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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Authoritative Interpreters of Religious Law and the Widow—Luke 20:45-47; 21:1-4

(Image courtesy of

Today's passage can be read here: Luke 20:45-47; 21:1-4

The Scribes

The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament had no chapter divisions. It's a pity that the later editors of the New Testament placed one here to artificially separate Jesus' words about the proud religious authorities and the poor widow. For they were intended by Luke to show a stark contrast between hypocritical commitment to God and sacrificial generosity to God by a woman who owned practically nothing.

I should hasten to say that Jesus knew well that there were exceptions to his unflattering picture of the "scribes" in Jerusalem in his day. One author has observed:

"In turn Jesus criticizes the Pharisaic scribes in particular for their hypocrisy … in knowing the Scriptures and how to enter the kingdom of God yet, by placing insurmountable legal burdens on people, preventing them from entering it. They also live a lifestyle which the disciples are warned not to follow (cf. Mt 23:1-36 par.Lk 20:45-47). At least those scribes who were members of the Sanhedrin shared the guilt of handing Jesus over to be crucified. Yet there is evidence that Jesus found some of the teaching of the scribes acceptable ([on Elijah coming before the Messiah:] Mk 9:11-13), and it is reported that on one occasion Jesus complimented a scribe for his understanding of Scripture (Mk 12:34) (IVP Jesus and the Gospels, sub "Scribes. 5").

Some were honest and sincere men. But all too many—especially of those who had the most to lose in authority, power and prestige if Jesus were to be acknowledged as the Messiah—fit this picture to the "T"! Furthermore, Jesus (and Luke, who wrote decades later, after Jerusalem fell) surely did not intend this picture only to show a historical contrast: it was also to form a kind of paradigm against which all future generations of people who read the Bible might see the unflattering contrast possible when people (including nominal "Christians") who professed to be "religious" disobeyed God's commands to be merciful and generous to those in need, as well as to be generous in giving to the work of God.

The picture of the "scribes" is one of preening self-centeredness. Their dress as well as the deference given to them by others by seating them in the prominent places at public ceremonies was intended to mark them not only as the most learned of men, but also as the most godly. The public flaunting of this image was the very opposite of Jesus' teaching, that his disciples do their acts of kindness and mercy in secret.

But Jesus adds another aspect that is usually less noticed, but which brings this description of the scribes in direct juxtaposition to the following incident of the poor widow's generous offering: they "devour the savings of widows" (v. 47). What was Jesus referring to here?

Opinions of commentators differ. But it is probable that, as one such commentator wrote: "Apparently they misused their responsibility as legal arbiters (… Luke 12:13)." In at least some cases this was done in order to free a son who inherited his father's estate from the obligation to support his widowed mother, thus overriding the obligation to "honor your father and your mother" of the Ten Commandments (see Mark 7:9-13, the "Corban" principle of the scribes). In this way, the ancient equivalent of today's TV bankruptcy lawyers found a legal loophole allowing them to deny to impoverished parents their legal and moral right to be supported by their wealthy sons! Such unscrupulous nit-picking interpretations of the law of Moses were unfortunately not rare in Jesus' day. And the "scribes" who practiced it were well paid by their clients.

A rather depressing picture, isn't it? Enough to almost make a reader decide to have nothing to do with any organized religion. But we must not be so tricked by the Devil, who uses charlatans in every age of history to throw a bad light on even sincere and honest religious behavior. And unfortunately, under the excuse that such outrageous behavior is what makes good news and good entertainment, our TV and movies rarely show rabbis, priests or pastors—when performing their religious (vs. social) duties— in a good light, but always as hypocrites. The result is that what are rare exceptions come to be regarded by naive TV and movie audiences as the normal and expected behavior of pastors, priests and rabbis. This kind of behavior criticized by Jesus may have been exhibited by a minority of the Jewish leaders in his own day. But he exposed it, and it is in the gospels as a warning to leaders today who might be tempted to practice it.

The widowJesus was apparently seated as he taught in the temple courtyard. This was the customary posture for rabbis teaching. Luke therefore tells us that he "looked up" from his position, sitting on the floor, and watched the wealthy classes of Jerusalem ostentatiously putting their offerings into the collection box of the temple. We don't know how much they put in, but apparently they were impressing many who saw them. At the same time a poor widow, identifiable as "poor" by her dress and bearing, dropped in two small copper coins (Greek lepta), the equivalent of what a low-paid laborer would earn in an hour—not calculated to impress anyone. Yet Jesus knew that it amounted to what might feed this woman for a week—it was for her an enormous sacrifice. But so that this would not be lost on those seated around him, listening for understanding of God and his guidance for life, he said loud enough for all to hear:
"Truly I tell you," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on" (Luke 21:3-4).
She didn't do this to be seen. For what casual observer would be impressed by such a small gift? She didn't do this grudgingly. No one was auditing her income tax return. She did it because she loved God. She wanted to do her part to support the work of the priests and the charitable ministries of the Temple! Remember Jesus' words to his disciples: "Where your money is—that's where your heart will also be" (see Luke 12:33-34). Where is mine? Where is yours? How do we know?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Son of David or Lord of David? Or both?—Luke 20:41-44

King David of Israel
(Image courtesy of

Today's passage can be read here: Luke 20:41-44

The previous passage ended, saying that because Jesus answered his critics so convincingly they didn't dare ask him anything else (v. 40). But the confrontation is not yet over! Now Jesus goes on the offensive, so to speak. He has questions for his critics. They have been criticizing him for doing things that imply he has authority equal to God Himself: forgiving sins, for example (Luke 5:20-26). In their eyes, because the Messiah was predicted to be a descendant of King David (i.e., a "son of David"; see 2 Sam 7:12-17), he was not greater in authority than David, who of course was subordinate to God. But Jesus has a very difficult question for them.

Most of the Psalms have what is called a superscription at the very beginning. Because modern editions of the Bible set them in different type from the words of the psalm proper and/or center them above the text, it can give the false impression that these are the remarks of modern editors, not the words of Scripture itself. But in fact they are found in the most ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, and not written in such a way as to differentiate them from the following text. They are therefore part of the authoritative text of Scripture.

Psalm 110 was generally regarded as messianic in Jesus' day. The superscription in Psalm 110 reads "A psalm of David", which has been generally taken as the identification of the author, and was certainly understood this way in Jesus' days. If David is the author, he is the one speaking the words. And his words include the verse: "The LORD (Hebrew Yahweh, i.e., God) said to my lord (Hebrew ‏אדֹנִי adoni), 'Sit at my right hand while I make your enemies into your footstool'" (v. 1). The Hebrew words translated as "LORD" (rightly capitalized in translation) and "my lord" are different. The first refers exclusively to God, the second is the ordinary word for one superior in rank, such as one's father, a priest or the king: someone whose authority over you you recognize.

Jesus' question is the obvious one: If David calls the Messiah "my lord", how can you interpret "David's son" in such a way as to make him in no way superior in authority? You criticize me and accuse me of blasphemy when I claim authority from God to heal, raise the dead and forgive sins, because I am "Son of David" to those who acclaim me the Messiah (see Matt 12:23; 15:22; 20:31; 21:9, 15; Luke 18:38-39). But you do not understand your own Scriptures, which clearly show that the Messiah was David's lord, and therefore superior in authority to any king.

I have paraphrased the clear intent of Jesus' question, which once again left his critics disarmed and unable to answer. Of course, Luke gives us no record of how Jesus himself answered the question on this occasion. Perhaps—as in the case of early situations in which he told his accusers that, since they would not answer him, neither would he answer them (Luke 20:1-8)—in this case he simply left them to ponder the question.

It is a question everyone should consider as the season of the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter approaches. Who is the Messiah promised to David? Is it the man named Jesus, born in Bethlehem (the town where David was born) in fulfillment of the prophecy in Micah 5:2 (see also Luke 2:4 and John 7:42 ), born of a virgin to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, who healed and raised the dead, who taught and explain the law of Moses perfectly, and who then suffered death to pay the penalty of the sins of us all (Isaiah 53)? If so, then he is not only David's "lord", but is the lord of every one of us!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Should I take along my wedding ring?—Luke 20:27-40

A Jewish traditional wedding ceremony.

