Shout for Joy
I’ve written about this before but hardly a day passes without my thinking of how Jesus as portrayed in in a more careful reading of the gospels differs from Jesus in the minds of the local church goers. Let me know if my perception is faulty but I think the average audience sees Jesus as a king and sympathetic man who speaks rather softly and always has something positive to say. He is kind and thoughtful and, if I may add this one physical item, he parts his long hair in the middle. Then reading slowly, looking for anything unusual about the man I find a person quite different from the accepted model of the Biblical Jesus. Let’s look at the account in which Jesus is telling his disciples about difficult it is for a rich man to go to heaven and how many who are first will become last (You will find it in the fourth gospel; John 10:22-39).
One day Jesus got cornered in the temple area by some irate Jewish leaders who demanded to know to whether or not Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus told them that he already had and they didn’t believe him. The clerics didn’t believe because they weren’t one of his followers. When he told them that he and the Father were one they were furious and started to pick up stones to kill him. Picture the scene: Jesus, a wandering country preacher telling the religious authorities of the day that he and God the Father were one! Now that is blasphemy! They were so offended by that blasphemous assertion that they started to pick up stones to kill him. And what did Jesus do? Undoubtedly he would look for some way to escape. They were all mad and apparently he was alone. However, instead of that he looked straight at them and said, “You have watched me do a lot of good deeds, so “for which one of them are you about to stone me?” (John 10:32). Jesus was absolutely fearless, and that’s the first thing about this “different than thought of” Jesus.
A second thing about Jesus was that he pointed out how unreasonable they were in their decision to kill him for doing something good. His question put them on the defensive: “For which of them are you about to stone me?” (John 10:32). It’s Jesus, country preacher, versus a whole camaraderie of legal experts on a mission to maintain the supposed purity of their religion. Not only was Jesus fearless but he was perfectly able to win the case against his learned opposition. The “discussion” now turned into accusation: “You are a blasphemer and therefore you must die.” When logic fails turn to declaration. Jesus stands his ground and argues his case very convincingly. He points out that in scripture, which they accepted as being without error, God called people “gods,” so why shouldn’t he be able to use the term? (10:36).
As the encounter grew increasingly sensitive, Jesus continued to stand firm as an informed adult against the out-of-control clerics who now “tried to arrest him.” At that point he “escaped out of their grasp” (v. 39). He was in serious danger, but he trusted his Father to deliver him. He trusted Him without reserve.
So the four qualities that we see in Jesus are
1. His lack of fear,
2. His ability to speak up when appropriate,
3. His ability to reason logically, and
4. His trust in God the Father.
A different man, to be sure. This story shows Jesus not as a gentle and quiet preacher, but as a strong and fearless man who could face his opponents and argue his case with the best of them and then leave it all with God.
One day when Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem a young man of the ruling class came running up and knelt down at his feet. He asked, ”What good thing can I do to be sure of life in the age to come?” Jesus answered by reciting a number of the commandments which pleased the young man because he had carefully obeyed them ever since he was a child. Then Jesus looked him straight in the eye and said, ”There is only one more thing that you have to do, and that is to sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor and then come and follow me. It turns out that the young man was very rich, so his face fell and with a sad heart he went away (Matt. 19:16 – 22).
The incident indicates that the cost of discipleship is to relinquish all you have in order to be a follower of Christ. But wait a minute – doesn’t Paul teach that salvation is the result of faith in Christ, not works? And of course that is true, as the great old hymn puts it, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”
“But,” you say, “How could that be true since scripture, which is inspired and without error, wouldn’t teach contradictory ways to get right with God.”
What we need to do at this point is to define some terms. Let’s back up and be sure we are on common ground. Jesus seems to be saying that one finds favor with God by doing helpful things here on earth. But Paul is arguing that it doesn’t matter how many good thing you do because the basic requirement for heaven is faith.
“Okay. Then you are saying that for Jesus, salvation depends on works, but for Paul, it’s a matter of faith.”
Granted, it looks like that, but let’s look at context and consider the nature of language. Remember, “Words take their meaning from context,” so once you put them together in a single context, each maintaining the meaning of its former context, you are bound to run into problems.
