The Banquet at the World’s End

(Isaiah 25:6-10a; Luke 14:12-24)

To understand our passage from Isaiah, you need to look at chapter 24, which begins, “Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate,” and carries on from there.  There’s a turn in the last verse, however, as the Lord of hosts estab­lishes his reign on earth; then comes a hymn of praise to God, and then our passage this morning.  “On this mountain”—on Mount Zion, after he has judged the earth—the Lord will prepare a feast, not just for Israel, but for all the nations.  He will “swallow up” the shroud that covers the nations and keeps them from seeing his glory, and Jew and Gentile alike will receive his salvation.

This great banquet is related to the coming of the Messiah; but while the Jews got that part, they rejected a key element of Isaiah’s vision, that the Messiah’s banquet would include all the nations, not just the Jews.  Thus the Aramaic version of this passage renders verse 6 this way:  “In this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all the peoples a meal; and though they suppose it is an honor, it will be a shame for them, and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end.”  Whoever was responsible for that couldn’t accept the idea that God might bless non-Jews, so they narrowed the passage.  Over time, that narrowing process continued, excluding unrighteous Jews, and then anyone with any sort of physical blemish; only those worthy to earn an invitation would be welcome.

This is where the dinner guest is coming from in Luke 14.  His statement is a conventional piety, to which he expected a conventional response.  He certainly wouldn’t have thought to provoke a challenge, and yet that’s what he gets.  Jesus sets the scene briefly:  a rich man gave a dinner party.  He sends out the invitations with an RSVP, so that he’ll know how many are coming, and thus what kind of meat to serve.  For a few guests, it might be a chicken or two, or a duck; for 10-15, a goat; for a larger number, a sheep.  To feed 35 or more would need a calf.  Once they’d butchered the appropriate animal, it had to be eaten that day, since the meat would never keep.  Once you accepted the invitation, you were duty-bound to come, so that none of the host’s food would go to waste.

The host makes his preparations, and when the meal is nearly ready, he sends out his servant to tell his guests that the feast is prepared.  They accepted the invitations and promised to attend, but to his surprise, now that it’s time for them to come, they refuse.  That alone was a considerable insult to their host, but then they offer excuses which can only have been calculated to increase that insult.  For whatever reason, they’re giving their host a deliberate slap in the face.

The first guest says, “I bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.”  Now, imagine you’re throwing a big party, and just as it’s starting, one of your guests calls and says, “I’m not coming—I just bought a house down in Indy, I’ve never seen it and I don’t know where it is, so I have to go look it over and check out the neighborhood.”  Are you going to believe them?  No!  Do you think they’d expect you to?  Of course not.  The excuse is ridiculous.  Who would buy a piece of property about which they knew nothing?

That was even truer then; buying a piece of land could take years.  W. M. Thomson, a missionary to Syria in the 1800s, said, “It is not enough that you purchase a well-known lot; the contract must mention everything that belongs to it, and certify that fountains or wells in it, trees upon it, etc., are sold with the field. . . .  Thus Abraham bought this field and the cave that was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, and that were in all the borders round about, were made sure.”  You knew a piece of land intimately before you bought it.  This excuse is a joke, and everyone knows it.  Worse, this guest says, “I must go out and see it.”  He’s saying this field is more important to him than his relationship to the host, which only compounds the insult.

The next excuse is even more preposterous.  Imagine a friend calling you up and saying, “I can’t come to the party—I just bought five used cars over the phone, and I have to go find out their make, model, age, and mileage, and see if they’ll start.”  No one would buy a team of oxen without testing them first—in public—to see how well they pulled together.  This excuse is just as transparently false as the first, and even more insulting.  Fields are land, after all, and land is holy, but oxen are just animals.  For the first guest to say that land was more important to him than his relationship with the host was bad enough, but oxen?

That said, this man is at least civil, as was the first.  The same cannot be said of the third one.  You see, this wasn’t his wedding night; the host would never have scheduled his banquet for the same day as a wedding.  No one would have come.  This guest already knew he was married, or would be, when he accepted the invitation.  Also, men in that culture were supposed to be very reserved when talking about women in public settings.  In particular, sex was seen as an intensely private thing which wasn’t to be mentioned in public.  It was extremely rude for this guest to say, “I know I said I’d come to your banquet, but remember, I got married not long ago, and this afternoon my wife—well, you get the picture.  I’m not coming.”  He doesn’t even bother to send his regrets, which only makes things worse.  As Kenneth Bailey notes, “The entire response is guaranteed to infuriate the most patient of hosts, East or West.”

Indeed, the host is furious; he’s just taken several nasty public insults.  He also has a problem:  what to do with all the food?  His delinquent guests are sure they’ve dealt him a humiliating defeat.  Obviously the feast can’t go on without them, and the food will go to waste.  But the host rises above them, and responds with grace:  if those who would be considered worthy of his invitation won’t come, then he’ll invite the unworthy.  He sends his servant out into the city to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame—those who were excluded from polite society.  This would enrage his original guests, both for the implied insult and because their attempt to prevent the banquet has failed.  They might retaliate somehow, but he does it anyway.

The servant comes back to report that he’s carried out his instructions, but there’s still room at the feast.  The host commands him to go out beyond the bounds of the community, out into the highways and side roads of the wider world, to bring people in to fill the tables.  This is an even more staggering command than the first—not least to those invited.  That’s why the master says, “Make them come in.”  In that culture, the unexpected invitation must be refused, and especially if the guest was of lower status than the host.  It was a matter of honor.  Those he was now inviting would be sure the host didn’t mean the invitation—that it was a gesture of some sort.  Nothing good could come from accepting an invitation that wasn’t meant to be accepted.  Thus the servant must gently compel the newly-invited guests, not with physical force, but with reassurance that yes, this invitation is completely sincere, as unbelievable as that is.

This must also have floored those listening to Jesus.  Whatever the merits of the poor, crippled, blind and lame, they’re at least members of the community.  They belong to some degree; they have an interest in the welfare of the city, and some connection to the host, however tenuous.  But outsidersForeigners?  To Jesus’ audience, that was unfathomable.

They knew what he meant.  Some of Jesus’ parables confused his audience, but this wasn’t one of them.  This is the banquet Isaiah promised, and Jesus’ point is painfully clear:  some who expect to be there won’t be, and they’ll be excluded by their own hand, because they’ve rejected God’s invitation.  In their place will be many whom the world calls “unworthy,” and many outsiders—Gentiles—including us.  Those who accept the invitation will be there.  Those who refuse it because they have rejected the Servant, Jesus, will be outside, no matter how they argue.  Jesus makes that clear with his closing comment, which is not part of the parable—the “you” is plural, so this is Jesus talking directly to his audience:  “None of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”  They’ve excluded themselves, and their self-exclusion is final.

The banquet of the Messiah isn’t for good churchgoing people who live moral lives.  It isn’t for respectable folks who are upstanding members of society.  It isn’t for those who stand for traditional values.  Not that any of those are necessarily excluded—it isn’t not for them, either—but you can’t get in that way.  Living a moral life won’t get you in.  Campaigning for biblical values won’t earn you a ticket.  Even faithfully attending church won’t qualify you.  The only way in is through the Servant, the Messiah, Jesus.  The banquet of the Messiah isn’t for those who think they deserve to be there.  It’s only for those who know they don’t.  It isn’t for those who think they’re good enough to make it by their own work; it’s for those who know they’ll only make it by the grace of God.  It’s by his grace alone, for those who accept that the only way is grace alone, through Christ alone.

First Things First

(Job 31:24-28; Luke 12:13-21)

The situation Jesus faces is clear:  this man’s father died and left the land as an inheritance to his sons as a single unit.  That way, it will support both without the problems that would come with dividing it.  The expectation is that they will cooperate, so that their father’s purpose will be honored, but for whatever reason, one of the brothers is refusing.  According to the law, if one heir wanted the inheritance divided, the division must be granted.  Like the widow with the unjust judge, this man is legally in the right.