Today's passage can be read here: Luke 20:27-40

Marriage relationships seem so transient nowadays. The divorce rate is very high, with no appreciable difference in that rate between religious groups and secular people. And many young people don't ever bother with marriage, since it might not last long, and it complicates their financial affairs to have to worry about who gets what in the division of common property at divorce. For those of us in the older generation, about to celebrate 50 years of happy marriage, this all seems so ominous. We fear for our society's future, when family ties may rarely exist.

In ancient Israel marriages as a rule were not as short-lived as today's marriages. But because of the higher rate of pregnancies and births, together with a higher rate of infant and maternal mortality in childbirth, second and third marriages by widowers were not uncommon. Add to that the need in ancient Israel for a male heir to carry on the inherited property, which led many husbands to take a second wife while the first one was still living, and you sometimes had a complicated picture of what wives belonged to what husbands. Another complication spawned by the need for a male heir was what scholars call the "levirate" marriage laws of the Bible. If a husband died before he had produced a male heir, his brother or other near blood relative was required to take the widow in marriage, and the first son he produced with her would be reckoned as not his own heir, but that of his deceased brother. The practice of this law is illustrated several times in the Old Testament (see Genesis 38:7-11; Numbers 36:6-9; Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Ruth 3:1-8; Ruth 4:7-22).

In today's passage we see yet another group hostile to Jesus coming to trick him with a question they thought he could not answer. This time it was the group known as the Sadducees. This group was largely made up of members of the priestly families. They were generally well-to-do financially, well educated, and heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. They accepted as divinely inspired and therefore authoritative only the first five books of the Old Testament, not the historical books, the Psalms or the prophetic books. Their "Scripture" was therefore truncated compared to the rest of the Jews who acknowledged all the books we now call the Old Testament. So far as their "theology" was concerned, they were fairly rationalistic. They believed nothing they could not see, and therefore denied the existence of angels, spirits and the life after death. The rest of the Jews believed in all these things and indeed also a physical, bodily resurrection at the end of the history of the nations, when God inaugurated his eternal kingdom.

Knowing that Jesus accepted as authoritative the entire Old Testament and believed in spirits, angels, the life after death, and the physical resurrection of the dead, they decided to discredit him with what they believed was an unanswerable question. Using the levirate marriage as an example, they posited a case in which a woman was successively married to seven men, not able to have a child by any of them. Their question was: When they all died and then were resurrected at the end of history, who would be the woman's husband in the next life? Their trick question was built on several premises: (1) that belief in the resurrection entailed that resurrected humans have the same activities, powers and limitations as in the present life, and (2) that the seemingly absurd dilemma of the woman in their story revealed the absurdity of the doctrine of resurrection. As Jesus remarked in one gospel's version of the incident, the problem of the Sadducees was twofold: (1) they did not know their own Scriptures, and (2) they were setting unnecessary limits on the power of God.

Before launching into Jesus' answer, let me say that, although both Jesus and the non-Sadducean Jews believed in a physical, bodily resurrection of God's people at the end of history, nothing either in the situation envisaged by the Sadducees trick question or in Jesus' reply requires anything but some form of an Afterlife, whether physical or non-physical. Their objection would hold even for a non-physical afterlife, although it loses some of its bite.

Jesus' answer is twofold. First, he enlightens the questioners on the actual state of God's people in the afterlife and after the resurrection (v. 34-36). Marriage was instituted in the Garden of Eden to provide for a growing population of humans on the Earth (see Genesis 1:27-29). A rapid population growth was desirable in the first epochs of human life on the Earth. And after certain population levels were reached, it was at least necessary in order to replace the generation dying. Of course, there have always been additional values to marriage in God's plan. Companionship and love between human married partners provide a training ground for learning how to live harmoniously with other members of human society. But the initial and always primary purpose for marriage according to the Bible is the producing of a new generation of children. Jesus does not state this overtly, but it lies behind his answer.

What he does say is that there is no further need of marriage after death, since there is no need for offspring generated in the afterlife: "They do not marry nor are they given in marriage. They are like the angels in that they do not die." Since they do not die, there are no ranks needing to be filled by offspring born in the afterlife. Such is Jesus' explanation of the state of those who have died in faith. The conditions of life after death are quite different from those before. Since he was not asked to describe in detail what the new activities will be, Jesus does not elaborate further. It is enough to answer his interrogators: their trick question only reveals how little they know about God's plans for the afterlife of his people.

The second part of Jesus' answer (v 37-39) addresses the Sadducees' lack of knowledge of their own limited "Scripture", the first five books of the Bible. For Jesus cites a statement of God given to Moses at the burning bush, found in Exodus 3:6. God identifies himself to Moses as "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob". Now, it is possible to understand that as "the God whom Abraham worshiped, the God whom Isaac worshiped, and the God whom Jacob worshiped", or something like that. This is probably how the Sadducees had understood it. But Jesus pointed out to them that by not saying "I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", God was saying that those three individuals were still alive at the moment he was talking to Moses! Now, this one verse would hardly suffice as a full justification for the immortality of the soul, i.e, an afterlife. Fortunately, there is much more Scriptural evidence available in both the Old and the New Testaments. But Jesus wanted to pick out a verse within the corpus of the Sadducees' own limited "Bible", in order to show them their error. That he succeeded is shown by the answer given to him by several of the Sadducees present (v. 39): "Well said, Teacher!" And because his answer had so devastated their attack, the group no longer tried to ask him questions.

Not every passage of Scripture is equally useful for moral exhortation. One way of looking at this passage is simply to show that our Savior showed his vastly superior knowledge both of Scripture and of the plan of God for the Ages, and in so doing put his critics to flight. We all cheer, and rightly so.

But I believe there is also somewhat of an application we can draw from this incident that will guide our daily living as disciples. We live now under quite different conditions and circumstances from what we will live under in God's eternal kingdom. But there are opportunities even now in this age for disciples of Jesus to practice some of those future activities and live in those future conditions. In this life their are what we just regard as "necessities": food, drink, human companionship, love, family, physical health. But having these necessities in itself does not constitute life, not even now. They make life possible, but they are not life.

Disciples of Jesus know that real life—life that after death will require none of the necessities—is communion with God who made us. Jesus once said: "This is eternal life, that they [disciples] may know you, the One True God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (see John 17:3). In Hebraic parlance, the verb "know" means more than rational perception. It is a verb that describes a husband's sexually intimate love for his wife. "Adam knew his wife, and she brought forth a son". To know God means to enter a very intimate relationship with him bound together by love and eternal commitment. We enjoy that already in this life, if we become Jesus' disciples. That is why Jesus said "I give unto them [my disciples] eternal life, and they will never die"—he gives this to us now, not only after we have died. And that eternal life survives physical death: it goes on forever.

What I am trying to say is this: Jesus' words to the Sadducees should remind you and me that life is more than the pursuit of these necessities. We should be enjoying now the daily communion with God that prayer and daily obedience to His Word afford us. We should be drawing upon the strength and wisdom that the Holy Spirit of God is in us to provide, in order to minister to the needs of our friends, neighbors and associates. We should be living now the "resurrected life" written about by St. Paul in Romans 6 and 8. We will talk about this more later. But keep this thought in mind and begin today to exploit the resurrection life that is yours now. Enjoy your food, exercise, work and sleep, while you do them for Christ's sake, but remember that they are a means to an end, not the end itself.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

God and Caesar—Luke 20:20-26

(Image courtesy of

Today's passage can be read here: Luke 20:20-26

Luke has begun to record how in his last week Jesus repeated warned his opponents and critics of the consequences of their refusal to recognize God's promised Messiah and his Kingdom. But Luke also wishes to show in the coming chapters how in the final week Jesus' enemies were constantly setting traps for him, trying to catch him in some public statement that would give them evidence to charge him with a crime punishable by death. That way they would be rid of him and his interference in their affairs, and at the same time not alienate the general public which had a very favorable opinion of him.

This is the first instance of such a delegation that came to Jesus. It was a mixed group. Luke seems to say that the same group as in the previous passage (i.e., scribes and chief priests, v. 13) also sent spies (v. 20) in the guise of sincere men to question him. Mark 12:13 identifies the group more specifically as Pharisees and Herodians. They came to him with a question about the legitimacy of Roman taxation for pious Jews (tsaddiq's) such as themselves.

