A Camel and Needle Story, #38

Matthew 19:23-25, CSB

23 Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were utterly astonished and asked, “Then who can be saved?”

Okay, it’s technically not a parable, at least in a classic theological sense, but it is an analogy of what’s true in the somewhat invisible Kingdom of God. It’s explaining something we can understand about the spiritual realm. Hopefully, and I’m not trying to get spooky on you, but it seems to communicate what is real, and solidly true about Jesus’ rule.

What precedes this passage is what we call “The Rich Young Ruler.” It’s a painful part of scripture; we see this young man, devout and upright, crash and burn. He simply can’t extract himself from his riches, and that’s scary. He’s wealthy, and when Jesus reaches out to him and calls him to follow, he cannot. He’s chained to his money, (Matthew 19:22).

How terrible this is, and what a warning to us.

Let’s get to Jesus’ observation about this mostly invisible Kingdom of God. He chooses the largest land animal—a camel (this is not the cigarette type) trying to squeeze the smallest imaginable hole (a needle hole). I don’t know for certain, but Jesus’ audience gets awfully quiet, and it says that his disciples are “astonished.”

“Then who can be saved?”

This question flips everything upside down. The text says that Jesus looked at them (interesting) and declares what is true—“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Okay. But what does this mean?

I believe that when wealth sticks to a man it makes it impossible for him to enter God’s Kingdom. It cannot be done, at least not without the Holy Spirit’s stripping process. Let’s not quibble about this, and let’s not sweep it under the proverbial rug. It is what it is.

It’ll take an act of God (maybe several acts of God?) to sever that golden rope. Wealthy is tricky—it affects the wealthy 1% as well as the penniless street-person. Money is such a snare that only a definite act of God can break it.

The Holy Spirit knows exactly how to do this.

An angel writes to the church in Laodicea and gives them no commendation at all; rather he scares them into repentance. In Revelation 3:17-18 he speaks:

“For you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see.” 

The Laodicean church is warned—point-blank to renounce and reject that false god wealth. The angel writes to them (and we have the text) and declares that they must take definite action. They must buy another kind of gold; they must dress in garments suitable for the Kingdom. They are bankrupt. They are stark naked.

Living in the Spirit, and walking in the Kingdom demand definite action on our part. To go back to Jesus’ comments—our camel must get really, really skinny. Wealth must shrink until its needle eye size, and I haven’t really figured out how to do that. I suppose I must take off my camel’s saddle and bridle, and whack him on the behind, and let him loose.

“Nothing is more fallacious than wealth. It is a hostile comrade, a domestic enemy.”

    John Chrysostom

Parable of Talents and Rewards, #37

Matthew 25:14-30

14 “For it is just like a man about to go on a journey. He called his own servants and entrusted his possessions to them. 15 To one he gave five talents,[a] to another two talents, and to another one talent, depending on each one’s ability. Then he went on a journey. Immediately 16 the man who had received five talents went, put them to work, and earned five more. 17 In the same way the man with two earned two more. 18 But the man who had received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five talents approached, presented five more talents, and said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I’ve earned five more talents.’

21 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy.’

22 “The man with two talents also approached. He said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I’ve earned two more talents.’

23 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy.’

24 “The man who had received one talent also approached and said, ‘Master, I know you. You’re a harsh man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’

26 “His master replied to him, ‘You evil, lazy servant! If you knew that I reap where I haven’t sown and gather where I haven’t scattered, 27 then[b] you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and I would have received my money[c] back with interest when I returned.

28 “‘So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 30 And throw this good-for-nothing servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Three men, three outcomes. It’s one of Jesus’ longest parables. And it’s a formidable one, and we often scan rather than intently read. “Too many words!” If we do this, we’ll minimize its impact. “Too much repetitive thinking!” But these three men explain the mechanics of lives lived—for good, and for those not-so-good.

Three men, money entrusted. So what’s the outcome, why is this literary redundancy? Could it be that Jesus wants something sharp here—something straight to the point? To me anyway, stress is put on the abilities of these three. No more is given more than they can handle, and no one gets the same.

