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Measuring Generosity

Jesus says in Luke 6:38: “Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” This imagery of measurement describes the mercy of God toward us and consequently the mercy we are called to show to one another.

Good measure begins with an accurate measurement. The Scriptures frequently condemn false measures as a sign of ungodliness. Leviticus 19:35-36 declares that all measurements shall be just, because “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” To deal falsely with someone else even from the very beginning is a sign of lovelessness, and thus also a sign that one is not of God.

Pressed down, because a fair and just measure sometimes means pressing down to remove all gaps and spaces, like brown sugar being packed into a measuring cup. Shaken together describes the same motive, like shaking a bag to make the material settle into it. It is not a begrudging attitude, one that seeks to give only under compulsion, but striving to meet the need of the other person to the fullest. It is the same commandment as leaving the edge of the field for the poor (Leviticus 23:22) or taking a small amount of your neighbor’s crop into your own hand but not the bag (Deuteronomy 23:24-25). What you have been given comes from God, not your own hand or your own labor, and what has been given is meant to be given in service of your neighbor. Give then, not begrudgingly, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Running over, because God’s mercy is not limited. Instead of merely the amount needed, God gives far more than we can think or ask. Would you look with envy on your neighbor, forgetting the manifold blessings God has given to you even this single day? Does He not make His sun to rise on the just and on the evil? Christ Himself gave not a single drop of His blood, which alone would have been enough to cover the world’s sins, but a rich fountain which knows no end. After measuring out our neighbor’s needs, let us also pour on still more without compulsion or envy.

The measurement you use will be measured back to you. If you, like Israel, want to disobey the Lord’s commandments even in His blessings, will not your efforts breed worms and stink? Yet if we measure with an omer, will we not have our daily needs met? God’s blessings will rest on those who show mercy as He shows mercy to us. Let us lift each other up generously, measuring out our neighbor’s needs and adding still more besides.

Lent Midweek Sermon Series: 1 Peter 4

A seed planted in Chapter 1 grows up and bears fruit in Chapter 4.  Early on in the Epistle, the Holy Spirit reveals to the saints in Asia Minor that although they have been grieved by various trials, these only serve to refine their faith, with the result that they rejoice and praise God (1 Peter 1:6-7).  Our Lord suffered in this world because he was not of this world.  Those who follow him will likewise face opposition from wordlings (John 15:18-20).  Rather than paranoia, defeatism, or defensiveness, this should rather rouse the Christian.  Indeed, we are to “arm” ourselves with Christ’s mindset (1 Peter 4:1).  

The world engages in “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry,” (1 Peter 4:3) and when Christians abstain, they are maligned.  However, the end of all things is near, and the Christian should leave these vile things in the past (1 Peter 4:3; 1 Peter 4:7).  Rather than indulgence, the Christian is called to sobriety, prayer, and Christian love (1 Peter 4:7-8).  We should live for the will of God, instead of for sinful pleasures (1 Peter 4:2).  This may translate into suffering, but our Lord does call us to take up the cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24).  We are to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (Romans 6:9-14).  

The Christians in Asia Minor may have more persecution ahead of them (1 Peter 4:12).  Yet, those who suffer for Christ share in his glory (1 Peter 4:13).  Indeed, this is a sign that the Holy Spirit is with the believer (1 Peter 4:14).  If this seems difficult, or unpleasant, or unfair, then Peter asks his audience which seems better: to suffer for Christ, or to suffer the just judgement of our sin?  There is no choice.  Who are we to answer back to God? (Romans 9:20; Job 38:1-8).  

Rather than accusing God, rather than judging God, rather than condemning God, the proper Christian response is to fear God (Ecclesiastes 12:13; Romans 11:33-36).  Though the faithful may suffer on account of Christ, this is far better than the alternative.  And God is faithful.  His will is best; he works all things for our good (Romans 8:28).  The Old Testament accounts of Joseph, as well as the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace and Daniel and the Lion’s Den, illustrate this. 

