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Often, in my posts and in my conversations, I have mentioned that Jesus really only had two rules—to love God and to love others. Matthew 22:35-40 tells us that all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. When we think back to Old Testament Law, we often think of the Ten Commandments, but Jesus’ top two are the essence of all the law handed down from God through Moses. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18) Therefore all the religious experts who challenged Jesus with questions would not only be aware of this, but would have memorized the scriptures that say so. Many of them would have carried these verses in phylacteries that they wore to remind them to keep their religious law.

So it was no surprise that when a religious expert stood up to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, he actually answered his own question by quoting that scripture. (Luke 10:25-28) The expert wasn’t sure he wanted to make such a large commitment, so he decided to see how narrowly he could define the term “neighbour”. (Luke 10:29) In response, Jesus told him the story of The Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:30-37) probably one of the most familiar stories from the Bible. A man walking down a long, steep, narrow, winding road, with lots of places for bandits to hide, is robbed, beaten and left for dead. A priest and later a Levite, two people who would know God’s laws better than most, both crossed the street as they approached the victim to avoid the possibility of becoming ceremonially unclean by touching him. They essentially condemned him to death. Finally a Samaritan came along. Samaritans were despised by the Jews, hated because of their race and because of actions taken by their ancestors generations before. If the victim had been in his right mind, he probably would not have even spoken to the Samaritan. Why should the Samaritan waste his time, and his money, to help this man out? Nevertheless, he did. He carried him to the closest inn and gave the innkeeper the equivalent of two days wages to care for the man. That would have been enough money for about a month’s lodging, but it came with the promise to make up the difference the next time he came by. He would pay whatever it took for the care of this stranger.

Jesus finished the story by rewording the religious expert’s question—not, “who is my neighbour?”, but “which one was a neighbour?” The expert answered, “the one who showed mercy”. And like the Samaritan did, Jesus tells us to go and show mercy to those in need. (Luke 10:37) Compassion has a price, and it is inconvenient. Jesus was well aware of that when He told us to love each other. We may not be able to do this in our own strength, but if our hearts are willing to love and obey God, and therefore love others, God will give us eyes to see their needs, and the strength and resources to meet them. (Philippians 4:13)

No one who knows me would tell you that I am a fashionista—someone who is on top of all the latest fashion trends—but I do try to wear clothes appropriate for the occasion. Just as I would not wear formal attire to paint my house, I would not wear my painting clothes to attend a wedding or a banquet. Your beliefs and attitudes can often be discerned by what you wear. Do you have respect for others? Do you have respect for yourself? Many of my students at the Faculty of Education would question what to wear as they prepared to start a placement in a new school. I always advised them that it would never be a problem if they were more professional or more conservative than the other people working there.

In Colossians 3, Paul advises us what to wear and what not to wear, metaphorically speaking. In Colossians 3:1, he tells us to keep seeking things above—keep working toward becoming more and more like the person that Christ wants us to be. This is not an instantaneous transformation, but a work that will be in progress as long as we are on this earth. Christ died to redeem us all from our evil human nature, but it is up to us to continually choose to live in a way that honours Him. So Paul tells us to put off such things as anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language and lies. (Colossians 3:8,9)

Since who we display on the outside is usually a representation of who we are on the inside, Paul exhorts us to change our clothes. He wants us to clothe ourselves with a heart of mercy. (Colossians 3:12) Mercy means showing compassion when we have the power to punish. If someone has done you wrong, you have the opportunity to forgive them instead, which is another piece of the clothing that Paul suggests. (Colossians 3:13) He also recommends kindness, humility, gentleness and patience—putting others ahead of ourselves and being considerate while also treating them with respect and tolerance. We are all on this journey towards transformation together, and none of us has reached our destination yet. We need to be understanding of each other’s imperfections.

Above all, Paul asks us to put on love. (Colossians 3:14) Although we can, by way of duty, accomplish all of the preceding virtues without having love, I Corinthians 13 tells us that without love, all else is meaningless. It is our love for God, and His love flowing through us, that will help us to love those around us. It is our love for God that will make us want to choose a wardrobe that will best represent Him. If you want to wear the outfit that is most appropriate for your role as a child of God, wear love.

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In last week’s post, I talked about the steps to take if someone has done something against you, and more specifically against God’s principles, but isn’t willing to admit he’s wrong. But what if he does realize he is wrong? What if he is sorry and asks forgiveness? What if he has asked for forgiveness a dozen times before, but he keeps asking for forgiveness for similar things? At what point do you stop being patient? At what point do you stop forgiving?