Three bags of money, three investments. We see exactly how they operate under this responsibility, the first two double what they received. Now the “talents” here are not personality giftings, although they could be. Talents here refer to actual cash, something tangible. The parable here is practical—something that can be quantified.

The first two are commended. The third not so much.

The first two take a risk, and after all, isn’t that what should be done? The first two double what they’ve been given. The third, given the least, chose to bury the money given to him in the ground. He was scared and figured that taking a risk was too dangerous, but we’ll discover that action was the real danger.

So what is Jesus saying here?

Seeing talents as our resources: time, energy, ability, and opportunity, we determine that these are things that each are freely given to all three. Now a talent would have been $6,000 dollars in today’s economy, it would’ve taken 20 years for a laborer to earn that much. If we do the math we’re talking about a lot of money—an insane amount of money!

I think the issue was fear—the text tells us that in verse 25. The third guy wouldn’t take the risk with that which had been given. It’s out of pure panic he decides to stash the money away, and yet we see that he expects commendation. He thinks that what he did was something good—something noble and safe.

The master was really angry.

He states that even doing something like turning the money over to bankers would’ve generated something at the very least. Interest maybe? But apparently, even that was too risky to this third man.

It seems to me, (as I’m on my third cup of coffee—and praying) that following Jesus is risky. We can be afraid, so fearful that we commit to doing what is wrong at the end of it all. The Kingdom of God demands that we take chances, even if it seems like a challenge to us.

We should pray for and then do big things, so big that they necessitate grace to pull it off and make it work. We mustn’t make our discipleship safe—the Father wants us to take chances, and live in a way that’s iffy. Perhaps that is the beating heart of this parable. It seems like God rewards those who are willing to “step out of the boat” and to walk out in a certain amount of “danger?”

I think that this might be the whole point.

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter answered him, “command me to come to you on the water.”

Matthew 14:28, CSB

Art by Eugène Burnan

Are You a Sheep, or a Goat? #35

Matthew 25:34-46, Message

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

34-36 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

37-40 “Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

41-43 “Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

44 “Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

45 “He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’

46 “Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”

This passage is murderous. It clearly explains the existence of heaven and hell. It develops the idea of personal accountability—you will be asked to explain the reality of your faith. It penetrates to the very core of you and I. Questions will be asked, and there will not be an attorney present. You will face him alone. (Easy-peasy, right?)

There’ll be only two possibilities (simple huh?) Will you be a “sheep” or a “goat?” Just two.

The issue here is what you’ve done with your life. Did you help others? Was Jesus hiding in the faces of those less fortunate? Did you recognize him there?

We’ll try to understand and we’ll have many questions. Who, when, and where? These aren’t insignificant or trivial issues. They’ll determine your eternal destiny; but after all, does it really have to come down to this?

It does strike me that everything is decided at that crucial moment. Did you really serve others? (As good believers, we emphasize “justification by faith” alone, and rightly so; but does this parable suggest this?) Are we really grasping what Jesus is telling us?

What about serving others?

The Lord Jesus makes things crystal clear, (too clear, in my book,) about service now, and eternity then. This story scares me. If I had a “sanctified” magic wand, I would use it here (“poof, be ye gone!”) but this parable doesn’t want to co-operate, and quite frankly, it doesn’t seem to “mesh” on my good theology, but on serious actions.

There is something at that moment that’ll mystify us. We’ll need him to explain things. Sheepiness and goatiness demand need a clear understanding, and believe it or not, we’ll need it. Our Lord balances his decision on ones action to others, and he interjects that whatever is done, is done to him. Period. End stop.

Whether we agree or not. Whether we accept his decision or hate it, it won’t matter a bit. His verdict is final.

He decides whether you are his sheep or just a common goat. Either way, your actions determine everything. He’ll examine all you’ve done, and then you’ll have to live with it. And whether you like it or not—he does call the shots. How we treat others (less fortunate than us,) will determine our eternal destination. This chafes, I know it does. Please dear one, you must be afraid.

After reading, and hopefully acting positively to this story is important—it’s critical. But whatever you decide, you’ve been adequately warned.

Period. End stop.

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

    Albert Schweitzer

    

The Parable of the Rich Fool, #30

Luke 12:16-21

16 Then he told them a parable: “A rich man’s land was very productive. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? 18 I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. 19 Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared—whose will they be?’

