Who’s on your Christmas gift list this year? My guess is that even if you keep such a list, you are bound to receive a present from someone who wasn’t on your list—and so you’ll have to rush out to buy them something. That’s the way the system works, right? We give to people who give to us. And most of these exchanges take place with family and friends who already have more than they need.
In this week’s daily Bible reading (I hope you’re sticking to the Scripture Union schedule, even though December days are hectic), we came across two individuals who broke this pattern. They gave to people who didn’t expect a gift. And who had nothing to give in return. Was that one of your observations in Acts 9 and 10? It was a repeating idea—so I hope you didn’t miss it.
Let’s start with Dorcas. She was a Christ follower who became sick and died. Her friends heard that the Apostle Peter was in the area, so they called on him. And Peter raised Dorcas from the dead! What caught my attention about this woman was the following: “Dorcas was always doing good and helping the poor.” (Acts 9:36) When Peter arrived at her bedside: “All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.” (v.39) After Peter raised her back to life he presented Dorcas to her friends, “especially the widows.” (v.41)
It’s obvious who was on Dorcas’ Christmas gift list each year. People who desperately needed what she gave them—and who couldn’t afford to give her anything in return.
The same was true of Cornelius, whose story begins in Acts 10. He was a God-fearing Gentile who eventually came to Christ through Peter. Why did God direct the gospel his way? Because Cornelius “gave generously to those in need” and his “gifts to the poor (had) come up as a memorial offering before God.” (Acts 10: 2, 4) Another guy whose Christmas gift list was not based on reciprocity.
So, who will be getting a gift from you this Christmas season? I’m not dissing the notion of giving presents to family and friends. I’m just encouraging you to broaden your list to include some recipients who are destitute—either physically or spiritually, or both.
Here’s the process that’s worked for Sue and me over the years—if you find it helpful, great. If not, I hope you’ll come up with your own plan. We begin by checking our giving record for the year to make sure that our church has received a full tithe (the first 10%) of our income. We don’t want to be generous with others if we haven’t met our responsibility to support the Lord’s work at Christ Community Church.
Next, we prayerfully determine an over-and-above-the-tithe percentage of our income that we’d like to give away. In other words, the initial 10% that goes to our church is just the starting point for our giving—not the end-all of our generosity. So, we choose an additional giving percentage and multiply it by our income. Now we have a sizable dollar amount with which to have some beyond-the-tithe fun!
We talk through all our options. Every year our church puts together a year-end project that meets some special need of people elsewhere in the world. This year we’re raising money to supply a thousand audio Bibles (“Proclaimers”) to those who have never heard God’s good news in Brazil, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. Sue and I are definitely giving to that.
We also love to support the work of Voice of the Martyrs, which ministers to persecuted Christians in places like Syria and China. And we get great joy out of sending something extra to the orphans we’ve “adopted” through our church’s partnership in Bangladesh. I could go on—but you get the idea. These are our favorite checks to write out all year! Yeah, we’ll give presents to those who give presents back to us. But it’s a blast to have a longer list than that crowd.
Who’s getting a gift from you?
Just a reminder as you continue to read the book of Acts this week. Look for observations that include:
Repeating words or ideas
Truths about God
Savor these TRTS—“treats” from God’s Word. Take one of your observations each day and distill a message from it that becomes an application for your life. This is the O–> M–> A of the COMA Bible study method that I hope is becoming second nature to you.
My four-month-old granddaughter, Ruby, was named after my dad’s mother. The original Ruby (baby Ruby’s great-great-grandma) was a missionary to India. When my daughter and son-in-law were considering baby names, they Googled ancestress Ruby to see if they could find out more about her. To their surprise, they discovered a series of articles she’d written back in the 1920’s and 1930’s from India for publication in her denomination’s missionary newsletter.
This information is priceless. It includes Ruby’s recapping of your husband’s death from heart disease. She held him in her arms as he sang praises to God and passed from this life into the presence of Jesus. He was buried in the Himalayan Mountains (the grandfather I never knew). But Ruby stayed on in India, raising six kids (my dad being one of them) and continuing her husband’s missionary endeavors.
Needless to say, my granddaughter Ruby has some big shoes to fill. And although she is still just a baby (and a preemie at that), it’s the hope and prayer of our family that she will live up to her namesake in terms of loving and serving Christ.
The Old Testament book of Ruth (which we’re wrapping up today if we’re following the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule) introduces us to a namesake—of sorts. It’s not actually his name that will get passed on to an eventual descendent. It’s his role. I’m talking about Boaz, and his critical role of “guardian-redeemer” in the lives of Ruth and Naomi.
