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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
announces.

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
love.

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."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What's Missing?—Luke 18:18-23


(Image courtesy of http://www.biblehelp.org/)

Please read today's text here: Luke 18:18-23

In the paragraph headings of most Bibles and commentaries this incident is entitled "The Rich Young Ruler". If you are just reading it in Luke's gospel, you may wonder why this title. All three gospels indicate that he was rich. But Mark's gospel as well as Luke's gives no indication of his age. And the phrase "I have observed these rules since I was a youth" in v. 21 gives the impression that he was no longer a youth. Furthermore, Luke alone of the three gospels calls him a "ruler" (Greek arkhōn), a responsible religious and political position in Jewish society that was normally achieved only in maturity.

Yet Matthew, who omits the above-quoted statement "since I was a youth", calls him a "young man" (Greek neaniskos, 19:20); and there is no good reason for him to have perverted the historical tradition here. We therefore have a situation in which a precocious young man had already achieved somewhat exalted and respected status as a "ruler". That he did so, not just because he was wealthy, but because of his religious devotion and hard work, is reflected both by his apparently honest answers to Jesus about keeping the commandments, and by the remarkable statement—only preserved in Mark—that after he had honestly testified to his keeping five of the Ten Commandments, Jesus looked at him and "loved him" (Mark 10:21). To my way of thinking, this was more than just the love that Jesus had for everyone.

The standard New Testament Greek lexicon (BDAG, p. 140) gives the following possibilities for an arkhōn in a Jewish setting:

a. of Jewish leaders … of the high priest Ac 23:5 (Ex 22:27). Of those in charge of a synagogue Mt 9:18, 23; cp. ἄ. τῆς συναγωγῆς Lk 8:41; Ac 14:2 D. Of members of the Sanhedrin Lk 18:18; 23:13, 35; 24:20; ἄ. τ. Ἰουδαίων (cp. Epict. 3, 7, 30 κριτὴς τῶν Ἑλλήνων) J 3:1; cp. 7:26, 48; 12:42; Ac 3:17; 4:5, 8 (ἄρχοντες καὶ πρεσβύτεροι as 1 Macc 1:26); 13:27; 14:5. τὶς τῶν ἀρχόντων τ. Φαρισαίων a member of the Sanhedrin who was a Pharisee Lk 14:1. Of a judge 12:58.

That's a pretty impressive array of possible offices that this youngish man may have held! The young man's zeal for God led him to approach Jesus, whose good reputation he knew, in order to find what he had no assurance up til now that he knew how to achieve: "Good teacher, what can I do to inherit eternal life?" Matthew omits the word "good" and records a slightly different response of Jesus to the implications of that word. But both Mark and Luke retain it in the address. What did the young man mean by "good teacher"? First of all, it was obviously a compliment and an innocent remark. Jesus was well-known as a teacher. And all but his harshest critics viewed him as both "good" in the sense of kind and merciful, and in the sense of pious or God-fearing. By addressing Jesus as "good teacher" this man—even if he was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council), as we saw above is a possible implication of his title arkhōn—was associating himself with those who admired and supported Jesus.

The young man wanted to know how to "inherit eternal life". The word "inherit" in a First Century Jewish mouth had nothing to do with inheriting wealth by virtue of lineage. This man had all the wealth he could want, and he had impeccable Jewish lineage. Instead, the word "inherit" in this context meant to gain entrance into God's eternal Kingdom. This was what Jesus' public ministry had been announcing. He had been calling the nation to repentance and proclaiming that God's Kingdom was available to be entered. At an earlier point in Jesus' public minhistry he had told another Jewish nobleman, a member of the Sanhedrin named Nicodemus: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). Being "born again" or "born of the Spirit" meant a new beginning to life: a drastic turn-about, changing from a self-guided and self-motivated life concentrating on personal fulfillment and enjoyment to a God-guided and God-motivated life of service to others and putting God's Word above all other forms of wisdom and guidance. Such a turn-about is not accomplished by human will power, but by inviting Jesus into one's heart and life—to use the Gospel of John's term, by "receiving" Jesus. A person so transformed by God, would surely look to others as if he had started his life over as a newborn baby. And when that transformation happens, Jesus said, then and only then does a person become a "child of God" in much more than just the sense of being a part of the human family ultimately created by God. And as a child of God, as St. Paul once pointed out (Romans 8:17), he or she becomes an heir of God. In that sense the term "inherit" eternal life approximates its literal meaning.

Jesus sees two aspects of the question that need his comment. First, in the strict sense of the word no-one is "good" but God. We are all sinners. Was Jesus therefore claiming that he was not God? In view of his other plain claims in the gospels, this is unlikely. Perhaps he was hinting to the questioner that by his own word "good" he was admitting that the teacher he was addressing was much more than he at first thought.

Another possibility, which need not eliminate the first as well, is that Jesus was again pointing back to the Old Testament revelation as the authoritative words of the One "Good Teacher" who had revealed them to Moses and the Prophets. In other words, he might have been saying what Abraham said to the rich man in Hades about his brothers needing a new warning: "They already have Moses and the Prophets. Let them receive warning and instruction from them". This second possible motivation for Jesus' words "there is only One who is 'good'", is supported by what he adds: "You already know the commandments" (v. 20). Jesus wants to know how this man reads Moses and the Prophets. Does he see how far short he has fallen of what they require? Does he see why he needs God's forgiveness? Does he see why there must be a Suffering, Dying and Rising Messiah?

Jesus quoted only five of the ten commandments. And some interpreters think the omission of "You shall not covet" was why this wealthy and proud man could claim to have obeyed them all since he was a boy. But however that may be, Jesus referred him to this standard of life, and the man claimed he had mastered these and needed something more. His very presence here indicated that his previous life of keeping the ten commandments, as he saw them, left him wondering (according to Matthew's version): "What am I still missing?" This sense of something missing together with his apparent honesty and sincerity was what elicited Jesus' looking upon him and loving him. Would he be able to accept what Jesus was about to tell him was still missing? Our Lord was able to read people's minds, so perhaps he already knew. But he was still "fishing for people" and would not refuse to make the offer. Here was the "kicker" again:
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
Like all achiever types today, this man was addicted to what he had achieved. He could not give it up. It had taken him too long and too much effort to gain what he had—of wealth and the position in society it granted to him, and even the religious status it conveyed. He could simply not give it up in order to become a poor itinerant follower of Jesus. So with downcast and disappointed face, he slowly turned away and went home. What a sad scene that was. Jesus loved that man, and all the zeal and fervor he had shown in order to make what he had made out of his life. But he was unwilling to simply give it all up in order to start all over with Jesus.

Does Jesus require this of every disciple? In the literal sense, no. Just read the gospel accounts of the calling of other disciples. A few had to leave their businesses, like Peter and Andrew who left their father and servants in the fishing boats. But many others were not asked to do this.

But in the non-literal sense Jesus requires this of us all. We may not be required to literally sell all that we have, but we must renounce the prior claim of all things other than obeying and following our Savior. When business or social obligations—and sometimes even family obligations—threaten to compete with the terms of our discipleship, we must always put Jesus first. And we must always be on the alert for things in our lives that we sense have become "indispensable". That's a good sign that they have become competitors to Jesus—"idols", if you will.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to Wait for Jesus—Luke 17:20-37


Please read the text for today here: Luke 17:20-37

Are you ever a bit anxious about the arrival of a special guest and want him or her to be very specific about the arrival time? I am. I don't want to be sitting around waiting, if he isn't coming for another 6 hours. But I surely don't want to have him arrive before I am ready! Apparently, the Pharisees mentioned here (v. 20) wanted no surprises; so they asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God was coming.