21 “That’s how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

All it took was one night. Everything hinges on this. This man seemingly had it all, to the point of expanding things even more. He’s pulling down older and smaller with the intention of going big time. Perhaps on a superficial level, all that he intended to do made incredible sense. He had the means, why not make the next step?

This man saw an opportunity, and he quickly decided that he must be especially favored by God. “Didn’t becoming rich the evidence of the father’s approval?” It seemed that he was stepping up, and stepping into the prosperity of authentic blessing. He thought he truly understood.

This was the common perspective of the day. To be wealthy was the proof that you arrived.

We can see his thinking in verse 19. This was his reasoning, and we must understand the whys in order to understand this particular story. The parable makes perfect sense when we really consider Jesus’ words in verse 15:

“He then told them, “Watch out and be on guard against all greed, because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”

The rich man was considering his retirement. The risk he was taking was somewhat inconsequential when the business end of things looked so good. There was a risk, but it doesn’t seem that it was a real factor.

But the prophetic voice was definitely clear. One voice was Haggai who spoke about measuring godliness with the measure of financial attainment. Perhaps the rich fool didn’t take this into account:

“You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

Haggai 1:6

Rich towards God, or confusing material prosperity with the spiritual is a deadly trap to fall into. Many of the prophets spoke directly to that temptation, and riches was not to be the gauge which one was to use.

Life is short–death comes way too suddenly. The rich fool didn’t have a handle on what was eternal (and what wasn’t.) This man was to be an example and a not-so-good one. Jesus both encourages and warns us that unless our wealth is funneled into eternity it means nothing. In a thousand years, we’ll realize its truth.

Real wealth is not found in an abundance of possessions. When will we understand this?

Art by Eugène Burnan

The Parable of the “Good Mormon,” #29

Luke 10:29-37, ESV

“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” 

“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

Do you have any idea how radical this parable was?

A scribe of the Law is testing Jesus. Verse 25 and 28 knit together to reveal the resistance that Jesus was dealing with. Was the scribe speaking on his own, or was he voicing the Jewish leader’s arguments? The word for “test” is the same word found when Satan tempted Jesus. It seems that this was the role of the darkness.

Jesus would have understood; he wasn’t intimidated by the enemy. If anything the parable discloses his understanding of motives and tactics of darkness. Jesus’ story was a masterpiece. He focuses on things that reveal the hearts of the religious leaders, with just a few words he strips bare the evil intentions of darkness. The parable bases itself on the end results of their false position. Jesus is the master and he is fully in control.

A man is beaten on the road by robbers. They mugged him, and even stripped off his clothing, and then left him to die. First, we see a Pharisee who made the decision not to get involved. Jewish tradition had developed a law that stated that even if his shadow fell on a corpse it would’ve rendered him unclean. That’s how messed up things got. Theology, not theopraxy, was completely in charge.

It was the same for the scribe.

Their ceremonial law blocked any real act of mercy. This man was without hope—until a Samaritan found him. Interestingly, Samaritans as a nationality despised by observant Jews. Jesus expertly tools his story to make them out to be the heroes of his parable.

Consider this: The relationship between Jew and Samaritan has a comparison for us in the present day. If we modernize this we can make the comparison to be between Christian and Mormon. The parallels are fascinating to consider. Like Samaritans, Mormons are close counterparts in the religious world. Now, I know Mormon theology is goofy, but let’s consider what’s going on here.

A Mormon shows up, and he really goes the extra mile, and then some.

He does what the Pharisee and the scribe should have done. With this simple story, Jesus shatters the deceptions of the Jewish leadership. When it comes down to it, what really truly matters is how we love our neighbors. It’s something active and it defies labels and descriptions.

Jesus turns to the questioning scribe and delivers a death knell to false ceremonialism. It isn’t what you believe is true, it’s what you do that really matters. It’s funny, but when Mormons act like Samaritans in this story, they’re regarded as holy and true in the sight of God. They’re really doing the Father’s will. This is true, whether we like it or not.

“You go, and do likewise.”

