The “hidden fees” of emotional debt (Matthew 18:28-35)

Financial debt is easy to quantify.  If you damage my property, justice comes when you pay what you owe.  But what about things that can’t be monetized so easily?

We spoke yesterday of “emotional debt,” the pain that accrues from being hurt or betrayed.  For some offenses, a simple apology won’t cover it.  The legal system has tried to put a price on this by pursuing litigation (and compensation) for “pain and suffering.”  I communicated briefly on this subject with our own A.J. Serafini, who said that it’s customary to ask for 2-3 times the physical damage to cover pain and suffering.  While I don’t doubt that financial restitution can’t improve one’s quality of life, I doubt that this brings genuine release from one’s emotional debts.  Take, as an extreme example, families who seek closure in watching a family member’s murdered get executed.  Common sense tells us that yes; those family members witnessing this event will find a renewed peace in seeing justice meted out.  But contemporary research from Stanford University says that the opposite is often true.  Families may feel re-victimized by witnessing such a traumatic event.  For others, the protracted wait from sentencing to execution may seem like justice deferred—and effectively denied.  For still others, a relatively painless death seems too convenient a price for the suffering caused by a hardened killer.

Now, most of us may—thankfully—never need to endure this level of emotional debt.  But like the debtor in the parable, we may feel like someone out there owes us something.

Take a moment to re-read the fallout of the debtor:

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:28-35)

Why would God’s forgiveness depend on our willingness to forgive another?

Like the debtor, we want to see our offenders experience pain.  And pain usually travels downward.   We “distribute” the emotional debt by entertaining private thoughts of revenge, or feeling the need to “warn” others about that person’s potential actions.

In short, we’ve made forgiveness entirely conditional on our private sense of justice.  But here’s the point of exploring the whole topic of pain and suffering: it’ll never work. Even in the most extreme examples, we fail to find the closure we seek.

That’s why Jesus says that failing to forgive leads to a failure to be forgiven.  Why?  Because if I make forgiveness dependent on a moral code, it reveals that I never really understood the gospel at all.  The gospel promises salvation through God’s grace—through what Christ did.  To make forgiving others based on anything less than that only reveals hearts that seek to deal with emotional debt without God.  So Jesus isn’t saying: “Forgive or you’ll be punished.”  No; Jesus is saying: “Have it your way.”  Try and manage your emotional debt, and you’ll spend a lifetime hurting another human being while receiving no satisfaction in return.  Look to the cross for personal forgiveness and relational justice, and you’ll find a renewed capacity for love.

 

 

 

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“…to forgive is divine” (Matthew 18:23-25)

If you grew up in a religious environment, then you surely were encouraged toward a spirit of forgiveness toward others.  Many religious systems emphasize forgiveness—usually as a part of a larger moral code.  Even if you’re not an overtly religious person, you’ve probably been encouraged to “be the bigger person” when confronted with the hurtful actions of another.

Jesus likewise encourages limitless forgiveness.  But what’s interesting is that in the context of Matthew’s biography of Jesus, we’re not explicitly told how to forgive.  Sure, Jesus describes a process of restoration and discipline.  But when it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is less concerned with the “how” and much more concerned with the “why.”  Why forgive?  Jesus’ parable illustrates how the gospel shapes the reason and the way we forgive:

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. (Matthew 18:23-25)

We might pause here just to chew through some cultural background.  The system of servitude most likely was patterned after social laws and order established in Egyptian culture under the Ptolemies—or at least Rome likely borrowed from their practices and this became a cultural standard.  Under this system, if a servant could not pay, the king had only one option to recoup a loss: sell the debtor into slavery.  But all our source material tells us that even the most expensive slave sold for only one talent—and the king could not possibly sell the man 10,000 times.

How much was a talent, you ask?  Good question.  In his recent commentary on Matthew, Craig Keener helps us understand the math:

  • 10,000 talents would have been equivalent to 60-100 million denarii, which would have been the equivalent of 30-100 million days’ wages.
  • This means that 10,000 talents would have been worth roughly 1.5—5 billion S. dollars
  • For the king to sell the servant, he would still have been at a loss of several billion dollars.
  • Keener estimates that the combined resources of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea was around 600 talents. Therefore the man owed the king more money than what was in circulation in the entire country.