One recent commentary claims that: "Luke’s readers would certainly know about the various forms of heavy Roman taxation. These totaled over one-third of a person’s income and included a poll tax, customs, and various indirect taxes." Other scholars show evidence that in Palestine in Jesus' days the Roman imposts amounted to much less than that figure. Still, the very fact that taxes had to be paid to a pagan Roman government grated on many nationalistic-minded Jews. There was not nearly such anger about the taxes that had to be paid to the local Jewish authorities and to the Temple.

Yet Luke gives us the most important bit of background, when he tells us in v. 20 that the delegation which arrived put this question to Jesus in order to trap him in what he replied, "so as to hand him over to the authority and jurisdiction of the [Roman] governor". If they could catch Jesus suggesting that Palestinian Jews had no obligation to pay the Roman tax, this could be construed as treason, a crime for which Jesus could be executed by the Romans.

These "spies" who looked like sincere seekers of moral guidance also flattered Jesus (v. 21), saying that they know he never hides his true feelings but is completely honest, forthright and fearless in expressing his views. This statement was calculated to disarm Jesus and make him feel free to tell them views that he might not readily divulge in public.

Their question was: "Is it permitted for us to pay tax to Caesar or not?" The only ambiguity in the question as it is framed lies in the word "permitted". Permitted by whom? The Greek verb ἔξεστίν is used in various senses in the New Testament, ranging from logical or moral right (a man's right to do what he wishes with his own money, Matthew 20:15) to conformity to Scripture or Jewish law (Old Testament law regarding permissible marriage partners, Matthew 14:4). There was no Old Testament law prohibiting paying taxes to a foreign governing power, because the Mosaic legislation did not presuppose Jews living under a foreign power in their own land. What legal scholars in Jesus' days did was to extract a principle from the Scripture and extend it to cover a new situation not directly anticipated in the original biblical context. Taxes were paid in Roman-minted coins, on the face of which was the image of Caesar. Even to use such coins might according to some strict interpreters be considered a compromise with one of the Ten Commandments: ““You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4).

This is necessary background for Jesus’ words to the questioner in this passage. For shown a Roman coin with the image of Caesar and his name inscribed upon it and asked if he thought it permissible for a Jew to give tax to Caesar (i.e., to Rome), Jesus asked whose was the face on the coin. And when told it was Caesar’s, he ruled: “Give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to him."

Actually, there was great hypocrisy in the questioners' implication that there might be something impermissible about paying such tribute. For the Romans were not the first pagan empire to rule over the Jews since the giving of the Ten Commandments. For centuries the Jews had paid tribute (tax) to the Persian Empire and after that to the Hellenistic Empire of the successors of Alexander the Great. The Romans were just the latest pagan empire to control Palestine.

With this answer Jesus evaded the trap. It was not an insincere answer: he was actually stating a principle that would be reiterated by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the churches in Rome (Romans 13:1-7). As all interpreters have recognized, without in any way compromising God’s law Jesus was disarming both the Pharisees (who supported paying the Temple tax) and the Herodians (who advocated payment of the Roman tax). They had come to trap Jesus, thinking that he could not possibly satisfy both groups. Jesus—without attempting just to please either group—in speaking of God’s requirement his true worshipers live as dual citizens (of Heaven and of their own nation-state), actually silenced their criticism, and gave them no way to accuse him before Rome or the Sanhedrin.

So also today, Christians should pay those taxes which our government can demonstrate that we properly owe (income tax, etc.). But we should also give to God our worship and obedience, as well as and our time and money. One duty does not obviate or exclude the other. We are citizens of the United States, but also citizens of Heaven.

Jesus' statement also requires our obedience to God’s Word when government’s laws oppose that Word. Millions of Christians down through history have had to face martyrdom because they would not “give to Caesar what belongs to God”. This began already in the days of the Apostles, when refusal to sprinkle a pinch of incense on an altar to the “divine Caesar” (Roman emperor worship) meant death for thousands of early Christians. And this pattern has continued throughout history. The Apostle Peter put it well when facing the Jewish Sanhedrin and commanded no longer to speak or preach in the name of Jesus: "We must obey God rather than men!" American Christians often have to engage in “civil disobedience” in order to protest practices which our government considers lawful, but which are in violation of biblical commandments. But we must be extremely careful that there really is a clear opposition of a governmental requirement to God's Word. Otherwise, we are disobeying our Lord who commands us to "give to Caesar what belongs to him", in this case obedience to a law that does not clearly contradict the Biblical commands.

Jesus' answer "Give to Caesar what belongs to him" and the amplification by St. Paul (Romans 13:7 "Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due") was exemplified by Jesus' behavior as he stood on trial before the Sanhedrin and subsequently before Pilate: although he was falsely charged, he was at all times respectful and truthful. One of the unfortunate consequences of political competition in the USA today is the exaggerated form taken by criticism of public figures whose policies people do not approve. Targets of such abuse include the person of the President himself. In contrast, both Jesus and the Apostles always showed respect to office-holders by virtue of the honor and respect due to the office itself, even when they disagreed with them. Americans can learn a lesson from this example, not to mock or degrade our presidents or other public officials, even if we may disapprove of their policies. When unbelievers do this, it is ugly enough. But when those known to be disciples of Jesus indulge in it, it brings disgrace to the name of Jesus, their Lord.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Tenants who want to be owners—Luke 20:9-19

Golden vine at Entrance to Herod's Temple
(Image courtesy of

Today's text can be read here: Luke 20:9-19

Throughout the last week before his crucifixion, Jesus was repeatedly warning Jerusalem's religious leaders of the consequences of what they were planning to do to him. And although he had repeatedly faced criticism before from some in his audiences, the intensity and severity of the opposition now increased as the Passover weekend approached.

The leaders were well aware of the import of his teachings, even though Jesus had refrained from explicit public claims to be the Messiah. They also knew that Passover in Jerusalem was the most likely place for him to finally reveal himself to the people, and that in view of his popularity it was quite likely that he would gain a large following and force their hands as leaders to accept him and challenge Rome.

They were right to fear the disastrous results of such a confrontation with Rome. In the years that followed Jesus’ death and resurrection there would be others who would claim openly to be the Messiah and would lead their Jewish supporters to death at the hands of the Romans. The flaw in their argument, however, was: first, that Jesus had never advocated a violent confrontation with Rome, and secondly, if he were to do so in the future, since he was the true Messiah, God’s armies of angels would easily overthrow the Romans.

But something other than just political and military fears was also at work. The religious leaders wanted to preserve their control over the people. They liked the exercise of power, which they now saw challenged by Jesus. If he were acknowledged to be the Messiah, there would be no place for them in the corridors of power. As religious leaders of God’s people, they were not kings. Nor did they own God’s people: they were merely custodians or shepherds ("tenants", if you like) to care for what was not their own. As such, they were accountable to God, the true owner—and of course to his Son and Heir. Jesus truly cared for the people, not just as a shepherd—although he truly was the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep, but as the heir and true owner of the flock.

And so, when we understand this setting in which Jesus told this story, we can understand who is being depicted in each character. And we can understand why the leaders who heard it, knew very well that he had spoken this threat to them.

It is well known that the nation Israel was symbolized by a vine and a vineyard. this is already established by the "song of the Vineyard" in Isaiah 5:1-7, the climactic line 7 of which reads: "The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress." Israel was God's vineyard and vines. The fruit he looked for was righteousness and faith, but instead he found the cries of ones who were treated unjustly. this brought on his judgment.

Over one of the entrances to the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem was an image of a vine made of gold (see the image above). This represented Israel, God's vine.

In the parable, the owner represents God who sends his servants the prophets to check on Israel's fruit and hold the tenants (the religious leaders) accountable for producing the fruit of righteousness in the people. Instead of yielding the expected income of the vineyard to its distant owner, the tenants (Old Testament kings and leaders) killed the prophets, the most recent of which was John the Baptizer. In the parable, the owner (God) then sends his son, supposing that perhaps his tenants will have greater respect for his son than for his servants. But they think that by killing the heir they may gain ownership of the vineyard, not just the management of it. So they throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. The sequence here emphasizes that they first rejected him before they killed him, just as Jesus was first rejected by the leaders and then turned over to the Romans for execution on a cross.

Jesus' final question to them: What do you think the owner will do to those tenants? Those who heard Jesus knew very well the terrible answer. And the religious leaders, knowing that the tenants represented them, replied "God forbid!" (v. 16). Jesus answered his own question, saying: "He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others." The judgment of the leaders and of the nation that followed their leadership was thus clearly predicted. What they now decided to do with Jesus was done in the full light of his many warnings.