Jesus is saying to the young man that to “qualify for the coming kingdom” he is to “keep the commandments” (Mark 10:17, 19) while Paul maintains that “works” wont get you there (Gal. 3:11). But following a strong affirmation by the young man that he has kept them all since child-hood, Jesus tells him that there is one more thing – he must sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and then he can come and follow him. So, keeping the commands is not enough after all. “To be sure of a place in the life to come” he must give himself totally to Christ. No one would ever make such a life-changing commitment if he were not convinced that Jesus was who he said he was and that his requirement for discipleship was absolutely valid. In other words, he would have to have “faith” in Jesus. So Jesus teaches salvation by faith after all.
Now let’s look at Paul and his insistence that works will never get you into heaven. Paul, the Jewish Rabbi, came out of a religious system that had developed a huge labyrinth of legal instructions designed as the way to earn God’s favor. His professional culture was the “supreme court” to judge the merit of anything a person might do or say. So the way to get to heaven was to follow in detail all the “laws” that the religious clerics had devised for their lay subordinates. Now that is legalism, pure and simple. But Paul was struck blind on the Damascus Road and learned how absolutely wrong he was; people do not get right with God by keeping a vast multitude of laws, but by faith, the free offer to believe in Christ,
Then what would Paul say about Jesus’ emphasis on “works” (“Do not murder, Do not steal,” etc.)” He would say that what you do to be saved will not get you into heaven. Jesus said the same thing when he told the young rule that there was “one more thing” – and it turned out to be faith. Faith is believing, but it’s the kind of believing that works. The term “faith works” emphasizes that “faith” and “works” belong together and cannot exist apart from the other. No works and that kind of faith is useless: No faith and any number of good works will get you to heaven. Genuine faith must of necessity produce good works. It’s that simple.
One day a group of parents brought their children to Jesus for his blessing. The disciples, irritated with the delay, began to rebuke the parents – after all, they were on their way to Jerusalem for something very important. When Jesus saw what they were doing he was indignant. He said to his disciples, “Leave them alone! Let them come if they wish. Don’t you know that the Kingdom of heaven is made up of little kids like this? What’s more, anyone who won’t receive the Kingdom of God like one of these will never get in.” Then he gathered the children into his arms, placed his hands on them and gave them his blessing.
What a beautiful picture. One can only imagine the joy welling up in the hearts of the parents as they watched their children gathered so closely around Jesus and being welcomed so affectionately. Now look at the disciples as they stand there wondering what happened. In a moment they catch on that they’ve been rebuked and are now aware of how insensitive and rude they had been. How different was their reaction than that of Jesus. For a moment put yourself in a situation like that. How might you have reacted if when you were on your way to a “really important” engagement some little kids showed up and needed a big of hugging? The natural reaction would be that of the disciples. But aren’t Christians supposed to be different? We’ve been born again. We’ve been given a new nature. Christ is our mentor. We look at things from a completely different perspective. Little kids, for example, are down a ways on the list of priorities while being the featured speaker at the International Association of Stuff is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Let’s look at it a bit theologically: At birth we are given a human nature that by definition is fallen and we don’t get to where we’d like to be without some serious adjustments. Well, not “adjustments” – that’s the wrong word because the old nature never changes – but some help from without. And that happens when we accept Christ (which means yielding to him) and are given a new nature. Now the plan is to stay in the learning mode until we have become more like our model (and that’s called “sanctification”). It’s a long and interesting process. My advice is to stay low and work on it. Don’t get scammed by any new and passing “How-to-be-perfect-without-trying” scheme,
Another observation is that Jesus tells the disciples to let the children come to him, “to for such as these is the Kingdom of heaven” (following Greek word order). More interpretive translations have it read, “For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (NLT), or “God’s kingdom is made up of people like these” (The Message). Commentators still ponder what is that specific characteristic of a child that allows a person access to heaven? Don’t the little ones cry when they don’t get their milk? Aren’t the slightly older terribly self-centered? They don’t know a lot because they haven’t been around very long. So what is it in a child that I need to have in order to get into the Kingdom? Consider this four part sequence:
He welcomed them,
They came right to him,
He gathered them into his arms and
They enjoyed it.
