The Concerns of God

Scripture:  Matthew 16:21-28

There have been a lot of successful game shows over the years, but one of the most enduring has been Family Feud.   There is a good chance that you have some familiarity with this show that pits two families against each other to guess the top answers given to various survey questions.  The show premiered all the way back in 1975 and lasted eleven seasons.  It was revived a couple of years later and made it another six seasons before being canceled.  In 1999 it was revived a third time, and this time the show finally found its footing because it has been on the air ever since.  In fact the show is currently at the peak of its popularity and is in the top three most popular syndicated shows in the United States.  The reason why the show has found so much popularity in the modern era has a lot to do with the current host Steve Harvey, or more specifically the faces that he makes.

It does not matter what iteration of the family feud you watch, there is a common occurrence in that show.  It is incredibly common for someone to confidently give a really bad answer, and then usually there family will start clapping and affirming, “Good answer, good answer.”  With his facial expressions or laughter, Steve Harvey masterfully affirms that “no it was not a good answer”, and then big red X often confirms this.  The Family Feud is almost perfectly created to showcase a well-known cognitive bias known as the overconfidence effect.  The overconfidence effect is a bias in which a person’s subjective confidence in their judgements is much greater than the objective accuracy of those judgements, especially when confidence is relatively high.  While most of us have never had our own overconfidence showcased on a syndicated game show, we all have instances where we have been incredibly confident but also incredibly wrong.  Often the real test of character is when we or shown that our confidence was misplaced and how we react.  Some people double down on their confidence and stick to being wrong while others take the more mature approach of humbly admitting their fault despite their confidence.

This morning’s scripture is another good showcase of the overconfidence effect, because Peter absolutely thought he had the moral high ground and was doing the right thing only to be savagely called out by Jesus.  All of us are going to have times when we have misplaced confidence.  We are all going to have times when we are overly confident we are right when we are not, and that it includes in matters of faith and spirituality.  And in those instances, Jesus gives us a helpful tool for how we can humbly calibrate our confidence and our judgment.  We can ask ourselves “do we have in mind the concerns of God?”

Even though it is our custom to select sections of scripture by chapter and verse, it is important for us to remember that scripture passages our not islands unto themselves but they exist in context with the scriptures around them.  Considering the larger context of this morning’s scripture really helps us get a better sense of what is going on here.  There are two major factors to keep in mind.

First, this morning’s scripture takes place at the height of Jesus’ ministry.   Jesus had a groundswell of local support, his stock was on the rise, and it seemed that he was set to move from the regional stage to the national scene.  It seemed that Jesus was on the verge of gaining real celebrity status and it seemed that he was gaining enough momentum to move to real fame and power.  The second factor to keep in mind is that this morning’s scripture reading comes right after last week’s.  Last week we read about how Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah, and how Jesus told Peter, “blessed are you Simon son of Jonah. . .I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”

These two factors combined for the perfect storm that created this morning’s scripture.   Jesus knew his mission on earth was not to be a celebrity with fame and power, he knew he was not the political messiah that would usher in a new golden age of Jewish empire building and economic prosperity.  Jesus knew that his path eventually was going to lead to him being betrayed, arrested, and hanging on a cross.  Jesus also knew that the cross was not the end, that resurrection was coming, and that death and sin were about to be defeated for good.  Jesus knew that he was destined to change everything, but it was not quite in the way that any of the disciples envisioned.   So starting in this morning’s scripture, Jesus started trying to prep the disciples for what he knew was coming.  This is the first of multiple instances in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus predicts his death.

Given the background, Peter’s reaction makes sense.  Sure, Peter believed that Jesus is the messiah, but Peter did not truly know what the meant.   Peter was probably also riding high on Jesus’ praise, and may have seen himself as the up and coming leader of the disciples.  So, of course Peter barrels straight forward in over confidence bias.  It could be that Peter saw himself as trying to focus on the positive, keep the good times going, and give Jesus a pep-talk.  However, his confidence was much greater than the objective accuracy of his actions, and Jesus calls him out for it.

Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, saying “Get behind me Satan”, does seems a little harsh at first. We have to remember the last time we saw Jesus being tempted in the gospels the temptation was being done by Satan.  Peter was tempting Jesus, because Jesus knew what he faced, and Jesus-being fully God-had the power to stop it.  It was out of compassion for people and obedience to God the Father that Jesus was committed to seeing his tasks of redemption through, but Peter’s overconfident rebuke was not helping.   Jesus calls him out and then goes on to explain to his disciples just how they might have the wrong idea about the kingdom of God.  Following Jesus is not the path to fame and power.  Those are worldly goals, and as Jesus said in this morning’s scripture, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

In this morning’s scripture reading, the standout phrase to me occurs in verse 23: “you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  Peter pulled Jesus aside, because he saw Jesus trajectory to stardom and was worried that this negative talk would hinder that.  He had a big picture in mind, but it was not a God sized picture.  His focus was not God’s focus, his concerns were not God’s concerns.  This scripture really draws up the question, what are the concerns of God and what are we concerned with instead?

