The Resurrection and Marriage (Luke 20)

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Looking at Luke 20:27-40

Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.” This is Luke’s preface to the next round in the escalating conflict between Jesus and his critics. It provides a key point for readers like us who may not know about Sadduccees. So we may rephrase it a little: Some people who didn’t believe in the resurrection asked Jesus a question about the resurrection.

In the (frankly bizarre) story that follows, one becomes quickly aware that this is nothing to do with seeking information and everything to do with attempting to make Jesus look stupid. It has the flavour of being an old insider joke – like an after dinner speech about vegans at a conference of butchers. The wonder is not that Jesus deflects it so easily, but that he makes it the basis for serious analysis on resurrection.   When I am attacked, (by contrast), my gut instinct is to attack back, not to reach for the hearts and minds of my attackers.

So here’s the story:

 ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?’”

The so-called “levirate marriage” (Hebrew: yibbum) was mandated by Deut 25:5-6, which obliges the oldest surviving brother of a man who dies childless to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the firstborn being treated as that of the deceased brother (see also Gen 38:8) which renders the child the heir of the deceased brother, and not the genetic father.

In English history, Levirate marriage practices have been sometimes followed for dynastic reasons, to preserve marriage alliances and to protect the social status of royal spouses. Upon the death of Arthur Prince of Wales, his widow Catherine of Aragorn was married to his younger brother, the future Henry VIII. And see how well that one turned out?

But Levirate marriage had important dynastic and economic implications. It was a serious issue, deserving of serious consideration. But the point here -or rather the punchline- comes in v33: “Whose wife will she be?”

The question is not a question, because it is posed by those who do not believe there is any conceivable answer. So why ask it? It’s rather like that occasion when the “Woman at the Well” (in John 4) asked a question about the relative statuses of Jerusalem and Samaria. Jesus treated the question as a distraction (or even an obfuscation) and just moved deftly past it, to the real point at issue.

And so he does here:

Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.’”

As an account of what “resurrection life” looks life, this is extremely helpful, and with 1 Cor 15 constitutes the bulk of what The New Testament offers on the subject!  The first verse (v34) offers a comparison between the two states of being (the “now” life and the “then” life!). The second verse (v35) suggests the idea of judgement (“considered worthy”) and further describes that new kind of life. V36 takes this further: “They can no longer die…” concluding with the ringing statement, that “they are children of the resurrection.” And then, in a slightly rabbinic style, he extrapolates from Exodus 3 and the familiar phrase “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob ” to make the startling conclusion that “to [God] all are alive.”

It’s a confident response, so strong and clear that you almost forget that he hasn’t answered the question.

But then, of course, it wasn’t a question at all, only a nonsense to catch him out. And “Some of the teachers of the law responded, ‘Well said, teacher!’”

We may take this as their first honest statement of the whole exchange. “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

 

Lord, I realise that when I ask you questions it is often more about me and my insecurities than about finding answers.

But I thank you that you are the God of the living, the God of Now, the I AM, and the God of Forever.

And as it is with angels now, all our ecstasies and intimacies then (soon) will be with you.

I can’t wait.

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Taxes to Caesar? Yes or no?

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The round of conflict spirals towards its climax. And now, in one of the most well-known traps set for Jesus by his critics, a new and ominous note is struck – the mention of Caesar himself.

But, according to China Miéville in  King Rat : “A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it. If you know about it, it’s a challenge.”

Jesus knew.

It starts with an even acknowledgement of hypocrisy. Jesus’ enemies were “keeping a close watch on him” and sending “spies, who pretended to be sincere.”  Their intention was “to catch Jesus in something he said.” And so, dripping with fake earnestness, they appeal to Jesus’ integrity: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.”

And then the question:  “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’

‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.

25 He said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’

26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

For centuries, this famous statement has become proverbial -so well-known, in fact,that its subtlety is overwhelmed by its familiarity.  Many base their attitude towards government on this very point. It seems at first glance to  be the classic statement of separation between church and state, teaching  that people should render to each what they ask for in their respective realms.

As George Carlin put it: “I’m completely in favour of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.”

