Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hello Sonshine! (Part 2)

    We have set up the context for the next two parables in Part 1.
    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.
    In light of this, He teaches this parable: 
       “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 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 sorta thought he didn't even consider me worthy enough to head in 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 'ole 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, and I need to act like one; 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 have figured God out, and have boiled down the relationship 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.  It was an affront to their way.  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.  (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.


Monday, May 25, 2015

Hello Sonshine! (Part 1)

     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.  You?  
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; 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 is fulfilling 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.  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.  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?

Next up:  the Parable of the Two Sons

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Hey You! Who Me? YES: YOU!

     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?  
     Today, the 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; heck, we are the standard.
    Some days, the Tax Collector is us:
    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?
     Or:  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?
     Or:  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...
     So, let's hear from our two in Jesus' parable:  “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.’" (Luke 18:10-13)
     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.   


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Show Me the Money! (Part 2)

     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, 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 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.  
     They won't be listening in the future either.  
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