Sunday, December 4, 2022

Hello Sonshine! The Parable of the Two Sons

Let's go! 

"What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
'I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing.
He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
Which of the two did what his father wanted?
'The first,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.' (Matt. 21:28-32)

Jesus is having yet another dispute with the Pharisees. He enters the temple courts. He begins to teach the people and then here comes the By What Authority Are You Doing This? crowd. Now, let's stop there and moment and ponder the boys in their linen vestments. Jesus is on their turf, so to speak, and they want to know, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23).  The Temple represents God's dwelling place on Earth. Let's see what their possible motivations are with this question:

1. We are guardians of God's House, here Rabbi Jesus. You come from a hayseed town in Galilee. Where were you trained? Who trained you? We have a reputation to protect and we can't just let anybody set up shop and start teaching.
2. We appreciate your zeal, but we are alarmed at how the people gravitate to you and away from us. WE have been appointed to do God's work. Can you claim the same?
3. You don't look like us or sound like us. You need to fall into line with how we do things around here if you want to teach here.
4. The Romans are always breathing down our necks. If you anger us, that's one thing. Anger them, and we all will pay dearly.

OK, so either the boys are sincerely guarding their turf; they are jealous; they want brand consistency or they're desperate to maintain the status quo. So, how does Jesus respond?

"Jesus answered them, 'I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?'
And they discussed it among themselves, saying, 'If we say, "From heaven," he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, "From man," we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” (Matt. 21:24-6)

Jesus' rather piercing question is to see what is in their hearts. He wants to expose their motivation in asking Him this question. The question on the surface seems well-intentioned. They seem to take their guardian role very seriously. But do they? In other words, what is the foundation upon which they stand? They claim it's God's holy Word; but is it?

The question takes on epic proportions because it points the debate right back to the Scriptures. The authority of the Messiah's forerunner points to the legitimacy of the One Who comes after. John took on the authority of baptism to prepare the hearts and minds of God's children for the greater One to come:

"In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'
For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
'The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts
and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to
him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." (Matt. 3:1-6)

John had fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy. "Lord" means "Messiah" (the Anointed One of God) and John is announcing the imminent work of God. Thus, he is a prophet as well as a forerunner. How the Pharisees answer Jesus' question is critical, and they know it. If John spoke the truth, the Pharisees will be held accountable by God for their unbelief in the One Who Has Come. If John spoke falsely, the leaders, while wanting to expose this (and by extension, Jesus) will run the risk of angering the crowd. The crowd sees him as a prophet.

So, Jesus is demanding that they reevaluate their position in the light of the Scriptures. They have studied the Old Testament to the last detail. Does John fulfill the criteria of a prophet?
Instead of going directly to the Word, they decline to respond. They are not even willing to debate the matter. But, if they look to the Word (which they claim to stand on) they would see it being fulfilled right before their very eyes.

Earlier, Jesus rode into Jerusalem upon a donkey, thus fulfilling Isaiah's and Zechariah's messianic prophecies. In fact, the reports of His ministry show that messianic prophecies are being continuously fulfilled and the Pharisees know it.

Jesus is deliberately placing the Scriptures front and center. The criteria for the Messiah is clearly delineated; thus, any discussion as to Jesus' claim should be an exploration of the Word.  

The Pharisees' response? Either we debate the Scriptures with this hayseed from Nazareth and risked looking stupid--he seems to really know his stuff--or we tick off the crowd, who seems to be at a fevered pitch of excitement and support for him.

Sadly, they take the worse tactic possible: "We do not know." (Matt. 21:27) The easy way out, to be sure, but the most telling: they are in the presence of Someone that they cannot understand. But: They equally choose not to pursue the truth in order to understand. They reject the very foundation they claim to represent: the Scriptures. In fact, Jesus says in another place to them, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life." (John 5:39-40)

Jesus, seeing their unwillingness to pursue the truth, responds, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things." (v. 27)  Sadly, no one has ever been won to the Kingdom through argument alone. If one is willing to pursue the truth to wherever it may lead, and be willing to risk having to leave behind one's preconceptions, the Scriptures should be the only arena of discussion. Jesus' method was to always point back to the Word to validate His ministry. Why do we think we can improve on His method?

Jesus will teach on two sons and a landowner. Jesus has entered Jerusalem triumphantly. He is now in the Temple (the Pharisees' ultimate turf) and He is being grilled by them as to His authority to do and to teach what He does. Jesus uses a lot of father/sons parables. If He is willing to call the Almighty, "Father," then He needs to show what that means. His parables are perfect for that, for everyone can relate to family stories. 

The father in this parable gently commands his first son to go to work. Vineyards take a lot of work; as any farmer will tell you, there is always something to do.  The first son is unwilling to be initially obedient. He is honest in his response, but as a son, it is a disappointing response. This is not just any employer; it is his father that he is saying "No" to.