Christ himself submitted to the father’s will, even when that meant shame, torture, and crucifixion.  But this, the greatest suffering anyone has ever undergone, has accomplished our salvation.   God is faithful, even in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 4:19). Thus, when Christ returns on the Last Day, all suffering will cease and we will be “glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity: Ephesians 5:15-21

Ephesians 5 flows quite naturally out of Paul’s previous discussion of unity.  Just as there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6), so also are we unified in Christ.  If we are in Christ, our head, then we are no longer “children,” or rather “infants,” prone to being led astray or deceived (Ephesians 4:14).  Therefore, our former way of life is put off in Christ.  We have learned Christ, and therefore we are walking in the way of the Spirit, no longer corrupted.

Yet our mature manhood means that we remain “imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).  We are not young children needing discipline, but grown sons honoring our Father in heaven.  Our childish things have been put away, because our understanding has grown accordingly (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).  Being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) is growth and movement.  What was once tolerated because of our youth has passed away as we become more and more like Him.

Therefore, we can no longer walk in those things which belong to the darkness.  After all, the immoral and the impure have no part in the kingdom of God.  Paul is not exaggerating, as if his intention were to frighten us.  “What accord has Christ with Belial?  Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever” (2 Corinthians 6:15)?  Ignorance is a cause for mercy only as long as it is genuine.  But we are no longer ignorant, because we have grown up “in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).  Therefore, to walk childishly while knowing better in the ways of darkness is willful disobedience.  The spiritual man-child has no place in the kingdom of God.

Paul’s examples of spiritual maturity are also rather specific.  Sins such as sexual immorality, depraved in themselves, should not “even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3).  Rather, they must be “exposed” or “rebuked” (Ephesians 5:11).  To name them is to participate in them, however indirectly.  As Jeremiah laments, “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18).  All of these activities, harmless and even good in themselves, participate in idolatry when directed toward that end, and none can claim innocence as a result.

Thus, Paul sets up a contrast in the pericope.  We should be wise, not unwise; diligent, not lazy; understanding, not foolish; filled with the Spirit, not filled with wine; singing psalms, hymns, and songs, not uttering the works of darkness.  Wisdom flows forth from fearing the Lord.  We redeem the time given to us by not frittering it away in useless and unprofitable things.  Understanding the will of the Lord comes from our holiness and being conformed to Him.  We are intoxicated with the Spirit, so to speak, by seeking to do His will in all things.  Finally, because we will be judged by our words (Matthew 12:36), how much more ought we to fill our words with the words of God, singing His praises and calling on His name?  Such things must not be dismissed as legalistic or moralizing.  After all, we are called out of darkness and into light.  We are no longer dead, but alive in God.  We are no longer infants, but rather sons of God.  We are a new creation and being renewed day by day, so that our desires are no longer darkened, but enlightened and seeking after the will of God.

Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity: Galatians 5:25-6:10

Paul colors this section of Galatians with a number of metaphors.  Having established the conflict between the flesh and the spirit, he goes on to urge the Galatians to walk according to the Spirit, just as they have been called.  Yet the first metaphor he employs is a military one:  “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).  In its most basic sense, the word translated as “walk in step” refers to an army in formation, either standing in a line or on the march.  Christians are therefore called to march in the Spirit as a well disciplined unit, just as Paul “lives in observance of the law” (Acts 21:24, using the same word).  When we do so, we will not be like braggart soldiers, boasting of empty deeds and provoking one another, but those who have a reason to boast in what God has done.

Paul goes on with this imagery to describe one who has stumbled.  If one missteps while on the march, it is the duty of “the spiritual” to restore him.  The army is not to march roughshod over one who falls, but to lift him up in order to preserve the integrity of the line.  However, in a shift from the plural to the singular, Paul warns each of us individually to “watch yourself lest you also are tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Judgment and restoration belong to the whole church (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, 6:1-8; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).  Diligence and vigilance belong to the individual (1 Thessalonians 5:3-11; Mark 13:32-37).

Part of helping up the one who has stumbled is to share his burden.  The metaphor shifts here.  Christians are called to “bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  These burdens are generally heavy weights, things which draw us downward.  Given the previous statement, it seems that Paul refers to our own personal failings and weaknesses.  “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1).  This fulfills the law of Christ, namely that we love one another just as Christ first loved us (1 John 4:19-21).

