Abimelek, Caesar, and Jesus

Scripture Focus: Genesis 21.2-24
22 At that time Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. 23 Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.” 
24 Abraham said, “I swear it.” 

Matthew 20.25-28
25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

Reflection: Abimelek, Caesar, and Jesus
By John Tillman

Abimelek was a pagan king with his own gods and sinful practices. His descendants would be Israel’s enemies. Yet, he is one of a very short list of people to whom God spoke directly in a dream. (Genesis 20.1-6) Abraham, by God’s command, prayed for Abimelek, blessed him, and lived under Abimelek’s rule, making a treaty with him.

Rulers are established by God, (Romans 13.1-10) but establishing does not mean endorsing. Far from it. Rulers, good or evil, are used by God for good purposes, but every ruler will be held accountable by God.

As the “watchman on the wall” is responsible for the lives of those he serves, (Ezekiel 33.1-9) leaders will be held to account for evil, injustice, and violence under their rule. Whether evil is done at their command, committed by their followers, occurs through negligence, or merely remains unpunished, God will judge rulers.

Jesus’ assessment of Roman leadership is true of our leaders today. Indeed, most democracies around the world looked with rose-colored, Western-centric glasses, to the Romans and Greeks for inspiration in founding modern governments. They saw the ideals but not the dirty business and corruption that Jesus knew up close.

The disciples and the crowds that followed Jesus constantly thought Jesus would take over the government. Even right up to the moment of the ascension, they thought, “Now. He’s going to tell us to fight for him now.” (Acts 1.6-9) They were wrong.

Believers today who feel a religious compunction to political violence are serving an idolatrous, man-made religion, not Jesus. 

They are not following the same Jesus who left his disciples politically powerless. They are not following the same Jesus who commanded his followers to wait for spiritual power instead of grasping political power. They are not following the same Jesus who commanded his friends to put down their swords and take up their crosses.

God’s people have lived peaceably under governments of all different kinds. God’s people have been faithful under rulers with vastly differing degrees of personal morality, honor, and respect for God. 

No matter the morality or immorality of our leaders, Christians are responsible to be servants of a different kingdom and to exercise power in the opposite way the world does. 

It is in serving that we will lead.
It is in suffering that we will conquer.
It is in dying that we will live.

From John: Writing this two days away from the inauguration of Joe Biden, tensions are high. Suspicions of violence are in the air. Personal friends and former ministry partners may be among those sympathizing with violence against the United States government. It has been a week of personal mourning and lament. We pray today that all believers would be citizens of peace, submitted to their governments in humility and grace. Only in the proclamation of the gospel do we have leave to obey God rather than men. In all other things, we submit. 

Photo Credit: Tyler Merbler from USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus said to us: “In truth I tell you, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” — Luke 18.17

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Genesis 21 (Listen – 3:59) 
Matthew 20 (Listen – 4:22)

Read more about Misleading the Least
Woe to leaders who mislead…cause others to stumble…manipulate…foment sin…lie and deceive…

Read more about Responding to Political Violence
It seems more and more Christians are willing to whitewash politically motivated violence as necessary self-defense.

Waking Up With Pigs

Scripture Focus: Matthew 19.7-10
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 
10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” 

Genesis 21.13
13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” 

Luke 15.16-17
16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!

Reflection: Waking Up With Pigs
By John Tillman

Moses (not God) “permitted” divorce and Abraham sent his “slave wife” away (in tomorrow’s reading) for the same reason. This reason was explained by Jesus generations later:

“Because your hearts were hard…”

God offers grace even for our worst, hard-hearted mistakes in which we misunderstand or disobey him. Abraham and Sarah sought solutions from their own culture instead of relying on God’s promise. They twisted God’s plan to justify sexual exploitation and their sin produced a “slave wife” and a “son of a slave.” 

Their hearts were hard. They did not believe God fully and they rationalized that the ends justify the means. Then their hearts became harder. When they realized their error, they rejected the evidence of their sin by sending Hagar and the child away. Though they hardened their hearts, God did not. God saved Hagar from her situation and blessed the child produced from her victimization.

Each time a person rejects God’s heartfelt invitation, their heart grows a little harder. Each time they look away from his outstretched arms, their sight dims. Each time they tune out his calls and cries to repent, their sense of hearing diminishes.

Even Christ’s disciples missed the point of his message. They thought the solution to the question about divorce was not to marry. 

“If we don’t marry, we don’t have to be soft-hearted.” 

How foolish. The solution is, instead, to become soft-hearted children like our soft-hearted God.

