“Lord, I want to see!” (Luke 18)

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As Dejan Stojanovic put it: “Faith is a question of eyesight; even the blind can see that.”
Do you really see what the Lord is doing in your life?  In an old notebook of mine, I find this: “We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”

We figure it out in retrospect. And it’s later,-much later, -that we learn to sing “All the way, my Saviour leads me…”

So I have much sympathy for the disciples. Despite repeated retellings they simply could not fathom what Jesus meant in the announcement of his own impending future.

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.’

34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.” (Luke 18:31-34)

Luke is carefully explicit here. They understood the words but could not grasp the meaning. This is why Matthew notes: “Peter  took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!“” (Matthew 16:22)

Very often we think we have a clear idea of what should happen next! We pray for one another with that same over-defined precision. If someone is sick, then we desire healing for them. If someone is poor,  we wish for wealth. If something is broken, then it needs fixing, instantly.

But these reactions constitute the response of Peter,which evoked a stern rebuke: “Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” “ (Matthew 16:23)

Think about that! Our quick-fit solutions are sometimes not “the concerns of God” at all!

And Luke appends a familiar miracle-story which somehow develops the discussion:

As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’

38 He called out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’

39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’

40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

‘Lord, I want to see,’ he replied.

42 Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.’43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.” (Luke 18:36-43)

Part of this story connects with the encouragement to push forward in faith, to not be put off by the distracting voices that bid you be sensible or respectable and to go for all that God has for you.

And so we see the blind man shouting “all the more” despite being rebuked and told to be quiet. It is reminiscent of the children wanting to come to Jesus but being prevented by well-intentioned but fussy disciples doing crowd-control. And once again, Jesus permits the interference to his schedule in the name of mercy and compassison. The children receive blessing. The man is healed.

But some of the language here,and its immediate context, suggests  a deeper or additional meaning. The context, as just noted, is that of not understanding the mission of Jesus, of being blind to the implications of his ministry and purpose. But “everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.”

That is to say: “If you have read your Hebrew Bible with all due diligence, none of this will be a surprise.And yet you sit at the roadside, the journey of faith unbegun, because of your obdurate blindness. What do you want me to do for you? You want to see? At last a right answer!”

And the immediate consequence is that he “followed Jesus” on the way to Jerusalem.

This last word is significant. It connects the two passages, for Jerusalem is the destination and culmination point of the ministry of jesus. It represents both triumph and pain, and the big picture of what God is doing.God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

If we desire revelation of God, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is all one great triumphalist progress. There may be pain in the offering too. “Sometimes, God doesn’t send you into a battle to win it; he sends you to end it.”
(Shannon L. Alder)

 

But Lord,  I want to see.

I want to understand something of what you’re doing in my life, in my town and in my world. And when I come to pray for people, I really want to have your mind on what’s happening, and how I should pray.

Are my quick-fit solutions “merely human concerns“? Give me a bigger picture of what’s going on, Lord.

I also thank you that I don’t know the future and that I can simply follow you on the way, and enjoy, endure, and survive each moment as it comes to me in its proper sequence, as a surprise!

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What must I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 18)

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 “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” *Luke 18:18)

Well, what would you have answered?

Before you reply, take a look at the two passages that precede this one. In v 9 Jesus tells a parable aimed at “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” And in v 17, just spoken, Jesus declares  that “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

OK OK, says the ruler. So,  “‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” 

I can almost imagine the back of Jesus’s palm on his forehead and a look of withering amusement. He might be imagined as asking, “Do you really not see the point?” Or perhaps “How long must I put up with you?” (as he does say on another occasion).

And yet, perhaps in context, it’s a fair enough question. Maybe the emphasis is on the “I” and the distinguished guest in the audience has heard the stories and yet feels that the preceding categories do not precisely fit his case. He is neither a Pharisee nor a tax collector; and he is certainly not a child. “So what about me, Jesus?”  “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

My wife Val, who teaches Maths, tells me that it’s about a hundred million to one that my lottery numbers will come up (or even less, seeing that I don’t do the lottery). To which, the standard answer is, “So there IS a chance?”

That is to say, the ruler has missed the point completely, as we often do ourselves.