Of course, I may have misread their motive with the above explanation. From earlier stories we know how wily they were and how quick to criticize Jesus. Perhaps they asked this sarcastically, knowing that he had announced the Kingdom as "at hand", and they were implying that they saw nothing to convince them that it was. We also know from other parts of the gospels that they wanted Jesus to show them miraculous signs in the heavens to prove that he was the promised Messiah and was inaugurating the Kingdom.

For this reason Jesus stated very frankly: "The Kingdom of God is not coming with miraculous signs to be observed: you people won't be able to say 'It's here' or 'It's there'. No, the Kingdom of God is in your very midst!" (v. 20). He was telling them that what they were looking for was right under their noses, but they were too blind to see it.

Then he said to his disciples: "The time will come when you will wish you could see one of the days I was here on earth, but you will not be able." What does this mean? Remember, he is now talking to disciples, not to his critics. Since his true disciples will not have regrets that they did not believe when he was here for the first time, the meaning must simply be that they will long for his re-appearing to bring in the full and visible form of the Kingdom, which Jesus also promised. The fact that, despite their wish, they will not see it (v. 22), shows that they will wait a long time and feel the tension and frustration that we all feel, praying marana tha"Our Lord, come!"

But in this longing for Jesus' return, which in itself is praiseworthy, there is a danger. The danger is deception, both intentional and unintentional. The unintentional will come from over-zealous believers who will try to see signs in everything and turn our minds away from the work that our Lord has given us to do in his absence. The intentional will be those opponents of Jesus who may wish to find other fulfillments to the prophecies of his coming in glory: false messiahs in the first century AD, false prophets from Jesus' time to ours, founding new religions (Muhammad and Islam, Joseph Smith and the Mormons, etc.).

Either way, true disciples must not let themselves be deceived by the "He is here" and "He is there" crowd. For Jesus states it clearly (v. 24), that when he comes a second time, there will be nothing secret about it: "As lightning flashes and lights up the sky, so will be the Son of Man (Jesus) in his day".

But first things first. And here he probably also addressed only his disciples: "First I must be rejected and put to death in the present generation. But as for my return in glory, the situation will be just like in Noah's day."

Now we know a few things about life on earth while Noah was building the ark (see Genesis 6). There was great wickedness. Perhaps it had been that way for some time. God's clock of judgment had been secretly ticking away, and only Noah knew (because God told him secretly) that this wickedness was about to be judged on a worldwide scale by the Flood.

In Jesus' analogy, Noah represents the believers at the time of Jesus' return. Noah didn't know the day the Flood would come; nor will believers on the eve of Jesus' return know the year, month, day or hour it will happen. But he knew it was time to get ready for the Flood. So he followed God's instructions and built the ark. Believers in all ages after Jesus' resurrection have been busy building an ark to save those who will believe and enter it: it is the family of God (the "Church", if you like). And we invite all kinds of people into that family. The only entrance fee is faith.

But when the flood came, the timing was a surprise even to Noah. And that is Jesus' main point here. No one—believer or non-believer—knows the day or the hour when Jesus will return in glory to abolish evil together with everything that hurts, and establishes his eternal kingdom of goodness and peace. So it is iportant that we who believe in him always be ready.

Returning to the illustration I gave from my own life: Although my guest will not tell me when he plans to arrive, I don't have to just sit and twiddle my fingers while I wait for him. Not only should I keep my house in order ("spiritually"), but I should also be about the business that Jesus called me to do. And that is inviting friends into my house. It needs to be a loving and merciful house. It needs to be warm with kindness and understanding. It must be a clean house: not full of envy, greed, immorality and lust. Just the place for the whole Family to wait for their eagerly longed-for Guest!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ten Lepers Healed—Luke 17:11-19


(Image courtesy of www.ebibleteacher.com/)

Please read today's passage here: Luke 17:11-19

Have you ever seen a leper? I haven't. I have seen pictures of them, and it is not a pleasant sight. I realize that scholars today no longer believe that the "leprosy" of biblical times was what today's medicine terms leprosy (Hansen's Disease), but a less severe condition, a kind of skin disease. But whatever the condition was, it was so contagious, and so feared by everyone that persons afflicted with it were quarantined—shut off from others for as long as the condition persisted. This meant isolation sometimes permanently from family and loved ones. And it meant that you could not go to the Temple and make sacrifice for your sins or celebrate the religious festivals. You were like a dead man still walking!

For this reason many lepers were exiled to camps, where they were unlikely to touch or infect others. When our text says that Jesus "traveled along the border between Galilee and Samaria", and there meets ten lepers, it clues us in that this border area between the Jews of Galilee and the hated Samaritans was where each side exiled its lepers, so that the leprosy if it affected anyone would affect their enemies! And because it was a colony, Jesus encountered ten of them together.

In order not to threaten him with infection, these lepers considerately "stood at a distance" and called out to him, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" In this plea "pity" obviously meant more than feeling sorry for them: they were asking for healing. They knew that he healed the sick and raised the dead. They considered themselves the walking dead; but they believed that he could restore them to "cleanness" and life.

Jesus' reply (v. 14) was "go show yourself to the priest," and as they went in obedience and faith, they saw that their skin was now clear and clean! The text tells us that this was a mixed group: some Jews and some Samaritans. The words of Jesus would have made sense to the Samaritans among them as well, for the Samaritans had their own priests and their scripture including the Levitical laws about cleansing from leprosy. How many were Jews and how many Samaritans, we are not told. But what amazed Jesus was that of the ten, the only one to come and thank him before going off to the priest was a Samaritan (v. 17-18). Where was the gratitude of the other nine?

This final lesson in today's passage reminds us how much we as Jesus' disciples have to thank him for. It makes us ashamed that we thank him so seldomly. Gratitude is a simple thing and costs so little. But is so deeply appreciated by one who has done you a service. It can even be a server who waits on you at a restaurant. It is true that we should not expect God to thank us just for doing what we are supposed to do for him. But nothing keeps us from thanking another person for doing for us what they are paid to do by their employers!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Disciples Encourage Each Other—Luke 17:1-10

Please read today's lesson here: Luke 17:1-10

I told you before that Jesus did not coddle his disciples. He never tried to make their lives easier. But he knew that the road of discipleship would make their lives more significant, and more satisfying. Nothing really worthwhile in life comes without some sweat.

The first lesson in today's passage is about encouraging other disciples, those whom Jesus here calls "these little ones" (v. 3). You see, all of us who have sought Jesus' forgiveness and invited him into our lives as Lord, thus becoming his disciples, have also become "like little children", as Jesus once put it. We have decided to unlearn the unhelpful habits of our earlier lives and "start over" a new life with Jesus like little children—with so much to learn! As such we are vulnerable. Another disciple, or another person who poses as a disciple can so easily disillusion us about following Jesus. They can do it by their own lives. They can profess one thing, but do another. And when one of us discovers it, we may be shocked, and say "Gee, I wonder if all 'born again' Christians are just putting on an act like this guy is!" A disillusionment like that can cause a new disciple to be tempted to give up the quest. That is what Jesus calls here "stumbling". Any disciple or apparent disciple who does something to overturn another disciple's faith or his determination to follow Jesus, has committed a terrible sin. Jesus uses a shocking image for his punishment. It would be better for someone to tie around his neck a huge millstone and throw him into the sea to drown!

