Category Archives: Faith and Doubt

Beware of False Prophets!

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. (Matthew 7: 15-18, NRSV)

Jesus gives a lot of good advice in his longest sermon, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. This particular piece of wisdom is interesting because some of the people who are listening think that Jesus himself is a false prophet. Even so, these words have the ring of common sense and truth. You will know them by their fruits. Jesus is essentially saying that we will know when a person is genuine and good because that person will do good things. Prophets are usually known by their words, but Jesus tells us to look beyond the words at the fruit the person produces, at what the person actually does in life.

In today’s world where the sensational often goes viral, it is imperative that we learn to recognize that people can often use words and images to lure and trick us.  Hungry for wealth and power, they make it sound as if they’re worth following.  But if we look at what these people are actually doing in the world, we may realize that they are not worth following, that they are not doing good works in the world.

Wondering:  How can we learn to recognize those who would give us words and ideas that aren’t worthy of our belief?

Ask, and it will be given?

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. (Matthew 7: 7, NRSV)

I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to understand what Jesus means when he says these words.  The conservative religious leaders of my teenage years told us that we should not question—that God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we want.  Even then, I questioned their interpretation of God, which seemed a direct contradiction to this verse.  I often thought of Thomas, who questioned, and of how Jesus welcomed his questions.

Reading this verse in context shows that Jesus gives voice to this thought in the midst of several reprimands. In this same passage, he tells people they are too judgmental, and he even calls his listeners evil. Yet this verse is in the middle of his criticism. He tells his listeners that if they, as evil as they are, know how to give good gifts to their children, then “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

All of us know that everyone who prays an earnest prayer for others who suffer does not always have those prayers answered.  That is a hard thing to accept, and it raises the kind of questions that often make people give up on God.

I don’t understand exactly how prayer works, but I do know that my prayers have been answered far too often for me to chalk up to coincidence. I also know that in every crisis of my life, even when I don’t get the relief I ask for, I have always, always felt the Spirit with me in the muck.  And sometimes, when I don’t get the answer I hoped for, the act of praying helps me feel that nothing can separate me from God or stop God from holding me up when I need it.

Wondering:  Why should we keep praying when it seems our prayers aren’t being answered?

Do Not Judge!

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  (Matthew 7: 1-2, NRSV)

Of course, all of us have to use judgment. We make decisions numerous times a day that require us to evaluate our options and do what our hearts and minds tell us is the best course of action. Jesus is talking here about a different kind of judgment—passing judgment on those around us whose circumstances and hearts we cannot possibly know in the intimate way that would explain why they make the decisions they make. Perhaps this is one of the reasons some people find the Bible so seemingly contradictory; we take profound moments of wisdom and try to apply them to every situation. Certainly, a court of the people must often judge whether citizens have broken laws made for the good of all. And, admittedly, we need to draw conclusions every day that lead us to be true to our beliefs and ourselves. In fact, we need to draw conclusions about how Jesus is speaking to us in the snippets of stories that cannot possibly reveal his entire life to us. These judgments, however, are very different from condemning a homeless man because he hasn’t worked hard enough to pull himself out of his circumstances, reviling a gay person who was born into a body different from our own, or finding an obese person distasteful because we believe that others ought to have enough willpower to resist the richness of chocolate. What Jesus tells us is that we might one day find ourselves in a situation others don’t understand, and only then can we understand how it feels to be judged in such a way.

Wondering:  How can we become more aware of our tendency to be judgmental?  What can we do to be Christ-like instead of passing judgment?

How do you love your enemies?