So, the son's response reverberates deeper. Why did he tell his father, "I will not"? He didn't say that he was unable to do the work, or that he is too busy to do it or that he is too good for such labor; he says he won't do it. It is his choice not to do it.

Why do we choose to disobey God? Does this son feel that he can't please his father? That whatever he does will not pass muster? The fact that the father asked him in the first place indicates that the father has confidence in his abilities. Otherwise, the father could go out and hire workers. But, the father gives his son the job: for the father trusts the son, even if the son is unsure of his abilities.
So, the first son, having giving it some thought, changes his mind. Why?

Dad asked me to do the work today. He didn't indicate he was going to show me what to do; he trusts that I know what to do. He trusts that I know enough to do well enough. His vineyard is important to him; he trusts me to go in and work. Wow. I sort of thought he didn't even consider me worthy enough to go out there and do what needs to be done. But he does. I don't want to let him down. I'll go!

Away he goes. Perhaps the father knew that as well--the son's lack of confidence would initially stop him from going, but with a little love shown his way, his son would perk up and go.
The father asks the next son. This son sounds eager and obedient, but his heart is neither. He complies, but then will not go.

Dad asked me to work today. How come? I don't like all that dirt. The bugs drive me nuts, swarming around my head. The sun is hot and I get tired. Isn't being his son good enough? There are workers out there he could hire. I am not just any 'ol worker--I am his son. I sure wish he'd treat me like one. I get certain privileges as his son, and I don't see getting dirt under my fingernails as one of them. So, yeah, I said yes, but why do it? I am a son, not a servant; even if my father forgets, I don't!

Of course, the question is answered correctly by the Pharisees--the first son is the one who did what his father wanted. The son's actions portray his heart. The Pharisees must be happily associating themselves with this first son.

We obey, Rabbi Jesus. OK, we may grumble here and there, but at least we get out and do the work.

Jesus quickly interrupts their reverie by unpacking the parable for them. John the Baptist was clearly chosen as the Messiah's forerunner, to show the people the "way of righteousness." The very bottom of society--the ones who think they are not worthy to go into the vineyard--are going in. Why? They changed their minds. They caught a glimpse of the truth that they are the sons and daughters of God, and that is why he invited them in. Not because of what they have done, but because of who they are.  

The society labels them "sinners."

The Father labels them "sons and daughters." 

These folks took hold of John's words and saw Jesus as the Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world. They came to be baptized by John. They were willing to have their sins cleansed and then enter into a new way of seeing themselves. They went into the vineyard because of their Father's invitation. The Kingdom of God is a place for sons and daughters, and the people's willingness to enter in show their willingness to see themselves as God sees them.

Wow! Now, to the next son, who really sports the attitude of the Pharisees. They outwardly act like sons, but are not willing to see what the Father is really doing. They think they have God figured out; they have boiled the relationship down to rules and regulations. The Pharisees didn't see the people flocking to John as Heaven's gates swinging wide open, but as an affront to their neat and orderly way of serving God. But, God's way was right in front of their eyes. They refused to see this.

Their way didn't include sinners walking in forgiveness and freedom. Their way wouldn't have showered the status of sons and daughters upon such low-lifes...that title was reserved for those He favored, which, of course, meant the Pharisees. 

Let's look at the blueprint of God's Kingdom, found in Isaiah 61:1-2. (Incidentally, Jesus read this very scripture to inaugurate His ministry):

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners;
to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD
And the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion,
giving them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.…

Sons listen to their Father. Sons obey out of a sincere heart. Daughters enter His presence with joy and thanksgiving. They serve because of love. They may feel unworthy at first, but they changed their minds. Why? It is the Lord's kindness that leads us to repentance. No one ever entered the Kingdom by rules and regulations...a lesson the Pharisees had yet to learn.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

HEY YOU! Me? YES, YOU! The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

 Here we go!

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is an especially powerful one, because sometimes we are the Pharisee, and sometimes, we are the Tax Collector.

What do I mean by that? Luke gives a quick preface to this parable: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable..."

Haven't we occupied, at one time or another, both roles?

For example... Today, the my Pharisee mode is in full swing:

I walk out of the door of my nice house, climb into my nice car and buzz down the road, to my nice office. On my way to work, I see some guy standing out in front of a stoplight with the cardboard sign of woe: homeless, moneyless, out-of-work-less and I think (in my heart, of course), "Clueless. I am not giving you dime one. Why can't you be like me and get a job?"

I drive to work. I walk into the office and notice my fellow worker's desk: all askew with sticky notes multiplying on monitors like mold in a cabin shower. I say (in my heart, of course) "Why can't she be like me? My desk is organized. That's why she can never find anything and is always asking me for things."

I head to lunch and notice the heavily-tatted young woman behind the counter. I order my food and notice that she moves at a glacial speed to fill my order. I'm thinking (in my heart, of course) "You're going nowhere sister, with all those tats. Why didn't you spend your money on education, so you don't have to work such a dead-end job? I bet you have screaming kids and your take-home pay won't even take you home."