Peter asked Jesus that question in Matthew 18:21. Peter also suggested a possible answer. He suggested that seven would be a good number of times to be willing to forgive someone who has sinned against you. This was actually quite generous on Peter’s part, since Rabbinic teaching held that you should forgive three times, and you needn’t forgive the fourth. So Peter was doing his best to be loving, but Jesus wanted more from him—and from us. Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Now, do you think Jesus meant that Peter should get out his scroll (or shard of pottery since they were easier to come by) and keep track of each time he forgave someone? Then stop when he got to 78? I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. I think the number Jesus gave was significantly larger than the one Peter gave, and even more significantly larger than what the rabbis taught, that His listeners would get the idea: keep on forgiving.

Jesus followed this answer with a parable to reinforce His teaching. (Matthew 18:23-35) Jesus tells the story of a servant who owed a great debt to his master. The master said it was time to collect, but the servant couldn’t pay so he begged for more time. Now, the servant owed 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest unit of money, and ten thousand was the largest number for which the Greek language had a specific word. Jesus’ use of these huge amounts would have had the desired effect on his listeners. There was not enough time in his lifetime for the servant to ever be able to completely repay this debt. His master had mercy on him, and forgave the debt. One would think the servant would be grateful for mercy in the place of justice. He justly deserved, according to the laws of the time, to be sold into slavery, along with his family so that at least some of his debt could be repaid. Instead, he was free to go and owe nothing. But he wasn’t so kind to a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wage for a labourer, and 100 days’ worth of income--27.4 percent of a year’s income--was not an insignificant amount. It would have taken some time for that servant to pay back such a debt also. However, since a talent was worth 6,000 times more than a denarius, and the first servant owed 10,000 talents compared to the second servant’s 100 denarii, the amount of debt relief received by the first servant would make up for what was owed by the second servant many, many times.

The debt that was cancelled by the master to the first servant was an enormous act of mercy, and represents God’s act of mercy in giving up His own son to pay the debt that we could never possibly pay. All he asks from us in return is that we forgive the small things that our fellow disciples do to us. Significant, perhaps, but nothing compared to the mercy we have received from God. And he wants us to keep on forgiving them, without keeping a count.

After my last two posts on hyperbole, one of my regular readers asked me to do one more. Matthew 23:24. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, and He points out that they avoid swallowing a gnat, but they gulp down a camel. Yes, the verb swallow is a tame rendering of the word used in the original language. Jesus painted quite a dramatic picture of them carefully straining out the smallest creature and carelessly, perhaps even enthusiastically, chugging down the largest. It was not uncommon for a camel to be used metaphorically because of its size, but in this case it was also a bit of a word play, since in Aramaic the word for gnat (galma) and the word for camel (gamla) were so similar. Both were considered to be unclean animals under the law, so the Pharisees would not want to take either into their bodies. They truly did strain their wine through a cloth to avoid swallowing the gnats that would be attracted to it.

Of course, they didn’t really swallow a camel. Obviously, this is hyperbole, but what does it mean? Let’s take a look at the context. Earlier in the conversation (Matthew 22:34-40), the Pharisees asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment. You are probably aware that the Pharisees were pretty attentive to the commandments, making sure that everyone followed them diligently, so they had probably often discussed among themselves which was the most important. Now they were testing Jesus with the question. Jesus answered them by telling them to love God and to love their neighbour. Then He took a turn asking the questions. (Matthew 22:41-46)

Jesus, unlike the crowd, could see that the Pharisees were only religious on the surface, and He tells the people that the Pharisees are hypocrites. (Matthew 23:1-12) By the time we get to Matthew 23:24, He has called them blind guides a couple of times. You see, they were the teachers of the law. They were the example for all the people to follow. It wasn’t just themselves that they were leading down the wrong path. If a blind person is leading a blind person, chances are that they won’t end up at their desired destination. Matthew 15:14 says that they will both fall into a pit. This is so much more important when the destination is your eternal home.

Jesus tells the Pharisees where they have gone wrong. (Matthew 23:13-32) This section is known as The Seven Woes. The gnat and the camel come in at the fourth woe. (Matthew 23:23-24) Jesus points out that the Pharisees very strictly obey the law of tithing, to the point of tithing even the smallest herbs. And Jesus doesn’t have anything against that. After all, the Levites depended on the tithe for their livelihood. Jesus doesn’t have a problem with straining out the gnats, but He also wants them to strain out the camel. He wants them to go beyond the external, visible rule-following. He wants them to get the bigger picture, and work on the internal components too. He desires the same for us. Yes, it is good to give financially to our churches; the ministries depend on our giving to keep them going. But God wants more than that from us. In Micah 6:6-7, the prophet asks, as a worshipper might, what the Lord would like as a sacrifice. The answer is found in Micah 6:8. He wants us to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before our God. Many translations say to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. In Matthew 23:23, that is also what Jesus says is the most important. Justice, mercy and faithfulness. Love God. Love your neighbour.

