What to seek first

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

When Jesus promises “all these things,” he clearly is referring to food and drink and clothing, to all the things we need in this lifetime. We do not have to worry about them, because God provides us with what we need. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and we live our lives with confidence, knowing that what we need today God will give to us today, and whatever we need tomorrow God will give to us tomorrow as well.

However, many Christians misunderstand what Jesus means by referring to the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To seek these things, they assume, means to try to do what is right, to try to accomplish the things that please God. They take the radical demands of this sermon—do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not worry—and they treat these demands as the Ten Commandments of the New Testament. They try to rise to these high standards—which is good; Jesus wants us to live this way—but they call these efforts seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

The harder we try to live by the standards Jesus sets, the more we see our failure. We are not good like Jesus. We fall short of his ideals again and again. Jesus was not exaggerating when he spoke these ideals. He really wants to see us live as he lived. But studying these standards and trying our best to meet them cannot make us good enough for God. If we are not perfectly living in the way Jesus describes, we are not good enough for his kingdom.

Whenever Jesus mentions the kingdom, though, he describes it as a gift. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All the blessings that Jesus described at the beginning of his sermon indicate that God has changed us. We no longer fail to be good enough for God. Jesus has made us good enough. He has taken away our sins, and he has given us credit for his perfect life—his righteousness. The righteousness of Jesus is far better than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. They tried their best, but their best was not good enough for God. They were better than most people, but Jesus does not grade on a curve. He is perfect, as his Father is perfect. Now, through his gift—through his life and death and resurrection—we also receive credit for perfection. We receive the rewards Jesus earned.

How do we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness? We seek them in Jesus and in all that Jesus has done for us. If we are distracted from his gifts by the things we need today, we are in trouble. We must focus on our relationship with Jesus, not on worldly matters. Therefore, Jesus promises to meet our needs today, as well as our eternal needs. If we are distracted from his gifts by the good deeds we do for God today, we are in trouble. We should try to be like Jesus, but Jesus himself affirms that for us to imitate him, our eyes must be set on his kingdom, on his gift of righteousness, and not on ourselves. J.

The Gentiles

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or “What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).

Jesus begins with birds, moves on to flowers, and ends with the Gentiles. Birds are part of creation; they are neither good nor bad; they simply are. Flowers also are part of creation, but Jesus assigns them to the fire. Now he speaks of Gentiles—the outsiders, the unbelievers, the ones who are not part of his kingdom. Our Father sends sun and rain to all people, whether they believe in him or not. A person’s wealth and comfort today is no measure of that person’s faith, salvation, or eternal home in heaven. God sends daily bread whether we ask for it or not. We pray for daily bread, but not to earn it. God would not forget to send our daily bread if we forgot to remind him. He does not withhold our daily bread until we pray the proper words. Our prayers remind ourselves of the source of every good blessing we enjoy.

If God intends to send us good things whether we pray or forget to pray, why should we pray? We talk to God because we have a relationship with God. He is our Father; we are his children. The Gentiles have no such relationship with the true God. They may pray to false gods; they may trust spells and incantations to bring them good things; or they might believe that they earn everything they receive because of their good deeds. We trust God, not ourselves. We discuss with God everything that matters to us.

Jesus already said that we are not to pray like the Gentiles. Our prayers have no magic ability to give us what we want. Jesus adds that we should not worry as the Gentiles worry. When we pray to God about our needs, we mention those needs with confidence. We already know that God loves us. We know that he understands us. Since God can do anything he wants, we can assume that he will meet our needs. Experience shows us the same truth that Jesus proclaims: we receive what we need from the hand of God whether we worry about it or not. The things of this world are in God’s hands as surely as our eternal safety is in his hands.

Food and drink and clothing come from God. Our behavior in this world belongs also in God’s hands. Giving to the poor and praying and fasting are not reasons for us to worry. We are expected to give and to pray and to fast, but these actions are not worthy of our anxiety. The Gentiles—those trying to earn God’s blessings and his rescue from evil—worry about these things. We know that these things are gifts. We continue living according to our relationship with God, not worrying about whether the things we do are good enough for God. God has accepted us, not according to our good deeds, but because of what Jesus did for us. For that reason, we do not have to be anxious. J.