Now, please! Do not think that this means that if you unwittingly relapse into some vestige of your previous life—say, you drop a bicycle on your toe very painfully and you sream an obscenity—in the presence of another believer, you have committed some sort of unpardonable sin! Far from it. If that happens, of course, you should apologize to your fellow disciple and ask Jesus for forgiveness. But this is not an unpardonable sin. The only unpardonable sin is not believing in Jesus as your Savior.

But Jesus used such a powerful image in order to stress to us how important it is for us to encourage each other by our lives and words. As disciples of Jesus, we grow in community as well as in private. That is why the New Testament puts such an emphasis on our behavior in community: our prayers for and with each other, our worship together with other believers, our teaching each other.

This then leads to the second lesson (v. 3-4): alerting each other to weaknesses and forgiving others for things they say or do that hurt you. This first duty is the hardest thing for me to do. Because I myself usually react angrily when anyone points out a sin or weakness in my life. I say this ashamed. If I react so, I reason, how can I expect another believer to react humbly and take my words of criticism any other way? Yet God asks us to "be our brother's keeper" in the sense that we pray for each other and do whatever is necessary to help each other in the road of discipleship. The second part, forgiving those who offend us, is also extremely difficult. Yet in the Lord's Prayer we ask God to forgive us our sins "as we have forgiven those who sinned against us"! Wow! And if we refuse to forgive others, God will not forgive us! Jesus once told a parable about a man who owed a huge amount of money—say like a million dollars. The debt came due and he could not begin to pay it. He fell on his knees and begged the creditor to cancel the debt, and—amazing mercy— the creditor did!

So what did the forgiven man do? He promptly went out and forclosed on a poor man who owed him 30 dollars! When his own creditor heard about it, he went to the man and told him he was reinstating the debt and would have him thrown into prison, because he was so merciless to
his debtors after he himself had been forgiven.

This is a powerful lesson to us. God has forgiven each of us all our sins and granted us eternal life as his own children. How can it be too much for us to forgive an insult by another believer. Jesus was ask how many times we had to do it to a given brother or sister, and his answer was "seventy times seven", which was simply an expression for innumerable times. god's forgiveness to us was unlimited; so should ours be to others.

This seemed impossible to Jesus' hearers, so they asked him "Increase our faith!" (v.5). Jesus' answer was that it doesn't take an enormous amount of faith to keep his commands. If you have only faith the size of a mustard seed (thought to be the smallest seed on earth), you can command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and be hurled into the sea, and it will do it (v. 6). This simply means that even only a little faith has limitless potential—not for doing magic tricks, but for doing God's will!

The final lesson (v. 7-10) has to do with God's expectations of disciples. When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, the implication was that fulfilling his commands was impossible for ordinary disciples, and that Jesus needed to give them special powers to do it. Implicit in this wrong attitude was that when they obeyed him, it was a special accomplishment on their part that deserved special commendation from God. Jesus wanted to scotch that idea quickly! Jesus' story concerns a man's servant who having worked all day in the field, comes in to the master's house. The master doesn't say "Oh, you poor servant. Come, sit down and eat!" Instead, he says, "I'm hungry. Get me something to eat." Is this cruel? By no means. The home owner is the employer. The other man is his servant. The latter is being paid to work, not to be served. So Jesus concludes: When you have done all that you were told to do, say: 'We are not special. We have only done what we were supposed to do."

Self-pity is the most insidious temptations used by Satan on disciples of Jesus. "I have worked so hard", we complain. As though many, many other people do not work that hard every day. God loves us. He is not just a cold-hearted employer. Yet we, for our part, must not think that God owes us special thanks just for doing what he asks of us. He is God; we are his creatures. He is our loving Father; we are his children who owe him obedience and respect. Let's not get our relationship with him topsy-turvy!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Rich Man and Lazarus—Luke 16:19-31


(Image courtesy of http://www.lavistachurchofchrist.org/)

Please read today's text here: Luke 16:19-31 In yesterday's posting Luke recorded how Jesus affirmed the authority of the "Law and the Prophets", a standard way in his day of referring to what we call the Old Testament. He further stated that the Law and the Prophets led up to the ministry of John the Baptizer and the climax, when the Good News of the Kingdom of God would be proclaimed. In this way Jesus was saying what the Apostle Paul later said using a different imagery. Paul wrote that "For us (Jews) the law [i.e., the Old Testament] was (like) a tutor to lead us to the Messiah" (Galatians 3:24-25).

In today's passage which immediately follows, the link is the role of the law of Moses and the Prophets (v. 29-31). In this case too, the Law and the Prophets function not as legal and ethical authorities alone, but rather as witnesses pointing to the one way to avoid Hell (here called "Hades") and ensure an afterlife in Heaven (here called Abraham's lap/bosom). That one way is not actually mentioned until the end of the story proper ("believe" or "be convinced"), but it is implicit when viewed alongside the preceding passage about the Law and the Prophets leading to the Gospel of the Kingdom, meaning the message Jesus proclaimed. But now let us get to the story itself, which again is one of many that are unique to the Gospel of Luke.

The two main characters in the story are an unnamed rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus. The fact that the beggar is given a name prompted many scholars to assume that there was a real incident behind this story. But this leaves unexplained the anonymity of the rich man. Furthermore, it ignores what we now know: that Lazarus (a form of the name Eleazar) was one of the most common names borne by Palestinian Jewish men and boys in Jesus' day (see Tal Ilan's indispensable study of Jewish names in this period). To name a character in a story "Lazarus" was like calling a man in a story today "John Doe". This combines nicely with the anonymity of the rich man, to whom in fact later Christian tradition supplied the name "Dives", which also is not really a name, but the Latin adjective "rich". What we have here, then, is really Daddy Warbucks and John Doe!

Only Daddy Warbucks in this case is also Ebenezer Scrooge, as we see as the story unfolds. The rich man not only has lots of everything, but he squanders it all on self-indulgence instead of using his wealth to help the poor and needy. He feasted sumptuously and wore the most expensive clothes (v. 19). At his very gate, where he could not possibly have been unaware of him, lay a beggar who was not only poor but injured or diseased, for he had sores (v. 21). The hungry man longed to eat even the scraps from the rich man's table, just like the Prodigal Son in the earlier story was glad in his poverty to eat the husks of the pigs he herded. The condition of this man was also like that of the injured man by the wayside in the story of the Good Samaritan. People passed by and saw him, but no one stopped to help him but the Samaritan. In this story the only ones to show him any pity were the dogs who licked his sores (v. 21)!

Finally, the beggar died, and was carried by angels to paradise. The rich man also eventually died. But in his Afterlife he found himself in Hell (called "Hades" in Greek), from where he was he could apparently see paradise, but only far off. What made his suffering in Hell all the more painful was the sight of Lazarus in paradise. In his teachings Jesus sometimes described those who died rejecting God's forgiveness as weeping and gnashing their teeth in frustration at a lost opportunity.