According to the footnote in my Bible, “the Hebrew word for guardian-redeemer is a legal term for one who has the obligation to redeem a relative in serious difficulty.” Boaz was a guardian-redeemer. (I won’t bother to recap the story, since I assume you’ve read it for yourself.) Did you notice how many times the term popped up in the text? (See 2:20; 3:9, 12, 13; 4:8, 14.) In addition, there are numerous uses of the words “redeem” and “redemption.”
This, then, is first-and-foremost the story of a guardian-redeemer. When it’s broken down into a week’s worth of daily readings, we might miss that central theme. We might gravitate to less-important aspects of the narrative and their application to our lives. And it’s OK to see commendable traits in the life of Ruth that are worth emulating (or obnoxious traits in the life of Naomi to avoid). Just don’t miss the importance of the guardian-redeemer role that’s played by Boaz—because it points to a descendent of his who will become the Guardian-Redeemer par excellence.
Boaz married Ruth, who gave birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David. And it’s through this royal line that Jesus eventually entered our world. Which is why I couldn’t keep from thinking about Jesus with every mention in Ruth of guardian-redeemer. Jesus became one of us (a relative) in order to redeem us from our sins.
How does one arrive at a personal application from an observation like this in the text? (The COMA Bible study method that I coach in this blog trains you to move from: Context–>Observations–>Message–>Application.) Perhaps you, too, recognized that Boaz points to Jesus as our Guardian-Redeemer as you read the book of Ruth this past week. That’s a wonderful observation. But did noting it each day of your reading in Ruth lead you to any tangible application?
Here are a couple of applications that worked for me—helping me to savor the rich role of Guardian-Redeemer that Jesus has played in my life. The first was to turn to the Concordance at the back of my Bible and look up the words “redeem,” “redeemed,” “redeemer,” and “redemption.” Then I tracked down the Scripture references that are attached to these terms. (There are less than a dozen verses to look up.) This gave me a fuller appreciation of what Christ has done for me—especially I Peter 1:18, 19.
The second thing I did was to sing a worship song or two that celebrates Jesus’ role as my Redeemer. In fact, I found myself humming these songs throughout the course of the week. Check out the lyrics to “Wonderful, Merciful Savior” or “I Will Sing of My Redeemer.” Rich!
Tomorrow we leave Ruth for the New Testament book of Acts. And you know what that means. Read the Introduction to Acts in your Study Bible so that you can get a good grasp of the context of this book before you re-enter it at chapter nine.
Sue and I went to a movie yesterday with some friends. (If you like “thought-provoking,” check out The Book Thief.) After the show we discussed a couple of dinner options. The first was to grab a bite at a local restaurant. But then we reminded ourselves that the Black Friday shopping crowds were probably flooding the nearby eating establishments. The second option was to head back to our house. We’d had almost twenty people over the previous day for Thanksgiving dinner and had plenty of left-overs.
My buddy pushed back on option two by acknowledging that he’d had left-over turkey for lunch that day—and would probably have it again for dinner the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. We all nodded our heads in agreement and headed over to Taco Grande for some Mexican fare. It was packed, but our pal, Carlos (a brother from Christ Community Church), squeezed us in.
Did you notice the mention of left-overs in your reading of Ruth this past week? This is a great short story—I hope the holiday week didn’t interrupt your following the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule. Ruth is such a brief book (just four chapters) that you’ll miss it if you skip a few days of Bible reading. In the second chapter of the story, Ruth is destitute. She is picking up bits and pieces of grain that have been left behind by harvesters in the field of a guy named Boaz. She is hoping to collect enough food for herself and her mother-in-law to survive on.
When the harvesters take a lunch break, Boaz invites Ruth to join them for a bite to eat. Verse 14 says: “She ate all she wanted and had some left over.” Several verses later, in the same chapter, there is a second reference to left-overs. As you know, if you follow this blog, repeating words or ideas is one of four observations I’ve coached you to look for every time you read the Bible. When Ruth brings the grain she’s collected back to Naomi, “her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough.” (v.18)
We sometimes look at left-overs with mild disdain. “Is this all we have to choose from?” we ask ourselves the week after Thanksgiving, as we stand in the kitchen with the refrigerator door held open, gazing at mounds of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry relish. But in Ruth’s situation, the double-mention of left-overs is an upbeat reference to the abundant way in which God is providing for her. Left-overs don’t bring a sigh from her. They illicit a “WOW!”
As I meditated on this realization, it brought to mind another Bible story in which left-overs speak of God’s super-abundant provision. (BTW: This will frequently happen to you as you become a daily Bible reader. You’ll be reading a passage and suddenly recall something similar that you came across recently in a different portion of the Bible. This sort of cross-referencing will deepen your appreciation of Scripture.) Where else in the Bible do we find a left-over story?