So is that what Jesus meant?

In their historical context, these words of Jesus had precious little to do with either taxation or political authorityl. First Century Jews were heavily taxed: tithes to the Temple (a whopping 21% a year), customs taxes, land taxes… The question was more specific: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

Rome had taken control of the Jewish homeland in 63 BC and ruled it through client kings (such as Herod and his sons) and Roman governors. This domination system benefited the elites who created it. Wealth in the ancient world came primarily from agriculture, and the dominant elite extracted about two-thirds of agricultural production. Two thirds! Ninety percent of the population lived this way, reduced to virtual subsistence.

But the tax in question was the annual tribute tax to Rome. Those who endorsed the tax were seen as collaborators with Roman rule; those who didn’t were seen as seditionists. Your attitude to the tax determined where you stood.

Jesus avoided the trap with two moves. First, he asked his opponents for a coin. When they produced one, Jesus looked at it and asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

It was, of course, an image of Caesar (presumably of Tiberius, the current Caesar). Moreover, its inscription heralded Tiberius as “son of the divine Augustus” (that is, son of a divine being) and would have been offensive to many Jews. Many devout Jews avoided using coins with images. Thus, by eliciting from his opponents a coin with a graven image, Jesus discredited them with at least some in the crowd.

The coin bearing Caesar’s image set up Jesus’ second move, the famous saying itself: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In context, the saying is thoroughly ambiguous. The word “render” means “give back.” The first half of the saying could thus mean, “It’s Caesar’s coin-go ahead and give it back to him.” We can imagine Jesus saying this with a dismissive shrug. Rather than a pronouncement about the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule or political authority in general, his words might very well have been a brilliant way of evading the trap.

When its second half is added, the phrase remains equally ambiguous. What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? The possible answers range from “Pay your tribute tax to Caesar, and your temple tax to God” to “Everything belongs to God.” If the latter, what is owed to Caesar? Nothing. But the text itself provides no clue as to what was meant.

Jesus responded in a deliberately enigmatic way in order to avoid the trap set by his opponents. His response was never meant to be figured out. Rather, in this passage as in several others, we see his deft debating skill.

Thus this text offers little or no guidance for filling in tax returns. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor encourages anarchic tax avoidance.

It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse.

But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?

And on a deeper, personal level, it’s as if Jesus were saying that the whole taxation issue wasn’t the main point. What people did with Caesar’s money didn’t matter nearly as much with what they did with that which belonged to God.

So, what belongs to God? Jesus didn’t answer this question in Luke 20, though his conception of the kingdom of God and his call upon people’s lives suggested an answer. Everything, ultimately. In this age, we don’t control everything—like whether we are required to pay taxes. Yet there is much in our life over which we do have charge. This, all of this, we offer to God in love, worship, and service.

Are you giving to God the things that are God’s in your life? How? Are there places you are holding back? Why? What might you give to God today that you didn’t give yesterday?

Lord Jesus, in faithfulness to you I will continue to pay the taxes I owe, though I must admit I’m not altogether happy about this. More importantly, I am reminded today that I need to give you all that is yours …and that is all of me.

So, today, I give you my body and my mind, my hopes and my fears, my work and my play, my relationships and my time alone. I give you my love and my strength. All that I am, Lord, I give you today. Be glorified and honoured in everything I do and say, in all of my thoughts and dreams.

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The Consequences of Rebellion (Luke 20)

When Jesus told the story of the vineyard tenants (in Luke 21:9-16), “the teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them.” They recognised the import of the story without difficulty because the vineyard symbolised Israel so frequently in the Old Testament. The identification was explicit: “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel.…” (Isaiah 5:1-7).

And the people too, listened with growing alarm as Jesus described the rebellious tenants conniving against their master. They heard the stark question “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” and the answer, “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”   “And when the people heard this, they said, ‘God forbid!’”

That is to say, the import of Jesus’s denunciation was too much to bear. It was a picture of rebellion and its consequences. And it wasn’t easygoing at all.

A man (standing for God in the parable) plants a vineyard and then rents it to tenants.