However, as Keener also points out, in an agrarian society, there would have been little—if any—need for large numbers.  10,000 was the largest number they had back then, so it’s equally possible that Jesus was exaggerating.  He may have even been trying to be a bit humorous in showing the contrast between the debtor and the man we’ll meet in the next few verses.

26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  (Matthew 18:26-27)

The king must by this point seem equally crazy to forgive such a massive debt.  But it’s also why the forgiven debtor’s next actions seem so appalling:

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. (Matthew 18:28-30)

Let’s do the math again.  The debtor had been forgiven several billion dollars.  Now, in the system of the Ptolemies, if you were forgiven your debts by a superior, anyone beneath you was required to be released from their debts as well.  The debtor probably knew this, but still tried to get some money from his fellow servant.  How much was 100 denarii?  A lot less than 10,000 talents, that’s for sure.  Keener puts it at 0.2 talents, or about 30,000 U.S. dollars.  That’s still a lot, but let’s remember that it’s 500,000 times the amount he was forgiven!  And while the king had tried to sell the debtor, the debtor now inflicts physical harm on his fellow servant.  Maybe—just maybe—it wasn’t really about the money.  Maybe it was about feeling in control.

31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:31-35)

Can we “monetize” hurt?  We may try; we can even sue for “pain and suffering.”  But it’s impossible to truly deal with the kinds of hurts we endure.  We can cover them over, but the hurt bleeds through every time.

In recent years psychology has taken to calling this “emotional debt.”  When someone hurts us, we feel a sense of internal burden.  What do we do with that burden?  Like the unforgiving debtor, we shift our pain downward—or at least outward.  We try and spread it around.   But, says traditional religion, we shouldn’t feel as bad as all that. We should forgive; it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?

In the absence of grace, in the absence of the cross, such forgiveness is impossible, because no one is equipped to deal with this emotional debt.  We can forgive, but now we’re forced to pay the debt ourselves.  How?  When we choose to forgive rather than run someone down, it hurts.  When we choose to wish that person success and not failure, it hurts.  When we choose to not hold a grudge, it hurts.

On the cross, Jesus absorbed all our debt—spiritual and emotional.  This means two things.  First, it means that like the unforgiving debtor, I am forgiven the enormous magnitude of debt in the eyes of God.  But second, I may look to the cross as a source of justice.  If I have been wronged in some way, I may rightly recognize that my offender deserves to pay for what he or she did.  The gospel says that instead of God taking the blood from my offender, he offers his own through Jesus.  So if I crave justice, if I crave satisfaction, I may look to the cross to find it.  But that also means that I no longer look to my offender to make absolute payment for his offense.  We’ll talk in the coming days about the role of earthly justice and repentance, but for now we rightly stand before the cross in awe of the mercy extended to both ourselves and others, a mercy that flows down to mingle with our tears and wash clean our pasts so as to clear a way for our futures.   Religion makes forgiveness necessary, but it is only the cross that makes forgiveness possible.

 

“To err is human…” (Matthew 18:15-22)

Pop quiz: What emotion tends to “go viral” most frequently?  If you remember from a few weeks ago, things “go viral” when they get shared through social media and email.  We might share news stories, videos, short pieces of writing, etc.  So if we survey all that, what emotion has the best chance of spreading throughout the internet?  Is it happiness?  Sadness?  Humor?  It’s anger, at least according to recent reports from the Smithsonian Magazine.  In 2014, Matthew Shaer reports:

“Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, reached a similar conclusion after conducting a study in the United States. “Anger is a high-arousal emotion, which drives people to take action,” he says. “It makes you feel fired up, which makes you more likely to pass things on.” (Matthew Shaer, “What Emotion Goes Viral the Fastest?” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2014)

Anger—particularly reactions to perceived injustice—seems to thrive when shared.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with anger, necessarily; it would be troubling if we responded to injustice or offense with indifference.

Jesus understood that as the church increased, so too would the opportunities for hurt and betrayal.  So Jesus outlined for his disciples a general method for dealing with pain within the church:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

Today we call this “church discipline.”  Now I know what you might be thinking, but “discipline” in this context isn’t about punishment but about restoration and keeping the community intact.  Still, the idea of having to bear with one another must have seemed a bit troubling to Jesus’ followers.