So...We have our Pharisee mode. We feel so better. We feel so blessed. We go forth with a critical heart for those who don't measure up to our standards; we have contempt and wish those folks could just be like us. Then their problems would go away and they could be, well, like us.

We don't just have a standard; we are the standard.

Some days, we go forth in the Tax Collector mode:

I walk out of my apartment, and head for the stoplight. It's degrading but with all of the money I owe the court, begging seems to work. Yeah, I get a lot of flak--jeers, sneers and an occasionally rock or bottle thrown my way. But I do get an occasional smile. If you had asked me two years ago if I'd be standing by a stoplight, begging for money, I would have laughed. A lot can happen in two years. Yeah, I get it. I should get a job, right, lady, sneering at me in her nice car?

I sit down at my desk, with my husband's angry words still ringing in my ears. I forgot about picking up the kids at Grandma's last night. The boss always has some last minute must-do he places on my desk, causing me to walk out each day a little later. The sticky notes are numerous because my work gets broadsided by my boss. Trying to find a new job would take too much time. With my husband's job always on the brink of being outsourced, I have to work this job. Options dwindle while the sticky notes pile up. Why must my co-worker stare at me every time she passes by my desk?

We drop the toddlers off at Mom's; am I pregnant again? I was careful this time. I can't afford to lose this burger job. I am so tired today; Ben was up all night screaming, and Toby seemed to be feverish. I hate this job; I hate being away from the boys. Am I pregnant again? Nate and I were careful...Why is that customer sneering at me? I know I'm slow...

The Pharisee looked around, and measured his goodness by himself. He wasn't a robber, an evildoer, an adulterer, or even like that tax collector over there. He may have gone to the temple to pray, but it turned quickly into a Personal Praise Session, with whom he loves the most at the center. I love the little detail Jesus throws in: the Pharisee stands by himself. He doesn't brush elbows with the average Joes standing in the temple.

He stands by himself, and for himself.

The Pharisee is in his nice world, all sparkly and good. He doesn't know or even care to know the stories of his fellow human beings. He is the standard, and everyone needs to man-up and be like him. He rolls out his righteous deeds as if God needs to be reminded. He probably is not praying quietly; I am sure his "prayer" is a rather loud recitation of his goodness.

Notice the brevity of his prayer. No thanking God for His blessings, His love or for His provision. You might, in the movie version of this, hear "I Did It My Way" playing in the background. He mentions God once, and himself four times. This ratio shows his heart.

The tax collector stood "at a distance." Hmmm...Was he close enough to hear the Pharisee's prayer? Or did the Pharisee pray loud enough to for the tax collector to hear him?

Either way, the Pharisee's words would have reinforced what the tax collector already knows: He is a loser. He isn't even worth the powder to blow himself up with.

The tax collector will not look up to heaven. His heart is weighed down with the burden of his own inadequacy. He knows, according to everyone's scornful looks--with the Pharisee happily weighing in--that he is a loser. He rolls this out to God by saying he desperately needs His mercy, for he is a "sinner."

He mentions God once and mentions himself twice. God can work with this kind of ratio.

Why? Because God wants us to humbly acknowledge our need for Him.

Jesus puts a coda on this parable by saying that "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Some days we are the Pharisee, comfy and cozy in our superiority, and seeing God as a divine Master Card, all too willing to meet our needs because of our goodness.

Some days we are the tax collector, so weighed down in our shame and blame that we dare not look up to heaven.

While the tax collector is certainly closer to God in admitting his need, he is also forgetting one important fact: He is a child of the King. "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God…" (Rom. 8:14-16)

The tax collector can be akin to the Prodigal Son. He can return home with a repentant heart, and the Father is eagerly awaiting him. But, what if he just stands there, humble but unwilling to embrace the Father? Jesus points out that humility swings wide the gates of Heaven. His humility "justified" or made him right with God. Now what?

God wants our fellowship, so with humility comes community. God wants us to join Him in His work on this planet. Standing there, beating our breasts and crying out that we are sinners is a start, not a finish. He wants to justify us to set us free to do what He has commissioned us to do: win the tax collectors and Pharisees to the Kingdom of God.

The Pharisee is equally a child of the King.

He is akin to the Prodigal Son's older brother. He is so focused on doing good for God, that he has forgotten God and is angry that he needs to remind Him of his works.

Both are equally precious to God. Both can work for the Kingdom.

One needs to humble himself and realize his works should come from his love for God. Pride must be put aside. He needs to bow before God, asking for God's forgiveness. He must now walk as the son that he is. One needs to realize how deeply God loves him. He needs to rise up and accept God's forgiveness. He must now walk as the son that he is. The coldness of this world needs the light of His love.