Today's post was written by Rusty Wright.
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Could receiving a healthy dose of kindness and mercy help transform a person’s life? Victor Hugo thought so. The 19th Century French social reformer wove his classic novel Les Misérables around the theme of grace trumping legalism. A new film based on the successful musical opens Christmas Day across the US and Canada, soon in many other nations.

Until recently, I was one of the few in the western world unfamiliar with this powerful saga, somehow having missed it through formal education and beyond. I now understand why it continues to attract audiences 150 years after it was written.

Kindness and Mercy Shine

Spoiler alert for Les Mis novices: this article encapsulates the essential story. But understanding the plot and characters can help you appreciate the film.

A kindly bishop provides dinner and lodging for paroled convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). In return, while the priest sleeps, Valjean steals his silver.

The next day, approached by constables who’ve apprehended Valjean, the bishop tells them that the silver was a gift. He then privately counsels Valjean to see this as part of God’s plan for him and to use the silver to become honest. The priest’s heartwarming mercy evokes a biblical admonition: “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32)

Rescuing the Needy

The bishop’s benevolence cascades through time. Actor Jackman notes: “Valjean is the recipient of one of the most beautiful and touching moments of grace from the bishop…. He decides to mend his ways and dedicate his life and his soul to God and to being of service to the community. He is constantly striving to be a better person, to live up to what he thinks God wants from him.”

Using an alias, Valjean becomes a generous factory owner whose grateful townspeople elect him mayor. He inspires us by rescuing the needy.

Valjean rescues Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an ailing single mother turned prostitute to support her daughter, Cosette. Before Fantine dies, Valjean promises to care for Cosette.

Freeing the Innocent

When an innocent man nearly is convicted of being parole-violator Jean Valjean, the real Valjean agonizes: Should he retain his comfortable anonymity or reveal his true identity and risk prosecution? He comes clean, thereby rescuing the wrongly charged. Valjean’s altruism is stirring. He credits God with giving him hope and strength for life’s challenges.

True to his promise, Valjean rescues the now-orphaned Cosette from cruel foster parents, raising her as his own daughter. As a young woman, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) becomes enamored of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a youthful revolutionary in the 1832 anti-governmental French student uprising.

Driven by love for Cosette, Valjean rescues Marius from death during a harrowing excursion through the Paris sewers.

Most Gripping Rescue

Perhaps Valjean’s most gripping rescue involves Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a policeman dedicated to the law and obsessed with tracking and bringing Valjean to justice. Remember The Fugitive? Think Tommy Lee Jones’ relentless US Marshall character on steroids.

When students discover Javert has infiltrated their rebellion, Valjean volunteers as executioner, then surreptitiously releases Javert, who is stunned. Mercy has no place in his law, and he cannot fathom Valjean’s compassion.

When Javert later reciprocates, releasing Valjean, the inner turmoil is more than Javert can bear; he kills himself. In Victor Hugo’s world, mercy indeed trumps legalism (unhealthy devotion to or emphasis on law), a lesson Valjean exemplifies but which evades poor Javert.

Tempering Justice with Mercy

Of course, any properly functioning society needs justice. Knowing when to temper it with mercy can be a challenge for societies and individuals. The proper balance helps make civilizations civilized. Which world would you rather inhabit: one tilting toward Valjean’s mercy or Javert’s legalism?

Les Misérables touches other important themes: romance, unrequited love, care for orphans and the poor, even prison reform. Bring a handkerchief, and someone you love.

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Rated PG-13 for “Suggestive and Sexual Material, Violence and Thematic Elements.”

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com

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Recently, one of my dear friends from book club sent a note to share her thoughts on the lack of compassion in the world today. She shared a personal example as well as the much more public one of Hurricane Sandy. Both involved desperation and need for people who had done nothing to deserve it, and in both cases, there was room for much more compassion to be shown. Not that there was no compassion at all, but there was not enough to meet the needs. Being compassionate has a price.

Often, in my posts and in my conversations, I have mentioned that Jesus really only had two rules—to love God and to love others. Matthew 22:35-40 tells us that all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. When we think back to Old Testament Law, we often think of the Ten Commandments, but Jesus’ top two are the essence of all the law handed down from God through Moses. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18) Therefore all the religious experts who challenged Jesus with questions would not only be aware of this, but would have memorized the scriptures that say so. Many of them would have carried these verses in phylacteries that they wore to remind them to keep their religious law.