The Owner expects Fruit (20:10-12)

The tenants usually kept a portion of the harvest, with a fixed percentage going to the owner. But this is the point where something went wrong:

At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.” (20:10-12)

Three words describe an escalating scale of violence: “Beat” is Greek dero, “to beat, whip;” “Treat shamefully” is Greek atimazo, “to dishonor, shame,” perhaps subject to public ridicule (a grievous offence in an honor-shame oriented Semitic society); “Wound” is Greek traumatizo, from which we get our word “traumatize.”

The disciples, at least, would know where this was heading. Jesus had made frequent reference to the long story of Israel: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)

Jesus sees the current rulers doing the same as their ancestors -killing the prophets who were sent to Israel to correct them and turn their hearts to God as his fruit from his vineyard. So in Jesus’ parable, the tenants represent the unbelieving rulers, while the vineyard is the nation of Israel itself.

The Treatment of the Owner’s Son (20:13-15a)

But in Jesus’ parable this rebelliousness does not only stop at killing the prophets.

Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.‘ “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (Luke 20:13-15)

The owner’s son should be offered respect. “Respect” (NIV) or “reverence” (KJV) is the Greek verb entrepo, “have regard for, respect, show deference to a person in recognition of special status.” Instead the son meets death.

The Tenants are Punished (20:15-16)

How will the owner respond? With continued patience? Not at all!

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “May this never be!” (Luke 20:15-16)

And here is the crux of the horror to come. Jesus will be handed over to unbelievers and killed and -within a generation- Jerusalem itself will be destroyed by the forces of Rome.

And the listeners respond: “May this never be!” (Luke 20:16). They get the point clear enough, but Jesus dismisses any notion of mercy:

“Jesus looked directly at them and asked, ‘Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

Messiah as “Stone” in the Old Testament

There are several Old Testament passages that the Jews identified with the Messiah. Look at Daniel 2:

While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands…. In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” (Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45)

Isaiah 28:16 was also interpreted messianically, and quoted in 1 Peter 2:6 and Romans 9:33; 10:11:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who trusts will never be dismayed.” (Isaiah 28:16)

There are also Messianic references in the Rabbinical literature to the plumb line in the hand of Zerrubabel (Zechariah 4:10) and the stones in Isaiah 8:14, which is particularly germane:

And he will be a sanctuary;
but for both houses of Israel he will be
a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.” (Isaiah 8:14)

 

The Rejected Stone Becomes the Cornerstone (20:17)

Given this background of understanding of the identification of the Messiah with the Stone, Jesus cites Psalm 118:22 in an unexpected application: “Jesus looked directly at them and asked, ‘Then what is the meaning of that which is written: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone”?’ “ (Luke 20:17)

“Builders” is a participle of the normal Greek verb oikodomeo, “build, construct a building.” It is also used in a spiritual sense for building up the Christian church (Matthew 16:18; Romans 15:20; 1 Peter 2:5). Here it refers to the builders of Judaism, the leaders who have become his enemies. The word “rejected” is apodokimazo, “reject (after scrutiny), declare useless.” The rulers didn’t just make a quick judgment error on the spur of the moment. This word indicates that they had a chance to examine the “stone” carefully and then reject it after reflection.

The consequence of such rebellion is stark: those who reject the stone for use in the building will themselves be rejected; but the stone itself will become the foundation stone of something entirely and unexpectedly new.

But here’s the thing: If we place ourselves against him, we declare ourselves to be his enemies. If we allow ourselves to stumble over Christ’s will, then we call upon ourselves the terrifying punishment of being crushed by the Stone.

Just this morning I was reading Psalm 107, and the picture painted there is of “…prisoners suffering in iron chains, because they rebelled against God’s commands and despised the plans of the Most High.” And yet if this is the consequence of rebellion, the psalm also proposes the cure, that “He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains.”

The cross of Christ not only shows us what rebellion against God looks like and what it does; but it also breaks the chains of that rebellion, and offers the freedom of new life and the fruit of obedience for which God still comes seeking.