Left-overs actually pop up twice during the earthly ministry of Jesus. After the Lord miraculously multiplies a small boy’s lunch to feed over five thousand ravenous people, Matthew records (14:20): “They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” Not long after that event, Jesus has another opportunity to expand a small amount of food in order to provide a meal for a huge crowd, and again: “They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” (Matthew 15:37)
Evidently, God is a bit of a show-off. He not only meets our needs. He goes extravagantly beyond that and pours blessing after blessing into our lives until we are satiated with left-overs. Here’s the challenge for us this Thanksgiving weekend. Let’s not allow ourselves to just merely shrug our shoulders at those left-overs—as if we’re somewhat bored with all that we’ve been given. Let’s give God one more round of worship and praise for his over-and-above generosity toward us.
Go for a prayer-walk today and see how long a list of things you can call to mind for which to thank God. Lift up your hands and sing from your heels as you attend a worship service this weekend. Bring an offering to the Lord that truly expresses your gratitude for the super-abundant way in which he’s blessed you. Launch into Advent (yes, this is the first weekend of Advent) by determining that you are going to focus less on shopping this year and more on the supreme Gift you’ve been given in Christ.
Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth…I was a youth pastor. It wasn’t quite that long ago, but it does seem like a distant memory. However, I can still recall the makeup of the high school ministry when I first arrived on the job: 15 church kids. While I believe that it’s entirely possible to develop a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ while growing up in a Christian family that regularly attends church, the students that I inherited were mostly jaded. Their interest in spiritual matters was minimal. Been there, done that.
By God’s grace, one of the apathetic church kids brought a friend with him to the high school ministry. This buddy, Steve, came from an unchurched home. I immediately liked him. He was an athlete, and we started working out together. Over time, I had the privilege of leading Steve to Christ and discipling him. He was the first in a growing nucleus of new students who turned that youth ministry around. Within a year there were over 100 kids, many of them freshly baptized Christ followers.
You’re about to begin reading the story of an Old Testament “Steve” (if you’re following the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule). Her name was Ruth. When the story opens, the “church kids” (aka the nation of Israel) have little interest in a relationship with God. Ruth, an outsider, does.
This would be a good time to pause and remind you that whenever you start reading a new book in the Bible it is important to discover the context (i.e. historical setting) of that book. We just did that a week ago when we launched into Song of Songs. If you’re married, I hope you got as much out of that Old Testament love poem as I did! SOS is a fairly brief book, so we blazed through it in seven days and are on the threshold of another quick read: Ruth.
Don’t start into Ruth without first reading the Introduction to the book in your NIV Study Bible. And as you’re digesting that Introduction, don’t forget to chew on the answers to the five journalistic questions: Who (the book’s major characters)? What (themes)? When? Where? Why (key lessons)? The better you understand Ruth’s context, the more you’ll get out of your Bible reading this week.
Allow me to touch on some of what you’re going to discover in answer to the journalistic questions. I won’t do your homework for you—but I’d like to whet your appetite for some cool stuff in Ruth’s background. Let’s start with the lady herself. (Who?)
Ruth was not a member of God’s chosen people—she was a Moabite. Yet she showed a greater passion for God than most of the people living in Israel at the time. A couple of other things worth noting about Ruth. She was the great-grandmother of King David. David headed the royal line through which Jesus would eventually come. And speaking of Jesus’ family tree, Ruth is one of four women listed in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1). All four were outsiders. Their inclusion in the genealogy pointed to a coming Savior whose redemption would be universal in scope.
You’re also about to meet Boaz (another Who?). He became Ruth’s husband. And by marrying her, he saved Ruth and her family from heart-breaking destitution. He’s called, throughout the book of Ruth, a “guardian-redeemer.” I like the older edition of the NIV’s translation of this title better: “kinsman-redeemer.” “Kinsman” underscores the fact that it was necessary for Boaz to be a relative of Ruth’s in order to legally save her. (You’ll have to read the story for the details.) In this way, Boaz’ life foreshadowed that of his most famous descendent: Jesus. Jesus became one of us (a “kinsman”) in order to purchase our salvation on the cross.
One more tidbit from Ruth’s context—and then I’ll let you start digging for yourself. When? When did Ruth live? Oftentimes, the When? of a Bible book doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference in our understanding of that book. But it’s a key to grasping the significance of Ruth’s life. The book begins by placing her story “in the days when the judges ruled.” (Ruth 1:1) The judges led Israel before the nation had kings. And they were, for the most part, a disaster.