Now the tables were turned! Lazarus is enjoying paradise, just as the rich man banqueted in his home in full sight of the poor hungry Lazarus at the gate. And now it is he who must call out as a beggar for pity. The words he used, "have mercy on me" (v. 24), are the words Jewish beggars used as they lay on street corners. The rich man was now the beggar, and Lazarus was now a rich man!

But why did the rich man call out to Abraham, and not rather to Lazarus? Perhaps because he saw Abraham as "in charge" or because he knew he had neglected Lazarus during his lifetime and figured that now Lazarus would not in turn have any pity on him. But interestingly enough, the rich man doesn't ask for an angel to bring him water to cool his horrible thirst, but rather for Lazarus! Perhaps what he thirsts for more than water is Lazarus' forgiveness. And he figures that Abraham could command Lazarus to be merciful and to forgive the rich man.

In v. 25-26 Abraham gives two reasons why he cannot comply with the rich man's request. First, the reversal of states that the two now have experienced reflects what they did or did not do in their lifetimes. God must be just and fair. And secondly, it is not permitted for residents in Paradise and Hell to visit the other side.

Seeing his own state now as hopeless, the rich man for the first time in his life now shows concern for others, although they are still only his own close relatives. He has five brothers in his father's household (v. 27-28) whose manner of life he knows to be the same as his own was. He has good reason, therefore, to fear for their ultimate fate. They need to be warned! Although he suspects that he himself would never be permitted to go to them, he hopes that Lazarus would. Again, he doesn't ask for an angel, but for Lazarus. Abraham's answer is very revealing:

"There is no need for such extraordinary measures! Your brothers have the Scriptures—the Law and the Prophets! That is sufficient warning, as well as sufficient guidance for how to obtain Paradise." (my paraphrase)
Again, we are reminded of Jesus' words in the previous passage: the Old Testament Scriptures were to prepare Israel for the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Messiah who would proclaim that gospel. If anyone carefully read and understood the Old Testament, they would inevitably be led to the person of Jesus the Messiah.

But the rich man persisted to object. He too had had the Law and the Prophets, Yet that had not been enough! So in desperation he objected: No. But if someone were to go to them from the dead, then they would repent" (v. 30). This leads to the "kicker". Abraham's words are pregnant with meaning for Luke's readers who by this time know that Jesus rose from the dead, and his disciples testified to this to many Jews in Jerusalem, who still would not believe. Abraham therefore said: "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament prophesies of the coming of the Messiah, fulfilled in Jesus), they will not believe, even if one should rise from the dead" (v. 31).

And did you notice? The condition for avoiding Hell in the Afterlife has changed in this last word from Abraham. That condition is now believing. Not simply being merciful or following the ethics of the Bible, but believing—precisely what Jesus' critics who heard these words refused to do.

But before we leave this story, I wish to caution you. This was a story Jesus told. We are not intended to use it to inform ourselves about the geography of Hell or of Heaven. Many of the details were designed by Jesus to allow him to get across his point. We must not expect that Heaven for us, were we to die today, would be sitting with Abraham, looking across a chasm at people suffering in Hell. Instead, the picture of "Heaven" that the rest of the New Testament gives is simply being in the presence of Jesus. Being with him will be all we ever wanted. To know that is to know enough. We can fill in the details when we get there!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jesus and the Bible—Luke 16:16-18



Please read today's passage here: Luke 16:16-18.

Jesus has been teaching about discipleship. And one of the most important lessons disciples must learn is that Jesus' message will be vigorously opposed, and therefore their own will be also. Jesus warned his disciples repeatedly that he would be rejected and put to death (Luke 18:32-34), and that after his departure they too would be rejected, falsely accused, and persecuted (Luke 21:17; John 15:18). This has in fact been the lot of Jesus' disciples around the world from that day to the present.

But the second half of what he said to them on this subject was that, despite intense opposition, his message would continue to win those who were willing to enter the "narrow gateway" into Life. And that in the end, when he returned to Earth, the Kingdom of God would triumph. This second half of his message was designed to give hope and encouragement.

Today's lesson contains both elements. It begins with Jesus describing how God's revelation began with the Law and the Prophets and continued down to his own appearance as the Messiah, announced first by his forerunner, John the Baptizer. From that point on a new and climactic message appeared and crowned the Old Testament revelation: "the good news ('gospel') of the Kingdom of God".

As expected, Satan's minions were happy with neither revelation. And just as the new form of God's message, "the good news of the Kingdom of God", was much more glorious and intense than what preceded it, so also Satan's opposition became much more intense and open. We have seen how there was a heavy outbreak of demon possession precisely during the lifetime of Jesus. Jesus met this opposition and defeated it. But the intensity needed to be explained to the disciples. This intense, violent opposition—both in the form of demonic possession and of criticism and accusations against Jesus by his human opponents among Pharisees and temple clergy—is what is referred to in the last phrase of v. 16, which should be translated: "and everyone (meaning all his critics) attacks it (that is the Kingdom of God taking shape in Jesus' teaching and healings) violently". If you sample the available English translations of this verse, you will find many who translate " enter it violently", which not only makes no sense, but stretches the meaning of the Greek verb biazetai, which has nothing to do with entering, and only means "treat with violence".

That this phrase does not mean that everyone is welcoming to the Kingdom violently is also clear by the next verse which shows a contrast by the use of the conjunction "but" (Greek de):
"But (that is, nevertheless) it is easier for Heaven and Earth to pass away, than for one dot of the law to become void".
In other words, Jesus assures his disciples that, in spite of the violent opposition to his message, the "good news of the Kingdom", which he himself has just explained to be in continuation with the Law and the Prophets, God's Word will not be replaced or invalidated—it will remain in force and will prevail ultimately.

At this point, Luke records that Jesus uses just one sample of ethical teaching derived from from the Law and the Prophets to represent the entire teaching of God's Word. Interestingly enough, it was the one ethical matter that in Jesus' own day—as well as today!—was the most unpopular, namely the teaching that God intended marriages to be permanent: that marriages should not be dissolved by divorce.

There were two schools of thought among the learned religious scholars of Jesus' time. The school of Hillel advocated easy divorce. No courtroom procedure was necessary. A man simply said to his wife "I divorce you" three times, and it was legal. A man could divorce his wife for burning the toast at breakfast. Divorce initiated by the wife was not so easy, but it could also be had. The second school, that of Shammai , discouraged divorce under all but the most serious reasons. Judging from other passages in the gospels where Jesus taught on the subject, he followed the second school. Only a few extremely serious situations called for divorce.

The Old Testament itself had laws governing (i.e., regulating) divorce, but not prohibiting it. Yet Jesus, reasoning from the intention of God in instituting marriage in the first place, argued that it was always intended to be permanent. In marriage, God joined two persons and made them "one flesh". What God had joined together humans should not seek to separate.

Now this blog posting is not about divorce per se. To do that properly I would have to lead you to many different passages in the Bible and several different sayings of Jesus on the subject. No, I only write these things to give some background to what Jesus says here. I believe he chose the divorce issue deliberately to show that even the most apparently unpopular of God's ethical requirements for his disciples will not be revoked by him, but will prevail, in spite of the most intense opposition.