And yet:  note how he approaches Jesus.  He isn’t asking Jesus to mediate between himself and his brother; he isn’t putting himself under Jesus’ authority to decide the case.  He tells Jesus what to decide.  He’s already made up his mind that he wants the land divided—and no doubt what piece he wants—and is trying to use Jesus to make his brother give him what he has already decided he’s going to get.  Thus, while this unnamed man is crying out for justice—and in a legal sense, is justified in his cry—his perspective is completely self-centered, and completely lacking in any sense of self-criticism.  He’s decided what justice is due him, he’s decided what his rights are, and he doesn’t care a whit about anyone else’s rights or what justice might be due anyone else—or, apparently, about his relationship with his brother.

As the missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin observed, “Each of us overestimates what is due to him as compared with what is due to his neighbor. . . .  If I do not acknowledge a justice which judges the justice for which I fight, I am an agent, not of justice, but of lawless tyranny.”  This perfectly describes the petitioner, and it’s why Jesus responds to his demand for justice with disapproval.  This isn’t the response this man expected, knowing Jesus’ concern for justice, but it’s the response he gets, from the first word.  He begins his statement “O man,” which indicates disapproval and complaint.  He continues, “Who made me a judge and divider over you?”  This man wants Jesus to finalize the broken relationship between himself and his brother with total legal separation; we might say he wants Jesus to grant him a divorce from his brother.  Jesus isn’t interested in playing that role—he wants to heal relationships, not end them.

Instead of granting the request, he sets out to help the petitioner see that, as one commentator says, “there is a greater gain than getting an inheritance and a greater loss than losing it.”  He begins by saying, “Take care!  Be on your guard against every kind of insatiable desire”—not just greed, but sexual desire, lust for power, any kind of desire—“for life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Jesus’ statement is general and addressed to the whole audience, but his implication is pointed:  even if the petitioner gets everything he wants, it won’t solve his problem.  As the Egyptian scholar Dr. Ibrahīm Sa‘īd observes, where the petitioner has asked Jesus to be a judge between him and his brother, with this statement Jesus moves instead to be a judge overthem.  “He judges the motives of their hearts,” says Dr. Sa‘īd, “not their pocket books.”

Having made this statement, Jesus expands on it with a parable.  There was a rich man whose land, one year, produced a bumper crop.  He didn’t do the work, he didn’t need the surplus, he didn’t even have any place to put it, but the conditions were right, and he got it anyway.  Now he has to figure out what to do about it.

He shouldn’t have had to do it alone, though.  In that culture, the leading men of the village spent most days sitting at the gate of the village discussing everything that was going on, every problem in the community and the nation, and every issue they faced.  Even the smallest decision would merit hours of discussion—that was the fun part—and any decision of any significance would be made in that setting.  Jesus’ audience would expect this rich man to go down to the gate and talk the situation over with his friends.  Someone there would suggest that if he can’t fit all that food in his barns, he should give it to the poor.  As St. Ambrose observed in the fourth century, the rich man hasstorage available in the mouths of the needy.  But none of this happens.

Instead, we see this rich man dialoguing with himself, in isolation from his community.  He has no close friends, no one he can trust to share this decision.  As Kenneth Bailey puts it, “He has the money to buy a vacuum and live in it,” and that’s just what he’s done.  Of course, when you consider how selfish he is, this isn’t surprising.  He never considers this surplus as God’s gift to him, or as an opportunity to provide for others; the surplus is simply histo use for his own self-indulgence.  His only concern is how to preserve it for his own use.  If he doesn’t have enough space in his barns to store it all, he’ll simply make more space so he can keep it all to himself.

Note his language—my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods—and, finally, my self.  He doesn’t see his things as God’s gifts to him, but rather as his by right; and it would appear that he sees his self in much the same way.  Thus he can say—again, to himself; there’s no one else to share his celebration—“Self, you have it made.  You have enough to kick back and party for the rest of your life.  Live it up!”  He belongs to no one but himself, is responsible to and for no one else, and cares about no one but himself; he has many years of ease and pleasure ahead in his own little vacuum.

Or so he thinks.  He’s forgotten or ignored the one person against whom his wealth means nothing:  God.  As the rich man kicks back, God looks down and says, “You fool!  This very night, your life is required of you; and all these things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  The word for “fool” here has the same root as the word the NIV translates “be merry.”  That word means to have a life which is good to the core of your being.  This word “fool” is the negation of that—it means to be empty and pointless to the core, without mind, wit, spirit, emotions, anything.  It’s an extremely strong word.  From a biblical perspective, it’s about the harshest insult possible.

It’s also, from God’s perspective, completely deserved.  His response to the rich fool shows two gaping problems with this man’s plans.  First, he believed the lie that his life was his own, when in reality he had it on loan from God.  Now the loan is being called, it’s time to give an account of how he used it, and all his riches will do him no good at all.  His plans have come to nothing, because they assumed the one thing none of us can control:  time.  He thought he had it, but his time has run out.  He stored all his treasure in barns on earth, and now he’s leaving and they’re staying and that’s that.

Second, the question “Whose will they be?” bites deep for this isolated man.  He had no one to share his decision, no one to share his celebration, and no desire to share his wealth.  He planned alone and built alone to indulge alone, and now he will die alone, with no idea what may become of his hoard.  He probably had family, and no doubt several people waiting to lay claim to everything he owned; a power struggle was imminent, with no way to tell who would win, and all he’d built could be ruined in the process.

And with that, the text stops, and we’re once again left hanging—with the parable and the frame story both.  We don’t know how the rich man responded, and we don’t know how Jesus’ petitioner reacted to the parable.  The response is left to us.  Jesus’ point is clear, however:  this is how it is with those who spend their efforts storing up treasure on earth for themselves, rather than offering their treasure to God by serving him.  Life may seem good along the way, but in the end, it will all be wasted.

The problem with both Jesus’ petitioner and the rich man of the parable is that they’re putting material things first.  They’re looking for life in possessions, pleasures, power, and pride, and that’s just not where true life is to be found.  They’re putting their trust in wealth, which cannot support their trust.  If you need wealth to do what God has commanded you to do, he can and will provide it—out of nowhere, if he so desires.  More often, of course, he provides just enough for the next step, not one great windfall but a hundred little gifts; but all the wealth of the world is at his full command, and he can do with it as he will.  Which includes, for those who put their faith in it, wiping it away.  That too can and does come out of nowhere.  God calls us to value the things that matter—our relationship with him, first and foremost, and our relationships with those around us—and to trust him for the rest.  He calls us to put first things first.

Staggering Rudeness, Confounding Love

(Deuteronomy 15:1-11; Luke 7:36-50)

Yes, I’d heard of Jesus; he had my fellow Pharisees in an uproar with some of the things he’d said and done.  When the news came that he was passing through my city, of course I went to hear him preach:  I wanted to take his measure.  I have to admit, I was highly impressed with his sermon.  He preached from the scroll of Isaiah, and offered a most insightful interpretation—I’m not sure even I could have done better.  Still, I wanted to know more about the man, so I invited him to my house for dinner.

Word got around, as it always does.  I sent a servant home to tell the rest of them to prepare the feast and set up the long table in the courtyard; by the time I reached my house, there were already quite uninvited guests standing in the courtyard as well.  That’s just the way things work.  They were standing against the walls, of course, so as not to be in the way of the servants; I was not such a fool as to feed any of them and they knew it, but they still wanted to watch.  They had nothing better to do—layabouts, all of them—and there was certainly nothing more interesting going on.

When that Galilean vagabond arrived, I’m sure he expected to be treated as an honored guest.  I doubted he deserved the honor, though, and besides, I wanted to test him.  He’d often been rude to my brother Pharisees, so I was rude to him.  In your culture, I believe you have rituals for visitors—you open the door and invite them in, you take their coats, you invite them to sit down and offer them coffee.  We have ours as well.  There is the kiss of greeting—on the cheek or the hand—and then a servant would wash your guests’ feet, or at the bare minimum bring them water to wash their own.  Feet are filthy, offensive to the nose and the eyes; dirty feet from the muck of the road don’t belong in the house, let alone at the table.  Then you would anoint your guests’ heads with a little olive oil.  I did none of it, and waited to see what this Jesus would do.

I thought he would probably take offense and leave, but he didn’t.  Instead, he went over to one of the couches around the table and reclined.  I see you sit in these uncomfortable upright chairs to eat; we prefer to eat like civilized people, lying on one side with our heads propped up on an elbow and our feet sticking out behind us, away from the table.  It was quite presumptuous of Jesus to do that; properly, the eldest reclines first, then the next oldest, and so on.  That young upstart didn’t know his proper place.

