Chapter 66 – Organized Religion and Obedience (Matthew 21:23-32)

organized religion

To obey all He’s commanded

To do all that He said…

Could I be called a Christian

And believe not His holy word

To take Him as my savior

And then refuse Him as my Lord

If I could not love the outcast

And am not burdened for the lost

If I fail to deny myself

And each day take up my cross

  • Steve Camp, “Could I Be Called a Christian?”, 1991

I saw a meme on Facebook not too long ago that said, “If you have a problem with organized religion, so did Jesus”. I loved it. While organized religion can do a lot of good in the world today, there’s also a lot of room for improvement. So it was in Jesus’ day. In fact, you can say that some of Jesus’ most combative clashes were not with sinners, but with the religious elite.

Here, in Matthew’s gospel, right after Jesus curses the fig tree, He enters Jerusalem and heads straight for the Temple to begin teaching. Some of the most powerful priests and pharisees in the city are there and they ask Jesus a question designed to trap Him: “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right?” (v. 23b – NLT). In truth, they wanted to show He was either a blasphemer or a weird fanatic. You see, all the religious leaders of His day were interested in was power and position. They wanted to hang onto both and they saw Jesus as a threat. Not much has changed in 2,000 years.

How does Jesus respond? He does two things. 1) He asks them a question in return: “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?” (v. 25 – NLT). 2) He tells them a story instead. A parable.

Now the question Jesus asked in return was also a trap, and the religious leaders recognized it. They huddled up together and talked over their possible responses. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn’t believe John. But it we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because our people believe John was a prophet” (v. 26). Here’s the rub: Both answers are true. John the Baptist’s authority was from Heaven AND he was a prophet. How can the religious leaders get the answer wrong? By not choosing either of them. Isn’t that typical of us? Jesus gives us a question and sometimes we go out of our way not to answer it. The leaders responded with an emphatic, “We don’t know” (v. 26), which may be the most truthful answer they could give considering their unbelief.

So Jesus basically say, since you won’t answer my question, I won’t answer your question. Then he immediately launches into a parable about two sons. The father asks one to do some work, and he says he won’t do it, but then later obeys. The father asks the other son to do some work and he initially says he will, but then doesn’t follow through. Jesus asks “Which one of the two obeyed his father?” They replied, “The first.”” (v. 31).  And they are right.

“The son who said he would obey and then didn’t represented many of the people of Israel in Jesus’ day, particularly the religious leaders. They said they wanted to do God’s will, but they constantly disobeyed. They were phony, just going through the motions. It is dangerous to pretend to obey God when our heart is far from him because God knows our true intentions. Our actions must match our words” (Study Bible, p. 1587). Are we like that? Are the people we follow like that?

I admit, I have a problem with organized religion because far too often it is exclusive, demeaning, hypocritical, judgmental, and nothing like Jesus. What’s more, it teaches others to be that way too. They claim to worship Jesus but their actions don’t match their words. I look at religious leaders of today like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr,, Paula White, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson and I don’t see Jesus in anything they do. To me, they remind me of the pharisees of Jesus’ day. They really worship money and power. And what’s worse, they encourage others to follow them in their actions of supporting corruption, lying, false prophecies, wishing harm on others, bullying, exclusion, and hatred. It’s disgusting.

Jesus summed up his little story of the two sons by saying, “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist showed you the right way to live but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.” (v. 31b-32 – NLT).

God Himself walked the earth over 2,000 years ago. He lived and taught a way we need to emulate daily in our lives. The question we need to ask ourselves everyday is are we listening to and obeying Him? Are we following Him? Because if we’re not…we need to stop calling ourselves Christians.

Chapter 65 – Fruitful Prayer (Matthew 21:18-22)

fruitful prayer

They say that I can move the mountains
And send them crashing to the sea
They say that I can walk on water
If I would follow and believe…

They say that love can heal the broken
They say that hope can make you see
They say that faith can find a Savior
If you would follow and believe
with faith like a child

  • Jars of Clay, 1995, “Like A Chid”

In this passage, we encounter Jesus and His disciples on the road back to Jerusalem. It is Tuesday morning in the passion week of the Christ. From a distance, Jesus sees a fig tree but as He approaches, He notices a complete lack of fruit in its branches and He curses it so that it quickly withers. The disciples are shocked, and Jesus launches into a mini sermon on the power of faith in prayer. He encourages the disciples to also have faith when it comes to petitioning God, citing that if they do not harbor doubt, they can do miraculous things such as hurling mountains into the sea. It’s quite a cornucopia of incredible statements that often get taken out of context.  But let’s start with the tree.