The book of Judges—located in the Bible just before Ruth—concludes with these words: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 21:25) In other words, things were a mess. And into that mess stepped Ruth—a woman who chose to live a God-honoring life at a time when most others were choosing a different path.
What a role model for us today! If you attend a public school, or work in a secular environment, or have close friends and family who are not Christ followers—you know how lonely it sometimes feels to pursue God. The pressure to conform to everyone else is relentless. Don’t cave in. Learn from Ruth that you must BE different if you want to MAKE a difference.
A friend emailed me on his flight to L.A. this past week. He belongs to my men’s group and we’re all following Scripture Union’s daily Bible reading schedule—which has recently put us in Song of Songs. Impressed by Solomon’s descriptive praise for his lover in SOS, my buddy decided to borrow a few lines from this love poem and pass them on to his wife. Using the plane’s Wi-Fi, he emailed her some choice compliments. And she immediately responded with: “What are you reading?”
My friend was amused that his wife instinctively knew that these passionate expressions were not his. “I was busted!” he told me. But this led to the realization that he must not praise his wife often enough if she gets suspicious on the rare occasion that he does. So his application is to do more sweet talking. Great takeaway from the text!
I actually distilled that very message (the M in the COMA Bible study approach) for my own life from Friday’s reading in SOS. Solomon’s lover says of him (5:16): “His mouth is sweetness itself.” According to the footnote in my NIV Study Bible, this expression could mean either that Solomon was a good kisser (which might lead me to an interesting personal application) or that his words were kind and encouraging. I decided to go with the latter interpretation—both because SOS is filled with complimentary speech between lovers (i.e. sweet talk) and because I need this challenge to address Sue more frequently in a similar fashion.
How are you doing with SOS? Have you come away from your daily readings with something to put into practice? Maybe you’re wondering how I landed on that expression “his mouth is sweetness itself” (5:16) when you missed it completely. It didn’t register. Don’t forget that one of the rules for interpreting poetry in the Bible (covered in my book, Context) is to unpack its figurative language. In other words, deliberately be on the lookout for colorful phrases. And when you find one, see if you can deduce what the writer is trying to communicate.
This may take some effort on your part. I oversee a cluster of men’s small groups on Wednesday mornings. (We call it a “Supergroup.”) I asked the guys this past week: “How many of you enjoy reading poetry?” Just as I thought. Not a hand went up. (Even if there was a dude in the room who enjoyed poetry as a favorite pastime—who would admit it to a bunch of guys?) This means that finding insights from poetic Scripture such as SOS won’t come naturally to us. We’re going to have to work a little harder; be a bit more observant; unpack the figurative language we come across.
For example, I was intrigued with SOS 2:15 when I read it on Wednesday: “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards.” What? Am I to grab a gun and a hunting dog and head off into the woods to track down these bushy-tailed varmints? That would be a literal reading of the verse. But this is poetry. And I’ve come to realize that Solomon likes to describe the romantic relationship with his lover-wife as a fruitful vineyard. So the foxes that might ruin it must be relational busters to guard against.
This observation (the O in COMA) prompted me to craft the message (the M in COMA): “Stop the small intruders.” The message that we distill from our reading always comes from an observation that we’ve made in the text. A message is a timeless principle—and it’s best summed up in the sort of pithy saying you’d see on a wall plaque. And once you’ve distilled a message from a passage, you are ready to consider how you might put that timeless principle into practice in your own life. This is your application (the A in COMA).
For me, noting that “little foxes” can ruin a marriage (observation), led to “Stop the small intruders” (message), which prompted me to examine my relationship with Sue so as to identify those behaviors that undermine our love for each other. (No, I am not at liberty to share these with you.)
Are you catching on to COMA? Let me give you one more example from SOS. Another observation that I picked up in my reading this week was Solomon’s invitation to his wife to join him on a getaway. This invitation pops up again and again (and repeating words or ideas is one of four kinds of observations to look for in every passage.) “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. (2:10, 13) “Come with me, my bride, come with me…” (4:8) “Come, my beloved, let us go to the countryside…” (7:11) “Come away, my beloved.” (8:14)
From this observation, I deduced the message that “Getaways fuel a romantic relationship.” But this didn’t become an application until I pulled out calendars with Sue, scheduled a few days together out of town, and booked the hotel. I’m getting a lot out of SOS!
I grew up going to church in the days before “seeker-sensitive” services became the rage. Quite frankly, the 11:00-noon hour on Sunday mornings wasn’t very kid-friendly either. There was no live band leading worship. No cool videos introducing the theme of the day. No effort on the part of the preacher to deliver a sermon that would have any relevance to a 5th grader.