After all, “if anyone thinks himself to be something, being nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3).  Pride and lovelessness have no place within the bond of peace.  As Paul said in the previous chapter, divisions and dissensions are the fruit of the flesh.  Empty boasting proves nothing.  Such boasting always magnifies the self over the weakness of someone else.  Yet are we so free from danger that we can afford to look elsewhere and condemn our brother (Romans 14:4; 1 Corinthians 10:12; Matthew 7:5)?  We must set our own house in order, for we all have our own “load” to carry.  This load, a different word from before, is like cargo, carried either on an animal or in a ship (as it is used figuratively in Matthew 23:4 and Luke 11:46; and literally in Acts 27:10).  Yet Jesus Himself lays this burden on us (Matthew 11:30), for it is the cross given to each one of us to carry daily (Luke 9:23-24).  Yet the personal discipline of the cross yields the fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:7-11).

Paul now moves to another point.  “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches” (Galatians 6:6).  The student, or more literally the catechumen, should share all good things with his teacher or catechist.  Catechesis, literally “to sound through, i.e. to teach orally,” shows that Christian education is bound up with being a part of the body.  Learning through the written word, while not forbidden, loses something of what God intends, because reading is often individual.  To learn aurally is not merely a practical matter for an illiterate culture, but a reality of what it means to be in the Church.  We are bound to one another, just as we learn from one another.  Those whom God has set to be the “sounders” in the Church should get their living by the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14), not because they need to pay for a retirement plan, but because the whole body prospers in the Gospel.

Paul reinforces this point with his final metaphor of sowing and reaping.  God will not be mocked, or in the same sense, we cannot turn up our noses at God.  Whatever you plant you will also harvest.  This is not the false, pagan notion of karma, an impersonal what goes around comes around.  This is a recognition of God’s justice (Deuteronomy 32:35; Isaiah 59:18).  To separate ourselves from the body in empty boasting and pride will lead to our destruction.  We cannot imagine that we have no need for the rest of the body.  Such divisiveness is a fruit of the flesh, not of the Spirit.  If you sow to the flesh, you will reap the only fruit possible from the flesh, which is destruction (Hosea 8:7; Job 4:8).  But if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap the only fruit possible from the Spirit, eternal life (James 3:18).

Therefore, we are called to not be negligent in our task of doing good.  Such good can only flow forth from the Spirit.  Being in Christ, we are called to do good to all men, since Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).  Such works will heap burning coals on his head, or even cause him to the Father who is in heaven (Romans 12:20; Matthew 5:16).  Yet more than this, we are called to first build up the Church.  To ignore the needs of the house while taking care of the stranger is to be worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8)!  There can be no division within the Church, because we are walking together in Christ, being made like Christ, and finally being saved in Christ as one holy people.

First Sunday after Trinity: 1 John 4:16-21

Christian love, as John tells us, is not a nebulous concept, because it expresses itself in tangible ways.  The one who claims to believe in God and yet fails to express such love toward others, especially other believers, does not actually love God.  “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Christ Himself provides the supreme example of such love, because He has become our propitiation, the sacrifice that atones for our sin (1 John 4:10).  “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

When Christian love is properly defined, it guards against two temptations.  The first is to define love in terms of feeling.  Love is not a warm feeling toward fellow Christians; love is action.  “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that” (James 2:15-16)?  The Lord does not simply express love for His creation, but sends His Son to redeem it through His suffering on the cross.

The other temptation is to define love in terms of acceptance.  Seeking to confirm someone in error or sin is not love, even if the world defines it this way.  Jesus did not die on the cross to receive people as is into the kingdom, but rather to re-create them in the image of God.  Love transforms the other and lifts them up.  “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).  ““And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!'” (Ezekiel 16:6).

Being in Christ means being perfected in love, so that we become like God.  Nor is this a feigned love that derives from fear.  “Fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18), so that one shows love toward others begrudgingly.  Christians are not called to love one another because the Lord simply says so.  Christians love one another because of what the Lord has done for His Church.  We are not called to put up with other people for the time being, but to recognize Christ in His Christians.