This is the will of God. Doing the work of the Samaritan is what declares our faith to be real and valid. Luther once commented:

God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

Art by Eugène Burnand

The Parable of the Salt Shaker, #28

Matthew 5:13, Amplified

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste (its strength, its quality), how can its saltness be restored? It is not good for anything any longer but to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men.”

You are different. When Jesus moved in he fundamentally changed you, and you’re a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). The word used there (or at least I’m told) is where we get the English word for “species.” Something quite real has happened (probably the most profound in history) and recasted you into a new type of being.

Jesus chooses his words carefully; I believe he wants us to understand.

He tells us that we’re now “salt” which, when you think about it, carries us right into something that’s completely different than anyone else. “Sodium chloride,” is a white substance that gives food a different taste. But there is more: it preserves, melts and heals.

It should fascinate us that this verse comes right after the Beatitudes, (Matthew 5:2-12). These verses are the critical principles of God’s kingdom found there—they must be understood with this in mind. This “salt” idea declares how very different his reign exactly is. As salt we’ve become fundamental to Jesus’ work on planet Earth, he has chosen us to change the world around us.

Everyone who really listened to Jesus as he declared his Beatitudes, would’ve known that these ideas were radically different from what the world sees as success. The “salt” verse is the immediate idea of actively putting these ideas into place. As we consider these, we realize that the world as we know it is now radically different because of us, because of him.

Salt that is not salt is a bit of a surprise.

Thinking about it we determine that “unsalty salt” is essentially sand. Now it might look like the real stuff, and it might be sold as such—but it isn’t salt. It’s a counterfeit, something that’s not the real deal.

Imagine you’re a Jewish person sitting at a wonderful meal of lamb chops. You reach for the salt shaker and expect it to flavor those delectable pieces of meat. But instead of shaking out salt (what you want), you get sand! What a let-down. You feel betrayed, and maybe it causes your whole world to collapse (and maybe not). Anyway, you won’t be tricked again, so the whole batch is used to fill pot-holes in front of your house.

The salt is sand.

The Holy Spirit who lives inside of you is what makes you very distinct. You’re altered on a spiritual/molecular level to be something you weren’t before. The implications are obvious to everyone who “tastes” you. The verse immediately following pounds this truth even deeper still—it’s all about “light” shining into deep darkness, (see “Parable of the Light, #11). Both deal with distinctiveness—both would’ve been really obvious to everyone.

I like the Message Bible on this verse (take it or leave it):

“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.” (5:13).

Let’s be salty.

The Story of the Wicked Tenants, #27

Matthew 21:33-41

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner, who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. He leased it to tenant farmers and went away. 34 When the time came to harvest fruit, he sent his servants to the farmers to collect his fruit. 35 The farmers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Again, he sent other servants, more than the first group, and they did the same to them. 37 Finally, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?”

41 “He will completely destroy those terrible men,” they told him, “and lease his vineyard to other farmers who will give him his fruit at the harvest.”

Great care had gone into this venture. The owner determined that money could be made if it was done right. He made a proper vineyard, complete with everything that might make it a success, yes, he made a risk, but it seemed to be a good investment. He had hired workers—laborers and foremen to tend and harvest the grapes.

There is envy here.

The harvest was exceptionally good it seems. The men he hired were amazed when the shekels started to pour in. Perhaps they determined that if they seized the vineyard, and make it theirs, they could possess the profits for their own. They made the decision to hijack the entire operation.

The owner sent stewards to collect the money that was earned. It seems that the workers determined not only to own the field, but deny the yearly profits, When the stewards showed up to collect, the workers attacked them. The tenants violently reacted. They severely beat one, and murdered the other. The workers were committed now, and we see how serious their rebellion was.

The owner kept sending men to collect, and it seems like these tenants kept up their resistance. The owner was baffled, and he came to a decision to send his own son. He felt that this would show his seriousness over this sort of resistance. But it didn’t work. The tenants reasoned that if they murdered the son they could finally take absolute control.

The parable was clear. Judaism had been hijacked by the leaders of the people.

They were resisting God’s work and declared the entire religious system as their own. They committed themselves to taking control of all that the owner had done. The story was obvious to all who heard. The Jews were actually taking ownership of the field—to the point they would murder Jesus.

