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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.

Mercy and Judgment

Mercy, like its divine companions love, justice, and righteousness, is frequently subject to creaturely appropriation. Easily mistaken for mere kindness (or worse, niceness), acts of mercy tend to be measured by the feelings they produce. Feelings are not irrelevant, but the object of mercy is something much more objective: need.

The story of the Rich Young Man in Mark 10 illustrates vividly the relationship between mercy and feelings. It becomes abundantly clear in the Gospels that Jesus is mercy incarnate – whenever he sees need, he is moved to compassion, and he acts to help. But our sensibilities about how that should look are disturbed when we observe that Jesus sees the young man’s need, is moved to compassion (“Jesus, looking at him, loved him”, v. 21), and then acts in such a way that the man departs sorrowfully. With no apparent regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a task that he finds to be impossible. Or perhaps you could say it this way: with every regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a singular opportunity to experience godly grief.

As much as the story cautions us against identifying mercy with niceness, it evokes an additional caution. You and I are not in the business of feelings, good or bad. The point is not that Jesus was wise to discern which kind of feelings would best suit the fellow. The point is that Jesus was wise to discern his need and acted to help. Jesus certainly possesses the key of knowledge. He knows what feelings to evoke and when, but that is not given to us. Instead, we ought to pray that we have eyes that see need and hearts that are moved to compassion and wills that choose to act accordingly.

It’s here that we can observe another, perhaps more subtle case of mistaken identity. Just as mercy is easily mistaken for niceness, judgment is easily mistaken for unkindness.  It’s the same problem of feelings – something that evokes negative feelings must be some measure of judgment and, therefore, cannot be mercy. But the relationship between mercy and judgment is not so inversely linear as you would assume.

Consider this remarkable pattern in Amos, in which acts of judgments are dealt to Israel time and again in an effort to stave off the graver, impending, final judgment. “I gave you cleanness of teeth … yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6). God withholds the rain, sends blight and mildew, inflicts pestilence, and overthrows the people, yet they did not return to him. “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (v. 12)! All along, every momentary affliction, every momentary judgment is, in fact, also an act of mercy in view of Israel’s most desperate need. It’s a desperate need of which they seem to be completely unaware: “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! . . . Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18, 20)? They hit the accelerator, not blindly, but aiming towards this fatal collision with God’s justice. Whether they fail to take his judgment seriously or they consider themselves to be righteous, the mercy of God intervenes. Paradoxically and scandalously his intervention is in the form of a temporal judgment.

Again, caution is warranted at this point. Although we do well to understand that mercy may come in the form of judgment, it’s not given to us to execute God’s judgment. It is given to us to announce his judgment, but always and only ever in the service of mercy. This commitment to mercy is exemplified by Amos. Even as he announces God’s final judgment and as God himself declares his intention to execute, Amos intercedes on behalf of the people: “O Lord GOD, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small! The LORD relented concerning this; ‘It shall not be,’ said the LORD” (Amos 7:2-3). Following that saintly example, every Christian has enough merciful work to do in prayer for the rest of his life.

Epiphany: Ephesians 3:1-12

Ephesus, like so many of the newly formed congregations in the days of the apostles, struggled with the question of how the Gentiles and Jews, now both Christians, related to one another.  Peter himself received a vision before going to Cornelius that confirmed to him the will of God.  Seeing the Holy Spirit descend on the Gentiles, how could those  who heard his report say anything else other than “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18)?  But though God had clearly revealed his will, old rivalries still remained.

Paul addresses this question by pointing to the Gospel of Christ.  The Lord “predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5).  Being sons, He also chose us from the foundation of the world to be holy in His sight, not divided according to the fruits of sin, but as one in Christ.  He poured out the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14), so that we await the fullness of our redemption.  However, we are no longer divided in the way of the world, but alive and united in Christ.  “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).  Predestination, therefore, is as much about being chosen to believe as it is being chosen to be holy in His sight.

Paul points to his ministry as a proof of all of this.  He is a steward of God’s grace to the Gentiles, that through Christ all who believe have access to the Father.  Jew and Gentile are no longer two, but one in Christ, so that the new man is neither Jew nor Gentile, but Christian.  Yet Paul did not know this “mystery of Christ” except through revelation, much like Peter.  This mystery “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5), a clear testimony that the Lord moves progressively throughout the history of salvation, to His glory.  “For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17).

His ministry, therefore, is not a matter of right, but of grace.  Only through the “working of His power” could Paul, or any man whom the Lord chooses to be a minister, proclaim this great mystery.  “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1).  Paul regarded himself as the “very least of all the saints” since he had once persecuted the Church (1 Corinthians 15:9), yet the ministry of the Lord is not a matter of right, but of grace.  No man deserves to proclaim the Gospel.  Paul’s sin does not make him uniquely qualified or anything similar, as if greater sins made for greater preachers.  Paul’s sin magnifies his own inadequacy to make the grace of God all the clearer.