Well, that was bad enough, but no sooner had he done that then a woman in the crowd behind him burst into tears.  I looked at her, and of course I recognized her; every man in the city knew her, and many of them had paid for the privilege.  If I’d noticed her earlier, I would have had her thrown out.  But there she was, sobbing; and then to make matters worse, she rushed forward, fell to her knees, and began to weep over his dirty feet.  She was crying so hard, the tears were actually washing them clean.  Then she uncovered her head and unbound her hair—she could have been divorced for that!  If any man would ever have been willing to marry her.  She used her hair as a towel to wipe the mud and filth off his feet.  Then she reached into her dress and pulled up the flask of perfume that hung around her neck, and she poured it all over his feet, and began to kiss them all over.  Even for a woman like her, that was degrading.

All this going on, and that upstart from Nazareth just sat there looking at her.  He claimed to be a prophet, but a real prophet would have known what sort of woman was touching him, and would never have put up with it.  Then he looked at me and said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”  He was a guest in my house, but from the expression on his face and the tone of his voice, clearly he wasn’t going to apologize for the disruption he’d caused; so I said, “Spit it out, Teacher.”

He responded, “Two men were in debt to a moneylender.  One owed him $3,000; the other owed him $30,000.  They were both broke.  Rather than having them thrown into prison, their creditor decided to completely forgive both their debts.  Which one will love him more?”

Well, that wasn’t what I’d expected, but there was only one possible answer.  “I suppose,” I said, “the one who was forgiven more.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “You have judged rightly.”  His tone of voice suggested this was a surprise—as if I’d been judging something wrongly.  I could feel my face heating up; this hill country mountebank was making me mad.  But he went on.  He turned to the woman kneeling at his feet and—without even looking back at me!—said, “Do you see this woman?”  Did I see her?  How could I not?  She was a disgrace!

Jesus continued, “I entered your house as your guest, Simon!  You know what hospitality requires.  Yet you didn’t even give me water to wash my own feet—but she has made up for your failure by washing them herself with her tears and drying them with her hair.  You failed to give me a kiss of greeting; she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet.  You failed to anoint my head with olive oil; she surpassed you again—she anointed my feet, and not with cheap oil, but with expensive perfume.

“Simon, she has exposed your many failures for everyone to see, and so you need to understand this.  Her sins are many—you know this, the whole city knows this, and so do I—but God has forgiven all of them; she’s been forgiven much, so she loves much.  But you, Simon—you think you’re a righteous man, and you’ve convinced everyone around you.  Actually, your sins are many, just as hers are—you’ve put some of them on display here this after­noon—but you don’t see them.  In your pride, your arrogance, your self-righteous­ness, and the hardness of your heart, you have rejected the love and grace of God.  Therefore you have been forgiven little, and believe you need little forgiveness; therefore you love little.  You have little love for God, and less for other people.”  Then he reached out and touched the woman on the shoulder; he said, “Your sins are forgiven.”

I was so enraged I could hardly think straight, certainly too furious to speak; yet at the same time, my heart was cold within me, as if I had taken a spear of ice through the chest.  My ears were roaring, but I could hear my other guests asking each other—quiet­ly, so as not to attract that man’s attention—“Who does this guy think he is?  Not only is he willing to insult his host in his own house, he even claims to forgive people’s sins!”

But Jesus ignored them; he was still looking at the woman.  He said to her, “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.”  She got up—unsteady on her feet—her cheeks were streaked with tears, her makeup had run, her hair was filthy beyond belief—but her face shone with joy and awe, and peace.  In fact, there seemed to be light all around her, and somehow, she looked beautiful.  Then she turned without a word and walked out of the courtyard.  Complete silence fell.  Even the insects weren’t moving.

How am I supposed to respond to this?  I keep the Law—I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything I own—and yet this uneducated beggar dares to call me a sinner?  He seriously expects me to believe that woman could be completely forgiven for her entire gross sinful life without even bothering to earn it?  Without even bothering to try?  The very idea is ludicrous—it goes against everything I believe.  And yet—I can’t quite shake it.  Is it possible I’ve been wrong about God all along?  Is it possible I’m just like those stiff-necked people Amos condemned?  Could it be I really am a great sinner?  Should I have been kneeling at his feet too?

The question that really haunts me is—this man was willing to love even such a terrible sinner as that woman, and even to let her touch him.  They call him the friend of sinners, and he certainly proved that.  Is it possible that’s the only reason he accepted my invitation?

Blessed Expectation

(1 Kings 18:41-46; Luke 12:35-40)

The scene here is a wedding banquet in a typical village in Israel.  It’s in the public area of the home of the rich man of the village, and everyone’s there, because in that culture there’s normally no such thing as a private party.  At least, almost everyone is there.  In the host’s private quarters, those of his servants who are lowest in status are keeping themselves ready to serve him whenever he leaves the party and returns to his rooms.  They have to stay up to keep the lamps lit, because trying to prepare and light an oil lamp once it’s already dark is quite difficult.  They have to stay dressed for work; like everyone, they’re wearing loose-fitting floor-length robes, but they have ends of their robes pulled up, and belts on to keep them up.  This way, they have the freedom of movement to work, and they are ready whenever their service is required.  And they have to stay alert, so that they respond quickly to the master’s return.

At some point, the master slips away from the feast while it’s still going on, and he knocks on the door.  Normally, only strangers knocked—if you were going to someone who knew you, you would call out so they could recognize your voice.  Why does the master knock?  Because if he calls out, some of the wedding guests will hear him, and his absence from the banquet will be noticed.  He trusts his servants to be awake and paying attention; if he knocks, they will hear, they will know who’s at the door, and they will let him in.

They open the door, expecting to go to work—but because they were waiting expectantly for him to come, they find a great surprise.  The master has come bearing dinner; he has filled a tray with food from the banquet, and brought it to them to serve them.  He sets down the tray, takes a length of rope, and belts up the end of his robe—which is no ordinary robe, but a fancy one for the celebration.  He then tells them to recline around the table where he and his family eat, and proceeds to serve them himself.  They cannot be at the feast, because they have a duty to perform; because they are performing it faithfully, the master brings the feast to them.

This isn’t how the very rich treat “the help.”  You know that.  I experienced that pastoring in the Colorado Rockies.  I did a fair number of weddings up there, mostly for part-time folks with no connection to the church; some of them could have paid my salary out of pocket change.  The couples always appreciated me, but some of their families saw me the same way they saw the people bussing tables at the reception.  We existed so they could get what they wanted; we were essentially tools to them, not people, with no purpose but to serve their wishes.

But here, the master turns this completely on its head, and serves his servants.  He lowers himself, he humbles himself, he sets aside his pride and his ego, in order to honor his servants and show them love.  This is why he slips out of the wedding.  If it were just a matter of sharing the feast with his servants, he could have sent one of his other servants off to them with a tray.  He doesn’t do that—he goes himself in order to make himself their servant.

This is the love of God, and this is what he did for us in Jesus; and this is why Jesus declares the servants blessed.  He doesn’t say they will be blessed when the master returns; they are blessed already because they are waiting faithfully and expectantly.  As he does in the Beati­tudes, Jesus is saying here that the blessed life isn’t what we think it is.  No doubt the servants had other things they would have preferred to be doing.  They weren’t accomplishing anything, they weren’t being productive and getting things done; nor were they having fun doing things they enjoyed.  It would have been easy for them to look up at the end of an hour and see only an hour wasted.  And yet, they continue to wait actively, listening and keeping ready for their master’s return—and it is for this faithful dedication that Jesus calls them blessed.

Why?  They’re blessed because they’re waiting for the right person.  They’re blessed because their master is worth their faithfulness.  Because they’re focused on serving him, they have to say no to many other things they could be doing, which would seem at the time to be more enjoyable and satisfying; but they put their master ahead of all those other things.  And note this:  it’s all about their master, not anything else.  They aren’t waiting up because they expect a reward—they only expect to serve.  When he returns, he proves they were right to do so.  He honors their faithful waiting and confirms their blessing in a way that makes all their waiting and all their self-denial worth it.