The leaders doubtless said to themselves: "But this is just his story. A made-up story has no authority!" But Jesus, as usual knowing their thoughts, gave them the authority they ought to have recognized: the prophetic Scriptures. "Then what is the meaning of that which is written: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone"? He was quoting from Psalm 118:22, one of the psalms of the Great Hallel, sung by pilgrims at Passover, and which generations of Jewish scholars had acknowledged was prophetic. All quibbling was now silenced. The prediction was there for all with clear heads and open eyes to see: The "builders" of Israel were her leaders, and the Stone rejected by them God would make into the Cornerstone.

But sadly, the leaders who heard Jesus did not change their minds. They remained intent upon doing away with this man who interfered with their plans for the nation (v. 19).

Medieval "Christians" made the terrible mistake of using the term "Christ-killers" of Jewish citizens in their midst, and used that awful term as an excuse to oppress and persecute them. This was a ghastly sin for which they will be held accountable at God's judgment seat. Jesus' warning was directed at this one generation of Judeans, and the judgment he warned of fell in AD 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman armies. The only judgment that is yet unfulfilled is not just for professing Jews, but for all people—Jews and Gentiles—who refuse to accept Jesus as God's promised Savior.

It is easy for us to point the finger at these ancient religious leaders, and fail to see the lesson that is in this passage for us all. We all like the feeling of being in control, not only of our own lives but also—if possible—of others. Yet disciples of Jesus are not even in control of their own lives: we belong to Jesus, and he is entitled to do with us as he wishes. This means not only demanding of us daily lives of kindness, generosity, and purity, but also that he can bring times of suffering and need into our lives, in order to test us. When things go wrong, do you blame God? When sickness comes, when a business venture collapses, when your love for another is rebuffed, what is your reaction? If we would not repeat the mistake of the religious leaders of Judea, we must remind ourselves each day: "Jesus died for me. I do not, therefore, belong to myself — I belong to him who so loved me." This is a proper lesson for us as our study takes us steadily toward the cross of Jesus and our own worship on Good Friday and Easter. What does his cross mean to you? Does it make you want to respond to his love: "Lord, you gave yourself for me. I give myself without reservation to you, to love and serve you all my life."

We too are God's tenants, given life itself and asked to use our resources to serve Him, and in so doing to serve the best interests of others. When instead we try to use other people for our own selfish ends, we are seeking to be more than tenants, but owners. And this, God will judge.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

By what authority…?—Luke 20:1-8

Today's passage can be read here: Luke 20:1-8

When it comes to sources of information, it is always important to check their authority. And although the Greek term in this passage translated "authority" (ἐξουσίᾳ) has nothing to do with the Greek word for "author", I have always thought the connection between the two terms in English is enlightening. When we evaluate a statement, we often wish to know "Who is its author? Who wrote this? Where does it come from?" We tend to be rightfully skeptical of unsigned articles in newspapers or magazines. And although journalists feel they need to conceal the identity of confidential sources, this practice always makes be extremely skeptical of their statements. I want to know how this person knows what he claims to know.

In a sense, therefore, the question that Jesus' critics put to him in the Jerusalem temple was a legitimate one. He was teaching in the temple courtyard and "proclaiming the good news". Now, the Greek term εὐαγγέλιον which we translate "gospel" or "good news" in its post-Resurrection usage refers to the news that Jesus successfully triumphed over sin and death in his resurrection from the dead and now offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to anyone who will put their trust in him. But we have to understand that, although even before the Cross, Jesus was interested in leading individual sinners into a new relationship with God through forgiveness and wholeness, he was also presenting the chosen people of God, Israel, with an opportunity to accept him as their promised Messiah. When he proclaimed that the "kingdom of God" had arrived and was open for admission, he was declaring that the kingdom promised in the Old Testament (the Jewish scriptures) was now ready to be revealed. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he wept that they had failed to recognize the time of God's visiting them. There was a "window of opportunity" open that would soon close. It is a good bet that this was the "good news" that Jesus was proclaiming in the temple courtyard, as he was teaching on that day. And it was precisely this message to which his critics now objected so strongly. They wanted to know by whose authority he was "doing these things" (meaning teaching what he was in the temple courtyard).

Jesus' authority was manifold. In the Gospel of John he often spoke publicly of the kinds of authority he possessed. His principal authority was the word of God, which was already manifest in the prophetic Scriptures of the Old Testament. "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40), he said. But he also appealed to the miracles his Father enabled him to do. It was not just that he could do supernatural tricks, but that the specific kinds of miracles he performed were precisely those predicted that the Messiah would do at the time that God's kingdom would be inaugurated. This is what he meant, when he answered the question of John the Baptizer brought by his disciples. He said:

"Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me" (Luke 7:21-23).

It wasn't just miracles that were his credentials: it was this specific group of miracles, combined with the good news of God's kingdom proclaimed to the poor , all of which were promised in various parts of the Old Testament prophecies (for a sampling see Isa 35:5; 61:1). As Elijah and Elisha were used by God to bring dead people to live, so the Messiah would also raise the dead—which of course Jesus had just done for Lazarus, and which was now hot news in Jerusalem.

Jesus had answered such questions about his authority before. But there comes a time when stubborn critics ask repeatedly the question that has been often answered. And when that happens, the teacher takes a different tack in answering. So Jesus doesn't just trot out all the legitimate answers he had given them before. Instead, he used one of his favorite tactics in teaching: he asked them a question! "Tell me, by what authority did John the Baptizer perform that baptism? Did God tell him to do it? Or was it his own idea?" This is what the critics would call a "trick question". Any answer available to them would be damaging to them. But it was not an unfair question. Their predicament was all in their own making. By refusing to acknowledge John's role as the forerunner, announcing Jesus as the Messiah, they put themselves in this trap. For the people at large admired John as a true prophet and a martyr for his faith, even if they did not fully follow him in his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. These critics could not say John's message was his own invention lest they be denounced by the people at large. Yet to acknowledge John meant believing what he taught, which was the the Kingdom of God was at hand in the person of the Messiah Jesus!

The only option open to them they thought, was to profess ignorance: "We do not know". How tragic! How much better if they had changed their minds at this point and confessed their error. But they were too proud for that. By professing ignorance, they failed to fulfill the condition on which Jesus promised to answer their question. Yet his answer was actually in the very question he posed to them. Jesus knew it, and they knew it. For you see, Jesus' authority was the same as John's. Both came from God and possessed God's authority. By rejecting first John and now Jesus these religious leaders were spitting in God's eye! An extremely dangerous thing to do, especially for men who claimed to be representing that God.

Today there are people who claim to be simply and honestly "pursuing the truth" who deny the truthfulness and authority of the Bible. These people follow in the train of the critics of Jesus portrayed here. God gave us minds and intends us to use them. But he also gave us his own Word in the Bible. We cannot honor him by rejected either one. Right-thinking persons seek always to use their God-given minds to understand, interpret and teach God's revealed Word in the Bible.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Cleansing the Temple—Luke 19:45-47

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Today's passage can be read here: Luke 19:45-47

According to Luke, the first thing Jesus did after entering the Holy City for the last time before his death was to go to the House of God to pray. Jerusalem was the City of God, the true God's only earthly "residence". When a guest enters a home, the first thing he must do is to pay respects to the home's owner. Remember also that it was Luke's gospel alone that told of the visit to the Jerusalem temple by Jesus' family when he was only a boy, and how he lingered there even after his parents had left town, just to be able to hear the learned scholars discuss the Holy Scripture in the Temple. When his parents finally found him, he expressed surprise that they didn't know where he would be—in his Father's House. Although he grew up a Galilean, Jesus clearly loved being in his Father's House in Jerusalem.

For that very reason he was truly incensed by the loud noise created by the buying and selling of sacrificial animals that took place in the Court of the Gentiles, one of the outer courts. Although the noise chiefly distracted the worship of Gentiles, who could penetrate no further into the Temple's interior, was it not said by God through Isaiah the Prophet: "My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17)? Peace and tranquility for prayer should not be just for the Jewish worshipers!

We do not know if the money-changers were actually cheating the worshipers who had to exchange foreign currency for the Syrian shekels required to buy sacrificial lambs and doves. That may or may not have been the reason for Jesus' choice of the phrase: "You have made it a den of robbers", which he quoted from Jeremiah 7:9-11

"Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, 'We are safe'—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD."