All of this “was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11).  God chose Paul from before the foundation of the world, not only to believe and to be holy in His sight, but also to be one who “turns many to righteousness” (Daniel 12:3).  If faith is through God’s mercy, and the ministry is a matter of mercy, then, as Paul says, those who fulfill this ministry do so according to the will of God (2 Timothy 4:5).  Pastors therefore may be encouraged, knowing the Lord’s will for their lives.

That God places men into the ministry through His own will is not an opportunity for laziness.  The call to preach the Word in season and out of season is not a call to pride.  Such proud and lazy men are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” who “do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites” (Philippians 3:18-19; Romans 16:18).  It also follows that occupying the office of the ministry is no proof that it is the Lord’s will.  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do” (Matthew 23:2-3).  “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:1-3).  False prophets and false teachers, though they have all the outward appearance of the office of the ministry, are waterless clouds, swept along by winds (Jude 12-13).  You shall know them by their fruits!

But for the one whom the Lord has chosen and placed into the ministry by grace, Paul calls for him to struggle mightily for the sake of God.  The ministry is not a matter of words, but of power, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which raises from death to life and sin to holiness.  “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:14-15).

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: 2 Chronicles 28:8-15

There is always a potential danger in choosing readings that too much will be left out. It is true that the one year lectionary historically did not include Old Testament readings, and therefore these choices were often made to fit the existing ones. Occasionally, this focus toward the New Testament leads to an unusual choice, especially when that selection is narrowed to keep the reading relatively short. 2 Chronicles 28:8-15, the Old Testament reading for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, is a good example of this difficulty. It is plainly chosen to mirror the parable of the Good Samaritan, but the shortness of the reading leaves out many details which would show that the parallel between the two is not as strong as one might hope. This is, of course, a problem with the lectionary, not with the passage itself.

King Ahaz of the southern kingdom of Judah, the son of righteous Jotham, the grandson of righteous Uzziah, was deeply wicked. It was not enough for Ahaz to walk in the same path as Jeroboam, but he also copied the religious practices of the surrounding nations. He made metal images of the Baals and sacrificed in every high place and under every green tree. As if all of this were a light thing, he even burned his own children as a sacrifice “according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Chronicles 28:1-4; also 2 Kings 16:1-4). Godless Ahaz even had the audacity to pretend to piously refuse to put the Lord to the test, even when the Lord commanded him to do it through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-12).

Meanwhile, Pekah, the king of Israel, who was coming toward the end of his reign (2 Kings 15:27; 16:1), was trying to regain some of his original power. Tiglath-pileser, the king of Assyria, captured part of the northern territory of Israel in Pekah’s reign and carried off Naphtali (2 Kings 15:28). Pekah therefore sought an alliance with Syria, who were located to the northeast, as a way of pushing back against Assyrian encroachment as well as regaining some of that territory. It is this alliance that caused Ahaz to be afraid (Isaiah 7:1-2), because he felt that he could not withstand such an attack.

Israel and Syria did in fact attack Jerusalem, just as Ahaz feared, because the Lord sought to punish Ahaz for his wickedness. However, the attack proved somewhat futile, as they were not able to take Jerusalem. Rezin, the king of Syria, managed to take Elath for Syria, but they did not conquer more than this (2 Kings 16:5-6). Ahaz, instead of trusting in the Lord like he should have, sought an alliance with Tiglath-pileser. As a way of gaining Assyria’s favor, Ahaz took some of the gold of the Temple and sent it as a tribute (2 Chronicles 28:16-21; 2 Kings 16:7-9). This, of course, only made the situation worse. Here was a fine dilemma: the kings of Israel and Judah both seeking foreign alliances like pagan kings instead of trusting in the Lord!

This, then, is the context for the reading for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity. Israel takes the people of Judah captive, treating them like the spoils of war rather than as their brothers. Moses made it perfectly clear that an Israelite could not own another Israelite as a slave (Leviticus 25:39-46), but this civil war showed just how far Israel had strayed from the ways of the Lord. This was not the first civil war in Israel, but like the war with Benjamin, Israelites were following the wickedness of their neighbors. Gibeah imitated Sodom, Israel now imitates Assyria (see Judges 19:22-20:48).

But not all hope is lost. As they bring the captives northward to Samaria, the capital city of Israel, a prophet named Oded confronts them. Even in the midst of the idolatry of Israel, there are still some who follow after the Lord. Many of the great prophets proclaimed their message within the northern kingdom (Elijah and Elisha both, for example). Oded proclaims that while God had used Israel to punish Judah, Israel had added sin upon sin by taking Judah captive (2 Chronicles 28:9-11). While God may indeed use a man as His instrument, whether for blessing or for judgment, this is not a pretext for doing whatever that man pleases. God works through men, because He is able to use evil for His own good purposes, but men remain culpable to God for their sins.

Some of the leaders of Ephraim also speak against this great sin. 7,000 have not bowed the knee to Baal in Israel, though this does not mean that Israel is not guilty. Sin is not as individualistic as we might want it to be. God says very clearly regarding idols, for example, that “you shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5). He may very well cut off a whole nation because of the sins of a few. God closed the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of his sin toward Sarah (Genesis 20:18). Israel suffers defeat because of Achan’s greed (Joshua 7). If sin affects only the individual, then Paul’s command to cast out the incestuous adulterer in Corinth makes no sense. Rather, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5). Even Ezekiel’s clear statement that each man dies for his own sin does not fight against this, because he is speaking against those who believe that they are innocent and suffering unjustly. They are in fact not innocent, because they participate in the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18).