Isn’t that how we get to heaven?
God welcomes us — even sent his Son to pay the price.
We go to him — Repent of our sinful ways and enter his presence.
He takes us in his arms — He forgives and accepts us
We enjoy it — Ever had a better moment than
when you realized that you were right with God
and on your way to heaven?
That’s right! Now I see why being like a child is the way to find oneself in heaven when our three-score-and-ten is over.
People have a number of reasons for asking a question. Sometimes it is for information, such as “How do I get to town?” But at other times it can serve quite a different purpose. And that was what was happening when one day some Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for no particular reason?” Their purpose in asking was not to learn, but to lay a trap. They knew full well that a man could write his wife a certificate of divorce he “finds something indecent about her” (Deut. 24:1). And they also knew that the school of Shammai understood the “something indecent” as immorality on her part while the more liberal school of Hillel held it to be anything that displeased him. So the purpose was not to learn something they didn’t know, but to get Jesus to commit himself on an issue so his position could be used against him.
Jesus “answered” their question by asking them what the Law of Moses had to say about it. While Moses allowed an exception due to the hardness of heart, that was not what God intended. In the beginning “God made one out of two,” therefore, “let not anyone separate them again (Matt. 19:8; Jesus, In His Own Words, p. 143). It’s the “one out of two” that intrigues me. What does that mean? In marriage, do husband and wife become one in the sense of sharing a last name and living in the same house or is it something far more substantial? In the beginning God created Adam, and that was fine but it wasn’t enough. I’m not sure way back then whether God intended Adam to live forever, but in any case it’s clear that it was “not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) so, like a skilled surgeon, God put him into a deep sleep, took one of his ribs and created Eve (Gen. 2:21-22). While God’s immediate purpose for Adam was to take care of life in the Garden, the union of man and wife was a further step forward. In making “one out of two” he did exactly that; man and wife became a single entity and were intended to remain that way.
Something wonderful happens in marriage – man and wife become one. God takes two and makes “one out of two,” at least that’s his intention. Two people arrive at marriage from two different backgrounds two ways of handling life, two ways of seeing the world. It’s not that these are so distinctly different that adjustment is not possible (of course that can happen) but they are still different. However this should be considered a blessing, not a problem, because the two involved can have the rich experience of bring the benefits of both into one. Of course, this involves change and that can be somewhat scary at times although it is a maturing process in which each becomes a more informed and wiser person.
Our oneness in Christ provides a pattern for the “oneness” in marriage, although there is the distinct difference in that he, being perfect, does not change. We do the changing. As we grow spiritually we are gradually being changed into his likeness. Paul begins his famous passage in Philippians 2 with “Your attitude toward one another should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” Then, using a primitive hymn, he tells the story of how God’s very son came among us as a humble servant and took on himself the penalty of our sin. It was that unbelievable act of love that defines what it means to have the “mind of Christ.” We become “one with him” as our way of life begins increasingly to be more like his.
And in a somewhat similar way, although we have moved from the realm of the spirit to the “real world’ where we live, the newly married couple begin a process in which each relates to the other as both do individually to Christ. The unity God desires is a mutual self-giving and understanding of the other that reflects his own. When God makes “one out of two” it works out best for us and at the same time brings pleasure to him. That’s a hard combination to beat.
“We caught her in the very act,” proudly declared the Pharisees as they placed the disheveled women before Jesus. “Moses said that we are to put an adulteress to death by stoning; what do you say?” I knew they were trying to trap me so rather than answering their question, I just looked down and started writing on the ground with my finger. They kept pressing me for an answer so looked up and asked, ”Tell me, who among you has never sinned? You are the one qualified to throw the first stone.” Then I looked down and kept writing on the ground. It took a moment for the surprise to wear off, but then they began to slip away one by one starting with the oldest. In a moment I asked the woman if any of her accusers were still around and she said they’d all left. Since no one was there to accuse her, I said, “Well, you’re free to go; I’m not going to accuse you. However, there is one thing – from now on I want you to give up your sinful ways” (John 7:53-8:1).