My pride and my abasement will slam a bushel over His light in me. I must seek His forgiveness and walk as His child.  He died to make this possible.

My "goodness" and my sin were equally nailed to His cross.

He, because of the cross, offers me a crown.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Show Me the Money! The Rich Man and the Beggar (II)

We last left the poor beggar winging his way to heaven, where he now resides, at Abraham's side.  Abraham is the father of the Jewish nation.  Abraham, a pagan, heard God's voice.  He followed in faith and it was "credited to him as righteousness."  He became the founder of the Jewish people, and he stands tall in the Hall of Faith.

So, a beggar, unnoticed in life, is given an honored place with Abraham after his death.  Jesus doesn't add any more detail here--being seated next to Abraham is enough.

Jesus immediately switches to the rich man.  He dies and goes to his reward:  Hell.

No sugarcoating here:  a man who lived for himself, whose money was his god, and whose life was spent in material pursuits, finds a different set of values in the afterlife.  As Jesus explains in another passage: "But Jesus called them to Himself and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…" (Matt. 20:26)

The Kingdom of God is a reflection of God's rule, on Earth as well as in Heaven.  So, if you want to be a leader, you must lead with love.  If you desire to be first, you must allow others to go before you.

This is the Kingdom way.

This is His way.

Why?  His way is an antidote to our pride, which needs little encouragement.  Our sinful nature is all too ready to jump in, demand more and have the best of everything.

Sounds like our rich man, huh?

So, our rich man, now residing in hell, sees Lazarus far away, next to Abraham.

Now, the rich man calls out:  "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."

Hmmm...interesting.  A man who could not have been bothered to relieve suffering in his lifetime, now requests relief for his suffering.

"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony."  

The afterlife is real.  Judgment is real.  God's ways are real.  You lived, Mr. Rich Man, as if all of this was untrue, or simply didn't apply to people like you.  Wrong.   

Dead wrong:  "And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him." (Heb. 9:27)

Abraham also reminds Mr. Rich Man that an uncrossable chasm separates Hell from Heaven.

Then the rich man, suddenly realizing the finality of all this, says, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment."

Interesting.  Mr. Rich Man didn't even notice nor care about Lazarus when he had a chance; why would his brothers?  Would they take Lazarus seriously?

Lazarus who?  Oh right.  You came back from the dead, huh?  Is this a new ruse to get us to give you more money?  Hell and Heaven are real?  Yeah.  Yeah.  We know, but we've got too much going on.  Sorry, gotta go, Mr. Lizard, or whatever your name is.  My broker's on the phone... 

Abraham  goes on to suggest that they have "Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them."  Remember who has a front row seat to this parable?  The Pharisees and religious leaders.  They probably perked up at this point.

You bet we have Moses and the Prophets.  We stand on that foundation with pride and knowledge.  We are educated.  This puts you, Rabbi Jesus from Nazareth, at odds with us.  What are your credentials?  Who appointed you to waltz in and start teaching the masses about God?  We do that.  We are qualified to do that.  You, while you might be sincere, you are sincerely wrong.  The people need us.  Not some storyteller from Galilee.  What we do in our off-hours is none of your business.  We lead and they follow.  It is as simple as that. 

Jesus knew their hearts.  Jesus knew how they pursued worldly wealth and the status it brought.  How they wanted to be first in line, revered and respected, and if they let slip a sneering look at the unwashed masses, so be it.  The masses deserved it.

So, the parable ends on a rather pointed note.  The rich man responds, "'No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’  He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

This must have caused the Pharisees to startle a little bit.  The murderous rage they nursed in their hearts towards Jesus was still probably only thinking at this point.  But Jesus knew all too well where this jealous thinking would lead them: to collude with the Roman government and seek His death.  

The ironic thing here is, despite the admirable knowledge the Pharisees possessed, they missed a fundamental element:  Moses and the Prophets spoke of Jesus.  He pointed this out to them:  "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me...And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life...Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust.  For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me.  But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?" (John 5:39-40; 45-7).  

So, they missed the boat on seeing how the scriptures point to the Messiah, and how that very Messiah was standing right in front of them.  

But Abraham in our parable has quite the response to the rich man:  "And he said unto him, 'If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.'"  

So, turning this parable around, could you argue that Jesus is Lazarus?  He is poor, lowly, not of high status and He lingers at the gates, waiting for those who think they have it all to come and acknowledge Him.  They don't listen to His words.  They continue to "dine" in their pride and arrogant knowledge of who God is, and all the while, they ignore the Beggar at the gate.  

This Beggar will rise from the dead.  

He will rise for the dead.  Death will lose it sting.

He will rise to the dead.  He will rise to bring eternal life to those who seek Him with heart and soul. 

But these dead, sneering at Him while He finishes His story, are not listening.  

Friday, November 4, 2022

Show Me the Money! The Rich Man and the Beggar (I)

Let's dive in!

