Jesus wants his disciples to know that some people are bad for us.
One of Jesus’ teachings upsets the Pharisees and his disciples rush to tell him about it. “He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit’”(Matt 15:13-14). Instead of worrying about their response, Jesus tells his followers to “let them alone.”
This thread is everywhere in Jesus’ teaching. “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn and attack you”(Matt 7:6). He warns about people who are ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15) and that disciples are “sheep in the midst of wolves”(Matt 10:16). When they encounter people who reject their message, they are to “shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town”(Matt 10:14). He warns them of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”(Matt 16:6). Some people are bad for us.
But this is not about elitism—or even primarily about influence. There are people who are dangerous to us. They will try to hurt us and exploit us and pollute us. We may initially think that we can influence them toward God, but repeated exposure only confirms that they continue to hurt us. They abuse our trust, ridicule our faith, manipulate us, exploit us, and hurt our feelings. They take our “pearls”—the things we value—and trample them, then turn to attack us. Listen to Jesus. “Let them alone.”
There are a few categories of people who Jesus singles out for this kind of treatment. There are those who are unwilling to listen (Matt 10:14). There are those who want their own desires and are willing to harm us to get them (Matt 7:15). There are those who are insincere in dealing with us because they have their own agendas (Matt 16:1-4). While there might be other examples of this kind of behavior, the point is that Jesus is teaching his disciples to use judgment in deciding that there are some people who need to be left alone.
Are there toxic people like this in your life? Listen to Jesus. As much as is possible, leave them alone.
Want to have better relationships? Think Golden Rule thoughts.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets”(Matt 7:12).
What if the roles were reversed? Most of our relationships are tarnished by selfishness. We are happy to think about “whatever you wish that others would do to you.” That’s easy! But Jesus teaches us to take what we want others to do us and “do also to them.” What would I want to happen if they were angry with me? If I were my wife, would I like being talked to this way? If others were gossiping about me, would I want my friend to join in?
What is fair and appropriate? Often we use others. They are just there for us to have an object for self-expression or to gain some benefit. Golden Rule thoughts force us to think about “whatever you wish that others would do to you,” considering our sense of what is fair and applying it to our own behavior. Is my treatment of others really warranted by the situation? Am I allowing my frustration, bitterness, jealousy, or insecurity to influence my behavior? Am I doing the right thing by them?
Am I treating others well? The beauty of the Golden Rule is that we instantly know whether we have violated it. “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Would I complain about this treatment if it was directed at me? Am I considering the impact of my behavior? Am I attempting to do good? This question—“Am I treating others well?”—is the heart of God’s revelation ("the Law and the Prophets").
Want to have better relationships? Think Golden Rule thoughts.
Jesus wants his disciples to be comfortable with a certain level of mystery that accompanies God’s work. Consider this obscure comparison:
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come”(Mark 4:26-29).
In describing the work of a farmer, Jesus focuses on the man’s ignorance. He plants the seed, which sprouts and grows. “He knows not how.” This does not mean that we cannot learn some things by studying crop science, but that there is a mystery associated with the whole process of botanical growth. It does not rely on man’s ingenuity. Man scatters seed. Then he sleeps. And when the grain is ready, he reaps.
This is the nature of the kingdom of God. How God works out his reign, advances his kingdom, and reaches people with the message is often a mystery to us. While we are comfortable with the idea of God’s work being mysterious in realms where we have little role (such as the prenatal development of a child), it is harder when we have a front-row seat and responsibility. It is harder when we are the farmer.
“He knows not how” means that we won’t be able to perfectly engineer kingdom growth. It is not about methods and action plans. We prepare ourselves and plant seeds, then we let God do his work. And when the time is right, we put in the sickle and reap.
There is mystery surrounding evangelism and church growth. There is mystery about exactly how character is formed—whether in mature Christians, new converts, or children (Paul calls it the “fruit of the Spirit,” Gal 5:22). There is mystery in the idea of providence—how precisely God acts to care for his people in everyday life. God keeps working, but we “know not how.”