Pride and Prejudice

(Psalm 51, Micah 6:6-8; Luke 18:9-14)

The great danger for the church is legalism.  I’ve said this more than once, but it bears repeating, often, because it’s a constant temptation.  In fact, we might say that legalism pulls us with the force of gravity—we fly by God’s grace, but if we aren’t constantly seeking to stay in the air, we will crash.

That’s easy to miss.  When we think of legalism, we think of moralism and all sorts of rules about things we can’t do, and an excess of that sort of thing just doesn’t seem to be a major problem in our society just now; but that’s just one form legalism takes.  That’s not what it’s about—that’s not what it is.  Legalism is about self-salvation.  It tells us we can be good and live the good life (however we understand that) while still ruling our own lives, through our own effort, by keeping the rules.  They may be rules we associate with the Bible, they may come from the self-help movement, they may be ones we make up ourselves; they may be about living up to other people’s rules, or about breaking other people’s rules.  That’s just details.  The core is the same:  I choose the rules I follow, I keep them myself, I’m in control of my life, and I get the credit.

That point about getting the credit is important:  part of the appeal of legalism is the fertile ground it offers for spiritual pride.  “Righteousness” isn’t a popular word these days, but whether they use it or not, I think everyone has a concept of righteousness—of how they ought to be living, and what it would look like to live that way—whether they believe in a god outside themselves or not.  God has not left himself without a witness, and one way or another, everyone has to deal with that.  But if you can convince yourself that you know what rules are important and you’re doing a good job of keeping them, then you can tell yourself that you’re doing well—and you can feel superior to all those around you who aren’t keeping them as well as you are.

This is in some ways a base and childish temptation; but it can easily be made to look very spiritual and impressive, if the rules you follow seem to be noble ones.  This was much of the problem with the Pharisees; after all, what rules could possibly be nobler than the law of God?  Of course, as Jesus pointed out more than once, what they were really keeping wasn’t God’s law, but their interpretation of God’s law; even so, they were convinced of their own righteousness, and of their right to look down on the “people of the land,” who didn’t meet their standards.  To them, Jesus told this parable.

The atonement sacrifices for Israel were offered twice a day in the temple, at dawn and 3pm.  (When the text says these men went up to pray, don’t assume private prayer—the same word was used for going to public worship, and that’s pretty clearly the case here.)  At each service, a congregation gathered to worship, to pray during the burning of the incense after the lamb had been sacrificed, and to receive the blessing of the priest.  Among those who went up this day were a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Both stood apart from the congregation.  The tax collector knew himself despised and rejected by the rest as a lawbreaker and a traitor to his people; the Pharisee despised and rejected the rest, and believed touching them would make him unclean.

Though he considered himself superior to the rest of the congregation and wouldn’t stand among them, the Pharisee wasn’t completely separate from them.  You see, Jewish practice was to pray aloud; it seems this Pharisee was taking advantage of that, praying loudly enough so that those closest to him could hear him and profit from his example.  After all, they wouldn’t get many chances to see a truly righteous person, so it was clearly his duty to instruct them.  Thus he prayed aloud, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, who are thieves, rogues, and adulterers, like that tax collector over there.  No, I fast twice a week, and I give tithes of everything I own—not just of grain, wine, and oil, but a tenth of everything, even of my spices; I do far more than the Law requires.  God, I’m wonderful, I’m doing a great job of following you, I have every reason to be proud of myself, and I thank you for that.”

The Pharisee is so enmeshed in his sin, he can’t even see it.  As the twelfth-century Arab Christian scholar Ibn al-Ṣalibi commented, “We know that the one who isn’t a thief and adulterer isn’t necessarily a good man.  Furthermore, experience demonstrates that the search for the faults and failures of others does the greatest harm of all to the critic himself, and thus such action must be avoided at all costs.”  Thus, even as the Pharisee holds up the state of his spiritual life for admiration, he’s tearing it to shreds.

In sharp contrast, we have the tax collector, standing well behind the congregation, far from the altar.  To the Pharisee, he’s merely a sinner to be avoided, but that’s not all he is.  Standing in a posture of humility, hands crossed over his chest and head bowed, he begins to beat on his chest in anguish.  This was an expression of extreme emotion, something women might do in public—at a funeral, perhaps—but not men.  The only other place in Scripture where we find men beating on their chests is after the death of Christ on the cross—it would take something that terrible to evoke such a response.  That we see the tax collector doing it shows the depth and power of his anguish at his sin.

As he beats on his chest, he prays.  “Mercy” is too light a word here—what he says is, “God, make an atonement for me, a sinner.”  The atonement sacrifice has just been offered, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, hammering his chest with his fists, the tax collector begs God that somehow that atonement would count for him, not just for the others, that somehow it would be enough to cover his sins.  “O God,” he cries out, “let it be for me!  Somehow, let it be for me.”  He is utterly broken, knowing his complete unworthiness even to stand in the temple, knowing all the evil he has done, knowing there is absolutely nothing to commend him to anyone, let alone a holy God; and yet he stands there hoping desperately that the mercy of God might just manage to find him, that maybe it might be possible that he could be made right with God.

And what does Jesus say?  “I tell you, it is this man who went down to his home justified, not the other.”  Why?  “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  The Pharisee exalts himself—he praises himself for his godliness, his closeness to God—and despises those whom he considers less godly; the atonement isn’t available to him, because he doesn’t really think he needs it.  He’s riding for a fall, and God will bring him down.  By contrast, the tax collector humbles himself before God, under no illusions as to his worthiness, only pleading that the sacrifice would somehow atone for his sins, and so it is he who God lifts up; it is he who is made right in the eyes of God.

There’s no room for pride here.  As Paul told the Corinthians, God has chosen the foolish, the weak, the lowly, the despised, and the nobodies so that he might put to shame those who think they’re somebody.  If you think you have it all together, if you think you get the credit for the good things in your life, you need to look to your heart.  If you think you’re righteous enough that you can focus on finding and highlighting everyone else’s faults, you’re not.  If you think you have the right to refuse to forgive those who have done you wrong, you need to repent and be forgiven.  But if you know your sins, if you know you’re not worthy, if you know you need forgiveness and grace, then welcome.  Welcome, because this is for you.  Let’s pray.


(Jeremiah 8:8-13; Luke 18:1-8)

The world is at odds with God, because the Devil is always at work, and he always finds fertile soil for his efforts.  Even when the world seems friendly to God, it’s always working to turn faith in Christ into mere human religion, which is much more useful and congenial to it.  It’s always working to turn the church away from Jesus—it doesn’t even matter what direction; “conservative” and “liberal” both serve the purpose equally well.  The key is simply to divert the gospel.  Those who refuse to be diverted will be marginalized, slandered, or even attacked more directly.

This is a reality the first disciples knew better than we do.  Like Whittaker Chambers when he converted from Communism to Catholicism, they must at times have thought they had left the winning side for the losing side.  It can be hard to keep the faith when all the loudest voices in your society are condemning you as wrong, bad, out of step, and opposed to all that’s good and right.  Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the situation for them; instead, he tells them a parable to teach them “they should always pray and not give up.”  Actually, it’s even stronger than that, because what we have here is almost a command:  “It is necessary for you to keep praying.”  The New Testament scholar Darrell Bock calls it a “moral imperative.”  Whatever comes, Jesus is telling the disciples, keep praying; don’t tire, don’t lose heart, don’t give up hope, just keep praying.

Jesus begins the parable by setting the scene, in very broad terms:  a crooked city judge, presumably a Jew, but not one of the religious authorities; he’s apparently a secular judge of some sort, because he’s a bad man of a type the priests, scribes, and Pharisees would never have tolerated.  One, he doesn’t fear God, which is to say he’s completely indifferent to God and his demands—including the demand for justice.  Two, he doesn’t feel any shame before other people for anything he does.

Now, we’ve talked about this a bit, that this was an honor-shame culture.  In modern Western culture, we think in terms of abstract concepts of right and wrong—even people who say they don’t believe in right and wrong use that language—which are a matter for each person’s individual conscience.  Whether we hold that good and evil are absolutes to which our consciences alert us, or believe that each of us determines our own right and wrong, the basic idea is the same.  For the Near East and the Middle East, it’s very different:  the community decides what’s good and bad, and what matters is whether your action is honorable or shameful in their eyes.  Well, like the people Jeremiah condemns, this judge does shameful things—such as hurting a poor widow whom it was his job to defend—and feels no shame, no matter what anyone says about it.