So it was no surprise that when a religious expert stood up to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, he actually answered his own question by quoting that scripture. (Luke 10:25-28) The expert wasn’t sure he wanted to make such a large commitment, so he decided to see how narrowly he could define the term “neighbour”. (Luke 10:29) In response, Jesus told him the story of The Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:30-37) probably one of the most familiar stories from the Bible. A man walking down a long, steep, narrow, winding road, with lots of places for bandits to hide, is robbed, beaten and left for dead. A priest and later a Levite, two people who would know God’s laws better than most, both crossed the street as they approached the victim to avoid the possibility of becoming ceremonially unclean by touching him. They essentially condemned him to death. Finally a Samaritan came along. Samaritans were despised by the Jews, hated because of their race and because of actions taken by their ancestors generations before. If the victim had been in his right mind, he probably would not have even spoken to the Samaritan. Why should the Samaritan waste his time, and his money, to help this man out? Nevertheless, he did. He carried him to the closest inn and gave the innkeeper the equivalent of two days wages to care for the man. That would have been enough money for about a month’s lodging, but it came with the promise to make up the difference the next time he came by. He would pay whatever it took for the care of this stranger.

Jesus finished the story by rewording the religious expert’s question—not, “who is my neighbour?”, but “which one was a neighbour?” The expert answered, "the one who showed mercy". And like the Samaritan did, Jesus tells us to go and show mercy to those in need. (Luke 10:37) Compassion has a price, and it is inconvenient. Jesus was well aware of that when He told us to love each other. We may not be able to do this in our own strength, but if our hearts are willing to love and obey God, and therefore love others, God will give us eyes to see their needs, and the strength and resources to meet them. (Philippians 4:13)

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When I was growing up, I was a younger sister, but I always felt like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. My older brother was always pushing the limits as far as what he should and should not do, and my overactive sense of justice always wanted him to be held accountable. I never quite understood why the older brother in this parable was corrected by his father, (Luke 15:25-32) because I thought he, the brother, was right. Why should the son who caused all the trouble get the party when the one trying to consistently do the right thing is seemingly forgotten? The answer is that the prodigal’s older brother, and I, did not understand grace.

Let’s take a minute to look at the context of this parable. At the beginning of the chapter, (Luke 15:1-2) the Pharisees were complaining that Jesus was welcoming sinners and sharing meals with them. In response, Jesus told three parables: of the lost sheep, (Luke 15:3-7) of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) and of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-32) All of them were intended to show the joy of our Heavenly Father when a lost soul is redeemed. After all, it is sinners that God sent His son to redeem. (Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31, John 3:17) But the parable of the prodigal son goes a step further. This parable also addresses the attitude of the older brother, which was the same as the attitude of the Pharisees. The prodigal son was lost because of his own bad choices, which he soon realized, but the older brother was lost and didn’t even know it. He was self-righteous and full of pride. He did what he was supposed to do, but what were his motives? He was looking for his father’s approval of his works, rather than accepting his father’s unconditional love.

I find it sad that when the older brother came in from the field and heard the festivities inside the house, he didn’t even guess that his brother may have come home. He had to ask a servant what the noise was all about. He certainly hadn’t been watching for his brother’s return, and he refused to celebrate it. He found no joy in what pleased his father, but rather wallowed in his own selfishness. Wouldn't it be great if we could display abundant grace, mercy and forgiveness to the lost souls in our circles? If they are willing to show the humility that the prodigal son showed, let us share our Father’s joy and welcome them home.
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Stay tuned for Part 3, next week. I've saved the best news for last.

No one who knows me would tell you that I am a fashionista—someone who is on top of all the latest fashion trends—but I do try to wear clothes appropriate for the occasion. Just as I would not wear formal attire to paint my house, I would not wear my painting clothes to attend a wedding or a banquet. Your beliefs and attitudes can often be discerned by what you wear. Do you have respect for others? Do you have respect for yourself? Many of my students at the Faculty of Education would question what to wear as they prepared to start a placement in a new school. I always advised them that it would never be a problem if they were more professional or more conservative than the other people working there.