While there are likely a lot of ways that we overconfidently focus on the wrong thing in our faith instead of the concerns of God, there are two specific ways we tend to focus on human concerns more than we do the concerns of God.  For the first one, I can distinctly remember a time that I overconfidently got it really, really wrong.  This was years ago back when I was in college.  I lived in an apartment with five other guys, and it seemed to always be a hub of activity.  There was one day where someone just happened to be hanging out in the kitchen and a biblical conversation started up.  The details are not important, but this person held a viewpoint that would not be considered a more traditional understanding.  I disagreed with him, and what started as a lively discussion morphed into an argument, and ended even uglier with me and one of my roommates essentially ganging up on this poor person.  When they finally extracted themselves and left, one of my other roommates sarcastically asked, “good discussion?”  Before I could respond, a fourth roommates pointed out that there was a “lot of talking, but very little discussing, and no listening.”

He called me out, and he was right to do so because at some point I lost my way in that whole incident and I became more concerned with being right than anything else.  Even though this happened years ago, it sticks with me as a reminder that as followers of Jesus one of the ways that we get it wrong is that we can be more concerned with being right than with being loving.  When we encounter people who do not hold the beliefs we hold, it can be a real temptation to tell them where wrong and prove we are right.  We can convince ourselves we are doing a righteous thing, we are standing for truth, and we are just telling it like it is.  But like Peter, what we have in mind is merely human concerns, not the concerns of God.  As Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:3-4 “God our savior . . . wants all people to be saved.”   That everyone would come to know the love of God forgives all sin and changes our hearts, that is the concern of God.   Being right and proving the errors of others beliefs is a human concern.  I promise you, no one in the history of ever has been converted to following a Jesus because they lost an argument and were told they were wrong.   People are saved when they experience and accept God’s love.  We should be concerned with people, having compassion for them, truly listening to them, and meeting their needs instead of trying to win the argument and prove we are right.  We should be concerned with loving others.

Even though we can be tempted to be more concerned with being right, I do think that most of the time, most of the followers of Jesus do care more about other people than they care about being right.  For the most part, I think a lot of followers of Jesus do want to practice loving their neighbor, and they do desire to see new disciples made and the world transformed into a more kind, loving, and just place.  However, we let the second human concern get in the way of the concerns of God, and that is we play it too safe. Faithfully living out the mission God has for us can require tackling some potentially scary challenges.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus tries to let his disciples know the big faith steps that are coming their way, and instead of embracing them and trusting in God to lead the way Peter tries to dial Jesus back.   We can still do the same thing today.   We are overly risk averse.  To keep in mind the things of God and to really go for it almost always requires some big leaps of faith.  It requires taking risks.

In his landmark book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Rober Schnase wrote, “Risk taking mission and service is one of the fundamental activities of church life that is so critical that failure to practice it in some form results in a deterioration of the church’s . . . ability to make disciples.” However, Bishop Schnase goes onto stress that this mission and service must be risk taking, and he defines risk taking mission and service as, “risk taking steps into greater uncertainty, a higher possibility of discomfort, resistance, or sacrifice.”  More often than not when we are confronted with greater uncertainty, discomfort, resistance or the possibility of having to make sacrifices we tend to circle the wagons and come up with all of the reasons why it is not safe.   But again, those are mere human concerns.  They are not the concerns of God.  Schnase addresses this as he continues to write, “Risk taking Mission and Service involves work that stretches people, causing them to do something for the good of others that they would never have considered doing if it were not for their relationship with Christ and their desire to serve him. “    We have the concerns of God in mind, when our actions are motivated by being Christ and following even if it is uncertain, risky, or there will be some turbulence.  Perhaps Jesus himself said it best in this morning’s scripture by using a first century colloquialism.  We have in mind the things of God when we stop playing it safe, take up our cross, and follow Jesus.

All of us can be over confident at times, and this over confidence can hold us back because in our confidence we miss how we could be doing something so much better.  Peter fell into this problem in this morning’s scripture, and we are prone to it in our own faith.   Just like it was for Peter, the way forward for us is to focus our hearts and minds on the concerns of God.   So may we be willing to share God’s love with others, above all else.  May we be concerned with the mission to make disciples and transform the world for God Kingdom, and may we be willing to take risks to do it.  May we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow our savior.  If we are going to be confident, then may our confidence not be in our own rightness or our own actions but may we be confident that Jesus is a savior worth following.


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