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

‘No, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:19-31)

If we get a little uncomfortable about money, especially when Jesus is teaching about it, good. It's always good to ponder what bothers us; perhaps we have a stone that needs to be turned over and looked under.

Jesus has just finished teaching the parable of the "shrewd manager" in Luke 16. Jesus then boils down the argument to its essence: Who are you going to serve? You cannot have "two masters." A master demands undivided loyalty; how can you divide your loyalty and serve wholeheartedly? One master will get the short end of the stick.

Notice Jesus says "master" in Luke 16:13? Not "friends," nor "families" nor "neighbors." He says, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” [emphasis not in the original]

Wow. In the Kingdom of God, you are a servant. Jesus saw Himself that way, and His followers. He washed the feet of the disciples at Passover, which surprised them no end. The host of the Passover washed the hands of his guests; servants washed the feet. He modeled what this Kingdom servant looks like by doing both.

So, if you are a servant, who is your Master? God Himself, right? Well, the ones listening to Jesus, the Pharisees, are characterized by Luke as loving money. Their divided loyalty was manifested on their faces--as they listened, they "were sneering at Jesus." Jesus, Who had an irritating habit of cutting straight to the chase for those who needed it the most, saw into their hearts and knew of the the two, money and God, which One was not getting the Pharisees' undivided loyalty.

He goes on to remind them that in the Kingdom, what is valued by men carries no weight, and actually is "detestable in God's sight" (Luke 16:15). God's economy is so different and Jesus is embodying that difference every day in who He touches and teaches.

Before Jesus launches into His rather famous parable, about a rich man and poor guy named Lazarus, He makes a few more comments: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Luke 16:18)

Jesus is putting the religious leaders on notice. "The Law and the Prophets" is the Old Covenant, outlined in the Jewish people's holy writings. But John's ministry is a demarcation, from Old Covenant to the New Covenant, as now represented by Jesus' teaching. This new Kingdom is so appealing that people are wanting to get in on it now!

Jesus is, however, not preaching spiritual anarchy. The Old Covenant isn't be tossed onto the scrap heap of history. It has its place, for it shows how God's Chosen are to act.

So, adultery is still adultery in this New Covenant, and by extension, all of the commandments will still reflect the Divine design of things. But, and here is an important point: Jesus is showing how the Law and the Prophets, in the hands of the religious leaders, has been drained of its vitality, with no love and no life. That is why the doors of the Kingdom are being busted down by eager people, desperate to feel that they are truly loved by God.

So, what have the religious leaders failed to do? Sure, Jesus could lecture them as to their many shortcoming in the service of His Father, but He chooses chooses rather to tell a story.

So, Jesus uses, as his subjects, a rich man and a beggar. 

Hmmm. It's a subtle message, but a powerful one. I am sure that a few of the Pharisees caught the essence of this story, while a few others just stood there, flummoxed by what they saw as Jesus' deliberate obtuseness.

So, let's see where this story takes us. Remember, Jesus has already made the point about money being a master to many and how it is incompatible with serving God. The Law and the Prophets are still in effect in terms of how God expects His children to act. So, with these two trains of thought, let's get on board.

Two men, two very different lives. The rich man isn't mildly rich...he is RICH. His garments are colored purple, which comes from a very expensive dye, and his linen is "fine." Every day, this man is livin' large.

Everyone knows who this rich guy is and where he lives. How could you not know with someone dressed like this?

Some folks have the brilliant idea of laying a poor beggar, Lazarus, at the rich man's gate. Good move. This rich man has more than enough to give. He has been richly blessed, and the Law and the Prophets teach that those who have must give generously to those who have not. The rich man probably doesn't just walk down the street. He is probably carried in a sedan chair to his various engagements. So, in his comings and goings, he might not even notice this lone beggar on a street corner. To insure that Lazarus gets noticed, his friends/comrades/family place him at the gate, so when the rich guy leaves his abode, he can't help but notice him.

Problem #1: The rich guy doesn't seem to be on the vanguard of philanthropic ventures. The poor have to be brought to him. He doesn't seem to make the rounds and help the poor.

Next, we see Lazarus at the gate, "covered in sores." Malnutrition and deprivation have worked their damage on this poor guy. His hope? He longs to eat what falls to the floor from the rich man's table. He's not even begging outright when the man is dining. He's just hoping that when the floor is swept and the garbage is put outside the gate, he'll be the first to get the scraps. But in his weakened state, he will have to compete with the dogs. He is so weak that they lick his sores. He doesn't seem to have the strength to get away from them, and their licking makes his degradation all the more poignant.

This can only end one way: the beggar dies.

So, this man, this beggar, forgotten on earth especially by those who could afford to care for him, gets a beautiful angelic escort to heaven. He is not forgotten after all. Heaven is all too aware of his suffering. In fact, the overflow of the blessings bestowed on the rich man should have been used to relieve his and others' suffering. Heaven gives so we may give. 