In their original context, these words were a criticism of Israelites who robbed and defrauded their fellow men all week long and then came to worship in the Temple, thinking that God's physical presence among them (symbolized by the Temple in Jerusalem) would keep them immune from His judgment. It was the den in which they hid from pursuing justice. Jeremiah ("the weeping prophet") had bad news for them. The presence of the Temple in Jerusalem and the regular offerings there would not prevent God from judging their sins that had gone unpunished for so many decades. The approaching Babylonian army would raze Solomon's beautiful temple to the ground!

I believe that this is why Jesus quoted this passage from Jeremiah. Not because there was cheating going on in the Temple courts, but because Israel was long overdue for judgment: for killing the prophets, the last of which was John the Baptizer, and for killing the Son of God—which was to transpire very soon now. The lesson of Jeremiah 7 must not be lost on that generation. For in a matter of forty more years (AD 70) the Roman general Titus' legions would torch Herod's temple, the very temple where Jesus now worshiped, and would leave it as underground ruins until this very day. All this because they refused God's final call to repentance and his offer of His Son to be their true King. Now the "den" would not save them.

These were Jesus' words. His action was to drive out the money-changers. Again, not because they alone were the offenders. They merely symbolized the whole religious hierarchy of Israel at the time. Blind leaders, leading a whole people astray. What Jesus did now to the money-changers, God would do by Titus to all the Jews in Jerusalem in AD 70.

But are we Gentiles better than they? St. Paul reminds us in Romans 11 that we Gentiles owe to the Jews our opportunity to know God and find His forgiveness. We avail ourselves of that opportunity by putting our faith in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. And if we lose faith in him, if we begin to disobey his teachings and discredit God's Holy Word, we can expect the same treatment. Paul wrote to the church in Rome:

"Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not think you are superior: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: "The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins."
As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all."

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Rolling out the Red Carpet—Luke 19:28-44

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Today's text can be found here: Luke 19:28-44

When as a boy I was first read this story from the Bible, I envisioned the whole city of Jerusalem gathered at the city gate, cheering Jesus. That was not the case. True, it was not just a few friends who welcomed Jesus into the city of David. Combining the evidence of the four gospels, we can see that there were two groups of people involved: a group that traveled with Jesus from Bethany to Jerusalem, and a second group that came out of Jerusalem to greet him. We can also see from the narrative that among them were not only friends of Jesus but his critics (see v. 39). It was a mixed group, not huge, but enough to attract attention.

But let's first back up and begin where Luke does in this text. It is Passover time (Hebrew pesakh)! Bands of happy pilgrims are traveling along the routes of Palestine, converging from north, east, south and west on the Holy City, to buy their lambs from the temple, rent quarters for their groups, prepare the meal, and celebrate together in family groups the memory of their formation as a free nation. You remember the event they were remembering. It is told for the first time in Exodus 12. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were numerous, but were slaves in Egypt, not yet a nation, only a minority group within Egypt of the pharaohs. God sent Moses to them to announce his plan to deliver them by his mighty miraculous power from slavery and to lead them to the Promised Land. On the night before they left Egypt God commanded them to celebrate the miracle in advance—before it even happened. This was an act of faith—believing that on that night God would slay the firstborn son in every Egyptian household (including the king's) and force the king to order their release. The celebration took the form of a family feast on a lamb, from this time onward called the Passover Lamb (pesakh). Passover was a happy festival, and one of three such festivals when every Israelite male with his family had to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate there.

So Jesus and his friends were not alone on the roads that day. But as they approached Jerusalem from the east, in the vicinity of Bethphage and Bethany, he sent two of his disciples ahead to secure a donkey for him to ride. This was not because he was tired, but because he was telling another parable—this one an acted out one. He was going to portray to the bystanders as he entered Jerusalem for the last time in his life the meaning of his three-year public ministry. The script for this little drama was a prophecy found in the Book of Zechariah (Zech 9:9): "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, yes, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

As with his spoken parables, this acted out one was subtle, allowing those with perception to see and understand, but not blatantly obvious to the disinterested and censorious. The parable was Jesus' favorite way of teaching, because it allowed him to reach those whose minds and hearts were attuned to God's frequency, but to confuse and confound his critics. To openly claim to be Israel's king would have opened Jesus to the legal charge of treason by the Roman authorities. True, he would eventually be unjustly executed on this very charge ("he made himself a king"—"we have no king but Caesar"), but it could never be proven out of Jesus' own mouth. And his "kingship", as he told Pilate, was not an earthly competitor of Rome. Still, now he made his true identity known in a protected and indirect way to those who mattered to God.

First, the donkey had to be secured by his disciples and brought to Jesus. Then he mounted it and rode into the city. What a picture! On the one hand (since it was after all a donkey, not a war horse) a sign of his peaceful kingdom (no necessary threat to Roman rule), and on the other hand a clear statement of the fulfillment of ancient prophecy given to this very people by their God. These symbols might have meant nothing to the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, but they ought to have meant much to Jewish worshipers who knew their Scripture.

His followers strewed his path with branches of trees and with their own garments. This was a clear act of homage to a ruler. And they cried out to celebrate, using the words of the Hallel, the series of six Psalms (113-118) traditionally sung by pilgrims at the three major festivals of the Jewish year (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles): “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Psa 118:26 = Luke 19:38).

Although these words were part of the normal use of the Hallel, in this situation they could be construed as a special welcome and acclamation of the Messianic King, entering the Holy City. For this reason some critics in the audience asked Jesus to silence the singers. His reply was, as usual, a profound one: "If these were to be silent, the very stones of the City would cry out!" The Holy City herself, symbolizing to all present the very home of God, could never allow God's Son to arrive un-welcomed! What a statement! And what a rebuke! Jesus had not scripted the crowd's reaction, but God did.

But following Jesus' rebuke of those who would silence the City's welcome of her King, Luke immediately shows his tender love for that city and for the nation it symbolized. On only two occasions the gospels tell us that Jesus wept: at Lazarus' tomb (John 11) and on this occasion. His tears were not scripted. Like Jeremiah, often called "the weepeing prophet" because he wept for the fate of Jerusalem, destined to be destroyed by the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar, as part of God's plan to punish her for her disobedience and idolatry, Jesus too expresses the feelings of God Himself. For although God had to punish Israel by the Babylonians, and will have to punish the Jewish nation again in AD 70 by the Roman armies, He does so with a sad and heavy heart. For God loves his people. Jesus shows Jerusalem in this moment how God feels about them: loving them, yet forced to judge them for their refusal to listen to his prophets and finally his own Son, the Messiah.

The tragic words "all of this awaits you, because you failed to recognize the time God was visiting you" are Jesus' last words to the city as a whole before his utterances from the cross. Opportunities come and go. A window of opportunity was beginning to close for Israel. But after the cross and the empty tomb a new window of opportunity would open for the whole world, an opportunity to trust in the crucified and risen Savior. It is our opportunity today. Yours, mine, that of your family, that of your acquaintances. Let us not miss it.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Jesus will be King, but just not as you expect now—Luke 19:11-27

Today's text can be read here: Luke 19:11-27

The stage is set now for Luke to tell of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem for the last time (Luke 19:28-44). Each of the four gospel writers chooses to introduce his account of the Jerusalem entry with a different event from among those that occurred in the last days before that entry, in order to highlight the entry in his own way.

Mark (followed by Matthew) introduces the entry with the story of Jesus' giving sight to blind Bar-timaeus in Jericho (Mark 10:46-52; Matthew 20:29-34). John introduces it with the dramatic story of Jesus' raising Lazarus from the dead in Bethany-beyond-Jordan, and the jealous enemies of Jesus seeking to kill Lazarus in order to destroy the evidence of Jesus' Messiahship (John 11; 12:1-11). But Luke chooses the account of Jesus telling this parable, which was intended (as verse 11 tells us) to correct the expectation by the crowds in Jericho that Jesus would enter Jerusalem, be immediately and universally recognized as the Messiah, and would introduce the world-conquering Kingdom of God. In other words, it was to be a cautionary tale, and a kind of corrective to the potentially false impression that might otherwise be made by the entry story which follows.

Jesus' main point in this parable—there are other subordinate ones, but we should not let them distract us from the main one—is that the Kingdom of God in its full meaning will not come until he returns in glory to establish his reign at the end of "history". That is still ahead for us all. The parable is about a man entitled to be king, who goes to receive his crown from the emperor, but whose enemies send a delegation after him to the emperor declaring their opposition to him as king. They absolutely refuse to have him as their king. But the emperor decides to make him king anyway. And when he returns, he rewards those who wanted him to be king and punishes with death those who opposed him.