For us, dear friends, today's passage from Luke underlines how important Jesus considers it that his disciples follow him and in following him, follow the Scriptures. For us, living after his cross and resurrection, there is not only "the Law and the Prophets": there are also the New Testament writings, the gospels, the letters of Paul and the other Apostles. These offer us a fuller revelation than the "Law and the Prophets" could give of God's saving grace as well as his expectations of us in daily living. These make up our entire Bible—Old and New Testaments—which despite the opposition which the opponents of Jesus hurl against it remains the disciple's main resource and his/her treasure. Make it your treasure, as well as your daily resource!

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Dishonest Steward—Luke 16:1-15

Making money? Or making friends with money?

Please read today's passage here: Luke 16:1-15

I think when you are finished reading today's passage, you will agree that this is one of the most difficult stories to interpret that Jesus ever told. Yet, like all his stories, they contain such extremely important truths that we dare not ignore or skip over them.

Of all of the four gospels, Luke's puts the greatest emphasis on teachings about the proper use of wealth—and I don't mean by "wealth" large amounts only. All disciples are stewards of God's resources put in our trust. What we do with what we are given is a test of our faithfulness to God.

The story before us is difficult to understand in large part because its original audience lived in the time and place being described in the story and understood many things about how commodity sales were carried out, that we today do not. The amounts described in v. 6-7 show that this steward's boss was a really big player in the commodities market of his day, and the transactions involved were enormously expensive. In such a setting we are talking about a steward (or business manager) who himself was earning by each transaction of his employer a sizable commission, which was folded invisibly into the quoted prices. This meant that, when he needed to complete the transactions quickly and in a way that would earn favor with his master's customers (they are called "debtors" here, because they already have the merchandise and what is being negotiated are the "amounts payable"), there was an invisible "cushion" of his own commissions that he could tap without defrauding his master of his legitimate base price for the merchandise.If you want to read more of the reasoning behind accepting this interpretation of the story, I recommend Darrell L.Bock's book Luke (IVP New Testament Series), pp. 262-67.

Now, armed with this background, let's look at how the story unfolds. The business manager of an extremely wealthy business owner who dealt in huge amounts of olive oil and wheat was accused by his master of mismanaging (the term is "squandering") the owner's resources. It is quite possible that "squandering" points to deliberate fraud. And if so, it would explain why in v. 8 the owner refers to him as a "dishonest manager"not because his parting deals were crooked, but because he had been terminated because of a charge of dishonesty. The wealthy owner was losing money because his manager was inept. And so, he called the manage in and announced he was terminating him, and asked for him to turn in his books, so that the owner could know what needed to be done by his replacement.

The manager was horrified at the prospect of losing what had been up to now a very well-paying position. The prospects were discouraging: digging ditches and begging were disreputable employment and yielded very little income. His solution (v. 4) was to find a way in his final acts as manager to win friends among his employer's customers, so that they might employ him after his discharge. So he went to those with outstanding bills and offered them substantial reductions. As I wrote above, he could do this without depriving his master of his expected cut, because there was an invisible layer of the manager's own commission. He was wise enough to see that a short-term forfeiture of his usual commission would yield for him a security and long-term well-being that was much more important than the short-term profit he was giving up.

The result was that, when the owner heard of his manager's "golden parachute" deals, he expressed admiration for his cleverness. Had these deals resulted in the owner's own legitimate capital and profit being reduced, it is hard to see why he would commend the manager. But if it was not to his own detriment, but showed the manager's good business sense and foresight, the owner's remarks make excellent sense. He might now have had second thoughts about his decision to dismiss the man!

Jesus' applications in v. 9-15 also make better sense if the situation was as I have described. The manager rightly saw that his present profits would be better served by helping others, and that this would eventually produce goodwill for himself when he needed it most. In his case it came after his dismissal from his post and probably took the form of support from those he had helped while in the employ of his former master. In the case of disciples, we should view our present resources as being best used to help others, for this will eventually produce God's commendation and, when we need it most at our deaths, we will be welcomed by God and the angels into paradise.

Of course, we are not to understand that good works such as what we do with our resources earn us entrance into Heaven. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament make it abundantly clear that forgiveness comes to us as God's free gift. We appropriate it by asking for it and acknowledging that it comes to us through Jesus' sacrifice for us. But we gain our Lord's approval and his pleasure, when as forgiven sinners and disciples we use our resources as this business manager did. He was wise, for he understood it was better to postpone short-term pleasures through spending his money on himself in order to ensure long-term pleasure through helping others and gaining his Master's approval.

Luke (and Jesus) adds a coda to this story: the short section in v. 13-15. And here we see an example of what I wrote about in an earlier blog posting: that the word pair "love" and "hate" in Hebraic language mean "give preference to" one thing over another. Serving both God and Mammon (= acquiring money not to help others and serve God) is impossible, because one always has to give preference to one over the other in everyday decisions. A disciple of Jesus must always choose God, and his or her use of possessions and resources must always be to serve God by helping others.

In v. 14-15 his critics derided him for these words. But he retorted: "Your opinions are influenced too much by popular current human thinking. What most people think is important, God considers valueless."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son—Luke 15:1-32


(Image courtesy of http://bookreviewsandmore.ca/)

Please read today’s passage here: Luke 15:1-32

In today's passage Jesus told three stories.
Only the first story is transmitted by the other gospel writers: the final two we know only from Luke. The common denominator, as you can see from my title, was something valuable that was lost, the efforts made by someone to recover it, and the intense joy experienced in its recovery. There may be no great meaning to the sequence of the first two, but it is clear that the third story is told last because the value of a lost son far transcends that of a lost sheep or coin. In all three stories the keenness of the loss is not dimmed by the fact that a large number of others still remain in the owner's possession.

The setting which drew forth these stories is given in v. 1-3: Jesus has welcomed into his fellowship both learned and pious Jews and the "crass" businesslike and despised tax collectors and "sinners". The latter term probably does not have the somewhat generic reference that the word "sinner" has to us today. Instead, it refers to Jews who did not make much effort to conform to the meticulous rituals and purity requirements of the rabbinical scholars. They probably were not always careful to wash their hands before meals, a requirement which was not motivated by sanitation, but by religious ritual. Such "looseness" was viewed by the scrupulously law-abiding Jews as sinful. In some ways, they feared the influence of these "lax" Jews more than that of pure pagans. I cannot say that the way of life of these "sinners" matched that of Jesus, although he too was often criticized for such inconsequential details. One gets the impression from the gospels that, while at times he was more than willing to subordinate such minor matters in the interest of an overriding and much more critical obligation—remember the healings on the Sabbath—he was not one to simply ignore religious obligations just for the sake of his own comfort or convenience. The very fact that the gospels picture him so often in the synagogues shows that he took his religious obligations, such as regular attendance at the synagogues, very seriously indeed.

But the issue here was not that Jesus taught a "lax" style of life. These super-pious critics were offended because he even associated with these people! As Jesus once replied to them, "It isn't the healthy who need a doctor; it is those who are ill." He had come to heal the spirits of men and women, and his healing work took him into the midst of much spiritual sickness.

The three stories, then, were not intended primarily for the tax collectors and sinners (although undoubtedly it told them how much God cared for them), but mainly for these critics who needed to repent of their unmerciful and proud attitude. For Luke says he told it "to them" (v. 3), and he challenged them "Which one of you would not do this?" Furthermore, I cannot believe that Jesus told the stories just to humiliate these critics, for he "fished" for lost people wherever he could. And that meant fishing for Pharisees as well as for tax collectors!