This widow is clearly suffering injustice, probably relating to some property which is rightfully hers.  Unfortu­nately, she lacks the resources or the family connections to defend herself, so this judge is her only hope.  She has every right to expect him to protect her—Jewish legal tradition declared that a widow’s suit came only after that of an orphan in importance—but he doesn’t care.  She lacks the social standing to compel him to vindicate her, she has no protector to force him to hear her case, and she can’t afford to bribe him, so he isn’t listening.

She refuses to give up.  She’s powerless in almost every way, but she does have one advantage:  as a woman, she cannot be mistreated in public, which means she can say and do things which would never be tolerated coming from a man.  Kenneth Bailey illustrates this with a story from Beirut in the 1970s.  A young man, a widow’s only son, disappeared.  His extended family went looking for him, but found no trace.  Finally, in desperation, they sent three women to confront the military leader who controlled the section of Beirut where he had been kidnapped.  They shouted their way past his guards and officers, then proceeded to bury him under an avalanche of abuse and complaints.

Dr. Bailey asked one of them, “What would have happened if the men of your family had said such things to this man?”  Her response, eyebrows raised, was, “O, they would have been killed at once.”  As he summed up the story, “In the case of my Palestinian friend, the family had deliberately sent the women because they could express openly their sense of hurt and betrayal in language guaranteed to evoke a response.  The men could not say the same things and stay alive.”

This is the widow’s one advantage:  she can go to the court, day after day, and demand justice at the top of her lungs, and the judge can’t silence her.  Over time, he realizes that he can’t wait her out, because she’ll never stop coming.  He says to himself, “I don’t care what God thinks about me and how I run my court; I don’t care what anyone else thinks about me either; but this woman is giving me a splitting headache, and it’s only going to get worse if I don’t give her the vindication she’s looking for.  I’d better give her what she wants before she wears me out completely.”  And so, though this crooked judge has every advantage but one, it is he who caves and the widow who wins, because she pressed her one advantage so relentlessly and with such determination.

The principle here is the one we saw a few weeks ago, “from the light to the heavy,” which means, “how much more?”  If the widow’s needs are met, how much more will we find our needs met when we pray not to a harsh judge but to a loving God?  The specific need highlighted here is the need for vindication:  that justice would be done for the disciples, and that judgment would come on their enemies; that in the end, those who follow Christ will be proven right, and those who oppress the people of God will be judged.  And so Jesus asks, “If the widow was able to win vindication from this unjust judge, won’t God vindicate the people he has chosen, who cry out to him day and night?”  The answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!  God will grant them justice—quickly.”

And yet—is that what we see?  We have it pretty good in this country, but it’s clear the culture is turning away from the church; and we can think of a lot of places, such as Iran, where those who follow Christ are persecuted and killed.  If Jesus said God would vindicate his chosen ones quickly, why do they suffer?

There’s another question, too; if you were here two weeks ago when we read the parable of the vineyard owner, this talk of demanding vindication from God might be sitting a little uneasily.  The workers who spent the whole day among the vines demanded justice against those who came late, but brought judgment down on their own heads; they demanded to be proved right when they were actually in the wrong.  If God judges those who oppress us, shouldn’t he also judge us?  After all, just because our cause is righteous doesn’t mean we are; the fact that we call out for justice doesn’t necessarily mean we’re justified.  How can we ask for justice without expecting judgment to fall on us?

The answer to these questions is obscured by our English translations.  In the second half of verse 7, the NIV reads, “Will he keep putting them off?”  The Greek word there is makrothumia, and it means “to restrain anger”; it’s consistently used to describe God’s patience with us in withholding his judgment to give us time to repent.  We saw this concept illustrated in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and in the passage we read that day from 2 Samuel where David could have killed Saul but refused to strike.

If we take the word here in its usual sense, we might render this, “He will be slow to anger over them.”  God will bring justice for his chosen people who cry out to him, but he will not send judgment down on us; by his grace, he has taken his anger at our sin and set it aside—indeed, he took it on himself, as Jesus bore it on the cross.  Our prayers for vindication—and for everything else—don’t depend on our own merit, and they don’t require us to be perfect and blameless; they rest only and entirely on the death and re­surrection of Jesus Christ.  In Christ, our vindication has already come, even if the world doesn’t see it yet.  And if God in his grace chooses to hold back his wrath against those who oppress us, giving them time to repent—well, maybe he’ll save them at the eleventh hour.  If not, their judgment will only be that much greater when it comes.

So why, then, do we keep praying and not lose heart?  Three reasons.  One, God loves us and cares for us.  Two, out of his love for us, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin on the cross.  God has set aside judgment for our sin, and instead has shown us mercy and grace, giving us open access to him in prayer.  Three, Jesus is coming back, and whatever we might suffer now, whatever might go wrong on this earth, all will be made right when he returns.  The only question is, when he comes, will he find us faithfully praying and watching for him?  When he comes, will he find faith on the earth?

Don’t Expect a Medal

(Psalm 99:1-5; Luke 17:7-10)

If I were to ask you to name the major American leaders during World War II, I can guess what names I’d hear.  FDR, of course, and Eisenhower.  Patton.  MacArthur.  Someone would probably come up with George Marshall and Chester Nimitz; I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else mentioned Bull Halsey or Raymond Spruance, fleet com­manders in the Pacific under Admiral Nimitz, or even Frank Jack Fletcher, who was in tactical command over Rear Admiral Spruance at the Battle of Midway.

I doubt, however, that I would hear anyone mention Ernest J. King, and that would be undeserved.  Admiral King was made Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet in 1940, then promoted to Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet after Pearl Harbor.  A few months later, he was also appointed as the Chief of Naval Operations, making him the only man in American history to be both COMINCH—the senior operational commander for the entire fleet—and CNO—the senior administrative official for the U. S. Navy—at the same time.  He may have had more to do than anybody with how the war was won.  However, he didn’t cooperate with the press; one reporter grumbled that if Admiral King had his way, the U.S. would issue one press release for the entire war, it would come at the very end, “and it would read, quote, We won, unquote.”

King was tough, demanding, abrasive, authoritarian, irascible, and fiery.  FDR famously said, “He shaves every morning with a blowtorch.”  His level of expectations created a certain amount of resentment in the Atlantic Fleet over the course of the war, because it was a lot easier to win medals in the Pacific than the Atlantic.  Admiral Nimitz, I gather, was reasonably willing to award military honors to those who served under him, while the Atlantic Fleet under Admiral Ingersoll appears to have followed Admiral King’s philosophy:  “Don’t expect a medal for doing your job.”

Now, this might seem an odd introduction to a parable of Jesus, but it has everything to do with this one, because King’s dictum is the lesson of this parable in a nutshell.  We don’t tend to think of God as being like Ernie King, and we shouldn’t—this is a man of whom one of his daughters said, “He is the most even-tempered person in the United States Navy.  He is always in a rage.”  However, we have the pernicious tendency to go too far the other way; we hear Jesus say, “I no longer call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends,” and we start to think of him as being on our level—“buddy Jesus.”  Yes, he calls us friends, but we are still his servants.  We’re still just human, even with his Spirit in our hearts, and he’s still God, vastly greater, more powerful, more glorious, and more good than we are.  Yes, he serves us, but that doesn’t make us masters; it’s by his grace, not because we deserve it.

To get the point of this parable clearly, we need to understand the context.  Most people in that culture had at least one servant—in fact, the master in this story is probably on the poor end of the working class, to use our terms, because he only has one.  Only the poorest of the poor had no servants at all; they would often hire their children out as household servants as a way of making sure they had food to eat.  We might think of the work of the servant as demeaning and unfulfilling, but in a world which was ruled by class and social status, in which mere survival was far harder than it is for us, being a servant was usually a pretty good deal.  Yes, it it meant absolute obedience to one’s master, within the limits of the Law—but it also meant security, a place to live, and food to eat; and for one who served a good master, it gave life a sense of meaning and value.