 

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When Silence is a Lie (Luke 20)

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The 20th chapter of Luke starts with an encounter of heightened intensity. It’s one of those Jesus v Religious Authorities  face-offs, but this time it finishes in silence. It’s not the silence of discomfiture but -more likely- of calculated withdrawal in the refusal to speak.

As Yevtushenko said: “When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”

One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. 

It’s easy to miss the moment of intimidation. It’s there in the phrase “came up to him” which sounds harmless enough. The Greek word, however, is epestesan. The verb means “to attack, to come upon, to pounce on.”  It’s depicts a gang of bullies coming upon an unsuspecting victim.  They can’ can barely contain their outrage at his teaching.  And they do it by forming a question that masks their real hostility in a sort of pseudo-theological debate.  But they are coming after him with a vengeance.

And who are “they”? Well, that’s an interesting point, and very germane to the discussion here. It was a hodgepodge of differing theological perspectives united only in their opposition to Jesus.

That is to say,  it is “the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders.” The chief priests would encompass the upper temple echelons immediately under the High Priest himself, and a rank from which high priests were selected, who had responsibility to oversee religious affairs in the capital.  Then there would be ranking orders of priests, priests who were over the priests who were doing their two-week stint there per year.  There were all kinds of authorities and dignitaries, collectively represented in phtase “chief priests.”

Then the scribes or “teachers of the law” represent the theologians.  Many -but not all- of them were Pharisees.  And the “elders” would be the remaining ones, including some Sadducees, probably some from the Herodians, some from the Pharisees, who would represent the Sanhedrin, the group of seventy who comprised the reigning group over the affairs of religion.

So a delegation comes to him of this collective body.  But it is a collective group with widely divergent views on resurrection, Scripture, politics -just about everything. They had only one thing in common: an impacable resistance to Jesus. The Religious Authorities of the Day, you might say,  found themelves unified on this solitary point.  They couldn’t agree on much, but they could agree on this: “We want Jesus dead.”

And, in an irony that is almost breathaking, they ask a question about the origin of Jesus’ authority.

Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,’ they said. ‘Who gave you this authority?’

What has prompted them to ask this question is Jesus’ outrageous behaviour. How dare you do“these things?”  Who gave you the right to be so high and mighty when that’s our job?  “These things” means the triumphal entry, and the implicit Messianic message that it contained, and the intolerable effrontery of ordering traders from the Temple courts. By what authority do you dare take so much upon yourself?

Jesus responds with a question, the classic rabbinic teaching style. But he is not evading the answer, He’s unmasking their hypocrisy:

He replied, ‘I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or of human origin?’

They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will ask, “Why didn’t you believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin,” all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.’

So they answered, ‘We don’t know where it was from.’

Jesus said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’ 

Their silence masks the lie.  But he had backed them into a tricky spot. It is quite possible that many of those represented in the delegation had heard John preach and perhaps responded. But officially it was beneath the dignity of their authority to be baptised. It would be like your bishop making an appeal for salvation and then joining the queue hiumself.  And anyway, they considered themselves above baptism, which traditionally was given to Gentiles converting to the Jewish faith. These men had their earthly power and authority already wrapped up. They did not consider they had any reason for personal repentance of sin. “ I thank you Lord, that I am not as other men…”

But they had no doubt of John’s popular reputation as a prophet. He had challenged Herod himself and paid the price!

Therefore, the chief priests, scribes and elders claimed not to know the source of John the Baptist’s authority. They took refuge in silence. So Jesus ends this encounter with a shrugged retort: OK, my own silence will parallel yours.

This whole passage is a contrast of authority that is authentic and God-given and authority that is imagined, human and secular.

Here’s Matthew Henry’s commentary, written in a 17th Century England which just a few years before had been torn apart on this very issue of human and divine authority:

“It is not strange if those that are governed by reputation and secular interest imprison the plainest truths, and smother and stifle the strongest convictions, as these priests and scribes did, who, to save their credit, would not own that John’s baptism was from heaven, and had no other reason why they did not say it was of men but because they feared the people. What good can be expected from men of such a spirit?  Those that bury the knowledge they have are justly denied further knowledge. It was just with Christ to refuse to give an account of his authority to them that knew the baptism of John to be from heaven and would not believe in him, nor own their knowledge.”