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him,“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

In some ancient cultures, the number seven was conceived of as bearing special significance.  So Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to keep a journal; he was telling them that their forgiveness should be limitless.

That’s hard.  After all, there are some things that can be forgiven through an apology and some sort of restitution.  If I wreck your car, then I owe you the cost of the damage.  But not everything can be so neatly measured in dollars.  What about things that can’t be fixed through a simple apology?  Relational betrayal, lies, manipulation—these leave us with what pop psychologists have started calling “emotional debt.”  We feel better when we can distribute this debt around: we might run down that person in front of other people, we might vent our frustration to close friends, we might fantasize or wish for their unhappiness—or worse.  In 2009, you might recall the scandal surrounding the South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.  His affairs were quite public, as was the emotional toll on his wife, Jenny.  In September of that year, Vogue magazine ran a feature story on Jenny Sanford, though you’d have to skim to the end to really see the fruits of Jenny’s faith start to emerge.  Regarding the affair, she said:

“If you don’t forgive…you become angry and bitter. I don’t want to become that. I am not in charge of revenge. That’s not up to me. That’s for the Lord to decide, and it’s important for me to teach that to my boys. All I can do is forgive. Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife. Now I think it’s up to my husband to do the soul-searching to see if he wants to stay married. The ball is in his court.” (Rebecca Johnson, “Notes on a Scandal,” September 17, 2009, Vogue)

Jenny’s courage and character are equally admirable, as his her admission that forgiveness is part of a larger, lengthier process.

As Christians, we are called to forgive one another.  The natural question is: “How?”  But that’s what makes the parable Jesus tells—that is, the parable we’ll be looking at this Sunday—so unusual.  Jesus doesn’t go on to explain a method for forgiving others; he goes on to explain the basis for forgiving others.  See, it’s easy to say: “Forgive others because the Bible says so,” or to insist on forgiveness as part of a larger moral code.  Many religions have exactly that.  If that’s true, what becomes of our “emotional debt?”

Come along with us on Sunday as we explore the answer—though for now let’s pause and ask God’s Spirit to search our hearts for any unconfessed or unaddressed anger, that we might pursue healing first of all for ourselves, and second to step toward healing in our relationships.

 

 

 

 

The Challenge of Going “All In” (Matthew 13:44-46)

It is one of my most vivid high school memories. I was with a group of guy friends from my school and we were at a local fair in the summer. There frankly was not a lot to do at it but hang out, but then some of them got the idea that what we should do is randomly pick up a bunch of girls and go drinking somewhere else. They proceeded, with some success, to begin to do this. I was certainly not going to be a part of that and told them I was just going to walk home. One of them said to me that I was a fool to not be a part of their fun and that I did not understand what I was missing. Though I did not doubt the appropriate nature of my choice, I so very clearly remember the lonely walk home and the feeling that I was just terribly out of step with the values and culture around me.

I’ve continued to be out of step most of my life.

This is our final day on the theme of being “all in” with our faith commitment, and hence our final day with the two parables we’ve been considering from Matthew 13:44-46 …

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

Since I’ve bludgeoned you with the main idea on Sunday and over the last three days of writings, you know that the main idea is this: The Kingdom of God – and your connection with it – is of such inestimable value, that it is actually worth you giving up everything for it.

But there is a challenge when you make that commitment to jump fully in that direction, and we could state the problem this way: Most of the people around you in the world are going to think you are nuts to make God’s Kingdom your “all in” priority.

In the same way that you don’t understand why someone’s “all in” fascination in life is going to a comic book collectors convention in downtown Detroit, or to Antarctica to search for a mysterious flock of albino penguins, the world will not understand your highly-driven values system that emphasizes a spiritual reward that is not ultimately of this material world. It will make no sense to them. They only understand those things that are a part of keeping score – the measurable stuff like dollars, job titles, and McMansions.

Whereas in today’s world, on the one hand, personal spirituality is fashionable, being one of those “born again” Christians won’t win you a lot of friends or wide respect.