So, in the midst of my boredom, I occasionally found myself trying to stay awake during the pastor’s sermon by leafing through the Bible from the pew rack in front of me. I’m pretty sure that’s how I came across Song of Songs for the first time. And what a discovery it was for a young boy approaching puberty! Lines such as “your breasts are like two fawns that browse among the lilies” (4:5) immediately hooked me.
These are also the sorts of lines that have embarrassed Bible scholars and Church leaders for centuries. What is this risqué stuff doing in the Bible? they’ve wondered. Many have tried to justify its inclusion by interpreting it as allegory. This is not a description of sexual love between a man and a woman, they’ve reasoned. This is a metaphorical picture of Christ’s love for the Church. Right!
If you are following the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule (and I really hope you are, since this blog is aimed at helping you draw insights from those passages for your life), you launched into Song of Songs today. And you’ll be in this book for the next week. Hubba! Hubba! Some of what you read may cause you to blush. But no need to explain it away as an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. It’s actually the very thing God intended it to be—some wise instruction about intimacy between a husband and wife.
In fact, Song of Songs is one of five Old Testament books that Bible scholars refer to as Wisdom Literature. As you begin your study of this particular book, let me remind you to scope out the context of Song of Songs before you read the first chapter. Context is the first of four steps in the COMA Bible study approach that I coach in this blog (and explain in greater detail in my book, Walk).
How can you get your arms around the context of Song of Songs? Pick up your NIV Study Bible (or a reasonable facsimile) and turn to the Introduction to this book. Find out who wrote it—and why. Learn what themes to look for as you read it over the coming week. (I’ll give you a hint here. Song of Songs is obviously about romantic love—but there are certain aspects of such love that you’re going to come across repeatedly in the book and should take note of: the exclusiveness of this love; the spontaneity of this love; the power of this love; etc.)
Now, let me suggest two other sources to check out for a fuller understanding of Song of Songs’ context. The first is my book, Epic, which describes the storyline of the Bible. In chapter two of Epic (“Redemption Prepared”), I explain the role of Old Testament wisdom literature in the unfolding of the Bible’s story. (You’ll find this on pages 63/64, but it’s worth reading the entire second chapter.) You’ll make better sense of Song of Songs once you understand why God included this book in his Holy Word.
The second source I’d recommend for grasping the context of Song of Songs is my book, Context. (Epic and Context are books one and three, respectively, of a four-book set called The Bible Savvy Series. You can find out more about them on this website.) In the second chapter of Context (“The Literary Setting”), I explain the rules for interpreting the various kinds of literature that are found in the Bible. One specific genre that I cover is poetry—and Song of Songs is vivid poetry. So I would encourage you to read about how to approach this genre before you jump into Song of Songs (pages 63-68 of Context).
We live in a sex-crazed culture—a horribly twisted sex-crazed culture. But the Bible’s response to all the immorality around us is not to paint sex as some disgusting thing that should be avoided. God is pro-sex (makes sense, since he created it). But he wants us to have a proper understanding of this wonderful gift and how it’s to be used for maximum enjoyment.
Imagine receiving some marriage advice…from a single friend. Or being given tips on driving…from a buddy who doesn’t own a car. Or having generosity modeled for you…by a little old lady who just put two cents in the offering plate.
That last example actually comes out of yesterday’s Scripture Union Bible reading (Mark 4:41-44). Jesus and his disciples were sitting in the temple’s “court of the women” (open to both genders), watching worshippers drop their offering into one of the 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles that were placed there for contributions. (It’s amazing how much historical context a reader can pick up from the footnotes in an NIV Study Bible.)
After seeing “many rich people (who) threw in large amounts” (v.41), Jesus and his buds noticed “a poor widow (who) came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.” (v.42) Jesus took advantage of this teachable moment to instruct his followers on the importance of generosity, using this widow as “Exhibit A.”
In my last several blogs I’ve lamented the fact that Scripture Union’s schedule sometimes breaks down Bible passages into portions that are simply too small. Yesterday’s story of the widow’s offering was only four verses long. On the other hand, I’ve encouraged you to use the time you save in reading shorter texts to meditate longer on such passages. Read them four or five times. Note all four kinds of observations that I’ve coached you to look for: theme; repeating words or ideas; truths about God; something striking. (You’re looking for “treats” in God’s Word: TRTS.)
I took my own advice to meditate longer on this brief snippet of a story about a widow’s offering. And I was surprised at how much I learned. Here are three lessons on generosity that I took away from the reading and applied to my own life.
#1 Giving to “spiritual” causes is just as important as giving to “humanitarian” efforts. I did some background reading in a scholarly commentary on this story because I was curious about where the money went that was tossed into the temple treasury. The majority of it was used to support the priests who worked at the temple (i.e. the church budget).