Jesus’ scrutiny of it would suggest it’s the time of year when the tree is supposed to bear figs, and yet there aren’t any. Not one. The tree is not doing it’s job. And Jesus tells it that it will never bear any fruit again, causing the tree to wither FROM THE ROOTS UP (Mark 11:20). This is a real life parable for the disciple’s benefit. It harkens back to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says you can identify a tree based on the fruit it bears (Matthew 7:15-20). “A good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit” (v. 18). So what kind of tree produces no fruit? A false believer. Someone who from a distance looks like their life is full of good works but who, upon closer inspection, bear no fruit at all. Jesus’ curse is not an angry outburst but a display of His feelings of religion with no substance. The apostle Paul would later write that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22), The bottom line of what Jesus is saying is that true believers will lead this kind of life while false Christians are better off withering away. “If you only appear to have faith without putting it to work in your life, you are like the fig tree” (Study Bible, p. 1587).

Then Jesus makes an incredible claim that His disciples too can accomplish such feats and more if they only have faith. It’s not a matter of quantity but of quality. What must they have thought? Were they taken aback? I probably would have been. But really, Jesus’ comments make perfect sense if we look at them in the proper context.

No, neither you or I are going to hurl physical mountains into the sea based on our say-so no matter how much faith we have. We could, if it was God’s will, but why would He seek for that to happen? No, but we can move spiritual mountains in our lives and in the lives of others. Cancer? God’s been known to answer that prayer in the affirmative. World Hunger? God is trying to answer that prayer through us – how much are you contributing to ending it? Did you know that our world can currently feed 10 BILLION inhabitants? There’s no reason for anyone to go hungry anywhere in the world if we have enough faith (and put our faith into works). Homelessness? Again, God is trying to answer that prayer – where do you come in? Hate and anger? How loving are we being as salt and light in the world these days? The list could go on and on.

I like the way my Study Bible footnotes put it: “Jesus, of course, was not suggesting that his followers use prayer as ‘magic’ and perform capricious ‘mountain moving’ acts. Instead, he was making a strong point about the disciples faith (or lack thereof)…This verse is [also] not a guarantee we can get something we want simply by asking Jesus and believing. God does not grant requests that would hurt us or others or that would violate his own nature or will. Jesus’ statement is not a blank check” (p. 1587).

In other words, in order to fulfill a request, that request must be made in-line with the values and principles of the Kingdom. How well do we know God and His values? The better we know Him, the more in harmony our requests will be with His nature and His will. And the more we will see Him working in our lives, the lives of others, our communities, and ultimately, our world. Now that, is fruitful prayer. Are we bearing fruit? If not, it may be better for us to wither away.

Chapter 64 – The End’s Beginning (Matthew 21:1-17)


“When the music fades and all is stripped away, and I simply come / Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart / I’ll bring you more than a song for a song in itself is not what you have required / You search much deeper than this through the way things appear / You’re looking into my heart…I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about you, it’s all about you, Jesus / I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I make it when it’s all about you, all about you, Jesus” – Matt Redman, “The Heart of Worship”, 1999.

The final week on earth for the man Matthew identifies as Jesus begins here in Chapter 21 with the event known as the Triumphal Entry. Basically, on His way to Jerusalem for a showdown with the religious leaders of Israel, the disciples are instructed to bring a donkey colt that has never been ridden before. Now I’m a city kid but I know it takes time to break wild animals so that they can be ridden.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a horse, a bull, a donkey, or something else. Only the experienced need apply for this job.

The amazing thing is that Jesus, a carpenter, should have very little experience with unbroken animals and yet He mounts and successfully rides the beast into the city of Jerusalem while a very large crowd basically goes bananas. The colt by all rights should be spooked by the rukus and leave it’s rider by the roadside, but it’s not and it doesn’t. What is the importance of this? Again, Matthew is pointing to this Jesus guy being the Messiah by quoting old testament prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9. Jewish readers of his gospel would recognize this intended theme and be forced to wrestle with it.

After all, the Jewish religious leaders of the day would refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. Later on in the week they would openly accuse Him of blasphemy when they were seeking to put Him to death. They feared Him but for all the wrong reasons; they should have feared Him as the incarnation of the Lord of Hosts but they mistakenly only saw Him as a threat to their power and influence. It’s a typical, myopic view of God by religious, but not spiritual, men.