This parable has several important things to teach us. One is that the critical heart is extremely cruel. From the way in which the story is told I’m sure that the Pharisees didn’t just happen upon the woman, but had gone looking for an example they could use in making their case against Jesus. For them to use the title “Teacher” in addressing Jesus has an odd wring. They were the acknowledged “teachers” and he was simply a self-taught local who wandered around talking with the common people. And then there was the loaded question they posed: “Moses said, ‘Stone her!’ What do you say?” If Jesus wouldn’t support that position he could be charged with undermining Mosaic legislation: and if he did support it he would come across as mean and vindictive. That was the trap they were laying. By asking who among them would be the first to throw a stone, Jesus was reminding them that they were in the same trap. That is why they began to quietly leave one by one.
Another thing that stands out in the story is the unusual amount of hypocrisy. The Pharisees had made pretending a fine art. They would like to be seen as supporting the decisions of their famous predecessor, but what they really had in mind was to trap Jesus. They wanted it to appear that they were honorable and devoted to the law, but when no one would pick up the first stone it was clear that what they actually wanted was something quite different.
Finally, who can miss the wisdom of Jesus as he turns the Pharisee’s argument back on them? With one simple statement he protected the woman, showed the Pharisees how deceptive they were, and told the woman to stop her sinful practice.
I’m sure that Jesus told each of his parables on many different occasions and in many different situations. And I imagine that the setting often determined which parable would be appropriate. I’ve often wondered why Jesus spoke so often against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, but perhaps it was because they were considered as leaders in the social milieu. Elevation to leadership is often accompanied by some exceptionally negative results. In fact, Jesus begins his parable with, “I told this next parable to those who were sure of their religious superiority and looked down on every one else” (Luke 18:9).
The two men in the parable went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee chose a prominent spot and his prayer was one of thanksgiving that he wasn’t like others: he wasn’t “greedy, dishonest, sexually immoral” etc., plus the fact that he fasted twice a week and tithed his income (vv. 11, 12). The publican stood in the corner with his head bowed as he beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (v 13). And which of the two “went home freed from guilt” according to Jesus? It was the “tax collector” of course, because it is “those who humble themselves that are exalted” (v. 14).
If you read the above carefully and prayerfully (and especially if you are familiar with the biblical text) you have already put yourself in one or the other of the two categories. How does it feel? My experience is that if we are talking about fellow believers in Christ, there is some of each in everyone. And of course there is a theological reason for that: by nature we are Pharisees, but by “new birth” we have taken the initial step of humbling ourselves before God. Now the question becomes, which of the two is dominant and in which direction are we moving? Am I moving toward a greater sense of self-approval, or do I find myself increasingly in the corner lamenting my sorrow for the pride that makes me less and less like Jesus? There is no question as to which is morally and spiritually preferable.
I believe that a clear understanding of the essential truth of this parable is vital for spiritual growth. Using a different terminology, Paul treats it at length in chapters 5 – 8 of his letter to the church in Rome (esp. 6 where he deals with being dead to self, but alive in Christ). However, the parable puts it in far clearer terms so the honest heart can discern what is going on in the only part of life that is of eternal importance – becoming like the One we love.
The subject of prayer keeps coming up throughout the gospels. Apparently Jesus’ disciples had a bit of trouble maintaining an active prayer life because even in their last year together here on earth he felt the need to encourage them to maintain the practice on a regular basis. For that purpose Jesus told them the parable of the unjust judge. It goes as follows:
In a certain city there was a widow who kept bringing her claim to a fiercely independent judge. For a longtime he tried to ignore her, but she continued to plead her case. Finally he was so worn out with her insistence that although he was under no obligation, he decided to see that justice was done. Jesus made this interesting comparison to his disciples: If a judge, devoid of compassion, finally answered a widow’s pleas, what do you imagine a righteous God will do for his people who cry out to him day and night in prayer? Will he not vindicate them even though for the moment he seems to hesitate?