Jesus seems to answer the question head on. But that’s not the case. What he really does is answer the question in the terms that it is set, whilst offering an opportunity for rethinking those terms.

“‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.” 

21 ‘All these I have kept since I was a boy,’ he said.”

If you cast the aquisition of eternal life into the category of something you  DO (or achieve), then you are stuck with a caricature of the Old Testament system  which someone described to me as “Doing the Stuff.” Don’t smoke, drink or swear. Avoid shellfish and mixed fibres. That sort of thing.

Any kind of legalism gets a bit ridiculous, eventually.

But the ruler admits (with touching pride) that he has done a good job of “Doing the Stuff.”

So why is he here? Why is he asking the question? It must be because he knows that there’s something more.Maybe he has been listening more than I gave him credit for and he pondered the fact that God accepted the tax collector’s grief-stricken acknowledgement of being Not Good Enough. And maybe he saw the exhuberant children vying for Jesus’s knee and Jesus saying “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” God accepts the broken and the boisterous. But what about the nice people? What do I do?

22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’

23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’”

This passage is not a summons to divest yourself of income (you may be relieved to learn!), though St Francis and many others found it a powerful stimulus to life-change. And Luke does have much to say about the “deceitfulness of riches” and the distraction of wealth and clutter.

But right now we are still answering the set question: “‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  

And right here, in the phrasing of the question, are two subversive solutions which we have to hear.

The first is the adjective “good.” “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God.” Jesus offered a challenge, as he invariably did, to compare yourself to God. What is your standard of goodness? If it is less than God, then it is not enough. And that’s why Pharisees don’t make it, but tax collectors and dirty children do. Because they have no pretensions about their own ability to perform, but are filled instead with a sense of their need, and their joy in his presence. 

The second is the verb “inherit.” The point is, who inherits? You can’t make yourself worthy to inherit something, you have to be born to it. Or adopted into the family.

So the call to give up his great riches is -partially- a metaphor here. For the ruler, it means that nor only is his own “righteousness” not good enough, but neither are his resources. How can you learn to trust in God if you don’t really have to?

It’s like wanting to learn to swim but refusing to go out of the ten-inch-deep zone and refusing to let go of the massive dinghy strapped to your waist!

But don’t miss the admirable qualities of the ruler. In Matthew’s account, the writer notes Jesus’s affection for him. And the disciples too are impressed by this fine figure of a man. He’s rich, powerful and pious. What more could you ask for? And yet Jesus turns him down?

Those who heard this asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’ Peter said to him, ‘We have left all we had to follow you!’ ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God  will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Luke 18: 18-30)

No doubt the “all” that Peter left to follow Jesus wasn’t as impressive as the ruler’s “all” but it is quality of intention and not quantity of possession that is the point. The widow’s mite was the more impressive because it was all she had.

And Jesus stood before the ruler as one who himself who given up everything for God. As the old song goes,”He laid aside his majesty, gave up everything for me.”

“He made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death –
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:7-11)

So what must I do to inherit eternal life?

– Nothing.Nothing at all. Stop trying to prove yourself worthy. There is none good but God. And he has done all that is necessary for you.

So what must I do to inherit eternal llife?

-Everything. Everything you have and depend on has to go. Be a child. Be His child and you inherit his everything. And “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God  will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’”

 

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Receiving like a child (Luke 18)

“People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ “(Luke 18: 15-17)

This passage is often chosen for services of Christening and the like. The first verse would seem to suggest that usage. Isn’t that what vicars do, to stand in the place of Jesus to bless the babies?

The word translated “place his hands” is Greek hapto, “to make close contact, as a means of conveying a blessing.” In Matthew’s account we read, “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them” (Matthew 19:13a).

As a pastor, I have had the privilege of taking many little children in my arms at infant dedications, placing my hands on them, praying for them, and speaking a blessing over them. It’s a really wonderful experience. No wonder these parents wanted this blessing for their own children when Jesus was teaching.

And the disciples say no.

You can imagine why. Parents are bringing babies, and letting their toddlers run up to Jesus, and Jesus would, with great joy, scoop them up and pray for them. When Jesus did this once, other parents saw it and came down towards the front. They wanted this for their children, too, for their children were often with them in the audience.