The rich man couldn't be bothered.

Problem #2: The rich man's attitude was not in harmony with the Law and the Prophets. Blessings, especially material, were seen as coming directly from God's hands. Sadly, many took the inverse to be true: If you aren't blessed by God, then you've done something wrong and offended Him. So, you get what you deserve. Right? 

No, Jesus is showing another interpretation: You, with your cup overflowing, are God's hands and feet to a hurting world.

OK, let's review. Line up, Pharisees.

Problem #1: You don't seem to be on the vanguard of philanthropic ventures. You scorn the poor, the needy, the sinners. Do you seek the poor out? Or do you stay behind your self-righteous gate, and even when the poor are brought to you, you ignore them? You are too busy basking in your blessings, thanking God for noticing your wonderful adherence to His law and rewarding you accordingly. Do you even consider that your wealth is not an end in itself, but a means to bless others? Probably not.

Problem #2: Attitude check. OK, you don't seem inclined to spread the love around. You have been blessed by God, but now you love the money more than Giver. You use your wealth to separate you away from the rest of society; you sport a country club mentality with your abundance. You claim to be God's representatives, yet walk right by the Lazaruses all around you.

I can hear you thinking, "How do you know that, Jesus of Nazareth?"

These are the very people who come to hear Me speak, and you are not subtle in the least with your sneering, scornful looks, towards them or Me.

Next time, we will follow the rich man, who goes the way of the buffalo...

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Be Debt Free! The Shrewd Manager

Here's an interesting parable.  Let's go!

There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.

The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’

Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’

‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.

He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. (Luke 16:1-8)

I find it fascinating that the Parable of the Shrewd Manager comes right after the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. is well known. The other? No so much.

This parable comes after a long string of "The Lost ____." We have looked with the shepherd for one sheep, a woman for a coin, and a son who goes and loses everything and returns home, seeking forgiveness.

All of these were in the hearing of the "Pharisees and the teachers of the law." (Luke 15:2) The eager audience of "tax collectors and 'sinners'" had once, again, brought disdainful looks and comments from the self-righteous listening in on Jesus.

My daughter made an interesting point to me today. You can help others, but if after you help, you then turn self-righteous about it, you negate the good you've done. God wants our obedience to be sure, but He equally wants a good attitude about what we do. The Pharisees are all too willing to do good, but they then act like they are the ONLY ones who are obedient to God.  

They fume:  How dare this Jesus comment on our attitude? At least we are doing what God commands. Can we say that of those tax collectors? Those 'sinners'? This Jesus? No way.

Attitude begets altitude. If you fly low and slow, helping but judging as you go, you never get lift. You fly high in His love, and reach out and do your work in His name, then you truly acting as His son or daughter.

This is not your average parable. But let's try to unpack it, and sees where it leads.

Who accused the manager of wasting the rich man's possessions? Was it the rich man's friends? Was it the talk of the town? Whoever got it started, the accusation reached the ears of the rich man, and he wanted to investigate the matter. He just didn't sack the manager. He wanted evidence of the manager's practices. The rich man would then make a judgment.

So, we have a rich man who is calling into question one of his employees. This manager is under suspicion. Interesting how earlier on, the Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus' choice of who to teach. So, could the rich man be the Pharisees and their attitude towards Jesus? 

They might be murmuring:  You are teaching and preaching the Torah and that, Rabbi from Nazareth, puts you under our domain--we are the representatives of the Torah, so you answer to us. Account for yourself. We won't sack you outright; we will show our magnanimity by allowing you to demonstrate how you deal with our "clients."

So, the manager sees his job going away quickly. He doesn't doesn't openly deny or affirm his master's suspicions. He sees himself not cut out for digging ditches or begging. He plans for the future by investing in his master's clients. He decides to show the rich man how he goes about the business. Why? He knows that once the rich man lets him go, he'll need a place to stay to get on his feet. He knows the clients in town and he wishes to put his business relationship with them to good use: He wants to gain some friends at the end of all this.

So, in front of the master's debtors, he shows his master his cleverness. The rich man probably ducked out behind a curtain, so he could hear the manager in action. The first client owes 800 gallons of olive oil. The client is all too aware of what he owes. But the manager has him change the bill by reducing the amount owed to 400--half the original amount.

The second client owes a 1000 bushels of wheat--he also is all too aware of what he owes. The manager has him changed the bill to be only 800. The clients leave and the rich man steps back into the room.

The manager reduced what is owed by these clients by having them change the bill. They left grateful, for any reduction in debt is a benefit. Why?  The debt can be paid back sooner. With the clients gone and prepared to pay the new amount, the rich man looks with respect upon the manager.

Yes, the manager is "dishonest," for he did not have permission to reduce the amount of the debt. His task is to manage the rich man's affairs, not make decisions on his own. But his solution created happy clients, who will more than welcome him in once he is unemployed.