But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  (Luke 6: 27-28, 32, NRSV)

It’s interesting how the authors of the four Gospels sometimes tell the same stories with a perspective that’s a little bit different. They paraphrase the words of Jesus as they remember them, so what has touched them the most flavors each of their accounts. In Luke’s account, we hear Jesus telling us to do that most difficult thing of loving our enemies, but Luke remembers some additional phrases that Matthew does not recount. The idea of loving our enemies remains the most astounding idea in Jesus’ list, which is probably why both Matthew and Luke remember it so well and word what Jesus actually says in exactly the same way. It’s hard to make ourselves feel an emotion like love when it’s not a natural instinct. The three ideas which Luke mentions here are all actions and, therefore, things we can make ourselves do even if we don’t feel like doing them. We can do something good for someone who hates us, say something nice about someone who curses us, and pray for someone who mistreats us. Perhaps, in the action of making ourselves do the right thing for someone we don’t like, we might even be able to feel something closer to love for them, that very difficult thing that Jesus commands us to do.

Wondering:  What can we do today to help ourselves love someone in spite of their malice? How can we feel love that might be impossible without God?

Jesus: Third Temptation

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  (Matthew 4: 10, NRSV)

The third temptation Jesus faces is probably that most delicious temptation of all. According to Matthew, Satan tells Jesus to stand on the mountaintop, and he shows Jesus all the richest and most exciting cities in the world. He tells Jesus that if he will just turn away from God and worship the tempter, he will give Jesus everything he sees from that vantage point high above everyone else. Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, bring it on! I’d be an idiot to turn down that kind of power and glory!” At that point, after the third and most irresistible temptation, Jesus basically tells the devil to go to hell and answers by saying that, again, people have known forever where that path leads. At that point, the tempter leaves, and (I love this part!) “angels came and waited on him.”

This passage tells us that to do whatever it takes to gain fame, wealth, and power can be the most enticing temptation of all. We want that! Why else do so many of us play the lottery that officials use it as a way to make money for state treasuries? Why else do so many adults break the law to gain power and wealth?  However, one only has to look at how many rich celebrities and politicians have lives that are a complete mess to see that money and power alone cannot bring contentment. There must be a reason that people long before Jesus have written that looking beyond self is the only real key to happiness.

Wondering:  When should we turn down opportunities for wealth and power?  When we do, God grant that we may find that the angels minister to us.

Jesus: Second Temptation

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  (Matthew 4: 7)

Jesus says these words as he is facing the second temptation on the mountain. The tempter has just mocked him by suggesting that if Jesus really is the son of God, then why doesn’t he just jump on off that cliff and trust that God will keep him from striking his foot against a stone. Jesus doesn’t go leaping off the cliff and enjoying the wind through his hair, knowing that God will have his guardian angel scoop him up and keep him from getting hurt. Jesus responds instead by saying that people long before him have known how stupid it is to take that kind of a dare. This verse is the equivalent of Jesus saying, “Come on. Don’t make me laugh. I’m not that stupid.”

This is Jesus’ acknowledgement that it is tempting to listen to the taunts of those around us and to do things that are dangerous to our well-being. Adults think of their own experiences and say all the time when they talk about teenagers that, yes, teenagers do stupid things, but most of them “make it okay” in the end. In fact, adults themselves take risks, ranging from driving faster than the speed limit allows to cheating on their taxes, and assume that the odds of not getting caught are in their favor. This account of the temptation of Jesus tells us that God would rather we not take those kinds of chances in the first place.

Wondering:  How can we resist the taunts of those who would have us tempt God and fate?

Jesus: Famished but not Tempted

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4: 4, NRSV)

When Jesus says this, he has been fasting for 40 days, and he is starving for a good meal. The Bible says that he has been taken up to a mountain by “the tempter,” who challenges Jesus’ faith three times. The first time, the tempter plays on Jesus’ hunger and taunts Jesus that if he is that hungry, then why doesn’t he just turn the rocks into bread, since he is claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “Let me just show you. I’ll turn these rocks into a banquet fit for the king I am.” He responds instead by saying that for years people have written that people need more than bread to stay alive. Those of us who have been stuffed at the end of a good meal but lonely and disappointed by the company at the homecoming dance or the prom afterwards know exactly what Jesus means. We can have our physical needs satisfied and still be starving for something more in our lives. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t take credit for this piece of wisdom himself. He points out the fact that we should pay attention to what God has inspired people to write long before we, or even he, came along, for we have much to learn from them.