In Colossians 3, Paul advises us what to wear and what not to wear, metaphorically speaking. In Colossians 3:1, he tells us to keep seeking things above—keep working toward becoming more and more like the person that Christ wants us to be. This is not an instantaneous transformation, but a work that will be in progress as long as we are on this earth. Christ died to redeem us all from our evil human nature, but it is up to us to continually choose to live in a way that honours Him. So Paul tells us to put off such things as anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language and lies. (Colossians 3:8,9)

Since who we display on the outside is usually a representation of who we are on the inside, Paul exhorts us to change our clothes. He wants us to clothe ourselves with a heart of mercy. (Colossians 3:12) Mercy means showing compassion when we have the power to punish. If someone has done you wrong, you have the opportunity to forgive them instead, which is another piece of the clothing that Paul suggests. (Colossians 3:13) He also recommends kindness, humility, gentleness and patience—putting others ahead of ourselves and being considerate while also treating them with respect and tolerance. We are all on this journey towards transformation together, and none of us has reached our destination yet. We need to be understanding of each other’s imperfections.

Above all, Paul asks us to put on love. (Colossians 3:14) Although we can, by way of duty, accomplish all of the preceding virtues without having love, I Corinthians 13 tells us that without love, all else is meaningless. It is our love for God, and His love flowing through us, that will help us to love those around us. It is our love for God that will make us want to choose a wardrobe that will best represent Him. If you want to wear the outfit that is most appropriate for your role as a child of God, wear love.

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  • Before accepting Christ we lived in darkness.  Even if we did "good" things, we were unholy in God's sight.  (Ephesians 2:1-2)
  • Without Christ to intercede for us, we deserve nothing but wrath from God, but God is merciful, and He loves us SO much that He sent Christ to pay our way.  Thank you God for Your grace!  (Ephesians 2:3-5)
  • When we accept salvation through Christ's sacrifice, God gives us the same status as Christ has. (Ephesians 2:6)
  • We have not yet seen the full extent of God's grace.  (Ephesians 2:7)
  • It is only by God's grace that we are saved from His wrath.  There is nothing that we can do to earn our own salvation.  (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • We are God's masterpiece--a work of art.  We were created with a purpose, to do good works.  (Ephesians 2:10)
  • It is only through Christ Jesus that we can be brought near to God. (Ephesians 2:13)
  • Jesus came to bring peace for all. (Ephesians 2:14)
  • It is not about legalism anymore. (Ephesians 2:15)
  • Jesus' purpose was to reconcile us to God. (Ephesians 2:16)
  • Through Christ we are now members of God's family. (Ephesians 2:19)
  • We were made to be a dwelling place for God's Spirit. (Ephesians 2:22)
  • Ephesians 2 starts out discussing the spirit who lives in the disobedient, and ends by saying that we were made for God's Spirit.  We have a spirit living in us one way or the other.  Both spirits want a place in our hearts, but we get to choose which one stays.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Today's post was written by pastor Rick Cowan.  You can visit his website here.

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It was quite a shock to find ourselves behind two air bags and atop a fallen traffic light last night.  We reacted like any parents would, quickly checking to see if all the kids were OK (having to calm six shaken kids forces you to look past your own nerves!).  Once we assessed the condition of our kids and realized they were all safe (apart from some seatbelt burns and a loose tooth), we began to praise God for his goodness.

This morning as I reflected on the accident I began to thank God for his goodness once again.  Then it occurred to me.  What if one of us were seriously hurt? What if one of my kids were taken away via ambulance?  Would God not still be good?  What determines God's goodness?  Things going our way?  Averting injury? What prompts us to thank him for his goodness?

The truth is, God's goodness exists outside of circumstance.  It is not determined by what makes us feel good.  God is good all the time.  Not because our lives are pleasant all the time.  Not because we get what we want all the time.  No.  God is good all the time because his goodness is an unchangeable aspect of his perfect character.

It was sobering this morning to search my own soul and consider, would I still be thanking God for his goodness if our accident had a less than happy outcome?  I pray that I would.

It was right to thank God for his goodness yesterday, not simply because he kept us safe but because he is good no matter what he chooses to do.  No matter the circumstance, God never violates his goodness.  So, to thank God in this way is to affirm within our own hearts that God is good even when circumstances are bad.

After thinking on this a while this morning I began to consider -- "What then could have been a better prayer?"  I began to thank God, not just for his goodness, but for his mercy.  The truth is, we deserve nothing.  Our sin condemns us to death.  Yet God, by his mercy, chose to allow us to keep on living.  I don't deserve life and I only live by his mercy.

Lamentations 3:22  It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. [KJV]

I am thankful for God's goodness, which is independent of any circumstance.  I am also thankful for his mercy on undeserving men.  I am thankful that God is unchanging and that no matter what happens we can be assured that he has violated none of his perfect attributes.  He is the unchanging, unmovable Rock upon which we can build our lives.

Psalms 23:6  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. [KJV]