While there is certainly strife now, we will have “confidence for the day of judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).  Christian love is a present reality, not merely a future hope.  The one who lacks such love cannot be said to be a Christian.  John frankly calls him a liar.  Nor is this merely hyperbole.  There is a fundamental difference between struggling with sin and refusing to show love toward others.

Finally, the forms this love takes vary by necessity.  The Lord sets us into different callings, and the needs of that calling will also differ.  The rich man in the Gospel parable of Luke 16 failed to provide for Lazarus’ specific needs, such as his health, his poverty, or even his homelessness.  No amount of rationalizing could defend the rich man from the Lord’s verdict.  Nor could he make up for the fact afterward, even if he sought to warn his brothers from a similar fate.  Christian love is not about tomorrow or good intentions.  Christian love expresses itself in the present for present needs.

Fifth Sunday of Easter: James 1:16-21

James admonishes the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1), that is, the scattered Christians of Jewish descent.  Under the Babylonians and the Greeks, the Jews had come to be scattered throughout the ancient Near East, which the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost shows (Acts 2:5-13).  This letter, then, addresses a wide audience.  As such, James speaks to a wide variety of issues applicable to many situations, making the letter especially important for our own day as well.  Even if we are not the natural branches of Israel, we too may “count it all joy” when we meet various trials as Christians (James 1:2).

The structure of the letter is reminiscent of Proverbs, which approaches the question of the fear of the Lord from a multitude of angles.  James is guided by essentially the same question:  what does it mean to live as a Christian?  The one who fears the Lord will not be merely a “hearer,” but a “doer of the word” (James 1:22).  To regard oneself as religious without actually walking in the way of God in concrete ways is self-delusion.

James speaks directly against any idea that temptation comes from the Lord.  “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).  The “hearer of the Word” imagines that the disparity between his confession and his actions is inevitable.  In other words, he imagines that he is righteous despite his unrighteous anger, and the temptations which arise supposedly come from God because they seem unavoidable.  However, this would make God the author of evil, and the danger of temptation arises from wicked desire, that is, from within.

On the other hand, “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).  There is nothing good which we have that we have not received from the hand of the Lord (John 3:27).  Nor does the Lord give His own evil things (Matthew 7:7-11).  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).  Even the calamities which come from the Lord’s hand work for His good purposes (Amos 4).  Temptation, producing evil, sin, and death, therefore cannot come from the Lord’s hand, because even when He kills, He also makes alive (Deuteronomy 32:39).

A living faith is one such gift from the hand of God.  The sons of God are not such because of blood, flesh, or human will, but because of the will of God (John 1:13).  Our living hope comes through Christ’s resurrection (1 Peter 1:3), and the mighty and living Holy Spirit speaks the word of truth into our hearts so that we hear and believe (John 16:13-15).  This implanted Word bears fruit thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold even in this life, because it is the living Word profitable for training in righteousness.

Therefore, one should earnestly seek the spiritual gifts of God, being long-suffering in the same way as the Lord is patient with our infirmities.  The anger of man is frequently self-centered.  It imagines that it has been slighted in some way, and therefore it seeks vengeance.  But vengeance belongs to the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19).  Thus, this self-serving anger is a fruit of the flesh, part of the temptation born out of wicked desire.  However, the fruit of the Spirit includes patience and gentleness (Galatians 5:22-23), being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Sunday after Epiphany: Romans 12:6-16

