Do You See Who Jesus Sees?

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Matthew was a tax collector. He made his living by taking money from his fellow Jews and giving it to the Romans. To be more specific, if he was like other tax collectors he made a living by taking more than required from his fellow Jews, giving the required amount to Rome and then keeping the extra for himself. It is not a stretch to assume that he was not a well-liked man.

Tax collectors were despised by the religious leaders, considered unworthy. Which makes Jesus’ choice of Matthew to be one of his 12 closest disciples remarkable. Why would Jesus pick him? Didn’t Jesus know Matthew’s history?

There can be no doubting that Jesus knew. Matthew was sitting in his tax collection booth at the moment Jesus called to him and told Matthew to become one of his followers! Why would Jesus do this?

The Bible does no specifically answer this question but in Matthew’s account of this interaction, found in Matthew 9:9, there may be a clue. Look at how Jesus’ actions are described-

“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.” Matthew 9:9 ESV

Take note of what Jesus is described as seeing. “A man called Matthew.”

Jesus saw Matthew as first and foremost a man, not as a tax collector. It appears that to Jesus, Matthew was a man who happened to be a tax collector, not a tax collector who happened to be man. I think this is how Jesus sees everyone. He sees us as people, created in the image of God, deserving of love, and he desires to enter into relationship with us. What we have done is insignificant when compare to who we are.

Jesus’ attitude was the polar opposite of the attitude of the religious leaders of that time. We see in the passage (and a parallel passage in Mark 2) that after calling to Matthew Jesus went to a dinner at Matthew’s home. They were joined there by several of Matthew’s friends. See how the pharisees described the members of Jesus’ dinner party-

“And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Matthew 9:11 ESV

It seems that the pharisees saw the men and evaluated their worth first and foremost on their past actions, not on their humanity. Their judgmental attitude led to their judgmental response.

Makes me stop and think about how I look at people. When I look at others, what is the first thing I see? What do I see as their identifying characteristic?

If I want to be a follower of Jesus, I need to first see their inherent value as people, created in the image of God and worthy of love.

-          Bart

This post is one in a series of midweek posts based on lessons learned from my weekly men’s bible study. Other posts on non-religious topics are usually shared on weekends.

               

In

Life isn’t Boring

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What makes living worthwhile? What gives value to a life?

This week came the story of a man with a pistol taking the lives of 11 people in a bar. In an Instagram post written during the killing spree the murderer gave his reason for taking the lives of others. “Life is boring, so why not?”

A few days later my wife and I participated in the “Walk to end ALS.” (ALS is an always fatal progressive neurologic disease, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease) We walked in support of a friend from church who has battled the disease for the last four years. Over 30 of our church friends walked together, each with their words, steps and donations saying to our friend, “Your life matters, you matter.”

It is a confusing world. One young man in perfect health decides that his life, and the lives of strangers, are worthless. In a matter of minutes he sacrifices multiple lives on the altar of his boredom. To him, human life was insignificant and disposable.

At the same time another man, cursed with an incurable disease, fights for every precious moment. His love of life and love of others is contagious and encouraging. To him, life is a gift from God, full of meaning and meant to be treasured. 

There can be no denying that it is my friend who has the right perspective. Life is not boring. It is precious. 

Bart

Small Town Jesus

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I have read the gospel accounts dozens of times. Many of the stories are familiar, so much so that I sometimes catch myself skimming them instead of reading, nodding to myself and thinking, “Oh yeah, this is THAT story!”

Matthew 9 begins with such a story, the account of Jesus returning to his home town of Nazareth. Matthew recounts how he was greeted by Nazarenes carrying a paralyzed man on a mat, bringing the man to Jesus in the belief that Jesus could heal him. Moved by their faith, Jesus did heal the man, but not before first telling the man that his sins were forgiven. This claim by Jesus of the authority to forgive sins was profound, an implicit claim to an authority that resides only with God. The subsequent act of healing was intended as confirmation of that authority.

There is a lot to unpack in the tale, about Jesus’ nature, mission and authority, but it was not until this last week that I became aware of another aspect of the story that had previously evaded me. In preparation for discussing this passage in my weekly men’s Bible study, a question came to mind about Jesus’ return home, “How many people lived in Nazareth?”

The answer is not in the Bible, so I did what any modern-day Bible scholar would do, I googled it. Lo and behold I found an answer. Scholars think the town was very small, so small as to be insignificant to people of the day. According to one article I found, the population might have totaled only 400 people.

This fact dramatically changed my understanding of the passage. In towns of 400 people, everybody in town knows everybody else in town. They know your family, your parents, your skills and abilities. They knew who you were as a child, and watched you grow up. There are no strangers in a small town.

Which means that there is a very good chance that the people who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus knew Jesus. They remembered him as a child, as a carpenter, and probably as a friend. They knew the Jesus who for 30 years had done no miracles, and who had perhaps not even taught in the synagogue. They knew Jesus before he was Jesus the Messiah.

Which means that their faith was different. The other towns Jesus visited were encountering him for the first time. Their first experience with the Messiah was of witnessing a profound spiritual lesson or miraculous healing. For them to believe in Jesus as the Messiah they had nothing to forget, no previous experiences to overcome. For the people in Nazareth the challenge was greater. The Jesus they knew, the man displaying such power, had not manifested that power in their presence before. This man, who could heal the sick and make lame men walk had for some unknown reason not healed anyone, including the paralyzed man, during the time Jesus lived in their town. This knowledge and experience with Jesus meant that for them to believe their faith had to be greater than the faith of those in other towns. I wonder if this is the reason Jesus was so moved by the faith they displayed.