Our lack of explanation, though, doesn’t mean that we are unaware of our responsibility. The lesson is to follow Jesus in patient trust—and to have the humility to give God the glory for doing amazing things in ways that we “know not how.”
Jesus continually presses his disciples to be aware of time.
Jesus wants us to be aware of the time in which we live. This means that we know where we are in “salvation history”—between the first coming of Jesus and the second. This means that we know that we are awaiting the bridegroom, which means a certain degree of sorrow and groaning (and fasting). This means that we know the world in which we live—the spirit of our age and its unique blend of good and evil.
Jesus wants us to take each day seriously. Each day has its own trouble and demands its own attention. While we are aware of where we are in the broader scope of time, our lives are comprised of days. We must be busy in serving the Lord, loving and blessing others, and growing into the image of Christ--today. There will come a time when no one can work.
Do you know your time? What will you do with today?
Jesus causes a scene in the temple. “And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers”(Mark 11:15-17).
The reason for Jesus’ aggressiveness in removing the merchants and moneychangers from the temple is that they are violating God’s purpose for the temple. God wants the temple to be a house for people to pray, not to do business. Coming to worship God should not include dodging animal droppings and blocking out the patter of salesmen. These things belong to another time and place; the temple is the time and place for prayer.
While Jesus teaches us that the temple will not be the center of worship (John 4:21), he continues to affirm the vital place worship retains in those who seek the favor of God (John 4:23-24).
Worship is serious to Jesus. This means that disciples must carve out times and spaces where we can worship regularly and with minimal distractions.
Worship is serious to Jesus. This means that disciples must focus intently on God and his will for us. We give him our attention and our honor. We humble ourselves before him. Whether inside a church building or somewhere else, we give our whole hearts and bodies over to worship.
Worship is serious to Jesus. Is it serious to us?
Having just come face to face with the hypocrisy of some Pharisees, Jesus has a lesson for his disciples. “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops”(Luke 12:1-3).
Read those words again carefully. Obviously Jesus is saying that hypocrisy will be exposed. But he promises far more than that. Jesus asserts that no secret will stay secret. Everything men work to hide will be exposed.
What if there were no secrets? There would be no national security intrigue—no nuclear or intelligence secrets. Crimes would be prosecuted far differently, since guilt would be apparent. Sporting events would go far differently since both teams’ game plans would be known. But most of all, relationships would be affected. How many marriages would fall apart if mates knew one another’s secrets? How many friendships would be damaged? How many families upended?
Jesus promises that this is exactly what will happen. “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” He is exposing the fact that we prefer to build our lives and relationships by hiding part of ourselves from others. He assures us that such secrets—and the advantages we gain from them—are temporary. Such things usually come to light eventually in a physical sense—but Jesus is telling us that they surely will at the last day.
So what is the point of this saying? Jesus wants his disciples to live so that when our secrets are exposed, they are consistent with what we have claimed to be. How does your life fare by that standard?
Americans fixate on material things this time of year. Thanksgiving gives way to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Christmas has become a primarily commercial holiday. It is important that disciples remember Jesus’ perspective: “Take care, and be on your guard against covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”(Luke 12:15). You are more than your stuff.
We spend much of our time and energy in pursuit of money and possessions. Jesus tells a story about a man with this same ambition: “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’”(Luke 12:16-18). The man’s ideal life involves having so much that he never again has to worry or work. He can simply spend his time enjoying his work.
Yet what is lost in this story (which probably sounds pretty good to modern Americans!) is the cost of this goal. What about the years of life lost in working so hard for stuff? What about the neglect of more important things along the way? What about when nest eggs are wiped out by market downturns (or, in Jesus’ words, moth and rust destroy it)? What about the relationships we allow to languish in our pursuit of the ever-elusive comfortable life? What about the kids whose childhoods we miss? What about the sharing we refuse to do because we are saving for “someday”? “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God”(Luke 12:20-21). The man suddenly comes to the end of his life and only realizes then how terribly he has miscalculated.