If someone asked you what does it mean to be a Christian, what would you say? Maybe someone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And that’s not a bad place to start. But a lot of people claim to believe in Jesus. So how do you tell them apart? How do you know who is telling the truth and who isn’t? Look to their fruits. Look at the works which they do. Someone who is sincere will do what they say that they will do, but someone who is not will say one thing and do another. Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 7: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Even if that seems hard, it’s still true, because it’s not enough to just say that you believe. Good works show that we mean what we say.
But good works don’t get us into heaven, right? We are not saved by what we do, right? So why is Paul talking in Romans 12 about all of these good works, then? It seems like as soon as we start talking about good works, we run into the risk of making them the reason why we get into heaven. But Paul is clear that this is not the case. Good works save no one. Good works follow after faith. Paul points to this in the beginning of this chapter: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” When we do good works, we actually worship God and give Him glory. Good works do not come before faith, but after it and flow from it. The temptation is to put the cart before the horse, putting good works before faith. But all that we have, including faith, is a gracious gift of God. The Holy Spirit makes you holy, so that you do what is holy in the sight of God.
Good works, then, prove that we believe in Jesus. They are the signs in the world that we belong to Christ. As Jesus says in Matthew 5: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” And in John 13: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If good works are not there, there is no faith! Those who claim to be Christians and yet don’t do what God says are not Christians. Jesus Himself says so. But those who trust in God, calling him Abba! Father!, walk with the Holy Spirit. To be a Christian means to believe in Jesus as your Savior and to walk in the light and not in darkness.
This, then, is what Paul means. Paul says, “Let love be genuine.” Something that is genuine passes the test. Genuine gold is real gold, but fake gold, no matter how pretty it looks, is still fake. Faith is not happy with just words! Paul says, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Don’t seek after the works of the flesh, the works of darkness. As John says, keep yourself from idols. Cling to God, who is good, and He will never fail you. Paul says, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” Those in the Church are not just people who all happen to be Christians. You are one in the body of Christ, members of the same family in Jesus. If, then, you are family, let us live like members of the same family in Christ. Paul says, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Be so willing to put the other person ahead of yourself that you make a competition out of it. Try hard to put the needs of others before your own. Win first place at loving your neighbor as yourself! Paul says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” Let us not be lazy in the things of God, but seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Paul says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” This world is passing away, and even if we have to struggle now, it will give way to a joy which has no end. Let us pray without ceasing, lifting up holy hands everywhere. Paul says, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” Is there anyone among you who is in need? The Lord has given us what we have so that there will be no need among us. As the Lord has blessed you, even with physical things, let us take care of the needs of others. Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” A hard thing, yes! But by doing this, you will heap burning coals on their head. You will be a witness to Christ, a witness to the hope that is in you. And finally, Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”
Christians, remember this. Your good works are not the reason why you are acceptable to God. There could never be enough of them to do that. Your good works are the proof that your faith is living. Faith is a living tree, and good works are the fruits of that tree. You can’t have fruit without a tree! So let your love be genuine. Devote yourselves to good works, for they are excellent and profitable to you. As Paul says in Ephesians 2: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” You have been chosen from before the beginning of the world to be holy in the sight of God through Jesus Christ. It is God who works in you, and in Him you are able to do what is pleasing in His sight.

Biblical Piety, Part 6: Alms

Part 5 of this series.

Having described fasting, Biblical piety moves from “secret” to “private.” The terms are fluid, of course. The easiest way to keep them apart is how many people are involved: is it done alone or is it done with or for a small number of other people? But whereas practices like prayer and fasting belong the most to what is done in secret, alms belong almost exclusively to private Biblical piety.

Alms may be defined as doing what is in accordance with the will of God for the benefit of others. It is not refraining from an evil action, but doing good in obedience to the Lord. Alms are not only the external act. It is possible to “do good” while disobeying the Law. In such a case, whatever is done without faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Such an act may follow the letter of the Law, but not the Spirit.

The primary motivation for doing alms is holiness, or conformity to the will of God. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? “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 his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Loving your neighbor as yourself flows out of a love for God and not the other way around. Alms do not make us righteous in the sight of God, but alms are also not concerned only with the neighbor. The righteous man walks the way of the righteous because of his conformity to the will of God. In giving alms, God is glorified (Matthew 5:16). They are not an afterthought or an unconscious process.

Alms are a part of Biblical piety for a number of reasons. First, faith brings forth fruit without exception. As James says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Again, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that” (James 2:15-16)? Such alms are not the foundation of righteousness, which is the mistake of legalism, but the expression of it, and one in whom there are no fruits of faith does not have faith. The prophets condemn Israel over and over again for this very lack of fruit, even though they laid claim to the promises of God (Amos 5:21-24, for example).

Second, the righteous desire to do what is pleasing to God. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). “More to be desired are [the Lord’s commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:10-11). It must be noted that God converts the whole man, including his will, so that he actually wants to keep the Law and love his neighbor as himself. This is done in great weakness while still in the flesh, of course, but to revel in sin or to refuse to give alms out of a fear of “works-righteousness” is a sign of being in the flesh.