This is the beginning of the end. And it begins on a particular high note with throngs of people hailing Jesus as the son of David and praising God in the highest. Cloaks were spread across the road. Palm branches were waving. This scene is most often reserved for a conquering hero on a magnificent steed. In a way, these people are ahead of themselves. This is the welcome Jesus should receive upon being raised from the dead. And why is He on a beast of burden? No one rides into battle on a donkey. But Jesus does, because He is a humble King.

Matthew does not go into it, but I can’t help wondering about Jesus’ whole reaction to this uproar. Was He pleased people recognized Him as the Messiah even if the religious leaders wouldn’t? Was He sad because He knew in just a few short days these same people cheering Him now would be calling for His death? Was He resigned to the rocky road ahead of Him? Whatever His state of mind, this is one of the few occasions where Jesus accepts the praise of the people who are acknowledging His glory. And if this Jesus guy is who Matthew keeps providing evidence to prove He is, then there’s a very good chance He’s coming back at some point in the future (John 14:3). I can only imagine what kind of Triumphal Entry will that be.

But Jesus’ day doesn’t end there. Matthew records another stunning event happening later that day or perhaps the next. It’s not very clear when it takes place, but what happens is monumental. The heading in my study bible for this section simply states “Jesus Clears the Temple”. But it was so much more than that.

Even under Roman rule, Jews were allowed to follow the Mosaic Law and offer sacrifices at various temple sites around Judea to atone for sin. It was obligatory and required. But what happened over time was that the process became institutionalized and monetized. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the guy who claimed to be the Son of God. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record that when He entered the Temple, He immediately began to drive out the people buying and selling animals, as well as overturning the money-changer’s tables, Basically, he wrecks the place and interrupts the sacrifices going on because He knows the whole process has lost it’s intended meaning. What good are these sacrifices really doing? The deeper point not stated outright, but which very well have been in Jesus’ mind, was that a permanent sacrifice was about to be made (by Him) so let’s start by cleaning house. What a better way to end the frustration of the worshipper and make a definitive statement on the sadistic commercialism that blocked one’s relationship with their Maker?

So we have a mighty King humbly entering the city that would later hand down His death sentence and once more trying to remove the obstacles between man and God. It’s a reminder to be wary of the acclaim that some give so freely one day, but do not live out in actions the rest of the week, as well as a lesson on how not to get in-between someone else’s worship of the Almighty. Kinda reminds me of the church, present day.

Chapter 63 – Seeing with Your Heart (Matthew 20:29-34)

eys heart

“He sat in the darkness at the edge of the road / He heard the crowd passing by but he couldn’t go / So he started crying like a child at the door / When they tried to quiet him, he shouted it more / I want to see! / Free me from this darkness sweeping over me! / I want to see! / Son of David, have mercy on me” – Ray Boltz, “I Want To See”, 1992

My physical eyesight is not the greatest. For a while, I could get away with only wearing contact lenses. But with age, fine print is often hard to decipher so glasses need to be brought in. Bi-focals, more precisely. And I hate it. Still, it’s better than being blind. I can’t imagine how upended my life would become if I were suddenly unable to physically see at all.

This Jesus guy in Matthew’s gospel has just finished giving a mini-sermon on how to be great in God’s kingdom by seeking to serve others with your life. As He and His disciples are leaving the town of Jericho (yes, that Jericho) with a large crowd in tow, two blind men seated by the side of the road began calling for Him to come over. The crowd tells them to be quiet but the blind men don’t listen. They only call out even louder. And Jesus, perhaps sensing a teachable moment, stops. He asks the two men what they want Him to do for them. Surprise, surprise – they tell Him they want to see, physically. Let’s stop there for a moment.

As we have seen in example after example throughout Matthew’s writing, Jesus has no problem with healing others. Story after story talk about Him healing the sick and the lame and the demon-possessed. He’s a one-man medicine hour show on the road. And He never rolls His eyes or turns people away or complains how He never gets anything in return. He just does what needs to be done. He;s a fairy god-mother on steroids. Nothing is impossible. But blindness? It was one of the signs of the Messiah.

Interestingly enough, these blind men don’t call Jesus by his birth name, but rather call out that He is the Son of David, the family line of the Messiah. They see exactly who He is with their hearts. And He responds. They may be blind but they know only the Messiah can heal them. And somehow they have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah without physically seeing any of His handiwork. Now that is great faith.

Of course, Jesus heals them. He reaches out and touches their eyes and instantly they can see. AND THEN THEY START FOLLOWING HIM. No goodbye to mother or father. No running off to see a world they hadn’t been able to see in years if ever before. They saw Him with their hearts and immediately followed. It makes me wonder how often I am like that.