The first story (v. 3-7) is told as a challenge: Just as any of you who had lost one out of a hundred sheep would leave the 99 in the care of a servant and would go looking for the one lost sheep, so God cares greatly about each single lost person and will go to any lengths necessary to bring that person back "home". And when he does, he and the thousands of his angels celebrate in heaven over that one person. They celebrate more over the recovery of the one lost than over the 99 who didn't need to be sought. It was a rhetorical question: one whose answer was obvious. Any one of his critics would go after the lost sheep. Therefore they should understand why Jesus will go to any lengths to reach lost people, and like the angels they too should rejoice when sinners care enough to come dine with Jesus and listen to his words.

The second story also is part of a rhetorical question—a challenging question. "What person wouldn't do what this woman does?" A woman loses one of ten coins she possesses, and she turns the house upside down looking until she finds the lost coin. When she does, she goes to her neighbors and says: "Look! I found the coin I had lost! Come celebrate with me!" And again, Jesus compares the situation to the celebration by God and the angels over the repentance of one lost person.

It has been claimed by scholars who have studied ancient texts that when something is repeated twice or three times, it is the author's way of underlining its extreme importance. Jesus told three stories with exactly the same point. This should tell us how important this lesson was and how badly he wants us to understand this truth. God LOVES his sinful creatures! He will do everything short of overruling their own right to choose in order to win them to himself. He will persuade, he will plead, he will sacrifice, but he will not force.

The third story we have all heard of at one time or another. It is usually called "The Prodigal Son". The word "prodigal" is an archaic word whosemeaning most of us no longer understand. Many people mistakenly think it means "wayward" or "runaway". But its true meaning is "spending" or "wasteful". It was once used in a good sense of "generous". But in describing this younger son it was intended to mean "wasteful". There was once a somewhat wealthy man with two sons. They lived with him (we aren't told if both were single or if the older might have been married), and they would have inherited upon his death the estate, with the larger part going to the older brother according to ancient Near Eastern and biblical law. But the younger brother became tired of waiting for his father to die, and he had no great love of farming or ranching. He wanted his part as a cash settlement now. His father was disappointed, but acceded to his wishes and gave him the cash equivalent of his one third of the properties. What hurt the old man most was not that the boy wanted his share now, but that he did so in order to leave home. To the father this implied that he did not feel loved and had no wish to remain in the family. The younger brother traveled to distant lands and spent his money on high living and loose women. When he found himself without funds, he hired himself out to do the dirtiest and most degrading tasks. Until one day he realized what treasures he had given up by leaving home and he resolved to return to his father, asking only to be treated as one of his father's hired hands, not as a son. He rehearsed the words he would use, emphasizing that he knew he was no longer worthy to be called "your son".

But the father had never given up hope for the return of his younger son, and one has the impression that he kept an eye on the roads each day,hoping to see him. When at last the lost son appeared on the horizon, and his father caught sight of him, he ran and embraced the young man. And before the embarrassed boy could get half of his rehearsed speech out of his mouth his father kissed him and led him into the house. He order his servants to bring the best robe in the house to clothe the boy, and the best calf in the stall to be slaughtered for a celebration banquet.

When the older brother came in from a hard day's work in the fields and heard the music and laughter of the celebration, he asked what it was all about. When they told him it was because his younger brother had returned and what his father had done, the older brother refused to go near the house. He stayed in the fields and scowled. Told of what his older son was doing, the father went to him. And after hearing the older son's complaint, that in spite of his faithful service over the years his father had never even given him a goat kid to broil for his friends, while now that this wasteful son returns from blowing his inheritance on whores, his father treats him like a king.

The father's final words are the "kicker": the point that the story has been leading up to all along, and the lesson that — applied to God and to Jesus — are what Jesus' listeners need most to understand. "Son," he said, "you are with me always, and all that I have will be yours someday. But this is your brother we are talking about! We (both you and I) had lost him, but now he is found again! Should we not be overjoyed?" The father's love for both sons is everywhere manifest. His rebuke of the older is as mild and tender as it could be. He simply cannot believe that the older brother lacks the same deep love for the younger son that he does. And he begs his older son to share the joy of the return.

I can see Jesus standing there, holding his arms out to the Pharisees, as he spoke these last lines, as in the lament over Jerusalem which we studied recently—wanting with all his heart to gather them too to his bosom. But will they let him? Again, Luke is silent about their reaction.

Brothers and sisters, you and I are part of God's "rescue squad", appealing to our friends and neighbors on God's behalf to come home to a Father who loves them dearly and sent his Son to die for them. And we too can rejoice with the angels whenever a single friend is "found" by God.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Counting the Cost— Luke 14:25-35


Please read today’s passage here: Luke 14:25-35

When you are on the verge of deciding to follow Jesus as his disciple, there are two dangers. The first is to underestimate what possible changes putting your life in his hands may entail. The following incident is totally fictional but not entirely unlikely.
In Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth, there is a scene about halfway into the movie, in which Peter and Matthew, two of the Twelve, were quietly talking as they sat off by themselves before the campfire at night. They were silent and reflective for a while, and then Matthew said to Peter: "You realize, don't you, that you will never go home again? You will never go out in your fishing boat again, never see your home town Bethsaida—never again… None of us will. Everything has changed." This was a very dramatic moment in the film, and it was Zeffirelli's way of putting in terms of an interchange between two of the Twelve the dawning upon them of what discipleship was going to cost them. Jesus once told them, "No one puts his hand to the plow and then looks back".
In today's passage from Luke, Jesus tells the very large crowd that was following him something that probably discouraged many of them.
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (v. 26-27)
The above translation (from the TNIV) is fairly literal. And I do not wish to soften unduly the words of Jesus. But in all fairness, you should know that the contrasting word-pairs "love" and "hate" in Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages that Jesus thought in, express the attitude the speaker has toward one thing or person he has chosen in preference to another. Thus, when God says in the OT "I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau" (Malachi 1:2-3), he does not mean what the word "hate" conveys to us today. What he is saying is "I have chosen Jacob in preference to his brother Esau". So when we plug this understanding into Jesus' words to the large crowd, we get the following: "If any of you would like to become my disciple, he must be willing to give me preference over all his other allegiances: father, mother, wife, husband, children, brothers, sisters. If he cannot do that, then he cannot be my disciple."

Now, you ask: "Does this mean that I must love my husband or wife or parent or child less?" By no means. In fact elsewhere both Jesus and the apostles who wrote the New Testament command that we love them. But it means that we allow our prior love for God and for our Savior Jesus to determine how we love others. Love that is purified and channeled through a prior love for Jesus cannot contribute to a loved one's ruin. To take an extreme case, if your beloved brother or sister came to you and begged for money to buy drugs, a love that was not purified by prior commitment to Jesus might give the money, seeing how desperately the loved one wanted it.

Similarly, the prior love and commitment to Christ means that you cannot compromise your commitment to him to live a decent life, just because some human loved one urges you to do so.

As we saw in previous postings from Luke, Jesus wants his disciples to set their priorities correctly: First is commitment to God and to his standards of goodness in your life, including worship and prayer. Second is commitment to love others. This is simply another way of saying the two Great Commandments of the Old Testament: (1) Love the Lord your God with all your being, and (2) love your 'neighbor' as yourself. Someone once said: "If you take the first letters of this set of priorities—Jesus, Others, Yourself—it spells "joy".

