A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw
someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he
wasn’t following us.”
Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him.No one who does powerful acts in my name can
quickly turn around and curse me.Whoever isn’t against us is for us.I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you
belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.”
“As for whoever causes these little ones
who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to
have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake.”
[Jesus said,] “How terrible it will be
for you legal experts and Pharisees!Hypocrites!You shut people out
of the kingdom of heaven.You don’t
enter yourselves, and you won’t allow those who want to enter to do so.”
How terrible it will be for you, legal
experts and Pharisees!Hypocrites!You travel over sea and land to make one
convert.But when they’ve been
converted, they become twice the child of hell you are.”
“How terrible it will be for you legal
experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites!You
give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more
important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith.You ought to give a tenth but without
forgetting about those more important matters.You blind guides!You filter out
an ant but swallow a camel.
“How terrible if will be for you legal
experts and Pharisees!Hypocrites!You clean the outside of the cup and plate,
but inside they are full of violence and pleasure seeking.Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the
cup so that the outside of the cup will be clean too.
“How terrible it will be for you legal
experts and Pharisees!Hypocrites!You are like whitewashed tombs.They look beautiful on the outside.But inside they are full of dead bones and
all kinds of filth.In the same way, you
look righteous to people.But inside you
are full of pretense and rebellion.
There’s at least one in every
crowd.Whether in a classroom, the
workplace, the ball field, the PTA, or even a church, there’s always a few
people who are a little more impressed with themselves than they probably
should be.It’s the person with the
knowledge that they are a little bit smarter, better, more-skilled or
qualified, or holier than everyone else, and it is their self-appointed mission
in life to share this knowledge, lest anyone be unaware of their proper place
in the social rankings.
You’d think at some point they’d
get tired of tootin’ their own horn, but folks who are full of hot air can do
an awful lot of horn tootin.’Personally, I find it to be both tiresome and annoying.Apparently, so did Jesus.You might even say it’s the kind of thing
that got Jesus ticked off.
Today’s message is part of a
series called “Surprising Things They Never Told You About Jesus.”We are looking at episodes in his life that
often get missed in the ways we think about, and discuss, and understand Jesus.
Friends, the goal of this series
is to help all of us get to know Jesus a little better, even if what we find
out makes us a little uncomfortable or challenges what we think we know about
him.Last week, we learned this
surprising thing about Jesus: Jesus could party.That is perhaps surprising because so many
Christians are just so serious all the time, you’d never guess that they follow
a guy who graciously invites us to a joyful, endless party, and is himself the
life of the party.But, surprise
surprise - Jesus could party, and he invites us to celebrate with him.
Today, we learn this surprising
thing about Jesus: Jesus got ticked off.This one’s a lot easier to believe, because Christians get ticked off
all the time!The surprising twist,
however, is that the things many Christians get all twisted up about aren’t
really the things Jesus got worked up over.We see that in today’s Scripture readings from the Gospels of Mark and
In Mark chapter 9, Jesus’
disciples come to Jesus with a complaint about someone from outside their group
who was doing good and powerful work in Jesus’ name.They are essentially tattling on this
outsider, “He’s not one of us, Jesus!Make him stop!”
We get the clear message, however,
that all this finger-pointing won’t earn points with Jesus.They needn’t be so concerned with what
someone else is or isn’t doing; rather, they should give some attention to
their own behavior.In fact, Jesus tells
the disciples to lay off, because their eagerness to bring judgment on this
outsider is a particular danger to their own well-being.
Think of this way.Are you supposed to point at people?Why?When I was a little kid, I thought the Pointer Sisters were going to be
in big trouble if their mother ever found out what they were up to.Just for a minute, point at the person next
to you, and notice what your hand is doing. You’ve heard the saying that whenever you
point your finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointed right back
toward yourself.Our mothers rightly
trained us not to point - not only is it rude, but pointing out the
shortcomings of others serves only to incriminate ourselves, and according to
Jesus, places us in a precarious position.
In particular, we are warned
against creating difficulty in the faith journey of “little ones.”This can refer to children, but it can also
refer to people who are new to the faith, exploring the faith, even outside the
faith.Jesus gets ticked off when we get
so wrapped up in what others are doing and pointing out their
shortcomings.He got ticked off at his
disciples for doing it, and then in Matthew chapter 23, he really lets the
Pharisees and legal experts have it for taking it even further.
Jesus finds them busy judging and
condemning like it was their job, which it sorta was, and he really let them
have it!What Jesus says to them is
probably the most condemning thing he said to anyone.When we read those words, you could just feel
the indignation in Jesus’ voice.I’m not
going to go into detail on what Jesus said to them - you’ve already heard it,
you’ve already gotten the tone and meaning and intensity of Jesus’ feeling on
this matter.He very pointedly tells
them that both they and their faith are nothing more than a sham, the
equivalent of religious smoke and mirrors, that they may look fine and
wonderful and upstanding and virtuous on the outside, but on the inside, they
are empty at best, and disgustingly filthy at worst.