I think it’s ironic that the blind beggars outside of Jericho knew Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah but the religious leaders of the day had absolutely no clue. They only saw Jesus as a threat to their power and station in life. They couldn’t open the eyes of their heart to the truth. Though they could physically see, and had in fact seen Jesus’ miracles time and time again, they were lost in a spiritual darkness that threatened to consume them.

The next stop after Jericho was Jerusalem and Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city. But as we will see in Chapter 21, that joyous occasion was short-lived. The very people who so enthusiastically welcomed Jesus into the city would turn on Him a few days later. The disciples would eventually scatter.  And the religious leaders would appear to have the upper hand. The spiritual darkness which burdened them would become a physical darkness over a hill known as Golgotha.

Chapter 62 – Others First (Matthew 20:20-28)

serve others

“Last night I turned on my tv and a preacher said to me / He said “Just send me a hundred dollar bill – God will bless you ten times, you’ll see!” / Some equate money with holiness, well my friend that is a lie / One man claimed God held him ransom; if he didn’t have enough he’d die! / But my life does not consist of all the things which I possess / Do you hear God’s call to faithfulness and not to success? / Give me justice” – Steve Camp, “Justice”, 1988

At some point in His earthly ministry, the mother of two disciples, James and John, comes to Jesus to ask a favor for her sons. She wants them to hold special positions in the Kingdom of Heaven. Even though Jesus says it’s not His place to make those decisions, when the other disciples find out about the request they are very upset. After all, they also want the honor of sitting on either side of Jesus when all is said and done. Isn’t that just so human of them (and us)?

For the past few weeks Matthew has been hammering away on this theme of who is the greatest in the Kingdom and Jesus has been patiently responding with the notion that the first will be last and the last will be first. It’s like He really wants us to get this message. You know the big megachurch just down the street? That’s not it. You know the pastor on tv who has millions of followers? He’s not it. The homeless guy on the freeway exit ramp who looks like he hasn’t showered in a month? Now that’s more like it. Go in that direction.

Jesus isn’t requiring us to become homeless or have poor personal hygiene. He’s just saying He is closer to those people than He is to the others. You want to gravitate towards the ones that society tends to leave behind: the foster kid, the lonely adult, the poor individual barely scraping by who relies on government assistance even though they work two or three jobs. The foreigner fleeing violence in their homeland. The socially awkward. The ones who have nothing to offer you. Those are the last who will be first in the Kingdom. And Jesus repeatedly says to His disciples (and to us): Pay attention to them! Love them! Help them!

Jesus doesn’t act surprised at the mother’s request. He’s not taken aback by it. But He doesn’t sugarcoat it either. He asks her, “Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering that I am about to drink?” (v. 22). He’s talking about His upcoming crucifixion and death. This mother doesn’t know it at this point, but she will be among those standing at the cross looking up at this man-God as He suffers (Matthew 27:56). Jesus is trying to tell her (and us) that first there must be hardship and pain before glory and reward.

So why are the majority of Christians so earnestly pursuing a life of peace and ease here on earth? I get it. It’s not fun. It’s not pleasant. It hurts. It takes from us – this thing called life. It costs us something. That’s not cool. So yeah, we do just about everything we can to avoid it and we focus on the heavenly or the divine instead of the real.

Jesus states it this way: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give His life as a ransom for many” (v. 25-28).

It’s all about servant leadership. That megachurch pastor – he may be a great speaker on Sunday mornings but does he go home to a seven figure residence? What kind of car does he drive? How expensive is his suit? None of that is servant leadership. Avoid it like the plague.

Instead, follow the person who regularly visits someone in prison; who serves a daily hot meal to the ones who don’t know where their next meal is coming from; who’s hands have grease on them from working on their neighbor’s car to get it running again so they can get to their jobs; who lives in a struggling neighborhood; who spends their free time visiting the sick and the lonely…

It’s not hard to find Jesus if you know where to look for Him. And in the meantime, let’s put others always before ourselves. I need this reminder just as much as anybody: Others first. He lived so.

Chapter 61 – Entrance by Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)


But nothing lasts, except the grace of God, by which I stand, in Jesus

I’m sure that my whole life would waste away, except for grace, by which I’m saved”

  • Keith Green, from the 1980 album “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt”


I think it’s a primary characteristic of human beings to be ungracious. It’s just a part of the fallen nature. I know I’m guilty of it. That sense of fairness and entitlement; forgetting how wretched I truly am left to my own devices. Jesus understood it and in Matthew’s gospel, the author records a parable the Christ tells right on the heal of His “the first will be last and the last will be first” statement.