 

It’s a principle. For it seems -terrible thought- that there comes a time when God says, “I have no more to say to you.”

Look at Jeremiah 11 7,11: “For I solemnly warned your fathers in the day that I brought them up from the land of Egypt, even to this day, warning persistently saying, ‘Listen to My voice.’  …Therefore, thus says the Lord, ‘I’m bringing disaster on them which they will not be able to escape; and though they will cry to Me, yet I will not listen to them.’

Let’s pray:

Today is still a day of grace. God is listening yet, if we will but break the silence and admit what we know to be true. Don’t let the crowd sway you, nor the insufferable drag of your own reputation.

“Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6 MSG)

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“Do you know what time it is?” (Luke 19)

 “Do you know what time it is?”

It’s a question that I always associate with my mother telling me -indirectly- just how late it was.

(And, as Dr Seuss said:”How did it get so late so soon?”)

There’s a similar sense of foreboding over the Palm Sunday reading of Luke 19: 28-44 as if time is almost up. The contrast is sharpened between the light of praise associated with the king’s arrival and the dark of secret treachery and grim prophecy.

The passage begins with the curious gift of a colt “on which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” say, “The Lord needs it.” It’s as if things are shifting into a preset plan or a heightened sense of destiny and purpose.

But then as Jesus sits on the colt, this moment of mystery is forgotten in a rush of adrenaline.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’

‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’” 

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’

40 ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’ “

Once again (in Luke’s Gospel) the worship of the devout is brought into sharp contrast with the criticism of the unbelieving. The disciples are filled with joy at the memory of miracles but they sing songs about the coming of Messiah as recorded in both the Old Testament and at the birth of Jesus.

And then vv 41-44 recount Jesus’ grim prophecy over the city shows just how late the time really is:

41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’ “

The stones are either lifted up (or “crying out”) in worship or cast down in destruction, it seems. And Jesus pronounces judgment over the city in a complete destruction. Why? Because  they did not recognize the time of their visitation from God.

There are three groups of people in this picture:

  1.    The crowd of disciples who shout God’s praise
  2.    The religious leaders who oppose Jesus and criticise
  3.    The city’s inhabitants who are oblivious to all this.

Only the first group know what time it is (and even their understanding is sketchy, right now!).

The prophecy has various levels. It refers primarily to the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman troops in AD 70 (which lay some forty years in the future from the events of the narrative, of course). But even here, those with a keen eye to history and to hard political realities could foresee a collision of some sort between the irresistible force of Roman imperialism and the immovable object of Jewish intransigence.

The second level of the prophecy related to what God was doing with his Messiah at that moment in history, and those three responses of worship, doubt and indifference.

The third level of the prophecy relates to us and our response to what God is doing in our lives today. And the question is still the same: Do you recognise the time of God’s coming to you? “Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

The consequence of recognition in v42 is described as “the things that make for peace …”  The Hebrew concept of peace is wrapped in the Hebrew word “Shalom.” It means: peace (from war), completeness, soundness, welfare, safety, health and prosperity.

But just what are “the things which make for peace”? In our day, this is a matter of great disagreement and heated debate. The “hawks” think that peace is obtained by might, by having sufficient arms to serve as a threat to any who would think of military aggression. The “doves” think that the absence of armament is the answer. In Israel, the belief was that Messiah would bring peace to the nation when He appeared. Thus, at the birth of the Lord Jesus the angels sang of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14).

But how was this peace to be accomplished? By and large, it would seem that the majority of people thought that this peace would be accomplished by a sword, and by force. They therefore supposed that when Messiah came, He would utilize military might, and that He would throw off the shackles of Rome. When Jesus wept because Jerusalem did not know what would bring about peace, He wept because He knew what lay ahead for this tricky, wrong-thinking nation. Instead of Messiah’s coming bringing about the demise of Rome, the rejection of Jesus as Messiah meant the destruction of Jerusalem, at the hand of Roman soldiers.