God deals with hard-hearted people throughout the Bible. God is consistently calling, pleading with the hard-hearted to return to him. He holds out love and kindness to coax them. He grants them mercy and grace if only they will return. 

Our hard-hearted errors can be redeemed by our loving God, but the better lesson to remember is that our hard hearts can be softened again. In humbling, shocking moments the hard-hearted can come to our senses like the prodigal among the pigs.

Have Christians awakened to find ourselves among a trampling herd of violent pigs? Are we shocked awake to the shame of our state? Have we recognized our hunger for the pods the pigs are eating? Perhaps, having a taste of the pods can finally turn our stomach and wake revulsion for our wrongdoing.

Let us return to our loving father, quitting the pig-sty, abandoning our stubbornness. Let us humble ourselves, soften our hearts, and return home.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Love the Lord, all you who worship him; the Lord protects the faithful, but repays to the full those who act haughtily. — Psalm 31.23

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Genesis 20 (Listen – 2:39) 
Matthew 19 (Listen – 4:04)

Read more about Seeking Righteousness
There should be a clear and recognizable difference in the way that Christians interact with social and political unrest because we are not a people of unrest.

Read more about Leaders Against Oppression
May we work to ensure that the powerful are warned not to be abusive. May we live in such a way that others will not be dispossessed.

Misleading the Least

Scripture Focus: Matthew 18:6–9
6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Reflection: Misleading the Least
By John Tillman

The gospels record many times that people asked Jesus about “the greatest.”

There are religious debates about the greatest commandments, and multiple times, in many different settings, the disciples approach Jesus about, or are caught by Jesus arguing about, “the greatest.” (Matthew 18.1-3; 23.11; Luke 9.46; Mark 9.34)

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven…
Can my two sons sit in the greatest seats…
Which of us is the greatest…
We want to know, don’t we?

Jesus definitively stated that the greatest in the kingdom are the least, the lowest, the small, the “little ones.” Jesus used a child in this example, but there is a different Greek word that refers to age. The word Jesus chooses, translated little, implies low status or being unimportant. 

The unimportant, Jesus says, are of the greatest importance, but we, like the disciples, don’t quite believe it. We want to be important, big, mature, strong, dominant. We want to win. In pursuit of importance and status, we grasp at power. We grasp at fame. We grasp at wealth. All the grasping we engage in to be the greatest, is meaningless—chasing after wind.

This is challenging enough to our sinful nature, but what comes next is more chilling, Jesus has a stark warning for the leaders of the little. To those leaders and influencers who through actions or words may cause “little ones” to stumble, comes one of the most graphic pictures of punishment to cross the lips of Jesus. If Christ’s metaphor about millstones had been carried out literally through history, there might not be room in the oceans for the millstones and the irresponsible leaders tied to them by the neck.

Woe to leaders who mislead. Woe to influencers who cause others to stumble. Woe when we manipulate rather than educate. Woe when we foment sin rather than form spiritual morality. Woe when we lie and deceive rather than unfailingly cling to the truth.

Have we caused others to stumble? If so, how?

By being an example of greed or any other sin? By spreading a lie? By keeping silent in the face of injustice? By sharing an inflammatory post? By provoking others? By being purposely insensitive? By manipulating people?

May we repent of any of our actions or words that may have caused others to stumble. It is better for us to cut those actions out of our lives than to cause harm to others.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. — Psalm 96.12

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Genesis 19 (Listen – 5:33) 
Matthew 18 (Listen – 4:25)

Read more about The Seductive Idolatry of Politics
Politics is the most powerful new religion of this millennium…When forced to choose between country, or party, and Christ, we must choose Christ.

Read more about Lament the Fall of Leaders (Even Bad Ones)
The removal of a bad leader is often like the lancing of a boil or a surgery to remove cancer.

For Sustainable Cultivation—Guided Prayer

Scripture Focus: Matthew 15.13
He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.”

From John: Yesterday and today, we are looking back at some posts from 2019 about the spiritual work of cultivating a deep spiritual life of growth and discipleship. 

Reflection: For Sustainable Cultivation—Guided Prayer
By John Tillman

A growing faith that produces a sustainable harvest is one that is cultivated.

Faith that produces harvest is supernatural. It has a purposeful and planned rhythm. It starts with the destruction of clearing obstacles. It continues with protection and tender care for the young plants. It multiplies with growth and harvest that is shared among community. It propagates through seeds of knowledge, passed on for the next generation of growth.

As we conclude (for now) our series on cultivating faith, we pray over our hearts (our fields) some scriptures from today’s readings.