Many people come to the Christian faith for the “perks.”  We come to Jesus with a list of things we’d like help with:

  • Will Christianity provide me with all the personal educational and career directions I need?
  • Will I have better and deeper friends? … that one friend for life?
  • Will my faith help me avoid suffering and pain, sickness and disease?
  • Will my faith propel me toward financial stability?
  • Will Christianity provide me a way to raise a successful family?

And of course the answer to many of these questions might well be “yes.”  But the problem is, the “perks” of Christianity can’t outweigh the increasing social stigma of being a person of faith in today’s post-everything world.  Yes, Jesus might provide a means by which I feel spiritually/emotionally/relationally secure, but is it worth it when my neighbors think of me as a religious fanatic?

  • If you identify as Christian, you may become pigeonholed as homophobic or judgmental.
  • You may be increasingly labeled as transphobic for expressing concern about the gender of your bathroom at work.
  • In a world of increasing pluralism, we turn on our television to see ISIS members surrounding Christian missionaries while—at the same time—to speak disparagingly of Islam is to be labeled “Islamophobic.”
  • You might be compelled to either bake a cake for a marriage you don’t agree with—or be forced to lose your business, pay a fine, or worse.
  • You will increasingly be told that your beliefs are unwelcome in any form of public dialogue.

Surely there is now a greater cost to following Jesus.  We can no longer follow Jesus solely because it is “useful.”  Instead we follow Jesus because in him we find an inestimable treasure—one that provokes us to set aside our finances, our hopes, our dreams, everything—in order to follow him without reservation.  In a world that calls us to “diversify our portfolios”—to be men and women of broad interests but little depth—Jesus calls us to go “all in.”

Some final thoughts/discussion questions …

How may we find encouragement in such a context where our “all in” commitment positions us as such a minority in our world?  How does the church, and having a church family, factor into this?

Pearls about Pearls (Matthew 13:45-46)

When my oldest son – an international business major in college – fell in love with a girl with a beads jewelry making hobby and decided to turn that into an importing, mega-business retail chain, I said to him, “Are you crazy? What market is there for that? Who in the world buys stuff like that? You can’t make a living selling little beads!”pearls pbc

His answer was to say that beads jewelry and the wearing of valuable gemstones and accoutrements was a timeless passion that probably went back to the beginning of mankind. For example, remember Wilma Flintstone? What did she always have around her neck but a necklace of large gemstones! Since Fred worked in a quarry, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t wearing pearls.

However, natural pearls have been valued over the millennia for their symbolism of beauty and purity. Originally from the Persian Gulf, they are not really available much anymore. What you can get at Potomac Bead Company are cultured fresh water pearls or imitation glass bead pearls. Still beautiful, but not the same as the type of rare pearl spoken of in this parable by Jesus in Matthew 13:45-46…

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

As we wrote yesterday, the single main idea to take away from the story is that God’s kingdom is of such value, that it is worth giving up everything to have and possess it … just like the merchant was willing to risk everything on the one pearl of incredible value.

There is nothing new about this calling from God to such a depth of commitment. In fact, it is what God has always honored, and it is what He rewards as true greatness of faith. It is timeless.

This is also the big idea of Hebrews 11, that great chapter that talks about those whom God, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, included in His Word about those who were commended for being “all it” in terms of their faith and obedience.

Consider a couple of these all-stars …

Noah – He is described as both as “righteous” and “pleasing to God.”  Noah responded to an unseen calamity, acting out of faith in God.  BUT, He was surely mocked for this belief, year after year while exchanging a normal life for building a boat in a place where it had never flooded and possibly had never even rained to make a flood! The ark may have taken 120 years to build.

Abraham – He was originally a pagan in his homeland of Haran, when he was called to leave behind everything he knew and was comfortable with and go to a land that he did not yet know about.  Sarah, also, was given the miraculous ability to conceive despite her age.  For Abraham and Sarah, unexpected fertility (and the sheer number of their progeny) was the sign that God had the power to do what He promised He would do.  BUT, there were obstacles all along the way – from his own family, the offering of Isaac, to that of those who attempted to thwart God’s plans for him. But he pressed on without seeing all of it come true in his own lifetime.

Joseph – He saw in God-given dreams a future that involved blessing for himself and the entire family of Jacob. But, he was unjustly sent from a place of comfort to a place of despair, slavery and prison.

