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...many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. - Matthew 19:30 (NLT)
At the very moment the judge pronounced the sentence, a man in the courtroom gallery who was there to support his cousin on trial let out a loud yawn. Whether it was an involuntary function or a feigned jab at the judge or the system, the disruption earned him a ticket straight to jail for contempt of court. And six months in prison. His cousin who was on trial? He received probation and strolled out of the courtroom that day.
Was it just? Was it fair? It’s a relatively tame example for us in the midst of the tragic circumstances that have swirled around us in our culture for the past few weeks. And honestly, for much, much longer. Whether or not we can work our way toward a solution depends on you and me.
Sometimes, as we engage in the conversation, spending time in thought, seeking understanding, leaning in with intentionality, we can address problems. Social, societal, and otherwise. But when it comes to God’s Kingdom, no matter how much effort and attention we throw at our sin problem, we can’t ever be “good enough” to deserve what God has so generously given to us.
In a way that the world can never and will never provide for us, we are entirely accepted, secure, and significant—all because God sees our value and paid the highest price. He laid down His life for us.
Maybe we could move forward by doing much the same. Laying down our lives—in the form of our preference, our understanding, our opinion, our rights, our needs, our wants—for the sake of others. That’s how redemption happened for us in the face of our sin problem and separation from God. Maybe that’s how God starts the movement of redemption in every broken situation or circumstance we’ll face in this world. Let’s pray, and then be attentive and responsive to the ways God calls us to love, to lay down our lives for our friends, and even for people we don’t yet know. Rest assured: God can change the world around you as He works in and through your one and only life.
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he inquired. - Matthew 19:17-18 (NLT)
Rules are in place to clarify expectations of fair play, show us when we’re out of bounds, measure our progress, and define a win. They show us what is unfair and the kind of behavior that is appropriate. Rules clarify the objective—and help us know when we miss the mark. What’s acceptable versus what's unkind, inconsiderate, or unreasonable? How can we have clarity, reasonable expectations of players, and objective decision-making on what’s in- and out-of-bounds? Words like proper, unbiased, and equitable all resonate when we talk about fairplay.
But when we stroll up to Holiness personified… we almost don’t even need the rules to show us we’re way off the mark. In Matthew 19, the rich man saunters up to Jesus and challenges Him, “On which commandments do you want to spar with me, Jesus? Let’s compare notes…. I got this!” Really, now?
Do we really want to show off how closely aligned with Ultimate Right and Good we are? Romans 3 reminds us that the whole purpose of every single “rule” in the Bible added together is merely this: to show us we can’t do this “perfect obedience” thing, and that we desperately need grace.
How much can just about any reasonable person stray from what’s decent, right, and agreeably fair and equitable? Well, would you believe that, in a poll, 59% of managers surveyed said that a person’s looks mattered more than their resume? They asserted that it was better for someone to spend more time on their appearance than on the details in their application. It's absurd, right?
It's clear we live in a broken world. We suffer the effects of that brokenness on a regular basis. We are crushed by it—but we also contribute to it. There’s no one truly good… not one. And we can’t grow or mature enough to move beyond the position of need we all stand in. We need Jesus. Period.
“What do I still lack?” - Matthew 19:20 (NLT)
Ever tried to work your way in? When we adopted our son, I spent three years learning Bulgarian so I’d be able to connect with him. I love languages anyway, so it was a delight to understand the nuances of learning an entirely new alphabet, starting from scratch with a grammar that was literally foreign to me. And I made good progress. I connected with our interpreter and driver when we arrived in-country. I was able to navigate ordering food at restaurants, find what I needed at grocery stores, pass undetected with common pardon me’s, hello there’s, and see you later’s. With our interpreter leading the way, all was going well, and I was feeling more and more like I was welcome. Like I belonged.
Until one evening... I went out to grab dinner from a street vendor on my own. The pizza looked amazing… and tasted it, too. Aside from the bitterness of the experience it took to obtain it. I stepped up to the cart. Ordered in Bulgarian. And then, it happened. The vendor asked me a question... and I had no idea what he’d said. That’s when I was exposed. As an outsider. Someone who didn’t belong. He proceeded to make fun of me, a crowd gathered around us staring, laughing. He must have been quite the comedian because it just kept going and going. I didn’t understand his verbal abuse, but it was painful to weather the stares and laughter. I eventually realized he’d asked if I wanted a bag for my takeout order. People continued to delight in the mockery as I walked away.