Do not be anxious

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:25-27).

The words sound like a commandment: “Thou shalt not be anxious,” or, “Thou shalt not worry.” We know that when we worry, we are not trusting God. When our eyes are on God, we will not worry, because we know that God keeps all his promises.

Yet when we say to one another, “Don’t worry,” we want our words to be heard as a promise, not as a command. We threaten no punishment against the person who worries. Instead, we assure others that they have no reason to worry, that everything is under control, that everything will turn out fine.

Jesus offers the same promise. To assure us that his promise is true, Jesus tells us to look at the birds. They do not worry, and yet God takes care of them. Jesus is not telling us to “be like a bird”: he simply wants us to be confident that God takes care of us. Birds lack the intelligence to plan and to worry. We have enough intelligence to plan, and with that intelligence comes the capability to worry. We also have the capability to trust. We see that God kept his promises in the past. Unlike the birds, we know that God provides us with everything we have. Therefore, we are able to trust that God will continue doing what he has done. We are able to trust that God is going to do what he promised to do.

Worry is counter-productive. It wastes time and energy. Worry never makes us taller or causes us to live longer lives. In fact, worry harms our lives. It has the potential to shorten lives. For that reason, some people treat worry as a sin; they take the words “do not be anxious” as another commandment from the Lord.

Our faith—and our physical lives as well—will be far healthier when we treat these words of Jesus as a promise. Do not worry about food and drink, about daily bread, because God will provide them. Do not worry about the forgiveness of sins, because Jesus has already paid in full to remove all our sins. Do not worry about what you will do for God, because God will guide you by his Word. Do not worry about all the big decisions (or all the little decisions) of life, because you are in God’s hands. Even when you make a mistake, God forgives you and cleanses you and gives you the ability to continue serving him from that point onward. So, do not worry. J.

Be reconciled

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

These words teach us that Jesus cares deeply about how we get along with one another. Jesus says being reconciled to a brother (a fellow Christian) is a higher priority than giving gifts to God. Jesus does not say that reconciliation can replace our gifts to God; the gifts are still offered, but reconciliation comes first. Jesus hints that our relationship with God can be blocked by problems between us and our fellow believers. Jesus does not say outright that God will reject our gifts if we are at strife with other Christians, but the implication is present, and many Christians assume that is what Jesus means. Jesus clearly insists upon the importance of being reconciled to any brother who has something against us.

Most religions of the world encourage such behavior. Take responsibility for your mistakes. If you have hurt someone, perform restitution. Our goal is to do no harm; but when we have done harm, we want to pay for our mistakes and failures.

Jesus appears to be teaching the same message with these words. After all, he is not talking here about offering forgiveness to those who have sinned against us—that topic arises later in his sermon. Jesus describes instead a situation in which your brother has something against you. If you have done wrong, Jesus says, you have an obligation to go and be reconciled to your brother.

How does this teaching conform to the message Jesus delivers about Christians being blessed, being recipients of gifts? Has Jesus changed his mind already about his gifts? Is he restricting the gift, attaching strings to the gift, setting requirements we must meet before we receive the gift? From the entire message of the Bible, we know that Jesus would not withhold forgiveness from a believer who failed to apologize to a fellow Christian. The gifts of Jesus are not left at the altar during reconciliation; our gift to God sits for a time at the altar. When Jesus says, “go, be reconciled to your brother,” this too is part of the Gospel promise, the blessing, the gifts he provides each of us. Since Jesus has already forgiven us for all our sins, his forgiveness is able to reconcile each of us to whichever brothers we have harmed. Jesus will bless them also with the gift of mercy, the ability to forgive us for our sins.

Every injury done to another person is a sin against God. Every such sin is forgiven at the cross of Jesus Christ. Instead of ignoring our relationships with others as we focus on our relationship with God, Jesus wants us to know that those relationships are fixed through our relationship with God. “Go, be reconciled to your brother,” Jesus says, and the gift of grace smiles at us through these words. When Jesus told a lame man to walk, the power of his word made that man able to stand and walk. When Jesus tells us to be reconciled, the power of his word makes reconciliation happen. J.