Interesting. Usually when we feel moved to be generous it’s because we’ve been exposed to some desperate physical need. Just this past week, for example, the typhoon that hit the Philippines was portrayed in news story after news story. The devastation has been enormous. The loss of human life has been heartbreaking. Which is why Christ Community Church, like many churches around the country, will be taking a special relief offering this weekend. We’ll be supporting the work of Samaritan’s Purse in meeting the catastrophic needs created by this crisis.
But I must admit that I’m a bit concerned that our Philippines’ offering could tap out our givers just one week before we announce our annual, year-end giving project. We’ve been working for months to put this project together. It revolves around getting God’s Word into the hands of people who need Christ. Locally, we hope to give away 6,000 Bibles to our friends. Globally, we plan to pay for the Bible to be translated into the languages of people who don’t yet have access to God’s Word.
This year-end Bible project will cost us several hundred thousand dollars to pull off! Will we be able to reach this goal if our givers donate large sums of money to the weekend’s Philippines relief effort? I know that we’re well-off enough to contribute generously to both campaigns. But will we put a higher value on the Philippines’ offering because of the gruesome pictures we’ve seen on the news? Or will we understand that the worldwide famine for God’s Word is every bit as important a need to address? Giving to “spiritual” causes is just as important as giving to “humanitarian” efforts.
#2 Giving grows our capacity to trust God. I frequently hear people reference this story of the widow’s offering in order to make the point: “The size of my financial contribution doesn’t matter to God. He’s just as pleased with my small gift as he is with others’ large gifts.” Is that what Jesus is teaching us here? I don’t think so.
The widow’s offering may have been just two cents—but that two cents, in her case, represented: “more…than all the others”; “everything”; and “all she had to live on.” (vv.43, 44) Yes, small gifts are important—if they’re as generous as we can be. But what if they’re just a token amount for us? What if our gift for the Philippines relief effort is far less than what we’ll spend to eat out at our favorite restaurant this next week? Is God really pleased by gifts that cost us practically nothing?
After the widow tossed her two cents into the temple treasury, she walked away with no idea where her next meal was going to come from. Remember, her offering consisted of “all she had to live on.” (v.44) I regularly talk to people who wrestle with this issue in regard to tithing. They know that God has asked them to give, minimally, the first 10% of every paycheck. But if they put that tithe in the offering, will they have enough money left over to pay for groceries, unexpected car repairs, upcoming Christmas gifts? Giving grows our capacity to trust God.
#3 Others are watching what we give. Another mistaken notion about our giving is that is should always be secretive. Yes, in one setting Jesus taught that our right hand shouldn’t know what our left hand is giving. But what was the context of that lesson? Jesus was rebuking those who give out of pride—who make a big show of their giving in order to be praised.
Here, in Mark 12, Jesus was able to easily observe a widow who gave—what was for her—an enormously generous gift. Jesus didn’t fault her for failing to hide her two-cents offering from bystanders. In fact, he used her as a role model for his disciples. Is our generosity role model material?
Our kids watch what we give—or don’t give (or spend on ourselves). Are those of us who are parents conscious of our example? Do we ever discuss with our families why we’re not going to make a certain purchase in order to be able to give more to the Lord’s work? And what about those of us who lead small groups? Do we regularly bring up to the members of our group the importance of giving? Do those we’re discipling hear from us that we want to be as generous as possible with our contributions to weekly offerings, disaster relief efforts and year-end campaigns? Others are watching what we give.
The story of the widow’s offering was told in just four verses. But it had a huge impact on my life this week.
My daughter, son-in-law and new granddaughter are currently living in our finished basement. We’re helping them stretch their finances while Rachel is on maternity leave and Jameson is working part-time because of grad school. And quite frankly—we just love to have baby Charlotte within cuddling distance.
But what if… What if we hear hammering and sawing down in the basement one day, and when we go down to inspect we discover that they’re doing some remodeling? They’re taking down a wall. And they’re changing out the shower for a tub in the bathroom.
Or what if Rachel and Jameson start throwing wild parties on Friday nights? (If you happen to know them, you’re chuckling to yourself—because they’re not the wild-party type.) Crowds of people are now pouring into our home every weekend. They’re blasting their music and raiding our refrigerator. Or what if learn that R & J are subletting a portion of the basement to somebody else from whom they’re collecting lucrative rent money?
All of these scenarios are, of course, quite ridiculous. My daughter and her husband are fully cognizant of the fact that this is not their basement. They are not at liberty to do with it whatever they please. Sue and I are the owners. They are the tenants.