This master is a good and reasonable one.  The meal here is not dinner but supper, eaten about three in the after­noon.  The servant has done a normal day’s work outside, nothing terribly long; once he makes supper, he’ll have some time for himself.  He isn’t being abused, or treated with disrespect; what’s expected of him is fair, and in return, all his own needs are met.  He has no reason for discontent, and no cause for complaint.

“But wait,” you might be thinking—“this master sounds ungrateful.  He doesn’t thank his servant for serving him?”  That’s the standard English translation, yes, but it isn’t a good one.  What verse 9 actually says is, “He doesn’t have grace for the servant because he did what was commanded, does he?”  When Luke uses the word “grace” in this way, he’s thinking in terms of special favor or credit.  The point isn’t that the master doesn’t thank the servant, it’s that the servant doesn’t earn any extra benefits or bonuses just for doing his regular day’s work.

That leads us into verse 10, which has been something of a problem for a long time.  The word the NIV translates “unworthy” literally means “without need”; from “unneeded” it came to mean “worthless” or “miserable” in common Greek usage.  How­ever, as Kenneth Bailey tells us, the literal translation makes perfect sense for that culture, and was often used when this passage was translated back into a Semitic language like Syriac or Arabic.  If someone did something for you and you wanted to ask if you owed them anything, you would say, “Is there any need?”  Often, the response would be, “There is no need”—i.e., “You don’t owe me anything.”  This was common idiom.

Dr. Bailey suggests, and I think he’s right, that this is what’s in view here.  Jesus is telling his disciples, “When you’ve done all that you were told to do, don’t expect a medal for doing your job.  Instead, say, ‘We’re your servants—you don’t need to pay us extra just for doing what we were supposed to do.’”  And who is their master?  Who is it who commands?  God, in the person of Jesus Christ the Son.  He calls us his friends because he involves us in what he’s doing, but it’s still about what he’s doing.  We may not be the Light Brigade—ours not to wonder why, ours but to do or die—we may be free to ask questions, but in the last analysis, it is still ours to obey as we have been commanded.  Any faith which doesn’t regard Christ with the awe and submission he deserves as King of creation is false at the core; at its heart is not love for God but spiritual pride.

This is the religion of much of contemporary America, including much that calls itself evangelical:  a too-small faith in a too-small God.  If we lose our awe at the greatness and holiness of God and the glory and power of Christ our King, then we fail to understand how great is the distance between us and God, and how great was the sacrifice necessary to bridge that distance.  Our sense of our own sin and God’s holiness shrinks, and with it shrinks our gospel.  That works well enough through the pains and struggles of everyday life, as we tell ourselves we aren’t that bad and it’s really not that big a deal.  When we hit something we know is a big deal, when we do something we cannot excuse or defend even to ourselves, we’re in trouble, because we’ve lost the belief that God can forgive and heal what is too big for us to bear.

If we nurture an awareness of the greatness and goodness and holiness of Christ and understand that he’s truly our Lord, not merely our friend, then we recognize that our salvation is a gift, not a reward for services rendered.  On the one hand, our service places no claims on God, for it’s his by right; he is the maker and master of all that is, and everything is his by right.  On the other, our salvation isn’t dependent on us being good enough and never falling short.  God saves us by his grace because he freely chooses to do so out of his love for us, as a gift, no strings attached.  He doesn’t give us what we deserve; he gives us far, far more, and far, far better, than we could ever ask or think or imagine.

Infuriating Grace

(Lamentations 3:19-33; Matthew 20:1-16)

The kingdom of heaven is like this.  There was a man who owned a vine­yard.  One year, as the harvest was beginning, he decided to go himself to hire temporary workers rather than giving that job to his steward.  He rose early and went at 6am to the corner of the village market where the unemployed gathered, looking for work as day laborers.  He chose some, hired them for the standard wage, and sent them to work in his vineyard.

A few hours later, he went back to see how the rest were faring, and found many men still there.  Some, who were beginning to lose heart, were sitting on the ground, but there were many others who were still standing, eager and hopeful and ready to put themselves forward if an opportunity came.  The owner didn’t really need more men, but he hired several more anyway, sending them off to his vineyard with the promise that he would treat them fairly.  By mid-day, he figured the rest had either gotten jobs or gone home, but he decided to check on them anyway; when he found a crowd of men still waiting, out of compassion, he sent a few more out to the vineyard with the assurance that he would do right by them.  He did the same again three hours later, perhaps to honor the determination of those who were still there.

An hour before sundown, the master went back to the market, thinking surely all the men would be gone; it was really quite unusual that any had remained there past noon.  Amazingly, he found a few diehards, depressed and humiliated but just not willing to give up.  Surprised, the owner asks, “Why are you still standing here?”  They respond, “We want to work!  As long as there’s light to see, we won’t leave unless someone hires us.”  In his compassion, he tells them, “You go work in my vineyard too.”  He promises them nothing, and they can’t hope for much, but it’s the best they have, and so they go.

When night falls, the owner calls his steward—who’s been wondering what the master’s been on about all day, why he keeps going to the market and sending back extra workers—and the master says, “Call the men and pay them the wage.”  The steward is taken aback by this; he says, “Master, you want to pay them all the full wage?  They didn’t all—”  The master says, “Yes, I know.  Isn’t it my money?  Just do it.”

The steward starts to walk away, muttering under his breath, “OK, we’ll start with the guys who’ve been here all day, and work our way down the list—”  The master calls him back and says, “No.  Begin with the last ones hired, and work up the list.”  The steward can’t believe his ears.  “Master, you know what’ll happen if you do it that way—”  The master says, “Yes, I do.”  “They’re going to be pretty angry—”  “I imagine some of them will.”  “But—”  “Not another word.  You heard what I said.  Go do it.”

The first group is called, and everyone is stunned into silence when those who worked just one hour are given a full day’s wage.  That group, of course, goes off rejoicing; those first hired, meanwhile, start calculating how much extra they’re likely to get.  But then the next group is called, and they too are given a full day’s wage, and so is the next, and the tension in the first group begins to rise.  When those who worked nine hours also receive one denarius each, the tension reaches the boiling point.  It explodes into anger when those who worked the whole day are called forward and paid—exactly what they were promised, exactly what they agreed to.

Now, those workers have every reason to keep their mouths shut.  They were paid on time and in full, so they haven’t really been cheated.  More than that, they’ve been hoping for more than just one day’s work—hoping the master would keep them on for a second day, or all the way through the harvest, or maybe even longer; if they make him mad, all hope of that is gone.  But they feel cheated, and some of them are too angry to keep quiet.  One man bursts out, voicing their common complaint:  “It isn’t fair!  We worked all day, we did all the hard work, we deserve more than them!  You’ve made them equal to us—how dare you!”  Are they angry because they were treated unjustly?  No:  they’re angry because someone else was shown grace.

The master reads them the riot act.  “Mister,” he says, “I promised you a just wage, and that’s what I paid you.  That’s what you earned, and it’s all you earned—take your money and get out.  You’re free to do what you like with it, and I’m free to do what I like with my money.  If I chose to use it to pay these other men a living wage so that they can feed their families, too, what gives you the right to complain?”

How do the angry workers respond?  We don’t know—the story stops.  Once again, the final response is left in our lap.  It’s interesting that the master doesn’t respond gently and graciously, as the father does in Luke 15 or Abraham initially does to the rich man.  I’m not sure why that is, but I wonder if it might be a matter of context:  this is right on the verge of the Triumphal Entry, in the last days before the crucifixion.  Time is shorter here, things are more urgent, and the division within Israel is continuing to widen and harden.  There comes a point when grace ends, not because God stops being God but because time simply runs out; here in Matthew 20, that point is perilously close for Jesus’ opponents.  They have rejected gracious words; if they don’t hear the hard words, then soon there will be no more words for them at all.

That said, I suspect most of us would have to admit we understand the anger of those full-day workers.  I know I’ve been there.  Some of you have heard this story before, but at the church I served in Colorado, there were some deep divisions in the community and the congregation, and thus unfortunately in the Session.  There were several other issues that compounded the problem in the Session, and at one point I was absolutely furious with a couple of the elders.  I was stalking back and forth in the sanctuary—as usual, nobody else was around—praying at the top of my lungs, just venting at God, when I heard his voice in the back of my mind:  “Show them grace.”  Well, I knew that was God because it absolutely wasn’t me, and I didn’t want to hear it; I snapped back, “They don’t deserve it.”  He replied, “I know.  That’s why it’s called grace.”