Another, equally helpful way of viewing Jesus' words here is to interpret them as saying that allegiances and priorities that you had before you became Jesus' disciple must now be demoted in relative importance. We have seen how this was with the "joy" illustration. So when Jesus added "If anyone does not take up his cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple" he is not asking us to commit literal suicide. But he is asking us to put ourselves last in the sequence of JOY: to metaphorically put ourselves and our selfish desires to death, whenever they threaten to compete with the J and the O. The "crucified life" of the disciple of Jesus means putting yourself "third".

Our passage goes on for quite a few more verses, but these contain only two very well-chosen illustrations that Jesus used with his hearers. If you are going to build a tower, make sure you consider what you will need to do to finish it. the implication is not that you should decide you don't have enough and quit. Rather, it means that the builder allocate what will be necessary and only use what is left for other projects. Similarly, the illustration of the king setting out to battle. It isn't that he lacks enough manpower. Rather, he must be sure to take enough along!

Jesus does not want to scare you away. But he does want you to think soberly about what changes you will need to make in your lifestyle before you go off half-cocked.

And for those of us already on the quest for years, it is still not too late for us to recalculate and to reallocate more time and resources to our discipleship. I know that I need to be more diligent in prayer for my friends and my children. I know that I need to spend less time watching TV and more time writing letters to friends and relatives. I know that I need to spend less money on entertainment and more on giving to others' needs. I am busy making those adjustments. There are way-stations on the road of discipleship where you can offload the activities and expenditures that you have come to see were a hindrance to your progress.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Wedding Feast: Whom Shall I Invite?— Luke 14:1-24

(Image courtesy of http://www.harpers.org/)
Please read today’s passage here: Luke 14:1-24

My wife and I will be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary in June. The church hall will accommodate a larger number than we think are likely to want to come, and we do not want to plan for a large number of guests if those who actually come will not come close to that figure.

In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus speaks on two occasions about festive dinners. The first is the setting for a lesson on humility. The second portrays the eternal celebration of God with the saved in the afterlife (what we often just call “Heaven”) under the figure of a glorious banquet with music and dancing and great joy.

This entire section concerns happenings at a large banquet that Jesus was invited to in the home of a wealthy Pharisee (v.1). As it happens, the banquet was held on the Sabbath day, so that invitees had to live close enough to the host’s home to be able to come there without violating the laws concerning the maximum distance one could travel on the Sabbath. And since it was not legal to cook on the Sabbath, all the food had to be prepared on the previous day. Unless the host took some liberties with the Sabbath laws, it is hard to imagine how he could host such a gathering. It is hard to see how his wife and servants were “resting”! Luke does not mention any of this, but it is all inherent in his notation that the banquet was on the Sabbath.

He also states right at the outset that host and guests were “watching” Jesus, probably meaning that they were looking for an excuse to criticize him. There is blatant hypocrisy at work here: on the one hand, Jesus is a guest; on the other, the host and friends are looking for a way to attack him!

Jesus noticed that a certain man present —either a guest, or someone who wandered in from the street (like the woman who wandered in to the house of Simon and anointed Jesus’ feet)—was afflicted with dropsy. So the first thing Jesus did is to pose a question to the religious scholars (“scribes and Pharisees”): “Is it lawful heal on the Sabbath?” You remember this issue came up earlier in our studies in Luke, and Jesus claimed that the Sabbath was the most appropriate time of all for sufferers to be healed and freed from their suffering.

On this occasion the scholars were silent: they had no answer to give. When Jesus saw this, he healed the man and let him leave the gathering. It was better that he leave, since he would want to celebrate with his family at home, and it is likely that Jesus’ silent critics would not have wanted him around to remind them of what Jesus had done and said!

Then Jesus gave them a lesson. It is more or less what he said to his critics on that earlier occasion we studied about healing on the Sabbath. Every law-abiding Jew realized that one was entitled to rescue an animal or a person who had fallen into a well on the Sabbath. And it was nit-picking hypocrisy not to see that the man with dropsy had a need as great as this, which God wanted them to fill.

But Jesus was not through with lessons for this gathering. He had noticed when he came in, that everyone was scrambling to find “seats of honor” to occupy at the banquet—perhps close to the head table or next to someone of note. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to find a friend to chat with at a dinner. But this was a matter of pride. So the “unwelcome” prophet from Nazareth again spoke to the gathering, telling them that it would be the host in the final analysis who would determine where he wanted you to sit. In effect, it was the host who would “rank” his own guests. To attempt to place yourself higher than the host thought you belonged, would only result in the humiliation of having him ask you to “Please take a lower seat. This one is for Mr. and Mrs. X”! The spiritual lesson, Jesus said, was that those who exalt themselves are setting themselves up for being humbled by God, the Ultimate Host at the eternal banquet.

He also had a few words of advice for his host (v. 12-14, and I paraphrase here): “You seem to have invited only well-to-do or important people: those who can reciprocate with equal favors to you. This is not God’s way. Instead, invite people who cannot return the favors to you. That is how God operates in granting mercy to sinners such as you. And if you generously give to those who cannot repay you, God himself will repay you in the Afterlife.”

At the mention of the blessed Afterlife (literally, “The Resurrection of the Righteous”) one of the guests—not necessarily wishing to disagree with Jesus at all—spontaneously raised his voice and said “How wonderful it will be to eat in the Kingdom Banquet at the End of Time!”

Now, Jesus certainly did not disagree with that sentiment. But he was not sure yet that those in this gathering who were eagerly looking forward to that great event had truly turned to God in repentance and faith. So he told another story illustrating how few people are really interested in repentance, faith and the life of discipleship that leads to dining at the Kingdom Banquet.

The story was that a wealthy man gave a great banquet and invited lots of friends, one assumes they were people of respectability, and social rank. But on the day of the banquet, when everything was already prepared for them, they all came up with excuses why they could not come! All of the excuses were—technically speaking legitimate. They were precisely the situations that in the law of Moses were legitimate ones for not going to war against Israel’s and God’s enemy’s. But this was not an enlistment in the army, nor was it a long-term demand like going on a military campaign that might take a month or more. It was a one-day affair, a banquet given by a generous host.

In v. 21-24, therefore, the angry host told his servant to go out into the streets and invite anyone who would come, no matter how dirty or poor they were. And he canceled his invitation to the noble and wealthy whom he had at first invited.

Luke didn’t give an interpretation to this story of Jesus, nor does he tell us that Jesus did to his hearers. Sometimes he spoke this way, so that those with insight could see and those without insight would only wonder what was intended. But to us the meaning seems clear. All too often those who one would think were the wisest and most religious are actually they who understand the least about God and who show the least of God’s own character intheir lives: his kindness, mercy and honesty. And no one—no matter how much they think they are kind, merciful and honest—who is unwilling to seek God’s forgiveness in Jesus will enter his Kingdom. That is the meaning of the invitation to the banquet. It is an invitation to confess one’s need of forgiveness, and find it in Jesus’ death and resurrection. If you “take a pass” on this invitation, you are like the invitees who used every possible excuse to avoid accepting.