Then Jesus adds, “When I return will I find those who believe enough to pray?” This response answers several questions. One is that for God to answer our prayer should we keep making our request whether or not he seems to be doing anything about it. That kind of “stick-to-ed-ness” was seen in my mother’s prayer life. Prior to her passing she had been praying for over twenty years for four members of the larger family group who were not believers. As of now, some fifteen years later, two of the four have opened their hearts to Christ and we are waiting for the other two. I keep wondering whether you can see this sort of thing from heaven.
The other thing that strikes me about Jesus’ concluding remark is what it says about the Christian faith when history begins to draw to a close? Will it be openly recognized as God’s triumphant victory over sin and Satan or, as Jesus asks, “When I return will I find those who believe enough to pray?” Will the Christian faith be so strong that it will have transformed culture into the Kingdom of God, or so weak that those who have enough faith to keep praying will be hard to find? We know that in the end God wins and Satan loses, but what will be the nature of that win? Will Christians have a jubilant victory parade or be silenced by secular disdain? Will believers “believe enough to pray?” I’m not sure about what will happen here on earth. but I do know that heaven will resound with the triumphant cries of victory. God has won – Satan has lost. That is the essential message of the book of Revelation.
One final word about prayer. I believe it is not for us to know the secret of effective prayer. All I do know is that we are called to pray as though that were the only answer (and it is) and God will take it from there. It is ours to ask and his to answer. We have no responsibility in the latter category.
I would say that 9 out of 10 is an excellent record in almost any of life’s contests. Of course, it depends on the nature of the contest, does it not? What I had in mind when I made that comment was the account of the Ten Lepers in the book of Luke. You will remember the story of how one day as Jesus and his disciples were walking along they met a group of ten lepers who called out pathetically, “Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!” (7:15).
“Go to the temple so the priests can examine you,” was Jesus’ response. So the ten headed immediately to Jerusalem. However, even before they could get there, they were amazed to see that their leprosy and all its disfiguration had vanished. Their skin was restored as fresh as that of a child. Overcome with joy, one of them rushed back to Jesus and threw himself at the Master’s feet out of gratitude for the miraculous cure.
“But, there were ten of you, were there not?” questioned Jesus. “Where are the other nine? Is this one Samaritan the only leper who returned to give God the praise?” After an embarrassing pause, Jesus looked at the man and said, “Your faith has made you well!”
What is it about this simple little story that has made it so well-known around the world for the past 2,000 years? I am sure it is the beautiful picture of this one leper who, out of profound gratitude for what had happened, rushed back to Jesus to show how grateful he was. Leprosy was a dreadful disease that made the person ceremonially unclean so that from that point on they could have no contact with society. The leper was completely ostracized from normal life. Gratitude is best defined as “an emotion we feel in response to receiving something good that is undeserved.” It seems to me that gratitude is one of those traits that remind us that in spite of our fallen nature we are still made in the image of God. Our downside is so discouraging that there is a tendency to forget that bad as we are we are still the product of God’s creative heart. Gratitude runs contrary to our obsessive self-concern and reminds us that God isn’t through with us yet.
But what should we say about the nine who did not come back? One might blame them for their ingratitude, but I would like to see it differently. What happened to them is that they missed out on the best moment of their life. They were the real losers. They were healed of their leprosy, but they missed out on the joy of being grateful. Once again, we can be our own worst enemies; self-concern robs us of all that God wants for us.
As the definition above puts it, gratitude is a response, not some sort of moral achievement. It isn’t something we develop, but something we allow God to develop in us. It witnesses to a changing heart. Our role is to remove the narcissistic qualities that prevent us from being as grateful as we might be. So today I am grateful for life, each precious day, the assurance that, should this be the last, I will by the grace of God enter into an eternity that holds delights infinitely better than my best day here. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Certain verses in the New Testament are stated with such clarity that they simply cannot be misunderstood. One of them is Luke 16:13. First it declares a principle, then provides an illustration, and to sum it up restates the point using different words. I’d like to begin with the last part of the verse, and that is, “You simply cannot serve both God and money at the same time.” Earlier English translations such as the ASV transliterate the Aramaic mamona with “mammon,” referring to “that in which a person trusts. ”The point is that if God is truly your master you won’t have some other master at the same time because “you will either hate the one and love the other or be loyal to one and despise the others.” It is not difficult to accept this as theory, but a lot harder to find it being lived out in real life. Two competing ideas can coexist, but not if either one is an absolute and allows no room for an opposing point of view. So what Jesus is saying is that if you accept me as the incarnate Son of God, there is no room for a second master. The idea of two masters is logically inconsistent based on the meaning of the word itself, that is, a master being “one who demands complete and unwavering attention.”