The story is modeled on a real event that occurred in 40 BC, when an embassy of Jews was sent to Rome to unsuccessfully contest the immanent naming of Herod the Great to be King of Judea.

It has been long recognized by scholars that Jesus often resorted to parables when he was speaking about the eventual reaction to him by the Jewish people of his time. It may have been that he deliberately used veiled language in order to avoid inciting the crowds of sympathetic listeners against their leaders in Jerusalem. Jesus did not want a popular uprising on his behalf that would lead to violence and loss of life. But he did want his followers to be prepared for what was coming (see similar warnings in John 13 and 14), and to be reassured that what looked like a disastrous defeat for him and his gospel in the crucifixion, would lead to an eventual triumph. In some stories of this type the figure representing Jesus was actually killed (see the parable of the tenants in Luke 20:9-15). In this parable the nobleman who goes to the emperor for installation as king of his country is not actually killed, but he is rejected.

This is the main point of the story. But as I said, there is also a subordinate "plot" running along with it: how the man who returns in power as the king deals with those who have supported him. While he was away, he entrusted to them funds to invest. This theme we have seen earlier in Luke: servants rewarded for good use of the resources entrusted to them and one servant rebuked for poor use. Here that theme is repeated, but in keeping with the story theme about a returning king, the reward is rule over villages in the kingdom. This reminds us of Jesus' promises to his apostles that, when he returns in glory, they will sit on thrones, ruling the twelve restored tribes of Israel in his kingdom. It also reminds us of St. Paul's teachings about rewards given by Jesus in our Afterlife for faithful service in the present one (see 2 Corinthians 5:9-10).

The main plot and the subordinate one give us a full picture of what the disciples should expect in the coming days and years: Jesus' upcoming experience in Jerusalem would end in apparent failure: his rejection, trial for blasphemy, and execution by crucifixion. But would be followed by resurrection and ascension to the throne of God (going to the "far country" to receive a kingdom). This would be followed by a period of discipleship with the king in absentia, an opportunity to use the gifts and the Scripture that he left behind for us, and ultimately by his bodily return in glory to Earth to reward his faithful believers and punish those who oppose and reject him.

What a gift our Savior gave to his followers in these teachings on the eve of the tumultuous and potentially confusing events of the upcoming Passover Week in Jerusalem! And what a gracious gift he has given to us in the gospels to help us keep a clear picture of history in the midst of these tumultuous and frightening days we live in! We need to hear this message loud and clear: Jesus is in absentia, but he is in control. God has crowned him King in Heaven, and his return may be delayed, but could occur at any moment. Many around us send messages to God in many ways, saying they do not want Jesus to rule over them. But God has made up his mind about that: Jesus is already King in Heaven, and he will inevitably become King on Earth. Now is the time to support him and to give him your loyal service, using the gifts he has given us.

Courage, brothers and sisters! Marana tha "O Lord! Come!"

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Zacchaeus—Luke 19:1-10

Sycamore tree in the heart of Jericho
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Today's text can be read here: Luke 19:1-10

The man named Zacchaeus (Hebrew-Aramaic form: Zakkai) forms a foil to the unnamed "rich young ruler" we read about recently in Luke. The latter was given no name, because he never changed his mind and joined the Christian community, whereas Zacchaeus, whose life the Lord changed so dramatically for the better, did and became a primary source for this incident.

As to the name Zakkai, Richard Bauckham has the following to say, based upon Tal Ilan's studies:

"Many names had different forms and these could sometimes be used to distinguish one bearer of the name from another. For example, Jesus' brother Joseph (Matt 13:55) was evidently known by the abbreviated form
Yoses (Mark 6:3) in order to distinguish him within the family from his father Joseph. This is exactly like a modern family within which the father is known as James and the son as Jim. It is possible that other persons known by abbreviated forms of a name were first so called to distinguish them from close relatives of the same name. Perhaps Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2, i.e., Zakkai, the short form of Zachariah) was first so called to distinguish him from his father or an uncle or grandfather called Zachariah" (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 78).

There is an intriguing possibility that the Zacchaeus whose name the early church historian Eusebius found in a list of 15 leaders of the first generation of Jerusalem church leaders was indeed the man of this story. Although Eusebius names him the fourth bishop of Jerusalem in a sequence of 15, Skarsaune (In the Shadow of the Temple, pp. 195-96) is probably right to interpret the list so as to make him and the eleven others that complete the list an "apostolate" of twelve assistants to one of the first three bishops who head the list: who were James (Jesus' brother), Symeon and Justus.
"If Jesus traveled from Jericho to Bethany on Sunday, he must have spent the last Sabbath before his death in Jericho. This throws light on the story of Zacchaeus. What Jesus says to this tax collector is, 'I must stay at your house today.' The verb 'stay' (Luke 19:5) and the phrase 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner' (Luke 19:7) imply that Jesus stayed overnight with Zacchaeus. Jesus spent the last Sabbath in humiliation in order to bring salvation and joy to the home of a tax collector. This reinforces the program for ascending to Jerusalem: 'For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost' (Luke 19:10)" (Van Bruggen, Christ on Earth [1998], p. 202).
Zacchaeus' promise to repay fourfold was based on Exodus 22:1 (compare Jesus' comment
with Mark 2:13-17).

"According to the Mishnah (M. Arak. viii 4) a man may devote only part of his means to the Temple, and to go further than this was not valid. This passage demonstrates that men were obliged to set a limit to their generosity. It had already been recognized as a precept in the first century AD that it was not permissible to spend more than a fifth of one's means on acts of charity (j. Peah i.I, 15b.23). Zacchaeus the publican was ready to give half his goods to charity, and so to make recompense for fraud (Luke 19.8), and this intention Jesus commended. [Elsewhere in the gospels] The phrase, 'to sell all that he had' (makar kol ma she yesh lo, b. Pes. 49a Bar.) cannot always be taken literally, and the evidence shows how far the demands for charity on a man's means were taken in practice. On the other hand, it was performed to the letter by such a man as R[abbi] Johanan: for the sake of studying the Torah he sold all his material possessions without even retaining enough for the needs of his old age. We must, therefore, consider the possibility that 'to sell all' is not to be taken literally, but is rather a powerful expression for the demands of charity. There is no doubt in this case that such demands played a large part in the teaching of Jesus" (J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, pp. 127-28).

Several lessons emerge from this account. Although Zacchaeus had all that anyone in his location and era could want—wealth, influence in society, probably a reputation for orthodoxy and religiosity among the more well-to-do class—he was clearly an unhappy man and was seeking to fill the emptiness in his soul. The measure of his desperation is shown by his willingness to appear ridiculous in order to attract Jesus' attention. His surprise and delight that Jesus "invited himself" to stay the night in Zacchaeus' home. And his eagerness to let Jesus change him from a self-serving, greedy person into a repentant man happy to rid himself of undeserved money and thirsty for the forgiveness of those he had wronged.

Some of us may still find ourselves in Zacchaeus' position. He had a thirst that perhaps others in his neighborhood, city or nation had. But unlike many of them he was willing to risk ridicule in order to slake that thirst in Jesus. Do you?

Others of us may have taken the step to "drink" the forgiveness of God through personal trust in Jesus, but need to examine our lives in this season preceding Passion and Easter. Are we only "respectable" on the outside, but inwardly driven by personal ambitions and acquisitiveness that shoves the needs of others aside? Are we "defrauding" others by ignoring them and failing to take their needs into consideration? Our spouses? Our children? Our parents? Our brothers or sisters? Our fellow church members? Our colleagues at work? How much do we even allow ourselves to see need around us?

If we are in either of these two positions, the story of Zacchaeus shows us the remedy. We need to go to Jesus, seeking his forgiveness and promising with his enablement to change. This kind of change is not an attempt to earn forgiveness and salvation: it is the grateful response of one who has found forgiveness and has drunk deeply of Jesus.