P.S.: I neglected to say that in the imagery of the New Testament, Jesus is the groom and we disciples the bride! So if you decide to accept the invitation, you will also be getting married to Jesus!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Jesus’ Lament over Jerusalem—Luke 13:31-35


(Image courtesy of http://www.prophecyupdate.com/)

Please read today’s passage here: Luke 13:31-35

It is always interesting to try to fathom the reasons of the gospel writers for placing the various events and sayings of Jesus in a particular sequence. The fact that they frequently differ from each other tips us off that they are not following a strictly chronological order, but are rather influenced by the flow of thought. Yet each writer sees connections where the others do not.

This is no weakness in the gospel writings. On the contrary, it enriches them. For we can see Jesus and his teachings from four points of view: united in the essentials, but rich in variety in areas where the exact interpretation is not a fixed one, but admits of alternative and equally helpful points of view.

Why does Luke follow the parable about the narrow gate with this account of Jesus lamenting the fate of Jerusalem? The narrow gate was about the exclusive way to God through his Son and Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. It proclaimed the only way to eternal life through an entrance that many would find difficult and unpersuasive, and only a few comparatively speaking would enter and find Life. This is one of the mysteries of God’s plan. He does not decree anyone’s damnation or exclusion from Life: it is offered freely to all people. But given the nature of human beings, God knows in advance that most who have heard it will not accept the offer. And so, the parable warns Jesus’ hearers not to casually reject him and his message, for there is no “Plan B” available. It is this or nothing, so far as God is concerned.

But how do you think God feels, when his creatures reject him and his Son? Do you think he delights in punishing? No, the Scripture says again and again, in both Old Testament and New, that God wants people to heed his warnings and accept his offers of forgiveness and life. But as a just God and Creator he will not overrule the free will that he has given his human creatures. They must freely choose him. He will not force them.

And so, perhaps one of the reasons Luke follows that parable of the narrow gate with this narrative was to show how Jesus—who reflects God’s own mind and heart more than any human does—reacted to the foresight that most people, and especially most of his own people, the Jews, would refuse God’s offer given by him and bring upon themselves a terrible judgment. Did he laugh? No. He wept. He bared his soul with heartrending words.

But wait. Let’s backtrack for just a minute to see how Luke introduces this lament of Jesus over Jerusalem. The scene is Galilee, for the threat Jesus is warned of—arrest and possible execution by Herod Antipas—would only apply in the north, within the boundaries of Herod Antipas’ kingdom. A warning is brought to Jesus by some Pharisees. Not all Pharisees were critics of Jesus. From John’s gospel we learn that both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were well-to-do Pharisees, who believed in Jesus. Perhaps these who warned Jesus were also true friends. Perhaps not: maybe they thought it would be fun to see him scared and running to escape Herod. We cannot be sure.

Jesus replied (v. 32) that they should go tell Herod, whom he called “that fox”, that he was not afraid of him. Instead, he had a schedule for his ministry that he would keep without any distraction from Herod’s own possible intentions: two more “days” (if those are literal 24-hour days) of teaching and healing, then finishing on the third day and leaving the territory. Utter composure and courageous faith in God’s protection.

But that is not all. Verse 33 is usually marked in modern translation as part of the quoted speech the Pharisees are instructed to tell Herod. But the Greek language, which is what the New Testament is written in, does not have any formal mark like a quotation mark. Only context can indicate when a quote stops. It is possible that v. 33 was spoken only to the Pharisees and the others standing by. Either way, it gives another reason for the schedule and for the lack of fearing Herod. The word “nevertheless” shows that despite being unafraid of Herod, there is a reason why Jesus needed to move on southward toward his final goal of Jerusalem: that no true prophet of God could avoid martyrdom in Jerusalem!

Obviously, when one considers the many Old Testament prophets who did not suffer martyrdom as well as ones who suffered it in the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria), there is sarcasm (and therefore overstatement) in Jesus’ words. But it shows again his foreknowledge of his own fate, to be tried and executed in the spiritual center of the Jewish people.

This thought, then, is what leads to the moving scene of Jesus’ lament (v. 34-35).
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’’”
The traditional site where Jesus stood and wept over Jerusalem is now occupied by the church called Dominus flevit, which in Latin means "Jesus wept". It is a lovely location on the Mount of Olives east of the site of the Jerusalem Temple (see photos here), although no one really knows precisely where Jesus stood when this event occurred.

Although Jesus clearly has in view his own coming death in the literal city of Jerusalem, in this lament the word “Jerusalem” really intends not just a physical city, but a people—God’s chosen people—who throughout their history prior to the arrival of Jesus had shown BOTH the heights of courage, faith and obedience, AND the depths of obstinacy, unbelief and rebellion against God’s laws. In other words, they were like you and me.

But the tragedy was that as God’s chosen people, endowed with his special revelation and truth and privileged to witness his many miracles in their history, they didn’t have to settle for being just like you and me.

Israel in ancient times was not worse than the surrounding nations, but all too often she was not better, not the bright and shining light of God’s presence and mediator of his love and righteousness that God had planned. At times when their messages from God did not please them or fit with their plans, they abused the prophets of God, rejecting their messages, and even killed some of them.

And now, at the climax of their history, when God was sending to them their promised Messiah and Savior, they were heading toward an awful moment of decision, a huge crisis, when they would emphatically reject God’s Messiah. At the very thought of that, Jesus cried out in lament.

With the words “how often I have longed to gather your children together” Jesus’ claims that long before his physical birth, as God he had often longed to gather all Israel to himself in a protective, loving embrace—like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. But each loving gesture was snubbed. Now, her house (perhaps primarily referring to the Temple which God will leave after the rejection of his Messiah) will become desolate.

Today the site of the ancient temple built by Solomon and rebuilt by Herod the Great has no temple of God on it, but a mosque. No Jew or Christian may worship on that site. It has been left desolate. But even more tragic, the Jewish people themselves were left with a religion without a sacrifice for sins. The final sacrifice for sin was made in Jerusalem on a Roman cross: the sacrifice of the Messiah himself. And for as long as that sacrifice is not claimed and believed in, the "house" — meaning God's ancient people themselves remain just like the rest of the Gentile unbelieving world, "desolate"—empty of God's presence with all the peace and joy that that presence brings.

But then Jesus made a final offer: “you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’”. When will Israel see Jesus again after not seeing her for a long time? When will they say to him “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”? They will say this, when they come to the full realization of who Jesus was and is.

As individuals they will say it, when the light dawns and individuals change their minds about him and receive him. Some examples of this are recorded in Luke’s next book, the Acts of the Apostles. There we read of Jews both in Judea and Samaria and Syria to the north, and Asia Minor, and in Rome, who hear the message of the disciples of Jesus and believe.

But if a corporate (or national) repentance and acceptance is in view, which I personally hold to be likely, it anticipates a massive turning to Jesus by Jewish people near the end of God’s timetable for history. In other words, this is something future for you and me. I see this as a fulfillment of such Old Testament prophecies as Zechariah 12:10, and I see the great Suffering Servant poem of Isaiah 53 as the libretto, the very words that many will use in their contrition at that time.

The Hebrew phrase that lies at the base of v. 35 is found in Psalm 118:26. An abbreviated form of it, “Blessed is he who comes/arrives” is used as a standard Hebrew greeting to guests entering a Jewish home: בָּר֣וּךְ הַ֭בָּא barukh ha-bah! It should be our prayer that many who are descended from God’s chosen people will be able to say these words to Jesus: “Welcome, Savior! Welcome to my life!” But, of course, not just these people, but you and I and all our friends and family.