It is tempting to think sometimes that no one else has gone through what we are going through and that no one knows how tempted we are or how lonely and emotionally hungry we sometimes feel. Jesus points out in this passage that the wisdom of those who have walked this path before us can teach us much.

Wondering:  How can we lean on God instead of giving in to temptation when we feel isolated and alone?

A Wedding in Cana

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2: 1-11, NRSV)

There is something so very typical about this scene. A mom states the obvious, implying the unspoken—that her child should do something about it. A son, annoyed at his mother’s expectations, responds curtly that this is not his problem, and then he does something about it, just as his mother knew he would. It is almost funny the way she turns to the servants and tells them to do whatever he says even though his answer seems to indicate he won’t do anything. She knows him; she has expectations for him. He may be the fully divine son of God, but he is also the fully human son of Mary in that moment.

After that moment, though, everything is atypical—miraculous even. Jesus turns the water into wine, not just any wine, but a fine wine that impresses even the headwaiter, who believes that the bridegroom has saved the best for last. This is the first of Jesus’ miracles—not to heal the sick, not to raise anyone from the dead—just to quietly provide for an anonymous person because it is expected of him. Yet, that, too, is a miracle—that when we think that something is not important enough to ask God’s help, we should understand that if it is important to us, then it is important to God.

Wondering:  How can we find quiet opportunities to make the ordinary seem miraculous?

Preteen Jesus in Luke 2

He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  (Luke 2: 49)

What can Jesus possibly have to say to teenagers?  The absence of stories about his childhood seem to suggest that he sprang from Mary’s body with all the wisdom he speaks in his adulthood.  He shows compassion and care for little children, adults, and the elderly, but he never once interacts with preteens or teenagers as far as we know from the written record.

In all the Gospels, there is only one story of Jesus’ own childhood, when he is a preteen at  twelve years old. His family has been traveling, notices he is missing, and must go back to Jerusalem to look for him. It takes them three days to find him! When they do find him, his mother asks that question that all worried mothers ask: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Jesus asks the question, “Why?” and his parents do not understand his answer. This is a familiar scenario to most teens and their parents.

Where has Jesus been for three days? He has been in the temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” After his parents find him, although he clearly questions their authority, he does as they ask and returns to Nazareth with them. Luke describes it this way:  “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

Yes, life is a journey of listening, questioning, and growing. Each of us must decide when to question and when to submit. Each of us must make choices that determine whether we increase in wisdom as well as in years.

Wondering:  How can we listen and question so that we will grow in wisdom?

The Word Became Flesh

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  (John 1: 14)

No one questions that John is talking about Jesus in this passage.  But how did God become human and live among us?  What makes Jesus any different from the gods and goddesses of ancient myths that we study in school?  Some would say that there is no difference—that Jesus was just a way of explaining a rebellion against the religious leaders of his time, just as the gods and goddesses were ways of explaining natural phenomena that science didn’t yet understand.

Even within Christianity, there is much disagreement about whether to consider the Gospels a literal account of a divine event or as stories and parables that guide us to an understanding of the nature of God.  One need only look at the vast array of Christian denominations to understand how divided theologians are about whether Jesus was human, divine, or both.

What is it, then, that matters most about the life of Jesus?  Perhaps it is helpful to consider the difference between Jesus and the gods and goddesses of ancient myth.  When the Greek gods intervened in human affairs, they did so for their own amusement and pleasure.  That is not the case in a single story about Christ. 

When we question whether Jesus was a good man or a divine being, we have only to look at the evidence of his life to understand what it means to follow Jesus.  Every time we help our loved ones through a crisis, take care of them when they’re sick, and hug them when they’re hurting, God becomes flesh through us and lives among us. Every time we go out into the world to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and tend those sick from the ravages of disease, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. The way God’s love is most tangible in the world is through people, when we come together and do God’s work in the world, remembering that the Spirit who unites us is greater than any of the issues that divide us.

Wondering:  When we need God’s love most, how can we feel the Word made flesh with us.  When we are strong, how can we be the Word made flesh to others?