The setting of the story is a vineyard where the owner goes out periodically during the day to hire more and more workers. Some start the day off at dawn. Some start the day at noon. Still others start work at three in the afternoon. Finally, there’s a last batch who start so late, they only work an hour in the vineyard. Yet when it comes time to pay the workers at the end, they all get an entire day’s wage. Unfair? Sure sounds like it. And the workers who began the day at dawn are upset. They worked more hours so they feel as though they should be paid more. They even take their grievance to the vineyard owner.  They forget some very key facts.

First of all, it’s a privilege to work in the vineyard. Second, each group agreed to work for what the owner deemed was fair. And finally, it’s His money. He can do with it as He pleases.  Who are we to complain? And yet it’s hard because we live in a society and culture that pressures us to “get our fair share”.

How does this relate to us? What if Jesus had used the concept of a family instead of a vineyard?

There are some of us who have been believers most of our lives. We gave our lives to Jesus as young children. These workers started at dawn. Some of us did not come to a realization of the truth until later on in our lives. And still others of us have lived a long time without the truth, only accepting it at the end. And this story has nothing to do with the workers and everything to do with God’s graciousness. In the end, we are all given more than we deserve – eternal life (a full day’s wage).

The point Jesus is trying to make is that entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is by grace only. The grace of what He would do on the cross for all of humankind. It’s His sacrifice (money) so He can apply it to anyone He wishes. As long as we work in the vineyard, We have to accept His invitation to work in the vineyard (become part of His family).

I’ve worked for a lot of employers in my life. Sometimes I’ve negotiated my own salary but most of the time I take what the employer is offering. At no time have I ever had a say in what other people get paid. That part is up to the employer. In the parable, Jesus is speaking to those who feel superior because of heritage (Jews), to those who feel superior because they have spent so much time with Christ (disciples), and to new believers (gentiles – the “johnny-come-lately” crowd). My study bible says we “shouldn’t begrudge those who turn to God in the last moments of life, because, in reality, no one deserves eternal life” (p. 1584).

We have no business feeling resentful at all as to how God distributes His grace, whether that manifests as acceptance of someone we deem as an outcast (homosexual) or as jealousy of what God has given another person.  What we need to be instead is grateful for God’s grace toward us and what He has given to us, both in this life and in the life to come.

One of the key characteristics of God is that He is generous and gracious, and as members of His family who work in His vineyard, we should continuously strive to imitate Him, especially with those who treat us poorly. Jesus ends His parable by reiterating his promise:

“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last” (v. 16). Dear Lord, help me strive to be last now. Help me to be generous and gracious like you. Amen.

Chapter 60 – The Rich, the Children, and the Greatest (Matthew 19:13-30)

children and riches

We are running in the human race

Where nobody wants to settle for second place

But we’ve got to run it at a different pace

‘Cuz the last will be first

And the first will be last

At the end of the human race

  • Steven Curtis Chapman, from the 1988 album “Real Life Conversations”


During his earthly ministry, wherever He went, Jesus was a people-magnet. That is to say, people flocked from all over to see Him, to hear Him, to be near Him. And while he welcomed all of them, it is safe to say that it was the children who really touched His heart. Look at the language He uses in referencing them:

Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (v. 14).

I don’t have children. But I’ve spent years working with them. And I have two of the greatest nephews I could ever ask for. While children are not perfect, they do tend to have a rather simplistic view of life. Things tend to be black and white. They believe without asking for mounds of evidence. And they love unconditionally. They have boundless compassion and also share with those in need. Finally, they have a strong sense of justice. I could go on. But all of these qualities are what Jesus is saying a true believer should have. What a contrast with our current political administration who separates families and places children in cages.

And what a contrast to the next character Matthew introduces: the rich young man. He comes to Jesus seeking to justify himself and his lifestyle. Jesus lovingly confronts him but also cuts to the quick. He tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor, then encourages him to follow. I think the next words in Scripture are amongst the saddest I have ever read. Matthew writes:

But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (v.22).

You see, Jesus has never been interested in what we have. Instead, he is passionately curious as to who we are, and how we are treating others. He comments that is it hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (v. 23) because we are weighed down by our riches. Our focus is on them and not on Him. Then He makes a curious statement about it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God (v. 24), Some people have taken this saying as an indication that rich people will never get into Heaven.