Gideon – When God comes to him and calls him a great and mighty warrior, he essentially says “You talkin’ to me?”  … “I ain’t seeing any blessing around here.” But God calls him to deliver Israel and gives him awesome signs and assurances. BUT, Gideon trades relative comfort for being a religious whacko.  Later, he is forced to exchange trust in the size of his army for an army of only 300 men—that is, to trust in God’s strength and not his weapons.

The writer to the Hebrews says it this way in his summary about these heroes of faith … these followers of God who saw the value of God’s kingdom as greater than anything this world had to offer …

11:39-40    These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

And then, turning the page to the next chapter (which the writer did not divide as chapters, that was done later)…

12:1-2    Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Really, it is pretty crazy to not go “all in” for God and value his kingdom and follow him. Yet we often find it hard to do. Why? What keeps you (or other Christians that you know) from being “all in” in terms of valuing Christ’s kingdom?

And finally too, what specifically does it look like practically to value God’s kingdom as something of inestimable worth?

Hidden Treasure – It Can Happen to You! (Matthew 13:44)

I often think that I live in a place where there has to be something valuable hidden in the ground. My house sits on the high ground that overlooks a crossroads intersection that has been there for centuries, one road of which goes to the #4 dam on the Potomac River and C&O Canal. Certainly the Union Army camped here during the Civil War. Someday I’m going to dig up a treasure!

Today we read a parable that Jesus told about a fellow who did just that …

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

So what would you do in ancient times if you possessed a lot of gold or currency or items of great value? Where would you put it – that is, if you’re not royalty with a palace and royal guards?

There is no local bank to take it to deposit in a vault and safe deposit box. You can’t buy an iron safe with a combination lock. No, you have to be creative in hiding things.

The next problem is who do you trust to tell about your secret place? A spouse, a child? Maybe you don’t get around to doing that, and BOOM – you’re dead! The treasure is lost in the ground where you buried it, and it may be generations later, if ever, that someone stumbles upon it.

So that is the set-up assumed in the parable. Presumably the treasure is not that of the current landowner, or else that person would remove the treasure before selling and turning over the deed to the property. The guy who stumbles across the treasure knows that to fully possess it, he must buy the land. And buying the land is going to take everything he currently owns. The only way it works is if he goes “all in” when buying. Holding back at all will cost him the greatest treasure he could ever imagine.

As I mentioned on Sunday, when interpreting parables, we should not try to make every last detail work out and have a one-to-one meaning with some teaching. The purpose of a parable was to rather communicate one or more big ideas by the illustration.

Here is the big idea: The Kingdom of God – and your connection with it – is of such inestimable value, that it is actually worth you giving up everything for it.

Few of us will be called upon to give up everything for the kingdom – though around the world even today, there will be some who will be killed for their Christian faith – but all of us can likely give up more and move more into the “all in” category.

In fact, some of us need to take several big steps – because we’re frankly too much on the edges of properly valuing our faith. God is good to have when special critical needs arise or when there is nothing more interesting to take us away from giving attention the God and the church community. But is the Lord really EVERYTHING to you? Is he your greatest possession and treasure? Would you be willing to give up everything you own?

You can dig up the greatest treasure ever. In fact, if you have come to know and trust in Christ, that is exactly what has happened in your life. And for many of you, you sort of stumbled upon it. It only looks like you found it, when in fact, it found you.

So value it for what it is, and let the value of it guide all the priorities and decisions of your life.

The Thing of Inestimable Value (Matthew 13)

A USA TODAY story in 2007 tells a story of something of inestimable value. It says:

The old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” took on new meaning — and a sick feeling of regret — for a couple who donated a rolled-up parchment document to a Nashville thrift store last year, only to find out this week that it was a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, likely to be worth six figures.

“I bought it at a yard sale … about 10 years, ago, I think,” said Stan Caffy, a pipe fitter who described himself as “the idiot who donated that Declaration you wrote about.”  He had it hanging in his garage for about a decade

Caffey read later that a man named Michael Sparks bought the Declaration from the thrift store for $2.48 and is ready to auction it off for $250,000 or more.