But the disciples would have none of it. Jesus was doing important stuff- teaching and healing. They couldn’t allow this work to be interrupted by mere kids running wild. They began to stop the little children, and tell off the parents in no uncertain terms. The word translated “rebuked” is Greek epitimao, “to express strong disapproval of someone, ‘rebuke, reprove, censure,’ also ‘speak seriously, warn’ in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end.

And Jesus steps in, rebuking the rebukers. “Let the children come!”

“But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ “ (Luke 18:16)

He doesn’t say that the Kingdom belongs to little children or that they are already in the Kingdom. He says that those who inherit or possess the kingdom will be “like” these children.

So what characteristic of children is Jesus pointing to as an essential characteristic of disciples? There are several possiblities:

  1. Innocence? Probably not. Judaism didn’t emphasize a child’s innocence, but rather a child’s immaturity and foolishness.
  2. Openness, trust, and receptivity?  It’s possible, for this is surely an essential characteristic of disciples. But nothing in the context of the passage seems to point to this interpretation.
  3. Humility? This is much more likely, given the context of the story of the tax collector in the Temple. In the culture of the day, children were considered  unimportant and second-class. To Jesus, the children’s humble station itself is symbolic of the humility required to approach God.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17)

So how do the little children come to Jesus? Freely, openly, humbly. They come to God with no posturing of worthiness, like the Pharisee in the preceding parable (Luke 18:11-12). Rather, they come because Jesus calls them to him. They come in simple faith, like the tax collector (Luke 18:13).

Lack of pretension, openness, humility – these are the qualities of children that Jesus seems to be holding up as necessary for entrance to the Kingdom.

But there is another word here which mustn’t be missed. It’s the word “receive.”  It reminds you of another frame of context in the Gospel of Luke, of parents who know how to give good gifts to their children …and of children who know how to receive. It picks up the thread of those who have learnt to “pray and not give up,”  asking, seeking, knocking at a friend’s house at midnight until they get what they want.

So there’s another question: how do children receive gifts?

With passion and intensity, fiercely ripping open the package. There’s no question of restraint or holding back. They are seized by the  joy of discovery.

And that’s how you receive the kingdom, says Jesus.

In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

And as we grow and develop decorum, we forget what it is to grab for the biggest bit of cake.

And this, surely, is what was happening as Jesus watched the children eagerly scurrying around him, enjoying his presence and anxious to get as close as possible. It was their enthusiasm and drive, as if they were on fire from within. It was their innate knowledge that the onlylife worth living was a life full of passion, purpose, magic and miracles.

And this is what it is to receive like a child. All our words come together here. I receive innocently,because his love is stronger than my guilt. I receive openly, trustingly, receptively -like a happy puppy!- because his love is uncritical. I receive humbly because I know I have nothing to bring to the table except my appetite!

And yes, I receive voraciously, hungrily, determined to savour the last tasty morsel, because it is good to be beloved! It is wonderful to be so honoured! It is exciting to be so blessed. Such a fuss he makes over me!

For this is not just receiving the kingdom, but coming into an eternal relationship with the king.

In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, there is a passionate description of what Heathcliff meant to Cathy:

“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” 

Do you see the point? If all you read in Luke 18 is the desirability of humility, then you miss much. God is summoning us into the passion of children.

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So who CAN I look down on? (Luke 18)

 

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“As long as you are proud you cannot know God.A proud man is always looking down on thing and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” (C.S.Lewis).

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

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

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

This is a cunning little story. It almost forces y0u to hear it at the simplest level, because anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of the New Testament knows that a Pharisee is likely to be cast as a self-righteous hypocrite who stands in opposition to Jesus. You’re left with the assumption that the moral of this story is to be humble.

Yes! Let’s be humble! Not like those darn Pharisees who are NOT humble! “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”

So Jesus manages to turn us on ourselves. How on earth can you be proud of being humble? How can I avoid the kind of self-congratulatory hug that the parable itself would seem to condemn?

First, consider this: everything the Pharisee says is true and accurate.

He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous (see Luke 15:7). So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people…”, but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that he misses the true nature of his blessing. He stands among those “…who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” He trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really all about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.