Blessed

Jesus packs two surprises into the opening of his sermon. The first surprise is the kind of people Jesus describes as “blessed.” To the world, a successful person is happy, powerful, in control, and able to make other people do things his or her way. Jesus says the opposite. He begins with those who are “poor in spirit”—whatever that means, it does not sound at all positive. “Those who mourn,” Jesus says, are blessed, as are the meek and the merciful and the pure in heart. Jesus does not say that people who have what they want are blessed; instead he calls blessed those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Jesus does not say that the people who win fights are blessed; instead he favors the peacemakers. Finally, those people who seem to have the biggest problem, those who are persecuted, are also identified by Jesus as blessed.

People that the world would label losers are described by Jesus as blessed. Clearly, Jesus does not see people with the world’s vision. In his years on earth, Jesus modeled a successful life according to his own vision: a life of obedience to God and of service to others. Jesus seemed like a failure to the world, but the truth is that Jesus was a resounding success.

Now, Jesus wants us to be like him. He wants us to forget ourselves, to take up a cross, and to follow him. Other religions proclaim the same virtues: self-denial, dedication to what is holy, and love for others. Worldly success is acknowledged by leaders in various religions to be shallow and unsatisfying. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and people of other religions unanimously acknowledge that the selfish, materialistic goals of the world are worse than useless. Those goals are harmful to the people who pursue them and to anyone who gets in their way.

God wants to bless people who are meek and merciful; he wants to bless even those who are persecuted for the truth. Is this what Jesus is saying? Not exactly. The second surprise in his sermon introduction is contained in the word “blessed.” The word describes, not those who deserve a reward, but those who have received a gift. Jesus does not say, “If you are merciful, you will receive mercy.” He says, “You have a gift when you are merciful, because you already have received mercy.”

Jesus announces the delivery of seven gifts—seven being a Biblical number for completeness. The seven gifts are: the kingdom of heaven, comfort, an inheritance (the earth), satisfaction of the need for righteousness, mercy, seeing God, and being called children of God. These seven blessings are gifts; they are not prizes earned by our efforts to be like Jesus. They are given to us by God’s grace, delivered through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We are never good enough to earn a place in the kingdom of heaven; we cannot be that good. Jesus lived a perfect life and credited his rewards to our accounts. We will never deserve God’s mercy, but God has mercy on us and forgives us our sins through the death of Jesus on the cross. We do not deserve to be called children of God, or even to see God, but the gift of Jesus makes these things possible for us.

These gifts change our lives today. Because we have received mercy, we become merciful. Because we will see God, we purify our hearts today. Another result of these gifts is persecution. The world hates Jesus; therefore, it hates anyone who is being transformed into the image of Jesus. The world hates everyone that Jesus loves. Persecution is a blessing to Christians, though, because persecution also makes us more like Jesus. When we are persecuted for trusting his promises, our suffering reminds us of his cross and of the gifts he gives us through the cross. The world’s persecution reminds us whose side we are on: we are on the side of Jesus, the ultimate winner. Being named a member of his team is nothing more or less than a gift—a blessing. J.

Advent thoughts: December 19

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31—read Jeremiah 31:31-34).

God’s love is more important to him than his justice. God has justice and righteousness, but God is love. His grace is greater than his law. He prefers rescuing sinners rather than punishing them.

Therefore, God’s new covenant is older than his old covenant. The old covenant comes first to diagnose our need for a Savior, but the new covenant was in God’s mind when he began to create the world. God knew that his people would sin. He knew they would need a Savior, because they would not be able to rescue themselves from sin and evil. He knew that he would have to pay the full price to redeem sinners. Knowing these things, God chose to create the world and chose to continue his plan of redemption.

So, God gave the old covenant to his chosen people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” He told them what it meant to be his people: to have no other gods; to honor his name and his time and the earthly authorities that represent his authority; to love their neighbors and respect their neighbors’ lives, marriages, property, and reputations; and to be content with what God provided them, not coveting what belonged to their neighbors. He said that if they kept their side of the covenant, he would provide them with safety and prosperity. If they broke the terms of the old covenant, he would cause famine and drought and poverty, and he would allow them to fall into the hands of their enemies.