Caffy and his wife, Linda, married a little over a year ago, and as part of the ritual of combining households, she pushed him to clean out the garage, which had filled up with all sorts of extraneous things.

So the moral of the story is to never throw anything away; you never know what it might be worth. (I’m hoping Diana reads this!)

This story, along with the main ideas of the parables with look at this week, prompted me to open the sermon yesterday with a similar “what would you do it” kind of story …

What would you do it you were at a weekend yard sale on a Saturday morning. And there you saw a very old metal teapot that caught your eye, but you thought the price was really rather high for a yard sale.

Later that day you happened to flip past the “Antiques Roadshow” PBS program, and what do you see but the very same teapot being discussed. And you are amazed to find out that it is extraordinarily rare … that it was handmade by Paul Revere, and he was known to have only made five of them … so this teapot was said to be worth thousands of dollars.

Beyond that, the program’s expert host says that there is a particularly special one of these that has been lost to history … that it was a gift to George and Martha Washington, and that it would be worth an inestimable sum of money if ever found … and that their initials were on the bottom of it. And you recall when you handled the item earlier that there was writing on the bottom, and you’re pretty sure it was “GW and MW.”

What would you do?  Would you not return to that sale prepared to pay whatever they asked for it, just to have possession of something so valuable?

Again, here is the passage and parables from Matthew 13:44-46: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

We will get into some deeper interpretive efforts in the next two days, but it does not take a lot of deep digging to see a single main idea that comes from the passage: that the kingdom of heaven is of inestimable value.

Here is a question for you to start off the week: Can you think of anything that comes even close to being of greater inestimable worth than being “all in” in terms of valuing our relationship with God through Christ?  And a follow-up question: What are some things that some people believe to be of inestimable value?

When preaching or writing about a topic like this, I am sometimes struck by how difficult it is to come up with an illustration that even begins to scratch the surface of a topic that is related to the immensity of God or the awesome nature of His eternal plans and heavenly kingdom. Anything we come up with seems silly by comparison. BUT THAT IS THE POINT! There really is only one thing that is truly inestimable. And you can have it for free!

Going All In (Matthew 13:44-46)

In most of the endeavors of life that I have highly valued over the years, I have been an “all in” sort of guy. And I sometimes struggle to understand why others aren’t that same way.

For me, this was especially true in the sports realm. I could never understand why someone would not look forward to the coming season for months in advance, love every moment of every practice, and then not see the game or race as the next most important thing to life and death itself. I was so “all in” that, in retrospect, it probably hurt me from going further in the game of baseball. Before the game even started, the fact that the other team showed up and thought they could beat us had me already wound tight in a furiously overly-competitive mindset. It certainly did not help me be precise in pitching and hitting the corners of the strike zone.

To some degree, I’ve also maintained an “all-in” disposition on many other of life’s endeavors like education, academic interests, and a host of other associations – including the church.

But there are a few things I’ve joined that just don’t hold quite the same value as to drive me toward being “all in.”  Whereas I recognize the worthy value of a particular service club that I’ve been in for the past 20 years, I have never sought to be in the leadership circles of it. Other commitments have always pushed that level of participation well down the list of priorities of things accomplishable by one human being.

The idea of “going all in” is the theme of our week 4 focus for the summer series on the parables of Jesus – “Long Story Short.”  And today we set up this main idea in preparation for Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 13:44-46 and the following Monday to Thursday questions and comments for further contemplation and discussion.

Like last week, we are going to talk about two parables that take up only the space of three total verses. We look now at the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price…

Matthew 13:44 – “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

The big question that is coming at all of us from this study will be to gage if we are indeed “all in” on our commitment and valuation of Christ’s Kingdom. Do we see it to be of inestimable value – to the extent that we give our all and everything to it?  Are we willing to give up everything else for it?

You might say, “Hold it? Isn’t salvation the free gift of God?  What’s all this commitment and paying the price stuff about? Isn’t it all about what I get from Him, because I really have nothing to give?”

It is true that, in terms of how we gain relationship with Christ, we give nothing to obtain it. Even so, the life that we live is one of identification with him in a world that often (and increasingly so) despises Christ and the truth of the gospel and God’s authority. It is not always glorious, and indeed, it is often very costly in varied ways.