The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusion. He stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.

Here is the contrast. The Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate.

He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.

And all this takes place at the Temple, where the very geography indicated “insiders” and “outsiders,” and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood. But something was about to shift: when Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two (Luke 23:45), symbolically erasing all divisions of humanity before God.

And here, God justifies not the one favored by Temple law, but rather the one standing outside the Temple gate, and aware only of his utter need.

It’s a cunning story, a trap. Its real intention is to force you to come clean about yourself!

As soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble we are doomed.

“If the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody. And this is because the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the “un” and “non”, they work against Jesus’ teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, “God shows no favoritism.” So we don’t either.” (Rob Bell)

Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side.

It’s  not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.

At the end of this story, the Pharisee will leave the Temple and return to his home righteous. This hasn’t changed; he was righteous when he came up and righteous as he goes back down.

The tax collector, however, will leave the Temple and go back down to his home justified, that is, accounted righteous by the Holy One of Israel. How has this happened? The tax collector makes neither sacrifice nor restitution. On what basis, then, is he named as righteous? On the basis of God’s say so! “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness“!

So here I am, Lord, with nothing to brag about and nothing to claim. I come not for reward but for mercy. And I want to put my constructs of “insiders” and “outsiders” away from me and stand here aware only of my need.

Acknowledging your cross. Receiving your grace. Giving thanks for your love. 

PS. So who CAN I look down on?

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How big is your push? (Luke 18)

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Faith is a muscle that needs to be developed. We develop confidence in God by exercising it, by pushing forward in prayer. But how big is your push?

Luke 18 starts with that challenge:

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.  He said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”

‘For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’

And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’” (Luke 18: 1-8)

When you read a parable, it’s important to hear the Main Thing and not get distracted by the details! Jesus wasn’t saying that God was an unjust judge, or indeed, that he must be cajoled to hear our requests, or that he isn’t interested in justice or afraid of widows!

In fact, the first hearers would have laughed out loud at the ludricrous punchline in v5.

And then comes the twist. It’s like that verse where Jesus says ““Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” (Luke 11:11) and then compares God’s ways to our ways. Even though we are only half-decent parents, we know better than to do that. And even a half-decent human judge will give in to persistent pressure.

So how much more will a good judge do?

1. The Justice of God

The main point then, is subtle but strong. It goes two ways. It underscores the justice of God and his determination to see justice on the earth, and it encourages the faith-muscle of the people of God to push forward in their confidence in that truth.

In my Bible, right here on the couch, I had to flip over a page between chapter 17 and chapter 18, so it was easy to miss the connecting link with what has just been said. Jesus talked about the days of Noah and the days of Sodom, and how the justice of God was poised to strike against dreadful injustice and evil, and yet there was a grace-pause, and the rescue of the righteous few.

So here’s the thing: Justice is coming. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” God is not oblivious or uncaring. His judgement is not arbitrary or dispassionate. Look at Gen 6:5,6: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth,and He was grieved in His heart.”

In the newspaper, the other day, there was an account of a particularly viscious rape, and someone in the coffee shop was shaking their head over it, bewailing the awfulness of the details and then remarking:”God -if there is a God- just doesn’t care.” I didn’t say anything, – in fact, generally, I think of the right thing to say several hours after the event! – but reading this passage, I realise that Jesus was countering this false notion of God by talking about an unjust judge.

Do you see the point? Not only is God right and true and honorable and passionate about justice, but everything in us rises up and demands justice for the rape victim, and for the criminal to be brought to account. Justice is part of our DNA because God put it there. Justice is what he is about. “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” (Cornel West)

And if that is how we understand God, then our confidence in how he acts rises within us. “Will not the judge of the earth do right?

So Jesus’s story tells us something vital about God. In the second place, it indicates the nature of our response to that truth.

2. The Persistence of the Pray-er

We are called to put ourselves in the role of the widow. The parable begins with the encouragement to “always pray and not give up.” Widows in the first century were incredibly vulnerable, regularly listed with orphans and aliens as those persons deserving special protection. The fact that this particular widow has to maintain a persistent lobbying of the judge with no family supporting her, highlights her extreme vulnerability. Yet she not only beseeches the judge, but also persists in her pleas for justice to the point of creating sufficient pressure to influence his actions.