A Prayer to the Sustainer of Faith
Oh, God, planter of the first garden, cultivator of all creation,
We ask you to teach us to cultivate our hearts.

Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
   their teachings are merely human rules.’”

We do not want our hearts to be far from you, Lord.
We do not wish to cultivate a system of human rules,
But a harvest of the fruit of your Spirit.

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.

You have taught us, Lord, that the fruits of our actions spring from our hearts.

Our hearts are the fields that we must till and tend.

He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.

Help us, Lord, to resist the urge to weed someone else’s field.

We pray that you would send us, Lord, first into the field of our own hearts.
To pull up the stones.
To burn out the crops of selfishness.
To pull up by the roots our callousness.
To nourish the good seed of the gospel.
To share the harvest in celebration.

Only then, Lord, will be able to give freely to our neighbors of the seed that you have planted in us.

We echo the cry of the outcast Syro-Phonecian woman, Lord.

Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!

We are desperate for a crumb of the harvest of the gospel.
And we long to hear you answer,

You have great faith! Your request is granted.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Search for the Lord and his strength; continually seek his face. — Psalm 105.4

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Genesis 16 (Listen – 2:18)
Matthew 15 (Listen – 4:23)

This Weekend’s Readings
Genesis 17 (Listen – 4:02) Matthew 16 (Listen – 3:43)
Genesis 18 (Listen – 4:59) Matthew 17 (Listen – 3:46)

Read more about Cultivation Requires Planning
Do you have a plan to cultivate your spiritual growth?

Read more about Cultivation Starts With Destruction
May the scripture help us to plow up and destroy the cultural idols, trends, teachings, and brands that hinder our growth.

Cultivation Must Be Learned

Scripture Focus: Matthew 14.16
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

From John: For the next couple of days, we will look back at some posts from 2019 about the spiritual work of cultivating a deep spiritual life of growth and discipleship. 

Reflection: Cultivation Must Be Learned
By John Tillman

Cultivation requires intergenerational transfer.

The first training schools for ministers in the church were communities called, in Latin, seminarium, meaning “plant nursery” or “seed plot.” The root word (we just can’t escape agricultural metaphor) also gives us the word semen, the literal “seed” of humanity; seminal, implying an original source of thought or work; and, seminar, a focused time of learning.

Spiritual wisdom and knowledge, like agricultural knowledge, must be passed on, with its seeds, from one generation to the next.

I learned to shell purple-hulled peas (a more flavorful cousin to black-eyed peas) because I sat on a porch with my family and shared in the work before sharing in the meal. Many of us learn agricultural knowledge from a loved one. We learn to tell if a fruit or vegetable is ripe, how and when to prune roses, how to properly root a cutting of a plant, or at what depth to set bulbs in order to have blooms at the proper time.

In individual, cultural, or generational isolation, we lose the ability to transfer or receive knowledge. And in one-way relationships, there is no ability to contextualize knowledge, to discuss it, or to practice together how to live it out. This is why one of the most rewarding parts of The Park Forum is when I hear from readers, and discuss what has challenged or encouraged them. 

There are limits to the level of community that is possible for a geographically distributed ministry like The Park Forum. Distributed communities, like long-distance relationships, require energy and investment to maintain. It is our hope that The Park Forum is a community tool, a seedbed, a source of cuttings that can be planted and rooted in your community.

More of us need to sit around biblical teaching, as my family sat around a bucket of unshelled peas, extracting the value from the harvest together, one pod at a time. When we share in the work of extracting the goodness of the land, we gain more than a harvest of nutritional content or monetary gain. We gain community.

Who is your community? With whom are you processing God’s Word? Who are the believers, older in the faith, from whom you are learning? Who are the believers, younger in the faith, with whom you are sharing what you have learned? 

*If you have not joined our Park Forum Cultivators Facebook Group, please see the description below and follow the link to join us there.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; knit my heart to you that I may fear your name. — Psalm 86.11

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Genesis 15 (Listen – 2:53)
Matthew 14 (Listen – 4:14)

Read more about Cultivation Is Supernatural
A stronger faith, and a greater crop yield comes when we invest in cultivation. Cultivation is not natural. It is supernatural.

Read more about Milk of the Word, A Precedent to Growth
It’s not that we are still drinking milk when we should have been weaned, but that we’ve never drunk it consistently.

Spur a spiritual rhythm of refreshment right in your inbox
By joining this email list you are giving us permission to send you devotional emails each weekday and to communicate occasionally regarding other aspects of the ministry.
100% Privacy. We don't spam.