Friday, March 01, 2013

A Blind Man at Jericho—Luke 18:35-43

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Today's text can be found here: Luke 18:35-43

Beggars were normally found at places where many people had to pass: at entrances to temples, at gateways to walled cities. Jericho was a walled city. There were two routes for travelers between Galilee and Jerusalem. One followed the spine of the central north-south mountain range and passed through Samaria. Jesus had taken this route before, and had had both positive and negative reception by the Samaritans. On this trip, however, he took the easterly route down the Jordan valley to Jericho and then up the slopes westward to Jerusalem. Today's passage and tomorrow's deal with incidents at Jericho.

The blind beggar's name, given to us by Mark, was Bar-Timaeus, which in Aramaic means "son of Timaeus". Although the RSV omits the name, considering it to be merely the Aramaic words, then translated by Mark as "son of Timaeus" in the following gloss, research into naming practices among Palestinian Jews in Jesus' day has shown that it was fairly common for a man to have his patronym ("son of X") as his usual name. Mark was therefore really giving us the name by which the beggar was called, and then (in Greek translation) identifying him as Timaeus ' son. In Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern societies today the common practice is the opposite: a father often is called by the name of his eldest son: Abu Tariq "father of Tariq".

Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eye-witnesses (2006), has made a good case that named individuals in the gospel accounts occurring in only one recorded incident were most likely identified by name, because they had survived in the Christian community as living sources (eye-witnesses) of the event being described. It is therefore very probable that Bar-timaeus became a member of the earliest Christian community after the Resurrection, and that he was a primary source for this account.

Bar-timaeus was sitting by the roadside near the entrance to Jericho when he heard the hubbub of the crowd accompanying Jesus approach. Inquiring who this popular person was that was passing by, he was told it was Jesus of Nazareth. By this time, which was relatively late in his three-year public ministry, Jesus was well-known and had a largely popular and favorable reputation, foremost of which was his ability to heal any affliction.

Luke and Matthew agree on the wording of what Bar-timaeus called out to Jesus: "Jesus, son of David! Have mercy on me!" Mark only omits "son of David". Now, it is true that "son of David" might have royal, and messianic overtones, implying that Bar-timaeus believed Jesus was the promised Davidic King and Messiah. But on analogy with the rules governing the use of the "father of Tariq" type name in Middle Eastern society today, only those who are relatives or on intimate terms with the person (or who wish to be) use this form of address. It is possible that Bar-timaeus called Jesus bar David because he wanted Jesus to view him as an intimate friend or relative, and thus "have mercy" on him. Of course, this parallel may not go very far, since David was Jesus' remote ancestor, not his real parent. But in support of the theory, it is interesting that, after bystanders sought to silence Bar-timaeus, he cried out more insistently and desperately "Son of David! Have mercy on me!" omitting the name Jesus entirely. His appeal was based on what "Son of David" meant to him. By addressing Jesus this way, he hoped desperately to receive his mercy.

In any event, the actual gospel text does not say that Bar-timaeus directly requested healing, only "mercy". Since in the Greek of Jesus' day gifts to beggars were called "mercy" (ἐλεημοσύνη), his request could have been answered with a small gift of money. But in Jesus' vocabulary "mercy" meant much more. It meant healing—both of body and of soul.

Jesus stopped and commanded his disciples to bring Bar-timaeus to him. When the beggar arrived, Jesus asked him "What do you want me to do for you?" and open-ended offer of "mercy". Ask little, receive little. Ask much, receive much! Understanding this, Bar-timaeus asked much of Jesus: "Let me receive my sight." Jesus' answered, "Receive your sight. Your faith has made you well."

The miracle was instantaneous: immediately the man could see. And immediately also he began to "follow" Jesus, that is, he became a disciple. This fits the understanding mentioned above that Bar-timaeus is named in this story (only in Mark, however), because he had become a believer and continued in the early Church as a living source for this story.

In fact, although the blind were among the classes exempt according to Jewish law (M. Hag. i 1) from the obligation to travel to Jerusalem for the major festivals (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles), now that this man's sight was restored he was obligated to go. And since Jesus and his entourage were at this point on their way to Jerusalem for Passover, it is likely that the previously blind beggar actually joined their party and thus quite literally "followed" (or "accompanied"; Greek ἠκολούθει αὐτῷ) Jesus!

There is a sense in which you and I, once we believe and become disciples of Jesus, become living sources for what the Resurrected, Living Jesus has done to make us spiritually whole. Others who see how our lives have changed for the better can also testify to this. But it is we ourselves who are the primary sources. Sometimes it is not only the Scripture that God uses to lead a seeking person to take the step of becoming a disciple. Sometimes God also uses the testimony of one of us, telling how we were, and how we came to believe, and how Jesus changed us. I'm sure Bar-timaeus never grew tired of telling his story. I know I never lose the deep sense of gratitude to Jesus for how he reached out to me as a confused freshman at Princeton University in 1956. I pray only that my life and yours will match well with the stories we can tell. Bar-timaeus never went blind again; he continued to see. The change was permanent and plain for all to see. The drastic changes in our lives should also be permanent and plain for all to see.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Threading the Needle—Luke 18:24-30

Please read today's passage here: Luke 18:24-30

Today's passage is really just the continuation of the story of the rich young ruler. It is Jesus' commentary to his disciples standing around him. It is the lesson he wishes them to draw from what they had seen and heard.

You remember that the rich young ruler, very eager and sincere in his quest to become a disciple of Jesus, wanted to know what was still missing of the things he had already done to qualify him to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus, recognizing that what the young man had already achieved by his own efforts was actually hindering him from accepting both God's free gift of forgiveness to the undeserving and facing the demands that discipleship would eventually impose upon him, put him to the acid test. He told him to divest himself of his wealth, give it all to the poor, and become a penniless disciple in Jesus' band.

And you remember that the young man was saddened to hear this (v. 23). For he was unwilling to give up the wealth and social position that he had won by his hard work. There is no one who has more difficulty with accepting God's "charity", than someone who has risen from comparative poverty by his or her own efforts—unaided. What used to be called "a self-made man". I remember years ago, trying to explain to my own father, who was such a person, that—in terms he could understand—God requires us all to declare ourselves bankrupt in order to qualify for his gift of eternal life. As long as we consider ourselves "deserving", as long as we proudly claim that we "need no charity", we shut ourselves out from the gracious gift of God. I'm happy to say that my Dad eventually took the step of asking for God's "charity".

If the man was saddened to hear the condition that Jesus set up for him (v. 23), so also were Jesus' disciples. They were disappointed that this young, bright, wealthy and influential man, who actually wanted to join them, had decided against it after talking with Jesus. They thought that Jesus would make it easy for him, to attract him into the group and teach him self-sacrifice later on.

Jesus' mysterious comment in v. 24-25 was said as he watched the rich man walk away. Only Luke mentions this detail, but it makes the picture so much richer. I suspect that Jesus' eyes were sad as they watched the man with bowed head walk away from discipleship and real life.

The comment itself was amazing in two respects. It was generally observed in Palestinian Jewish society in Jesus' day that the most scrupulously righteous and observant Jews were those with leisure time: wealthy people who could devote much time to reading the Scriptures and to allocating their tithes and giving to charitable endowments. From this class were drawn all the members of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. The priests too—and not just the high priests—tended to be wealthy, despite the fact that they were supported largely by tithes and offerings of the whole people. The accepted wisdom of the Jewish sages and opinion makers of the day was that only a rich person could achieve great merit in God's eyes. This may not have been the universal opinion, but it was the dominant one. For Jesus to say the opposite—that it was exceedingly difficult for a rich person to even enter the Kingdom of God—was utterly astounding!

The second mysterious thing was the metaphor of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Now, I should say that I am very familiar with what was once a popular explanation: that there was a gate in Jerusalem named "the Needle's Eye Gate", and that for camels passing through that gate their owners had to dismount and remove loads from their back. It made a nice explanation. But this explanation has little to help us in understanding this word of Jesus. It somewhat misses the point. For according to this interpretation it was possible humanly speaking for a camel to pass through that gate. Whereas Jesus' disciples understood his words to mean that it would be impossible. This much is clear from the disciples' response: "Then who can be saved?" The implication of this rhetorical question is that if the wealthy cannot be saved, then no one can! But the actual point of Jesus' statement is that it would be totally impossible unless God intervened. He replied, "What is impossible for men is possible for God". Jesus knew that humanly speaking there was no way that a rich person would voluntarily choose to do what he told that rich young man to do. It made no sense. The man could do more to help the poor by managing his own wealth and disbursing it wisely, than by giving it all away now. And there was no assurance that the recipients would not spend it on liquor, just as today drifters may spend money solicited for food on drugs instead.