It was not by Messiah’s use of force and power, nor by the death of Messiah’s enemies that the kingdom was to be brought about, but by Messiah’s death, at the hand of His enemies. It was not triumph which would bring in the kingdom, but the tragedy (from a merely human viewpoint) of the cross.

God’s ways are never man’s ways.

But we see Jesus, fully understanding what time it is in God’s economy, and moving with conifdent assurance into what God is doing. He claims the right to man’s possessions  (vv 28-34), and the right to possess man’s praise and worship (vv 35-40), and third, to institute his kingdom in the way he sovereignly chooses, rather than by those power-plays which men might prefer.

And Messiah will come again to possess what is His, to receive man’s praise, and to bring about the kingdom in his own way. Such is the way of his cross.

It is for me and you to recognise the time of his coming and to do the thing that make for peace.

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The Call to Take Risks (Luke 19)

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Why did Jesus tell the Parable of the Talents?

The stated reason is in Luke 19:11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 

So there are two parts to the explanation: the first relates to “this,” which is the account  of Zaccheus’ financial shenanigans which have just come under a very public scrutiny  (in Luke 19:1-10) and are connected to “salvation” coming to “this house.”

And, second, whereas contrary to public expectation, the kingdom of God was not going to come straight away, there was to be a time when resources like those of Mr Z were to be put to the test.

So Jesus takes the present event and weaves it into a story about future stewardship of time and resources. Maybe it presents a list of possible sequels for a person like Zaccheus.

“He said: ‘A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas“Put this money to work,” he said, “until I come back.”

14 ‘But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king.”

15 ‘He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 ‘The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.”

17 ‘“Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.”

18 ‘The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.”

19 ‘His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.”

20 ‘Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.”

22 ‘His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?”

24 ‘Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.”

25 ‘“Sir,” they said, “he already has ten!”

26 ‘He replied, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.”’

You can tell that there are some other threads woven in to the familiar parable. Josephus, as a contemporary historian to Luke,  wrote of Herod Archelaus whose vicious treatment of dissidents  may well be part of the background of v14 and v27.

Other explanations -that this is a story about economic exploitation and that the third servant is the whistle-blowing hero; or that this is about religious leaders mishandling the word of God fail to convince, except in the broadest of terms.

Which is that this story is about the evaluation of stewardship. As May Oliver put it: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It’s an encouragement to Jesus’s disciples to use their God-given gifts in the service of God, and to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom of God. These gifts have been seen to include personal abilities (“talents” in the everyday sense), as well as personal wealth.

Failure to use one’s gifts, the parable suggests, will result in judgment.

 

The positive rewards for two of the servants is based upon their faithfulness to properly use what Christ has entrusted to them. This probably speaks of positive reward for believers who are faithful to serve Christ.

The negative reward (or rather, recompense) for the unfaithful servant likely speaks of some negative dealing by Christ with an unfaithful believer.

The poet John Milton was fascinated by the parable (interpreted in this sense), referring to it repeatedly, but notably in the sonnet “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”:

“When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent, which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he, returning, chide…”

In Ireland, where I live, this is a curriculum favourite,  and I’ve often taught this sonnet to High School students,  (around age 18). Once they get their heads around the new and strange idea that they might be answerable for what they do with their time, energy and resources to some “higher power” invariably appreciate the concept of accountability. “That makes sense,” someone said to me. The poem (and the parable) appealed to their sense of fairness. Ultimately, you get what you give to life.

They saw immediately that this was nothing to do with amassing wealth to prove your worth! Milton does an effective job of exposing that as a metaphor, and of contrasting God (as King) with the lord of the parable.

And they saw too that Milton worried over his limited accomplishments, -as we all must do, if we’re to be honest- but  that God does not need “man’s work” at all. This mustn’t be translated into a kind of salvation by works.

Take it from any teenager.

And then that typical volte-face, as Jesus flips all expectation on its head: “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. “

Which is to say, Jesus loves it when we take risks and throw ourselves completely into what God is doing. In Eric Jong’s Fear of Flying there’s a marvellous decription of the life of love and passion that God calls us to:

“Do you want me to tell you something really subversive? Love is everything it’s cracked up to be. That’s why people are so cynical about it. It really is worth fighting for, being brave for, risking everything for. And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.” 