I don’t mind telling you, that put me flat on the floor.  It has continued to resonate with me for a number of reasons, and not least for the lesson that sometimes God’s grace is infuriating.  When is that?  It’s when I start to let myself believe, in my natural pride, that I actually do deserve God’s favor—that for me it isn’t really grace, at least not to the same degree.  “They don’t deserve it”—and I do?  Really?  Maybe I’m closer to deserving it than that person out there that I don’t like very much, but maybe an amoeba’s bigger than a diatom, too—I still can’t see either one without a microscope.

Grace infuriates us because we want to believe we earn the good things we want.  We want to believe that we don’t need grace, that we deserve success and the satisfaction of our desires, and that justice is on our side.  The workers confused justice and grace; they objected to the grace given to others, demanding grace for themselves and calling it justice.  They got justice, not according to their own self-righteous perspective, but by the master’s definition:  he gave them no less than they had earned, but not one bit more.  They got one day’s pay and expulsion from his presence, with no hope of any future employment, or any future relationship.  Whenever we’re tempted to demand justice, we do well to remember the proverb:  “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.”

What a Life Is Worth

(1 Samuel 26:5-12; Luke 16:19-31)

In the last two parables we’ve read, we’ve seen the rich man of the village, the great landowner, in the story as a figure for God—merciful, generous, loving, someone who uses his wealth to give life to the community.  This morning, we have the polar op­posite.  The thumbnail sketch of this man in verse 19 is brilliant:  he’s ostentatious, self-indulgent, indifferent to people, and indifferent to God.

To start with, every day, he wears purple.  As you may know, purple dye was obscenely expensive, so only the wealthy could afford even one piece of purple clothing; and of course, even today, when we have a particularly expensive piece of clothing, we’re very careful to keep it clean—how much more then, when they didn’t have washing machines or detergents.  This guy is so rich, he has enough purple clothes to wear them every day of the week; he’s so rich, he has enough of them that he can afford to let them get dirty.  And just to put the point on it, that bit about fine linen?  That means, not only did he wear the most expensive clothes, he also wore the most expensive underwear.

Then too, he feasted every day, which means two things.  First, he didn’t even observe the Sabbath, let alone the Jewish fast days.  Second, he didn’t let his servants do so, either.  All he cared about was indulging his own appetites, with no regard for God and no concern for anyone else.  His servants existed to serve him, nothing more.  He should be ashamed by his flagrant selfishness, but he isn’t—he flaunts it.

Verses 20-21 give us an even more loaded picture.  “At his gate”—this guy’s so rich, he doesn’t just have a house, he has land in the village with a wall around it—“at his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus.”  First thing:  was laid.  By whom?  By the community.  Remember this:  the community is always present in Jesus’ stories—if not right onstage, then just offstage.  Almost everything happened in public in that culture, and they’re always a part of the events.  They laid Lazarus at the rich man’s gate because they loved him, but they didn’t have the resources to help him.  The rich man did—it was his responsibility.  But he didn’t care, so he did nothing.

Second, this is the only character in all of Jesus’ parables who’s given a name, so his name must be important.  “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Aramaic name El‘azar, “the one whom God helps.”  He’s so sick he cannot stand, and so poor he has to beg; he can’t walk, so his family and friends carry him to the gate each morning and then back to wherever he sleeps at night.  This is the one whom God helps?

He lies there every day as the rich man’s guests come for the feast, listening to them eat and drink and talk, watching them all go by again as they leave.  He’s desperately hungry, but they give him nothing.  There’s food left over each day, and of course, no refrigerators, so the rich man could easily feed Lazarus with no effort at all; instead, he throws the food to the dogs.  Dogs were despised in Israel, barely a step above pigs; they didn’t have pet dogs, just half-wild guard dogs.  The rich man would rather feed them from his table than Lazarus.

The final irony is in the last line of verse 21.  We read that the dogs licked his sores and it sounds painful and disgusting, when it’s actually a blessing.  Centuries before Christ, the ancient world discovered that wounds licked by dogs healed more quickly.  For one thing, their rough tongues cleaned away the dead skin, dirt, and pus; not only did that promote healing, it also made the sores less likely to attract flies.  More than that, saliva contains natural antibiotics, so the dogs were actually disease fighters.  The rich man actively refuses to give the beggar anything, but the despised, violent, unclean guard dogs care for him, and do what they can to help.

In time, of course, both die.  Now Lazarus is at a feast, reclining at the table on Abraham’s right side, in the position of the honored guest, and the rich man is in torment.  As you might guess, he handles this situation very differently than Lazarus did.  For the purposes of the story, he can see into heaven, and he calls out, “My father Abraham!”  Family is everything in the Near East and Middle East; when you’re in need, you can go to the patriarch of the family and throw yourself on his mercy, and he’s honor-bound to help.  The rich man is making a racial appeal as a Jew to Abraham as his father, and on that basis, he demands services.

Note the sheer gall of the man.  He recognizes Lazarus, and he demands that Abraham send Lazarus over to ease his suffering.  He doesn’t even ask Lazarus!  In life, he thought he was important and the beggar at the gate was nobody, so he was indifferent to the beggar’s torment.  Now he’s in Hell and that beggar is Abraham’s honored guest, and he still thinks he’s the one who matters, not Lazarus.

The unrepentant arrogance of this rich man is infuriating, and Lazarus would have been justified to respond with a torrent of purely righteous rage; but he is silent.  Like David before the sleeping Saul, he has the chance to get his own back against one who caused him pain for no reason, but refuses to strike; like God in his patience with us, as the Lord holds back his judgment to give us opportunity to repent, Lazarus sets his anger aside.  In so doing, he refuses to allow the evil done to him to drive him to respond in kind; he chooses to act differently, and to create his own meaning from the situation.

In his place, Abraham responds—and his response is also gracious and kind, you will note, but unyielding:  this is justice.  Interestingly, as Kenneth Bailey points out, Abraham doesn’t say that Lazarus is now healed or well fed, but that now Lazarus is comforted.  His greatest pain wasn’t physical but emotional and spiritual, from the way he was treated by the rich man.  God gave the rich man good things; out of them he passed on only evil to the beggar at his gate.  Now things have been set right.

Abraham continues:  not only is this justice, but changing it is impossible.  What the rich man asks can’t be done, even by those who want to.  But why would Abraham add that last?  Who could possibly want to?  That’s such a jolt, it has to mean somebody does—and as Dr. Bailey notes, there’s only one other person on stage:  Lazarus.  It appears that not only is Lazarus not seething with rage at the rich man, he has compassion on him and is volunteering to go!

If anyone thought this exchange would make a dent in the rich man’s arrogance, they were wrong.  As far as he’s concerned, Lazarus exists to serve him, one way or another, and so he says, “Well, if he can’t wait on me, make him my messenger boy.  Send him to my brothers with a warning.”  Again, Lazarus is silent, and again Abraham refuses.  Moses gave the rich man and his brothers alike the law of God, so they know what God requires; the prophets showed them God’s anger at unrighteousness, and called them to repentance.  If they care to listen, they don’t need anything else, and if they won’t listen, nothing else will get through to them.

Does that shut this man up?  No—he actually has the nerve to contradict Abraham, even though his own actions prove Abraham right.  Why would Lazarus coming back from the dead with a warning make the rich man’s brothers repent?  He himself is in Hell, and he hasn’t repented!  Abraham tersely cuts him off:  if they aren’t willing to listen, they aren’t willing to listen.  If they can ignore Moses and the prophets, they’ll find a way to ignore someone who rises from the dead.  On that note, the story ends.

The problem with the rich man is that he had an instrumental view of the value of human life.  You may not know what I mean by that, so let me explain.  He valued other people solely for what they could do for him—for their usefulness.  He thought he mattered more than anyone else because he was richer than anyone else.  Those who didn’t have the money to do for themselves, and didn’t do anything for him, had no worth at all in his eyes.  We can see that in his treatment of Lazarus—both in life and in death.