The old covenant is conditional. The new covenant is unconditional. Because his people broke the terms of the old covenant, he allowed them to be afflicted by drought and famine. He allowed them to be afflicted by Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians. He allowed them to be captured and carried off into captivity. Even the holy city Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord were destroyed under the terms of the old covenant because his chosen people were unfaithful to the Lord.

At the same time that they preached about the old covenant and the consequences of breaking God’s commands, Moses and the prophets also spoke of a new covenant. Moses prepared the people for a king and priest and prophet. Isaiah repeatedly told of the coming servant who would be Immanuel, God with us. Jeremiah specifically promised a new covenant that would be different from the old covenant, because it would be based on God’s faithfulness and not on the faithfulness of the people.

“I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God said. Those words belong to both the old covenant and the new covenant. Under the terms of the old covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of the people determined whether they remained God’s people. Under the terms of the new covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of God determine whether we remain God’s people.

Old Testament believers were saved by faith through grace under the terms of the new covenant. They believed the promise of a coming Savior. New Testament believers are saved by grace through faith under the terms of the new covenant. We believe that the Savior has come—he is Christ, the Lord—and he has kept all the promises upon which the new covenant depends. He has lived a life of perfect righteousness, earning rewards which he shares with his people. He has offered that life as a sacrifice, removing the sins of his people. He has risen from the dead, victorious over all enemies, sharing that victory with his people.

“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” God knows everything, but he is able to forget. Between his birth and his resurrection, Jesus forgot the date of his glorious appearing on the Day of the Lord. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because Jesus paid in full for those sins. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because our sins were killed with him on the cross, buried with him, and left dead and buried when Jesus rose from the dead. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because he has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” We belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part two

From Job’s sufferings to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the Bible pictures godly people suffering, not as punishment for their sins or a consequence of their sins, but simply because we live in a world polluted by sin. Jesus spoke a blessing upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. He said that those who died in catastrophic events were not worse than other sinners, but that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Indeed, Paul viewed suffering in this world as a positive thing: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4) and “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), among others.

What of the covenant that promises blessings for those who obey God’s commands and threatens curses on those who break his commands? Deuteronomy 28 is one of many passages that describe this covenant. First, though, this is God’s covenant with a chosen people, not with individuals. It was fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Judges through Esther, as both good and bad people prospered in Israel when the nation was largely faithful to God, and both good and bad people suffered in Israel when the nation was largely unfaithful. Second, this passage describes the Old Covenant, the Law of God, from which Christ has set us free. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). “For our sake he made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

In the New Covenant Christians are completely and unconditionally forgiven. God sees no sin or fault in any Christian. Daily we confess our sins and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, seeking his forgiveness. Daily he sees us through the righteousness of Christ and treats us as Christ deserves. Our sins were killed on the cross with Christ and buried with Christ. He rose, but our sins remained dead and buried. God sees no sin in us, which is why he has no condemnation for us.

To be continued…. J.

The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)

As I continue working on a book about the parables of Jesus, interpreting those parables by the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, I continue to discover new treasures in the Word of God. Consider, for example, the parable of the persistent widow:

In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” On other occasions Jesus compared himself to a thief; in this parable he compares himself to “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” A widow repeatedly approached this judge, begging for justice. Because of her persistence, the judge eventually decides to answer her plea “so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” Jesus concludes, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Of course Jesus intends to contrast the goodness of God with the evil of a judge who neither fears God nor respects man. Judges should fear God; they should do their work faithfully, knowing that God is watching them. They should do their work fairly, granting justice to all people, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, young or old, male or female. Withholding justice from a widow because she can neither afford to bribe the judge nor threaten him with any harm would be wrong. God, on the other hand, can be trusted to do the right thing all the time. God can neither be bribed nor threatened. When we pray to God, we have no power over him. All we have going for us in our prayers is his command to pray and his promise to hear and answer our prayers.

