When Jesus empowers James and John with miraculous powers, it is inevitable that they will try to use them in wrong ways. Like a child with a power tool, they must be taught to wield these abilities properly. Frustrated at a group of Samaritans for not receiving Jesus, they ask him, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”(Luke 9:54). Jesus literally turns and rebukes them (Luke 9:55). He has not come to earth to kill everyone who makes him angry.
James and John represent a way of dealing with relationships. When others offend or upset us, there is no talking it out. There is no hope for coming to terms. There is no getting over it. Instead, there is only anger (that feels justified!) and insistence that others be punished. These people become our enemies and we work to undermine and hurt them back. This is the nuclear option—let’s blow the whole thing up.
It is possible for us to march through life with the spirit of James and John. We give someone the benefit of the doubt until they upset us in some way. Then we cross them off our list. We grow bitter about what they have done. We tell others about it. We wear it as a chip on our shoulder. We refuse to spend time with them or acknowledge them. In time, more and more people find their way to getting crossed off our list—and we assume it’s always their fault. We grow increasingly isolated from people, but we cannot even see that this is by our own choice.
Jesus, meanwhile, pictures relationships as needing maintenance and forgiveness (Matt 5:23-24, Matt 18:15, 21-35). While there are definitely evil people who are only trying to hurt us (see Matt 7:6), even the best relationships will involve occasional pain, disappointment, and frustration. Yet if we are willing to be patient with people, we often discover that our initial impressions about them were incorrect. Sometimes people change. Occasionally they reconsider the behavior that hurt us. We may just get over it. Sometimes we can look back on it and laugh.
It might also help us to remember that on many occasions, we have disappointed and angered others. What kind of reaction would we hope for from them (Matt 7:12)?
Jesus rebukes the nuclear option and the anger that prompts it. Are there relationships in your life that need more patience?
“And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away’”(Mark 4:24-25).
Throughout this context, Jesus is focused on how we listen. The parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-8, 14-20) is about how we listen to God’s word and respond to it. At times Jesus interrupts his teaching to simply say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”(Mark 4:9) or “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear”(Mark 4:23). Pay attention! Listen up!
But Jesus says something more—and deeper—in the passage above. If we listen well—if we pay attention to the message, absorb it, obey it, and teach it to others—God will give us more. Good listening is rewarded but poor listening means losing even what we have.
There are so many voices vying for our attention and allegiance. People want to be heard. They promise to make us better. They want to set us straight. They offer truth or expertise or novelty. Yet much of what they say is unimportant; we can ignore it without missing anything. The danger is that we begin to treat Jesus and his words like we treat our fellow-man. We start to think that he has some good advice, a momentary perspective shift, or a novel claim. But then we scroll on down our Facebook or Twitter feed, seeking the next hit of interesting information.
The Son of God is speaking. Pay attention to what you hear. If you listen well, he will give you more. Think it through. Meditate on it. Test it out. Work it into your life. Challenge previously held notions. Contrast it with culture. Contrast it with your own history and thinking. Get rid of the cares and concerns and alerts that would distract you from giving it your full attention. There is something deep and profound in the words of Jesus. Take them seriously.
And when you do, you will discover that there are far deeper riches here than you previously imagined. You will discover that there is no bottom to their wisdom. You will see that even the harshest critics seem to love Jesus (even if they hate his people). You will find areas of your life that need to be reworked and possibly even abandoned. You will find real wisdom to help people as you see the world through Jesus’ eyes. You will begin to work to slowly bring your life—then your family life—then your broader relationships—then your local church—into line with Jesus’ prayer, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”(Matt 6:10). You will see how many golden opportunities you have each day to “love your neighbor as yourself”(Matt 22:39). New connections and understandings will emerge as you peruse familiar passages with novel insight. “For to the one who has, more will be given.”
If we listen well to Jesus, God will give us more to hear. How are you listening?
I’ve been reading lately in Luke 21 and noticing some parallels to our own time. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem and says that there will be “in various places famines and pestilences”(Luke 21:11). There will be “distress of nations in perplexity”(Luke 21:25) and “people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world”(Luke 21:26). I am not saying that the coronavirus is the end of the world; I am saying that biblical thoughts remain relevant. Jesus gives his disciples some silver linings for dark times.