Caveat here: not exactly the best
strategy if you’re trying to win friends and influence people.Jesus spoke this bare truth to powerful
people, and you can imagine they didn’t particularly care for his tone.If you speak truth to power, there will be
consequences.Eventually, it got Jesus
The temptation that is constantly
before the people of faith is to quickly point at others, to point out what
“they” have done, what “they” are getting away with, how “they” are ruining
things.We all grow strangely quiet when
our attention shifts to passages like the ones we’ve read today, where Jesus is
harsh toward those who are harsh, where he condemns those who condemn, where he
pronounces judgment against all those who judge. Jesus invites us to consider
more closely what is being done with our own hands and feet, our own thoughts,
our own words, our own deeds.
Many times, like the disciples,
like the Pharisees, like the legal experts, we are quick to harshly judge all
that is “out there,” when we would all be better served by a closer examination
of what’s “in here.”It’s as though
Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry about others - they are not the problem.Rather, look to yourselves.How are you
getting in the way of the gospel?How
are you a stumbling block?How are you
placing barriers on the path between God and the very people he loves?”
With such a clear warning from
Jesus about judging or excluding or causing a little one to stumble, I would
rather err on the side of grace than judgment, of inclusion rather than
exclusion.I will have to give an
account for my life one day, as will you, and I’d rather be accused of being
too gracious and loving rather than too judgmental and exclusionary.Jesus is clear here: it would be better to
get thrown into a lake with a stone around my neck than to exclude or separate
someone else from God’s presence.
Jesus reminds us that there is
more than enough sin within each of us to deal with, so why should we be so
concerned with the sins of everyone else?There is enough rebellion and disobedience and separation within me to
keep me and God busy for a lifetime, so why get caught up in what I perceive to
be the shortcomings of others?
I am well aware that the world in
which we live is a far cry from what God intends it to be.It’s tempting to focus on those we consider
to be the evil-doers and try to make them shape up and fly right.But at the end of the day, none of us can
make anyone else do anything.Focusing
on and trying to fix the sins of others isn’t going to get any of us
anywhere.So instead, start in the place
where you can make the biggest difference: yourself.
There’s a line in the Gospel song,
Put Your Hand in the Hand, that says,
“Take a look at yourself and you can see others differently / by putting your
hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.”
Friends, if you want the world to
be a more Godly place, then start with you.Each of us is responsible for the behavior of only one person - know who
that is?If you are concerned with all
that is wrong “out there,” the best thing you can do is pay attention to
everything “in here.”
Sometimes, we need the help of
someone else to see ourselves clearly; sometimes our own self-perceptions can
get in the way.Personally, I’m grateful
for the person who loves me enough to let me know I’ve got a boogie hanging out
of my nose, or my fly is down, or I’ve got toilet paper stuck to my shoe and
doesn’t just let me go through the day like that.
Other people can help us see
things in ourselves that we might have otherwise missed or ignored.I am grateful for those people in my life who
both know me well enough and love me enough to point out the places I have made
a mistake and need to correct it.
But - and this is important - what
gives them the right to say something is the fact that I know they love
me.It presumes an already-existing
relationship that is based on mutual trust and care.I can hear it when I know that the person
cares about me and has my best interest at heart, as well as a concern for what
is best for the entire body of Christ.
Yes, it is important to speak the
truth, but let us not forget that the people of God are called to speak the
truth in love.The right to speak the
truth in love is an earned trust, sown in the soil of a life-giving
Where the disciples got it wrong,
where the Pharisees got it wrong, where we continue to get it wrong if we’re
not careful, is to make rules without relationships, to insist on guidelines
without grace, to enforce laws without love.Doing so places huge burdens on people and causes them to stumble, and
it would be better for us to have a 40-pound stone tied around our neck and
take a long walk off a short pier than to be caught up in something like that.
We are called to something
better.We are called to be imitators of
the God in whose image we are all created (Ephesians 5).God was demonstrating care for each of us
before we were even born, and every rule is born out of relationship, and every
guideline is based in grace, and every law is rooted in love.The relationship piece is really, really
important, and it’s the first piece for God, it should be the first piece for
us, as well.The covenant with Abraham
came long before the 10 Commandments.The loving, nurturing, grace-filled relationship always comes first.
It’s easy to stand around and make
pronouncements and point fingers at people without ever engaging them on a
personal, human, relational level.It is
both infinitely harder yet abundantly more faithful to do the long and hard
work of getting to know someone and demonstrating that we love them.Until we’ve done that work, our words will be as hollow whitewashed tombs.
No one will care what we think
until they have reason to think that we care.
What got Jesus ticked off were
those who presumed to speak on behalf of God, yet were devoid of God’s love in
what they said.For rules without
relationship, guidelines without grace, and laws without love, are empty.
When we resist the temptation to
point fingers, and instead open our hands and our hearts to each other, that’s
something Jesus can get on board with.