God wants us to pray. He does not need our prayers. He knows everything about us, including what we need and what we want and what is best for us. He does not need advice or instruction from us. Jesus reminds us why we pray with his sample prayer, which begins with the words “Our Father.” God wants us to approach him confidently, as little children on earth turn to their fathers, expecting good things from them.

At the same time, God wants our prayers to be meaningful. “When you pray,” Jesus taught, “do not heap up empty phrases, as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Persistent prayer is not vacuous prayer, speaking words without considering what they mean or to whom they are addressed. We cannot impress God by our prayers, so we need not try. A child cannot overpower a father with many words, persuading the father to do as the child wants even though what the child wants will harm the child. So also, God’s promise to hear and answer our prayers does not mean that we have magic power to make him do as we want. He is wiser than us and more knowledgeable. If we ask for something harmful, he loves us too much to grant us what we ask.

Imagine, though, spending day after day with someone you love while that person refuses to say a word to you. Think of the pain that silence would cause you. Often we treat God this way. We do not speak to him at all, either to ask for anything for ourselves and for others, nor to thank him for any good thing he has given us, nor to confess our sins and beg for his forgiveness. God encourages us to do all these things, and more: he invites us to praise him. He does not need our praise—flattery accomplishes nothing with God—but we need to praise God in order to remind ourselves how good he is and how blessed we are that he loves us and delights to hear our prayers.

So Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who finally obtains justice from an uncaring judge. Because this story is labeled a parable, the secrets of the kingdom should reveal more from the story than an exhortation to pray. Indeed, much more is happening in this story. For as Jesus compared himself to a thief, robbing us out of the hands of the devil, he now compares himself to a corrupt judge. Jesus truly is the Judge who will rule on our eternal home. Sinners will be locked out of the kingdom, while those who are pure and flawless will be welcomed into the kingdom and called children of God.

Were Jesus purely just and fair, he would lock us out of his kingdom. We have sinned; we do not deserve a place in heaven. But Jesus is unfair to us, not to our harm but to our benefit. Jesus judges that we are sinless because he covers our sins with his righteousness. Jesus judges that we are flawless because he has paid in full our debt for sin. Jesus judges that we are worthy to live in his kingdom—even to be called the children of God—because He, the Son of God, took our place and our punishment so we could receive the rewards he earned.

We have adversaries—not worldly foes, but spiritual enemies. We need protection from the devil, from the sinful world around us, and from the sin still within us. We persistently confess our sins and ask God to protect us from our enemies. God answers swiftly—so swiftly that he has finished answering our prayers before we reached the “Amen.” Christ has already paid our penalty. On the cross he fought our enemies and defeated them. Even the final enemy, death, has been defeated by Jesus. God has not delayed; he has given us all that we need and far more good things than we ever deserved.

“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Without faith, no one can receive the benefits of the exchange that Jesus offers. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. Our faith is not a work that earns God’s grace; it is a gift, a result of God’s grace. Jesus asks whether or not he will find faith, not in despair that all faith will be quenched, but as a reminder that he will be seeking faith when he sits on his Judgment throne. Those approaching the throne of Judgment with faith in Jesus will be welcomed into his kingdom, an inheritance prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). Those approaching the throne demanding justice, demanding to get what they deserve, will receive such justice. They will be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Jesus does not want to send anyone into that fire. He died to rescue all people. But those who refuse the gift of the unfair Judge truly will receive the justice they deserve rather than the gift the Judge offers them.

 

The Good Samaritan

‘And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”’ (Luke 10:25-37)

If any of the parables of Jesus sound like exhortations to good works, surely that applies to the account of the Good Samaritan. The bulk of the story describes the things done by the Samaritan. The contrast between the Samaritan and the two men who should have helped is unmistakable. The concluding words, “You, go and do likewise,” appear at first to be the point of the parable. Commentators generally are content to explain the roles of the priest and the Levite in Israel and explain the bigotry Jews and Samaritans felt toward each other.

After all, Christians are commanded to do good works. We are to love our neighbors and to help them in their times of need. Walking past a person who is hurting, failing to stop and give assistance, is sinful behavior. How could the parable of the Good Samaritan be anything other than insistence by Jesus that we should help anyone who needs our help?