On the contrary, in Jesus’ day – along one of the major mountainous trading routes – there was a small passage referred to as the Needle’s Eye. Since a majority of trade was carried by camel, it was often difficult for the animal to get through this narrow passage loaded down with all of it’s goods. In some cases, the animal would need to kneel and be removed of it’s burden to pass. I think it’s the perfect metaphor to use to describe how a rich person has to come to a saving knowledge of the Christ.

The disciples are amazed at His teaching and ask, “Then who in the world can be saved?” (v. 25).After all, if anyone could be saved, in their culture, it would be the wealthy who were seen as being blessed by God. Not so, says Jesus, and His followers are astounded. Then, Jesus brilliantly shares that with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (v. 26). I love that. Remember, Jesus has the end game of the cross in the back of His mind when He is saying this. He knows He is the only hope for all humankind. With Him, all things, even salvation, is possible.

Finally, after stating that possessions are not helpful, I find it ironic that the disciples immediately ask what’s in it for them. After all, they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus – so what’s the payoff? (v. 27). I think if I had been Jesus I would have been tempted to at least roll my eyes at them and say, “Really? Haven’t you been listening to me?” But He doesn’t.

Instead, He paints them a picture of what is to come by saying their reward in Heaven will be a hundred times whatever they sacrifice now (v.29) in addition to inheriting eternal life. What a generous God. And then Matthew concludes this section of the story with words that often get ignored or overlooked:

But many who are greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then” (v. 30). It’s the perfect summary of what we have been talking about. Children – the least important citizens in Jesus’ day – considered to have the most important traits that believers are to imitate. Poor people – another branch of least important people in society – have the easier time getting into Heaven because their priorities are on things above, not on things below. Both of these groups will be the greatest in heaven. It will be the great reversal.

Where do you and I lie along this spectrum? Will we be child-like? Will our focus be on things to come? Where will our treasure reside?  The answers affect eternity.

Chapter 59 – A Hard Road (Matthew 19:1-12)


“Maybe my eyes can’t see

But you are surrounding me

Here in the wind and rain

The things that I know

Tender and sweet

Strong as my needs

I know the voice, I know the touch

Lover of my soul”

  • Amy Grant, from the 1995 album “My Utmost for His Highest”


The concept of marriage has been around since the dawn of humankind. In fact, when God was creating, everything was considered “good” until God got to the part of man being alone. That was the first thing God declared “not good” about His creation. So He took one of Adam’s ribs and made him a help-mate, Eve. And people have been coupling up ever since. But the reasons for marriage, in particular, the concept of marrying for love is relatively new.

While there are still places in the world today where marriages are arranged by well-intentioned parents for the purpose of enhancing the family fortune/reputation or to conclude some meaningful business transaction, our modern resolution to marry someone you love has only existed for about a century and a half. One thing is certain, however, according to this Jesus guy in the Bible, marriage is something meant to endure the test of time (Matthew 19:6).

In the passage we will look at today, we must remember that Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, had been executed by King Herod for expressing opinions on the king’s recent marriage to his brother’s wife. Some Pharisees find Jesus healing the sick east of the Jordan River and they intentionally try to trap Him with a question about divorce. Namely, can a man divorce his wife for any reason?

Besides being sexist and typical of that day, Jesus doesn’t bite. Instead He gives a mini-history lesson on what marriage represents. Not dissuaded, the Pharisees try again. This time, they focus on the fact that Moses (yes, THAT Moses – the great law giver) allowed for divorce and Jesus shoots back that it was only because of how screwed up human beings can be. The Messiah acknowledges that only in the case of adultery is divorce ever justified. Upon hearing this, His disciples immediately conclude that it is better not to marry. I find this ironic because while a lot has changed, there’s still a lot that hasn’t.

What do I mean? Human relationship dynamics have always been sexist. Remember the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8)? The Pharisees demanded she be executed for her crime. Yet, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Where was the man? How is it that he was not also dragged before Jesus to be stoned to death? And today, men can be married and yet have mistresses on the side and very few people blink. He is considered a stud. Yet if a woman has multiple sexual partners she is considered a slut and shunned by society. That double-standard continues to exist.

Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t take sides and He doesn’t take the bait being laid by the Pharisees. He concludes that it is a hard road either way – but for some individuals it is truly better not to marry. And here he mentions three specific sets of people: people who were born eunuchs, people who were made eunuchs, and those who put service to the Kingdom ahead of marriage. Odd. What does He mean? A eunuch is a male without testicles. Here He says sometimes people are born without the proper sexual equipment or sometimes they end up that way at the hands of another. For them, it might be better not to marry.