This is a common spiritual disease in modern Western society—that is, the last 250 years or so.  In Buck v. Bell in 1927, the Supreme Court upheld the forcible sterilization of a young woman on the grounds that “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . .  Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  Similar arguments were made in favor of legalized abortion—and continue to be made.  The British National Health Service rations care based on the economic value of the patient—they only approve expensive procedures if they figure you’re a good investment—and there are those in the White House who think America should do the same.  The worth of a life is calculated in dollar signs.

God does not approve.  The gospel does not let us look at other people that way.  You have never met a person whom Jesus Christ considered not worth dying for; if we treat anyone as any less, we’re selling him short.  The meaning of our lives is not—ever—in our possessions, our abilities, or anything the world can make of us, because none of those things are really ours at all; they belong to God, and we’re just stewards.  The only thing that’s truly ours to keep from this life is whatever we gain of the truth of God.  “Let not the wise boast in their wisdom, let not the strong boast in their strength, let not the rich boast in their riches, but if anyone wants to boast, let them boast in this:  that they understand and know me,” declares the Lord.  Let’s pray.

On His Mercy

(Micah 7:18-20; Luke 16:1-8)

This parable has given the church fits for centuries.  Jesus seems to be holding up this servant as a role model precisely because of his dishonesty, and telling his disciples, “You go and be just as dishonest”—and that doesn’t fit with the rest of his teaching, or with his character.  Part of our problem is that we aren’t familiar with the culture in which Jesus was teaching; I’ve been leaning on the work of Dr. Kenneth Bailey quite a lot this year, and especially for the work he’s done on the parables of Jesus, but I’m indebted to him above all for making sense of this one.  Beyond our cross-cultural issues, however, part of our problem here is the chapter break.

That might sound odd to you, but if you’ve been around long enough to hear me go off on the headings they stick in our Bibles, maybe it doesn’t.  The thing is, the chapter and verse numbers aren’t original to the text, but were added quite some time later.  Imagine if this wasn’t Luke 16:1-8 but Luke 15:33-40—mentally, where would you connect it?  To the parable right before it.  You’d read that great story of the Father’s mercy, and you’d go right into this one and understand it as a continuation of the same theme.  The chapter break tells us “This is something new,” however, so instead of attaching it to the parable of the two lost sons, we naturally connect it to the poem on money that follows it, and we read this as a parable about money and how we ought to use it.  It isn’t.  Jesus uses money here to make a point about something else entirely.

He gives this story a common setting:  a great landowner hired an estate manager to take care of renting out the land.  Some of the tenants would farm the land or tend the trees themselves; others were rich enough to rent larger pieces and hire people to do the work.  Each one paid a fixed amount of their yield as rent—and note that:  a fixed amount, not a percentage.  They owed the same regardless of how good the year was.  The manager was paid a salary by the master, and also collected a fee from each renter as they signed their contract; that fee was not reflected in the contract, which stated only what the tenant owed to the master.

In some way, this manager was abusing his position and stealing from his master; the master was liked and respected in the community, so someone came and told him about it.  The master, of course, went through the roof, summoning his servant and demanding, “What’s this I hear about you?”  The servant doesn’t answer; the master has him dead to rights.  Since he doesn’t know how much the master knows, if he says anything, all he can do is make things worse.  His silence is its own confession, of course, so the master continues, “Turn in the books—you’re fired!”

Now, there are a couple key points to note.  First, the master is showing him great mercy here.  Under Jewish law, he could have had his servant hauled off that instant and thrown in jail until he could repay or work off his crime, but he didn’t; he left the steward at liberty.  Second, Jesus’ listeners would have expected the steward to loudly and firmly protest his innocence.  There were manytime-honored defenses he could have used, and many people to whom he could have tried to shift the blame, including the master himself.  That would have been the classic response.  Amazingly, however, he just turns and leaves the room, affirming by his silence his guilt and the justice of his punishment.

The situation is hopeless and he knows it, so he doesn’t waste his breath trying to get his job back.  Instead, he puts all his energy into trying to find himself a new one.  He considers manual labor, which would have been a tremendous comedown for an educated man in a white-collar job, but rejects that because he isn’t strong enough for the work.  He also looks at the possibility of begging for a living—it was considered a legitimate occupation, though extremely low-status—and rejects it on the grounds that he doesn’t want the shame that would come with it.  But having decided against both these options, what others does he have?  He’s been fired as a scoundrel, so who would hire him?

He’s clearly a gambling man; his master has already showed him great mercy, and he decides to stake everything on that mercy.  He’s been told to turn in the books, but no one else knows he’s been fired, and by leaving his master without a fight, he’s avoided having any sort of guard on him.  He has the freedom to act, and he uses it.  If his plan fails, he’ll be thrown in prison, but that might happen anyway.  If it works, he’ll be a hero in the community.  Sure, the whole story will come out, but someone will hire him anyway, out of gratitude for his actions and respect for his ability—they’ll just keep a very close eye on him, is all.

He has to act quickly, as he can’t delay long to turn in the books.  Before he does so, he calls in the tenants, one by one.  Because no one else knows yet that he’s been fired, the lower servants obey his orders, and the tenants answer his summons; they would only have come because they believed the steward had a message for them from their landlord.  He treats them rudely, for he’s in too much of a hurry for the usual courtesies:  at any minute, the master might discover his plan, and all would be lost.  The tenants would never cooperate with him if they knew he was cheating the master, for that would end their relationship with their landlord—not only financially, but socially as well.  That would cause them serious damage in the community, and could not be risked.

As it happens, however, the manager is not discovered, and his plan goes off without a hitch.  He asks each tenant, “How much do you owe my master?”—not because he doesn’t know, he has the contract right in front of him, but just to bring the full force of their debt home to them.  He reduces their debts by about the same monetary value in each case, about 500 denarii—some twenty months’ wages for an ordinary laborer—letting them believe he talked his boss into making the reduction.  No point in doing this if he doesn’t get the credit, after all.  He has them make the changes in their own handwriting, so it’s clear they’ve signed off on the deal, and away they go, rejoicing.

That done, he takes his newly-changed account books and turns them in to his master.  The master looks at them and knows immediately what his former employee has done.  He can be quite sure that as a result, the whole village is throwing a party in his honor.  His tenants think he’s the most noble and generous man who has ever lived, for he has given them an unprecedented and almost unfathomable gift.  Legally, he has every right to cancel the unauthorized reductions—but if he does that, their joy will turn to rage, and he will be cursed by the whole community for his stinginess.  It isn’t rational, but it’s human.  Otherwise, all he can do is keep his mouth shut, accept the praise of the community, allow the manager to do the same, and act like he meant it all to happen.

This was the servant’s calculation:  that faced with such a choice, his master would choose to keep quiet.  After all, he was a generous man (even if he hadn’t meant to be quite that generous), and generosity was one of the qualities expected of the rich and powerful.  He was also a merciful man, as he had already shown by not jailing his errant manager.  And so he reflects for a moment, turns to his former employee, and says quietly, “You’re a shrewd man.”  You’ll note that’s all he praises the manager for, certainly not for his morals; that’s the point of Jesus’ comment which follows.

The manager is an example for us not in his dishonesty but in the fact that he was wise enough to know where his salvation lay.  In a way, his actions are a compliment to the master—backhanded, to be sure, but no less sincere for all that; the manager knew his master to be generous and merciful, to the point that he was willing to stake his entire future on it.  He won.  Out of his generosity and mercy, the master chose to pay the full price for his former employee’s salvation.

The principle here is a standard one in rabbinical teaching, commonly referenced as “from the light to the heavy,” which roughly means, “how much more.”  In other words, if this crooked manager got out of his crisis by relying on his master’s mercy, how much more will God help you in yours if you will only trust his mercy?  And all humanity is in crisis.  God—the master—is a God of judgment, but also of mercy.  We are the steward who has misused what was put in our trust.  Excuses are worthless.  All we can do is stake everything on the unfailing mercy of God, trusting that he will pay the price for our salvation; and indeed, he has already done so.

For those who haven’t thrown themselves on the mercy of God, the application is obvious.  Those of us who have might think this is irrelevant to us, but it isn’t; this isn’t just a one-time thing, and then we go back to business as usual.  Watching us sometimes, you’d think we were saved by mercy and then spent the rest of our lives earning it, but that isn’t the gospel.  As we were saved, so we live—all of life, at every point and every moment, wholly dependent on the mercy and grace of God.