This sort of understanding will help you make sense—and apply to your own life—the parable that Jesus tells at the beginning of Mark 12 (last Saturday’s Bible reading, if you’re following the Scripture Union schedule). The theme of the story (one of four observations to make whenever reading the Bible) is spelled out as a heading before verse 1: “The Parable of the Tenants.” Aha! This story is about tenants.
Just so we don’t miss this theme, Jesus uses the repeating word “tenants” (another one of the four observations to look for) in verses 2, 7 and 9. The verb “rented” in verse 1 also underscores the fact that this field did not belong to the farmers who were working it. So does the reference to the actual “owner” in verse 9.
Now, the immediate application of this parable to Jesus’ first-century audience was that God was the owner of their lives and they were mere renters. But when God had tried “to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard” (v.2), they had beaten or killed his messengers (i.e. the prophets). And now they were plotting to put to death his Son (i.e. Jesus). Jesus’ original listeners got this point, and so they “looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” (v.12)
But there is an application of this story to our own lives, today. Don’t we sometimes forget that we are tenants—and behave as if we’re owners? When we fail to give God a tithe (10%) of our income (and beyond) we’re acting as if our paychecks belong to us. When we neglect to serve in some ministry of the church, we’re assuming that the hours of the week are ours to spend as we please. When we utilize our talents and friendships strictly for our own benefit and enjoyment, we’re forgetting from whom these blessings come—and who is going to demand an accounting for such.
How might you and I communicate to God today that we “get” that he is the true owner of our lives?
As we continue in our study of Mark this week, I apologize again for the brevity of the current Scripture Union readings. Today’s reading was only five verses long! You may find it difficult to squeeze something out of passages that are this short. But let me remind you that it’s not how much of God’s Word you get through but how much of God’s Word gets through you that matters.
So take advantage of the conciseness of the Mark passages by spending extra time meditating on what you read. If you do nothing more than read the text for the day, you’ll be cutting short your meetings with God. I just timed myself while reading today’s passage out loud: 42 seconds. I can’t live on what I get from less than a minute of feeding on God’s Word, can you?
That’s why I followed up my 42 seconds of reading today with about twenty minutes worth of meditating. I went over and over the text, looking for those four kinds of observations—those “treats” that are represented by the acronym TRTS: theme; repeating words or ideas; truths about God; something striking.
I turned down an invitation to see Thor with my son-in-law and his buddy this week. I’ve had my fill of super-hero movies, many of which I’ve gone to at midnight openings (which I always regretted the next day). They just don’t deliver, as far as I’m concerned. Lots of action, noise, visual effects—but often a weak story line. I’m tired of walking out of the theater at the end of these flicks wishing that I’d seen something else. Something with substance.
This is how Jesus viewed the fig tree in Mark 11: big show, little substance. Did you have trouble with that story in this week’s Scripture Union reading? Part of the problem was that SU broke up the fig tree episode onto two different days—which is a big no-no, since one of the rules for interpreting narratives (see my book, Context) is to identify the major lesson of the entire story. (I love SU’s daily schedule, but they occasionally drive me nuts when the passages they give us to read are too bite-sized.)
The difficulty I had, however, with the fig tree story was not merely the fact that SU had chopped it in half. Two specific aspects of the story struck me because I found them to be confusing. And one of the observations to make whenever reading the Bible is to look for something striking. (Are you using the “treats” acronym—TRTS—to help you remember the four kinds of observations to keep your eyes open for? The S stands for something striking.)
The first aspect of the story that struck me was that Jesus got upset with the fig tree’s lack of fruit—and yet Mark tells us that “it was not the season for figs.” (Mark 11:13) So, did Jesus have unrealistic expectations of this tree? Was he being unfair in his judgment of it?
This is when it pays to have an NIV Study Bible with explanatory footnotes. In fact, the first thing to do when you come across something striking in a text is to see if there is a footnote in your Bible that illuminates the matter. In this case, the footnote explains that, although most fig trees around Jerusalem don’t produce fruit until June of each year, there are exceptions to this rule. The fig tree that Jesus encountered appeared to be one of these exceptions—lots of healthy-looking leaves—but upon closer inspection it was barren.
There was a second aspect of the story that struck me—even bugged me. Jesus’ cursing of this tree (v.14) seemed a bit extreme. Almost embarrassingly so. Was this a mini-tantrum on Jesus’ part? He wanted a snack, the fig tree didn’t satisfy his whimsical desire, so he used his super-power to nuke it? Did I read that correctly?
Back to the footnotes in the NIV Study Bible: “Perhaps the incident was a parable of judgment, with the fig tree representing Israel. A tree full of leaves normally should have fruit, but this one was cursed because it had none. The fact that the clearing of the temple is sandwiched between the two parts of the account of the fig tree may underscore the theme of judgment.”