For the longest time, I thought I was one of those people mentioned in the third category: the kind who are celibate all their lives in service to the Kingdom of God. In His mini-lesson on marriage, Jesus talks about the two individuals becoming one flesh. What I have learned in marrying my spouse, is that this is not just a physical bond. There is also the more important emotional bond where, as Jerry Macguire says, my spouse “completes me”. Where I am now a “whole” person as a result of knowing this individual. This is the more important bond that is never supposed to be broken.

So, what can we learn from this passage? Dare we say what the disciples did? That it is better not to marry? Or that marriage is so sacred that only the ultimate act of betrayal in adultery should ever severe it? I once took a marriage and family class in college and was challenged by the instructor to only marry if by doing so, my spouse and I could serve God better together than we ever could separately.

As it stands now, my spouse is an incarnate version of God and His love for me, that I never understood as a single person. It is almost as if God is reaching down through this person and physically reminding me of how much He loves me every day. How awesome is that? Having a companion on this hard road of life makes the journey so much sweeter and worthwhile. And it draws me closer to the lover of my soul.

Chapter 58 – Matthew 18: Unforgiving Acts


I saw a man who was holding the hand that had fired a gun at his heart / Oh, will we live to forgive? / I saw the eyes and the look of surprise as he left an indelible mark / Oh, will we live to forgive? / Come, find release / Go, make your peace / Follow His lead – let the madness recede – as He shatters the cycle of pain…” – Steve Taylor, To Forgive, from the 1986 album “On the Fritz”

The above song was inspired, according to Steve Taylor, by the incredible photo of Pope John Paul II sitting in a prison cell with the man who tried to assassinate him. I can’t honestly say I would have done the same in the Holy Father’s place. But I like to think I might.

Jesus is hammering away on the subjects of sin and forgiveness in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel. And since He had so much to say, I would hazard a guess that perhaps they were of some importance to Him. Maybe we should pay careful attention.

He makes an interesting statement in verse 18 that I suspect gets misinterpreted quite a lot. “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven”. It follows the instructions of the church being an  authority during conflict. “This forbidding and permitting refers to the decisions of the church…Among believers…ideally the church’s decisions should be God-guided and based on discernment of His word [because] handling problem’s God’s way will have an impact now and for eternity” (Study Bible, p. 1581). The problem is when the church starts legislating rules and doctrine that’s not in Scripture and that God, if they knew Him, would never authorize. It happens. A recent example is the splitting of the United Methodist Church after holding a vote to exclude members and clergy who identify as LGBTQ+. My suspicion, from what I know of Jesus so far, is that excluding anyone for any reason is not His idea.

But I digress. Jesus then goes on to tell a parable about an unforgiving debtor. Basically, a man owes a king millions of dollars, which he can’t repay, and he begs the king to forgive him. The king takes pity on the man and agrees not to throw him in prison. The man promises to pay the king back and he goes on his way. Somewhere between the castle and his home, the man runs into someone who owes him a few thousand dollars. He grabs the man by the throat and demands instant payment. The debtor’s pleas for more time fall on deaf ears and the first man has the second man arrested and thrown in prison.

Now, you can imagine how well this went over with the king – who immediately calls the first man before him and reams him out. “You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ (v. 32b-33). The end result? “The angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt” (v. 34).

What’s the point? You and I stand before God with an enormous debt of sin we can never in our wildest dreams hope to repay with enough good deeds. On this side of the cross, our debt has been forgiven in Jesus. God cancels our debt when we ask Him to. Why should we then walk around on this planet berating each other to pay the debts we owe which are small potatoes in comparison?

It all goes back to something I wrote earlier, we shouldn’t hold grudges against each other because someone sins differently than us in light of how much God has forgiven us. But we do. And this world suffers for it. The Kingdom suffers for it. God suffers for it.

I may never have to forgive someone for trying to assassinate me, but I need to be more mindful of my reactions to how people drive around me. I tend to get frustrated with them at best and downright angry at worst. I need to be more patient with people at work who call but don’t know what they want to order. I need to be more forgiving of people who attack my beliefs on social media. And so on…

Steve Taylor ends his song by asking if we will live to forgive. Since I see that as the primary reason for Jesus walking the planet as a man, I should make it my mission too. The greatest thing about practicing that throughout my life is that I will find a prisoner (me) is set free each time.