Not only did they remember Jesus, Jesus remembered them. They may have been childhood friends. There is a good chance that he had firsthand knowledge of why the man was paralyzed, including any potential family guilt, remorse or sadness at his plight. When Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven,” it may not have been a generic, non-specific act of forgiveness. Jesus likely knew specific things that the man had done, perhaps even some things the man considered unforgivable.

Jesus also understood the obstacles they faced in having faith. He knew that they needed to be able to see him as Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God. With this in mind, he prefaced his act of healing with a statement of forgiveness, a statement of Godlike authority that was blasphemous (unless it was true!) In so doing he made it possible for them to understand who Jesus truly was.

Wow! The passage wasn’t as familiar as I thought it was!

-          Bart

I have not made a habit of religious blog posts over the last few years, as I know there are many who subscribe to the blog who may not be interested. Nevertheless, I have been leading a men’s bible study each week and the insights shared by the men in the group have been too remarkable to not share. For the near future I plan on increasing my posts to twice a week. My typical weekend posts will continue, but I am adding a midweek post that will focus on something gleaned from the men’s group. Feel free to read, share or ignore at your leisure!

Sometimes it is Better to Lose

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Our culture has lost its way and its priorities, a fact that is on display every November. Our mailboxes, inboxes and TV screens are inundated with political ads filled with lies, half-truths and personal attacks. Truth and facts are inconvenient irrelevancies readily sacrificed to the god of political expediency. Winning is all that matters it seems, but the truth is that there are things more important than winning.

I have a good friend running for re-election to the school board in Los Alamitos. I have known Jeff for over 30 years (we were medical school classmates). We have worked closely together in leadership roles for the hospital staff, including on the physician well-being committee which deals with doctors struggling with substance abuse and other serious issues. Jeff handles the cases with grace, dignity and class. He is the volunteer medical director for a charity that serves women recovering from abuse and neglect, and in his free time is a reserve officer with the Orange County Sheriffs Department. On top of all of these activities he has served his community as a member of the school board. (Where does he find the time?!) Jeff is a truly good and honorable man.

Which apparently does not matter to someone who is against him serving on the school board. This someone recently stated putting signs around the city that read “Dr. Jeffrey Barke, Bad for Women, Bad for Students.”

While I know Jeff well enough to find the sign’s claims laughable, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of people in the city don’t. I am more politically informed than the average voter, but when it comes to my local school board all I know is what is listed on the ballot. I don’t think I am alone in this regard as most of those running for these “lesser” offices do not have the financial resources required to fully inform voters. As a result there is no way for them to defend themselves against personal attacks.

I thought of this recently when I received emails and ads attacking some of the candidates for city council in Huntington Beach. The ads were funded by special interest groups. I have to admit the ads influenced my vote. I read the ads against the candidates and decided that if these special interests so desperately wanted to keep these men out of office, they deserved my vote!

I think this might be my new voting strategy for local non-partisan offices. If winning is more important to you than kindness, dignity and respect, you won’t get my vote. If it is so important to you that you are willing to lie and cheat in your pursuit of victory, you aren’t the type of person I want.

Perhaps the first step in restoring truth and civility to our political system should be refusing to vote for those who aren’t civil and truthful!

Bart

 

How to Find Nice People

 Deep Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Deep Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There is so much rudeness and meanness in the world that I sometimes wonder, “Where have all of the nice people gone?” I do not know where all of them have gone, but based on 6 days of first hand observation I have reached the conclusion that a great many of them are in Tennessee. I have experienced so much kindness, goodness and politeness this week on vacation that I may go into withdrawals when I get home to California.

We have been in the Smoky Mountains this week (which, unbeknownst to most of my California friends, is a huge national park and tourist area) watching the leaves turn orange, red and yellow, listening to Southern Gospel Music at Dollywood, and eating unhealthy amounts of fried food. Wherever we found ourselves, it seemed every waiter or waitress, cashier or attendant took an interest in where we were from and in making us feel welcome. The people reminded me of the dog from the movie “Up”, it was if they all felt that they had just met me and they loved me.

Today we went for dinner at a place called “Elvira’s” a café about a mile from the cabin where we have been staying. We received the typical warm and friendly greeting but this time with a twist. It was given in a distinct Russian accent! The owner of the place, a woman in her 30’s, had emigrated from Siberia a little over 15 years ago. In typical Tennessee fashion, she took the time to share her story with us as we finished our dinner.

She was a linguistics major in Russia specializing in British English. She traveled to America to work on her language skills (She said that at the time her conversational English primarily consisted of, “Pardon me, but can you repeat that?”) She knew very little about our country and her knowledge of US geography was limited to New York, Los Angeles and Texas. She did know that she wanted to see American rollercoasters and therefore eventually ended up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee at Dollywood. She fell in love with the Smoky Mountains and never wanted to leave.

She moved here, became fluent in the language (She can pull off a perfect southern accent), and eventually became a citizen. Seven years ago she opened her own restaurant. She told us her family marveled that all she had to pay for the government permit was the $20 business license fee at city hall. Her Uncle Sasha couldn’t believe it and kept asking her who else she had to pay off! She spoke with joy at her good fortune in being able to live in America and be an American. Freedom is a gift she clearly appreciates and values.

This appreciation of America was something we saw displayed several times this week. One of the gospel groups we heard sang a version of “I’m Proud to be an American” during their show. The entire audience rose to their feet and sang along. We went to a family dinner show another evening that closed with a medley of “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America”.  The entire audience, similarly unprompted, also stood and joined in, and applauded loudly. They love their country.

Things in Tennessee were much simpler, slower, and more genuine than they are in California. The area is nowhere near as affluent as Orange County, but the folks here seemed happy, content and grateful. It was a good week. Hopefully I will be able to bring some of the nice home with me.