Let’s think together about how this works out, or doesn’t. in the work place. While you could have God as master and still work a solid day at a number of different jobs is perfectly reasonable because a heart commitment to God doesn’t mean that you can’t be doing something else with your back or your brain. It is when both jobs require your complete attention, and especially your absolute loyalty, that the No –two-Masters rule takes effect. I have the strong feeling that God wants us to do our daily work as competently and carefully as possible, but when work in some way threatens our commitment to God and his purpose for our life, that we either stop it or acknowledge that God is no longer master.
There is something so clear and so definitive about taking God as master of one’s life. It removes so many of life’s inconsistencies. What God asks for, he gets. Orders don’t have to be examined for hidden exceptions or special privileges. A request doesn’t have to receive the okay of some committee. It is received and done. As master, we live to carry out whatever the master desires. We are his body designed to do his will. That is simply good New Testament theology (cf. Eph. 4:15). As Jesus the Son carried out without questioning the will of his Father, so do we join him in a continuing state of obedience to God. And one of the beautiful things about obedience to a loving father in heaven is that with him in control we not only accomplish his will in the world but also his will for us as individual sons and daughters.
Almighty God, you alone are the master I serve without reserve for the benefit of that which gives you pleasure. Amen
There is probably no parable in the Gospels more widely known than that of the Prodigal Son. There is a reason for this: the parable sets forth the fall of man, his condition in the land of Sin, and his return to God. I call it The Grand Old Story. It is “grand” because it covers everything that needs to be known about human nature and what God has done to make reconciliation possible.
In the beginning there was . . . God, nothing else. But God decided to create and spoke into existence an extensive universe. However, one thing was still lacking, so God spoke again and there was man, and once more and there was a “helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:15). Then Satan tricked man into doing the one thing he was not to do, and as a result he and his helper were removed from the garden. At first, living apart from responsibility had a certain lure, but almost over night man faced the cost of his rebellion. Living without resources in Satan’s pigsty, was a poor substitute for home and happiness so man returned and was met by a loving father who prepared a great banquet for his prodigal son.
The theology of this narrative is extremely rich and deserving of extended discussion, but we will touch on only a few points that illustrate our condition in that distant land and now God made it possible for us to come back home. The first is the deceptive nature of sin. The inheritance was ours and available for the asking. Life out there looked so good and we longed for immediate satisfaction. Certainly God wouldn’t care if we had just a bit of that intoxicating drink. So we sinned and God did what he said he would.
That this world has a number of attractions is obvious. Our old nature is attracted by that which is here for the moment, but soon gone. God said, ”Don’t take of that tree?” but we did it anyway and discovered that we had been put out of the garden and in a land that, having a certain appeal, turned out to be a place of misery. The alternative to hanging around with Satan is to get out of Sin-city as quickly as possible. He is incredibly cunning as he invites everyone to his home in a forbidden territory, but for us, we’d rather be home where God put us for his own purpose.
Life in a pigsty encourages us to listen to that still small voice calling from deep within. You can try your best to put it out but that simply won’t work. Rather, the voice keeps calling you back to where you really belong. The current moments of passing pleasure are becoming fewer and your heart begins to beat a bit faster with the news that you are now thinking seriously about repenting for having left home. Isn’t God good for having placed that longing in your heart!
So, from the parable we learn (1) that sin has consequences, (2) that God’s call to return is deeply engraved on man’s heart, and (3) that repentance issues in a joyful reunion with all that really counts. We were meant for Him and no amount of denial can excise that longing. The Story for each of us awaits our recognition that the life Satan promises turns into a pigsty and that our father can hardly wait for us to get up and come home. I can still remember how good it was to go “home” at the age of 12. And they have a celebration planned for each of you as well. Don’t miss out on the fabulous celebration that’s waiting for you.
Robert H Mounce