We can still bear witness. He warns that prior to Jerusalem’s destruction, Christians would be specifically targeted for persecution. “This will be your opportunity to bear witness”(Luke 21:13). Disciples have a different view of hardship. It is an opportunity. Dark times get people’s attention. If they persecute us, we can speak. If everyone is afraid, we can show confidence. If everyone is realizing their helplessness, we can show the power of prayer. If everyone is taking care of self, we can take care of others. Dark times are tragic and sad, but they are also opportunities.
There is a difference in death and perishing. Jesus clearly tells his disciples that “some of you they will put to death”(Luke 21:16). But in the next breath, he says, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives”(Luke 21:18-19). Jesus never guarantees that our physical lives will continue indefinitely. We may die. But when we die in a relationship with God, we “gain our lives.” The grim fact is that—if Jesus does not return first—we will die of something. Disciples remember this. Death is still tragic and awful, but far worse is dying without assurance of eternal life from him.
Dark times remind us of what matters. “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap”(Luke 21:34). Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to allow their lives to be so cluttered with the concerns of this life that they forget their spiritual lives. That is easier said than done! Sometimes it is sin (“dissipation and drunkenness”) that pulls at us; sometimes it is just busyness (“cares of this life”). In dark times, we pull back to see what is important—loving others, doing right, taking care of the essentials, and leaning on God. Don’t let dark times pass without doing some pruning of the things in your life that “weigh down the heart.”
I know that the parallel to our time is not exact. Yet Jesus teaches his disciples that dark times don’t change who we are and where we’re headed. Let’s live like it.
Sometimes Jesus just drops everything to help someone.
After he hears about John the Baptist’s death, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself…When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick”(Matt 14:13, 14). Jesus really wants to pray and regroup, but he drops everything to help people instead.
He goes without food to talk to the woman at the well (John 4:31-34). He interrupts his own journey to raise a widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:13-14). My personal favorite is when he stops the parade through Jericho to heal blind Bartimaeus (who won’t shut up!). “And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him’”(Mark 10:49). Over and over again, Jesus drops what he is doing—which is crucially important to the salvation of the world—to help people who are often complete strangers.
This challenges me. I have tasks that demand my attention—for my work, for my family, for my personal goals, and for proper care of my possessions. I have a limited amount of time. It is easy to overlook people who need my attention because I am absorbed in what I am doing. It is easy to resent impositions on my time. Yet when I ask myself what Jesus would do, it is a no-brainer. When my kids want my attention, when my Christian brothers reach out to me, and when total strangers have a need, I know that Jesus would drop everything for them.
To be clear, Jesus meets the need and still completes his obligations. He finds time to pray. He continues his journeys. But in that moment of decision, he refuses to be so committed to his work that he ignores glaring relational needs around him.
Jesus was busy too, but he found time for people. Drop everything for the people who need you.
Jesus tells a story about a tree:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’”(Luke 13:6-9).
If it is a fig tree, it should produce figs. Where are the figs?
Isaiah pictures God’s nation as a vineyard from which he expects to receive fruit (Isa 5:1-8). Jesus borrows this image and makes it individual. God has placed each of us in a certain position—with certain gifts and talents and relationships—because he expects us to do things. He wants us to serve others. He wants us to bear the fruit of his Spirit in our lives, consistently growing more loving, patient, and self-controlled. He wants us to tell others about Jesus and his kingdom. After a certain amount of time (three years in the story), it is perfectly appropriate to ask: where are the figs?
God is patient with us. He understands that we need help and work. He knows our weaknesses. But there is a point at which laziness crosses the line into rebellion. At that point we are only “using up the ground.” This story is a warning that there is an urgency to actually obeying God.
What if I am like this tree? God has made great investments in me. Am I fulfilling his vision for me? Am I bearing the fruit he created me to produce? Where are the figs?
Let’s be a people who don’t merely talk about serving God and others, but who actually produce the fruit.