The end result was total judgement by God. He would destroy these men who were resisting him. He would transfer the entire kingdom to men who understood the true purpose of the vineyard. Judgement was coming; and it would be both fair and just. God had been more than patient.

God requires that we transfer the glory over to him. We’re the “new” workers, and the Church is now the vineyard we toil in. The world has become our field (but not ours—God’s). We dare not get confused, we must watch our own hearts. Any blessing or glory should go to God. We must work knowing deep down that all our efforts, and the harvest, belong to him.

We dare not forget this. It is critical.

Art by Eugène Burnand

The Parable of the Two Sons, #26

Matthew 21:28-32

  28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My son, go work in the vineyard today.’

29 “He answered, ‘I don’t want to,’ but later he changed his mind and went. 30 Then the man went to the other and said the same thing. ‘I will, sir,’ he answered, but he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; but you, when you saw it, didn’t even change your minds then and believe him.

It isn’t what you say, it’s what you do.

The parable kicks-off the last week of Jesus’ ministry. Consider the following, Jesus has just entered into Jerusalem, and on a single day:

  • He has just rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
  • He has received the praise of the crowd that he’s the Messiah
  • He has cleansed the temple
  • He has healed many sick in the temple courts
  • He’s had a showdown with the leadership of Israel
  • He rebuked a fig-tree for not having figs to eat
  • He had another encounter with the leaders of Jerusalem over his authority,
  • He teaches two parables (this one, and “the Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” vv. 33-46.)
  • He has another go-around with the Jewish leadership

And you thought you had a busy day! Jesus realizes that time is running short for him and on his earthly ministry. This parable, and the one that follows is a clear indictment on the Jewish leadership—the scribes, Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The parable must be understood by those in his audience. The leaders listened, and so did the crowds. Everyone got to hear the truth, whether they liked it or not. We must realize that Jesus didn’t intend to antagonize his audience purposefully. He only spoke these two parables to clarify what was true in the kingdom of God. Two sons, two reactions. The story divides the people right down the middle—you either accepted his word, or you ignored it.

It doesn’t matter what you said, it does matter what you did.

Tax-collectors and prostitutes (!) discover that the door to the kingdom opens up for them, but slams shut when the religious people want in. Jesus’ story declares that the Pharisees must go to the back of the line, and wait for others to enter in first. (Now that’s a mind blower.)

Let’s not get it mixed up. Salvation is 100% pure grace, and it has zero per cent human effort. He saves us, not because we’re such wonderful people (at least on Sundays, anyway!), but because of his gracious love. “It is by grace that we’re saved,” (Eph 2:8-9).

We’re the ones who won’t go to work when asked, but afterwards we decide to go. When we listen to Jesus—either from a Pharisee or a sinner viewpoint, will determine our real position in the kingdom.

What we say matters little, but what we do matters a great deal more.

“They talk of repenting, but they do not repent. They speak of believing, but they never believe. They think of submitting to God, but they have not submitted themselves to him yet. They say it is time they broke up the fallow ground, and sought the Lord, but they do not seek him. It all ends in a mere promise.”

C.H. Spurgeon

Art by Eugène Burnand

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, #24

Luke 18:9-14

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’”

13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me,[c] a sinner!’ , 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

He despised others. As a Pharisee he prided himself as a holy person; he stood before God and congratulated himself. I believe that self-righteousness has many levels. You can be blatant and obvious about it, or it can be subtle and hidden. But we must understand that the father sees and knows. Notice the “all” here in Isaiah 64:6:

“We are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight. We all wither like a leaf; our sins carry us away like the wind.”

Hmm. A menstrual rag? You got to be kidding!

We often advance ourselves by demeaning those who struggle hard with their sin–there are those who see and somehow know that they’re superior. We don’t come out and say so; but we’ve arrived— but guess what— God (and scripture) know better than this.

But we’re not dealing here with a hidden self-righteousness. The Pharisee truly believes that he is different from the tax-collector. He stands and doesn’t kneel. He feels comfortable and confident in the holy presence of God Almighty. He’s not like the others. He is sure that he’s holy.

The tax-collector was brutally honest about himself.