"Shrewd" is defined as "having or showing sharp powers of judgment; astute" per an online dictionary. Remember the original charge against the manager? He was accused of mishandling and "wasting" the rich man's possessions. Perhaps he had in the past; we don't know. But the manager's solution now brought praise from the rich man.

Jesus then comments, 

The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Luke 16:8-12)

Hmmm...This interesting commentary from Jesus. He is accused of effectively mishandling what the Pharisees value: the Word of God, the Torah. The clients knew what they owed; Jesus' listeners, tax collectors and sinners, have no doubt what they owe and how they are not welcomed in the Pharisees' version of God's kingdom.

Jesus' listeners are like the clients--their debt is lessened and they go away happier than when they first showed up. The burden they now carry is less because of the way Jesus handles the Word. It's the same "debt"--the Word of God--but in Jesus' managerial capacity, the Word is not so burdensome, as it is when the Pharisees handle it.

He then zeroes in on the real issue of the Pharisees: where their hearts truly are. They are the "rich man." They are the accusers of this "manager." They demand an accounting.

Then Jesus says, just like He did with the rich young man, 

Give it away, gentlemen. Even the ungodly know how to use wealth to gain friends and influence people. You claim to be godly; OK, then, why not use it to further the good? You are not handling the blessings you have with much honor and care; you just want more and the status it brings.  I, as God's Manager, am now calling YOU to account for what you have.

You have been blessed with much, yet give so little. You claim to be rich in God, yet you are miserly with what is, after all, His. You really have two masters above you and you must choose. The object of your devotion is evident, and it must change. You can't serve both.

Whoa: Look at the reaction of the Pharisees: "The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, 'You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.'" (Luke 16:14-15)

This Manager will go one step further than the one in the story: He will climb upon a cross to fully pay the debt of sin and shame we all carry. No reduction of the debt. It will be a full remission.

When we wave the "bill" in God's face, look at it carefully: It says "paid" and is written in the blood of Jesus: "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)

Thursday, October 20, 2022

You First? No, God First: The Disgruntled Workers (II)

 Let's do a quick review!

We have just been unpacking the parable of the workers in the vineyard, who despite being hired at different times of the day, receive the same pay, in Matthew 20:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.  About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

 ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

 He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’  The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.

‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?   Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.  (Matt. 20:1-6)

After His resurrection, Jesus taught His followers deeply from the Scriptures, as He has sought to do throughout His ministry, but now it had an urgency: 

'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.'

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.' (Luke 24:44-9)

In other words, the whole sweep of the Old Testament applies to the Messiah, and He is the Anointed One. He connected the scriptural dots, and with the advent of the Holy Spirit, these men and women went out and turned the world upside down.

He is also the fulfillment of the covenant to King David. He is the King who will reign forever, out of the house of David. So, tucked away in this parable, could there be a veiled reference to a story that happened to David and his men?

In 1 Samuel 30, David and his men are waging war on the Amalekites. These unpleasant folks had raided an area and took away the wives and children of David and his men. The men and David are utterly shocked, and cry to where "they had no strength to weep." Their anguish turns to anger with David, and they consider killing him, but "David found strength in the LORD his God." He seeks of God whether or not he should pursue this raiding party, and receives the divine green light.

He gathers his 600 men, and away they go. Some 200 stay behind at the ravine, for they "were too exhausted to cross the ravine." No worries--David heads out with his 400. They happen upon an Egyptian slave, left behind in a field by an Amalekite when he grew ill. David feeds him and this man leads him and his men to where the raiding party is.

David wins the day and recovers all that had been taken. As he is returning, some malcontents say that the plunder shouldn't be shared among the men who stayed behind. They should receive back only their family members.

David's response is quite similar to the words of the vineyard owner in the parable: 

'No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the Lord has given us. He has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiding party that came against us. Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.' (1 Sam. 30:23-24)

Notice that David is effectively the "owner" of the plunder and has the right to distribute the goodies as he sees fit; the owner of the vineyard in the parable can pay the workers what he chooses. It is God's plunder, as David reminds everyone.

Jesus implies that the vineyard is the Lord's as well.

Coincidence? I think not. What we have here are unemployed vineyard workers and men who were emotionally exhausted...not involved from the word "go," but still part of the community. This is a community where preferences are not given. Fairness is the hallmark of the Kingdom of God, and it was exemplified in David's attitude towards his men, and the vineyard owner's attitude to the late-comers.

It is this equality that is so unlike the world and how it sees things. Even those who are religious get testy when the "least of these" receives high praise from Jesus. Remember the disciples and their reaction to the children brought before Jesus?

In the parable, the owner distributed the wages equally to all. The malcontents say, "‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’" Yes, in the world's economy, they deserve more. But not so in the Kingdom of God. The owner says, "Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’" Ouch.