You are more than your stuff. Your job is not all that matters about you. The pleasure that comes from possessions is fleeting and incomplete. The time will come when your net worth not be measured in dollars. Accept possessions as blessings from God. Use them to bless others and to honor God. Prepare not just for retirement, but for the future when your soul—your true life—is required of you.
Jesus wants us to experience life to the full. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”(John 10:10). He speaks to a rich and lavish blessing from God—abundant life.
To know God is to truly live. “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”(John 17:3). When we know him, we fulfill our purpose, connect with our maker, see ourselves rightly, and hold the promise of life beyond death. Jesus came so that we could have this life and died to achieve it.
Yet abundant life speaks to having more than we need. The prodigal returns home because he remembers that his father’s servants “have more than enough bread”(Luke 15:17). Jesus makes so much food from five loaves and two fish that there are twelve baskets left over (Matt 14:20). Paul describes God as “him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think”(Eph 3:20). In Jesus, God does more than bless us with what we need. He gives us abundance. Our cup runs over.
No more living in the shadows, chasing fulfillment. No more running from my past. No more worrying about my significance. No more feeling inadequate, underfunded, unaccomplished, overlooked. I am full. I have enough. My cup runs over.
Since we aren’t always able to see inside our bodies, we learn to pay attention to outward symptoms. Chest pains, trouble breathing, digestive issues, loss of feeling—these indicate something is wrong.
So how do we know how our hearts are? We can’t see them. Self-examination can be challenging if we only ask how we feel about how we feel we are doing. Jesus tells us that there is a better way.
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”(Luke 6:43-45).
Like physical pains, our words inform us as to the state of our hearts. Just as fruit defines the type of tree, so words define the type of heart we have. Words tell the story.
If my words are corrupt, crude, or perverse, I learn that my heart is polluted.
If my words are critical and harsh, I learn that my heart is resentful.
If my words are aimed and intended to hurt, I learn that my heart is full of hate.
If my words celebrate sin, I learn that this is what I truly love.
If my words are pure and good, I learn that there are positive things in my heart.
If my words are encouraging and kind, I learn that my heart is gentle and good.
If my words are aimed and intended to help, I learn that my heart is full of love.
If my words celebrate God’s word and will being done, I learn that this is my heart’s passion.
What would my family think about my words? My brothers and sisters in Christ? My co-workers? My spouse?
How is my heart? Words tell the story.
How many of your childhood birthday or Christmas presents do you still have? In our family, the initial rush of excitement at receiving a gift is followed by a few weeks or months of use. Over time, it begins to gather dust. Eventually we wind up giving it away or putting it in the garbage.
This experience helps me connect to an odd story Jesus tells:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be wit this evil generation”(Matt 12:43-45).
Jesus is criticizing his “generation” because they have condemned his disciples (Matt 12:2), conspired to kill him (Matt 12:14), accused him of working for Satan (Matt 12:24), and afterward demanded a sign (Matt 12:38). He has come to them and attempted to bless them—healing, teaching, and offering himself for them. And they are willing to receive some of the blessings. Yet it is clear that they are not willing to be changed by Jesus. They are stubborn and resistant. They are like people who have their demons cast out, but then invite seven times as many demons to take their place. Receiving the blessing is not part of a life change for them, but only a temporary interruption in their service of evil. “The last state of that person is worse than the first.” We might even say it would have been better for them never to have seen or heard from Jesus.
How should disciples understand this story? We have received this great blessing from Jesus. We have been cleansed from our sins and given hope of eternal life. What do we do with this blessing? Does the offer of salvation lead us to continual life change—or is it merely an interruption in our service of evil?
How are we building on the blessing? What changes are we making to avoid sin in the future? How are we fighting against the pride that led us down our previous path? What habits are we changing? How are we gaining momentum to make spiritual progress? What people are we allowing to influence us? Are we keeping our hearts soft?
We have a lot of experience receiving gifts that lose their meaning. Eventually they grow so unimportant to us that we dispose of them. Jesus deserves better. How are you building on your blessings?