Look at the judge’s description of his own motivation for settling the widow’s claim. He asserts  that he neither fears God nor respects people, thereby testifying that his unsavory character has not changed during the course of the parable. When he explains why he relents, however, he utters a description of the effect of the widow’s ceaseless complaints on him that most translations dilute. A more literal translation of the judge’s grievance (18:5) is that the woman “is giving me a black eye.

This represents both physical and social distress. That is, the judge complains that the widow’s relentless badgering not only causes him physical harm but also risks public embarassment. He relents not because he has changed his mind but simply to shut up this dangerous widow. In this case, insolent, obnoxious, even intolerable behavior results in justice!

What is God’s word to us, then?  Read this way, the parable serves to encourage those suffering injustice to continue their complaints and calls for justice. Sometimes it takes extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior to effect change. God, the Bible has persistently insisted, gives special attention to those who are most vulnerable; therefore, we should persist in our complaints, even to the point of embarrassing the powers that be in order to induce change.

“Don’t ever give up.
Don’t ever give in.
Don’t ever stop trying.
Don’t ever sell out.
And if you find yourself succumbing to one of the above for a brief moment,
pick yourself up, brush yourself off, whisper a prayer, and start where you left off.
But never, ever, ever give up.”
― Richelle E. Goodrich

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“The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed…” (Luke 17)

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This statement seems of a par  with the picture of the kingdom working secretly, like salt or yeast in the dough.  It’s not quantifiable or measurable by normal human standards.Indeed,as Paul said: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit ” (1 Cor 2:14). Kingdom thinking is in a totally different category to human thinking, and every generation witnesses the disaster of confusing the two.

You might think, for example, that bigger is necessarily better (in terms of church attendance or bank balance) or that the favour of man is the same as the favour of God.

But here’s the context:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’”

That the question is put by the Pharisees suggests the possibility of a put-up job, designed to catch Jesus out. But he takes it evenly, using it as an opportunity to clear away confusion. Even the disciples were confused about this one, as witness the question put in Acts 1 “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” It is reasonable to assume that the Pharisees thought the same way.

But the kingdom is in your midst! That is to say, the king is right here, incognito. Just as Pilate bitterly exclaimed “What is truth?” when Truth stood next to him, so those seeking a human kingdom failed to detect the king. Like many today, the Pharisees said they wanted the Kingdom of God to come; but you don’t want the Kingdom if you reject the King.

Then he said to his disciples, ‘The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, “There he is!” or “Here he is!” Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.

The clear point is that Jesus’s kingdom won’t come immediately in the disciples’ day. Jesus acknowledged that there would be a longing for his return. And there have been many fake contenders. Think of David Koresh, Jim Jones or Sun Myung Moon. And many more.

But Jesus said that the Messiah’s return would be visible and indisputable like lightning. “ But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” That is to say, Jesus’s kingdom cannot come until He finishes His work on earth.There is a tendency in all followers of Jesus to skip the cross and go straight to the Kingdom of God; but the Kingdom of God can’t come until the King goes to the cross.

The other aspect of lightning, of course, is its unexpectedness.

26 ‘Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

28 ‘It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”

Jesus describes a world that is functioning in a “business as usual” way when He returns. People ate, drank . . . married wives, they were given in marriage – things carry on just as they were.  Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: In the same way, as it was in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah before the destruction of those cities, so it will be before the coming of Jesus. Life will be pretty much business as usual, until sudden destruction and judgment comes.

But don’t miss the point: Jesus’ use of the accounts of Noah and Lot as pictures of His coming shows us something important: in each case, God delivered His people, then He brought down judgment.

The last section in the chapter calls for an appropriate readiness.

30 ‘It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. 

So how do we prepare for the coming of the King?

First, don’t worry about your possessions (v 31). And don’t think about what’s behind you (v32). Remember Lot’s wife. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt as she and her family escaped from Sodom because she looked back (Genesis 19:26). Will you be caught looking back at what is left in the world?