Alms take many forms. Outwardly, they are primarily concerned with the physical needs of the body. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22). However, they are not exclusively so, but may also be related to money and similar things. The condemnation of usury, for example, shows the intent behind alms clearly. A poor brother is not an opportunity for gain. “Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you” (Leviticus 25:36). A moneylender gives with the intent of making something out of the deal; giving alms (in this case, lending money) may in fact “hurt,” but it aims at building up the neighbor instead of the self. As Paul says, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

However, outward alms are meaningless without inward fruits. Jesus upbraids the Pharisees for lacking the fruits of the Spirit: “But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). The external portion of alms ultimately comes to an end, but the eternal treasures which accompany the earthly things never perish. “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16).

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).

One final note about alms-giving. There is a real temptation to give alms to those who are distant and imagine that the whole of the law has been fulfilled. The priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man doubtlessly gave alms in accordance with the Law (Luke 10:29-37). Giving alms to another country is easy and can easily puff up. Giving alms to the poor man on the street corner is much harder. But the Lord calls us to take care of those closest to us first. “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-6)! “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity: Proverbs 4:10-23

A reading from Proverbs appears a number of times in the lectionary, though the last one was the Second Sunday after Trinity.  There the focus was the contrast between Wisdom and Folly.  Proverbs 4:10-23 occurs within the same division of the book, but focuses instead on the pursuit of Wisdom.  For the wider context of the book of Proverbs, consult the previous study.

It is important to bear in mind that, as he says elsewhere in the book, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).  Solomon’s admonition to his sons, therefore, is an admonition to those who fear the Lord.  The fool, the unbeliever, cannot pursue Wisdom.  “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their works were evil” (John 3:19).  Faith, on the other hand, pursues Wisdom, because it fears God.

“Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live” (Proverbs 4:4).  Because Solomon speaks to those who fear the Lord, they indeed delight in the Law in their inward being.  “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:35)!  Faith delights in the Law, because it is the will of God.  This ties this reading from Proverbs very closely with the appointed reading from Galatians 5:16-24.  The fool delights in the works of the flesh, because they are contrary to the Law of God, which he hates.  God must therefore give him the Law in order to show him the folly of his ways.  The Law reveals that he is headed down the path of destruction, and his life confirms that verdict.  But for those who have the Spirit of God, the Law shows what is good and right in the sight of God.  “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8).

The pericope has three primary divisions:  the admonition to avoid evil and seek wisdom (Proverbs 4:10-15); the way of evil (Proverbs 4:16-19); and the pursuit of wisdom (Proverbs 4:20-23).  While the exact division is debatable, this emphasizes Solomon’s three main points.

The first part flows out of the earlier part of the chapter.  Those who seek wisdom will see many years, just like the commandment to honor father and mother “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).  Seek life, because the Lord “is your life and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30:20).  The wise will not stumble and fall, because that is what will happen to evildoers (Psalm 27:2).  But one cannot go on limping between two different opinions (1 Kings 18:21).  One cannot serve two masters.  “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).  Therefore, those who are of the light must avoid the works of darkness and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:14).

The second part speaks of the way of evil.  Those who seek after the way of death and destruction do so with their whole being.  They “cannot sleep unless they have done wrong” and “eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence” (Proverbs 4:16-17).  Nor is it a matter of being only partly wicked.  Those who are opposed to God cannot submit to Him at all.  “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)?  As Jesus says:  “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

The last part of this pericope calls to the wise to pursue Wisdom and to listen to his words.  “Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart” (Proverbs 4:21).  In the last part of the chapter, which is oddly not included in the reading, this admonition is much clearer.  Put away crooked speech, but “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4).  Ponder the path of your feet, and “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).  Do not turn to the right or to the left, but pursue the Lord diligently and without wavering.  These are commands directed to the believer and not to the unbeliever, which is to say that they do not save.  But the believer is commanded to run and to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10), because faith is a living and active thing.  Let us, therefore, wage a holy violence against all that would hinder us and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).