Finally, the men of Ephraim do everything that they can to help the captives of Judah by showing them great mercy. This is likely the reason why this passage is connected to the parable of the Good Samaritan in the lectionary. Instead of treating them like slaves contrary to the Law, they treat them as their brothers. One should be careful to note the following points, however. First, Samaria is a city, not a region or a people group, so Samaria and Samaritan in this case are not the same thing. Samaritans do not even yet exist, because Israel has not yet gone into exile (2 Kings 17:24-41). Second, Israel will still go into exile because of their sins. While these men of Ephraim may fear the Lord, Israel as a whole must still be punished. Pekah himself will be deposed shortly after this event, doubtlessly because of his sins (2 Kings 15:30). Lastly, it is worth noting that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is a foreigner who acts like a neighbor to the dying man. Here, some men of Ephraim act like neighbors to the men of Judah. The two are similar in that respect, but 2 Chronicles 28 is not an Old Testament parable of the Good Samaritan. One should resist the temptation to rush forward, as if the Old Testament is only the New Testament in disguise.

Trinity: Isaiah 6:1-7

I have talked earlier about Isaiah 6 at some length in the article “The Holiness of the Lord,” and I would encourage readers to read or re-read that article in conjunction with this lectionary study.  Briefly, Isaiah 6 speaks of the Lord’s utter uniqueness or holiness, from which even the sinless seraphim must avert their eyes.  But because all of Scripture is an inexhaustible mine, I will add additional notes here.

Isaiah 6 forms what is commonly referred to as Isaiah’s call.  This vision of the Lord is not Isaiah’s earliest, as his ministry has already begun in the days of Hezekiah (2 Kings 19).  Nevertheless, the clear language of Isaiah 6:8 justifies this title.  The Lord appears to Isaiah and sends him to the house of Israel to proclaim His Word (see the parallel calls of Jeremiah 1 and Ezekiel 2).

The reference to Uzziah, or Hezekiah, in Isaiah 6:1 places this passage shortly after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel.  His father Ahaz (or Amaziah) reigned in Judah when the last king of Israel, Hoshea, was set upon the throne (2 Kings 17:1).  However, by the end of Hoshea’s brief reign of nine years, Hezekiah had ascended to the throne of his father (2 Kings 18:1).  Even though Uzziah’s reign in Judah is long (compare 2 Chronicles 26:3 and 2 Kings 18:2, noting that the two authors have different starting points for counting), it still places Isaiah 6 within decades of the fall of the northern kingdom.

Regarding the passage itself, the Holy Spirit reveals through it several important truths about the Lord.  Holiness has already been mentioned elsewhere, as noted.  Closely connected to His holiness is the glory of the Lord.  Even though the “train [or hem] of His robe” is all that can be seen in Isaiah 6:1, it is enough to make the ground shake (Psalm 18:7; 77:18) and the house to fill with smoke (Exodus 19:18; 1 Kings 18:10-11; Revelation 15:8).

In addition to this revelation of the Lord’s holiness and glory, this passage also points to the Lord’s mercy and sovereignty.  The Lord is merciful, because Isaiah should have been destroyed at even this veiled appearance of the Lord.  “Man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).  Yet the Lord does not reveal the fullness of His glory and covers over the sin of Isaiah, so that he is able to stand in His presence.

The Lord is sovereign, because His question “whom shall I send” reveals His will.  It should not be interpreted as a question of uncertainty, as if the Lord does not already have in mind what He will do.  He is not deliberating.  A statement in the form of a question frequently occurs in the Bible (see, for example, Revelation 7:13-14).  Rather, the Lord appears to Isaiah precisely so that His will is carried out with respect to the remaining kingdom.

Being the Old Testament reading appointed for Trinity Sunday, a few concluding notes regarding this central revelation are in order.  First, the doctrine of the Trinity proceeds from good and necessary consequences of various statements in the Bible.  The word itself appears nowhere in Scripture and is really only the best we have, even if the word itself can lend itself to misunderstandings.  But we should not imagine that it is not a clear teaching of the Bible for that reason, nor should we assume that verses like Isaiah 6:3 do not need to be unpacked.  The Holy Spirit fully reveals that God is the Most Holy Trinity, even if we have to take some steps to make this clear to us.

Second, regarding Isaiah 6:3 in light of the previous note, the threefold repetition of “holy, holy, holy” in itself is not a decisive “proof.”  Repetition may be only for emphasis also in the Bible, such as Jeremiah 7:4, Numbers 6:24-26, or the very common tendency of the Psalms to restate ideas in succession.  The threefold holy here also expresses the utter holiness of God, holy in a way in which we will never be.  Nevertheless, it is true that there is a hint of the doctrine of the Trinity here, but hints need to be clarified with far clearer passages.