Chapter 57 – Matthew 18: Believers and Sin


Life is very short and there’s no time

For fussing and fighting, my friend

I have always thought that it’s a crime
So I will ask you once again…

Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong
While you see it your way
There’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long

We can work it out (2x)

  • The Beatles, We Can Work It Out, from the 1966 album “Yesterday and Today”

The Christ follows up his mini-sermon on sinning against others with a few choice words on how we are to handle fellow believers who sin against us (v. 15-17). These instructions are for God’s people only and not meant for the world in general. However, the big ideas of what Jesus has to say about conflict resolution can still be broadly applied.  The Beatles may have it right. (Notice what Jesus doesn’t say, as well as what He does).

To be sure, when someone has wronged us – whether they belong to His church or not – it may be our human reaction of turning away from that person or seeking revenge which can come into play. We may gossip about that person behind their back or enlist a group of friends to begin a campaign of hate. We may even seek to do the very same thing in return that was done to us. It’s part of our fallen nature. And it’s also against everything the Christ lays out.

The first step is to go to the person who has wronged us, which is sometimes the hardest part of all. You may think, “They’re the one who caused the problem – why should I initiate contact?” The purpose of what Jesus has to say is reconciliation. He wants His family to be strongly bound together; not bitter and broken. Sometimes it is possible to sin against someone unknowingly. By going to the person and laying out our concerns, we may be brining something to their attention that they are unaware of. But even if the offender IS aware, He doesn’t want the wound to fester. He even set the example for us by being the one to engage mankind when we had sinned against Him and God the Father.

The second thing He wants us to do is to forgive that person. Say what? Yes, no matter how bad the sin is – no matter how much pain and hurt it causes – forgive them. Let it go. Note: He’s not saying to forget. There’s a big difference between letting go of the hurt and pain, and automatically trusting someone again. THAT, can only come with time and with a noticeable change in behavior.

What’s more – Jesus says we are to forgive someone for the same sin so many times we don’t keep track of how many times we forgive someone. There’s no point in keeping score. It only leads to bitterness and divisiveness in the family.

Finally, He says that if the person won’t listen to you and refuses to change their behavior, to go back again – this time with witnesses. Objective, third party individuals who are also members of the church are required. The purpose is so that everything can be confirmed to be true. If the person who has sinned against you refuses to listen and change, Jesus then says to take the case to the church. Let the members of the body of Christ decide the matter. If that person still refuses to listen and change, the final act is to walk away and treat that person as if they were an outsider, rather than a fellow believer.

Note: This doesn’t let us off the hook from forgiving them. What it does do is remove the problem from the church so that healing can take place within the body. This is kind of why a chunk of this format will not work outside the church. Non-believers are not going to be interested in what the church has to say about their behavior or attitude. Depending upon what the “sin” is – only manmade remedies such as involving law enforcement may be what is needed. However, there are times when the offender is  of the church and going to the governing authorities may be the only course of action that can be taken (for example, sexual assault).

It’s not ideal to be sure. Ideally, Jesus would directly intervene and discipline the offending body. But sometimes He doesn’t do this and the only way to get justice here and now is to involve secular tactics. It’s part of why God establishes our government in the first place (Romans 13). Now, there will be times when the secular government infringes upon our beliefs, such as when one race is exalted above all others. Our great nation had had that problem since it’s inception but the matter was only legally rectified in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. It is a fact that white supremacy continues to be battled today in our society and it is our obligation to combat it at every turn using the tactics of peaceful protest.

The key is realizing that although our Constitution is a well-fashioned document, it is still only written by man and will always be imperfect. Our goal should be to live our beliefs in such as way so that all human beings are drawn to us, rather than to shut our doors and insist certain laws (such as gay marriage and abortion) are so immoral we reject the people they involve. Our job, our only job while we are living on this planet, is to bear witness of Him AND draw people TO Him. We don’t do that by constantly calling them sinners and telling them they are damned to hell no matter what. Our message has to change because it is not Jesus’ message of redemption for all.

I believe all of what the Christ shares in this passage is possible because none of us is perfect. And therefore, none of us should ever think we are better than anybody else, even non-believers. How do I know it’s possible? Because Jesus set the example for us. He lived and died and forgave us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). If the perfect man who never sinned can forgive us all of our sins, it is possible for us imperfect people to forgive each other if we are imitating Him. Therefore, to shut our doors or turn on backs on people because they sin differently than we do is wrong of us. It, in fact, is sin and it is not Christ-like.

So let’s work on working it out together, even with people who are not members of the body. Let’s set the tone. Let’s be the example. Let’s draw people into the greatest family dynamic to ever exist. Let’s make being a member of the body so desireable, that it draws people out of the darkness and into the Light of Life.