Jesus calls us to take risks.

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“This man too is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19)

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How much is a human being worth?

We have the phrase “on the scrapheap” to describe someone broken and lost. So how much it that one worth?

Vera Nazarian wrote: “A fine glass vase goes from treasure to trash, the moment it is broken. Fortunately, something else happens to you and me. Pick up your pieces. Then, help me gather mine.”

To explain the point, Luke tells a story:

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” (Luke 19: 1-10)

That last verse is incredible. It tells you who Jesus is (“The Son of Man”). It tells you why he came (“to save the lost”) and it tells you how he did it, (by seeking!).

I realise that I’m veering towards the simplistic, by not by much. Of course, each component needs much more explanation: What does “Son of Man” mean, exactly? What does the verb “to save” include ? And precisely what does “seeking” entail?

The verse comes at the tail-end of a story which expounds all these points. It’s the given explanation of the way that Jesus dealt with Zaccheus the tax collector.

I mention his employment because it is a crucial part of the story. It’s strange that even today, to describe yourself at a party by saying: “Well, I work for the Inland Revenue,” STILL creates a slight frisson of alarm. But Zaccheus was in a completely different league. Worse, I mean. He was not simply known as a tax collector but as one who collaborated with the occupying forces of his country. A quisling. A Traitor.

And in the tight religious community of first century Palestine, he was an outsider, a covenant-breaker, a person of no character. He was “unclean” and it was forbidden to have social dealings with him.

What would that look like for us? Well, I guess it would be the very worst kind of social pariah that you can imagine. A drug-pushing child-molesting rapist? … or, really,  any type of person that presses your doorbell and makes you squirm, hide behind the sofa and say “Anybody but him. I just CAN’T accept him.”

That’s the one.

And because he’s short of stature and short of a welcome, Zaccheus finds himself at the back of the crowd, peering between the branches of a tree to see the famous Jesus as he goes by.

And Jesus sees him. He knows his name, so it’s not a huge assumption to say that EVERYBODY knew his name. He was, perhaps, notorious.

But how does Jesus deal with him?  There was a crowd,and Jesus must have seen many people, smiling and nodding at him. His eyes flicker across the mass, and he spots Mr Z, way back there, possibly trying NOT to be seen.

He sees him. He knows him. And he singles him out. He speaks as if they have a prior dinner arrangement, and it’s time they were getting on towards the tea and crumpets. In a word, Jesus insists on being nice. Imagine that. And in the process, he outrages nearly everyone’s  sense of decency and prudish respectability.

And what’s more, he’s absolutely clear about his rationale. I’m doing this, he says, because The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”

There’s an amazing photo at the top here. It’s a mummy lizard reaching out to grab a baby lizard (or possibly a truculent teenager-lizard) who has fallen off its perch. It has lost its place and needs a hand.

The instinct kicks into being because of the relationship between the two. This is what mums do. It doesn’t need explanation or reasoning. This my son was lost and is back home again! Of course we having a party! (To misquote another of Jesus’s lost and found stories).

Jesus claimed a relationship with Zaccheus. Did you see that? He explains to the crowd what is happening; he points to Zaccheus and says, “This man too is a son of Abraham.” He’s a family member. You didn’tsee it. You just saw a reprobate scumbag but I recognised my brother.

Because I’m “Son of Man” and anything that hurts the heart of other human beings bothers me too.

And Zaccheus is “lost.” Technically, he has drifted by greed or sin or whatever, into a lifestyle that excludes him from the covenant-favour of God,and I’m here to call him home. “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.” 

So how do WE restore the lost?

If it is in your heart to live the Jesus-way, then you are called into the same life of service and love. And that means that whatever the gender, or race, religion or rank of the person in front of you, you have to learn to recognise a family member, a human being. Your brother, your sister.

And second, if there’s any ambiguity about how to act after that, (in the words of the song) “Try a little tenderness.” It’s how God deals with you, after all.

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