So, for the next week, I challenge you to be “all in” and about asking if you are really “all in.”

Of Loaves and Resistance (Matthew 13:33)

Some things just don’t “go viral”—not on their own, anyway.  The last time data was collected (which was December of 2014), an estimated 300 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube per minute.  That means that if you spend fifteen minutes reading this post, then by the time you are done there will be an additional 4500 hours of video on Youtube that was never there before.  If you work an 8-hour workday, that means you work roughly 2000 hours per year.  So—get this—if you want to watch all the video that’s been put on Youtube since you read this post, it would take over two years of full-time employment.

What does that mean?  It means that viral videos start as needles in a very large haystack.  But under the right conditions, they emerge and spread like wildfire.  Something similar happens with God’s kingdom:

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

In his analysis of this parable, Robert Farrar Capon writes that sometimes even our resistance to God’s will can ultimately lead to accomplishing God’s will:

“And even your negative responses—even your pointless resistances to the kingdom—interfere only with your own convenience, not with its working…Unless the dough is kneaded thoroughly—unless it resists and fights the baker enough to develop gluten and form effective barriers to the yeast’s working—then the gases produced by the yeast will not be entrapped in cells that can lighten the lump into a loaf.  Who knows, therefore?  Maybe even our foot-dragging and our backsliding—maybe even the gummy, intractable mess of our sins—is just all in a day’s leavening to the Word who is the Yeast who lightens our lumpishness.”(Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, p. 120-2)

Think about this for a second: can you think of circumstances in which resisting God has prevented God’s will from happening? 

For some the answer could be “yes,” though I suspect that resistance to God’s will only lasts for so long.  When Joseph confronted his estranged brothers—the ones who had jealously left him for dead before he became an official in Egypt—he told them “You intended to harm me, but God used it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Many religions stress the power of a god to overcome the will of the disobedient.  We might cite Islam—whose very name means “submission.”  Christianity emphasizes conformity to the will of God—yet never through force or manipulation.  Instead, God works his will through us—like the baker with the dough—so that through the process of life with God our rough spots, our tendency to resist can be tenderly kneaded into God’s kingdom program.

A Fungus Among Us (Matthew 13:33)

We’ve lived so long in the age of supermarkets that we forget what life must have been like for those who baked their own bread.  But for the pre-industrial world, baking bread is a skill necessary to human survival.  What makes bread “rise” is the presence of yeast.  Yeast, as you might know, is a fungus.  Not the most pleasant of words, but, well, that’s what it is.  When the yeast organisms get to work, they break down larger compounds (like sugar) and release carbon dioxide through a process called fermentation.  When this gas is released, the “pockets” of carbon dioxide cause the bread to rise and expand.

So…that’s what causes dough to rise? Fermentation?  Fungus?!?  Well, if you’re going to put it like that, then…yes; yes it is.  Drill down to the core essentials, and life rarely seems all that pretty.  But the process is necessary if you enjoy—I dunno—sandwiches, bagels, or pizza.

Jesus therefore uses this same process to illustrate the growth of the kingdom

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

By now you may be getting a bit sick of reading this one-sentence parable.  But let’s take a closer look.  In his book Thy Kingdom Connected, Dwight Friesen sees the “hiddenness” of the kingdom as “best understood in relational terms:”

“Interpersonal relational connections are rarely flashy events or big programs; rather, they are the relatively mundane stuff of life – connecting with your neighbor and bringing them a casserole when a grandmother passes away, or building a friendship with the older man whose cubicle is next to yours.  Simply connecting while living in the way of Christ is how the kingdom of God transforms the world. (Dwight J. Friesen, Thy Kingdom Connected, p. 39-41)

Stop and think about this one: in what ways might you see the growth of God’s kingdom through relationships and community?

Like the process of fermentation, the details are rarely pretty.  Spend enough time with people, and they grate on your nerves.  We’re all a little broken, you see.  Some of us more than others.  And we’re all loved.  The church has rightly been called the “body of Christ.”  Alone we can do little—if anything.  Together we can represent the hands and feet of the Savior.  Living among one another gets us close to the (ahem) “fungus” of personality quirks and sinful vices.  But it’s also a chance to see grace grow and flourish between human beings.

And that process should cause all of us to rise.