The answer to that question lies in the secrets to the kingdom of heaven. Christians must continually remember that our good deeds do not earn God’s love and forgiveness. Even though we were created to do good things, we are not redeemed by doing good things. The very fact that the man questioning Jesus asked what he must do to inherit eternal life gives away the entire message. An inheritance comes from the goodness of the giver. An inheritance is not earned. (There are cases of a benefactor using inheritances to bribe their heirs or threatening to remove the heirs from his or her will if they did not act a certain way. Those rare cases underline the point that an inheritance generally means a gift and not something earned.) Jesus died so we can inherit eternal life. He left to us the rewards he earned by his perfect obedience to his Father’s will. We have eternal life because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus could have said as much to his questioner, but he knew the man’s heart. Therefore, Jesus first drew the man’s attention to the Law. The man showed that he knew the greatest commandments of God’s Law. “Do this, and you will live,” Jesus promises. But the man was honest enough in his heart to know that he had not kept those commandments perfectly. Searching for a loophole, he asks Jesus who his neighbor is. Notice that, in concluding the parable, Jesus did not say, “Who was the Samaritan’s neighbor?” Instead, he asks who “proved to be a neighbor.” That change in wording is significant.

Of the four people in the story, all of us would like to claim that we are most like the Samaritan. We fear and we confess that, at times, we are more like the priest and the Levite. We can identify times that we did not do the loving thing for our neighbors. We have neglected them at times; we have not always been of help to our neighbors. When we look at the parable this way, though, we miss seeing that we are most like the victim rather than the Samaritan or the priest or Levite.

We are victims. The devil and the sinful world have combined to lure us into sin, and they stand ready to accuse us of our sins. Our sins themselves, have beaten and robbed us and left us for dead. All the times that we broke God’s commandments have robbed us of any wealth in the kingdom of heaven. Our sins deny us the right to eternal life. Once we have sinned, we are helpless to save ourselves. We cannot redeem ourselves. We lie, bruised and broken, facing death, waiting for someone to help us.

At this time, God’s Law cannot help us. It describes the good things we should do and identifies the sins we have committed, but that information does not take away our sins or the punishment we deserve. Priests and Levites were expected to be good men. The commands of God are also good. His commands tell us why we were made, and they guide us as we strive to imitate Jesus. But, like the priest and the Levite of the parable, even God’s greatest commandments cannot help us once we have fallen into sin. They walk past us. The best they can do is to describe our condition; they cannot change our condition.

Jesus pictures himself as a Samaritan. He takes on the label of a group rejected by the Jews, but he also portrays himself as an outsider. Jesus is above the Law, since he is the source of the Law. He does not have to give us what we deserve. He can be merciful to us, forgive us, and provide for our healing. Like the Samaritan of the parable, Jesus does what is needed to rescue us. The Samaritan cleaned the victim’s wounds with oil and wine—first aid for the first century, before the discovery of modern medicines. Then he put the victim on his donkey, took him to an inn, paid extravagantly for the victim’s care, and promised to do even more if more was necessary to help the victim.

Jesus goes beyond the goodness of the Samaritan. He lives a sinless life, then he bestows upon us the rewards he earned. Even more, he sacrifices his life on a Roman cross to pay our debts in full. He takes the punishment we deserve upon himself in place of the rewards he has given to us. If any more needed to be done to complete our rescue, our redemption, and our healing, Jesus is willing to do that too. His love and his mercy know no limits.

The Samaritan took the victim to an inn. Jesus brings us into the Christian Church. In the Church we continue to receive the care we need to further our healing. The work of the Church is empowered by Jesus. His life and death and resurrection are the coins that pay for our healing within the Church. Yet once we are part of the Church, we are also innkeepers, welcoming others into our midst for their healing.

The man who questioned Jesus asked about what he should do. The parable Jesus spoke depicted each of us as helpless, needing the work of Jesus to rescue us since we cannot rescue ourselves. Why then did Jesus close with the words, “You, go and do likewise”? First, he directs us to strive to obey his commands so we realize that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Then we repent, knowing that we need a Savior. Second, now that we have been saved, we strive to imitate Jesus. The same commands that reveal our imperfections also tell us how to be more Christlike in our daily lives.