But human logic and efficient economics were not the point of Jesus' demand. He was more interested in healing the rich man. Feeding the poor people to whom he might give his wealth was indeed a secondary benefit, but not the first goal in his mind. That was why Jesus too was sad to see him walk away.

His disciples were grappling with this new idea. And as they did so, they quite naturally thought about their own condition. Some of them had left behind their businesses (for example, the "Zebedee and Sons [Peter & Andrew] Seafood Company" on the Sea of Galilee, with its boats and employees) in order to give themselves "full-time" to learning from Jesus and following his direction. They had made a considerable sacrifice. But was it enough? Should they have divested themselves of their businesses and given the proceeds to the poor, not just left them behind, perhaps thinking that they might eventually need to return to them? You can almost hear the wheels grinding in their heads! Maybe also in your head too -- and mine! How much is enough? Is there such a thing as too much?

Down through history thoughtful Christians have debated these issues in their minds. Many have sought peace and satisfaction in the monastic life, owning nothing. For them it was necessary to rid themselves of the temptation of riches, like an alcoholic knowing that he cannot ever stop with one "social drink". Others have run businesses, taking very little of the profits and disbursing most to feed, clothe and house the poor and needy. Only God can answer the question for you personally, how much time he wishes you to devote to money-making work and how he wants you to use what it accrues. But lest you think that this is all so "relative" and subjective, that there are no fixed principles, read what Jesus now said to the disciples (v. 29-30; see also Luke 22:28-30):
"There is no one who has left house, wife, siblings, parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, who will not receive much more in this present life, and in the age to come eternal life".
This is not new in the teachings of Jesus. We have seen this principle before. This present life is a time for investing and for wise living in view of eternity. Not only is the saying "You can't take it with you" true (remember Lazarus and the Rich Man?), but Jesus promises "much more in the present life" as well! That doesn't mean more money. But it means more "brothers, sisters, parents and children"! The more you invest your life in serving Jesus and helping others, the more dear and intimate friends you will make. Remember Jesus' words after telling about the dishonest business manager? "Use the money that might otherwise be used for unrighteousness to make friends who will welcome you into eternal homes in heaven".

In Luke's gospel we see Jesus' disciples making the initial sacrifices. In his second book, the Acts of the Apostles we read of their further sacrifices which led them to leave Palestine itself and travel far and wide, suffering hunger, exposure, threats to their lives, all in order to serve Jesus as missionaries. How many "friends" do you suppose the Apostle Paul made as a missionary that he never would have had by staying at home in a comfortable life in Palestine? How many new brothers and sisters will you make if you truly give your time and money liberally to following Jesus?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

An Anonymous Testimony by a Dying Christian

The following is the response of a Christian in a responsible position of public service to an interviewer's question about how he was dealing with a diagnosis of spreading cancer. I have suppressed his name in order to remove any positive or negative reaction you may have based upon his political alignment. He speaks here not as one with political or social views, but as a person with deep Christian faith. It moved me as few articles I have read in recent months. So I pass it on to you as a "bonus" to my current blog series on the Gospel of Luke.

"Those of us with potentially fatal diseases—and there are millions
in America today—find ourselves in the odd position of coping with our
mortality while trying to fathom God's will. Although it would be the
height of presumption to declare with confidence "What It All Means",
Scripture provides powerful hints and consolations. The first is that
we shouldn't spend too much time trying to answer the why questions:
Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can't someone else get sick? We
can't answer such things, and the questions themselves often are
designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer.

I don't know why I have cancer, and I don't much care. It is what it
is a plain and indisputable fact. Yet even while staring into a mirror
darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies
define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are
imperfect. Our bodies give out.

But despite this , or because of it , God offers the possibility of
salvation and grace. We don't know how the narrative of our lives will
end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the
moment we meet our Creator face-to-face.

Second, we need to get past the anxiety. The mere thought of dying
can send adrenaline flooding through your system. A dizzy, unfocused
panic seizes you. Your heart thumps; your head swims. You think of
nothingness and swoon. You fear partings; you worry about the impact
on family and friends. You fidget and get nowhere. To regain footing,
remember that we were born not into death, but into life, and that the
journey continues after we have finished our days on this earth. We
accept this on faith, but that faith is nourished by a conviction that
stirs even within many non believing hearts an intuition that the
gift of life, once given, cannot be taken away. Those who have been
stricken enjoy the special privilege of being able to fight with their
might, main, and faith to live how their days may be numbered.

Third, we can open our eyes and hearts. God relishes surprise. We want
lives of simple, predictable ease , smooth, even trails as far as the
eye can see, but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists
and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our
endurance and comprehension , and yet don't. By His love and grace,
we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs
churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and
joy we would not experience otherwise.

'You Have Been Called'. Picture yourself in a hospital bed. The fog
of anesthesia has begun to wear away. A doctor stands at your feet; a
loved one holds your hand at the side. "It's cancer," the healer

The natural reaction is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a
cosmic Santa. "Dear God, make it all go away. Make everything
simpler." But another voice whispers: "You have been called." Your
quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer
to the issues that matter , and has dragged into insignificance the
banal concerns that occupy our "normal time."

There's another kind of response, although usually short- lived; an
inexplicable shudder of excitement, as if a clarifying moment of
calamity has swept away everything trivial and tinny, and placed
before us the challenge of important questions.

The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things
change. You discover that Christianity is not something doughy,
passive, pious, and soft. Faith may be the substance of things hoped
for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a
world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with
thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and
epiphanies. Think of Paul, traipsing though the known world and
contemplating trips to what must have seemed the antipodes (Spain),
shaking the dust from his sandals, worrying not about the morrow, but
only about the moment.

There's nothing wilder than a life of humble virtue , for it is
through selflessness and service that God wrings from our bodies and
spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and
the most we ever could do.

Finally, we can let love change everything. When Jesus was faced with
the prospect of crucifixion, he grieved not for himself, but for us.
He cried for Jerusalem before entering the holy city. From the Cross,
he took on the cumulative burden of human sin and weakness, and begged
for forgiveness on our behalf.

We get repeated chances to learn that life is not about us, that we
acquire purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God's love for others.
Sickness gets us partway there. It reminds us of our limitations and
dependence. But it also gives us a chance to serve the healthy. A
minister friend of mine observes that people suffering grave
afflictions often acquire the faith of two people, while loved ones
accept the burden of two people's worries and fears.

'Learning How to Live'. Most of us have watched friends as they
drifted toward God's arms not with resignation, but with peace and
hope In so doing, they have taught us not how to die, but how to live.
They have emulated Christ by transmitting the power and authority of

I sat by my best friend's bedside a few years ago as a wasting cancer
took him away. He kept at his table a worn Bible and a 1928 edition of
the Book of Common Prayer. A shattering grief disabled his family,
many of his old friends, and at least one priest. Here was an humble
and very good guy, someone who apologized when he winced with pain
because he thought it made his guest uncomfortable. He retained his
equanimity and good humor literally until his last conscious moment.
"I'm going to try to beat [this cancer]," he told me several months
before he died. "But if I don't, I'll see you on the other side."

His gift was to remind everyone around him that even though God
doesn't promise us tomorrow, he does promise us eternity, filled with
life and love we cannot comprehend , and that one can in the throes of
sickness point the rest of us toward timeless truths that will help us
weather future storms.

Through such trials, God bids us to choose: Do we believe, or do we
not? Will we be bold enough to love, daring enough to serve, humble
enough to submit, and strong enough to acknowledge our limitations?
Can we surrender our concern in things that don't matter so that we
might devote our remaining days to things that do?

When our faith flags, he throws reminders in our way. Think of the
prayer warriors in our midst. They change things, and those of us who
have been on the receiving end of their petitions and intercessions
know it.

It is hard to describe, but there are times when suddenly the hairs
on the back of your neck stand up, and you feel a surge of the Spirit.
Somehow you just know: Others have chosen, when talking to the Author
of all creation, to lift us up, to speak of us!

This is love of a very special order. But so is the ability to sit
back and appreciate the wonder of every created thing. The mere
thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness
more luminous and intense. We may not know how our contest with
sickness will end, but we have felt the ineluctable touch of God.

What is man that Thou art mindful of him? We don't know much, but we
know this: No matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter how
bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us who
believe, each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable
place, in the hollow of God's hand."