I’d like to say I held my head up, took the high road, and gave the guy the same kind of grace I’ve been given. But I might have actually texted my praying friends and included a request for God to give the guy diarrhea. I’d made a poor human attempt to connect and belong. But there was just no amount of work I could have done to accomplish the feat of becoming an insider in a place, time, language, and culture where it was painfully obvious I was an outsider.
The five words in today’s text are a picture of pride at it’s finest. In a conversation with the God of the Universe, this man is like, “Requirements? Check! Is that all you got?” When we look at God’s standard of holiness, there’s not even a way to fake it until we make it. Perfection as the measuring stick will always expose our inherent imperfection. And again, we realize our desperate need for Jesus. His sacrifice. God’s gracious welcome.
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” - Matthew 19:21 (NLT)
You know who gets the unfair part of the bargain most of the time? God. Not only when we talk in terms of salvation and the sacrifice that was required to welcome us into His family. He got the hard end of that bargain, for sure. But He often gets our mere scraps… all the time, really. Doesn’t He? It’s like the Michaelangelo painting “The Creation of Adam”... have you seen it? The one where God is reaching out toward Adam, as far as His outstretched arm and extended finger can reach. And then there’s Adam… and isn’t he basically all of us? He’s facing toward God, arm kind of lazily extending toward Him, with no urgency... relaxed, limp, lackadaisical.
We can be a little half-hearted—even extremely ambivalent—in our pursuit of God. Investing time when it’s convenient. If we don’t have anything else going on, of course. Reaching out when we need Him, treating Him like some kind of genie in the lamp who will pop up to grant wishes at our disposal. Want to talk about not fair? God has given literally everything. Daily bread. The air we breathe. Let alone our salvation.
On a non-cosmic scale, we see this reflected in the way good parents love their kids who can't understand or appreciate the love that’s being given to them, the resources provided by their parents’ hard work. Even if they are grateful, they just can’t understand the depths of that love yet. We can see it, too, in the way a benevolent employer extends grace beyond what’s reasonable as they help young workers or people who need a second chance grow accustomed to expectations, boundaries, and accountability.
We don’t need to walk away from these realizations with a sense of condemnation. Please don’t do that. That’s not God’s heart. And it’s not our burden—God gets it. Jeremiah 9:3 says, “‘...they only go from bad to worse. They care nothing for me,’ says the Lord.” (NLT96) And in John 2:25, about Jesus, it’s said, “No one needed to tell him about human nature, for he knew what was in each person’s heart.” (NLT) And still… He loves us deeply and dearly. When we realize these truths and respond in gratitude, that’s when we’re starting to get it. When we pass along the same grace… NOW we’re growing.
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” - Matthew 19:26 (NLT)
I had lived almost 40 years of my life with a constant, underlying anxiety. I’d heard story after story from others about having their wisdom teeth removed. Now, dental anxiety is not uncommon. But I don’t really fear dental work. In fact, I have gotten to the place of asking for an extra shot of novacaine to ensure I won’t feel anything when getting a tooth fixed up (Pro tip: You can’t feel that second shot at all! Haha!) And yet… I still dreaded the day when a dentist would finally announce that my wisdom teeth needed to come out. Then, at one particular dental visit, the technician asked, “When did you have your wisdom teeth removed?”
“Huh? Uh… never...”
I don’t have wisdom teeth. Never did. What an unbelievable relief! Strike that off the list of concerns in life. I didn’t even know it was possible. But, as I think back, I’ve never heard a story from anyone in my family of origin about having wisdom teeth removed. Well, awesome!
Turns out my oldest daughter received the “gift” from me. You’re welcome. Merry Christmas(es) and Happy Birthday(s) for the rest of your life.
But, in a sad twist, my younger daughter got the wisdom teeth. From her mom, obviously. And they’re coming out soon. Would have already except for the quarantines and shutdowns. No. It’s not fair!
But there's one thing that’s not subject to the genetic roll of the alleles. It's an inheritance we pass along in an unbroken chain to everyone in relationship with us... all the way down the generations, until it’s spirituo-surgically removed by Jesus. That one thing? Our sin. The patterns that keep popping up. That anger problem, inherited from our family of origin and passed along to our immediate family. The abuse, the addictions, the manipulation, the raised voices, the passive aggression… and so many more examples. These chains can’t be broken on our own. Left to us, it’s impossible. But… with God? All things are possible.
The rich young ruler had a problem. And it’s our problem. And Jesus is the answer. Will you join me in kneeling right now—perhaps even physically, right where you are—and asking Jesus to remove that sin, that pattern, that problem that’s been travelling down the generations for who-knows-how-long? He wants to do that. And He can bring restoration and wholeness. Will you let Him?