Indeed, we should go and do likewise. We should rescue victims of violence. We should feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. We should help the poor and the oppressed. We were created to do good works like these. Along with that, we should recognize the victims of sin and evil around us. We cannot redeem them, but we can share the good news of Christ’s forgiveness and of his victory over all evil. We can share God’s forgiveness, beginning with those who have sinned against us.

As we do these things, though, we are not earning our place in the kingdom of heaven. That gift is an inheritance given to us by Jesus. He is the Samaritan who has saved our lives and who is still providing for our healing. The secrets of the kingdom of heaven help us to see Jesus as the Samaritan in his parable.

Christ in Genesis: wrestling with God, and seeing the face of God

Jacob lived with his cousin Laban and married Laban’s daughters. He gained a large family and became a wealthy man with large flocks and herds of livestock. The time finally came for Jacob to return home. He tried to slip away from Laban with his family and his livestock, but Laban pursued Jacob. Jesus personally warned Laban neither to bless nor curse Jacob. So the two men created a monument to mark a border between their two families, and they promised to leave each other alone.

Jacob was afraid that Esau would still be angry with Jacob. As Jacob once tried to bargain with God, now he tried to buy his brother’s love and forgiveness. He sent hundreds of animals ahead of him, telling the servants driving those animals that they were a present for Esau. Jacob even thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me” (Genesis 32:20). Jacob then sent his family and his remaining possessions across the stream and prepared to spend the night alone.

Jacob was not alone that night. Instead, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Although the man showed that he had the power to dislocate Jacob’s bones with just a touch, the man treated Jacob as an equal and did not defeat him. This man then changed Jacob’s name to Israel, saying, “You have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). When Jacob asked, his opponent refused to tell Jacob his name. Jacob knew the identity of his opponent, though, because he named the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:30).

Jacob knew that he had just had a close encounter with God. Since “no one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side he has made him known” (John 1:18), we can be confident that the wrestling partner of Jacob was Jesus. Why wouldn’t Jesus tell Jacob his name? To know someone’s name is to have power over that person. Even after wrestling Jesus to a draw, Jacob could not have power over Jesus. Despite all his attempts to bargain with God (and with his brother Esau), Jacob was still powerless—he had to trust God to keep God’s promises. So, in the last book of the Bible, it says that Jesus “has a name written that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:12). What is the use of a name that no one else knows? It shows that no one else has power over Jesus.

While some people describe the body of Jacob’s wrestling partner as the “pre-incarnate Christ,” a special miracle body for that one wrestling match, I maintain that Jacob wrestled with Jesus, who was in his own true body. This body of Jesus had been conceived within the virgin Mary, born in Bethlehem, and raised in Nazareth. In that body he preached and taught, he gathered disciples, and he worked miracles. In that body he was arrested, beaten, mocked, scourged, and crucified. That body was buried in Jerusalem, raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven. At his ascension, Jesus filled all things (Ephesians 4:10), time as well as space. Because Jesus is God, he has the ability to leave time and space and enter them elsewhere, without needing a DeLorean or a Tardis. Jacob wrestled with the body of his Savior, a body which bore the scars of nails on his hands and on his feet.

After wrestling with Jesus, Jacob met his brother Esau. Esau forgave Jacob his sins and refused to accept his gifts. He ran to meet Jacob and embraced him, much like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When Esau tried to return Jacob’s animals, Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Genesis 33:10).

Jacob had seen Jesus face to face and had wrestled with him. He even said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Now Jacob says to Esau, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God.” For Jacob, Esau was a picture of Jesus. Can he be any less for us?

Esau did not need gifts from Jacob, but out of kindness he accepted his brother’s gifts. God needs nothing from us, but out of grace he accepts our gifts. Not only the money we give to the Church, but also the good deeds we do for our neighbors, are gifts to Jesus. Jesus takes personally the things we do for people in need (Matthew 2534-40). Yet his love and his forgiveness do not depend upon what we do, for they have already been granted to us.