It was King David's plunder and it was the owner's vineyard, but all of it was ultimately in the hands of God. We need to shift away from the values of the world that say that those who do more deserve more. And yet, how many people complain about all of the wealth and resources being in the hands of the few? The few would argue they deserve it, because they have worked hard; they were born to it; they are entitled to it because of their superior intelligence.

But in the Kingdom, we are God's children, all standing equal before Him not because of anything we have done, but because of what He did for us. The plunder and the pay are ours because of His Son and His willingness to die for the good, the bad and the ugly.

Those who are exhausted, tired, late, or early are all invited to come.

Why? He paid the price of admission. We just walk in with joy and thankfulness for His bounty and pull up a chair.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

You First? No, God First: The Disgruntled Workers (I)

 Here we go!

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.  About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

 ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

 He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’  The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.

‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.  (Matt. 20:1-6)

Jesus' encounter with people was one of contrasts.  In Matthew 19, we see little ones being brought before Him.  You can just imagine the scene:  mothers, hovering around on the fringes of the crowd, trying to keep their children from being too loud or too wiggly.  Jesus has just finished a discourse on divorce with the Pharisees.  His view is that divorce is only allowed because of men's hardened hearts.  That must have been refreshing to the ears of His women listeners, who more often than not felt responsible for their husband's displeasure, and deeply feared that ugly word if they failed one too many times.  Did Jesus words encourage them to move from the outside of the crowd to the inside? 

As the mothers brought forth their little ones, the disciples "rebuked those who brought them."  (Matt. 19:13)  How come?  Was it unseemly for a man of Jesus' importance to interact with children?  Did the disciples see the Master's time as too valuable to be wasted on children?   After all, He just squared off against the religious leaders--now that's really important!

Jesus always had time for the "least of these."  He says, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt. 19:14)

I bet the disciples, in their desire to honor Jesus, felt rather abashed by what He said.  In their effort to protect His status in the community's estimation, they lost sight of His message.  The Kingdom of God is not about putting arrogant authorities in their place; it is about swinging the gates wide open for those who are eager to be with God.

Next, we see a man inquiring of Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life.  After his admission that he keeps the commandments, Jesus asks him to sell what he has, thereby gaining "treasure in heaven." (19:21). Jesus then invites the young man to follow him.  But the young man declines, "because he had great wealth." (19:22) So, Jesus comments to the disciples how wealth is a hindrance for entering in the Kingdom.  

Why?  Wealth makes us feel self-sufficient.  We don't pray for our daily bread because, Hey! We own the bakery.  We don't thank Him for the morning, because, Hey!  It's another day to make a profit.  We don't thank our Father for His bounty and blessings, because, Hey!  We earned that by the sweat of our  brow.  

The disciples are disturbed and Jesus then reminds them that “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (19:26)  Exactly.  Our self-importance must be set aside.  We must humbly enter the narrow gate of the Kingdom with the Holy Spirit working in our spirit, bringing us to that place of child-like wonder and trust.

 Peter then pipes up with an observation that the disciples have left everything to follow Him..."What then will there be for us?"  (19:27)  Peter always says what the others are thinking.  I love that quality about him.  He doesn't silently muse on Jesus' teachings; he goes for broke and blurts out his thoughts.

Jesus then reminds them that whatever they have left behind on this Earth to follow Him will more than be made up for when He returns.  But, a hallmark of the Kingdom is humility:  "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first." (19:30)  Jesus essentially answers Peter's question by  saying, 

Be like those children earlier, Peter, who came to Me without seeking anything other than My love.  No strings, no compensations for perceived loss, just a sincere desire to bask in the sunshine of My love. 

Then, on the tail-end of all this, He speaks our parable and ends with the momentous line:  "So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:1-6)

Wow.  Those who have labored long and hard are equal to those who come to the vineyard late.  Why?  Because in the Kingdom of God, no one gets a preference.  All come and sit at the banquet table as equals: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28)

Put this teaching back into what Jesus recently encountered:  The Pharisees wanting to "test" Him, probably in order to discredit Him before the crowds; Jesus blessing the little children; Jesus asking the rich young man to love God more than his wealth and encouraging the disciples that in the Kingdom's  economy, a loss is a gain.

Authority, wealth, knowledge, rules, regulations, knowing one's our world, these things mattered then and they matter now.  In the Kingdom of God?  No.  None of it.

Only the children are commended by Jesus as already being in His Kingdom.  Why?  They waited until all of the adults were done discussing and debating the Law with Jesus.  They were "brought" to Jesus with no demands nor questions.  They simply gazed into His eyes and saw His love radiating back to them.  They were the "last," the "least" in the society of the day, and yet, they were first in His Father's Kingdom.  This parable comes in like a flood, to wash away any doubt about how to enter the Kingdom of God.

Humility is the price of admission.  Everyone who accepts the ticket from Jesus' hand is welcomed. 




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