And one final thing:

I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.35 Two women will be grinding corn together; one will be taken and the other left.’ 37 ‘Where, Lord?’ they asked. He replied, ‘Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.’”(Luke 17:20-37)

When Jesus comes, some will be taken suddenly and others will be left behind. This passage is often applied to the “rapture,” a term applied to Jesus’ coming for His people in the midst of a business as usual world. The point hereis the radical unexpectedness. The way to be ready is to be ready now.

All this will happen at the time when judgment is ripe. But when? Where? Check where that flock of carrion is circling…. William Barclay says this was a common proverb meaning that a thing would happen when the necessary conditions were fulfilled.

Like now?

The passage begins with the total secrecy of a king incognito, but it finishes with the blaze of trumpets. What is presently hidden in humiliation will one day be revealed in glory. But for now, you and me, let’s just live ready.

 

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Jesus in the Border Zone (Luke 17)

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Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’

14 When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.

15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.

17 Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’19 Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’ “(Luke 17: 11-17)

The story of this healing is located in the borderlands (so to speak). It’s as if the geographical borders mirror a hidden spiritual reality, which must be unravelled for exegeis to be complete.

The group are still travelling to Jerusalem, and have now reached “the border between Samaria and Galilee.” That’s the geographical border. The second border is between the lepers-presumably living in some kind of colony on the outskirts of civilisation- and the village itself, their source of charitable relief.

And when they see Jesus,they stand “at a distance” as if there is a border control here too.

Of course, there was no border control between Samaria and Galilee. But there was a conceptual boundary between those who were within the covenant of Israel and those who were not. And there was no security fencing between the lepers and the village, but there was a rigorous requirement that they keep away, to avoid contamination. And this consideration may have also informed the distance between the lepers and Jesus. The point is, the sense of separation  is underlined three times before anything happened! They are excluded from covenant, from community and from Christ.

It’s a little reminiscent of Ephesians 2:12: “Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.”

And there is a call for pity, rather than for healing. Was this the customary request they made of travellers for a handout, like the throng of beggars putside Delhi Airport? No, for they call him by name “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!

The actual healing is not mentioned. Instead there was a authoritative command from the Master  to ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ This was a significant step. Only the priests were authorised to pronounce them clean from leprosy (and thereby permitted to re-enter  society). They were the accredited agents for ending the exclusion and opening up the border.

But what about the distance between the lepers and the covenant of Israel, and between them and Jesus? For nine of the group, those distances remain, but “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.  He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.” Every barrier is broken in the gush of his gratitude! The unclean has been made clean. The outsider is back in fellowship. And the Samaritan finds equality with the disciples at the feet of Jesus.

The point is underlined. He’s a foreigner. The other Gospel writers make the same point:”Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4). “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs” (Matthew 15; Mark 7). But even if those two sentences sound harsh, in both cases Jesus overstepped the boundary, offering  grace and healing to the Samaritan woman at the well, and to the Syro-Phoenician woman too.

The reaction of Jesus in Luke 17 is interesting. It’s as if he is standing at something of a distance himself, watching what God is doing and marvelling at it. He affirms the man’s healing, bidding him rise and go, acknowledging the role of the man’s own faith,  but there’s something more. It’s almost reminiscent of that moment in John 12 when Jesus is asked to meet two Greeks -two total outsiders to the covenant of Israel- and (apparently) instead of replying he says: The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

The request and the response don’t seem to fit at first, until you realise that once again Jesus has his eye on what God is doing, and he recognises God’s timing in the coming of the Greeks. Time’s up. The hour has come. He is the seed of faithful Israel that must be buried, so that as the husk breaks down into the soil, it provides the nutrients for growth, springing up into food for the whole world.

And the borders are broken.

And now every kind of racial border, or class border, or gender border has become an affront to the gospel of Christ, for according to Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  The leper broke through for all of us! We may acknowledge our uncleanness, and the risk of moral contamination that we bring with us; and we know fully our exclusion from the covenant of blessing. But Christ has pronounced the word over us. Clean, set free, welcomed home. And the Cross is God’s word of pity, mercy and cleansing for the whole world.

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;
to his feet thy tribute bring;
ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
evermore his praises sing:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Praise the everlasting King.

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