He didn’t need anyone to tell him how sinful he was—he understood his own wickedness. Jesus’ story reveals God’s love for those who know that they’re twisted inside. Notice the heart of the tax-collector:

  • “He stood afar off” which showed his awareness of his separation from God.
  • “He wouldn’t even raise his eyes to heaven,” which declared his humility in the presence of God.
  • He kept “striking his chest,” which tells us of a deep pain over his sin against God.
  • He prayed, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ This describes his desperate heart.

These both came to pray, but that is all they had in common.

The Pharisee came to the temple to show off his righteousness, the tax-collector out of a terrible despair. It strikes me that the text in verse 11 says the Pharisee “began praying to himself.” It seems that his prayer never really met God—he was proud and showy, doing the things God hates (Prov. 29:23).

Things really came to ahead in verse 14. That’s the critical point of the entire story—“one went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Wow! What a statement. One professionally religious man, sure of his holiness, the other a sinful sinner, who came humble and broken. One showed off his faith—boasting with a legalistic swagger. The other desperate and desolate, completely undone.

But it was the tax-man who became righteous in the eyes of God.

Humility is the foundation of the kingdom of Jesus. In Matthew 5:3-4 makes a lot of sense—to be “poor in spirit” and to “mourn” are the bedrock of a Christian’s discipleship. To be justified (made right) was a gift. He didn’t try to earn it, and there wasn’t a probationary period. The tax-collector now became righteous; the Pharisee carried his sin.

God wants us to have a broken-heart. He rejects everything else. I suppose that the question is this: Do you mourn over your sin?

“The Lord is near the brokenhearted;
he saves those crushed in spirit.”

Psalm 34:18

Art by Eugène Burnand

The Story of the Unmerciful Servant, #23

Matthew 18:22-34

23 “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, one who owed ten thousand talents was brought before him. 25 Since he did not have the money to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt.

26 “At this, the servant fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 Then the master of that servant had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.

28 “That servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’

29 “At this, his fellow servant fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 But he wasn’t willing. Instead, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed. 31 When the other servants saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened. 32 Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’”  

“And because he was angry, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed.”

God is generous. All that he does is grace. It’s also grace when we really meet another. He loves us, and we need to siphon that love to everyone we meet. When we come before the Lord, we don’t get the justice we deserve. He has forgiven us—the ten thousand ones.

God is generous. We owe him an outrageous kind of debt. Commentators list the modern value of 10,000 talents would be $1 billion USD. Granted this is figurative, but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. Grace is God’s extravagant for scandalous sinners.

That is an insane amount of money. To settle our debt would far, far more than we can repay; but isn’t that the point. God’s grace on us, is a precious thing.

When he gets off his knees, we realize that he really hasn’t changed by grace. He’s teflon, and the mercy the father gave him isn’t really understood. His heart hasn’t really grasped his lesson in forgiveness. God forgave, the servant didn’t understand. His treatment of another proclaims this.

The story is all about grace and the law.

The $10,000 guy meets the $100 talent guy and we see our own inability to forgive. We shake down our brother and sister for just small things. Notice verse 28, the text tells us that he actually assualted him, “he started to choke him.” How bizarre and how disturbing. And yet, God sees, and responds.

Was the $10,000 guy really forgiven? Did he understand the spiritual transaction of what just happened? I don’t think so—and it scares me.

The other servants have seen the issue.

The key word is “distressed,” or lypeō in Greek, the word means “to throw into sorrow, to grieve or offend., to make heavy.” All that the forgiven servant did, was recognizable by others, and they reported what they saw to the master.

He’s called “wicked” in verse 32. What he did was awful, and again he’s brought in. Because of his mistreatment of the other who owed, he was now thrown into prison, owing a billion bucks. He gets what he now deserves. He gets justice instead of mercy.

“But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.”

Matthew 6:15

I’m pretty sure that God isn’t hammering us over our unforgiveness of others. I suspect it’s our sin that does that. When we consider our sin, how can we understand others who sin against us? We have been forgiven much (very much!) how can we not forgive others for sinning against us?

Many people ruin their health and their lives by taking the poison of bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness. Matthew 18:23-35 tells us that if we do not forgive people, we get turned over to the torturers.

    Joyce Meyer

Art by Eugène Burnand