction or into a plant that does not bear fruit, or worse still, a plant that bears bad fruit.

Does this mean that if we pray for a miracle that does not occur we lack faith? I am not sure it is that simple. I think it may actually mean we were not tuned into God’s plan well enough to discern our purpose and place within it.

Prayer: God help us to discern Your plan for our lives so we can have faith that will move mountains and make miracles.

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No One Except Jesus

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. – Matthew 17:1‭-‬8

This passage represents a singularity of sorts. The past, present, and future are together on the mountain. This temporal tempest begins with the transfiguration of Jesus. The witnesses to this event are Peter, James, and John. Why God chose to reveal himself in this way to these men and not others is not clear to me, but it was sufficiently traumatic to make them cower in fear. This encounter with God was apparently far from comfortable for them.

Interestingly, neither the miraculous arrival of Moses and Elijah nor the Godly “glow” imparted to Jesus made the disciples afraid. It was when God Himself showed up in the form of a cloud and spoke to them that they felt afraid.

This confluence of the Cloud and Christ seems to be the crux of the passage. It is where the God of the Old Testament, the cloud, makes it crystal clear that Jesus is His son, the Godly Condensate. This revelation and the way it was revealed had a paralyzing effect on Peter, James, and John. It was not until Jesus touched them that they were able to recover and see “no one except Jesus”. Isn’t that what God is trying to do throughout the New Testament?  God is trying to “un-paralyze” His followers by revealing Hemself in profound and compelling ways.

God wants us to ignore all the distractions that attempt to derail our faithful following of His Son Jesus. We are to fix our eyes on Him with such intensity that He is all that we see. If I am honest I must confess that I rarely attain this level of intensity in my imperfect attempts to follow God. Does that mean I should give up and stop trying? I think not.

God knows we are easily distracted and is willing to grant us grace along the journey. I have no doubt that God rejoices when we can see Him clearly through this hazy veil we call “reality”. “Mountain top” experiences, like the one being described here, are what carries us out of the sometimes vexing valleys of despair which seem to be a part of our experience as God followers.

The God who sees us has allowed us to see Him through His Son Jesus. The cloud, the God of the Old Testament, and the Emmanuel, “God with us” of the New Testament, are in fact different reaches of the same “River”. The One River that flows from the creation of Genesis to the resurrection of Revelation.

Prayer: Thank You God for providing opportunities for us to see you clearly.

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Soul Food

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Matthew 16:5‭-‬12

The water reference here is the lake, but the real topic is “soul food” and yeast. So bread (generically food) is the fuel and raw material that our body uses to build and maintain itself. Our bodies, as important as they seem to us, are really just containers for our souls.

Food for the soul is very different than the ham and cheese sandwich our body craves to survive. “Soul food” is something much more subtle and often requires special “training” to consume. The disciples are in the midst of that soul training here.

I think what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples, and us, is that the “soul food” the Pharisees are providing is not what the disciples need to build strong and healthy souls. What they need is the soul food Jesus is offering.

The choice the disciples face is between the familiar, and on some level effective, leven of the Pharisees. Their religion and traditions appear from the outside to be nourishing their souls when in fact they are spiritually starving. The real “food” our souls need is the miraculous and magical abundance provided by the Son of God. The “yeast” of the Pharisees appears on the outside to make good bread, but it is all really an illusion of substance that dissolves into nothing when mixed with the “saliva” of our spirits.

The “soul food” Jesus is offering is in some ways just the opposite of the yeast bread being offered by the Pharisees. It sometimes can be mistaken for “nothing”, but when we consume it we find that it has become a seven course meal for our souls, just like the fish and loaves miracles that Jesus provides as examples of real “soul food”. It was not the fish flesh and wheat that nourished the souls of those in attendance, it was God’s spirit through his Son Jesus.

I recently discovered that I am gluten intolerant. Apparently this is because my gut has somehow lost it’s ability to produce the necessary chemical enzymes and machinery to break down gluten. I love bread so this discovery was a bit heartbreaking. I have learned to enjoy a burger with a lettuce “bun”. Now I can honestly say I prefer them that way. I learned that in fact the bun was distracting my taste buds from the real focus of the meal, the juicy burger hot off the BBQ. In a way I think what Jesus is saying to the disciples is that they need to develop an intolerance for the yeast of the Pharisees. They need to learn to appreciate the raw spiritual food that God offers to sustain our souls.

The raw spiritual food that Jesus is teaching about is fundamentally about faith and faithfully following God. The disciples need to realize that no hunger coming from their guts should compete with the spiritual hunger that should be in their souls. The only way to satisfy the soul hunger is to seek out the spiritual sustenance that God provides all those who seek it out and train their souls to consume it on a regular basis.

Prayer: God help us to train our souls to consume the soul food that truly satisfies.

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Healing and Feeding

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. – Matthew 15:29‭-‬39

Jesus continues his “Lake ministry” walking beside the Sea of Galilee (Lake of Gennesaret) in this passage. As I have pondered this passage a question has occurred to me, why did Jesus choose this location near the lake to begin sharing the Good News about the kingdom of God? Part of the reason may have been merely geographic in that Jesus was familiar with this area and it was close to where he grew up in Nazareth. I wonder if there were other reasons as well.

The lake provided easy transportation, especially for someone who can walk on water in a pinch. Numerous times Jesus and His disciples have relied on a boat for transportation and sometimes to provide a venue for teaching to a large crowd. My wife pointed out that this unique venue for teaching may have provided favorable acoustics for teaching to a large crowd as well. Fortunately many of Jesus’ disciples were fisherman experienced in lake navigation and tending a boat.

The lake was where people washed both their bodies and their clothes. They collected food in the form of fish from the lake. The lake provided for them. So it was very fitting that Jesus who came to provide Living Water and food for the soul chose this place to meet, teach, heal, and feed.

I suspect the lake was a community focal point where people met and gathered. Similar to the role of community wells in dryer areas away from the lake. Mountain springs in Haiti are a place where people from all directions gather once or twice a day to fetch water. There is much communication and sharing that takes place at these springs. I suspect the Sea of Galilee was also a place where people met and shared about family news and local events several times a day. Interesting news about a young man who claimed to be the Son of God who could heal the sick and give sight to the blind.

In this passage Jesus leaves the lake to move up onto the mountainside. I am not sure why he does this except that perhaps he is reaching a different set of people than those who frequent the lake. I am not sure. I suppose that if one of His main reasons for going there was to heal the lame and sick it makes sense to go to them since they may not have been able to go to the lake. Whatever the reason Jesus shows compassion for the people in several ways. He heals them, then he feeds them. This is the same process that Jesus promises for all those willing to faithfully follow Him. Healing then feeding.

The healing that takes place in modern day Jesus followers may be physical as described here, but I think even more often the healing is a spiritual cleansing of the soul that takes place if we allow the healer to heal us. He changes and channels our hearts in new directions and feeds us as we continue to learn about this new way of living.

Prayer: God heal the broken and battered parts of our souls so we can move in the new directions You have for us.

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