Aha! Jesus wasn’t just kicking the side of a vending machine that had taken his coins and then failed to produce a Snickers bar. He was acting out a parable. He was warning us not to be the sort of people who give the appearance of being spiritual, but who are not producing fruit.
Once I got Jesus’ point, the story that had initially bothered me now hit close to home. Am I like that fig tree? I show lots of leaves—church attendance, Bible study group participation, tithing, serving in ministry, squeaky-clean moral character? But am I lacking in fruit? Where are the people who are finding new life in Christ as a result of my sharing the gospel with them?
There is a big difference between spiritual activity and spiritual productivity. The former produces leaves. The latter produces fruit.
Jesus’ fig tree encounter challenged me to evaluate how I’m doing in the fruit category. I recommitted to praying with greater consistency and fervency for my lost friends. I put a “Canning Hunger” date on my calendar for this month (i.e. when Sue and I connect with neighbors by going door to door and collecting canned goods from them for the local food pantry). I determined to whom I’m going to give a gift-Bible as part of Christ Community Church’s “Spread the Word” outreach this Christmas season. I started looking again for people to talk to when I’m working out at the health club.
I want fruit—not just leaves.
Recently, I was meeting with the worship planning team of Christ Community Church and we were discussing the lyrics of a new song that a member of our group wanted to teach the congregation. We have a number of criteria that a contemporary song must meet before we’ll add it to our worship list. The words have to be biblically sound, the tune must be sing-able, the theme should be God-centered and not me-centered.
And we don’t want any burritos. One of the guys on our team used this designation a few weeks ago to describe the weakness of a song that was being considered. Although the song’s lyrics were biblically accurate, they were all over the place. There was no focus to them. A couple of us were struggling to put into words exactly why we didn’t care for the song when somebody summed up our misgivings by saying: “It’s a burrito. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
Now, I happen to like burritos—the edible kind. Especially if they’re from Chipotle. But I’m not so fond of burrito worship songs. I prefer coherence when I’m singing praise to God. When a song keeps a single, unified theme about God in front of me—instead of bouncing around to 37 unrelated truths—it deepens my appreciation of who God is. It focuses my worship.
This is what the writers of narratives do in Scripture. Their stories typically present one central theme to us. So, the unfortunate result of reading these stories in bits and pieces—as we’ve been doing with Joseph’s story in Genesis 37-50—is that we sometimes miss the overarching truth that’s being communicated. We don’t see the forest, as the saying goes, for the trees.
As we conclude the book of Genesis today (assuming that you’re following the Scripture Union daily Bible reading schedule which this blog tracks), let me ask you to step back from all the individual insights (i.e. trees) you’ve gleaned over the past two and a half weeks. What has been the all-encompassing theme (i.e. forest) of this story?
I hope you just said: God’s sovereignty. God is large and in charge. God has a plan for our lives and nobody can thwart that plan. Time and again people wronged Joseph (his brothers, Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar, Pharaoh’s forgetful cupbearer), but that didn’t stop God from blessing Joseph and using him for great purposes.
Just in case we’ve missed that theme, Moses (the author of Genesis) runs it by us one last time in the closing chapter of this book. Joseph’s brothers are worried that he will take revenge against them for all the wrongs they’ve done to him. What’s Joseph’s response to their anxiety? He says: “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50:19, 20).
Notice how Joseph’s stranglehold on the sovereignty of God enabled him to deal reassuringly and kindly with these trouble-making brothers. That’s the true test of whether or not we truly believe that God is in control of our lives. When we can treat those who’ve offended us with grace, it’s proof positive that we believe God is causing everything to work out for our good—even the mischief of our antagonists.
I hope you (and I) have a firm grasp of that truth—the central theme of the Joseph story—as we move from Genesis to Mark in our reading this week. And speaking of Mark, this is a good time to remind you of the C in the COMA Bible study method. C stands for context. Whenever we begin reading a new portion of Scripture, it’s important to discover the historical setting of the text. This is easily done by reading the Introduction to that particular book in an NIV Study Bible (or some similar study Bible).
So, before you read the first passage in Mark tomorrow (which begins in chapter 11), take a look at the Introduction to Mark. Who wrote this gospel? What is its major theme (and how does that differ from the themes of the other three gospels in the Bible)? When was Mark written (contrary to Dan Brown’s conclusions in The Da Vinci Code )? And so on… You’ll get much more out of Mark if you’ll begin with its context.
I look forward to spending the next couple of weeks with you in the second half of this action-packed biography of Jesus.